Wednesday, May 28, 2014

[Skyrim] Black Horse Dispatches 10 - The Way of Shouting

Elderly Nords in robes greeted me as I entered High Hrothgar. They want to test me to see if I really am a Dragonborn, and by their request I shouted "FUS" again, which does the trick. Their speaker, one Arngeir, explained that there were many Dragonborn before me. Whether I am the only one currently in existence, he could not say - I am the only one they have detected so far, and presumably finding more is difficult if they only stick to this mountain.

"FUS" is apparently a word in the language of dragons, and all Dragonborn allegedly have an innate gift for using such draconic "Words of Power" and channeling them into a "Shout". Each Shout contains up to three words, and using more of them will make the Shout more powerful. As I have seen on the walls of Markarth, all those many years ago...

One of Arngeir's colleagues, one Einarth, spoke the word "ROH", an extension of "FUS", and draconic letters form on the floor. I stared at them, and they shimmer and vanish from the floor while burning themselves into my mind. Apparently the Greybeards could somehow sense the latter, as Arngeir congratulated me on learning it so quickly.

Normal people have to constantly practice these Shouts to make use of them, while Dragonborn are able to tap into the absorbed knowledge of a slain dragon. Arngeir then explained that Einarth would allow me to "tap into his understanding of ROH". Then streams of light emerged from Einarth, similar to what I had seen emerging from the slain dragon, and my mind was filled with understanding.

Understanding of ROH, not of what in Oblivion had just happened. Had Einarth just transferred a part of his soul into mine? Unlike the dragon, he was still alive - but what had this transferal cost him?

As a further test, they conjured a few phantasms with their own Shouts and bade me to strike them with my new knowledge of FUS ROH, which seemed to be easy enough, but was sufficient to impress them.

We went outside, where another Greybeard, one Borry, taught me "WULD", or "Whirlwind", with the same method as Einarth. Using it caused the world to shift, as I passed quickly through a closing gate. I can foresee that closing distances quickly will turn out to be very useful...

With that, Arngeir turned to me and told me: "You are now ready for your last trial. Retrieve the Horn of Jurgen Windcaller, our founder, from his tomb in the ancient fane of Ustengrav."

"Wait. These last two tests have been about learning and improving my use of the Voice, as you call it. The 'natural abilities' of a Dragonborn, if I understood you correctly."

"That's right."

"And now you are sending me off to some ancient tomb, likely filled with draugr, traps, and other dangers."


"What in Oblivion does that have to do with me being the Dragonborn?"

"It is a test to see how worthy you are of the title, like the heroes of old..."

"Do you even know what is going on out there? The dragons have returned, people are dying..." 

"We are aware, and surely this is not an accident that you have appeared at the same time. You should focus on honing your Voice, and soon your path will be made clear."

Keep your temper, Araneus. These people know things. Things that you need to know as well, and blowing up at them will not help.

He further warns me against the "arrogance of power" which other Dragonborn have succumbed to. But he tells me a few things, at least. Apparently, dragons also have this natural ability to "Shout", which comes to them as naturally as breathing. And back in the Mythic Age, the goddess Kynareth granted this ability to mortals - although not the ability to do it as easily as dragons. Except for the Dragonborn, who are allegedly granted this ability by Akatosh himself, and...

Then he let something very interesting indeed slip. When I asked them if the four elderly gentlemen were all of the Greybeards, he told me that there were five of them - their leader Paarthurnax lived on the mountaintop.

"Wait a moment. I saw the stone tablets on the way to here. Is this the same Paarthurnax who 'pitied Man' and taught Men how to use the Voice together with Kyne?"

Arngeir seemed to realize that he had said to much. "Uhm..."

"Does this Paarthurnax happen to have wings and breathe fire?"

"All will be revealed in time to you. You will be able to meet him when your Voice can open the path to him." And with that, this particular conversation seemed to be over.

I looked around the courtyard, and while there was a path leading further up the mountain, the need for "opening" it was fairly obvious - a raging storm seemed to cover it which would have surely swept me off the mountain, had I tried to pass through.

Very well. If that's what it took to get an interview with a dragon, I would go to this "Ustengrav" and get that damn horn.

We were halfway down when a dragon - the same as before? - ambushed us at a narrow ridge. It landed, and to my horror I watched as the impact from its landing knocked Lydia right off the mountainside! My other companions were likewise knocked away, but luckily in different directions and were only momentarily stunned. Then it attacked again and again, breathing ice as we peppered it with bolts and arrows and finally forced it down. We slew it on the very edge of the ridge it had pushed Lydia off, and it screamed and screamed as its scales and very soul boiled off before its lifeless bones finally fell down the mountain.

The nausea returned as the creature's life force poured into me, but this time I felt strangely okay about it.

Then we stared down the steep cliff. Even the normally chatty Vrija was silent.

"There is nothing more we can do here. You saw the arc in which she flew off. Nobody could have survived that. And we have avenged her death, as if that matters now. We must move on and get off this damn mountain before nightfall, before we all die of exposure."

Gorr and Jenassa understood - they were veteran warriors and too pragmatic to mourn a fallen comrade while our own lives were still at stake. Vrija looked like she was about to protest, after seeing my face thought better of it. And with that, we started the long walk down the mountain, lost in thought.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

[Skyrim] Black Horse Dispatches 09 - The Road to High Hrothgar

Continued from Dispatch 08 - Bandits Horribly Slaughtered by Well-Armed Travelers.

Now, whatever you can say about the roads of Cyrodiil, they are relatively safe. Why, you can only expect to be held up by armed bandits once or twice during any given journey! In Skyrim, you do not only have the bandits, but also skirmishes between Stormcloak rebels and some kind of necromancer coven, strange people spitting jets of poison from their mouths, trolls, more necromancers, and, of course, dragons - although this one at least did not spot us this time. And all that before we even reached Ivarstead!

But not all roadside encounters were people or things out to kill us. Sometimes, the people or things had been out to kill someone else first and then vanished into the thin underground, only leaving the grisly remains of their kills behind. Such was the case when we left the main road and started to climb up a small path to Ivarstead - we found two corpses attired in the bizarre garb of the Forsworn, still familiar after all those years.

Forsworn, for those of my readers who are unfamiliar with the history of western Skyrim, see themselves as rebels against Nord oppression of their native homeland - the Reach. A generation ago, they actually managed to overthrow the Nords for a time before... but I digress. From what I've heard, they have become more and more desperate and brutal since then - but finding them this far east, this far away from the Reach was certainly unusual enough to merit my attention.

There was a cave nearby, where bloody skulls had been impaled to scare away intruders, but of course that didn't stop brave investigators of the Truth like us. Inside we saw two bandits fighting with... a werewolf? What was a werewolf doing here? Had it come with the Forsworn? And if so, are the Forsworn now deliberately recruiting werewolves for their ranks?

Sadly, when we investigated the rest of the cave system no answers were forthcoming. Apparently the bandits had discovered an old, hidden fortress, and made their home there. They had also started to cage various animals, although only a sabre cat was still alive when we reached the cages. But there were no hints about their actual goals, or what their connection to werewolves or the Forsworn was.

As night fell, we finally reached Ivarstead, which was currently under attack - first by a trio of crazed mages and then a frenzied bear charged into town as well (frenzied by an illusion spell?). The locals seemed to need little help in putting them down, however - Nords are a tough breed, but I guess they have to be.

We holed up in Vilemyr inn for the night, and I asked the locals about the path to High Hrothgar. One Klimmek allegedly went up on it on a regular basis, but he wasn't at the inn - I would have to hunt him down the next morning. The inn's proprietor also warned me about the "haunted barrow" overlooking the town, claiming to have seen a spectre with his own eyes. But after Bleak Falls Barrows I feel no need to delve into another one.

21st of Last Seed, 4E 201.

Klimmek was up early. As it turned out, he had never been in High Hrothgar itself, only leaving supplies outside it. He did not even get paid for this service, believing that this would be "wrong" to demand payment from the Greybeards. Allegedly they could kill with a single word, which may have been part of the reasons for his reluctance, although he really did seem to hold them in reverence. Since I was heading there anyway, I promised to bring his food supplies there for him. He said he never encountered anything more dangerous than some wolves, but told me to watch out for slippery ice.

As we ascended the path, we spotted stone tablets with inscriptions along it:

I: "Before the birth of men, the Dragons ruled all Mundus; Their word was the Voice, and they spoke only for True Needs; For the Voice could blot out the sky and flood the land."

A giant spider ambushed us.

II: "Men were born and spread over the face of Mundus; The Dragons presided over the crawling masses; Men were weak then, and had no Voice."

Wolves this time, with white fur adapted to the colder climate at these heights.

III: "The fledgling spirits of Men were strong in Old Times; Unafraid to war with Dragons and their Voices; But the Dragons only shouted them down and broke their hearts."

Ah. Another reference to the Dragon War. The plot thickens.

IV: "Kyne called on Paarthurnax, who pitied Man; Together they taught Men to use the Voice; Then Dragon War raged, Dragon against Tongue."

Another dragon appeared from the south. A strange woman warrior clad in skimpy pink armor who had been meditating on the fourth tablet charged it and disappeared behind a ridge. The rest of us used this distraction to move on, but we ran into a white-furred troll in a small canyon.

V: "Man prevailed, shouting Alduin out of the world; Proving for all that their Voice too was strong; Although their sacrifices were many-fold."

Who was Paarthurnax? Who was Alduin? And how did they "shout him out of the world"?

VI: "With roaring Tongues, the Sky-Children conquer; Founding the First Empire with Sword and Voice; Whilst the Dragons withdrew from this World."

The snow began to fall in earnest.

VII: "The Tongues at Red Mountain went away humbled; Jurgen Windcaller began His Seven Year Meditation; To understand how Strong Voices could fail."

Red Mountain... wasn't there a major battle involving a Nord invasion? I will have to read that up.

VIII: "Jurgen Windcaller chose silence and returned; The 17 disputants could not shout Him down; Jurgen the Calm built His home on the Throat of the World."

Logically, this home would be High Hrothgar.

IX: "For years all silent, the Greybeards spoke one name; Tiber Septim, stripling then, was summoned to Hrothgar; They blessed and named him Dovahkiin."

That's the word that both the dragon said and the Greybeards shouted from the mountain. Dovahkiin =  Dragonborn?

X: "The Voice is worship; Follow the Inner path; Speak only in True Need."

Now High Hrothgar was directly in front of me. I was cold, I was miserable, and I was desperate in need of answers. Hopefully, these Greybeards will have some for me.

Continued in Dispatch 10 - The Way of Shouting.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

[Skyrim] Black Horse Dispatches 08 - Bandits Horribly Slaughtered by Well-Armed Travelers

Whatever else can be said about devouring the soul of a dragon, it is highly invigorating - I don't feel the least bit tired, despite missing a full night of sleep. I head out of Dragonsreach, and...

...there is another dragon - this time attacking the city itself! Both my companions and I pepper it with arrows, and the guards join in as it makes one pass after another over the plaza before the local temple of Kynareth, freezing the air with great cones of ice. Even when grievously wounded, it doesn't retreat - do these things know no fear? Finally, it collapses on top of the city ramparts, and again I feel this unholy rush of both power and nausea as its very soul pours into mine. No new insights into the Voice, though.

This time, I take some leftover bones and scales as souvenirs, but plenty remain. I expect that dragon bones will become popular with many people across Tamriel - enchanters, alchemists, even some demented armorsmiths - and that there will be no shortage of fake dragon bones made from cattle and the like.

After I wandered through town and sold some of my loot from the Barrows as well as aquired some new spells and gear (it turned out that the proprietor of the Drunken Huntsman had somehow acquired a large collection of dwarven crossbow bolts!), I started to think about my mission. While I now had plenty of brawn at my disposal, what I really needed as well was an assistant - someone with observation skills, someone with investigative drive, someone with brains. While I had only known Jenassa, Gorr, and Lydia for a short time and I didn't think they were precisely stupid (other than the fact that they were following someone around who almost seemed to attract dragons), they didn't seem to have all that many interests beyond combat.

For some reason, most of the brighter locals seemed unwilling to accompany a stranger investigating the Mystery of the Dragons. But in the Bannered Mare, I found a young Nord woman named Vilja (sporting an accent odd even for Skyrim) who was doing an investigation of her own - she was on the search for two people who had stolen some kind of bottle from her. I assured her that I was an excellent investigator and that while normally mere thefts were beneath my notice, I was willing to make an exception for her.

As it happened, they hadn't really bothered to hide their trail, and we caught up with them in front of  the Honeybrew Meadery, a bit outside of the city. They were arguing about how the bottle allegedly "talked to them" and "cursed" them. I know how it is - bottles talk to me all the time, usually saying things like "drink me!". Of course, a surprising amount of these bottles had also been cursed - poisoned, really - by my many enemies.

They were only too happy to hand the bottle over. Just as they were doing so, another dragon appeared - how many of these things are out there? This one was smarter - it just did a quick flyover and breathed fire into our general direction before vanishing into the direction of the Throat of the World.

Vilja thanked me, and then asked me if we had met before. While I took this as a blatant ploy, there is always a chance that we had met, and I had forgotten about it - thanks to the influences of these cursed bottles, again.

She believed that her bottle was not really cursed, though. It was left to her by her grandmother and allegedly contained some ancient magic of Morrowind - and that a place called the "Eldergleam Sanctuary" supposedly had the key to unlocking it. I agreed to help her search for this place, which means that she will tag along with our merry group. And it turns out she has some alchemical training as well, so she probably has the smarts for the assistant job.


According to my maps, the shortest route to High Hrothgar led around the north side of the mountain, along the White River, before we had to climb up to the town of Ivarstead - the start of the "7,000 steps" pilgrimage the Jarl mentioned. Unfortunately, we were off to a bad start, as the heavy rain and the cloudy night sky conspired to make our surroundings pitch black - and then we stumbled across a skirmish between guards of Whiterun and some bandits. Only with difficulty did we manage to disentangle us from the combatants and move on.

Then Vilja started to chat with Lydia, and it began to sound as if she was interested in recruiting her for some dungeon crawling of her own. That was not a train of thought I wanted to encourage - Lydia is my bodyguard, assigned to me by the Jarl of Whiterun. Before I could intervene, however, we came across an old fortress spanning the river - and a bandit stopped me and explained that this was a "toll road" - that I would have to pay 200 septims to go on.

I considered my options. There were very likely bandits hidden in that fortress, taking aims with bows even now. But behind me, Gorr was sniggering, Lydia was grinning, and Jenessa was taking her pre-combat stance. And I didn't have 200 septims - those dwarven crossbow bolts were expensive.

"Listen very carefully. I am Araneus Venator, writer for the Black Horse Courier. Unless you want the news to be 'Bandits Horribly Slaughtered by Well-Armed Travelers', I suggest you let us pass immediately. And not make any sudden moves, that kind of thing."

"Hah! Tough talk for someone who is about to have their guts spilled!"

With that, she drew her sword, and the carnage unfolded. Under a blood red Masser emerging from the clouds, which I thought was a nice touch. First we brought down the predictable archer who hadn't quite grasped the concept of staying in cover. Then we had a running battle across the ancient stone bridge spanning the river, all the while taking fire from snipers on the other side. After I had put down of them, I decided that this was enough for the night - I was cold, I was tired, and we were unlikely to find another place with beds any time soon, lice-riddled as they were. So we made camp within the northern tower.

20th of Last Seed, 4E 201.

Unfortunately, I was still cold the next morning - I really should have built a decent fire and dried myself up before going to bed. Stupid young beginner's mistake, which I really shouldn't have made... But just as I had gathered firewood and got a nice fire burning, we spotted another group of bandits arriving at the south tower next to the road, presumably a raiding party that had returned after a long night. Once again my bodyguards set upon them with glee, while I attempted to hit a few of them with the crossbow held in my shivering fingers.

We took what we needed from their corpses. I lucked out - one of the bandits had some skeever dust with her. I hadn't managed to find any suppliers around here, given that I was preoccupied with other concerns.

Finally, we moved on. I hope that Whiterun will send some guards to occupy this place, or else bandits will likely camp here again within the week. But with the Civil War raging on, fewer and fewer guards are available to keep the roads safe, even in such a strategic location as this one...

Thursday, May 22, 2014

[Skyrim] Black Horse Dispatches 07 - Dragon Rising

19th of Last Seed, 4E 201.

You'd think that Skyrim is empty of people when you get off the roads, but you'd be wrong. First we spotted a lone bard fighting off some bandits, and then we encountered a very peculiar Khajiit clad in a robe who introduced himself by the name of M'aiq and dispensed gems of wisdom like: "M'aiq can travel fast across the land. Some lazy types take carriages. It is all the same to M'aiq" or "M'aiq once walked to High Hrothgar. So many steps, he lost count." Than he walked away without even giving me some of the skooma he was obviously on. Some people!

After getting my reward for the retrieval of the golden dragon claw from the Riverwood trader, we headed back to Whiterun. And again, we were not the only people in the area - a few revelers were returning from a very long pub crawl.

Arriving at Dragonsreach, the Jarl's palace, I caught Farengar talking to a hooded woman, presumably his "reliable source". I couldn't see her face clearly, but her voice seemed familiar... Farengar was talking about some old text he and unearthed, and how he could use it to "cross-reference sites" - perhaps the dragon burial mounds? The woman referred to an "employer" who seemed to be "very anxious" to learn about the dragons... but that could be anyone from the Synod to the Penitus Oculatus to the Thalmor.

Then they spotted me, and Farengar let slip that his "associate" was the one who had discovered the location of the dragonstone, although she hadn't told him how.

Then Irileth, the Jarl's bodyguard, burst into my room and demanded that both Farengar and me should come with her - a dragon had been sighted nearby!

Farengar was rather more exited at the prospect of seeing a dragon than was seemly, while Irileth was more worried about whether her forces could repel such a creature - and after Helgen, I was feeling rather skeptical myself. Irileth and the Jarl interrogated a guard who had ran from the "Western Watchtower", where it was apparently still circling.

The Jarl ordered Irileth to go there with some men. Then he asked me to come with them and help them fight this dragon, since I had more "experience" with dragons than anyone else in the city.

After Helgen, there is nothing I'd like to do less. And yet, what choice do I have?

The News must be told.

As a reward for my past services, the Jarl gives me an enchanted shield (sadly, too heavy for my tastes) and tells me that I am now allowed to purchase property in the city - with the qualifier "...if you survive this" remaining unspoken.

Irileth is a good military leader, I'll grant her that. This is clearly a suicide mission, and her men realize that, expressing dismay at fighting such a lethal foe. But with a short speech she grips them by their Nordic souls' metaphysical testicles and fills them with visions of being the first Nords to kill a dragon in the modern age, instead of merely being one of the first to become a dragon's lunch in the modern age.

The watchtower was burning.

Survivors at its base were warning us off. Then it came, from the mountains to the south. A different one - not black and full of spikes, but a light green and smooth scales. It landed and breathed fire, and we peppered it with arrows and bolts in return. Then it took flight again, presumably to find a better vantage point from which to breath fire on us puny insects.

Then it went down. By the Divines, it went down! It struggled to get into the air again, but its wings had suffered too many pinpricks and could no longer support its weight. We kept our distance and continued our barrage. As it collapsed, it let out some final words. "Dovakin? No!"

Then it began to glow. Its scales began to dissolve and turn into motes of light - which rushed into me. A sense of overwhelming power filled me, and echoes of ancient knowledge not my own whispered through my mind.

Then I realized what had happened. Those ancient Nordic heroes from the "Book of the Dragonborn" hadn't merely absorbed some kind of power from defeated dragons - they had devoured their very souls, like some of the blackest necromancers are reputed to do with human souls. And, by the Divines, I had somehow done the same!

The guards were rather excited by this new development, and had heard of those legends as well. One of them told me that the Dragonborn of old could "Shout" without training. Then they started to argue about the folklore surrounding those old heroes. I was still too stunned to join in the debate, but I remembered that rune wall in Bleak Falls Barrows, and something stirred in my memories... no, not my own memory. Suddenly, I realized what one of the words on the wall meant. I opened my mouth...

And in a wide cone in front of me, some kind of force pushed the guards back and whirled the soil into the air.

I knew that words had power. I mean, I always knew it - but this?

This was too much. I headed back to the city - as always, the News must be told, in this case to the Jarl, who would be relieved to hear that the dragon was slain. After that, I needed a stiff drink - or a dozen.
But when I approached the gates, the ground shook. Then eerie voices said a word - "Dovakin", like the dragon had cried. I was too rattled to be sure, but they seemed to come from a high mountain nearby - the Throat of the World itself, if I wasn't mistaken.

Just inside, I witnessed the guards kicking out two Redguard warriors, still in the garb of their homeland. One of them approached me and claimed to pay good money for information on the whereabouts of a "middle-aged Redguard woman", but refused to elaborate on what they wanted with her. I smell a story... but this will have to wait.

As it turned out, the Jarl was also versed in those old Norse legends, and after my update explained that the cry from the mountain had been a summons from the "Greybeards", who probably wanted to meet me because I was Dragonborn - because I was able to absorb power from dragons and use these "shouts", or "thu'um" like dragons do. His brother elaborated that the last person to be summoned like this was Tiber Septim, when he was still Talos of Atmora.

...perfect. All I wanted - or rather, what my editor wanted - was to do some nice, quiet investigation of the Skyrim Civil War. And such an investigation would have been much easier if I had been able to keep a low profile. But now... the way the guards talked, this will probably be the talk of all of Skyrim within the week, and of the Imperial City the week after that (although the latter would undoubtedly be distracted by more important matters, like who in the Imperial dynasty was sleeping with whom).

But still, these Greybeards sound like they might have important information - if they know about these "dragon shouts", they might know more about the dragons themselves. So it took very little prompting from the Jarl to decide to make the "pilgrimage along the 7,000 steps" up to High Hrothgar.

Then he made me a thane of his city - for my Cyrodiilic readers, think "high-ranking flunky/courtier of the local baron". Which meant that even if I wanted to stay out of the local politics, I would still be seen by others as part of the system. More headaches, although it might open up some new doors for my investigation... On the upside, he appointed a "housecarl" (think: bodyguard) to serve me - a muscular Nord woman named Lydia. Which means that I now have three bodyguards, which makes me feel a lot safer already, unless they decide to gang up on me (which has happened before...).

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

[Skyrim] Black Horse Dispatches 06 - Bleak Falls Barrow

While I knew where Bleak Falls Barrow was, my new companion and I headed into Riverwood first - perhaps some of the locals could tell us more about what to expect inside. Besides, I was drenched from the constant rain, and so we made a stop at the Sleeping Giant Inn.

Inside, a Redguard named Gorr who openly bragged about "killing more men than there are minutes in the day" offered his services as a thug-for-hire. Apparently he had started out as a gladiator in the Imperial City, but left for Skyrim for the horker stew (although he'd like to upgrade to dragon stew, if he finds some). He also seemed to live for the thrill of combat, and unlike Jenassa he didn't even ask for an advance payment. And right now, that's all the qualification he needs, apart from standing between me and harm's way.

The barkeeper couldn't tell me more about the barrows than what I already knew from Hadvar, though he had some other interesting rumors - that necromancers were moving from Falkreath to Whiterun via Brittleshin Pass, and that a boy in Windhelm was attempting to contact the Dark Brotherhood. The barmaid also told me that Ulfric had allegedly escaped from Helgen - I suspect I will see him again, sooner or later. The local bard was completely useless as a source of information - he was only interested in a romantic rivalry about some local girl.

I checked the Riverwood Trader next, and as it turned out he had just suffered from a break-in - the thieves took a golden ornament in the form of a dragon's claw - and only that ornament, despite all the other valuables in the house.

Dragon's claw? And apparently the thieves had taken off to Bleak Falls Barrow, too. Perhaps I was not the only one searching for this Dragonstone - if Faengar's "reliable source" had sold their knowledge to more than one interested party...

As we began to climb up the mountain, the cold rain transformed into snow, compounding my misery. We saw a bandit lookout at an old, decrepit watchtower, but managed to sneak past, despite Gorr's mutterings about what and whom we should kill today. When we reached the cyclopean arches of the actual barrow, our luck ran out - I came up a set of stairs just as one of the bandits was looking in my direction. Fortunately, my new companions were well worth the money I paid (or didn't pay, in the case of Gorr) for them - without them, it might have gone badly, since two of the bandits had somehow acquired crossbows. One bolt hit me, but nothing some still-remembered healing magics couldn't mend.

I snatched one of the crossbow, but I was now shivering violently from the cold. I needed a fire - fast. And just inside the barrows, several bandits were clustering around one, discussing one dark elf who had apparently "gone ahead" deeper into the barrows with the claw, apparently in the hopes of finding some treasure. Then they, too, spotted us, and after a short, ugly fight I warmed myself up. I also found a woodcutter's axe, which I kept - if I keep on getting caught in the cold like that, I want to be able to build a fire instead of searching for bandit camps and killing the current occupants.

Another bandit was guarding a room with strange tablets and rotating pillars with rotating animal signs. A puzzle room - though I've heard of trickier ones. Rotating the pillars so that they would match the tablets did the trick, and pulling a lever opened the gate to the next corridor without triggering any obvious traps.

A short time later, I heard the thief calling out for help - as it turned out, he had been trapped by a giant spider (horse-sized this time, though it was fortunately already wounded). As expected, he did have the claw, and promised to share the "treasure" with me - but he ran as soon as I had cut him loose.

Bad mistake. Beginner's mistake, one that you usually don't survive - running deeper into an unexplored dungeon, without paying attention to your surroundings? I followed much more cautiously, and indeed he awoke lurching, undead things from their slumber. No mere zombies these, armed and with eyes whose glowing blue burned an afterimage into my retina - those must be the infamous draugr of Skyrim. But one of them went down to our maces, while the other two were dispatched by a swinging, spiked gate triggered by a pressure plate. Not the brightest of creatures, which is a trait you should always value in your foes.

The thief had a journal with him, where he explained some old legends which hinted that the golden claw is some sort of key in the "Hall of Stories". The legends also stated "When you have the golden claw, the solution is in the palm of your hands". Looking at the claw's palm, I saw the same animal markings as in the puzzle room...

A more immediate problem presented itself, though - a corridor with swinging pendulums ending in large blades, still sharp despite all the millenia. How did all those ancient architects manage to build their traps so that they would last this long, anyway? I timed my passage carefully, though Jenassa received a small cut as she raced after me before I could find the lever to deactivate the swinging blades.

The barrows are well-lit by torches and braziers - but who keeps them fueled? Are they magical, are they ever-burning ghost-lights, or do the draugr sense our approach and light them just before we arrive? ...there's a nightmare to go with Hadvar's childhood terrors.

Then we reach a section of natural caves, which strangely enough are no less well lit, thanks to glowing mushrooms growing everywhere. A priest of my acquaintance claimed that the abundance of glowing fungi in the caverns of the Empire was proof of the Divines' benevolence by allowing the faithful to see even far away from the daylight, while the caves of Morrowind are often utterly dark because of the heresies of the Dunmer (later that night, he was mugged by a trio of dark elves who had overheard his claims).

Apparently at some point in the not-too-distant past a miner had gotten in and attempted to extract iron ore from a vein, but as his skeleton attested he never got out. I picked up his pickaxe - you never know when you might have to dig yourself out.

Finally, we reach the Hall of Stories. The door to the passages beyond turns out to have three movable circles with animal symbols, as well as holes which seem to have been made for the golden claw. I rotate the symbols until they match those on the claw and put the claw in, and the door slides into the ground. Not much of a puzzle, if you have the key - so why not just stick to the key itself?

We reach a large chamber with a monument at the center. A stylized dragon head is shown on the top of the central portion, while below it are runic markings. As I approach, the air begins to throb and shimmer blue, while I hear ancient Nordic chanting. I suspect fumes of some sort - a neat trick if you need your cult followers to really get into your holy day festivities and the booze and sacrificial virgins aren't enough.

Still, I have to admit that the runes fascinate me, and I almost don't realize another undead abomination rising from a sarcophagus behind me. Fortunately, my minions are quicker on the uptake, and Janassa dispatches it with a few short strokes of her blade. It turns out to have the dragonstone with it, too - it displays a rough map of Skyrim and a number of markings, presumably where the dragon burial sites are located.

It also had a greatsword that felt exceptionally cold to the touch, and had the shimmer typical of enchantments. I handed it to Gorr, who seemed to prefer two-handed weapons, as a down payment for his services. There was also an old dwarf-made mace in a chest, which had a much nicer heft than the shoddy one I had plundered from Helgen.

As for the runic markings, I've tried to copy them to the best of my ability - perhaps some scholar, either here or in Cyrodiil, can translate them for me.

A small tunnel close to the runic wall led us out of the mountain where we breathed the fresh air of the wee hours of the morning. Thankfully, the rain had stopped. While getting a bed in Riverwood was tempting, Whiterun wasn't that much further, and I wanted to know more about Farengar's research.

Continued in Dispatch 07 - Dragon Rising.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

[Skyrim] Black Horse Dispatches 05 - Cash Flow

Continued from Dispatch 04 - In the Jarl's Court.

18th of Last Seed, 201 4E.

I am not a morning person, but eventually the busy noises from the Bannered Mare's common room below me forced me awake. I had an expedition into a dangerous ruin to plan, and I realized I needed henchmen - henchmen loyal enough to stand between me and whatever monstrosity might be found in there, as well as strong enough to carry all my stuff. But where to find them?

Well, the inn I was in seemed like a good enough starting point, as shifty folks like henchmen tend to gather in such places. But the first heavily armed person I talked to wasn't interested, a mercenary demanded 500 septims (and I had only managed to loot 103 back in Helgen), and an initially belligerent warrior woman had a nervous breakdown as she relives accidentally killing a fellow would-be Companion during one of their initiation rites. In the other pub, the Drunken Huntsman in town I find a Dunmer woman in war paint who seems to enjoy killing combat and killing a little too much for my tastes - but at least she probably won't betray me for the sake of money alone like other mercenaries. Alas, she too demands 500 septims up front.

No choice - I need to scrounge up the money somehow. I start by selling my excess weapons and armor (which brings me to 183 septims) with the blacksmith I had seen before - she is the daughter of the local Steward (the one who argued for excessive caution in front of the Jarl) and asks me to bring a new blade to him so that he can present it to the Jarl as a gift. I agree - perhaps I can use the opportunity talk the Steward into loaning me some money, as my own letters of credit have likely burned in Helgen.

Selling the rest of my loot to a shifty-looking Breton at the general store, I reach 328 septims - still not enough. The Steward gives me 20 septims for my trouble - still not enough. Then I hit on a desperate idea...

I had seen an Alchemist's shop at the marketplace. As luck would have it, the proprietor is a woman from Cyrodiil about my age, and by putting on my best charm I manage to convince that I am a trained alchemist (true enough - a few basic courses at the Imperial University and a lot of self-experimentation) down on his luck - perhaps I could use her alchemy lab to mix up some potions and sell them to her?

She agrees, so now I need some ingredients. Time for a field trip to the surrounding areas to gather supplies!

The weather is miserable, but I push myself onward. I plan to travel circumnavigate the city once - hopefully that will give me what I need. As luck would have it, a guard outpost to the north of the city was being attacked by bandits just as I went past - for helping with downing one of the bandits, I was allowed to take some of their gear. And at turned out, one of the bandits had a moonstone circlet adorned with sapphires! I managed to take it before the guards noticed - if I can sell that (and the storekeeper didn't give me the impression he'd ask too many questions), I should have enough.

But I didn't want to return the way I came and continued to circle the city walls, when I saw it - a bandit camp right outside the northwestern walls, built into the cover of a small cave as far as I could determine from my vantage point. Fortunately, I saw them before they saw me, and they didn't have a lookout on the ridge above them where I sneaked past them (presumably they didn't want to be seen from the city walls), but their boldness still surprised me. Or were they smugglers?

That mystery would have to wait for later. I return to Whiterun and sell my fresh loot, bringing my total funds to 584 septims - not much (I've spent more on some of my more spectacular binges), but enough to hire a mercenary and a few nights at the inn. But I still need to do something with the alchemical supplies I have gathered.

Looking at my bag, I have samples of various types of mountain flowers, lavender, tundra cotton, and even some Nirnroot! Unfortunately, I have no idea what any of them do - even the same plant species might have different effects when growing in different provinces. So I resort to the time-honed techniques of tasting some of the samples.

I probably should have waited some more between tasting different samples. But once my vision clears again, I know enough to make some potions for resisting magic. After that, I experiment further by mixing other ingredients together, and identify a combination of lavender and blue mountain flowers that should boost a mage's summonings. Arcadia mutters "Interesting..." under her breath, and I wonder if she was ever fooled by my act. But she buys all my home-brewed potions for another 162 septims without complaint. I should probably keep on gathering ingredients, at least until my cash flow improves...

And with that, I hire Jenassa, the Dunmer mercenary. I wonder how long she will last...

Continued in Dispatch 06 - Bleak Falls Barrow.

Monday, May 19, 2014

[Skyrim] Black Horse Dispatches 04 - In the Jarl's Court

War. War never changes.

And one of the things about wars that never change is that there are huge profits to be made. Case in point - as I walked through the Gate of Whiterun, I overheard an argument between a local blacksmith and her customer. Apparently his order for "steel" for the Imperial Legion was so large that she didn't feel confident of completing it on her own - but he refused to go to another local blacksmith, presumably because one of those clan feuds that make the history of Skyrim so colorful (blood-red, in particular).

In such times, weapon and armor-smiths have a seller's market.

The streets had began to empty out and the market stalls were closed, but that didn't stop a lone priest of Talos ranting about his faith on a plaza below the palace. While Alvor in Riverwood had claimed that Jarl Balgruuf would support the Imperials, clearly he had ways of keeping the Thalmor out, or else they would have dragged the priest away and demolished the huge statue of Talos he was standing in front off. Or maybe General Tullius had "requested" that the Thalmor stay out of Whiterun until this rebellion was crushed. Not that the Thalmor would really care about what Tullius wants, but at this stage they probably don't want too obvious a slime trail leading back to them.

Inside the palace, a dunmer woman confronted me with her sword drawn and demanded what I was doing there. Paranoid, but these are paranoid times.

"I am Araneus Venator, and I bring the News - the News from Helgen!"

No need for crazy acting this time - to her credit, she immediately let me pass through to the Jarl. Apparently the Jarl had heard rumors, but no confirmation - until now. Furthermore, she immediately suggested sending additional troops to Riverwood, without my prompting. The Jarl's aide, an Imperial who had the airs of a courtier who hadn't been able to make it in the Imperial City, protested that the Jarl of Falkreath might see this as a provocation, but the Jarl angrily dismissed this, rightly arguing that the threat of a dragon takes precedence in such a case.

He has elevated non-Nords to the highest positions in his court, which means that he values their different perspective instead of presuming that the way of his home province is always the best - and he seemed genuinely concerned for the welfare of his people. I was beginning to like this Jarl Balgruuf, and I like very few politicians.

I also couldn't help noticing the dragon's skull mounted above his throne. Which, unless the dragon in question was found dead, meant that we can defeat such beasts - an encouraging thought.

Then the Jarl turned his attention to me again. He thanked me for my service, and rewarded me with a set of steel armor - in a neutral design, unlike the Imperial armor I was still wearing. A message, perhaps - or did he just grab the first thing he found in his armory? Not that I was planning on wearing it - I am uncomfortable with any armor in which you can't run quickly and for extended time - but it seemed churlish to refuse.

...and of course, the actual reward for a job well done is another job. Apparently his court wizard, one Farengar, had been doing his own research into these dragons, and needed assistance.

"Yes, I could use someone to fetch something for me. Well, when I say fetch, I really mean delve into a dangerous ruin in search of an ancient stone tablet that may or may not actually be there."

Perfect. I swore off crawling through ancient ruins after one Ayleid death trap too many. But still...

I questioned him on his research, and he elaborated that he had been gathering information on where the dragons might have come from - and he discovered (from "reliable sources" that he refused to name - which means I should find them as soon as possible) that a so-called "Dragonstone" was interred in Bleak Falls Barrow (the same ruin I had seen earlier in the day, close to Riverwood) was supposed to show a map of dragon burial sites. The barrow supposedly was built during the time of the "Dragon War" in the Mythic era, when dragons were supposedly worshiped as gods in Skyrim, until the Nords were somehow able to overthrow them.

And, of course, he needed someone to retrieve it.

Reluctantly, I accepted. Dragons were the News now, likely more important than the Civil War, and delving into an ancient ruin full of traps, vermin, and who knows what monstrosities still seemed like a marginally safer approach to researching dragons than researching live specimens up close and personal.

But that could wait for the next day. It was already close to the 10th hour, so I searched for the nearest inn - the Bannered Mare. Normally I would have stayed in the common room for a few hours and get drunk until I'd collapse in a puddle of vomit (mine, someone else's - who cares?), but I had been nearly executed, nearly fried by a dragon, and then ran more than can be healthy for a man of my age, so I retired to the bedroom above.

Yet sleep wouldn't come easily, as the day's scenes replayed themselves in my mind. So I first got some paper and wrote the day's events down for my editor, so that he couldn't complain (again) that I didn't put in the work for the back pay he owed me. Then I memorized the "Sparks" spell from the spell tome I found in Helgen, watching the tome disintegrate after I was finished with it (whoever invented self-destructing spell tomes must have made quite a few mages very rich indeed...).

Finally, I turned to the "Book of the Dragonborn", which I had also found at the Keep. It went on about the different definitions of the term "Dragonborn", a number of people supposedly blessed by Akatosh himself, starting with the legendary St. Alessia and continuing with the Reman and the Septim dynasty, starting with Tiber Septim/Talos himself and all the way to Martin Septim, who sacrificed himself to end the Oblivion Crisis. But it is unclear whether being "Dragonborn" was a matter of heredity or solely divine blessing, and the book also notes that there were Nord legends of "Dragonborn heroes who were great dragonslayers, able to steal the power of the dragons they killed." Did they fight in the "Dragon War" Farengar had mentioned? It seemed possible, but the book didn't say.

Another interesting tidbit from the book that I didn't know is that the Blades - the long-disbanded bodyguards of the Septim emperors - originally came from Akavir and were searching specifically for a Dragonborn. They found Reman Cyrodiil, and pledged their allegiance to him, and possibly sought out a new Dragonborn to follow after the Reman dynasty was extinguished.

Are Dragonborns still around? "Stealing the power of dragons" certainly seems useful in times when dragons are around, so maybe one will be revealed if more dragons emerge. But where would they come from? It is said that the Septim dynasty was very thoroughly extinguished by the Mythic Dawn cult at the start of the Oblivion Crisis, but personally I doubt it - like many leaders of nations, the Septims certainly slept around, and who knows how many forgotten by-blows survived. Heck, half the population of Cyrodiil might be descended from them. But is this enough to qualify as a "Dragonborn"?

The book ended with a prophecy, allegedly coming from an Elder Scroll (like they all do, as any carnival soothsayer will tell you. As a source of Ancient Prophetic Wisdom, they can't be beaten):

"When misrule takes its place at the eight corners of the world
When the Brass Tower walks and Time is reshaped
When the thrice-blessed fail and the Red Tower trembles
When the Dragonborn Ruler loses his throne, and the White Tower falls
When the Snow Tower lies sundered, kingless, bleeding
The World-Eater wakes, and the Wheel turns upon the Last Dragonborn."

"World-Eater". Didn't Hadvar say something about dragons being the harbingers of the End Times? And that dragon in Helgen sure looked hungry...

With that, I fell asleep and dreamed of black wings, and fire in the sky.

End of the 17th of Last Seed, 201 4E.

Setting Idea - Humans as the Outsiders

In most Tolkienesque fantasy settings, each race has its own niche. To the dwarves, the mountains. To the elves, the forests. To the orcs, the wastelands, and so forth. Each race also has its own distinct culture, its own archetype.

Except for humans, who are sort of all over the place. If they have their own Thing, it might be Drive and Ambition, or even Diversity - but mostly they are a multitude of cultures (often pastiches of real world societies) instead of being truly distinct like the other races.

But let's try something different for once.

How about this: The world is divided between the different races, with each race having its own territories and several non-contiguous nations encompassing those territories. All races, that is, except for humans, who don't have any real nations of their own. Instead they are barely tolerated by the other races, and most humans spend their lives as wanderers and nomads, similar to the Sinti and Roma of Europe, modern-day migrant workers and similar groups. In some nations, there are cities with large "human quarters". There might even be a few human-dominant "free cities" that came into being thanks to treaties with their neighbors, and whose continued existence depends on good relations with the surrounding lands.

But while most nonhuman races don't care much for humans, they care for the other races even less. Humans have no lands, no armies, and are thus no threat - but they can go where others can't, and thus are useful as merchants and spies. While many humans are poor and only own what they can carry, there are also large extended families and dynasties which have become rich on trade, information, and diplomacy. They might not own much in the way of land, but their coin buys plenty of influence nonetheless.

The premise of the campaign is that the PCs are all humans, or their half-human relatives (half-elves, half-orcs, etc.). Each adventure they travel to a new region dominated by another race, with its own distinct culture and quirks that they had better not run afoul of. They can attempt to get rich by trade with means fair or foul, stealing whatever they can get hold of (and hope they are in a neighboring land before their crime is discovered), or get involved in the intrigues between humans and nonhumans alike.

Your thoughts?

Sunday, May 18, 2014

[Skyrim] Black Horse Dispatches 03 - The Road to Whiterun

Apparently the dragon had just finished with Helgen - as we emerged from the cave, we saw it flying north, past some ruins on a distant mountaintop. Hedvar suggested not sticking around in case it came back, and I agreed - I had had enough brushes with death for the day.

We journeyed down to Riverwood, a nearby town where an uncle of his lived. On the way, he gave the basic recruiting pitch for the Imperial Legions (no thanks, I already have a job, although being a soldier in a warzone might be marginally safer than my current occupation, random dragon attacks excepted). He also expressed his conviction that the dragon had somehow been summoned or controlled by the Stormcloaks, which was contradicted by the surprise evident among the group that had fled to the tower - unless Ulfric Stormcloak is the best card player in all of Tamriel, and he never struck me as overtly subtle.

Oh boy. The rumors are going to fly fast and furious over this, aren't they. Why not blame the Thalmor - after all, they were also present? Or the Forsworn, trying to take the world that humiliated them with them? Or the Mythic Dawn? Or the reborn Tribunal Temple, with Sotha Sil already plotting to build an army of clockwork dragons?

Facts. I need facts.

If Hadvar ever retires from the Legion, he might find a job as a tour guide. The journey might be short, but that doesn't prevent him from pointing out the local highlights - such as the aforementioned ruins ("Bleak Falls Barrow. When I was a boy, that place always used to give me nightmares.") and a trio of so-called "Guardian Stones" (out of a set of 13 scattered across Skyrim, apparently). Rather randomly, I touch the "Mage" (as Hadvar disapprovingly informs me - I suspect that like most Nords he prefers the "Warrior") and a column of blue light shoots out of the stone and into the sky. But Hadvar doesn't comment further on that, so maybe this kind of thing happens all the time around here. We live in a mythological age, after all, what with dragons and whatnot.

We talk about the charges against me, and he says that in his view I've already earned a full pardon, but that we should get checked by Tullius instead. Well... while I am sure he prefers to go through his chain of command (and might still be naive enough to trust his chain of command), there are other people I need to check this with first. After all, the Black Horse Courier is funded by the Elder Council itself, and some of the Council are rather sentimental about our paper - and do not appreciate attacks on its staff. I need something to write and find a trustworthy courier...

Another one of Skyrim's "attractions" we encounter on the way are the local wolves. I remember them being bold, but not bold enough to attack travelers in the middle of summer. Fortunately, there are only two of them, and they are quickly dispatched.

We met up with his uncle Alvor, the local blacksmith, but Hadvar insisted on talking about recent events inside - presumably to avoid causing a panic, though it was probably too late for hat. Already an old crone shouted how she had seen a dragon flying around. Her son didn't believe her, but if the sightings continue, the panic will only be a matter of time.

Alvor reacts as expected, first with disbelief and then with fear. Hadvar plans to travel to Solitude to warn the Imperial Legions. Alvor is willing to give me some much-needed supplies, but asks a favor of me in return. The Jarl of Whiterun needs to be told that a dragon is on the loose, and that Riverwood is defenseless.

And I agree to tell him. How could I do otherwise? The news must be told.

But first I need some background information. The reports I studied back in Cyrodiil painted a largely favorable picture of Jarl Balgruuf, though there was some criticism about his lack of zeal in supporting the Empire - which made me inclined to like him. My host, however, was convinced that eventually the Jarl would throw in his weight with the Imperial Legions. And so, it seemed, would my host - while he didn't support everything the Empire was doing lately (in particular, allowing Thalmor goon squads to kidnap people just for worshiping a long-dead guy who was part of the state religion not so very long ago), he still sees the rebellion as the worse alternative.

But hey, we have first-class torturers working on changing that!

I bid my leave and travel north. As I leave the forest behind me I see the city of Whiterun jutting out of the tundra, lit by the evening's light. I didn't pass through Whiterun 25 years ago, and am curious what this city is like. And at least I will feel marginally safer there than in the wilderness - if another dragon attacks, there should be plenty of other targets to distract it...

I push the thought aside and press on.

On one of the farms outside the city walls, I see my first giant. It is currently in battle with a trio of warriors who put it down before I even can come close. One of the women spots me and comes over, berating me for not racing to join in the "fun" and fight with a very large, very strong giant. She is apparently one of the "Companions", the famous, glory-hounding Nord brotherhood of warriors that make members of the Fighters Guild after long-night pub crawls seem disciplined. I can't help but notice that the woman is dressed in what seems to be rather skimpy clothing for a warrior - clothes that seem almost more designed for getting out of them quickly than for fighting. Her female companion wears even less, in a garish variety of pink. But I sense that commenting on this would be impudent, as each of the trio looks like they could beat me with one arm behind their backs.

Then I discovered that the giant's mammoth had wandered on the land of a different farm, but apparently nobody had paid anyone to do something about that.

The city guard tries to keep me away, stating that only "official business" is allowed because of the dragons.

"You WILL let me in, fool! I am Araneus Venator from the Black Horse Courier, and I bring news about the dragons! Let me in, or else my news will be about a bothersome city guard who didn't listen to the Mace of Truth!"


"Listen to the Mace of Truth!"

That did the trick, as it always does. Make them think that you may have something their superior need (true in this particular case), and also that you are too crazy to get in the way of. If you are just crazy, they might beat you up as a matter of principle, while if you act sane, they will stall you with bullshit because they know that they can push you around.

And with that, I entered the streets of Whiterun.

Continued in Dispatch 04 - In the Jarl's Court.

[Skyrim] Black Horse Dispatches 02 - Saved by the Dragon

I saw it coming as the headsman began to swing his axe. Huge, black, massive. It landed on a tower next to us, and the ground shook, causing the executioner to loose his balance. First Tullius, then everyone else started shouting and running. Then it shouted once, and the skies darkened. It shouted again, and everyone was knocked off their feet.

I nearly lost consciousness, but Ralof, the Stormcloak solider, called out to me. "Hey, you. Get up! Come on, the Gods won't give us another chance!" I followed the Stormcloaks into a nearby tower, where we found temporary shelter from the rain of fiery stone that was suddenly coming from the sky - summoned by that creature?

As he closed the door, Ralof asked his leader: "Jarl Ulfric! What is that thing? Could the legends be true?"

"Legends don't burn down villages." I'll say that for the bastard - he stays stone cold under pressure. I guess you don't get to become the leader of hordes of fanatical followers without actual leadership skills, magical voice notwithstanding. That was enough, and Ralof was focused once again on more pressing matters than mythological speculation - escaping from this deathtrap. He urged everyone to get up the tower, and I raced upstairs - but just as I was about to reach the next floor, the dragon's head bursted through the wall and breathed fire upon a hapless Stormcloak before flying off.

The gap in the wall at least offered an escape route to the top floor of a nearby building, and Ralof urged me to jump, saying that the others would try to follow as soon as they could. Lacking a better idea I did so and ran through the flaming building.

Outside I encountered the aide again, who ducked behind a wall with a small boy as the dragon landed and torched his helpless father.

"Still alive, prisoner? Stay close to me if you want to stay that way." He then directed one of the locals to take care of the boy while he planned to search for Tullius.

Under the circumstances, I had little interest in meeting Tullius, but staying close to the aide still seemed like the marginally better option - my hands were still bound, and if the dragon came close he might still distract them. Besides, running with an Imperial soldier made me look less like a Stormcloak rebel, which is something I wanted to avoid.

We ran into an alley between a building and the wall when the dragon landed on the wall - its wings were so close that I could have touched them, had I been completely out of my mind (which wasn't quite the case - I am used to near-death experiences by now, but being this close to such a massive, alien thing is not something I am used to, nor do I care to get used to it). Fortunately, we escaped its attention and it breathed fire at an unseen target before flying off again.

The town had turned into one of the planes of Oblivion (the Deadlands of Mehrunes Dagon in particular). The Imperial soldiers were being routed by the onslaught, and my companion decided to run for the keep.

There we found Ralof again, who apparently had the same idea. The aide denounced him as "damn traitor", whereupon Ralof shouted: "Out of my way! We are escaping, Hadvar. You're not stopping us this time." Apparently the two had a mutual history... but I could think about that later. Now I had to decide - follow Hadvar, who had done nothing from going me to the executioner's block, or Ralof, who would attract unwelcome attention from any remaining Imperial forces and would probably remember my disparaging comments about his leader sooner or later?

Hadvar it was. Inside the keep we caught our breaths. "Looks like we're the only ones who made it. Was that really a dragon? The bringers of the End Times?"

End Times? I suddenly began wishing that I had paid more attention in my "Comparative Mythology" class at the Imperial University (as opposed to wishing that I had set my editor's fur on fire when he sent me to Skyrim, which I had done ever since I crossed the border). I knew that Akatosh, the God of Time, was often depicted as a dragon (we still have this statue in the Imperial City...), but I didn't remember anything about dragons being harbingers of the End Times.

But that can wait.

Hadvar encouraged me to loot the area for supplies, such as arms and armor, but I really didn't need prompting. I had been in desperate circumstances in warzones before - from the Great War to the shadier areas of Tamriel's cities all the way back to bloody Markarth 25 years ago - and I know that when you are out of supplies you scrounge what you can.

A quick search revealed a nearly complete set of Imperial Light Armor and two cheap swords - not my favorite weapon (I favor the mace, the sap, and similar blunt weapons), but it would have to do. I am also not too ashamed to say that I palmed four septims lying on a table. Some among your readers might look down on me for stooping so low in such a life-and-death situation, but unless you have ever been in a situation (or more than one) where your life depended on bribing someone to look the other way I could care less about what you think. My pocket money and my letters of credit had been confiscated by my captors, and as far as I was concerned whatever I could plunder here was only getting part of my money back.

As we made our way deeper in, we heard voices. "Hear that? Stormcloaks. Maybe we can reason with them." Unfortunately, this was not to be - even here, as the town faced its doom, they attacked us as soon as they saw our uniform. Attacked me too - there was no time to protest my neutrality, and so I was forced to cut one of them down. Grabbing his companion's hide shield and gauntlets, we moved on.

A short time later, a passage collapsed before our very eyes as the dragon above us attacked the keep. We changed our route into an old storeroom, where we discovered two further Stormcloaks who likewise were looking for supplies. Hadvar didn't attempt to negotiate this time and attacked them immediately. I hesitated before joining in, but given the uniform I was wearing they probably wouldn't hesitate to kill me after they had finished him, and thus I killed one of them from behind before he had the chance to turn to me. Such is war.

I found some potions which my alchemical training (also from the Imperial University, and rather more thorough than my knowledge of mythology - though much of that training was self-experimentation. Nobody could down a potion quicker than I, a fact that saved my life in more than one fight) identified as healing and magicka potions as well as a mild stimulant. I also grabbed some food, but lost all appetite later as we came closer to a truly appalling smell, and I wish I hadn't smelled that combination of blood, urine, and vomit as often in my life as I did.

"The torture room. Gods, I wish we didn't need those." Yes, Hadvar. And I am sure they explained all the reasons for why we "need" torturers in the Empire's employ during Basic Training for the Empire's Finest. Can't be soft on our enemies, can we? Let's see those pig-suckers squeal for what they, or their relatives, or someone from the same town did to our side!

At least Hadvar still seems to feel a sting of his conscience. I hope he doesn't lose that, if he survives - but that's often the first thing one loses in war.

A combat had broken out in the room between some Stormcloaks and the room's... operators. This time I didn't join up, and not just because the situation was already well in hand.

"You fellows happened along just in time. These boys seemed a bit upset at how I've been entertaining their comrades."

Exasperated, Hadvar replies: "Don't you even know what's going on? A dragon is attacking Helgen!"

"A dragon? Please. Don't make up nonsense.
Although, come to think of it, I did hear some odd noises coming from over there..."

While Hadvar wasted his breath on the waste of breath trying to convince him to flee, I plundered the room and the fallen - taking a mace as well as some lockpicks (taken from prisoners) and healing potions (the better to prolong their agonies). Hadvar then spotted another potion in a locked prisoner cage, but the head torturer told him that he had lost the key ages ago. Well, time to put those new lockpicks to the test - I had some practice sneaking in and out of the dorms at the University (and only later did I learn that they deliberately put in fairly simple locks, so that the students feel all rebellious when they pick them and sneak out for some harmless pub crawls). I opened it on my first try, while our host complained, "Sure. Please. Take all of my things." but I didn't have the time to bash in his skull, peel off his skin, and use it to wipe my posterior the next time I had to do a dump in the woods.

I did pick up the potion, some gold, a tome which turned out to be a spellbook (for a spell that releases a small bolt of lightening, as I later discovered) and the prisoner's clothes which felt magical to the touch, however. And on my way out I saw a book lying on a chair - "The Book of the Dragonborn". Sounded mythological to me, and if I have to cover myths-made-real like dragons (which you can bet my furry bastard of an editor will insist on, once he catches up on this development), I'd better start researching these matters soon. Assuming I get out of the keep alive, that is.

Racing down into the bowels of the keep, we encountered more Stormcloaks - five this time. Were really that many Stormcloaks on the carriages? And where was Ulfric? Two archers were hanging back, but they were standing in the middle of an oil slick released by an overturned lamp. Remembering a basic cantrip, I released a jet of flame to ignite it. After that, the fight ended quickly.

Another corridor collapsed thanks to the rampaging dragon, but this time behind us, just as we entered a natural-seeming cave system. And like most other cave systems, this one was infested with vermin - spiders, in this case. As I spotted them in the distance, I smiled and pulled out my freshly-looted bow - you could say that hunting them was a family tradition for us, and I knew how to deal them.

However, charging them while blocking the line of sight of friendly archers is not the best way of dealing with them, which is unfortunately exactly what Hadvar did - even though he had his own bow. Some of my shots went wide and I started to feel my muscles, still sore after all the abuse of the... last hour? Less than an hour? It felt like Ages. But magic does not require muscle power (which is why most mages tend to be scrawny), and I finished the last two off with further jets of flame.

A short time later we came across a sleeping bear. Hadvar suggested either sneaking past it or taking it out with an arrow, even giving me his own bow even though mine was still in reasonable condition. But unlike spiders, torturers, and editors bears do not offend me merely by existing, and thus we peacefully passed him by and reached the exit.

Where we discovered that the dragon still wasn't gone.

[Skyrim] Black Horse Dispatches 01 - On the Executioner's Block

My head hurt.

This was, in itself, not an unusual occurrence. I've had some spectacular hangovers over the years, often amplified by various illicit substances I experimented with in my youth - and just as often I had been given do-overs by large, brutish thugs whose employers took a dislike to some of my article.

As my vision cleared, I realized that I was sitting bound on a carriage surrounded by Imperial soldiers, and concluded that the latter was more likely. But what was the reason this time? Not that certain officers needed all that much reason, given my reporting on their conduct in the Great War. Then I focused an attention on the prisoner sitting opposite to me. His uniform seemed familiar.

A Stormcloak. The reason why I was sent to Skyrim - and the reason (well, one of them) why I never wanted to return to this cold, troll-infested wasteland. But in the eyes of my editor, curse his furry hide, this made me perfect for the job since I had experience.

The Stormcloak spotted I was regaining consciousness, and filled me in that I had walked into an Imperial ambush while I was crossing the border - one intended to catch his merry band of revolutionaries. But I was not the only bystander caught in the net, as a loudly complaining horse thief sitting next to him confirmed.

Then the thief turned his attention to the last prisoner in our carriage, who was not only bound but gagged. "What's wrong with him, huh?" With a start, I realized that I could answer that.

"That is Ulfric Stormcloak, the so-called Bear of Markarth and leader of the Stormcloaks."


"I have seen him before. I was in Markarth, 25 years ago. I've seen him shout surrendering Forsworn, men and women alike, off the city walls and watched their brains splatter on the ground far below. I've seen his goons torture and kill prisoners - harmless bystanders, including old people who were too weak to raise a sword anymore - because they deemed them traitors to their cause. I was were, and I wish I could forget."

The Stormcloak stared at me with hatred. "Watch your tongue! You are speaking about the true High King of Skyrim!"

The thief began to panic. "You are the leader of the rebellion! But if they've captured you... Oh gods, where are they taking us?"

"I don't know where we are going, but Sovngarde awaits."

With that, the Stormcloak changed topic and asked the thief about his home, perhaps to avoid thinking about what was to come. But at that point, for some inexplicable reason, the carriages in our little wagon train began to veer to the left, away from the road and the nearby Helgen town gate and rammed into a small copse of trees.

I will never know whether this was just fatigue on the part of our drivers, the usual efficiency which we can expect from the Empire's Finest, or some last-ditch effort to free Ulfric from his impending doom - but the fact that both my carriage and the carriage ahead of us moved to the left at the same time and thus maximized the chaos leads me to strongly suspect magical mind control, not that it will ever be proven now. That the Helgen gate closed after only a single rider from our group passed through was another nice touch, thus cutting the carriage guards off from reinforcements.

But if this was sabotage, it was wasted - I hit my head again at the impact, and the other prisoners likewise seemed to be too concussed to make a break for it. In a few moments the opportunity was gone, the gate reopened, and we were carried into town to meet our doom.

Immediately to the right, we saw General Tullius himself, the military governor of Skyrim, astride on his horse and talking to a group of Altner.

"And it looks like the Thalmor are with him. Damn elves. I bet they had something to do with this!" voiced the Stormcloak - and I suspect that he may be right, although not for the ambush that caught us but the accident right outside of the gates.

"But Araneus!", you interject. "Hasn't Ulfric Stormcloak always loudly stated how much he hates the Aldmeri Dominion and everything it stands for? Why then would they attempt to free him?"

Because nobody profits as much from the Stormcloak Rebellion as the Aldmeri Dominion. Think about it - after the Great War, the Empire was reduced to Cyrodiil, High Rock, and Skyrim, with Morrowind being largely abandoned by Imperial forces and Hammerfell becoming outright independent. But everyone knows that the Thalmor have not abandoned their doctrine of Elven Supremacy, and as long as that's the case a rematch is inevitable.

And if the Stormcloaks succeed in making Skyrim independent, the Empire will be broken. High Rock will be isolated from Cyrodiil, which means that High Rock will likely become independent sooner or later as well - and then the rest of Tamriel becomes easy pickings for the Dominion. And even if the Stormcloaks fail, the Empire will have wasted lots of men and resources putting them down and created a lot of resentment to keep further rebellions going for decades. So the worst thing that could happen, from the perspective of the Thalmor, is that Ulfric is captured and taken out in some surgical strike, and it looked like precisely that had just happened.

But I am only now able to write these thoughts to paper - at the time, I was preoccupied with other matters, such as a call to Tullius that the headsman was waiting. I did note that one of the Thalmor seemed familiar - one of the representatives who came to the signing of the White-Gold Concordant?

When we arrived at the executioner's block and stepped out of the carriage, the thief attempted to protest his innocence, but a captain of the Legion just told everyone: "Step towards the block when we call your name. One at a time!"

After her aide started with "Ulfric Stormcloak, Jarl of Windhelm", the next on the list was the other Stormcloak - "Ralof of Riverwood" - and then the thief, "Lokir of Rorikstead", who then decided to make a break for it and was promptly shot down by archers.

"Anyone else feel like running?" the captain asked in a smug tone, and then it was my turn. "Wait. You there. Step forward. Who are you?"

"I am Araneus Venator, writer for the Black Horse Courier. I was sent to Skyrim to report on the Stormcloak Rebellion. My credentials should be in the backpack you have confiscated."

"From the Black Horse Courier? Captain, what should we do? He is not on the list. Have you seen that backpack?"

"Indeed I have, soldier. But I saw no papers of any kind - but instead I found large a large supply of skooma."

"That skooma is for purely personal use!" I protested, but to no avail.

"Yes, I bet that's what they all say. No, solider, I suspect that we have caught one of the skooma smugglers who have been funding Ulfric's little rebellion, and I am sure the good folks of Skyrim will be interested in just how Ulfric was able to pay his troops.

So forget the list. He goes to the block."

The soldier looked skeptical, but they don't train the Empire's Finest to argue with superiors." By your orders, Captain." He turned to me: "I'm sorry. We will make sure your remains are returned to Cyrodiil. Follow the Captain, prisoner!"

Even in this situation, my mind raced. The skooma was real enough, but there were only three flasks (like I say, for purely personal use) - hardly enough to mark me as a serious "smuggler", and something that would only result in a fine back in Cyrodiil. And I didn't buy for a moment that nobody found my credentials. I suspect that someone - either the Captain or someone in her chain of command - had the bright idea to smear Ulfric Stormcloak's reputation in order to make him less of a martyr - from the perspective of the Empire, "Drug Lord of Windhelm" sounded like a better epitaph than "Folk Hero of Skyrim". And like said, I do have enemies in the Imperial Legions who would love to get me out of the picture - did they have friends among the officers involved in this operation?

General Tullius, meanwhile, couldn't resist the opportunity to gloat in front of Ulfric, now that the latter was bound and gagged. To his credit, he didn't use the "Drug Lord" line (that might have come later, if events hadn't turned out like this), but as said "...and now the Empire is going to put you down and restore the peace!" a sound echoed from beyond the nearby mountains which still sends a chill down my spine, and which I hope to never hear again.

Imagine a great bird of prey calling out - and then imagine it much deeper and louder, but from a long way off and echoing so much that you cannot tell from where it comes. "You are prey," this call says "run and hide if you can and pray that I am hunting other prey today."

Now the soldiers became nervous. Tullius claimed "It's nothing. Carry on.", but he was clearly rattled as well and stopped his ranting. The Captain called on a priestess to do our Last Rites, but as the priestess started with:

"As we commend your souls to Aetherius, blessings of the Eight Divines upon you..."

One of the other Stormcloak soliders, visibly upset about the omission of his favorite culture-hero from the ranks of the Divines, interrupted her. "For the love of Talos, shut up and let's get this over with." He stepped forward to the block, exclaiming: "Come on, I haven't got all morning!"

As was pushed down to the block, his last words before his head was cut off was: "My ancestors are smiling at me, Imperials. Can you say the same?"

As the crowd jeered either him or the Empire's Finest, I was called out and I raced to think of some good insults expressing my disdain for the Stormcloaks, the officer corps of the Imperial Legions, my editor and everyone else who has wronged me over the years - but that list was long and my time was short, and my train of thoughts was interrupted by that horrible sound again, leaving me at a loss for words for only the fourth time in my life.

I was called again and numbly walked towards the block. The Captain pushed me down and the headsman towered above me with his enormous, blood-encrusted axe. I saw my life flashing before me and cursed the fate - and more specifically, the editor - that had sent me here.

And that's when the dragon attacked.