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.