Friday, January 30, 2015

Campaign idea: After Victory

The world seems familiar. Besides humans, elves, dwarves, orcs and many other fantastic creatures inhabit it. Wizards cast mighty spells, while priests summon divine miracles. There are many worlds like this one.

And like many similar worlds, this one gave rise to an Dark Lord. His orcish and undead hordes poured from his Bleak Lands and overran many countries - until they were finally defeated by an alliance of nations fighting for their freedom. His armies scattered on the fields of battle, the Dark Lord was slain by a band of heroes, though at a great cost. The End.

The End?

Not so fast. While the armies of the Alliance stand victorious in the Bleak Lands, the Bleak Lands are hardly safe. The orcs and undead have scattered, but are not eradicated. Not all of the Dark Lord's lieutenants have been slain, and even those who reportedly died might have found a way to cheat death - even now, they might lurk in the shadows and plot their own rise to power.

And what of the former conquests of the Dark Lord? In many, the ruling families were slaughtered, to be replaced by quislings - who should rule them now? In others, all pretense at local government was abandoned and replaced by brutal military governors - and in their absence, anarchy and strife reign. Some others nations even joined the Dark Lord willingly, either out of fear of reprisals or because they hoped for special favors - but can the leaders of those governments be left in place, or must they be punished for their crimes?

A dangerous power vacuum is beginning to form, which will likely be filled by warlords and worse if nothing is done. Many of the leaders of the fraying Alliance are recognizing this and desperately try to impose some working order. But the morale of the occupying armies is plummeting - their soldiers marched to rid the world of a great Evil, not to stay on as occupators after said Evil was defeated. Already, many of the military units have been recalled home, and desertion is high among the remainder.

And yet, opportunity is plentiful in these lands for those willing to grasp it. The treasures plundered from a dozen lands beckon, as do the many fell magics and magic items invented by the Dark Lord's minions. And for those who aspire to rule, the occupied lands provide plenty of opportunity to anyone willing to grasp it - and defend it from the competition.

Basically, this campaign frame starts where other campaign ends - after a Big Bad has been defeated. The general chaos and anarchy of the occupied lands works similar to the "Points of Light" type of D&D settings - there are a few "safe havens" and plenty of danger outside of them, and there is plenty of loot to be had. However, this campaign frame also allows for plenty of politics - I recommend studying the politics of occupations throughout history (starting with the recent occupation of Iraq) and their many shifting political factions and conflicting agendas. The PCs - who presumably start out as veterans of the occupying armies, can either try their own hand at nation-building or just try to profit from the situation as much as they can before getting out again.

Note: This idea was originally developed in this RPGNet thread.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Campaign Idea: Into the Depths

At first glance, the world looks rather similar to other D&Desque fantasy settings. There are various nonhuman races, various types of monsters, and, of course, there is magic.

However, magical energy has a source: The molten core of the world, from which it gradually travels outward throughout the layers of rock until it dissipates into the sky. At the surface, only fairly weak magics can be cast without constraints, and you have to go to the deepest depths of the Underdark to be freely able to cast the mightiest of spells.

GURPS: The surface is at low mana. Once you go underground, you reach normal mana, while much deeper regions of the Underdark reach high and even very high mana before you reach the magma.

D&D: You can only cast cantrips and 1st level spells at the surface. If you are underground, you can cast 2nd level spells, and deeper levels allow you to cast higher-level spells until you reach 9th level spells just before you reach the magma.

The ambient magic in the depths warps its inhabitants, which means that the deeper you go, the more bizarre and powerful creatures will you find, which sometimes survive by devouring magic alone. However, the ambient magic also anneals in in harvest-able form - strange fungal growths, crystals, even internal organs of creatures. These can be used to cast more powerful spells at the surface, though they are consumed during the casting.

GURPS: Ingredients from the normal-mana regions reduce the spellcasting penalty for the surface low-mana zone to -4. Ingredients from the high mana regions reduce it to -2. Ingredients from the very high mana regions waive the penalty entirely.

D&D: Ingredients from a region where you can cast a particular spell level freely also allow you to cast the same spell levels at the higher layers, including the surface - for instance, if you are in a region where you can cast 5th level spells, then ingredients from that region will allow you to cast the same spells in less magic-rich regions, including the surface.

(Note: Volcanoes are generally more "magic rich" than the surrounding areas since they present a direct access to the magma. However, since the mana dissipates directly into the sky, volcanic regions do not provide especially magic-rich ingredients.)

So, what does this mean for the campaign? Well, for starters most mages will generally lair underground. But it also provides a clear impetus for surface civilizations to venture into the depths - ranging from small-scale expeditions to establishing long, fortified trade routes and even entire cities. It will also encourage trade with the natives (just what are you willing to trade to the drow in exchange for their magic crystals?) - and if that's not possible, warfare.

For the player characters, it also encourages going deeper into the bowels of the world as the campaign progresses, as both the challenges and the rewards will increase further down. More than just a place to do the occasional quest, the Underdark becomes the focus of the campaign. As they increase in power, they can explore ever-stranger civilizations and locations until they reach the deepest depths.

Note: This was inspired by this RPGNet thread.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Regions of Urbis - Alliance of the Pantheon

Much of my Urbis setting was written many years ago (in fact, I started writing on it back in 2002!). Since then, I've learned a lot about role-playing games, as well as game writing. It may therefore be useful to look at some of the stuff I've written for the setting and review whether it still works as written or requires some changes.

My current plan for this is to go through all the main regions of the setting in alphabetical order - starting with:

Alliance of the Pantheon

Short Summary: "Founded by religious refugees, this fragile and religiously diverse defensive alliance now faces an invasion by the League of Armach."

There are two regions in the Known Lands which are intended to explore religious themes, and the Alliance of the Pantheon explores the polytheistic aspects of fantasy RPGs. Each city-state has its own "state religion" and they used to be very focused on retaining their independence and purity of faith.

Yet all the interesting stories come from conflict. The external source of this conflict is the neighboring League of Armach, which has been conquering numerous other city-states. This in turn provokes internal change and further conflict - the Alliance must evolve to face this new challenge, or be conquered. Yet this change, even in the face of dire necessity, does not come easily. Time will tell if this region can survive, prosper, and become a powerful nation in its own right - or if, once the crisis has passed, it quickly reverts to its former way of life.

Further ideas: It might be worth researching the early history of the United States and look for parallels - how the semi-autonomous 13 colonies gradually morphed into an actual nation, and the conflicts that arose from it. The Delian League of Greece might also serve as a model, as could other periods of history where smaller city-states and nations formed a greater whole.

Favorite bit: The High Castle - because a site that's both a rumored treasure vault and a meeting place for the most clandestine negotiations is a prime adventuring site.

Verdict: Largely works as it is, though it could use some more detail.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

From Russia, with TORG - a GURPS Infinite Worlds crossover

In honor of the current Bundle of Holding, I present to you the following:

The Briefing

 "All right, agents! You all have some experience under your belt, which is why you were chosen for this assignment - make no mistake, this is going to be a tricky one.

This Q6 timeline was designated as Echo-38. Which means, just in case you forgot your Academy training, that it resembles Homeline's past and the 'local time' is 1989 - May, to be precise. Yes, the Berlin Wall is going to come down in a few months, if everything is going according to normal history - which is why we are sending you as a group.

You all know that Echoes can be 'shifted' to a different Quantum by 'changing its history' - making it easier or (usually) harder for us to get to it. And our counterparts at Centrum, over at Q8, seem to have a better idea how to accomplish this than we do - and such a major historical event like the fall of the Soviet Union is likely to be tempting for them. Figure out what kinds of agents they have in place - if any - and put a stop to their activities. Also keep an eye out for Homeline organized crime rings operating there - the Russian Mafiya in particular, will probably know where all the good stuff is currently being buried in this world, and might be tempted to operate there.

Assuming that it is an echo - our Paralabs boffins have muttered about 'weird parachronic energy fluctuations' in this world. Which is also why we are sending one of their boffins with you, to figure this stuff out. Hopefully, it won't require any further actions by us... but you never know.

Your main area of operations should be the Soviet Union, since that's where we expect the most Centrum activity - but expect to travel a lot. So get working on your cover identities!


Character Creation

The players should be told that most of the campaign will focus on a single timeline - the GM can tell them that eventually, things will go "deeply wrong" if he wants to play fair.

Assuming that the game system used is GURPS, haracters should start out with either the Intervention Service, Penetration Service, or Paralabs Field Researcher templates (see GURPS Infinite Worlds, pages 186-188). Duty (Extremely Hazardous) and Secret (From Another Earth) are campaign disadvantage every PC has and do not count against the -50 point campaign limit, which (a) reduces the cost of the Field Researcher template to 90 points and (b) allows the characters to take additional disadvantages (-15 for Intervention Service, -20 for Penetration Service, and -30 for Paralabs). The characters start with 225 character points. Note that the templates represent their past occupations with Infinity, and not necessarily their present ones - technically, they are all currently assigned to Echo Surveillance, but given the inclination of Infinity towards cross-training their agents in different divisions, this is not at all unusual.

But before they spend their points, they should figure out their cover stories. If they don't have any good ideas, their predecessor on this world bribes some people to make them attaches at the Albanian embassy in Moscow. This works even if most of them don't speak Albanian - everyone "in the know" will assume that they did, in fact, bribe people so that they could operate in the Soviet Union as part of some organized crime ring, but since "everyone is doing that" it will serve as a decent cover story and still provide actual Diplomatic Immunity - mark down 20 character points for that. Which brings us to...

Social Advantages, Wealth, and Income

The players should be informed that since they will spend most of their time on this one world, social advantages (Contacts, Allies, Ally Groups, Diplomatic Immunity, Wealth, etc.) specific to this world will be important - also remind them that they are supposed to keep an eye on high-ranking government officials. Also tell them that if they lose these advantages "due to circumstances beyond their control", they will get to re-spend those character points on other social advantages a month or two later, providing they can come up with a good in-game reason for getting those advantages (and maybe make a successful skill roll or two).

Wealth and Income represents the money they can get access to on "Echo-38". While of course Infinity will help them with some start-up funds, laundering large amounts of off-world funds in a high-tech world can be tricky, and will often attract precisely the amount of attention they are supposed to avoid. Thus, their Wealth level represents the "safe" startup funds they have. They can spend all of this ($20,000 for "Average" wealth) on "adventuring gear" (both Homeline and local equipment) - Infinity throws in a safehouse with facilities for free.

To get further funds, they can either have Independent Income (which they don't have to work for), or work the equivalent of two weeks per month on their "cover story jobs" (as, er, "honorable businessmen"). This should be treated as a "freelance job roll" (as explained in the GURPS Basic Set, p. 516-517) - if they rolled badly, it meant they had to spend more money on their cover story. Don't forget to subtract the Monthly Costs of Living (GURPS Basic Set, p. 265 - $600 for Social Status 0)!

Weird Powers

Player characters can, if they wish, spend up to 25 character points on "weird powers" (characters with more powerful abilities would likely be shortlisted for other assignments, such as ISWAT). Psionic powers are one option, and Magical Aptitude and spells are are another - it turns out that "Echo-38" is largely a low-mana world, which is another reason why Paralabs is beginning to suspect that this is not an Echo after all. Nevertheless, such characters are warned in especially dire terms that they should not use such powers where anyone local can spot them, if they needed telling.

They will have a few months to "acclimatize" themselves into their cover identities - the campaign starts in September 1989, local time. With that in mind...

What is really going on?

"Echo-38" is, in fact, the "Core Earth" of the TORG setting. If everything goes according to the timeline, the Maelstrom Bridges will drop in April 1990 - in seven months. Canonically, the Soviet Union - the area where the PCs are supposed to primarily operate in - is also subject to a failed invasion by the Tharkhold Cosm - thwarted by "Soviet Psychics". Hopefully, the PCs also played a role in this.

The Players

So who is active in Russia - apart from Infinity?

Centrum / Interworld Service: As expected, they are active here, and will treat this timeline as an Echo of "Secundus" until proven otherwise. They are attempting to mold the Soviet Union into some form of authoritarian Meritocracy, hopefully with themselves in charge. The Authoritarianism part in itself is easy, since that's where Russia will swing on its own - the Meritocracy part is going to be tricky, as is getting rid of the corruption and impulses towards the nastier kinds of patriotism. And controlling the whole mess - there is no shortage of sharks among the power brokers of Soviet Russia. And, of course, there are Dastardly Homeline Agents to thward - if Interworld can find them.

Considering their usual lack of native language speakers, some of the Centrum Agents will no doubt pose as American "economic advisors" which infested the country during the time period - and, in fact, they might give rather better advice than their competition. When stumbling across the other invaders of this timeline, they will first suspect them of being Homeliners, and failing that, the Cabal.

Question: What might be good ploys for Interworld to attempt here? What are good resources - books or otherwise - on the final years on the Soviet Union?

Russian Intelligence agencies: These will strive to protect their own turf and influence in all this chaos. They also have some genuine psychics who are getting increasingly agitated by what they claim is a "secret invasion" - another hint that this is no mere "Echo". Many of the more enterprising members of the Intelligence agencies are forming the first mobs the Russian Mafiya.

Source: The GRU SV-8 chapter of Delta Green: Countdown probably makes for a good starting point.

Question: What kinds of resources can you recommend on the late-era Soviet intelligence community and the alleged "Soviet psychics"?

Russian Mafiya: Many Russians who pay attention know that the Soviet Union is falling apart - and grab what they can. The Russian intelligence agencies are especially aware of this, and often have a hand in the creation of particular mobs. The PCs will likely encounter some of the mobs sooner or later.

Source: McMafia by Misha Glenny.

Question: What other sources can you recommend for the Russian Mafiya, especially its early years?

Russian Mafiya of Homeline: As their briefing officer told them, these Homeline crime rings know where and how to loot the best stuff from this particular time and place, and will make use of that knowledge - endangering the Secret in the process. Naturally, the PCs are supposed to stop this - without blowing their cover, or letting the secret of parachronics fall into the wrong hands.

Tharkhold Agents: These will either be slaves who have been wired up with cyberware to make them more effective agents (as well as keeping them under control) or actual Tharkholdu using magic to disguise their true form. They have infiltrated the Russian Mafiya under the assumption (not without cause) that they would have the easiest time taking over groups which are ruled by fear and violence. They are currently preparing to plant the stelae necessary for establishing the Maelstrom Bridge. If they spot evidence of other invaders from a different Cosm (such as Homeliners or Centrum agents), they will initially assume that these are the pawns of a different High Lord - likely either (ironically) Kanawa, Mobius, or perhaps even the Gaunt Man himself - sent to sabotage them. If they discover evidence of parachronics, they will become very interested.

Source: The Tharkhold sourcebook for TORG:

Kanawa Group operatives: These are there to sabotage the Tharkhold agents without getting caught in the act. If they stumble across Homeliners or Centrum agents, they will initially mistake them for Tharkhold agents - or possibly agents of Mobius, in which case they will be happy to let them take the blame for sabotaging the Tharkholdu. If they discover parachronics, they will become even more interested than the Tharkholdu, since this kind of cross-time travel could be immensely profitable (as Homeliners have reason to know).

Source: The Nippon Tech sourcebook for TORG:

Thus, the PCs have about six months for spy games and mutual sabotage efforts against a variety of other groups with plenty of possibilities for mistaken identities. They get to learn that some kinds of demons are attempting to invade the Soviet Union, and then get to thwart them.

And then all the other Maelstrom Bridges drop in April, five different realities invade the world, and they realize that the situation is far worse than they could have possibly imagined.

But what about...

Some further thoughts about this campaign:

What about Reality Contradictions?

Pre-Invasion, it should be assumed that Core Earth is so full of "Possibility Energy" that everything works like the characters expect - including psionics and magic (keeping in mind the "low mana" of Core Earth). Post-Invasion, some of this Possibility is drained, which means that magic-using Homeliners will have to deal with the Axioms of Core Earth (Homeliners should probably have a slightly higher Technology Axiom and a slightly lower Magic Axiom).

(Which incidentally means that GURPS rules for such contradictions are not needed at the start of the campaign...)

Can we call for backup?

Yes, the player characters can call for backup - but keep in mind that Infinity is extremely overworked and the PCs are supposed to be highly competent agents in their own right. The home office is unlikely to respond well to what they see as "frivolous" requests. That being said, supporting field agents is their jobs, and they try to be helpful. How helpful they are depends on how convincing the player characters are - and what connections they have (did anyone invest in a Patron at Infinity?).

Requests for gear are easiest, though keep in mind that Infinity wants to preserve the Secret. Yes, they can produce large amounts of plastic explosives, but what are you going to do with that, agent - and how much attention are you planning to attract? Homeline gear should, if at all possible, be used only at their safehouse, and more obscure gear that fits in with the local technology may be harder to acquire. And anything that can be transformed into cash requires the PCs to launder it.

Requests for additional personnel (other than replacements for dead PCs) will only be granted if there is a major crisis occurring - i.e. if they can provide proof of a demonic invasion force operating in Soviet Russia, or once the Maelstrom Bridges hit. Then it is the task of the PCs to brief those newcomers, and keep them out of trouble. For campaign purposes, it is probably best if they operate in a separate team elsewhere - and too many Homeline agents in one place would attract too much attention anyway. If the situation looks really bad, they might actually be granted assistance by an ISWAT team - but then the PCs should do an operation on a different and apparently less dangerous site than ISWAT, to keep them in the action. And ISWAT will likely leave after the op is over, since they don't have the time to sit around idly...

Another problem is that, when faced with a major crisis like this, Infinity will likely want to observe first instead of intervene - this attitude should also apply to non-ISWAT assistance, while PCs are likely to be more proactive and heroic.

One final question is whether the PCs can actually reach Homeline after the Invasion, and vice versa. Major events in the Possibility Wars, such as the dropping of the Maelstrom Bridges, will certainly count as a major disruption to parachronic travel, requiring penalties to the operator's Electronics
Operation (Parachronic)
skill. More insidious is whether the conveyor can actually reach Homeline - after all, it is definitely a device from a high-Technology Cosm.

If the GM is merciful, he might permit parachronic conveyors to operate normally at the Core Earth axiom (Tech Axiom 23). More plausibly, it might require the Tech Axiom Nippon Tech (24), since "slightly higher than Core Earth" fits Homeline as well. If the GM decides that parachronic conveyors represent some kind of "super-tech" he might require Cyberpapacy/Tharkhold levels (26), though that's probably taking it too far.

The PCs might not know this, of course - their first warning might come when their very expensive conveyor suddenly transforms into a minivan. Though they might get an inkling when they learn about other technological devices transforming in different Realities. Of course, this will make Infinity even more reluctant to make regular "supply runs" and they will prefer to keep the conveyor trips to Core Earth as short as possible.

Are we Stormers?

The PCs do not start out as Storm Knights. However, once the invasion hits, they should transform into Stormers - perhaps their parachronic travels made them "attractive" to Possibility Energy, or something on these lines.

I haven't given too much thought on how to model Stormer abilities in GURPS yet - partially because I am still reading through the TORG rules on them. Right now I am inclined towards a mixture of the Probability Alteration powers from GURPS Psionic Powers and The Magic of Stories from Pyramid 13 - Thaumatology. Basically, once the PCs become Stormers, they get some powers reflecting fortuitous coincidences (modeled by a variant the Serendipity advantage) - with specific types of coincidences being represented by different techniques which can be improved individually. So if a player wants his character to be constantly entangled by romantic subplots, he can learn the Romance technique for this ability.

Final thoughts

I've just brainstormed all this since yesterday, and many details remain unclear. Since I am currently occupied with another campaign, it is unclear when and if I will work out these details. Nevertheless, I hope that this will give other GMs enough to go on to start their own campaign. If you have any suggestions, feel free to share them with me - and if you are actually running a campaign with this, please tell me!

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Black Horse Dispatch 18 - Into the Void

After breakfast, I stop by at Mistveil Keep to shop at the rather scatterbrained court mage - but that hasn't kept her from accumulating an astoundingly large selection of spell tomes. I pick some conjuration spells - both for summoning a magical raincoat and a variety of spells for summoning spirit wolves. When fighting dragons, it helps to fight in a target-rich environment, and as such beings cannot be truly killed, they should provide a good distraction.

And I immediately have the opportunity to test this hypothesis, as two dragons attack us in close succession as we leave Riften along the southwestern road along Lake Honrich. And indeed, as the spirit wolves race after the dragons, the dragons focus their attacks on these ghostly creatures, allowing us plenty of time to pepper them with arrows. More surprising is an attack by a trio of vampires in broad daylight - but still, the spirit wolf is useful here, as it cannot contract sanguinare vampiris and I don't want my minions to thirst more for my blood than they already do.

After slaying a frostbite spider (not a particularly difficult task), another dragon appears - this one simply circling nearby. I get the suspicion that they hunt us - perhaps at the instigation of the Black One. We wait in an old, abandoned lakeside house until it flies away. I notice a badly damaged book in front of the long-cold fireplace - the title "Spirit of the Deep" is barely visible. Curious, I flip it open...

...and the world shifts around me. Damn. I hate it when this happens - especially when I am perfectly sober.

I appear in another version of the ruined house - floating in some kind of void, along with other detritus. As I take a step, a strange man of indeterminate race appears in front of me, and as I stare into his pitch black eyes, I realize that I am in the presence of a daedric lord.

This is the third time I have found myself in this position, and if you, gentle reader, should ever find yourself in such a situation, I recommend being both very polite and very, very cautious. No doubt he would soon explain himself as much as he cared to for my translocation into this realm of Oblivion (for where else could I be?).

"You are wondering why I brought you here. Your life has taken a turn, has it not?

You should have died at Helgen, Dragons have returned to Skyrim, and you will play a pivotal role in the days to come."

All this is said in a soft, almost monotonous voice, which only makes it more worrying.

"For this, I have chosen you and drawn you into the Void. I am the Outsider, come find me."

And with that, he vanishes. None of the daedric lords I am familiar with, but that is not exactly comforting.

Well, if he want to play hide and seek, then I am not in a position to tell him no. However, as I take a few steps I hear Vilja's inane chatter just behind me - and I discover to my horror that she has somehow been stuck into the wall behind the fireplace. Even more disturbing is that her disposition seems to be entirely unaffected, and she continues to chatter like she always does. Is this an illusion, or is she really here in this abominable state - and if so, has she been driven mad or is her mind clouded? And will she be restored when this "Outsider" becomes bored of us?

I cannot help her, so I press on. In any case, there doesn't seem to be much hiding involved on the part of the Outsider, for as come to the end of a bridge of sorts which hangs into the void, he simply reappears again in front of me.

"There are forces in the world and beyond the grave. Great forces that you mortals call magic, and now these forces serve your will. Use this newfound power, my gift to you."

And with this, he vanishes again. But suddenly, there is new knowledge in my mind. Knowledge of, if I just reach out with my hands to a distant point, I can...

I transform into lightning, and the lightning transforms into me on the other side of the chasm.

I experiment a bit with this new power. It is not exactly a spell, though I feel it slightly drain my reserves of magical power. I need to see the point I am "blinking" towards, and there seems to be a limit to my range.

Suddenly I hear the sound of a weapon being drawn. Somehow Vilja has managed to get out of the fireplace and across the chasm, standing right behind me. Surprised, I blink again - but each time she reappears behind me, looking warily around without saying a word. This spooks me more than anyone else.

Then I see a table adorned with two candles and a skull, horns, banners, and... ribcages of some enormous creature? This seems to be an altar, of sorts. As I approach it and let my hands fall down, I hear Vilja saying behind me: "Guess I'm just being silly."

...I don't want to think about this right now. Instead, I approach the altar, which seems to throb in my mind somehow. As I touch it, the Outsider appears again and tells me:

"Seek the ancient runes bearing my mark in the lonely places of your world at the shrines raised in my name. These runes will grant you power beyond those of others. How you use what I have given you falls upon you, as it has to others before you.

And now I return you to your world, but know that I will be watching with great interest."

I return to Mundus, in the same cabin as before. Then I see to my horror that Vilja has somehow become stuck in the floor, with only the head and shoulders looking out.

"I think I need more sleep."

Horrified, I use Blink again, in the hopes that she will somehow follow me out as she has done in the Void, but this doesn't seem to help. Then I have no time to contemplate other solutions, as two dragons appear - who seem to be attacking a nearby orc stronghold. Flames are everywhere, and as the two beasts are finally slain, I discover that Vilja has made it out somehow - though she seems to be heavily wounded, though I cannot say whether it was getting out of the floor or the fight with the dragons that did the damage. Finally, she manages to stand up under her own power, though she looks pained.

I could kick myself. I should have seen behind her cheerful facade. What was she hiding behind that smile and that chatter? What horrible sights and experiences have shattered her sanity in the past, and what was she forced to revisit in the Void? I was looking for an assistant when I hired her, but now I fear I found a time bomb. Still, there is a story here, and I must follow it to the end.

To be continued. Read from the beginning!

Monday, January 5, 2015

Black Horse Dispatch 17 - The Road to Riften

Continued from Dispatch 16 - A Blade in the Dark.

With that, the Agent leaves to ponder how to best do some sniffing around the Thalmor Embassy. This will likely take some time, which leaves me to ponder what lead I should pursue next.

High Hrothgar, again, seems like the obvious choice. I've found the horn for the Greybeards, so hopefully they will now be willing to let me talk to their leader (presumed ancient and winged). Rather than heading towards the White River, I decide to take the scenic route through the Rift. That the climate there is supposed to be warmer than up here in the north admittedly played some part in my decision.

When we hit the main road from Kynesgrove, a red-brown dragon (also recently resurrected?) approaches from the south - but it only circles us a few times before flying off towards the Jerralls to the southeast. Was it sent by the Black One to keep an eye on us? Or did it see the slain dragon near the mound and decided it didn't want to challenge us right now? I can only hope that the word spreads among the dragons - "be careful around humans, for they might kill you and devour your soul." But to they even have a gossip vine?

Then I spot another dragon - this one with dark ochre scales - attacking a giant, while a third dragon attacks my group. But by now the group is fully versed in dragon slaughter, and it goes down quickly, while the other dragon has apparently lost its fight against the giant as well. And the soul-stealing process is triggered when I merely approach the corpse - quite obviously I don't have to be the one to slay it to make this work. We see a third dragon circle a small hill in the middle of the volcanic plateau to the west of the road, but decide not to approach. A small group of travelers were not able to avoid the dragons, however, as their corpses were scattered next to a burning wagon. Only their dog had survived, and it decides to follow us after Vilja feeds it.

A short time later we come across a lone Khajiit woman who claims that her caravan was attacked by bandits. She asks me to take her to Windhelm, where another Khajiit caravan is currently located, and I agree. However, shortly after I turn my back it turns out that she apparently has suicidal tendencies, as she mutters "you adventurers are so gullible" and draws her axe on me. As she is surrounded by my murderous minions (and Vilja), she is cut down before I can turn around again. I really need to teach them to leave more people alive so that I can question them.

As it turns out, she has a letter with her.

Lajjan hopes this is a joke. If so, she is not laughing. She will not help you and your bandit friends sack the caravans, and if their paths cross, do not think she will spare you because Khajiit are friends.

Well, if I come across this Lajjan person, I might get the full story from her - but for now, I have more pressing concerns.

It's a nice, sunny, noon and hardly anyone tries to kill me after that last dragon, apart from some pesky local wildlife, and while climbing the steep path up to the Rift is somewhat exhausting, the view is worth it. Why can't travel in Skyrim always be like this? I even meet a few pleasant people, such as an Argonian trader who sells me a warm travel cloak and a comfy backpack. Really, I don't know how I managed to store all my gear without it.

Alas, the tranquility ends at a small mining village named Shor's Stone, as another dragon approaches. This one hurls great balls of fire from the sky - a new trick, and it's a miracle the straw roofs of the village do not catch fire. Immediately afterwards we are attacked by bandits who seem to be too stupid to live - do you really want to attack the people who just attacked a dragon? Especially since the town guard is nearby?

Next up north is another fort, where there currently seems to be a three-way skirmish between more bandits, Stormcloaks, and Imperial soldiers. Two Imperials were the last ones standing (current score: 2:1 for the Stormcloaks).

I reach Riften, and one of the gate guards attempts to shake me down for a "Visitor's Tax" - but after I ask him if he wants to explain the purpose of this tax to the readers of the Black Horse Courier, he quickly backs down.

Inside, I overhear a conversation between to people, a huge warrior woman named Mjoll who apparently had a run-in with the local Thieves' Guild. Her companion, one Aerin, warns her that the Guild is backed by one Maven Black-Briar - a name I heard about back in Cyrodiil, and no in a good way - and opposing her could land one in jail, or worse.

After Aerin leaves, I talk to Mjoll and she informs me that the "rabble" of the Thieves' Guild is currently recruiting, and that I should be careful, and tells me about some of the members of the Black-Briar family - real charmers, by the sound of it. Apparently she retired from a life of high adventure after Aerin managed to rescue her from a nearby dwemer ruin, and now she has embarked on a mission to clean up this time. I wished her luck - she will likely need it.

I take a few steps further, and a shady character seizes me up suspiciously, and asks me if I came to Riften looking for trouble.

"What's it to you?"

"Don't say something you'll regret. Last thing the Black-Briars need is some loudmouth trying to meddle in their affairs."

"The Black-Briars?"

"The Black-Briars have Riften in their pockets and the Thieves' Guild watching their back, so keep your nose out of their business.

Me? I'm Maul. I watch the streets for 'em, If you need the dirt on anythin', I'm your guy... but it'll cost you."

He does end up giving me a few scraps of information for free:

- It turns out that Aventus Arentino, the boy in Windhelm attempting to contact the Black Brotherhood, used to live in the local orphanage but ran away. "Can't say I blame him."

- He also claims that Maven Black-Briar has ties to the Dark Brotherhood. Hmmm... given my own recent run-in with the Brotherhood, this may be worth investigating. Later...

Next I witness one of the local loan sharks, a woman named Sapphire, intimidate one of her victims, a Redguard stable worker who apparently had loaned money from her - only to have the shipment stolen, likely by someone working with Sapphire.

I follow Sapphire into the local pub to talk with her about this, but am momentarily distracted by a priest of Mara blaming the dragons on the constant drunkenness of the pub patrons.

...this is going to be a trend, isn't it.

I can't convince Sapphire to drop the debt, so I pay the 163 septims myself - I am flush with coins from Ustengrav and can afford it. As I go out to the stables, I see an orc with an axe drawn standing over another dead orc - but the gate guard is too jaded to intervene. An Argonian standing right next to them mutters: "All I want is a pair of boots. How hard can it be?" I quickly press on to give the worker the good news, who hands me a potion of invisibility out of gratitude (he said he feard he might need it to flee from Sapphire).

After a trip to the alchemist to brew some potions and sell the surplus, I head back to the pub in search of a room for the night - and there a member of the Thieves' Guild makes his expected recruitment pitch. He wants me to plant some fake evidence on a local merchant, but I remained noncommittal. He... kept not noticing that. I went to bed, and will attempt to avoid this guy for the time being - I don't want to linger here.

Continued in Dispatch 18 - Into the Void.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Black Horse Dispatch 16 - A Blade in the Dark

Continued from Dispatch 15 - Cloak and Dagger.

And with that, we race through the night - if there really is someone or something resurrecting dragons, we must get to Kynesgrove in time to witness it. It rains at the start, leaving me drenched, but that can't be helped.

Roughly at the halfway mark, we are attacked by a black-clad Argonian, but he proves no match for my companions. He carries a letter with him:

"As instructed, you are  to eliminate Araneus Venator by any means necessary. The Black Sacrament has been  performed - someone wants this poor fool dead.

We've already received payment for the contract. Failure is not an option.

- Astrid."

And now I feel much colder. I thought the Black Brotherhood had been wiped out 13 years ago, but apparently not. Who has set them on my trail? Not that there is a shortage of people wishing for my death, but who could afford them? A new and terrifying possibility springs unbidden to my mind...

And I want to make one thing clear to my readers: There is absolutely no proof that I am in any way related to the Septims, and just because I am apparently also a "Dragonborn" does not make me a scion of that line. Granted, I have no memories of my father and not many fond ones of my mother, but the protagonist of a story turning out to be the long-lost heir of a throne is only ever found in the worst kind of fiction. Trust me on this.

A short time later, a lone Dunmer woman attacks me. It... doesn't go well for her, and I avert my eyes from the scene of carnage created by my minions.

We reach Windhelm Hold, and it begins to snow. Fortunately, no Stormcloak patrols are in the area - presumably, they prefer to stay close to a warm, cozy fireplace, the bastards - not slowly freezing to death like me. As we reach the Windhelm stables, I can't go on - I build a makeshift fire right next to the horses (who are presumably as glad as I am to have a little warmth (though they don't show it). But even that is not enough, and I make the decision to head into Windhelm itself.

Inside the gates, I witness two of Ulfric's upstanding citizens bully a dunmer woman, accusing her and her fellow resident dark elves of being "Imperial Spies" and threatening to visit them next night. Fortunately, they leave without violence - perhaps the four strangers suddenly taking an interest in their actions might have something to do with it. As the woman explains, that's par for the course in Ulfric's city - not only the dunmer are harassed, but also the Argonians and anyone else who is a Nord.

I spend an hour at Candlehearth Hall warming myself up - but that needs to suffice.

Sundas, 24th of Last Seed.

As dawn breaks, I search for the Agent near Kynesgrove (who has declined to enter Windhelm) when I hear a draconic roar and an ancient voice shout:

"Sahloknir! Ziil gro dovah ulse!"

Damn! I am too late!


Damn. I'm not too late!

It's that big black bastard from Helgen! He is doing something at the burial mound - a pillar of light is emerging!

"Slen Tiid Vo!"

A skeletal dragon emerges from the mound. Its flesh begins to reform, and it speaks!

"Alduin, thuri! Boaan tiid vokriiha suleyksejun kruziik?"

Alduin? The one from the tablets of the road to High Hrothgar? The one that was "shouted out of the world"?

The Black One replies:

"Geh, Sahloknir, kaali mir.

Then it looks straight at me.

"Ful, losei Dovahkiin? Zu'u koraav nid nol dov do hi.

"You do not even know our tongue, do you? Such arrogance, to dare take for yourself the name of Dovah."

Normally I would say a witty retort at a time of this, but I really don't want to upset the enormous black, flying abomination further right now.

"Sahloknir, krii daar joorre."

With that, the Black One flies off. As the other dragon - now fully restored - jumps into the air and breathes lightning at us, the meaning is clear, however: "Kill those meddlesome mortals for me!"

But my minions and I have practice at this now, and the fight is short. The Agent, who had apparently hidden nearby to join in for the fight, is suitably impressed - and as promised, she finally parts with the real story.

"I'm one of the last members of the Blades. A very long time ago, the Blades were dragonslayers, and we served the Dragonborn, the greatest dragonslayer. For the last two hundred years, since the last Dragonborn emperor, the Blades have been searching for a purpose. Now that dragons are coming back, our purpose is clear again. We need to stop them."

Interesting. I had read about the predecessors of the Penitus Oculatus - the favored servants of the Septim Dynasty - but this facet was new to me. And apparently, they have been searching for a new Dragonborn since the Septim dynasty ended, but never found one.

Until they found me. Which does not give me warm and fuzzy feelings - quite the contrary.

But the Agent doesn't know anything about why the dragons are returning, either - but is surprised to hear that the Black One was also the one who attacked Helgen. Which leads to the suspicion that the Thalmor were behind the attack, as the liberation of Ulfric and the prolongation of the Civil War plays right into their hands.

I am... less certain. Unlike the Agent, I remember Helgen (as much as I wish I didn't), and the Black One didn't strike me as a creature that could be controlled by anyone. I doubt it would have spared Ulfric if he had been in its path, and Stormcloacus Maximus likely only survived because he knew when to duck and cover.

But the Agent remains convinced that the Thalmor might hold some important clues, and considering how they have spread out their goons all over this promise, I can't really disagree. The Agent seems to have some ideas for infiltrating the Embassy, and promises to figure out a way, given some time - I should visit the Secret Hideout again once this time has passed.

"Oh, and what was your name, anyway? I never asked..."

"Araneus Venator."

The look on the Agent's face is quite extraordinary.

"Not the... writer for the Black Horse Courier?"

"Indeed I am, and I must say that this visit to Skyrim was rather more newsworthy than I could have guessed."

"Of all the people in Tamriel, why did it have to be you? Please, by the Divines, don't talk about..."

"Don't worry - I always protect my sources."

Continued in Dispatch 17 - The Road to Riften.

Black Horse Dispatches 15 - Cloak and Dagger

Continued from Dispatch 14 - The Lost Horn of Jurgen Windcaller.

Loredas, 23rd of Last Seed.

I shall not go into much detail about our trip to our contact. That doesn't mean that there wasn't anything of interest, but I did not wish to linger. Nevertheless:

- We saw two corpses of male Imperials, left with nothing more than a loincloth - floating upright above the ground, with outstretched arms.

- A Breton afflicted with a terrible disease who claims he only survived thanks to Peryite's protection. He was on his way back to High Rock, as he felt that their "shepherd has lost his way". and that he feels that "Peryite's wrath may consume those who remain with him".

- Another Imperial-Stormcloak skirmish (Win for the Stormcloaks, 2:0).

- Another encounter with M'aiq who didn't made any more sense than before.

- Rumors that a group vampire hunters called the "Dawnguard" are reforming.

No further dragons, though, for which I am grateful. Which helps me get to the contact without delays, and after we do the whole Cloak and Dagger routine, this person, whom I shall call the Agent, gets down to business.

"So you are the Dragonborn I've been hearing so much about. I think you are looking for this" and hands me the horn.

"We need to talk. Follow me."

A short time later we reach a well-hidden secret room.

"The Greybeards seem to think you're the Dragonborn. I hope they're right."

"You're the one who took the horn?"

"Surprised? I guess I am getting pretty good at my harmless ----- act."

"What's with all the cloak and dagger?"

"You can't be too careful. Thalmor spies are everywhere."

"What do you want with me?"

"I didn't go to all this trouble on a whim. I needed to be sure that it wasn't a Thalmor trap.

I am no your enemy. I already gave you the horn. I am actually trying to help you. I just need you to hear me out."

Well, then she came to the right person - I am always willing to listen. But she doesn't seem to recognize me.

"Go on. I'm listening."

"Like I said on my note, I've heard that you might be a Dragonborn. I'm part of a group that has been looking for you... well, someone like you, for a very long time.

If you really are Dragonborn, that is. Before I tell you any more, I need to be sure I can trust you."

"Why did you take the horn from Ustengrav?"

"I knew that the Greybeards would send you there if they thought you were Dragonborn. They are nothing if not predictable. When you showed up here, I knew you were the one the Greybeards sent, and not some Thalmor plant."

I file this under very interesting for later reference. The Greybeards claimed that the last person to be summoned to High Hrothgar was Talos/Tiber Septim. Unless they regularly have to weed out false Dragonborn aspirants (was Ulfric one of them?) by sending them to Ustengrav, this "group" must have records that go back a very long time indeed.

"You said the Thalmor are after you?"

"Yes. We're very old enemies. And if my suspicions are correct, they might have something to do with the dragons returning. But that isn't important right now. What is important is that you might be Dragonborn."

"Why are you looking for a Dragonborn?"

"We remember what most don't - that the Dragonborn is the ultimate dragonslayer. You're the only one that can kill a dragon permanently by devouring its soul."

Gee, thanks for reminding me - I feel uncomfortable enough about this already, and I feel even less comfortable by deliberately seeking out dragons and serving as a man-shaped Soul Gem for them.

"Can you do it? Can you devour a dragon's soul?"

"Yes, that's how I first learned I was Dragonborn."

"Good. And you'll have a chance to prove it to me soon enough."

No, I don't like where this conversation is going at all...

"So what's the part you're not telling me?"

"Dragons aren't just coming back, they're coming back to life.

They weren't gone somewhere for all those years. They were dead, killed off centuries ago by my predecessors. Now something's happening to bring them back to life. And I need you to help me stop it."

"Do you know how crazy this sounds?"

"Ha. A few years ago, I said almost the same thing to a colleague of mine. Well, it turned out he was right and I was wrong."

"What makes you think that dragons are coming back to life?"

"I know they are. I've visited their ancient burial mounds and fount them empty. And I've figured out where the next one will come back to life. We are going to go there, and you will kill that dragon. If we succeed, I will tell you anything you want to know."

"How did you figure all this out?"

"You should know. You got the map for me. The dragonstone you got for Farengar, remember?"

"Right. You were at Dragonsreach when I gave it to him."

"So you were paying attention. I arranged to have Farengar retrieve the dragonstone for me.

It's what I do. I make things happen from behind the scenes. After all, here you are."

"The dragonstone was some kind of map?"

"Yes. A map of ancient dragon burial sites. I've looked at which ones are now empty. The pattern is pretty clear."

"It seems to be spreading from the southeast, starting in the Jeralls near Riften. The one near Kynesgrove is next, if the pattern holds."

"So that's where we are headed?

"Correct. If we can get there before it happens, maybe we'll learn how to stop it."

"Well... let's go find this dragon."

Continued in Dispatch 16 - A Blade in the Dark.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Black Horse Dispatches 14 - The Lost Horn of Jurgen Windcaller

Continued from Dispatch 13 - The Road to Ustengrav.

As we enter Ustengrav, we hear voices. I sneak closer, passing a dead bandit on the way, and discover black-robed figures - apparently necromancers, who have reanimated the corpses of bandits to excavate the area! They seem to go through a lot of corpses in their efforts, however.

For some reason, they rush off to a corridor to the left - unfortunately, I don't hear their reason for doing so, as Vrijas has to whisper some concerns about getting lost in this complex at precisely the wrong moment.

Here is a tip for the would-be skulkers in shadows among my readers: Whispers are a very distinct form of noise that carries a lot further than you'd expect. If you have to talk while within range of someone you want to observe unheard, lower your voice as much as possible but don't break into a whisper. And don't talk at all to someone who is listening to someone else unless it is critically important, such as: "Hey, Araneus - there is a Giant Frostbite Spider right behind you!" That's the kind of information you need in a hurry even when otherwise occupied. If you have any other concerns, write them into your diary.

Fortunately, the necromancers don't hear Vrija's not-at-all inconspicuous whisper, only murmuring that the zombies "can fend for themselves" for a moment. Fortunately, the remaining zombie is not, in fact, very capable of fending for itself, especially when it is hit by four arrows from behind. But there are no clues nearby on what the necromancers are searching for.

And as it turns out, the necromancers are quickly overwhelmed by a group of draugr, so it doesn't seem likely that further clues will be forthcoming.

Further into the depths there is a great cavern. Somehow there is light from the ceiling - enough light for large tree to rise from the depths. Eerie flames flicker in the distance, and walking dead seem to patrol the area - not draugr, but skeletons. Are there more necromancers in the area, or is this some long-forgotten necromancer's tomb which the would-be archaeologists had hoped to uncover?

Sneaking further down, I trigger a pressure plate and jets of flame engulf me from the floor. When I finally stop screaming, my murderous minions are less than sympathetic to me for overlooking the trap. Even Vrija mocks me: "Ouch, I'm so clumsy!"

Draugr patrol a feast hall. After we dispose of them, I discover that the food is suspiciously fresh. Bread, cheese, grilled leeks, jazaby berries - they seem at best a bit stale, but by no means crumbled to dust - as they should have been if they were as old as the draugr. Did some living humans get here recently and decide to have lunch? But if so, where are the bodies? Or are they under some enchantment of timelessness - the same that also causes the braziers and torches to burn forever? Or did the draugr emerge from Ustengrav and took the food from some passing merchant or remote settlement so that they could have this mockery of a feast?

We come to another room with the typical sarcophagi of the draugr - but there is also some oil spread around the floor from a spilled lamp. I prepare my flame cantrip, and approach - hurling the fire at the oil just as the draugr emerge. And at precisely that moment, Vrija chooses to race forward to attack the draugr, getting engulfed by the flames as well.

Ouch. I'm so clumsy.

Two portcullises operated by handles in the walls reveal a small enchanter's lab. But while I have collected a few soul gems - even ones with charges - in this dungeon, I feel no desire to dabble in it. Frankly, I always felt a revulsion towards enchantment - trapping some poor creature's very soul and then using that soul to power some magic doodad. While I've used enchanted items on occasion, I feel no need to add to their number. If we have to use them, then the enchanting should be left to true professionals, who know how to make the soul juice last, instead of some dabbler who will only waste the energy.

Frankly, I feel bad enough about consuming the souls of dragons - thinking (if apparently deeply malevolent) beings, even though I don't have a choice in this process and even though the dragons keep attacking me and people around me. Going out of my way to deliberately destroy the souls of other beings for my own advantage is a sin I do not care to indulge in.

We reach the skeletons, which go down easy enough under my bolts. As I explore the area, I find another dragon-adorned wall with ancient runes as in Bleak Falls Barrows, deep at the bottom of the cavern near a small pond. As I approach it, I hear the same chanting and some of the runes begin to shimmer. An ancient memory that is not my own stirs in my mind, and I understand...


and I fade from this world, if only for a short moment. My minions still see me, so I am not invisible, exactly. But Mundus, the material world, has less purchase on me - the ground still holds me, but everything feels... muted.

Time for some experimentation. There were some flames back near the skeletons, and indeed thanks to FEIM I pass through them without harm, exploring a balcony that would have been otherwise inaccessible. There are some further rooms which can only be reached via a series of platforms, but thanks to WULD I manage to jump between them. And a final test - I also learn that with FEIM I can fall from a great height without harm, although I suspect I need to be really careful how I time this, or else I might become tangible again just before I hit the ground. Still, jumping off a cliff in order to avoid pursuit is a neat trick, one I wish I had learned earlier.

We reach a series of three stones which glow as I pass them - and each time I pass one, a portcullis opens, but only for a very short time. Too short to pass through all of them, in fact. Strangely enough, the stones only glow when I pass them - none of the Murderous Minions trigger them. Another part of the Greybeards' test, no doubt - and keeping their tests in mind, I manage to reach the other side with WULD. To my relief, the three portcullises stay open after I reach the other side.

Large cobwebs cover the next area, which is never a good sign - but I am not so distracted that I don't spot the pressure-plates in the path ahead of us. There seems to be no way around them, so I shout FEIM and race ahead - but FEIM doesn't last long enough and I still experience some heat as I finally get out of the traps. Then a frostbite spider spits poison into my face.

Despite my blurry vision I pepper it with bolts, but then a much larger specimen drops from the ceiling. Fortunately, my minions have run after me - apparently, the pressure plates have quickly run out of fuel - and dispatch the creature with ease.

After that, we reach the end of the ruins - massive stylized dragon heads made out of stone emerge from pools of water as I approach a pedestal. But instead of the Horn of Jurgen Windcaller, I only find a note:

"Dragonborn --

I need to speak to you. Urgently.

Rent the attic room at the ----- in -----, and I'll meet you.

-- A friend."

I smile. Suddenly, this has become a lot more interesting than a simple dungeon fetch quest.

And now I remember where I had heard the voice of Farengar's "reliable source" before.

To be continued. Read from the beginning!

Friday, January 2, 2015

Black Horse Dispatches 13 - The Road to Ustengrav

Continued from Dispatch 12 - Tears of a Clown.

When I last visited Skyrim all those years ago, giants only lived in the most remote regions, and I never saw any of them. Now they lair close to the main road heading north from Whiterun, among other places - plain for everyone to see. Fortunately, they do not seem overly aggressive, but the holds are apparently incapable of keeping them away from their trade routes.

Which is also true for a small army of bandits, which is engaged in a skirmish with a Stormcloak patrol - and winning. My murderous minions have no trouble mopping up the survivors, however. A short time later we come across further Stormcloaks who had just finished butchering a group of Impterial soldiers - one of whom is wearing the insignia of the Penitus Oculatus. What was one of their agents doing in this remote part of Skyrim? Double-checking on General Tullius' claims? There must be some serious doubts about the General if this is the case...

It is getting late and I am getting cold - the snow is deep this far north of Whiterun. I decide to ask for shelter at a nearby fort and follow a Stormcloak patrol into it - only to discover that I have stumbled into yet another running battle, as the Fort has been overrun by bandits! To avoid getting mixed up into this skirmish, we barricade ourselves in the local inn, the Stumbling Sabrecat - where we discover that the barkeep has already been slaughtered by the bandits. We put down his murderers, still at the scene, and I spend a few short moments heating up my chilling bones at the fireplace before we press on.

As we exit the fort, we immediately run into another group of bandits - who are, in turn, set upon by a dragon. At first, the monumental beast attacks some stragglers further away, and I focus on the immediate threats closer to me. A big mistake - after I lose sight of the creature for just a few moments, the beast lands almost on top of me, and the sheer impact from its landing throws me into the air like a ragdoll before I land in a distant snowdrift. Fortunately, my minions are quicker on he uptake and after I recover, our volleys of arrows and bolts manage to bring it down.

At the fork of the road, I decide not to press on to Dawnstar - while night has fallen, I still feel fairly warm and Dawnstar would be a huge detour to Ustengrav. Instead, we follow the west road into the direction of Morthal, passing some ancient ruins on the way. But even the night does not stop the skirmishes between the Stormcloaks and the legions - and here, the Stormcloaks are victorious. Their leader wears the same strange, skimpy pink armor which I have seen other women wear - has this armor some special significance?

I soon curse my overconfidence as my limbs begin to freeze, and we manage to find a still-operating mine before they fall off. But just as I start to huddle before the blazing fire, yet another dragon appears, this one dark red in hue. It circles and roars, giving the miners and soldiers time to shake in fear. But as I watch the skies and try to aim at it with my freezing fingers, more figures right out of a nightmare race out of the shadows - black, hound-like things with glowing eyes. Did they arrive with the dragon? No time to think about that - fortunately, my companions quickly slay those creatures.

Now it hovers and breathes... and it breathes frost. Why does it have to be frost? It picks up soldiers and miners one by one, grabbing them and letting them fall to their doom or swallowing them whole. Finally, we manage to bring it down, and I race into the mine supervisor's house to warm myself up - only to get kicked out again. Thus, I spend some time outside, with the miners - who have to sleep in flimsy tents in this cold - and stare at a dead, brutish black hound next to the fire. As I finally feel warm enough and get up, I stumble across another corpse, of a male Altmer... which begins to crumble to dust under my hands.

A vampire!

But I have scarcely time to ponder this discovery as another dragon appears (this one breathing fire, thank the Divines!). It makes the mistake of landing on the roof of the supervisor's house, a spot we can hit easily, and it slides off the roof and falls behind it as its flesh turns into energy and rushes into my soul.

I feel warm again.

From now on, we leave the road and head northwest into the half-frozen swampland surrounding Morthal. Fortunately, we do not disturb any creatures of the swamp on our way - apart from two bandits and a necromancer who lair at the entrance to our destination, and who are quickly dispatched.

And with that, the depths of Ustengrav open to us.

Continued in Dispatch 14 - The Lost Horn of Jurgen Windcaller.

Black Horse Dispatches 12 - Tears of a Clown

Continued from Dispatch 11 - Messages.

After an attack by a trio of Alik'r Warriors (sadly, their corpses did not have any clues on who in Hammerfell was annoyed at my reporting this time, but I have more pressing concerns at the moment anyway) we once again see the same dragon circling above the cliffs down to the White River. I am sure it saw us, but it merely watched us for a while before flying off. Was it reporting to anyone? To whom? Regardless, I felt it prudent not to linger.

Back on the main road, we encounter an elderly orc who felt that it was his time to seek a good, "glorious" death. Well, considering the proliferation of dragons in these parts, he might just get his wish - and hopefully, he will take one of them with him.

To avoid having to walk all the way back to Whiterun, we take a shortcut across Valtheim Towers - I assume that given the bridge spanning the river there must at least be a trail here. But if there ever was a trail, it had long since weathered away. Past a mountain pass we spott a strange, ancient monument on a plateau, similar to the inscriptions I saw in Bleak Falls Barrows - and on top of the monument crouches a pale, nearly translucent dragon. It hasn't spotted us yet, so we double back. South of the mountain was little better - an old ruin lies in our path which is patrolled by black-robed figures, and I think I saw a fire atronach in the distance.

We sneak past them, closer to the river - only to watch a skirmish that unfolded along our new path. Finally, the few survivors - Stormcloak soldiers, as it turned out - wander off. We examine the scene, and it appears that they had fought Imperial soldiers... and two Thalmor justicars. Why had the Thalmor been accompanying an Imperial unit? While the Empire had very reluctantly agreed to let Thalmor operate in the Empire, this did explicitly not extend to protecting them - only noninterference.

Something was very wrong here, but the dead yielded no further clues. However, I decide to relieve the Thalmor of their superior armor, since they were clearly not needing it any more.

Close by is an ancient mound, surrounded by stone monoliths. Unlike the Barrows, there is no entrance, no obvious tunnel complex, so maybe it is a solitary burial ground for a chieftain. It is  surrounded by a circle of roughly-hewn but regular stones, in a pattern that remins me of a seal. I will have to ask a scholar about their meaning.

Then my murderous minions decide it is time for lunch, and slaughter a wild horse that had made the mistake of wandering too closely to our path.

We finally reach the main road coming from Whiterun, and witness a man looking forlornly looking at a wagon with a broken wagon wheel. He dresses as a jester, and after introducing himself as "Cicero" explains that he was transporting the remains of his "poor, sweet mother" to a new location. He remains jocular, in that special clown way that has never been funny, but then I look into his eyes.

And see the gaze of a stone-cold killer, someone who will kill you given only the slightest provocation - or less, perhaps.

Plenty of people have tried to kill me over the years. Many were gloating during their attempts. The faces of others were twisted in fury. Still others saw killing me as a job - "just business". But almost all of them did so from understandable, human motives. The few exceptions still give me nightmares - people who saw killing me, or anyone else for that matter, as nothing more than swatting a fly. For them, there was no point in gloating, or feeling angry at me. That would have meant they saw me as a person they could relate to.

And that jester had that same gaze, a gaze I last saw during that terrible night in Bruma, 13 years ago.

I did not flinch. I did not broadcast the slightest awareness of his true nature. Instead I nodded, smiled, and expressed sympathy at his problem, and agreed to talk to a nearby farmer to help him with the broken wagon. The farmer has his own suspicions, but I manage to appeal to his basic decency and get him to help. This is by far the safest for him - "Cicero" seems invested in his jester personality, and as long as he has no reason to do something drastic, he will probably leave the farmer alone.

"You have? Oh, you have made Cicero so happy! So jubilant and ecstatic! But more! Even more! My mother thanks you!"

I feel a chill racing down my spine at these last four words, and do not linger.

Continued in Dispatch 13: The Road to Ustengrav.