Gathering Clouds, Chapter 3

  • Chapter 3





                     The two never made it to Whiterun.


                They caught up to them on the second day, just on the banks of the White River’s first curve.


                Arngrimur drew his sword, his shield already in his hands. Valesse hooked her fingers inwards, orbs of pure magicka crackling in her palms.


                ‘Did you really think we wouldn’t notice you? You’ve been following us for over a day now. What do you want?’ She demanded.


                The lone figure standing before them shuddered and pointed, hissing, ‘Dovahkiin. Dovahkiin. Dovahkiin dilon…’


                ‘A Dragon Priest,’ Arn growled. ‘I thought they were all dead.’


                ‘Evidently not,’ Valesse said, the glow from her magic giving her face a sinister hue. ‘Let’s rectify that at once.’


                ‘Even a single Dragon Priest can be deadly,’ Arn warned. ‘I should know. Conserve your magicka, you’ll need it. I’ll go for the limbs, keep him busy. Stay back and cover me. Aim for the mask if you can.’


                Arn’s not refusing my help? Valesse’s eyes narrowed. Just how powerful are these Dragon Priests?


                Just as they were about to execute their plan, another two Priests appeared, dropping down to the grassy earth from high in the afternoon sky, making nothing more than a soft whump.


                ‘Three of them,’ Arn muttered, a bead of sweat rolling down his face. ‘Well, I’ve survived worse.’


                Another three descended from the clouds.


                ‘Couldn’t... resist... could you?’ Valesse said through clenched teeth, even as she turned slowly, placing her back against his.


                Instead of replying, Arn drew in a deep breath, his legs bent slightly apart and planted firmly against the ground.


                He’s starting the battle with a Shout, Valesse realised. He’s deadly serious now.


                ‘TIID,’ he yelled. ‘KLO UL!


                Arn’s form twisted unnaturally as he moved, outpacing even his own shadow. He raised his blade, and it was as if he gripped twenty swords instead of one. A silver blur was all Valesse saw as he struck everywhere at once.


                The Dragon Priests let out a collective shriek as hundreds of slashes rent their bodies, tearing their robes to fluttering rags and shattering some of the golden scales mounted on their shoulders and chests. A loud, continuous ringing filled the air.


                For a moment, Valesse was sure that nothing could have survived such an onslaught. Then she noticed how orange sparks flew off the masks whenever Arn struck at their heads, and dread crept up her throat.


                All too soon, the Shout wore off and Arn reappeared at her side, dishevelled and breathing hard. ‘Damn them all. I don’t recall ever coming across masks like that before – all my blows just glanced off.’


                Valesse thrust her hands to either side, peppering the surrounding area with bolts of amber light, keeping the enemy from regaining their bearings. The Priests fell back, disoriented.


                ‘How did you defeat them before? Quickly now!’


                ‘Destroying the mask usually works,’ Arn said, his brow furrowed. ‘There were the ones with masks of ebony and corundum, though. I had to spend entire days cutting them to pieces so fine they scattered in the wind.’


                Disintegration, then. She thought to herself, running through different strategies in her head. I should’ve practiced more Shock magic.


                Before she could put any of her plans in action, however, the Dragon Priest directly in front of her recovered and raised its index finger. The thin digit vibrated forcefully and a spear of ice spat from the tip.


                As a High Elf, Valesse was naturally lithe and graceful, but the child in her belly slowed her down. She scrambled backwards as quickly as she could and would still have been impaled, had Arn not blocked the projectile with his shield.


                ‘Any thoughts?’ He asked grimly, eyes fixed on their spectral opponents.


                ‘Some,’ she replied. ‘But whatever I do next, I’m going to need time.’


                ‘You have as much of it as I have breath in my body.’


                And with that, Arn charged forward once more, the steel in his hand gleaming. He bashed one Priest upside the head with his shield, then spun and jabbed another in the seemingly empty gap between the mask and the neck. The only response was a dry chuckle. Arn had already moved on, though. He darted to and fro among the six, always keeping close to at least one, distracting them and at the same time keeping them from using magic carelessly.


                Valesse closed her eyes and strove to clear her mind of all stray thoughts. She moved her arms in a slow circle, focusing on gathering as much latent magicka from Aetherius as possible. The power converged around her hands, becoming tendrils of white-hot flame.


                Arn felt the heat on his back and knew immediately what she meant to do. He renewed his assault with increased vigour, kicking and screaming insults, drawing as much attention to himself as he could.


                The Priests soon grew tired of the loud Nord and began bombarding him with spells, disregarding each other’s safety. Scores of lightning bolts slammed into his shield, forcing him back and away from Valesse.


                ‘Are you quite done yet?’ he shouted.


                Valesse raised both hands above her head, her entire body now wreathed in fire. ‘Ready,’ she cried. ‘Take cover!’


                ‘Wuld!’ Arn hissed, flying forward and disappearing into the White as the air around him snapped like a whip.


                The Priests turned to face her just as she slapped her burning hands onto the ground. The Destruction spell of Fire Storm required a level of mastery few possessed, and was said to rival dragonflame itself. Valesse cast it now. An explosion of heat and light burst from the ground, with her as the epicentre of the whirling inferno. Arn felt the blast even from the bottom of the river. He waited for the spots to fade from his eyes, then rose from the water.


                Valesse sat wearily on a patch of barren, smoking earth, the ground around her completely blackened for fifty feet around. Six masks, cracked and steaming, lay on the ground. Not even ashes were left of the owners.


                ‘You,’ Arn said as he walked towards her. ‘Are the most amazing, powerful, beautiful, amazingly powerful and beautiful woman I have ever had the fortune to – ‘


                ‘Oh, be quiet, you.’ Valesse stood up, her cheeks flushed, and planted a kiss full on his lips. ‘That just took every drop out of me and I’ll need to recover as much magicka as I can, so I’d appreciate it if you didn’t cause any more fluctuations in my heart rate.’


                They sat beside each other for a while, waiting for the exhaustion to leave their limbs. Arn was the first back on his feet. He crouched and examined the masks.


                ‘There must be more of them. These masks look like part of a larger set, and these six seemed rather poorly prepared for a fight. They must have been scouts.’


                ‘Poorly prepared? Please tell me you’re jesting.’


                ‘Be thankful none of the six were properly geared with battle robes and dragon staves,’ he said darkly. ‘If the Priests have returned, this bodes ill. What could they be after?’


                ‘Probably not me,’ Valesse shrugged. ‘I’ve never had dealings with creatures like that before.’


                ‘They're most likely after my head, then,’ Arn declared. He turned and opened his mouth, but before he could utter a single word, Valesse spoke first.




                ‘You haven’t even heard me yet.’


                ‘Still a no.’






                ‘If you’ll just–’


                ‘I won’t let you go off on your own to face those… things.’ She said furiously.


                ‘I wasn’t about to.’


                Valesse blinked. ‘What?’


                ‘As much as I hate to admit it, we stand a much better chance when we’re together,’ Arn took his helmet off and shook it dry. ‘No, I’m worried about the baby. We can forget facing the Priests until he’s born, it’s too risky. For both of you.’


                He’s right for once, Valesse thought to herself, struggling to her feet against the weight of her child. Another week or two and I’ll be unable to fight at all.


                ‘Well then, what do you suggest?’ She asked. ‘Continue on to Whiterun as we originally planned?’


                ‘No, the city’s too open. The guards won’t be able to do anything to stop them from dropping in from thin air, and imagine how vulnerable you’d be, lying down on a bed in the Temple. No… we need a more secure place to hide, somewhere hard to find, with both conventional and magical protection, a competent team of healers, and a veritable army housed within.’


                ‘Very specific. This is unlike you,’ Valesse commented. ‘I take it you’ve just the place in mind, then?’


                ‘That I do, aye,’ Arn nodded. ‘We’ll have to hurry, though. The place I speak of lies a great distance away, on the border between Skyrim and Cyrodiil, in the ranges of the Jerall Mountains far to the northeast of Bruma.’


                ‘I’ve heard of those areas,’ Valesse frowned. ‘Aren’t they populated with murderous warlords, constantly vying for scraps of territory?’


                ‘Indeed they are,’ Arn said, a look of surprise on his face. ‘I suppose I shouldn’t be so shocked that you know of them, but still…’


                ‘Therin of Mournhold once made mention of “fierce-eyed barbarians roaming across the peaks, occasionally pushing downwards towards Cyrodiil, burning and pillaging” in his work Unexplored Heights and Depths of Tamriel. The book was altogether unimpressive, to be honest.’


                ‘You’re not seriously telling me you remembered this exact sentence from some dusty old tome that you found “altogether unimpressive”?’ He demanded.


                ‘Never mind that,’ she said, waving her hand impatiently. ‘More importantly, why would you think that we’d be safe hiding there? Even if we managed to clamber up the rocky, icy slopes, if all we have to look forward to are feuding clans of bandits…’


                ‘Ah, but you see,’ Arn raised a finger. ‘Those mountain ranges are home to more than just warlords. On the sheer, flat top of Mount Furiya lies the Village under the Shadow of the Moons, or the Tsukikage no Sato in the Eastern Akaviri tongue.’


                Valesse made a face. ‘What a mouthful. I never knew you spoke Akaviri. Or that there were different variations of the language.’


                ‘I picked up a few smatterings, though I am by no means fluent. Returning to the topic at hand,’ Arn continued. ‘Don’t let the word “village” fool you. Tsukikage is just as large as the hold capitals of Skyrim. And unlike the capitals, it’s protected with high walls, a naturally defensible position, and layers upon layers of enchantments.’


                ‘It sounds almost too good to be true.’ Valesse murmured.


                ‘Well, the village is one thing, the people inside are another. They’re quite suspicious of outsiders.’ A lopsided grin spread over Arn’s face. ‘Fortunately, one of them owes me a favour.’


                ‘Does everyone from half of Tamriel owe you favours of some form or the other? And who are these “people” you’re going on about?’


                Arn’s grin widened. ‘Let’s get a move on, I’ll tell you on the way.’ He pulled a map from his pack, tapping at several places. ‘First stop is here, then here, where the White meets the Darkwater. Hopefully we can get there in a week, then we’ll follow the river to Ivarstead…’


                The journey was long and arduous, but Valesse took no notice, so absorbed she was in learning of the village. Arn told her all he knew over the course of the weeks.


                ‘To understand the origins of Tsukikage, we must first go back almost two thousand years ago, to the Akaviri Invasion of Tamriel, around the late 27th and early 28th centuries of the First Era. If you’ll remember, after a decade of war, Reman Cyrodiil defeated them at long last.’


                Valesse smiled to herself. Between the drinking and the swashbuckling, she’d forgotten that Arngrimur was almost as learned as she was, more so when it came to military history.


                ‘I do remember. The Akaviri troops surrendered, and to bolster his own forces, Reman offered them amnesty in exchange for their services. Thus the Akaviri samurai and Dragonguard were integrated into the Imperial Legion, bringing with them their martial prowess and weaponry, as well as forming the Emperor’s own elite fighting force, the Blades.’


                ‘Very good,’ Arn said. ‘But surely an empire that managed to conquer a continent as large as Akavir would have had more diversity in their ranks than just their versions of knights and bodyguards?’


                ‘That’s rhetorical, I assume.’


                ‘Nothing gets past you as usual,’ Arn muttered. ‘The invaders had a second caste of warriors – and I say “warriors” in the loosest sense of the word – that lurked unseen and unheard behind the Akaviri main forces. They were known as shinobi.’


                ‘Sheen-o-bee?’ Valesse tried to pronounce the word. ‘I’ve never heard the word before.’


                ‘The closest translation would mean “hidden ones” or “walker of shadows”. Modern interpretations of Akaviri samurai see them acting on the forefront of the battlefield, often clashing with enemy forces one-on-one, sometimes even settling entire battles with a single duel. They placed the utmost emphasis on honour and chivalry, which is why they’ve oft been compared with Tamrielic knights.


                ‘Any commander worth his station should know that you can’t win a war by being polite, and that’s where the shinobi come in. The word has no direct equivalent in our languages, but it denotes spies, saboteurs, and occasional assassins, focusing on avoiding large-scale conflicts, collecting intelligence, and, when the situation required it, eliminating key targets to sow confusion and despair among the enemy ranks. They were half the reason the war dragged on for over ten years.


                ‘The Akaviri – more specifically, the Tsaesci leaders of the armies – were proud by nature, and considered such tactics dishonourable and beneath them, so they kindly delegated the job to the “lesser race” of the Po’ Tun, or the Ka Po’ Tun as they are known nowadays.’


                ‘Mysterious Akavir describes them as Tiger-Cat-People, and that they were mortal enemies of the Tsaesci. Given the extremely informal and deliberately sensational tone of the book, however, I took it with a pinch of... no, a few bowlfuls of salt. If everything in the book is to be believed - well, you've read the thing.’ Valesse snorted.


                ‘Hmm. It’s true that the Po’ Tun bear a striking resemblance to the Khajiit, except that their fur was varying shades of black, grey and white. As to being enemies of the Tsaesci, I cannot say what it’s like in Akavir now, but in the First Era they did cooperate, if not freely. As I said, though, they were considered an inferior people to the Tsaesci.


                ‘Over the course of the war, the Po’ Tun never numbered over a thousand, but each one of the shinobi was trained from birth in the arts of stealth, magic and combat. I’ve seen their practice regimens myself… though if possible they wouldn’t have fought at all.


                ‘As you can imagine, these agents of shadow terrified the men of Reman’s army. They would go to sleep one night, only to find their captain dead in the morning. Strange black blurs would flit across their vision, and moments later they would find their rations burning.’ Arn gathered his thoughts for a while, then continued.


                ‘In the beginning, the ranks of the shinobi consisted only of the Po’ Tun. Their campaign began well enough, with the Akaviri troops catching the forces of Tamriel off guard, creating plenty of openings for the shinobi. They soon found, however, that their unfamiliarity with the land hindered their progress and greatly increased the risk of their missions. Furthermore, since the Akaviri arrived from the north, many battles were fought at sea. The Po’ Tun were not inclined towards water, and couldn’t be of much help to the Tsaesci navy. So they sought help from one of the native peoples of Tamriel that has always had a history of animosity with the others.


                ‘They picked out the select few Argonians that had a natural affinity for stealth and agility, and trained them in their ways, inducting them into their order. Sadly, the Tsaesci looked down upon the Argonians even more than they did the Po’ Tun, viewing them as a mockery of their own race, with their dull scales and studded tails.


                ‘The shinobi forces from then on divided into two sections – the Po’ Tun, who struck almost with impunity from every dark corner of the land, became known as the Shadeclaws; while the Argonians, who operated at sea and combined their inborn aquatic prowess with shinobi teachings, were dubbed the Shadowscales.


                ‘Even for all their caution and precision, however, the shinobi couldn’t hold back the tide. In the year 1E 2703, Reman Cyrodiil the First trapped the invaders in the Jerall Mountains. Surrounded and boxed in by the sheer numbers of the Imperial Legion, the Akaviri fought and lost the Battle of Pale Pass. What came next is history, as they say.’


                ‘And the Po’ Tun?’ Valesse asked, though she had an inkling of what happened.


                Arn paused, then answered, albeit in a roundabout manner. ‘The Akaviri were defeated in early 2703, but their warriors and the Dragonguard were only formally inducted into the Legion by the end of 2704. Have you ever wondered what Reman I was doing during those two years?’


                ‘He was hunting shinobi,’ Valesse breathed. ‘Of course.’


                ‘Precisely. Having not been present at Pale Pass, the Shadeclaws vanished into the mountains, now familiar with the terrain. Reman, by then, had heard of the shinobi from the Akaviri upper echelon under his new command, and knew who was behind the mysterious incidents that had plagued his forces throughout the war. The man who later became worshipped as a god of war would never have allowed a thread as loose as this to go unattended. Along with his army, which had doubled in size – ‘


                ‘I thought the Legion already greatly outnumbered the Akaviri forces.’ Valesse interrupted.


                ‘That they did,’ Arn said, irritated. ‘But Reman went on to conquer Valenwood and the Summerset Isles, and not only the Akaviri had joined the Legion’s ranks. Now, as I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted…


                ‘Along with his army, which had doubled in size, he returned to the Jeralls, sweeping every nook and cranny of the mountains in the largest game of hide-and-seek in history.’


                ‘And the Shadeclaws managed to avoid him for almost two years?’ Valesse said, impressed.


                ‘They’d have remained hidden longer, even, had Reman not brought with him Akaviri representatives. Shadeclaw scouts noted the Tsaesci generals walking alongside him almost as friends. The shinobi Grandmaster, weary of war, deduced that he desired peace as much as they did, and so set out to meet the new Emperor. She made a decidedly showy entrance by appearing suddenly from a puff of smoke in Reman’s tent one night as he sat down to dinner.’


                Valesse giggled. ‘I like her flair.’


                ‘To the Emperor’s credit, he remained completely unfazed and invited her to join him for a meal,’ Arn said, chortling. ‘That’s what they claim, at least. And so, over the table, Reman and the Grandmaster negotiated the terms of their surrender. Reman offered complete amnesty, an Imperial stipend and the works, in exchange for the Shadeclaws’ loyalty and service.


                ‘The Grandmaster, who had grown to love the peace and tranquillity of the mountains and to enjoy not having to obey the whims of the Tsaesci, made a counter-offer. The Shadeclaws would remain on friendly terms with the Empire and never again threaten Tamriel, but in return, five leagues of the Jerall Mountains would be granted to them to do with as they see fit, and they would be allowed to retain their independence.


                ‘I don’t think anyone before or since has bargained with Reman so boldly, and he must have thought it a delightful change of pace. The Grandmaster had also chosen a fine period for aggressive negotiation, given the instability of Reman's fledgeling Empire. The Emperor agreed to her terms, though I daresay he regretted not having the Shadeclaws at his disposal many times during his later years.


                ‘The Shadeclaws regrouped and got to work, building a permanent stronghold on the flattened peak of a particularly steep mountain, which they named Mount Furiya after the Grandmaster. Over time, the stronghold grew to encompass the entire summit, becoming the Village Under the Shadow of the Moons, and there the Shadeclaw shinobi have dwelt for nearly two millennia, hidden from the rest of the world, their existence known only to the Emperor and a select few individuals.’


                Valesse nodded. ‘I believe I can guess what became of the Shadowscales, given their... current reputation.’


                ‘Aye, and an unfortunate tale it is at that.’ Arn sighed. ‘Cut off from all communications with the Akaviri and separated from the Po’ Tun, the only allies they ever had, they were hounded all across the Sea of Ghosts and the oceans beyond by the Imperial Navy. It is said that the Imperial battlemages devised spells with the specific purpose of scouring large swaths of water. Nine out of ten of the Argonian shinobi did not survive. The leader of the order at the time, one Tusok Shrouded-In-Rain, ordered a desperate retreat. I’m still not quite sure I believe this next part, but if true, Tusok was an incredible man, and possibly the last and greatest hero of the Shadowscales.


                ‘Under his leadership, the remaining shinobi actually swam all the way around the continent, back to Black Marsh, where, sadly, Tusok committed suicide, disembowelling himself in some forgotten Akaviri rite of defeat. Each generation of Shadowscales mingled more and more with the local scum and banished criminals from the Empire, while also becoming increasingly mired in ritual and superstition. Today they’ve all but forgotten their roots, and are little more than a band of cutthroats – an insult to their once proud ancestors.’


                Valesse shivered as she imagined a tall, quiet Argonian, robes undone, head bowed in shame, plunging a blade into his stomach. ‘How do you know all of this?’


                ‘I heard quite a lot of rumours and whispers when I was a Legate in the Legion. You become privy to all sorts of secrets when you get to the higher ranks. First and foremost, though, it’s because I saved a Shadeclaw’s life years ago, when he was on a mission in Hammerfell.’ Arn thrust his chest out proudly. ‘We became good friends.’


                ‘They’re still active?’ Valesse was shocked. ‘I thought they promised the Emperor – ‘


                ‘Never again to threaten Tamriel, yes,’ Arn replied. ‘And they kept their word. Each Grandmaster since Furiya has practiced strict policies against expansionism, even going as far as to restrict their birth rates with magic to ensure that their population stays under two thousand. But the Shadeclaws are still spies and assassins, and on occasion, the Empire would request their help. Sometimes to quell a bloody insurrection, or to gather information on otherwise inaccessible locations, others times even to rescue kidnapped members of state.


                ‘They’ve had a great deal of influence on the development of other cultures, too. Some say that the Khajiit of Elsweyr incorporated the use of honorifics in their own tongue after meeting with Po’ Tun scholars, who also passed on the claw-oriented martial arts of Goutfang, Rawlith Khaj and Whispering Fang. Still others claim that the Shadeclaws played a significant role in the formation of Morrowind’s modern Grand Council.’


                ‘Aren’t they independent of the Empire, though?’


                ‘They are,’ Arn said. ‘Notice that I said “request”, and not “command”. The Emperor himself bows when meeting the Grandmaster of the Shadeclaws.’


                ‘Truly?’ Valesse asked, eyes wide. ‘That’s a phenomenal amount of respect.’


                ‘Indeed it is, but well-deserved. You’ll see what I mean if you get a chance to meet the Grandmaster.’


                ‘How did this particular Shadeclaw come to owe you his life, then?’


                ‘He… I…’ Arn fidgeted. ‘Please don’t laugh?’




                He pressed his lips together for a while, then said suddenly, ‘He was struck by lightning while picking flowers.’


                Valesse stared at Arn. His face was straight, but he looked away uncomfortably.


                Oh gods he’s telling the truth.


                She burst into laughter, her shoulders shaking.


                Arn pushed his chin out and pretended to be hurt, preserving his dignity while soaking in her pleasant, tinkling voice.


                ‘All right, I’m sorry,’ Valesse wiped her finger on her eye and hugged him from behind. ‘I’m sorry. I just wasn’t expecting something like that, a great “walker of shadows” getting hit with a bolt from the blue while frolicking in the fields of Hammerfell…’ She bit her tongue to stop herself from laughing again. ‘What’s his name?’ She asked, to keep herself distracted.


                ‘Jorra,’ Arn said, his lips beginning to twitch as well. ‘I can’t tell if Nocturnal has it in for him or not. He was dressed in normal clothing and looked for all the world like a humble Khajiit enjoying life. I was going through the plains of Belkarth after uncovering a Word Wall in the area, and I’d have passed right by him without batting an eye. Then out of nowhere this lightning bolt zigzags through the clear sky and blasts him right off his feet.’


                Valesse pushed her mouth into her fist, trying hard to stop air from escaping.


                ‘I ran over to him to see if he was alright. He was knocked unconscious and his fur was singed, but he was still breathing, so I carried him into town to find a healer. Unbelievably, the man was up on his feet after just five minutes or so of a basic spell of healing, the kind even I could do. The healer hadn’t even begun to get to the “actual work” as she put it, and was just looking to soothe his muscles and prevent tissue damage. He got up, stood straight, his hands to the side, and bowed at a ninety-degree angle to the healer, who waved at me, flustered, and told him that it was me that carried him to the hospice.


                ‘He turned to me, then bowed so low he almost hit the ground with his head. By now I was just plain embarrassed, so I told him he could buy me a drink or maybe a snack at the local inn to pay me back. I was half-joking, but he took it so seriously that he dragged me to one of the most expensive restaurants in Belkarth to lunch on Taneth Roast Boar.


                ‘I was really beginning to like this Jorra fellow, so I called for a bottle of Colovian ‘74 with my usual discerning eye and we played a hand of cards over it. Then when it came time to pay the bill, he found out that he didn’t have money on him. I sighed melodramatically and reached for my pocket. I then remembered that I had spent almost all my money on ale yesterday night and had exactly three septims left. So we ended up spending a night in the Belkarth dungeons.’


                ‘Classic,’ Valesse chuckled. ‘You should have married him instead.’


                ‘Anyway, we had to share a cell with a group of five Redguard thugs, who were unsurprisingly not keen on sleeping next to a scrawny cat and a stinking barbarian. They were picking on Jorra first, probably because he looked weaker. He smiled and humoured their insults, but when they started getting threatening… well…’ Arn scratched his head. ‘Actually I still don’t quite know what he did. It looked like he just prodded them in several spots along the head and neck, and then they collapsed to the ground, snoring.’


                ‘He must have targeted specific clusters of nerves with his claws,’ Valesse mused. ‘Those men are lucky he didn’t poke them harder.’


                ‘I suppose so. At any rate, the guards came in the next day to let us out, then saw the gang lying passed out on the floor with foam running from their mouths. They locked us back in for another week. By the end of it me and Jorra had become fast friends. Shadeclaws are exceedingly polite, and especially so to trusted allies - it's in their culture. Associates can sometimes even visit Tsukikage for a day or two. On the other hand, though, their existence remains a guarded secret, and they expect you to keep it that way. Frankly, it makes things a little awkward.’


                ‘And yet you’re telling me?’ Valesse reprimanded. ‘You ought to take such things more seriously.’


                ‘You were the one who started laughing at poor Jorra getting struck with lightning. And I’m taking you there anyway, so you might as well know where you’re going.


                Arn lapsed into silence, until Valesse could bear it no longer.


                ‘Well, is that it? Nothing about how much of Akaviri customs they retained? What do they eat up on the mountain? What does the village look like?’


                ‘I don’t know how similar they are to the ancient Akaviri since I’ve never been to Akavir before. They do act differently from the other races of Tamriel, though, I can tell you that. They use Tamrielic as their main language, and are no longer as fluent in Akaviri, though they still practice it along with Akaviri calligraphy as a point of pride. I mentioned their use of honorifics before, which they add at the end of names to vary their degrees of respect when addressing people of different social positions. Food is mostly light, with slaughterfish and salmon caught from the mountain streams and lakes, served both raw and in various broths, some kind of moss or weed, mushrooms, a savoury black sauce fermented from soy for seasoning, and enchanted rice that grows even in snow. On special occasions they hunt for wild game and make a large stew. The village is surrounded by a large wall of stone, fortified with numerous spells that give it a slight glow, while the village itself is filled with buildings of wood and bamboo – ‘


                ‘How are the Shadeclaws trained? What abilities do they have? Do they use magic similar to ours?’


                ‘The Shadeclaws are taught everything from arithmetic and biology to martial arts and combat tactics. I don’t know the depth of their abilities myself, but they are some of the strongest and fastest sentient beings I’ve ever seen. They use Rendanshu, some form of Akaviri alchemy, to enhance their bodies far beyond their natural limits. I’ve heard Rikke mention how they could traverse thousands of leagues within mere minutes, though that’s probably an exaggerated myth borne out of their tendency to show up at just the right place at the right time, which I'd hazard a guess is more of a testament to their intelligence-gathering abilities. I’ve no idea what kind of magic they use as I’m not an expert and they don’t exactly bandy spells about. The usual fireballs and lightning bolts, sure, but Jorra says that they don’t encourage the use of spell tomes – ‘


                ‘How long do the Po’ Tun usually live? Do they mature more quickly like the Khajiit? What do you know of their use of alchemy?’


                ‘The Po’ Tun are slightly longer-lived than men and shorter-lived than mer, and can easily expect to reach one hundred and fifty years of age, if not two hundred. They grow at around the rate of average humanoids, and reach physical maturity around sixteen or seventeen, though they are considered adults only at nineteen. I know next to nothing about their alchemy – ‘


                ‘What kind of weapons do they use? How often do they undertake missions? Do they have any dealings with the warlords around them?’


                ‘Shor on a mammoth!’ Arn cried, flinging up his arms. ‘I’d forgotten how much you enjoyed torturing me with questions!’


                ‘You said it yourself, I should get to know where I’m going,’ Valesse said innocently, then leant close to his ear and hissed in a demonic whisper, ‘Don’t expect mercy.’

                She grilled, bombarded and fired away at him for well over a month, all the way to the middle of the Jeralls, stopping only to sleep and to fight off the Dragon Priests, whom they came across twice more, but in smaller numbers. This afternoon, however, she was eerily quiet, which both relieved and worried Arn.


                ‘Have a care, the rock here is covered with ice under a layer of snow.’


                Valesse nodded.


                ‘Are you hungry?’ He asked. ‘We still have food in our sacks.’


                ‘Mm.’ She shook her head.




                ‘No, don’t worry.’


                ‘If your feet are sore, we can stop for a moment.’


                ‘I’m fine.’


                ‘Are you sure?’


                ‘Mhm.’ She nodded again.


                ‘I feel like we switched places all of a sudden,’ he joked. ‘Don’t worry, we should reach Mount Furiya within the day.’


                Arn took her hand and helped her up a particularly steep ledge, taking care not to put pressure on her abdomen. They continued for a little while longer, until Valesse was panting heavily.


                ‘Right, we’re stopping,’ he said. ‘We’ll make it there soon enough, and I won’t have you walk yourself and the baby to death.’


                She swayed on the spot and nodded gratefully. Arn turned to the slope above him, mapping out a safe path in his head. Then he heard Valesse shout in warning.


                He spun, sword already in his hand, cloak flying off his shoulders.


                A man he could only describe as a heavily armoured troll with a braided beard loomed before him, a two-handed axe planted between his feet. Three more men accompanied him, though they looked nervous. Sweat beaded their lips, even as a frigid wind sent sleet billowing through the air.


                ‘This is my territory, outlander,’ he boomed. ‘State your business.’


                ‘Your territory?’ Arn said, an incredulous smile on his face. ‘Are you certain?’


                The man roared and reared back, his dwarven plate clanking. ‘All the mountains of these parts are mine. Mine! My name is Ungol, son of Ungol, and I own all the Jeralls from east to west!’


                ‘It’s very nice to meet you, Ungol Ungolsson,’ Arn managed not to roll his eyes. ‘But is it safe for us to speak here? I hear tell that this particular mountain is haunted.’


                ‘Aye, haunted, haunted it is!’ One of Ungol’s footmen nodded hard. Arn noticed that he was beginning to shake. ‘Ghostly lights can be seen near the peak, and those who wander near disappear, never to be found again. We should not be wandering here, Ungol, sir, begging your pardon – ‘


                ‘I’ll have no more of your superstitious nonsense!’ Ungol’s beard shook and spittle flew from his mouth. ‘This is no place for the weak or faint of heart. Anyone can easily fall to their deaths, or freeze, or starve.’


                ‘But the ghosts, sir! On days when they’re angry, they swoop into our midst and carry men away, sometimes even striking them dead on the spot!’ Another lackey stammered. ‘That’s how Darrin met his end, I know it, and just last week Morgen vanished from his bed – ‘


                ‘ENOUGH!’ Ungol hefted his axe. ‘THE NEXT MAN TO SPEAK OF GHOSTS LOSES HIS TONGUE!’


                There was a brief moment of silence, and then Arn could hold himself back no longer.


                ‘Boo,’ he sniggered.


                Ungol’s face swelled with rage, and he lifted his axe above his head. Quick as a rabbit, Arn leapt backwards. Then he noticed one of the shadows behind a nearby rock seem to shift ever so slightly, and he smiled to himself.


                There was a rapid series of light thwacks. Two of the footmen shuddered, corpses even before they keeled over. A pair of dark silhouettes flitted from either side of the rock, apparently devoid of shape or form. Ungol’s final man covered his eyes and shrieked.


                ‘The ghosts, the ghosts are here, they’re coming for us – ‘


                ‘Be quiet,’ Ungol growled, and swung his axe at one of the shadows. The axe-bit whooshed, cutting through empty air. Both shades vanished. Ungol gaped, then a hole appeared in his right temple. A small amount of blood seeped from the wound and he collapsed, mouth working for a while, then expired on the ground. The lackey started sobbing, pleading for help from all the Aedra and Daedra. He was halfway across the list when a gloved hand appeared behind his shoulder, grasping a strange, rhombus-bladed dagger made of a dark grey metal, with a large ring of the same material for a pommel. The hand thrust sideways, burying the dagger into his ear, right up to its cloth-wrapped hilt. The footman twitched once and pitched face first into the snow. A humanoid figure stood in his place, clad in a black, hooded tunic. The figure raised its head, revealing dark grey fur.


                Valesse found her breath again.


                ‘Greetings,’ Arn raised a hand. ‘If you haven’t seen me before, don’t worry. I’m a friend of Jorra’s…’


                ‘We know who you are, Arngrimur-do.’ The second Shadeclaw emerged from the same rock they were hiding behind a moment ago, his voice pleasant and modulated. ‘Though I’m a little hurt you don’t recognise us.’


                When did he…?


                ‘Well, you’ve the annoying habit of covering your faces with cowls and hoods whenever you go outside,’ Arn said defensively. ‘Isn’t not getting recognised why you wear those things in the first place?’


                ‘Just so,’ the Shadeclaw with the dagger chuckled, his tones even softer than his comrade’s. ‘And leave the poor man alone, Kenshiki. He must have travelled wide and far. His boots are all worn.’


                ‘Kenshiki?’ Arn said, eyebrows raised. ‘Then you must be Gingaki. The two of you still on guard duty?’


                ‘As we always are,’ Kenshiki pulled his cowl from his face. His fur was a tawny shade of brown. ‘Perhaps in another ten years we will entrust the western wall to the new sentinels, but they still have much to learn.’


                ‘And I assume this is your lovely wife Valesse?’ Gingaki asked, bowing deep. ‘Jorra-jo has told us of your betrothal. My heartiest congratulations.’


                Valesse struggled to return the bow, her swollen abdomen bulging, and Gingaki said hurriedly, ‘Please, do not strain yourself, Valesse-ko.’


                ‘I see you have been busy,’ Kenshiki remarked dryly, then continued in a more serious tone, ‘I’m afraid we will likely not be allowed to let Valesse-ko inside. Do not mistake me. We are, all of us, happy for you both. But Tsukikage is not a birthing chamber - or a tourist attraction. I cannot fathom why you thought bringing your wife here would be a good idea, especially in her condition.’


                ‘It’s a long story,’ Arn replied. ‘But we are both in danger. Dragon Priests pursue us. I can’t and I won’t abandon my wife, and facing the Priests before she gives birth is out of the question. Please. Help us.’ There was a tinge of desperation in his voice.


                Gingaki and Kenshiki frowned at each other. ‘Dragon... Priests? I have read of them. This complicates matters.’


                ‘Perhaps the Grandmaster would be willing to make an exception? It is Arngrimur-do after all…’


                ‘Takarro-ri is lenient, but even so, sometimes rules are simply rules.’


                ‘If these rules dictate that we are to turn pregnant women away from our doors – what is that smell?’


                Kenshiki stopped, and sniffed. He looked past Arn and his eyes widened.


                Valesse’s face was clammy and deathly pale, her breaths coming in ragged gasps. The bottom of her robes were soaked through. She shivered, and a fresh gush of fluid pooled between her legs.


                Arn went insane.


                ‘IT BROKE BY TALOS IT BROKE,’ he grabbed Kenshiki by the collar and shook. ‘IT BROKE IT BROKE IT BROKE IT BROKE IT BROKE…’


                ‘Arngrimur-do. Arngrimur-do!’ Gingaki said as Kenshiki’s head lolled back and forth. ‘Calm yourself, Arngrimur-do!’ He reached out and pinched Arn lightly behind the ear and on the side of the neck.


                Arn stumbled, dazed, and released Kenshiki, who was even more dazed.


                ‘Damn it, you two, I’m taking her to the village whether you approve of it or not. I’ll go through you if I have to.’


                The shinobi exchanged another glance, then nodded in unison. They both picked up Valesse by one arm and began to run, their feet barely making prints in the soft snow, motioning for Arn to follow.


                A thousand years of weight dropped from his face, and he sprinted behind them, his dizziness forgotten. When he fell behind, he used the Thu’um to race ahead. The Shadeclaws tilted their heads in curiosity.


                The last flicker of sunlight vanished from the night sky. Masser and Secunda rose bright, illuminating a silver wall of coldly flickering stone. A gate of moonstone lay under an arch in the wall, the Akaviri glyph for ‘Shadow’ carved on the left, and the glyph for ‘Moon’ on the right.


                They had arrived at Tsukikage.















4 Comments   |   Karver the Lorc and 3 others like this.
  • Caladran
    Caladran   ·  July 24, 2018
    Those dragon priests are bothersome! I'm glad they arrived to a safe place. Lots of details in this chapter. :)
  • ilanisilver
    ilanisilver   ·  March 8, 2018
    Wow, Valesse is the woman making that journey while pregnant. When I had my daughter, by the 7th month I could barely bend over. Very cool descriptions of the Akaviri and everything else here. Intriguing. 
  • SpookyBorn2021
    SpookyBorn2021   ·  August 17, 2017
    Now this is a chapter, full of lore, full of discussion, but still full of jokes. I really do like the picture you've painted of Tsukikage and the Akavari, Shinobi, etc. So I'm assuming that this is going to be largely based off of Japanese culture? Or at...  more
    • The Sunflower Manual
      The Sunflower Manual
      Now this is a chapter, full of lore, full of discussion, but still full of jokes. I really do like the picture you've painted of Tsukikage and the Akavari, Shinobi, etc. So I'm assuming that this is going to be largely based off of Japanese culture? Or at...  more
        ·  August 17, 2017
      I like to think that I'm expanding on the original East Asian overtures that Akaviri culture has in the Elder Scrolls games. Nothing too lore-breaking, I hope. As for Sonaak, yes, it means Priest in Dovahzul. I'm sure you can find a translator online. Per...  more