Laid to Rest, a Vitus and Friends Tale

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     ***Advisory: This story contains graphic violence, sexual content, drug use, profanity, and terrible humor***

     

    Photo Credit: Elderscrolls Fandom.

     

    Author's note: So I actually started writing this way back in 2017 for Halloween, but… life. I managed to periodically blow the dust off this to work on it over the years and this short about a small side quest expanded into a 17.4k word monster. I’m too lazy to post this as multiple chapters, but I did at least break it into more eight more digestible parts. I tried to make a table of contents, but the source code for intradocument links wasn't working :-/

     

    Part 1

     

    “…then finally she slept the small death and I took the key from between her heaving, lily-white breasts with the care to make Nocturnal proud. Then as quiet as a mouse, I rolled off the silken sheets to open the chest only to find…”

     

    Vitus leaned forward so only his face would be lit by the camp fire and looked between his two companions, still in their full plate mail. The streaks of silver invading his beard reflected the light of the flames; he’d long given up the clean shaven Imperial look, perhaps all the time around Nords and Khajiit warriors was rubbing off on him (quite possibly literally), but he still couldn’t stop himself from keeping it trim with clean lines. Neither friend was leaning back against the ring of Standing Stones anymore, worn smooth by the eons, anymore; both were hanging off his every word with dilated eyes. Lydia had stopped massaging the venom out of the dead frost spider across her lap—taken from one of the many corpses now forming a second perimeter outside the firelight—and a skooma pipe hung limply from Kharjo’s mouth. Only the smell of whatever Kharjo was cooking beginning to burn reminded Vitus of the suspense he left hanging in the air. He resumed the story, but if felt like his tongue was moving at a delay to the words he spoke.

     

    “Only to find there had never been any rum.” Vitus paused to let his tongue catch up like an odd echo to his thoughts. “It had been milk all along!”

     

    The Nord and Khajiit both gasped in terror.

     

    “You’d… you did…that… with a milk drinker!” Lydia said with her face skewed in disgust.

     

    “By the Twin moons, no rum! This is a tragedy too great to bear!” Kharjo lamented to the skies.

     

    “Aye, it was no small miracle I survived to tell the tale,” Vitus said with solemn remorse then joined the grey and white Khajiit in gazing up at the stars flickering between the passing clouds.

     

    Gnarled trees with branches that had long given up seeking those stars hung overhead in a hollow canopy of skeletal fingers. Naked to their fate, save for the most stubborn of leaves, the trees stood sentinel in the Great Marshe. The tops of the trees swayed and groaned in a mockery of life in time to the passing of the North Wind, but the bite of winter never reached the earth here. It was here where the world’s secrets turned to mulch, releasing a heat that transformed the cold air into a perpetual fog.

     

    “What a Stupid story!”

     

    All eyes turned to the young girl sitting against the stone, cross-legged and cross-armed, between Vitus and Lydia. A flower of Night Shade was tucked behind one ear and she wore a Sundas dress of matching violet with pristine white stockings.

     

    “It wasn’t even scary!” she continued with a pout.

     

    “Yeah, because it was terrifying!” Vitus retorted. “You’ll understand its true horror when you’re older.”

     

    “But I already know a scarier story.”

     

    Lydia arched a skeptical eyebrow.

     

    “I do!” the child insisted. “But first, are you going to let those spider legs burn?”

     

    Kharjo flattened his ears and thumped his tail once at such an oversight, then pulled the pan out of the fire. He hissed as the handle scalded his paws and the pan hissed back after he dropped it onto the moist earth. The child giggled when he started licking the calloused pads of his hand, but quickly clamped her hands over her mouth at the Khajiit’s glare.

     

    “Spider legs? That’s what you were cooking?” Lydia asked, eyeing the dishes Kharjo was serving up with apprehension.

     

    “Aye, the way they crunch is a great amusement. And there’s ‘shrooms too!”

     

    “What type of ‘shrooms’?” Lydia said, her apprehension only growing.

     

    Khajro shrugged with such grace it seemed he had no bones. “Good ones. This one ate many while foraging.”

     

    “Well he hasn’t dropped dead yet; that’s good enough for me,” Vitus said and took a bowl with roasted leg segments sticking out.

     

    “True,” Lydia pondered, “but his accent has already gone full kitty-cat.”

     

    “Gr-da-da-la-ate Ada-muls-a-ment!” the child suddenly said in an attempt to mimic the way words rolled off Kharjo’s tongue.

     

    They all laughed at the unsuccessful attempt, but Kharjo leaned forward to address the Nord girl from across the fire with a warm smile. “It is music to this one’s ears to hear a hairless snow-kitten wonder of the ways in the land of warm sands. The trick is to roll the music of the soul from the roof of one’s muzzle; like this:”

     

    Kharjo rolled series of ‘r’ sounds from the tip of his tongue. The girl’s attempt came out more like a series of ‘da-da-da’s, but Kharjo repeated the sound again and they went back forth, her sound getting closer to Kharjo’s with each round. Meanwhile, Vitus had been struggling with how to eat his roasted spider legs. In the end he held a segment by the ends and strained against it, his hands vibrating and his face turning beet red before the chitin finally snapped. He cried out in triumph and raised the pieces above his head. The child stopped to stare at him, so he offered one to her with the two tiny claws of a spider foot flopping in front of her face. The girl flinched back and squeezed her eyes shut while vehemently shaking her head.

     

    “No! No! I’mma not hungr-r-ry!”

     

    “Yess! Like that! That was a purrfect roll!” Kharjo exclaimed and the two did an air-five from across the fire.  

     

    “Your loss. Don’t say we didn’t try to feed you now,” Vitus said, then poured the ooze from inside the leg onto a toasted mushroom and took a big bite. Everyone watched in anticipation as he methodically chewed with a faraway gaze in his eyes looking to the darkness above. He swallowed then closed his eyes.

     

    Lydia eyed Kharjo from her peripheral when Vitus didn’t reopen his eyes. “Did you kill him?”

     

    “Hrm, perhaps…” he said with brows furrowed and tapping his chin with a claw.

     

    The girl rapidly switched between looking at the three companions with wide eyes and brought her knees to her chest, then Vitus’s eyes flew open and they all jumped.

     

    “A strong ichor! A flavor similar to Scrib Jelly, but enhanced with some lively fire that ends with a cool finish. The mushroom binds the more esoteric flavors of the spices to the spider with its earth tones, while at the same time providing body to transform the challenging texture of Frost Spider fluids into a hearty meal for the hungry palette. Hmm… is that Frost Mirriam, Dragon’s Tongue, and… Fire Salts I taste perchance?”

     

    Lydia groaned. “I knew giving you a copy of the Gourmet was a bad idea. Pass the pipe Kharjo, I’m not high enough for this shit.”

     

    Kharjo gasped in shock at the request and whispered softly, “But one never passes the moons’ light to the right.” Then he turned a wide grin to Vitus. “Yess! The duality of fire and ice tempered by the earth they share. Kharjo sprinkled just enough salts to sell the fire, yet not burn ones whiskers.”

     

    Lydia caved to curiosity and cracked her leg segment with the hilt of her dagger, then poured the contents onto a mushroom. Kharjo just used his teeth to bite directly through the shell.

     

    “Surprisingly not terrible,” Lydia said between mouthfuls.

     

    Kharjo scoffed. “Not terrible she says, only a master could conjure such fine eats.”

     

    “My apologies oh great and wondrous Gourmet. The pipe now, if thy holiness would please?”

     

    The Khajiit puffed on the pipe with a dreamy smile, blithely ignoring the sarcasm of Lydia’s praise, before passing the pipe left to Vitus first. He in turn took a long drag and then leaned back with closed eyes.

     

    Lydia waited impatiently while he puffed the smoke out in little rings that drifted in lazy circles around the embers escaping the fire. She cleared her throat and he extended the pipe to his left without looking, in front of the little girl. The girl looked up from straightening the bows on her clogs and her eyes filled with a curiosity at the long, swooped ceramic stem decorated in brass and gold bands. It looked like nothing she was familiar with, like something from the stories of exotic lands far to the south.

     

    “Nuh-uh,” Lydia interrupted and plucked the pipe from Vitus’s hand before the girl could reach for it. She puffed on the stem, enjoying a brief reprieve as her companions’ words drifted around her unnoticed, then said after the moment passed, “Not for snow-kittens.”

     

    They all ate to bursting, save the child, whom insisted she wasn’t hungry with a queasy look on her face. The three slid down low on their respective stones and stretched their legs towards the fire until their feet risked catching fire. Vitus let out a loud belch and settled in to watch the fire sprites flit among the logs in a hypnotizing dance of warmth and chaos. It was an oasis of light, a beacon of life amid an eternity of mired shadows.

     

    “We need a story!” Lydia suddenly blurted from where she was tracing the ascent of embers to the sky. “Snow-kitten, you said you had something scary for us, no?”

     

    “Yeah…” The girl lit up and held the sound of the new name close to her heart, but her eyes darkened and her previous eagerness fell under the weight of whether she should share her harrowed story with those who had been so kind to her.

     

    Then she perked up with a big smile. “I’ll tell you, but you have to play a game with me first!”

     

    “Hmm, alright. What g—“ Lydia began while still following the ascent of the little embers until their light winked out, then bolted upright at the sound of retreating laughter, but she was too slow and only caught a glimpse of white stockings before they were swallowed into the swamp’s mist. Vitus and Kharjo rose as one with Lydia; their countless battles fought together had refined their awareness to the point that when one moved, the others moved into covering positions with an instinct that surpassed even the drugs coursing through their veins.

     

    “Come find me! Before the other one does…” A voice emerged from the shadows ahead, followed by the child’s laughter, distorted as it echoed between the warped trees surrounding the companions’ island of light.

     

    Without hesitating Vitus slung his crossbow across his back where it clanged against his shield, swooped a burning stick from the fire, and set off after the voice with his blade drawn. Lydia pulled her own torch from her pack and fell in behind Vitus.

     

    “What’s that damn girl thinking running off like that? Good way to get eaten; and what other one?” Lydia asked.

     

    “It’s a trap obviously,” Vitus replied merrily without slowing his pace. “Who invited her anyway?”

     

    “I thought you did…”

     

    They all exchanged unsettled glances in the sudden silence hanging in the air.

     

    “Even so, this is no place to leave a kitten alone,” Kharjo said, “but never fear, if anyone sneaks up on us, I’ll smell them coming. Or I might not. We’ll see.”

     

    He’d opted for unslinging his shield instead of a torch, relying on his cat eyes instead to penetrate the darkness.

     

    “So comforting…” Lydia said with a sardonic drawl.

     

    “Aye, it is,” Vitus said in complete seriousness, or at least a compelling act. “United we stand...

     

    …Divided we fall…”

     

    Vitus trailed off when neither of the other two added any sarcastic jabs to his motto.

     

    “What, you got nothing?” he asked and turned around only to find the mist and the lithe fire sprites dancing on his torch as his only companions. He called out into the darkness but only his own voice was reflected back to him and the light of their camp was but a distance memory.

     

    “Well, fuck.”

     

     

    Part 2

     

     

    The forest seemed to spin around him and his normally keen sense of direction was useless in this fog. Long, stilted shadows shifted and clicked in the darkness beyond the beautiful licks of the flame’s touch. The longer he stared into the abyss, the more new shades of black seemed to emerge, like a world filled with brilliant colors, despite lacking all light. Within the spectrum of the void, untold masses of spindly legged shadows darted between bent trees.

     

    “Hello? Have you seen a little girl pass by?” Vitus called to the shapes.

     

    The shadows recoiled from the sound and then wrapped around the echoes of his voice like an ocean swallowing a skipping stone; only before the void could claim its prize, spears of spindly legs descended into the sound and tore it asunder with the voraciousness of starving wolves. Vitus gulped and began slowly stepping backwards, but every direction he waved his torch, the sprites only revealed more spears of legs descending from the night sky, too tall to see the mass they supported. He turned heel and ran.

     

    The muck of the swamp crunched as his boots sank in deep as if the meek sought to pull him into the abyss with each step. Long, boney fingers wrapped around his ankle and his next step brought the earth surging to his face. He threw out his hand to break his fall and the torch flew from his grip, dropping the sword wasn’t an option. The fire sprites saw their approaching doom and tried to flee from the torch. Some managed to leap towards him, but the shadows devoured them before he could reach out; so beautiful, yet so fleeting. Then the earth crashed against him, but he was numb to it; what was his pain compared to the destruction of the sprites’ world? He crawled across the sea of groping hands to reach their drowning home; liquid night seeped into the torch, the curves of the flames dying to embers as the sprites curled in on themselves, forsaking all hope as the touch of the void seeped in from all sides.

     

    “No!” Vitus cried and tried to blow life back into their little bodies, but it wasn’t enough. One by one, the spirits of light succumbed to the darkness. He silently sobbed in their memory, too afraid to make a sound lest the shadows tear that from him too.

     

    The skeletal hands offered comforting pats; fallen comrades, Aldmeri elves, Stormcloak rebels, it didn’t matter, in the mire they were all one. Hands that understood loss, hands that pulled him deeper into their embrace, hands that promised to fill the holes left from the trials of life. Another world waited in the reflection of murky waters, a world where memories and pasts walked under the same stars. Deeper he sunk, deeper the skeletons of remorse drew him in, into the darkness of those he’d failed to defend—and those who’d failed to defend against him. Together they would all merge beneath the mud, an intricate web of shifting memories hidden beneath the feet of those still trapped within the mind.

     

    Then the lunar light broke through the clouds and the path to the Bones of the Earth was broken, now only his own face stared back in the reflection of the mire with eyes looking up, towards the pale shimmering of a moonlit path. Not my time yet, eh?

     

    At the horizon of the path, the darkness was banished by the warmth of a single torch. A form wrapped in a cloak of night clinging to sensuous curves passed through the pale light, leaving behind only a glimpse of silken skin and lips a full crimson before fading back to the mists. The heavens provide, not my time yet at all.

     

    Vitus shed the shackles of the past rose to heights among the clouds. Thickening mists filled the mire, as if seeking to swallow the trespass of the woman’s light. He chased after the fading glow of her torch, but not alone; the clicks of long, shadowed stalks of legs were giving chase. Silently he ran, a shadow among shadows; praying he’d reach the woman first.

     

    It wasn’t long before he caught up with the mysterious woman, but her beauty stopped him short; her every step swayed like the rolling tide that accentuated every curve. Her Nordic skin was so fair it seemed as if it was her that made the moon shine, although she held no such sway over the shadows stalking the night.

     

    In a rush of clicking stalks the shadows surrounded the woman. She stopped at the faint sound of legs and cocked an ear, then from behind her, eight eyes reflected in the light of her torch.

     

    “Down mi’ lady!” Vitus shouted while unslinging his crossbow.

     

    To the woman’s credit, she ducked immediately and Vitus caught the spider in an eye with a bolt mid leap. The force of the bolt stopped the creature in its tracks and Vitus ran up to finish it off by dropping the steel capped bow down on its skull like a pickaxe. Black blood sprayed and coiled up the frame of the crossbow toward Vitus’s hands as if possessed by snakes.

     

    Vitus dropped the crossbow with yelp and slid the shield off his back just in time to block eight spears of darkness descending on him from above. His shield rang with metallic laughter and repelled the attacker into the darkness, but not before eight sets of fuzzy claws wrapped around the edges of the shield and tore the shield from his are as the creature flew into the darkness.

     

    Another spider was already attacking from the opposite side and he unsheathed his sword in a sweeping arc that shinned silver in the moonlight and severed the creature’s forelimbs. It retreated with a shriek and he pirouetted to face the spider that stole his shield.

     

    The creature charged again into the swirling torchlight and he met it with a lunge. The blade pieced clean through its head with a pure ring and with a shout, he gripped the blade with both hands and wrenched the blade straight up, cleaving its head in two. He used the blade’s momentum to swing him back around to face the last spider as it rallied from its wounds, but instead of charging, it reeled back, preparing to lob its venomous spittle at him.

     

    Vitus flowed forward and released a savage kick that caught spider under the maw as it rose to spit. The steel boots cracked something and the force of the blow was enough to flip the spider on its back. He ignored the flailing nest of spears its legs became and brought his sword up in a two-handed grip before plunging it through the spider’s heart, pinning it to the earth.

     

    Vitus raised his head from the still twitching creature and gazed into the eyes of the night beauty. His pounding pulse only quickened upon feeling her gaze returned. She had been stroking her chin with her forefinger and thumb with a curious look in her eyes, eyes of an ice gray hiding burning desires just below the surface.

     

    “Are you hurt my lady?” he asked between breaths.

     

    “Lady?” the women returned with a voice that was cool and steady despite the attack, then pressed the back of her hand to forehead as if to fend off feinting. “Oh thank goodness you came, Sir Knight; without thine aid my life would hath surely been forfeit!”

     

    She’d added a quaver to her voice, but didn’t bother hiding the smirk. Vitus returned a broad grin and wrenched his sword free from the pinned spider, then as he strode towards the woman he pulled a handkerchief out from his pack and wiped his face clean.

     

    “It ‘twas nothing, but by what turn of fate was such a lovely dame been forsaken to pass through lands so dire without escort?”

     

    “It was not meant to be so, my companion had fought with great valor, but a las he lacked the… stamina to see my plight to deliverance.”

     

    “Have no fear, it t’would be my honor to take up his burden and see thine reach release from any woe that may plague such a pure beauty.”

     

    Vitus came to a stop close enough to brush noses and offered her a handkerchief. Incense and night-blooming flowers scented the locks of midnight framed her face beneath her cloak’s cowl. She set her torch in the nook of a tree, then took the handkerchief from him and wrapped it around his sword. With her hands pressed on either side of his blade, she began to slowly push the fabric down the steel’s length. She lowered herself in time to the motion without breaking eye contact, by time she reached her knees, the blade was cleaned of gore and she tossed the soiled cloth into the swamp behind her. Beneath the cloak she wore a low cut green and white dress with a front-laced corset and a gold plated pendent that drew the eye to the crevice between her breasts. She caught his eyes drifting, but took no modest measures.

     

    “My savior,” she said, kissing the tip of his sword. She gave small gasp when she nicked her lip and licked the wound with a flick of her tongue. “How could I ever repay you?”

     

    “To see thy safely through to a new dawn would be reward enough.”

     

    She chuckled at that and eyed him from beneath dark lashes. “But the night is long and full of terrors.”

     

    “Fear not, my sword shall tirelessly stand vigil ‘til daybreak,” Vitus said. He withdrew his sword from her tender grasp and slid it into its sheath with the fluid ease of an experienced hand, then caressed her alabaster cheek.

     

    “So cold!” he exclaimed at the touch of her skin and she looked up at him with pleading eyes.

     

    “I need your warmth.”

     

    He pulled her to her feet between his hands and brought her into kiss. Ecstasy exploded at first touch and he drew her in deeper, wanting nothing more than to drink in every sensation. Her moans were more felt against his tongue than heard, the experience further intoxicating his mind. He wanted more, needed more. Her arms wrapped around him and she pressed her body tight against him, but her hips ground against his in growing frustration; too many layers of cloth and steel still separated them. Her fingers made quick work of his armor straps and soon the mix of hardened leather and steel collapsed about their feet.

     

    Vitus stepped over the gear and led the dark beauty with him a few paces until her back was pinned against a tree. He pulled her hair and she arched back, revealing her slender neck to him. He kissed along its length and she shuddered against him when he added a few bites along the journey. With his other hand, he followed the line of bare flesh revealed by slit in her dress leading from calf to thigh. She slid her opposite thigh between his legs and encouraged him to continue with strokes against his growing bulge. No undergarmets barricaded the way to his fingers’ destination, only a wet invitation to host him. She gripped the trunk of the tree behind her in anticipation as he teased the idea of entering and then the bark snapped beneath her fingers when Vitus finally worked the magic of his fingers in earnest.

     

    Their lips met again, this time the woman acting the aggressor, thrusting her tongue against his in barely contained lust. She pulled at his sword belt, but quickly became frustrated when the buckle jammed. She caught sight of his dagger and drew it, then severed the leather band in one swift motion. She flicked the belt away, but neither watched it sail out of the ring of light. The dagger was now pointed towards Vitus’s navel the woman eyed him with a mischievous glint in her eyes, but she didn’t thrust when Vitus pressed closer and wrapped his hands around hers. He twisted the blade towards her with a similar glint in his eyes; she met his eyes and licked her lips, daring him to be so bold.

     

    He thrust her hand with the dagger, but stopped just before breaking skin, then sliced up, severing the strands of her corset. It began sliding from her waist and he finished its removal with a flick of his wrist where it joined the sword belt in darkness. She laughed with a husky allure, and threw the dagger after corset as well. A heavy thud gave proof she’d hit a tree beyond the light true.

     

    Another flick of Vitus’s wrist sent her cloak cascading down to her ankles and with his hands on her ivory shoulders, he pushed the shoulder straps down. The dress hugged her curves as it slid down, but just as her nipples were freed from cloth, she clutched the dress to her chest. Vitus reached to remove her hand, but she pressed him back with her other arm.

     

    “Wait,” she commanded, then casting eyes that said to do anything but, she turned her bare back to him walked towards the torch with an extra sway to each step.

     

    He set off after her, but tripped when his trousers fell without a belt to hold them. He managed to kick off the nuisance and his boots with them, then rose again before the woman noticed.

     

    She took the torch from the tree and then called over her shoulder, “Follow me, there’s something special I wish to show you.”

     

    She took off deeper into the marsh, but Vitus quickly caught up to her and wrapped his arms around her from behind.

     

    “It can wait,” he murmured into her ear while taking the lobe between his teeth.

     

    She arched against his touch and let out a pleased gasp when she felt his length press against her.

     

    “But I don’t want my sisters to miss out. You wouldn’t say no to more of this?” she asked, guiding his hand to her breast.

     

    “Let them suffer, you are my desire,” Vitus said between kisses and she didn’t resist when he wedged the torch into a notch in a new tree. When he slid his hand beneath hers, she let her grip break and the dress fell to the ground.

     

    “Perfect,” she purred.

     

    He plunged deep inside her and with a gasp she fell forward and braced herself against a tree. Over and over he thrust into her, building up the tempo until he could take no more, then pulled out. She shook against his member as he withdrew, as if trying to hold him in. Cold air hit their nethers and she cast a glare over her shoulder at him that would have killed a lesser man, but he only grinned back and slapped her ass.

     

    She gasped at the blow, then turned her back to the tree and leveled hungry eyes on Vitus. “Fuck my sisters, I’ll have you all to myself. Give me everything.”

     

    Vitus needed no further command, for the next moment every limb was entwined. No longer was the woman he held cold, her body blazed with a fire that threatened to consume him in her heat. Fingers dug into his back, drawing blood, but he didn’t notice. Her heavy breathing filled his senses, urging him deeper, faster. One hand slid down her back to her cheek before pulling her tight and lifting her off the ground. Legs pale, like the rays of the moons, wrapped around him with the strength of an ice wraith’s death coil.

     

    Wound so tight together, every movement was a pass with ecstasy. Their whole bodies rocked and thrust in synch to a song only they heard, then at the edge of climax, the woman threw her head back, fangs growing from her mouth, and buried her teeth into Vitus’s neck.

     

    “Ah! Too rough!” he cried out, but his protests fell on deaf ears. The woman only bit down harder, her whole body quivering against him as wave after wave of orgasms rushed through her in time to his heartbeat, but he could not come with her; shock and blood loss cut through his euphoric haze, leaving his mind clear, but denying his body release.

     

    He pulled her by the hair in a hope to pry her off his neck, but she was latched around him like a steel trap. Her continued writhing threatened to bring him back to climax and an involuntary moan of pleasure escaped his lips, despite his rapidly fading vision.

     

    Flames danced away at the end of the tunnel about his sight and he ran towards the light before it could leave him in total darkness. The light grew to fill his vision, then was blotted out as a scream filled the air and the air. On it continued until he staggered back and realized that he’d been screaming along with the woman of the night. He was free of the vise-like grip and with a shuddering breath his vision returned, albeit still blurry and swaying.

     

    Before him the vampire was skewered on her own torch and batting at the flames that had survived penetrating her. She’d dropped the illusions concealing the ember glow of her eyes and the nails on her hands had grown to claws, but despite both this and the sight of his own blood running down her breasts, his body still lusted to feel those pale curves to writhe against him once more.

     

    Only the scent of burning hair broke the spell and only then did he realize the tattered remains of his own shirt had caught fire when the torch had burst through the woman and hit him as well. He tore of the last article of his clothing and waved the burning fabric in her face. She flinched back and he used the opening to feed his shirt to the flames sprouting from her gut. Their eyes met as he prepared wrench the torch free of her; she snarled and raised a clawed hand and he suddenly gasped.

     

    “Wait! How could I forget? Have you seen a little girl running through these woods?”

     

    Her hand stopped mid-motion and her face scrunched in confusion. “What? You ask this now?”

     

    “Well, have you?”

     

    She blanked him and raised her hand to follow through with her strike.

     

    “Guess not.” He gripped the torch with both hands and used her body as a spring board to kick off of. Her strike missed and he landed in a defensive stance wielding the torch as his sword.

     

    The vampire cradled her partially cauterized wound with one hand, then leveled a finger at him from the other and channeled her will at him.

     

    “Submit,” she commanded.

     

    Vitus only widened his grin at her and beckoned to her with the torch. “Make me.”

     

    She repeated the command with more force, but it was to no avail again. Her confusion quickly turned to anger and she charged him. He juked to the side, but the motion sent a wave of dizziness cascading through his head and he stumbled. The woman cried out in triumph and closed the final distance with a leap. Vitus barely managed to shuffle step back enough to avoid the attack, although she followed through with more strikes, but despite her speed and strength, her attacks were wild and untrained; Vitus easily weaved between them. His altered state actually improved his fluidity and his body moved unhindered by the mind. By her third strike he could feel her cadence of attack and on the fourth he parried. She’d over committed and stumbled past him, leaving her back wide open. He speared his hand through the wound in her gut and hooked his fingers, as she arched back in pain he kicked her behind the knees and aimed the torch at her heart as best his double vision would allow. She collapsed forward, tearing the wound further open, but Vitus’s death blow went wide.

     

    She scrambled away on all four through the marsh leaves as Vitus reeled from more waves of nausea and then she used the nearest tree to climb back to her feet. They locked stares again and began circling; Vitus pretending to be surefooted, while the vampire still cradled her wound and the first look of true fear grew in her eyes.

     

    “Have at thee!” Vitus shouted as he feinted with the torch and the vampire’s resolve broke. She turned heel and fled deeper into the marsh.

     

    “That’s right! You’ll have to do better than a little love bite to take me down!” Vitus goaded and set off after her. “Come back here; I haven’t finished yet!”

     

    Both staggered from tree to tree as they ran, their wounds robbing them of grace. Then the vampire broke into a clearing and stopped with a laugh at the mouth of a cave. Vitus reeled up short at the edge of the clearing when two more glowing eyes opened within the cave.

     

    Part 3

     

    “Ah, Alva my dear, how did the hunt fare?”

     

    The owner of the eyes stepped into the pale moonlight. A doublet of black and red paired with leather pants fit to his muscular frame. A nasty scar split his face from his chin up to the base of his nose, but otherwise his polished head had the strong bone structure of a warrior that Vitus had to respect.

     

    “Thank the night you sensed my coming!” She buried herself against him and took comfort in the strength of his arms around her. “He resisted me, he’s stronger than the others were.”

     

    He took in her nude form and the blood smeared down her front in stride and he cusped her by the cheek.

     

    “Now I find that difficult to believe,” he said while gazing into her eyes with an intensity that made her blush like a maiden.

     

    Vitus scratched his head, why did he suddenly feel like he was the monster in the woods?

     

    The two vampires kissed and the man licked Vitus’s blood from along Alva’s neck. Vitus squirmed inside his skin, it felt… violating to see another man licking his blood, especially like that.

     

    The male vampire pushed Alva to arm’s length after a taste and said, “Hallucinogens, narcotics, alcohol; Alva, don’t tell me you tried to thrall a mind this clouded? You still have much to learn my child.”

     

    Only then did he notice the wound from where the torch penetrated her and offered her his wrist. She took the forearm between her hands and bit down with a greedy thirst. Moans of ecstasy escaped between swallows and her flesh began knitting the hole shut. Three more women glided out of the cave at the sound, each more beautiful than the last and clad in only loosely tied sheer night gowns. They surrounded Alva and began cleaning her with licks and intimate caresses, as the heady cocktail of Vitus’s blood hit their tongues, it sent gasps and shudders down their spines. They pressed against her in a renewed fervor that threatened to consume her as well, but she only drew them in even closer between heaving breaths.

     

    Vitus swallowed, equal parts disturbed and aroused, but ultimately decided to quietly fade back into the shadows before they noticed him. He made it one step before snapping a twig and all five pairs of glowing eyes locked onto him.

     

    The women around Alva ran with the speed of wind towards him and cut off his escape. They began circling him like a pack of wolves closing in on their prey.

     

    “Back! Back you sensuous creatures!” he shouted while waving his torch with the ember sprites working diligently to repel the beauties of darkness.

     

    “Don’t tell me you sought to keep this one all to yourself, Alva,” the brunette one said, then ducked a swing from the torch.

     

    “Let her, he’s old,” the blond one said from the side with a grimace.

     

    “But well maintained, like an aged wine,” the redheaded one said from behind, running her hands down his shoulders and licking his neck. He spun towards her, but she was already gone.

     

    “Indeed,” the brunette said again from the opposite side, stroking the length of his shaft before slipping back into the shadows.

     

    They all became a continuous blur as his vision reeled to keep up with their movements.

     

    “Enough!” The master dismissed them with a flick of his wrist and the women immediately leapt away from Vitus and bowed their heads. He strode towards Vitus, leaving Alva to follow in his wake. “Please forgive my girls, they can be overly… enthusiastic. Let me properly introduce you to Lucretia, Sillina, and Maeva,” he said gesturing at the brunette, blond, and redhead in turn, then finally to the black haired one now sporting a smug smile. “I believe you and Alva are already well acquainted. As for myself, I am Lord Movarth Piquine, Night Protector of the Great Hjalmarch Marsh at your service.”

     

    He finished with a flourish and a quick bow. Instead of returning the bow, Vitus strode forward in all the glory his mother gave him and shook hands with the vampire lord.

     

    “Sir Vitus of Kvatch, descendent of the Champion of Cyrodiil, Grand protector of all Skyrim, retired Legate of the Imperial Legion, Siege-breaker of Windhelm, Defeater of the Usurper Ulfric, Pilgrim to the lands of Nirn, Captain of the Abecean Sea, and… marriage counselor.”

     

    He met the vampire’s gaze as an equal and an amused smile slowly spread across the lord’s face.

     

    “My, my, it appears I need to add a few more titles to my name… Are you trying to crush my hand?”

     

    “No,” Vitus said, despite his gritted teeth and that his whole arm shaking from the effort.

     

    Morvarth’s eyes narrowed and he increased the pressure of his grip until Vitus was gritting his teeth in pain instead.

     

    “Even in my mortal life you, Sir, would have been no match. I had trained my hands to the pinnacle of perfection; they were more deadly than any sword and with them alone I slew scores vampires from every bloodline!”

     

    “And look how well that turned out for you,” Vitus retorted.

     

    Morvarth hissed, his face briefly contorting into the fiend beneath the surface, before he regained his composure and he relaxed into a laugh.

     

    “You are a most vexing mortal, but you speak truth. In life, I denied a great deal to myself in pursuit of my quest. I was obsessed with hunting the undead to such an extent that they became my world and in the end I became what I had once loathed, but it was only through death that I was finally able to see the true fruits of life, to see how blind I had been.”

     

    Movarth’s grip softened, gentle almost, and he stepped closer to Vitus such that the ice of his breath mixed into a steam with Vitus’s. Vitus swallowed his next retort and tried to break eye contact, but the vampire’s gaze drew him into depths as endless and compelling as the Void. Movarth chuckled, deep, diabolical, tempting. Vitus’s body rose to meet the sound and his confusion at the reaction only made the vampire’s smile widen.

     

    “Come now, I can see you are a man well versed in the vices; have you truly never explored all avenues? Why starve yourself of the divine given delights before you? Society? Judgment? These are but thin veils dulling the full beauty of life’s spectrum.”

     

    “Uh…” Vitus managed with peerless eloquence.

     

    “Enough on that,” Movarth said and broke the eye contact with a dismissive spin on his heel, then said over his shoulder, “There is an eternity to delve into every indulgence.”

     

    Alva was waiting behind him and said when he came to a stop facing her, “You can’t mean to-“

     

    “Shh, my heart,” he said, brushing her hair to the side and exposing the length of her flawless neck.

     

    A yearning shudder ran down the length of her figure as his lips barely brushed her skin, then he breathed into her ear, “This one is not of Morthal, nor an outlaw; were my orders not clear?”

     

    Alva’s eyes shot wide open and she tried to break away, but he held her fast.

     

    “You risk everything by involving outsiders, much less a decorated hero!” he hissed.

     

    Alva stopped resisting and glared back at Morvarth. “So what? Even if others come for him, who cares? Let them! We’ve been in the shadows long enough!”

     

    “Um, I’m still standing right here,” Vitus butted in.

     

    “Shut up!” They both shouted at him.

     

    He did and began slinking back towards the trees while they argued, but was stopped by the soft yet unyielding hands of the sisters.

     

    “Please don’t leave us… all alone,” the cursed pleaded in his ear and began massaging the kinks from his shoulders. They were skilled hands and he found himself relaxing despite himself.

     

    Why was I fleeing? Oh yeah, they’re trying to eat me.

     

    Then the redhead, Maeva, began massaging lower down.

     

    There’re worse ways to die and I’ve lived a full life…

     

    He closed his eyes, falling into the embrace of darkness, letting the aches and burdens of life be shed from his soul with each stroke of the sisters, then Morvarth’s voice challenging Alva interrupted his blissful descent.

     

    “Do you doubt my command? Do you think you are better fit to lead the family?”

     

    Ahhh, good ol’ domestic disputes, so Alva was a rebellious one. Vitus opened eyes to seen the fangs of the blonde one, Sillina, bearing down on him.

     

    “Wait! Wasn’t I too old for you?”

     

    She stopped as if caught amidst a taboo act and turned away before glancing back at him though her eyelashes. “I could taste your journeys through the blood… one exception wouldn’t be so bad.”

     

    “Then let me show you the world,” he said, ignoring the eye rolls behind him, then brought her into a close dancer’s embrace and spun out of the circle of blood-suckers. “I’ll take you to the ends of the earth and taste delights unimaginable.”

     

    “Really?” she sighed rested her head against his shoulder (more eye-rolls from the other two).

     

    Vitus waltzed her closer to the forest edge and looked over her shoulder to Movarth and Alva.

     

    Alava had her eyes cast down, the fight leaving her spirit. “Of course not, my… master.”

     

    “Good,” Movarth said, drawing the word out, “but such impudence cannot go unpunished.”

     

    Fear welled in her eyes, but her fingers also unconsciously trailed through the curls of her mons in anticipation. Movarth pinned her under his cold gaze for a moment longer, then turned a sly smile to Vitus, whom was still trying to waltz himself free.

     

    “As the disenfranchised party, it is in your right to lead the punishment, if you wish,” the vampire lord said and pulled a riding crop from his belt as an offering to Vitus.

     

    Alva whipped her head up with her eyes burning in fury once more, but another hard glare from Morvarth stopped her protests before she could even open her mouth and she bowed her head to him again.

     

    Vitus looked behind him to find the other two sisters had already moved to bar his exit with crossed arms, but amused smirks. He shrugged and parted from Sillina with a courtly bow before striding back as if he’d never planned to flee and took the riding crop from Movarth. He gave it a few test smacks on his palm and then grinned at Alva’s seething submission.

     

    “Excellent, now follow me,” Movarth said with a flourish and strode back towards the mouth of the cave while the other sisters quickly fell in line behind him. After a few steps, he addressed Vitus over his shoulder, “Pardon my manners, it would not be fitting of me as host to not first offer to break bread; fortune has graced us with a fine spiced rum from the renown Topal Sea Runners.”

     

    “Rum?” Vitus perked up. “It would be uncouth to refuse such invite.”

     

    Alva hadn’t moved to follow.

     

    “What are you waiting for?” Vitus asked, then cracked the crop across her ass. “Trot on.”

     

    She bared her fangs at him, but Movarth called her name and she was compelled to follow.

     

    Part 4: Lydia

     

    “United we stand…”

     

    “Yeah, yeah, and divided we fall,” Lydia said with an eye roll, but Vitus never finished his motto. “Hey don’t start what you can’t finish!”

     

    Kharjo snorted. “That’s what she said.”

     

    But their words fell on deaf ears, Vitus plodded on in silence. Lydia didn’t know what was up with him, but she was damned if she’d let him ignore them, so she trotted forward to grab Vitus by the shoulder.

     

    “Over there!” Kharjo suddenly cried out when Lydia was within a pace of Vitus and pointed between two forked trees to their left. She spun on guard to look where the Khajiit pointed and saw a white stocking flit from behind the trees and disappear deeper into swamp with only the ringing of the child’s laughter left behind.

     

    Kharjo bounded after the girl while calling the others to him and Lydia turned to grab Vitus, but he’d already disappeared into the mists ahead.

     

    “Kharjo! Vitus has vexingly vanished from view!” She hollered out, but Kharjo had vanished into the mists as well. His calls already sounded as if they were leagues away and echoed from all the wrong directions through the mist, then all was silent save for the groan of the trees in a faint breeze and the sucking sound of the muck swallowing all traces of their footprints. “Well, fuck.”

     

    At the sound of a giggle behind her, Lydia whipped her head around and spotted the girl sitting on a fallen log swinging her legs. The girl clasped her hands over her mouth and then leapt off the log. Her retreating steps didn’t make a sound in the marsh and her white stockings were last to disappear into the mists.

     

    Lydia hesitated a moment, but still set off after the girl in the end; both her comrades were lost in the mist, but Vitus was right, finding the girl came first, trap or no. They could handle themselves.

     

    Lydia snorted. Sure they could.

     

    Lydia somehow managed to keep up enough to catch a glimpse of the white stockings or the violet flower in the girl’s hair before the child would vanish deeper into the fog or behind a tree. Soon Lydia lost all sense of direction and gave into the single-minded chase; her world shrank to the joy of running without restraint, the slap as her steel boots drove into the muck, the air burning as she sucked in great breaths, the pounding of her heart that drove all else out. Drove out the doubts, drove out the burdens she’d sworn to carry, drove out the cruelties thought inherent in the world… drove out her last sighting of the child.

     

    She skidded to a halt and couldn’t remember how long she’d been running purely for the sake of running, the child forgotten.

     

    When had I lost sight of my aim? When did I become the follower? When was the child forgotten?

     

    The pounding of her heart slowed and she took in her surroundings without thought; she let the swamp be as it was, without her judgment. The branches of the trees no longer drooped in nihilist acceptance, but swayed overhead with arms outstretched, celebrating in the moons light. Each twig grabbing the light and swirling the lunar rays into ethereal leaves of dazzling lights. Unbelievable, magic, dreams; they’d always been there, she had only forgotten to look.

     

    All was so close, so easy to touch. She reached to take one for herself, but it faded from grasp, as distant as the stars. She felt frustration build, this was always what happened! She reached for more leaves, but each in turn revealed itself to truly be forever beyond attainment. Then she laughed, quietly at first, then without a care from her belly.

     

    And what would I do if I caught one? Look at it? I can do that from here.

     

    With that she stopped desperately grasping for the light. She watch, she observed, and then she realized the lights weren’t leaving her, but that she’d been pushing them away. It wasn’t about claiming the stars, but following a path until you became one from within.

     

    Follow… I’ve been a damn follower long enough! Fuck you sparkly lights and your damn introspective bullshit!

     

    With that the night fell upon her and shrouded her world in darkness. Assholes.

     

    When she looked up to the sky, the stars were distorted like the surface of a pond broken by a stone and drifting ever further away. No, that wasn’t right; she was sinking, sinking through layer upon layer of mulch and bone, all the way down to the original creation; every life that came crashing down from its dreams adding to the layers here. Lydia reeled as the weight of the world’s history drove her deeper, deeper, then at the bottom, nothing. It was a stillness she’d never felt before, the complete absence of light or sound, a feeling of weightlessness. It was peace.

     

    But from that stillness, a burning desire to live filled Lydia’s chest. She tried to ignore it at first; it was actually quite pleasant floating in the depths, yet the desire would not yield and soon threatened to consume her in blazing inferno.

     

    Fine… I’ll get up…

     

    Hand over hand, she climbed back up through the layers, to the summit of countless pasts. She broke through the barrier between history and future, then she gasped in all the sensations of the present. Every lick of the breeze, moonlit reflection, and chirp of night insects hit her as if for the first time. She tried to stand against her reeling senses, but immediately doubled over and began puking out a thick bilge. How much was from the swamp versus that damn Khajiit’s cooking, she did not know. Only thoughts of strangling that damn fur-ball got her through purging everything out of her body. When it was finally over, she couldn’t stop shaking and fingers had gouged holes in the earth. She wiped her mouth only to spit again after realizing her whole body was soaked with swamp.

     

    “Khjaro… I’m so going to kill you…”

     

    Lydia pushed herself to her feet and this time she was able to remain standing, if still in a haze. Rays of moonlight broke through the canopy and paved a path through the marsh before her.

     

    “Fine… I don’t even care right now, I’ll follow your damn path; there better be mead at the end.”

     

    With that Lydia let go and followed. Every sense still felt on overdrive and in a daze she walked through the trees like a newborn trying to see everything at once. She’d never noticed beetles had hairs on their legs before.

     

    The path suddenly broke into a clearing and Lydia stumbled out of swamp like a lost night creature. The mist was dispelled with each step and in its place a village made from the same twisted wood of the swamp was revealed before her. Many stilts lifted the houses above the mire like the legs of a dormant spider and a few small boats creaked against boardwalk following the bank of one of the deeper channels cutting a lattice through the great marsh. Despite the hour, the warm glow of oil lanterns still flicked from many of the windows and the muffled sounds of voices carried across the clearing before being eaten by the fog.

     

    As Lydia approached the cluster of homes, a sense of nostalgia grew, as if she’d been here long ago, yet the passage of time had warped the place beyond any memory. She stopped before the wreckage of a burnt down house. Had it been like this last time? She felt it had, but the charred wood looked no more than a few days old.

     

    “Can you believe it? He moved in with her before the dirt even settled over his wife and child! I don’t care how fine it is; no ass is worth that!”

     

    Lydia jumped at the voice, but it wasn’t addressed to her. A few houses down, two men were talking in front of the town tavern. Little did they know her ass was worth it!

     

    “Hey now, they say the fire was an accident.”

     

    “And you believe that?”

     

    “No, I’ve been meaning to talk to him myself first.”

     

    Oooh, a plot is afoot! Lydia thought and started sneaking closer, but movement out of her peripheral vision caught her attention and she barely turned her head in time to see the dark shape of a cloak flit between beams of moonlight up the hill behind the burnt down house. The fleeting shape reminded her of the lost girl, but this one didn’t have white stockings, nor was it sized as a child. Two plots afoot! Afeet?

     

    She was conflicted on which plot to follow for a moment, but ultimately decided to follow—eh, following again—the shadier looking one up the hill. Simple tombstones dotted the crest of the hill and she spotted the cloaked figure frantically digging one up, completely oblivious to their surroundings. Lydia strolled behind the figure and barked into the grave robber’s ear.

     

    “Hallo! Who ya’ digging up?”

     

    The person jumped a good six feet away from Lydia with a startled cry. The hood of the cloak flew off and revealed a Breton woman with long black hair and the light that reflected off her eyes was the orange of a un-guised vampire.

     

    “Make Laelette go away!” the muffled voice of a girl called out from the coffin.

     

    “Umm, what’s going on?” Lydia asked while looking between the coffin and the vampire.

     

    “Alva sent you, didn’t she?” the vampire accused. “She doesn’t understand; I can still save her! We could all be together!”

     

    The vampire lowered her shovel like a spear and charged before Lydia could say another word. Lydia jerked her shoulder to send her shield sliding down her arm and reached for her axe only to realize both were gone! Swallowed by the swamp? In her surprise, Lydia froze and took the shovel full on into her chest plate. The blow knocked the air from her lungs and she staggered back a few paces. That vampire howled in triumph and raised the shovel high over her head for the finishing blow.

     

    “Was that your best?” Lydia mocked and brushed a speck of dust left behind off the swamp ridden armor, then lunged low.

     

    She slammed the steel of her forearm guard into the vampire’s knee and felt the cap shatter, but she kept driving forward. The vampire’s leg bent backwards and she howled in pain as she was driven to the earth. Lydia passed into a full mount and Laelette tried to defend by shoving the shovel between them, but Lydia snapped the shaft in half with another strike. The vampire swung the two broken halves at Lydia’s head, but Lydia caught both of the vampire’s wrists in her hands and overpowered the vampire with her greater leverage. She twisted the vampire’s wrists until she heard something snap, then used the vampire’s own hand to plunge one of the broken shaft ends into the creature’s heart.

     

    The child in a violet dress and white stockings popped through the lid of the coffin and exclaimed, "You found me! Laelette was trying to find me too, but I'm glad you found me first.”

     

    “Why? What happened?”

     

    “Laelette was told to burn mommy and me, but she didn't want to. She wanted to play with me forever and ever. She kissed me on the neck, and I got so cold that the fire didn't even hurt. Laelette thought she could take me and keep me, but she can't. I'm all burned up."

     

    “Oh, I’m so sorry…” Lydia tried to hug the little ghost, but her arms passed through the girl’s body.

     

    The girl giggled. “Stop that! It tickles!”

     

    “Right, you’re a ghost. Well, that does explain how you kept your stockings so white, I mean look at me!” Lydia said, gesturing at her swamp-soaked armor.

     

    The girl giggled again. “Your group is so funny! I knew I could trust you since I first followed you into the swamp, but I’m tired. I’m going to sleep for a while now.”

     

    The girl yawned and started falling back into the coffin.

     

    “Wait! What’s your name?”

     

    The girl stopped mid fall and beamed at Lydia.

     

    “Helgi!” she said, then finished falling back into her coffin.

     

    Lydia lost track of how long she stared at the tiny coffin; it’d seemed like only moments ago they’d all been laughing around the campfire. Her story truly had been the scariest; burning a child alive… the thought sobered Lydia. They’d been too late to save Helgi, but she could still avenge the girl. Alva… that’s who Laelette mentioned; she had a name to track.

     

    “I’ll find who did this to you, no matter what.”

     

    Lydia strode into the heart of the town with single-minded purpose. Taverns were always the hub for information, but as she drew near she heard someone banging on the door of one the houses.

     

    “Open up! I know you’re in there Hroggar!”

     

    It was one of the men she’d overheard in front of the tavern. He stood tall and chiseled from a life of labor, but at his side gleamed a steel war axe engraved with the ornate and knotted patterns of the Sons’ of Skyrim. Lydia sighed, Wonder if he’d fought for the Stormcloaks during the war. Wonder if I faced against him on one of the countless battlefields.

     

    It didn’t matter anymore.

     

    “Hey!” she called out, “Did Hrogger happen to shack up with a woman named Laelette or Alva by chance?”

     

    The blood drained from the man’s face.

     

    “Did you say Laelette? What do you know of my wife?”

     

    “You married a vampire?!”

     

    “Take heed of what you say before someone tears out that slandering tongue; she may have left, but she’s still my wife!”

     

    “Go on and try; look for yourself if you don’t believe me. I just killed a vamp up there going by that name,” Lydia said, throwing her thumb over her shoulder towards the cemetery.

     

    For a moment it looked as if he was going to attack Lydia then and there. She casually dropped a hand to the hilt of her axe… which wasn’t there, but it proved unnecessary anyway. All concerns beyond his wife left his mind and he rushed towards the cemetery.

     

    “No… It can’t be…”

     

    “Hey, wait! Is this Alva’s house?” she called after him, but there was no distracting him from his wife.

     

    Damn it, Lydia thought, then looked at the door the man had been knocking on. Guess it’s my turn to knock and ask this Hroggar.

     

    “Open up!” she shouted and kicked the door clear off its hinges.

     

    The man she assumed was Hroggar was waiting on the other side with a dagger ready and he charged with an incoherent battle cry. Lydia stepped inside his strike and slammed her gauntlet into his face. The man’s head whipped back in a spray of teeth and he collapsed backwards; a table behind him cracked as he hit his head on its edge along the way. Lydia swooped down and grabbed him by the collar of his shirt.

     

    “Where’s Alva?” she shouted in his face, but his head flopped back, lifeless. “Seriously? You let one punch kill you?”

     

    She dropped him in disgust, then started investigating the home, her way, i.e. knocking everything off the shelves and drinking any mead she found, which there was plenty; the Moon Path had delivered! After ransacking the ground floor to no fruition, she followed a stairwell into the basement. It was an ordinary storage cell filled with the typical barrels and sacks of grain, save for the center, which was cleared for a coffin. Yes, this must be Laelette’s master’s den.

     

    She readied Hroggar’s dagger and quietly approached the coffin. If her detective work didn’t wake the vampire, then nothing would, but ‘one must never assume and plan for all contingencies.’ Vitus could spout such proverbs without end… and did so after a few drinks. Lydia kicked the lid off and thrust the dagger down as she retracted her leg, embedding the blade deep into… a pillow. She wasn’t surprised it was empty with the ruckus she’d been making, but it did beg the question, where was the vampire?

     

    When Lydia pulled her dagger back, the speared pillow came with it. She turned the dagger towards her and saw she’d skewered a journal too. She pulled the journal off and started flipping through the pages as she walked back up the stairs.

     

    ‘My life is dreary. Where is my prince come to rescue me? Where is my bold Nord warrior to sweep me off my feet?’

     

    Is she serious? Lydia though and flipped towards the end of the journal.

     

    ‘I met a man today when picking nightflowers. He is exciting and exotic. We kissed in the moonlight. It was so romantic. I'm going to see him again tonight.’

     

    By the Divines… Is this some teen fantasy; I might just puke… again. I’ll need some more mead to get through this. Lydia swiped a bottle hidden in the mess she’d made upstairs, then collapsed onto a chair and propped her feet up on the bloodstained table.

     

    ‘Now I understand the true colors of the night. Movarth has shown me the true black of night and the true red of blood. He has promised me a feast of blood if I do his bidding in Morthal.’

     

    Well that escalated quickly.

     

    ‘Hroggar was easy to seduce. Movarth said I should find a protector first, someone to watch over my coffin during the day. Hroggar is perfect.

     

    Laelette came to visit me tonight. She slaked my thirst. I've hidden her away to let her rise as my handmaiden. I've spread the rumor in town that she left to join the war. Fools.

     

    Indeed, the war was over; unless she meant the guerilla cells still harassing the army… or the rumors of the next war.

     

    Movarth has confided his grand plan to me. I am to seduce the guardsmen one at a time and make them my slaves. Then he and the others from the coven can descend upon Morthal and take the entire town. We won't kill them. They will become cattle for our thirst. An endless supply of blood and an entire town to protect us from the cursed sun.’

     

    Who’s dumb enough to leave their plots in writing?

     

    ‘Hroggar's family is becoming inconvenient. I've told Laelette to kill them all, but make it look like an accident. Hroggar must be seen as innocent if he is going to be my protector.’

     

    That Bitch!

     

    ‘That little fool! Laelette burned Hroggar's family alive. I asked for an accident and she gave me a scandal. To make matters worse, she tried to turn his little girl, Helgi. Except Laelette couldn't even get that right. She killed the child and left the body to burn.

     

    Something is wrong with Laelette. She keeps talking about Helgi. I think her mind has snapped.’

     

    ‘She seems to think that the child can still be brought back to be her companion.

     

    There are strangers in town, looking into the fire. I'll have to be careful.’

     

    Oooh, that was us! Though we’d actually only been looking for dry firewood. Lydia checked the date of the entry. Was that really this morning? That’d seemed like ages ago. Wonder where Khjaro and Vitus are…

     

    Part 5

     

    Lydia leaned her head back and pressed her hands to her eyes. She tried to think of where her comrades might have wandered and where Movarth’s coven might be, but the waves of haze drifting through her mind kept luring her into the abstract depth of her consciousness. The sound of stomping feet brought her from the waters of her inner mind and when she opened her eyes there was a mob of villagers with burning torches piling in through the front door.

     

    Laelette’s husband, eyes still red from mourning, was at their head and he pointed a finger at her.

     

    “Her! She’s the one who killed my wife!”

     

    Nope! Lydia shut her eyes again in hopes of returning to that blissful state, but the mob refused to cease their clamoring. She opened her eyes again and sighed; the mob faltered at her casual reaction and she used the moment to speak.

     

    “What I killed was already dead; blame that bitch Alva for this,” she said and tossed the journal to Sir Mourning.

     

    The red-eyed Nord quickly flipped through the journal; shock grew on his face with each page.

     

    “Unbelievable… Divines save us,” he passed the book to the others in the mob and the looks of shock began growing in their faces as well. He bowed his head to Lydia and addressed her directly. “I owe you an apology… and thanks for freeing my wife from undeath.”

     

    Lydia could see the words visibly pained him to say, but she was impressed he could overcome his pride and grief to accept her words… not very Nord-like though.

     

    “I see I left a difficult battle to you while I was mourning,” he continued while surveying the wreckage of Lydia’s detective work. Yeah, sure. We can go with difficult battle. “But I must ask, what brought you back to our little village in the middle of the night?”

     

    He seemed to recognize her, but Lydia didn’t remember this man at all. She was too embarrassed to admit she forgot his name, although he seemed trustworthy enough.

     

    “Helgi,” she answered and the thought of the little girl burned away Lydia’s embarrassment until only rage remained. “I only shared a fire with her on this night, but to know such a fate befell her…”

     

    ‘Befell’… Damnit, I’m starting to sound like Vitus… oh well, in for a foot, in for a league. She leapt to her feet with enough force to send her chair crashing behind her and flip the table over.

     

    “I returned to see her avenged and shall not rest until I see the blight of this conclave obliterated from this earth in a fiery inferno!”

     

    That got the mob cheering and she strode through their ranks, proud in her swamp drenched armor.

     

    “Follow me! This will be the night in which even the creatures of darkness shall know fear!”

     

    “…shared fire on this night? Didn’t Helgi pass, bless her soul, two days ago?” Someone muttered, but the rest of the mob was caught up in the energy of the crowd.

     

    By the time they reached the village limits, most of the able-bodied villagers had joined the mob. Lydia suddenly halted.

     

    “Where are we going?”

     

    An elder, but still with wiry strength, spoke up, “There is only one place in the marsh where such an evil would dare make its lair. Deep in the heart of this land, winding through treacherous sinkholes that have swallowed unfathomable pasts, beyond the forest of the dead, lies a cave surrounded by a sea of fallen heroes and breathes an aura of such pure darkness that not even the twisted beasts prowling beneath a moonless sky will draw near.”

     

    “That... that place is only a legend,” a voice from the midst of the crowd spoke up.

     

    “No, it’s real! I saw it with my own eyes as a boy,” said another chap.

     

    “Yeah right, it was probably just—“

     

    “Great! You’re our guide,” Lydia interrupted cheerfully and slapped an arm around the chap’s shoulder. She practically needed to drag the new guide to the front.

     

    The mob marched towards the heart of the swamp, but as the light of the village faded behind them, so did there fervor. The canopy grew denser and with it the depths of the shadows; the few moonbeams that managed to weave the maze of skeletal branches did little to banish the darkness and only the flicker of the villagers’ torches gave barrier against the night. They could discount the shapes flitting between the trees to shadows cast by the torches, but not the sounds of the swamp sucking in steps from beyond the circle of light nor the sporadic scraping of a claw on bark; yet the villagers pressed on, more out of fear of being left behind than desire to go on.

     

    Lydia shook her shoulders out; the silent tension of the villagers behind her was stressing her out. It amplified every sound of the swamp until even the rustle of the few remaining leaves was more akin to rolling thunder. Her movement made a couple of villagers jump and start waving their torches at the darkness. She snorted started to whistle a cheerful ditty that was at a stark contrast to their surroundings, but the swamp twisted even those bright notes; the returning echoes rang with a haunted distortion that only heighted the apprehension of the mob.

     

    The one who remembered who she was picked up his pace to walk beside Lydia and whispered in her ear, “We are glad for your help, but please shut up!”

     

    Lydia stopped and looked behind her at the visibly shaking villagers in mock offense.

     

    “You don’t like my song?”

     

    The villagers shifted uncomfortably; none were brave enough to directly challenge her, then distant yowl answered.

     

    “See? The swamp monsters like my song!”

     

    Lydia beamed and opened her mouth to continue with the next verse when a villager interrupted in a hushed whisper.

     

    “Monsters? Is she calling them here?”

     

    “Maybe, since they seem to appreciate fine art, unlike some!” Lydia answered and tried to start whistling again, but was interrupted by the murmurings of all the villagers this time.

     

    ‘Divines save us, she’s leading us into the Daedra’s den’ ‘That’s why we came here, dimwit! To kill some vamps!’ ‘Yeah vamps, not werewolves.’ ‘Werewolves? Maybe it was just the wind?’ ‘The spirits are strong here.’ ‘No, it was just the trees creaking.’ ‘Werewolf?’ ‘This is a cursed place.’ ‘I don’t have any silver...’ ‘Werewolf?!’ ‘It’s a trap!’ ‘Are you sure?’ ‘It could be nothing else; werewolf.’ ‘By the Divines!’ ‘Vampires and werewolves! We should have never came…’

     

    “Everyone quiet!” The man next to her hissed.

     

    “Yeah, shut up!” Lydia added not so quietly, “It’s not a werewolf; that was obviously a yowl, not a howl.”

     

    “But saber cats don’t venture this deep…”

     

    “Maybe it’s a were-cat, like one of the were-tigers?” Lydia suggested.

     

    “Those don’t exist!”

     

    “Oh, trust me…” Lydia gazed off into the distance with the look of a veteran scarred by unimaginable horrors. “They are far too real.”

     

    There was a collective gulp among the mob and they finally noticed the guide crouched behind a tree and was frantically waving his hand for them to get down. They all crouched as one, except Lydia, whom just strolled up to him.

     

    “What’s up?”

     

    The guide kept waving his hand at her from some reason, maybe he hadn’t heard her?

     

    A hand grabbed her by the elbow from behind and pulled her into a crouch. Her elbow tried to snap back on reflex, but the man’s other hand was already preemptively holding it in check.

     

    “He’s trying to say, ‘stop standing there like a horker with a spit up its ass and get cover.’” It was the man with the Stormcloak axe whose name she still couldn’t remember.

     

    “Let ‘em see me. I’ve taken on more than a few vamps,” she said and jerked her arm out of his grip.

     

    “I know,” his mixed tone clearly reminding her she’d just killed his undead wife. “But if the stories are true, the master of this cave is a legend.”

     

    Lydia sighed and gave the man a comforting pat on the shoulder.

     

    She lowered her voice and promised, “You have my word lest I be barred from the Halls of Sovngarde that we’ll kill this bastard and his bitch. Sir Guide-man, what do you have?”

     

    The guide pushed back a bush.

     

    “The cave lies just beyond,” he said in a hushed whisper.

     

    The others drew close and peered through the opening to where the mouth of the cave awaited them. Bones lay strewn about the entrance and a breeze rasped from deep within, like the breath of a beast inviting them in. Then the silent tension of the mob was split by another yowl, this time much louder, much closer, and the will of the villagers finally broke.

     

    “It’s closing in on us!” “Were-beasts and vampires! We’re doomed!” “I’m just a farmer…” “My family-“ “Run!”

     

    The villagers broke out in into a panicked retreat and Lydia hollered after them to hold fast, but fear gripped their minds. So as a villager ran by, Lydia snatched his steel war axe from his white-knuckled grasp. He turned to take it back, but ultimately decided it would only slow him down anyway after seeing the look in Lydia’s eyes.

     

    Once the last torch was swallowed by the swamp, Lydia turned back to the mouth of the cave to come face-to-face with a silhouette waiting for her. She leapt back with a yelp that was a far cry from dignity she’d held till then. She brandished her torch before the waiting figure and set her face in snarl in hopes of saving her warrior’s image.

     

    “Yeep?” The torch revealed what’s-his-name waiting there, not even trying to hide his mirth.

     

    “By my chaffing swamp-ass, don’t you dare tell anyone about that!”

     

    “My lips are sealed.”

     

    Lydia eyed him skeptically; his lips pressed tightly as if holding back a storm of laughter and the devilish glint in his eye did not reassure her.

     

    “Why are you still here? You know you’re like a mewling kitten in a basket against a master vampire, right?”

     

    “Hah! Like you’d do any better!”

     

    “Sure would, I’m amazing.”

     

    He paused a moment, not sure how to respond to such a self-assured answer.

     

    “It doesn’t matter,” he finally said and faced the cave; the mirth gone, “These fiends took my wife and led me to believe a lie. This ends tonight, one way or another.”

     

    “Mmm, talk revenge to me.”

     

    Thonnir glanced over his shoulder at Lydia. She smirked and gestured for him to lead on.

     

    “After you, I’ve got your ass—I mean back.”

     

    He shook his head, but Lydia saw a smirk back on his face. With that, he squared his shoulders and marched past the field of bones into the belly of the beast and Lydia followed behind him. Well, he did have a firm ass.

     

    They didn’t bother dousing their torches; darkness offered no cover against nocturnal creatures. Thonnir crept quietly into the cave in a comical attempt at sneaking, while Lydia was quietly jogging. She collided into him, torch first and a lit a fire under his ass.

     

    “Ah! What in Shor’s cock?” he whispered slapping the flames out and glaring at her.

     

    “Sorry, I’ll help you put those out.”

     

    “… No… that’s alright. Is this a game to you?”

     

    Lydia shrugged slightly disappointed. “Anyway, pick up the pace; you’re even better than me at stomping those feet, so speed’s our best bet.”

     

    “Thanks…” The man (what was his name! It’d be awkward to ask now) replied with more than a bit of sarcasm, then muttered under his breath, “Don’t know which is worse: the vampires ahead or the woman behind.”

     

    “What?!”

     

    “Your experience is much appreciated.”

     

    Lydia snorted and they resumed jogging into the cave, for few more paces. Lydia grabbed Thonnir by the collar and yanked him back hard enough to almost lift the grown man off his feet.

     

    “What the—“

     

    Lydia cut him off with a finger that missed his lips and almost poked him in the eye, then pointed down a tripwire he’d almost crossed and then the sharpened log prepped to swing down from the ceiling of the tunnel. He gulped the rest of his complaint down.

     

    “Ladies first.”

     

    Lydia snorted and spit, then did curtsy in her full plate armor before jogging deeper into the cave. The natural cave transitioned into a man-made tunnel with more mine shaft shoring and signs of abandoned work the deeper they went.

     

    They rounded a bend and spotted a figure bending over a cart. The silhouette was too intent on rummaging through the cart to notice them pick up speed as they rushed forward. The figure hefted a large sack over his shoulder and the widower caught a glimpse of the figure’s face.

     

    Henrik?” he whispered and pulled Lydia behind a low shaft wall.

     

    “What the—“ Lydia started and tried to rise again, but this time it was his turn to silence her with a figure to her lips.

     

    “That’s Henrik!”

     

    “…so?”

     

    “He’s one of our guards; we can’t kill him.”

     

    “Looks like a thrall to me.”

     

    “Maybe, but against his will. We just need to knock some sense into him.”

     

    “Yeah, I’m suuure he’ll listen to reason.”

     

    He nodded with conviction and rose to approach the thrall.

     

    “I was being sarcastic you dimwit!” Lydia hissed, but it was too late.

     

    The thrall tossed the sack he’d hefted down a hole and a few seconds later a wet splat resounded from far below. As he turned to grab the next sack, the Nords eyes met.

     

    “Oy Henrik! We came to bail your fat ass out of here!”

     

    Glazed eyes narrowed at what’s-his-name.

     

    “Take me from master? Why? No, you must want her all to yourself!”

     

    Then Henrik snarled and flipped the cart out of way.

     

    “Wait wait wait! Henrik it’s me, Thonnir!”

     

    Ah, Thonnir, his name is Thonnir, Lydia noted mentally; crisis averted.

     

    The thrall charged through the sacks spilled onto the ground and collided into Thonnir, but Thonnir managed to hold his ground and tore the thrall’s hands from his throat.

     

    “Stop! We’re trying to save you!” he gasped out, but Henrik’s mind was too far gone.

     

    The thrall frothed at mouth and sprayed spittle in its frenzy to bite off Thonnir’s face. He shoved his old friend away and in the moment Henik staggered to halt, Lydia appeared from his flank thrusting a heel kick with all her weight and armor behind it into the thrall’s chest.

     

    An ‘oof’ escaped Henrik as his ribs collapsed around her steel boot and he was launched down the same hole he tossed the sack earlier.

     

    “He might be alright,” Thonnir hazarded.

     

    Thonnir peered over the ledge.

     

    “Nope.”

     

    Lydia clapped a hand on his shoulder. “There’s no coming back from a vampire’s thrall. They say it’s worse than breaking a Skooma addiction.”

     

    “I… I think I already knew that in my heart… I have to admit, that was one fine kick though.”

     

    “I know.”

     

    She started heading back down the tunnel, then cast a glance over to see if he was following and caught him staring. She smirked at how he quickly looked away at first, but then met her eyes with a grin owning it. Courage deserved a little reward she decided, so she gave her hair an extra flick as she turned around and a little more sway to her step.

     

    A light appeared at the end of the tunnel, the warm flickering of coal braziers, and laughter? The two cocked their heads in confusion and slowed their charge to a cautious stalk. The tunnel opened up into a large natural cavern with wood scaffolding hugging the edge and leading up to hard to reach deposits, but that metals were long gone and the space had been repurposed as an exquisite dining hall for the damned.

     

    Part 6

     

    Lydia and Thonnir edged their way onto the wooden planks peered over the handrail for a better look at the ‘hall’ below.

     

    A long table was covered in a cloth of a rich red velvet embroidered in golden thread flowing through an intricate pattern of loops and swirls; atop the table was a feast of meats, cheeses, exotic fruit, a raven haired beauty shackled across the spread, and a variety of wine bottles. Sitting upon a throne of ebony hardwood at the head of table could only be the master of the lair. He reclined with the ease of one accustomed to command with a goblet cupped loosely between two fingers and a blond wearing too much makeup and a shear gown that revealed a delicate frame unfit for Skyrim’s winters was massaging the lord’s shoulders.

     

    The top few buttons of his red and black doublet were undone and the woman slid a hand down the opening, tracing the slabs of muscle underneath, then whispered something into his ear. He chuckled at the private words and brought her into a kiss before dismissing her with a wave of his hand.

     

    It took a moment to sink in that the dinner party had a naked woman bent over and shackled to a table, a table designed to support many shackles, but more shocking than that, was the guest and the source of the laughter.

     

    Lydia let out an unbelieving chuckle under her breath.

     

    “Only Vitus, by all in Oblivion, only Vitus could waltz into a den of vampires and be welcomed as a guest of honor.”

     

    Sure enough, Vitus was leaning back in a chair at the table with his feet propped on the back of the naked woman and finishing a good belly laugh. He’d lost his armor at some point and now only wore an embroidered robe that complimented the design of the table cloth, a pair of knee-high black leather boots, and Lydia suspected nothing else. On top of that a brunette was massaging his shoulders and a redhead was sitting on his lap feeding him grapes and swigs of rum.

     

    “You know him?”

     

    Lydia nodded. “Served in the same legion with him during the war. We and another companion have been traveling together since.”

     

    “Legion,” he repeated.

     

    Thonnir peered closer at her armor and noticed the Imperial detailing through the swamp muck for the first time. Lydia eyed him back, keeping her muscles loose and ready to spring if necessary, but he shook his head and the tension eased.

     

    “Focus on the mission, we both have scores to settle,” he said, but Lydia could feel a cold distance grow between them.

     

    The redhead did something on Vitus’s lap causing him to suddenly spasm and his heel drove down on the naked woman’s back. She hissed and whipped her head their way in an attempt to bite Vitus, but the shackles held her too tightly.

     

    “Alva!” Thonnin growled with murder growing in his throat.

     

    “What is going on…?” Lydia asked more to herself than anyone.

     

    Vitus accepted another swig of rum then pointed at the vampire lord.

     

    “You know Morvarth, you’re ambitious and your plan is well devised, but there’s one problem.”

     

    Movarth waved a hand dismissively. “She’s learned her lesson; I have her well under control.”

     

    “Alva?” Vitus laughed and Movarth bristled at the condescending tone, but Vitus continued on un-phased, “No, no, no; it’s you.”

     

    “Explain yourself…”

     

    “Your response proved it all—“

     

    Lydia palmed her face from where she and Thonnir hid. “By the Divines, is he really going to give a vampire the ‘leadership speech?’”

     

    “The what?” Thonnir asked.

     

    “The—oh, this too much, you’ll just have to hear it yourself. He gave it to all his officers with troops under their command.”

     

    Thonnir scrunched his face in confusion, but they held off their attack to see how this played out.

     

    “One you blamed a member of your team,” Vitus resumed, “The team is your responsibility, if one fails at a mission it is because you failed to communicate the scope clear enough or you failed recognize the capabilities of the team member and assigned a task beyond their ability. As the leader, everyone is your responsibility, their actions are a reflection of your command.”

     

    There were fingertip shaped dents forming in Movarth’s goblet. He opened his mouth, but Vitus interrupted him.

     

    “Two! The word ‘control.’ A slave master controls and that may work fine if all you seek to rule is a little cave.” Vitus said waving an arm about the surrounding mineshaft scaffolding. “But I see you desire to expand and for that you need to lead. Your dreams are greater than any one person can do alone, you need to rely on your team; to trust them.

     

    Awl, did Vitus trust Khjaro and I, Lydia thought.

     

    “You have an ambitious one here.” He dropped a heel on Alva’s back again, who hissed in retaliation. “One who even wants to take you position. Good! Instead of ‘putting her in her place’, as fun as that may be, you should have been training her for it; you’ll need someone to take your current role to free your time for expansion. If you had trained her so and fully communicated the plan to her, you could have trusted her to independently act towards that goal, instead of fucking up so badly.”

     

    All was silent and all eyes were on Movarth, awaiting his reaction.

     

    Thonnir scowled and whispered, “Why is he helping them!”

     

    Lydia just elbowed Thonnir and motioned for them to sneak closer while no one was looking.

     

    “It has been over a century since anyone has spoken so bluntly, so disrespectfully to me.” Movarth spat and pushed off his throne.

     

    The three vampiresses jumped back, clearing the way between Movarth and Vitus while Lydia and Thonnir darted beneath the dining table just as a pair of slender ankles landed where they’d been sneaking.

     

    Movarth closed the distance to Vitus before Lydia could do more than raise her axe and watch the exchange from below. Movarth grabbed Vitus by the back of the head and stared intensely into Vitus’s eyes.

     

    “In more than a century, no one has ever been so truthful. It is as you say, I need a voice I can trust, a mind to counter my own, I need you.”

     

    “Uh,” Vitus said, once again at a loss for words.

     

    Movarth’s grip around the back of Vitus’s skull softened into a caress he guided along the Imperial’s jawline. When he spoke again, his eyes were still locked with Vitus and their faces were close enough for lips to almost brush.

     

    “I see that you are lost; you achieved your purpose and are now adrift without sail. You are left with ability and life, yet have no direction. Join me and share in my dream of an eternal empire; of life more vivid and full than the mortal can imagine.”

     

    Lydia swallowed with Vitus, of the offers to join the dark side they’d had, this was among the more seductive; his voice alone was enough. The silence stretched on, broken only by Vitus’s quickening breath. Was he actually going to do it? Did the noble legate swing both ways? A twisted part of Lydia’s mind wanted to see how far he’d swing the other way after all his boasts of women, but the tension continued to build, no one daring to move.

     

    “By fucking Shor’s stones, kiss him already! Hard, with lots of tongue!” Lydia finally blurted after she could take it no more.

     

    She immediately clamped her hand over her mouth, but it was too late. She exchanged wide eyed stares with Thonnir.

     

    “Oops.”

     

    Part 7

     

    Thonnir’s face paled, surprise was the one advantage they’d had. Lydia caught a rustle of movement in her peripheral and swung her axe on instinct. Thonnir barely ducked in time and lost a few hairs off the top of his head, his face paled even further, but the axe landed true and caught a surprised redhead in the face.

     

    The vampire staggered back with a scream and clutching her face. Lydia followed the swing through and used the momentum to propel herself into a forward roll. She came out of the roll with both legs kicking and sent the redhead tumbling into the mining scaffolding.

     

    “Maeva!” Movarth shouted in shock.

     

    Vitus took the distraction to smash the bottle of rum he’d managed to keep over the Lord’s head, but Morvarth blocked and countered with a palm strike without looking. Vitus released a pained ‘oof’ and tumbled head over heel towards the waiting brunette vampire, but he’d held on to the chair and when he collided with her, she was skewered through the heart by one of the legs. She stared at the chair leg in disbelief, too shocked to even scream as she collapsed.

     

    “Not possible, Lucretia…” Movarth whispered.

     

    Two wet thuds of an axe whipped Movarth’s attention back to the scaffolding Maeva had tumbled into. Lydia now knelt there, when she rose and faced Morvarth, fresh blood dripped down her breast plate and she held Maeva’s severed head.

     

    All traces of humanity left the vampire lord’s face and he opened his mouth in a snarl, but Lydia beat him to the shout.

     

    “For Helgi!!!” she roared.

     

    Thunderous and feral, it rang through the cavern with a primal force beyond a human’s voice. Even Lydia blinked in surprise and Sillina, whom had been quietly standing as still as death until then, broke.

     

    The blond ran up the passage out and out of sight, but only for a moment. No sooner had she disappeared from sight that another thundering yowl echoed through the cavern followed by feral snarls and screams.

     

    A moment later, Sillina rolled back down the passage, claw marks rending through the back of her shear gown and her throat torn out.

     

    “Weretiger…” A shaking voice whispered from underneath the table.

     

    “What now—“ Movarth started and began looking under the table, but the hulking shadow of the beast cut across the passage opening.

     

    Then a Khajiit stepped forward, a naked, swamp drenched, Khajiit with wide dilated eyes and blood dripping from his claws, but nonetheless a natural, non-were Khajiit backlit by a brazier.

     

    Lydia’s jaw dropped, “I thought my trip went badly…”

     

    Vitus clapped his hands with shout of joy, “Ah, Khjaro! Finally, I thought I’d need to talk ‘til dawn before you’d both arrive.”

     

    “By the moons’ light of Jode and Jone, this one has seen it, his own true form: Merrunz… the kitten!” Khjaro howled with wild eyes.

     

    “What? Kitten?” Movarth said in disbelief.

     

    Khajaro crouched as if to spring and splayed out his claws. “Aye, The Kitten of Destruction.”

     

    “You are mad! You are all mad!” Movarth shouted.

     

    Vitus stomped down on the chair leg impaling Lucretia, then tore the improvised stake from the fallen vampire and lifted the rest of the chair as a shield.

     

    “Then call me Sheo and dance the fish stick!”

     

    Vitus, Lydia, and Khjaro all charged Movarth as one, then a moment later Khjaro hung upside-down from the second level of scaffolding some ten yards away, Lydia lay at the vampire’s feet with a fist shaped dent in her breast plate, and Movarth was holding Vitus off the ground by his throat. The chair shield had shattered, along with Vitus’s left arm, but his right still held the stake and was futilely trying to overpower Movarth’s other hand gripped about Vitus’s wrist.

     

    “It didn’t have to end this way; I saw so much potential in you, but what you’ve done to my girls has gone too far!”

     

    At that moment, Thonnir made his move. He rolled from underneath the table and brought his axe down on Movarth’s foot, then hurried to roll back under the table.

     

    Movarth dropped Vitus with a scream and struck the table with his palm. The shockwave split the table in two, hailed Thonnir’s back with splinters and collapsed the table and the feast remnants on top of him with Alva still shackled to it.

     

    Vitus fell to his knees gasping, but also used the fall to drive his stake through Movarth’s other foot.

     

    “Murdering Helgi was too far!” he countered between gasps.

     

    Movarth hissed and made a fist to end Vitus while behind him Alva was frantically kicking at Thonnir and Thonnir was desperately trying to defend with his axe from where he was pinned, but Movarth switched his fist into a defense block at a movement in his periphery: a Khajiit hurling through the air at him from the scaffolding.

     

    Movarth tried to slip inside the arc of Khjaro’s leap, but it was miracle he could even stand with his mangled feet and Vitus kept the pressure on his stake pinning the foot to the earth. All the vampire could do was brace for impact and Khjaro was no light weight. He wasn’t a slender Suthay Khajiit, but a Cathay warrior, fifteen stone of hardened muscle and fur.

     

    Lydia shook her reeling vision clear in time to see Khjaro leap from where she lay. With an effort, she heaved herself to her side and pulled Thonnir clear of the broken table and Alva’s legs. Lydia felt something compress wrong in her chest from the effort and coughed up blood. Thonnir in turn slung one of her arms around his shoulder and lifted her clear of the blast zone right as Khajiit and vampire collided.

     

    The already broken table shattered into splinters; Alva barely avoided getting crushed between the two by bending her back until her feet touched the back of her head with a flexibility impressive enough that both Khjaro and Movarth stopped their fight a moment to appreciate the view.

     

    “Men…” Lydia rolled her eyes and coughed up more blood.

     

    Her words broke the spell on them and the rage of the fight returned with a flurry of claws and strikes too fast to follow. She cursed and pushed herself to her knees.

     

    Thonnir gripped her by the shoulder. “Don’t move, you’re too hurt.”

     

    “Fuck off,” Lydia shoved him off with a growl between blood soaked teeth and tried to rise anyway. Red rage clouded her vision, Khjaro needed her help, she needed to slay the vampires, Helgi was counting on her. Then a fist struck her temple, hard.

     

    Her head reeled and arms went limb, but before she crashed to the earth, gentle hands caught her lay her softly on her back. Double vision of Thonnir’s face came into view, with a snarl she swung at one of the heads with a still limb arm, but chose poorly and her half-formed fist passed through the illusion.

     

    “By Talos woman! I didn’t think anyone could be more stubborn than Laelette!” Thonnir said and pushed her back down.

     

    Lydia tried to rise again, but the battle rage was draining from her blood and the shock of her injury washed over her. Her gasp froze half finished, it was suddenly agony to breath; any movement of her chest was agony. She squeezed her eyes shut and bit back tears. She knew what a broken rib felt like; she was out of the fight; her companions were on their own, all she could do was watch, she wouldn’t even be able call out warnings. One punch… one measly punch and she was rendered useless.

     

    She felt pressure release from her chest and breath came with a fraction of ease more. She opened her eyes to see Thonnir holding her breast plate and grimacing. He saw her looking and flashed a smile.

     

    “This is going to color beautifully; like a temple mosaic.”

     

    She rolled her eyes, but her retort was cut off by the seizing pain in her chest.

     

    “I said no moving!” Thonnir scorned her, but carefully brushed a lock of her hair from her face.

     

    A crash of shattering wood and collapsing stones sounded behind Lydia and she rolled her eyes back to see, but her damn skull was in the way. Thonnir carefully tilted her head so she could see.

     

    Movarth had kicked a support for a ramp leading to second level of the cave behind his throne in half and collapsed the wood structure and a few loose boulders on top of Khjaro, but Khjaro leapt into a diving tackle between the falling structure’s debris and took Movarth to the ground. The vampire rolled with the tackle and launched the Khajiit into the air with a kick.

     

    Khjaro twisted impossible in the air and landed on all fours on top of Movarath’s throne, but Khjaro was a heavy cat, and the throne collapsed under his weight. Movarth hissed and staggered after the downed Khajiit on his mangled feet, but Vitus, whom had reclaimed his rum, took a swig and hurled the bottle at Movarth from the sidelines, catching him in the dome midstride.

     

    Khjaro gasped. “Not the rum!”

     

    But the sacrifice had bought him the extra second he needed to regain his feet before Movarth closed the distance. Fist and claw met in another blur of motion too fast for thought; survival depended entirely on reflex and conditioning. The exchange lasted but a few seconds, but when they broke away, both were heaving deep breaths and drenched in the blood of new wounds.

     

    Khjaro was covering the extent of his wounds well, but Lydia noticed how his steps wavered ever so slightly as they circled each other, so did Movarth. A slow, cruel smile spread across Movarth’s lips; his wounds on the other hand, were already beginning to seal up.

     

    “I’m impressed, I have yet to land single a clean strike on you; such mortals are a rare breed. I shall keep you. Swear fealty to me and I’ll allow you to at least retain your mind.”

     

    Khjaro stopped circling and considered the offer with a scratch on his chin.

     

    “Slavery or thralldom, hrm decisions, this one needs a reprieve first before deciding.”

     

    With that, he took his manhood in hand and arced a spray of piss all over Movarth’s boots to the vampire’s shock.

     

    “These are Colovian lambskin leather boots! There is no place even in all the Planes of Oblivion for the likes of you!” Movarth snarled and lunged for Khjaro.

     

    Khjaro took the strike full on in the chest, but he was ready for it and fell back with the blow. Even so, the air was crushed from his lungs and it took three rolls before the momentum of the strike burned off. Only in his rage, Movarth failed to notice Khjaro had stopped circling with Vitus at the Vampire’s back. Movarth never saw the axe that decapitated him in one clean blow.

     

    Vitus stood over the fallen lord with his robe indecently open and twirled Lydia’s commandeered axe.

     

    “Those boots were sheepskin, not lamb,” he said with a pretentious tsk.

     

    Khjaro barely lifted his head from the ground in the distance and croaked out, “Right? The imposter!”

     

    Lydia sighed and closed her eyes for a moment. They’d done it… without her.

     

    Part 8

     

    Thonnir flicked her on the nose and Lydia’s eyes flung open burning with fire, but any protest was cut off by the pain of moving her chest.

     

    “Yeah, yeah you’re so pathetic,” Thonnir said and lifted Lydia’s breast plate so she could see the deep fist-shaped dent. “A little love tap and you start crying like a milk drinker. I’ve never see such… instinctual and improvised coordination before. It’s like the three of you a single warrior… the trust to leave yourself open, trusting your comrade will be there for the counter. Only you had armor, that strike would have killed the others.”

     

    She tried to glare at him for interrupting her pity party, but he’d cracked her resolve. Thonnir smiled, but the smile vanished when his gaze locked on Vitus.

     

    “You said that’s Vitus? The Vitus of the Blood Fields, the Siege Breaker of Windhelm?”

     

    Lydia gave a slight nod.

     

    “I never fought on the same field as him,” Thonnir said shaking his head, “I see now how we lost, but what happened to him?”

     

    Lydia rolled her eyes to where the man in question was rummaging through the wreckage of the dining table looking for any unbroken bottle of spirits and bitching about how much his broken arm hurt in very colorful expletives wearing what was essentially a glorified bathrobe; he did not make the image of one of the Imperial’s finest strategists.

     

    “He learned the truth.”

     

    Thonnir stared after Vitus with his lips pressed tight, but Lydia couldn’t decipher the thoughts going on behind his eyes. Then he suddenly snapped his head toward the exit and strode out of Lydia’s line of sight. With an effort, she managed to turn her head towards the passage.

     

    Alva was quietly dragging a large section of table that had somehow managed to survive the melee and keep her shackled. She saw Thonnir coming and froze, but quickly recovered and gave him her best damsel in distress doe-eyes.

     

    “Oh Thonnir! Please hurry, help me escape; look what they’ve done to me!” She said the last arching her best curves for him to take in.

     

    “You enthralled my wife… You raped Laelette’s mind! I thought she’d left me!”

     

    Once she saw he knew, she switched tactics.

     

    “Please! By Mara’s Tears show mercy!”

     

    “Like you showed Helgi!”

     

    “It wasn’t my—”

     

    His axe cut off any further protest and Lydia looked away as the axe fell again and again.

     

    “Hi!”

     

    Lydia startled and coughed up more blood as Helgi herself appeared crouched next to Lydia’s head. Sweet smile, violet Sundas dress, and stockings that were still impeccably white.

     

    “You don’t look so good.”

     

    Lydia chuckled silently. “Understatement… but we did it.”

     

    “I know! Thank you all so much!” Helgi called out to everyone.

     

    Thonnir looked up slack jawed. “Helgi…”

     

    Then he realized what he’d done in front of the child and dropped his bloody axe in shame.

     

    Vitus gave her a toast with a bottle of something he’d found.

     

    Khjaro managed a small wave and croaked, “Snow Kitten!”

     

    Helgi giggled and rolled her r’s back at him.

     

    “Mother’s calling me. It’s time for me to sleep now. Thanks for making her feel better!”

     

    “Wait!” Thonnir called out. “They are badly injured and bitten by vampires, can you send for help?”

     

    “Of course! …but who?”

     

    Thonnir swallowed, they had no alchemists or temple healers in Morthal; there was only one with the ability to treat such severe injuries and would listen to ghost without superstition.

     

    “It seems today is the day for swallowing my pride… the recluse, Wizard Fallion.”

     

    “I’m already here.” A voice said from behind Thonnir and he nearly jumped out of his skin.

     

    A dark skinned Redguard concealed underneath a black robe lined Daedric runes that shimmered in the darkness stepped forward.

     

    “How?”

     

    “A torch mob storming into the swamp is not so difficult a thing to notice. Ensuring they reached home safely once they regained their senses, however, was much more difficult.”

     

    “Some help would have been nice,” Vitus said.

     

    The wizard shrugged, “The villagers needed it more, whether they knew of my presence or not. Your actions here have simplified my role in some ways… and complicated it in others.”

     

    “You’ve been protecting us this whole time? Despite everything…” Thonnir asked, not wanting to believe.

     

    “How I can,” Fallion shrugged again, “Although, I do believe Helgi chose more adept champions for this particular conflict.”

     

    Helgi smiled, but shifted uncomfortably in the wizard’s presence. Lydia noticed and tried to speak.

     

    “Why…?”

     

    “Doesn’t she trust me?” Fallion finished. “I specialize in the field of conjuration, all things Daedra, undead, spirits…”

     

    “And restoration?” Vitus ventured hopefully.

     

    Fallion laughed and unslung a satchel rattling with bottles.

     

    “No, but I doubt I can make your predicament worse.”

     

    They all swallowed nervously.

     

    “Well, Mother’s calling,” Helgi said again. “Good luck!”

     

    With that the ghost vanished and the wizard began laying out his tools of the trade. Thonnir knelt next to Lydia and Lydia definitely did not grip his hand too tightly.

     

     

     

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