Hank is a Co-Admin that helps run the Guild.


Recent Statuses

1 mo ago
Current Skyrim is for Thomas the Tank Engine, who had never seen such bullshit before.
1 mo ago
The Thalmor love Ulfric -- he further divides and weakens an already divided and weakened Empire. The files in the Thalmor Embassy suggest that they manipulated him into becoming a rebel.
4 mos ago
The status bar isn't a chatroom. Don't use it as such.
4 mos ago
To anyone that likes videogames (because I think this game transcends usual genre boundaries): I highly recommend Hades, the latest game from the developer of Bastion and Transistor. Out on Steam now!
4 mos ago


Original join date: August 2008
Moderator since: 20 January 2016
Co-admin since: 5 May 2017

27-year-old Dutch guy living in Amersfoort, NL, with my girlfriend and my daughter. I love Italian food and German beer. Also Belgian beer. And Dutch beer... just beer, really. Other than roleplaying my favorite pastimes are playing videogames, going on roadtrips through eastern Europe and scrunching up my face when the DJ drops Russian hardbass.

In the old version of the Guild I was the record holder for 'Most Infraction Points Without Being Permabanned'.

My primary roleplaying genres are fantasy and science fiction. Big fan of The Elder Scrolls, Warhammer 40,000, Mass Effect, Fallout and others.

Most Recent Posts

Daily reminder that Hank killed and ate a person.

That's like making me a mod. Some men just want to watch the world burn.

Not that Hank wouldn't do the job capably, but moreso that I think the rabid masses would go into manic depression.

I think we're good.
House Cleaning

ft. @Leidenschaft and @Spoopy Scary

Solomon waited by the staircase at the back of the great hall that led down to the storerooms, leaning against one of the massive stone pillars that held up the ceiling. Looking up at the state of the structure, he could only hope that the subterranean rooms beneath their feet hadn’t collapsed in on themselves. They needed those supplies, and Solomon needed a certain something that he knew was sequestered in the back of the armory.

The others had dispersed and gone about their own business, and he looked up when Janus approached. Solomon gave the man a nod of respect. He was glad that the big warrior had come with them this far, and he hoped that the Colovian would stay. “Sorry about your sword,” Solomon said by way of greeting. “It looked like a fine piece. With any luck, there’ll be something suitable for you in the armory.” He nodded over to the stairs that circled into the rock. Impenetrable blackness awaited them.

Janus peered down the shadowed stairway, squinting hard as if it would help him see through the black. He chose to ignore the bit about the sword, the loss of it felt as if he’d left behind a hand. Though, Solomon was right, perhaps there would be something suitable for Janus down in the armory. Besides, that was where he was headed anyway. “Why this place?” Janus asked, turning to Solomon, “Ken Muhyr?”

“Because it’s isolated, defendable and abandoned,” Solomon answered. “And few people know about it, which is convenient because it’s our business to know more than our enemies. Every province has one or more fallback locations like this. It was stocked with supplies after the Great War, though I’ll be the first to admit it hasn’t been properly maintained since then. I came here once, to familiarize myself with the place, when I first moved to High Rock, so I knew where to find it and what to expect.” He placed a hand against the stone and patted it once as he looked around. “Needs some love, but she’ll do.”

“So important they abandoned it.” Janus pursed his lips, shaking his head. The budget cuts and reshuffling must have hit some harder than others. Savian dropped in an embassy while Solomon was shoved into an inn was evidence enough.

But who was Janus the wanderer to talk, “Let’s get on with it. You’ll need whatever’s down here.”

Solomon sighed. “Long past are the days of the Blades, who were able to maintain a constant presence at Cloud Ruler Temple for centuries. The Empire isn’t what it used to be. We all have to make do with less than our predecessors.”

Putting those thoughts aside, Solomon drew his falchion from its scabbard and tested the edge with his thumb for a moment before nodding and descending down the stairs, taking point. “Yes, let’s.” It seemed only fair after the Colovian’s duel with the Rider. He lifted a torch from its sconce on the wall on his way down in his other hand and lit it with a spell, banishing the immediate dark around them.

A door waited for them at the bottom of the stairs but it was already ajar, the lock burned or melted away by some foul essence. “Thought so,” Solomon said quietly. “Something made its way in here.”

Bruno’s unmistakable voice echoed from up the stairs behind them, though it was more sour than usual. “Good thing I decided to come down here too then,” he said, letting his weight fall onto each step of his descent. His hatchet was in hand and he was wearing the same angry look on his face ever since they left the cabin, though Solomon’s body cast a gloomy shadow over him amidst the torchlight that seemed to underline the fact that his anger was not like his usual boisterous self. He looked like he came down here with the express intent to kill something. “Thought I heard rats a-scurryin’, but turns out it was just you two.”

“You hunt, yeah?” Janus quirked a brow at the sturdy figure of Bruno in the flickering torchlight, at least there was one man he liked here, “Gotta wonder how you do it if your step sounds like rockfall.”

“I can turn it off.” He replied bluntly. “When I want to.”

“Best start wanting, friend.” Janus smirked, turning back towards the door left suspiciously ajar, and took his axe and knife in hand. Perfect tools for tight spaces, at least. His saber wouldn’t be missed here.

“Ladies, please,” Solomon said. “Focus.”

He kicked open the door and stepped inside, brandishing the torch and falchion in equal measure -- light was as much a weapon down here as steel was. It revealed the first of the storerooms mostly as Solomon remembered it -- the ceiling was low and barrels and crates of preserved foodstuffs were scattered about. Some of them had been opened, either by mandible or by claw, and their contents spilled out, consumed or left to rot.

More important and more urgent, however, were the thick cobwebs that covered the ceiling and the walls, and the creatures that stirred among them. “Frostbite spiders,” Solomon surmised, and he was proven right by the first of them that leapt at him with a fierce hiss, an eight-legged monstrosity the size of a large dog. He caught it on the tip of his falchion and the arachnid impaled itself on his blade, sliding down the steel weapon, jaws chattering as it tried to reach for Solomon’s arm to inject its venom.

Five more emerged from the gloom. Janus was the second target, the spider leaping much the same and Janus caught its fangs on the end of his axe’s head, bearing its weight as he thrust his long knife up into its body. He wrenched it out and spilled its guts as he threw it from him.

“Looks like sneaking won’t be a problem,” Bruno said as he glared down the familiar faces of frostbite spiders. “Lucky me.”

After spending his childhood in northern High Rock, it became easy to tell what the warning signs of frostbite attacks, and seeing the crouching spider before it leaped was almost nostalgic. He seemed to sidestep away before it even leaped forward, and swung his axe wide, striking it in its underbelly and allowing its momentum to carry it overhead and strike it against the ground behind him. He jerked his weapon out to bash the handle at the mouth of another incoming spider before kicking it away, and his eye found one of the spiders behind the other rearing back to start spitting venom at them. Bruno preemptively ducked down and batted it away with the flat of his axe, splashing it against the stonework.

“Solomon, your torch!” He yelled. “The bastards don’t like fire and they aren’t immune to their own venom. Bunch of right pricks!”

“Catch!” Solomon yelled in return after pulling his blade free from the now-dead spider and tossed the torch over to Bruno. He had something better than that. With his left hand free, his fingers contorted into a claw and he held it out in front of him. A roaring jet of fire sputtered to life and Solomon forced the spiders back with the washing flames. The cobwebs caught fire and incinerated, burning up as the spark raced up the walls and the ceiling, leaving the stonework and old wood support beams untouched. He was careful where he aimed, as there were still unspoiled crates and barrels left in the storeroom, but he advanced steadily to force the spiders into a corner.

Desperate to escape the blazing heat, the three spiders scattered in all directions. “Now!” Solomon yelled and cut off the flow of magicka to the spell abruptly, and instead aimed a precise spike of ice that pinned one of the escaping spiders to the ceiling where it had skittered up to.

Janus had tired of the fight the second it had begun. When the spiders turned and ran, he pursued his, growling like a bear as he took a swipe at it and catching only a leg. The thing screeched and flailed about before Janus took it by its remaining legs with his offhand and hauled it back towards him. With a throaty growl, he brought his axe down once, twice, and three times until it curled into itself and died.

“I didn’t know you were a fucking wizard.” Bruno commented, watching the flames lick away at the cobwebs and casting long shadows across the room. Its orange glow and fierce heat seemed like it was enough to scare the rest of them off. The brief chuckle escaped his lips, “Neither did these shits. We should smoke them out of their burrows before they start laying any more eggs.”

With that, he placed the torch Solomon gave them into one of the holes in the wall that a spider crawled into. The rising heat and smoke, he hoped, would draw it back out for him to exterminate with his axe lying in wait. As far the other spiders went, they were already too far out of his range. He didn’t think that he’d have to bring his bow into such close quarters.

Solomon looked at Bruno with surprise. “You didn’t notice?” he asked. “I was using spells pretty liberally during the fighting at the inn. The Penitus Oculatus taught me. Field agents are all nightblades or spellswords of some kind.”

“Suppose I was a little distracted to tell who was casting what.”

Solomon paused for a moment to catch his breath and to assess the situation. They were in the first of the storerooms; more lay beyond a door at the far end of the low-ceilinged space, its lock similarly dissolved with the acidic venom the frostbite spiders produced. “Kill that one when it comes back out,” he said and nodded to the hole Bruno was smoking out, “and then see if you can harvest any of their venom, if you want. We should pile them up and burn them afterwards.”

In the meantime, the spymaster turned to Janus. There hadn’t been time to speak plainly before to discuss things Solomon didn’t want the others to hear. He glanced sidelong at Bruno -- the man was already invested in the fight against the cult for personal reasons, so he doubted there was anything Janus could say to discourage him. A Nord, once his mind is made up…

“Why did you say this war is already lost, Janus?” Solomon asked. He didn’t sound accusatory, but there was still a hint of an edge in his voice.

Janus replaced his axe at his hip and sheathed his knife, turning to Solomon. He glanced at Bruno and back, “Because it is.” He spoke bluntly, “Look at us. You and me are the only ones with the skills to deal with things like this, and you and me aren’t enough.”

He nodded at Bruno, “We have a forester, up there’s two girls I’m sure haven’t ever brawled, let alone fought a guerilla war.” Janus hooked his thumbs in his sash, “What do we really have to work with? Henry?”

“I told you I’m not fighting other men’s wars. ‘Specially not with these long odds.” He shook his head left and right, slow as slow. In this place, among men like him, the smiling Janus was nowhere near, “And that fancy goddamn badge ain’t nothing to me no more.”

“I’ve fended off beasts and Forsworn raiders from my home, but bears and pissant tribals are a far cry from a provincial takeover.” Bruno admitted with a nod. “I’m no soldier, but even I know a handful of bastards an army doesn’t make. I’m also willing to wager we’re not the only ones who made it. If we want a larger crew, we need to start by considering those who know how to live outside city walls. I’m talking bandits.”

Scurrying echoes within the walls as smoke filled its nook and crannies. A spider crawled out, drunk and dazed by smoke, and not expecting an axe to come down on its head like a guillotine. One more left.

Bruno continued, “Most leaders probably won’t submit without a fight. So take out their boss, and promise the rest fame and fortune for liberating a whole damn city. Maybe even a title. I don’t really know how it works, but you get the idea. Maybe then when we finally take a city, we could actually use real soldiers. Maybe they didn’t kill ‘em all.”

Solomon slowly shook his head. “We aren’t fighting an army. They’re a cult of zealots, not the Aldmeri Dominion, or even the Stormcloaks. Cut off the snake’s head and the body dies. The Lord of Moths and the High Priests -- assassinate them, install a lawful ruler on the throne, and this all ends.” He knelt down next to one of the unopened barrels and popped the lid with his falchion, revealing salted meats chilled with frost salts. “Don’t need an army for that. Just intelligence and a sharp blade. This isn’t the first insurrection I’ve put down.”

Satisfied that the meat was still good, Solomon straightened back up and returned his focus back to Janus. He wanted to say more and explain more about his plans and ideas, until the exact words that the Colovian had used struck him. “You said that the badge meant nothing to you no more. What does that mean? What do you know of the Penitus Oculatus?”

Janus frowned, “More than I wanted.” He said, turning away and taking a few steps before he stopped for the other two, “Are we finished here yet? Or you want to keep measuring cocks over how many insurrections we’ve put down between us?”

“Doesn’t matter who they are.” Bruno retorted, changing the subject back to the actual problem. He couldn’t care less about the Peni-penis Ocu-whatever-you-call-it. “If they’re as fanatic as Forsworn, then I can tell you killing one of ‘em ain’t gonna stop all of ‘em. If they aren’t lying and somehow actually took every kingdom in High Rock, then they have the numbers. Maybe a hierarchy. You can take the chance in doing everything yourself, or you can pull an army out your ass. Either way you still need to defend those cities.”

“He’s right,” Janus added to Bruno’s words, “How many of Ulfric’s old Chiefs you think are still wanting to fight the good fight? I watched him die. But his ideas ain’t dead yet. And there’s a whole lot still ain’t happy with the Empire.”

“I’d have to defend the cities if I intended to rule these lands, but I don’t,” Solomon said. “That isn’t my duty. Order must be restored and authority returned to rightful rulers. Daggerfall’s king is dead, but there’ll be someone to take his place. There always is. I saw the people. They didn’t welcome the cultists. They were afraid. Sow chaos, take out the High Priest, inspire the populace. They’ll defend their own city. And after Daggerfall comes Camlorn, and Shornhelm, and so on. That’s how we do this. One step at a time, until it’s done.”

The Imperial sighed. “Though I don’t know why I bother explaining this to you, Janus. It’s not your fight if you don’t want it to be. I’m sure you’ll make the world a much better place somewhere where the going isn’t so tough.”

That was a petty shot and Solomon knew it, but he was frustrated with the big man. Knowledge of the Penitus Oculatus, involvement in the suppression of the Stormcloak Rebellion -- he was clearly cut out for this job, and it felt to Solomon like he was witnessing dereliction of duty happening in front of him. “Whatever,” he grumbled and turned towards the door. “Armory is this way. Come on.”

“Making the world a better place ain’t my duty. And trust me.” Janus snorted, “Was never yours either. I thought the Oculatus needed men with more between their ears than a sense of duty and loyalty to orders.”

“Working outside the boundaries of honor and the strictness of the Legion to do everything an honorable man wouldn’t.” Janus pursed his lips, almost riling himself up about things he no longer seemed to care about, or outright resented, “Penitus Oculatus, the Emperor’s Tertia Optio. Or did that get reshuffled too?”

“Nevermind that defending a city has nothing to do with ruling it.” Bruno added with his own brand of bitterness. “I don’t know how you do things in this dumb faction, but it sounds like lone wolf shit to me. And I get it, me too. But if they’re able to go in and take a whole fucking city and its guard, it’s gonna take a whole lot more than uppity peasants to defend it. Whole lot of fuckin’ good your so-called duty is gonna do if they decide to come back and take Daggerfall again. You’re fighting an entire fucking war whether you like it or not, and the whole lone wolf thing has come and gone.”

“And Janus,” Bruno added, turning to him this time, “I know this ain’t your home, and all the gods know I don’t give a shit what happens miles away from me either. But where the fuck do you plan on going that there ain’t gonna be no undead or crazy idiot waiting for you? Because if you can think of one, I’m two seconds from kicking you in the dick for holding out on us. None of us wants to be holed up in a dusty fort either! We’d all rather be getting fat and having sex on the Gold Coast, but we can’t, because there are a thousand monsters between here and there waiting to kill us.”

Finally, he sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. His hand was shaking and a headache was wracking his brain between the smoke and trying to settle what he thought was a stupid dispute between two old soldiers. “You two, just… be a good neighbor and help me take back my home. Free Daggerfall. After that, the both of you can go back to bitching about your lives as much as you want.”

Solomon was glad for Bruno’s intervention, because his grip on his falchion had already tightened and the arcs of lightning that he favored were close to dancing around his fingers. Janus insulting his honor had been one step too far, but killing the man over the slight wouldn’t have helped anyone. Solomon took a deep breath and forced himself to nod at Bruno. “Of course,” he said. “Your home comes first. A promise is a promise.” After a final glance at Janus, Solomon turned his back on him and marched over to the door. “We have an armory to liberate. Let’s get to it.”

He slowly pushed the door open with the tip of his boot and peeked inside. It was even darker in there than it had been in the storeroom, and Solomon resorted to magic this time, conjuring a magelight and sending it into the armory. It illuminated racks of weapons lined up against the walls, anything from halberds to axes and swords to daggers, and numerous grindstones and tables for maintenance and repair. The back wall had been destroyed, however, and the magelight’s rays were not powerful enough to resolve the abyss beyond. A subterranean cave, Solomon figured, and the sound of running water coming up to them from the deep confirmed his suspicions. “Might be how the spiders came in here,” he mumbled to himself.

As if on cue, a giant frostbite spider, clearly the largest of the brood, climbed out of the depths and shot a glob of venom at him. “Fuck!” Solomon yelled and dove for cover behind one of the armor tables.

Janus had swept his eyes over the menagerie of weapons just before the spider had arrived. He jumped to the first one he saw, grasping up the spear and sending it sailing straight into the body of the monstrous spider with a roar. He grasped up the second, a crossbow. It felt familiar in his hands, he’d lost the last one in Skyrim, and he missed the feeling of one in his grip. He took cover with Solomon, loading the first bolt onto the crossbow and sighting up, breath even. At the top of his first breath, he squeezed the trigger and felt the jolt, the bolt flying towards the spider and striking it. He ducked back down, loading another as he spoke to Solomon, “Anymore fire?”

Firelight illuminated the hall, but it didn’t come from Solomon. Bruno had picked up his torch and charged ahead after Janus’ volley of spears and bolts, as the low growl rumbling in his throat quickly escalated in a thundering roar. He batted its legs away to hack his axe into the giant spider’s side. Though its chittering caterwauls were shrill, he dug in his heels and used his axe to pull the spider in closer, either gone mad or unafraid of its dripping fangs, so that he could thrust the hot torch into its face. It reeled back and grazed against Bruno’s arm with one of its fangs, but the shepherd kept his hold secure on his axe and was pulled along with it. He yanked out the crossbow bolt from its exoskeleton and with desperate and enraged shouting, throwing every vile insult and slur at it that he could think of, repeatedly stabbing at its eyes as he was dragged into its den.

“You eight legged piece of shit! You gods-damned oversized, prickly cunt!” He roared as the spider pushed him off with its forelegs. He jumped back up to his feet and charged it again, prying open its exoskeleton with the spear lodged in its abdomen. He was immediately sprayed with its insides and covered in ichor -- but it didn’t seem to faze him.

I’ll kill you! I’ll kill every last one of you fucks!” His insults were sprinkled intermittently between his attacks, stabbing at its face repeatedly with the spear in several downwards thrusts. “Then maybe, just fucking maybe, I for once can have a home that won’t fucking burn down! Maybe, just maybe, I could have a family!

There was no escaping death for the giant wounded spider at this point, even if it did manage to escape. As it weakly struggled to back away, Bruno thrusted the spear through its leg and into the ground so that it would be pinned in place. Suddenly it didn’t seem like he was talking about the spider anymore.

“But no!” He continued roaring, kicking the monster in its head while it was down. “Because gods willing, there’s always got to be fetchers like you who just keep fucking TAKING!” He kicked it again, crushing one of its mandibles beneath his boot. “You take my land! You take my parents! I’m tired of all the stupid fucking monsters, I’m tired of the stupid fucking soldiers, the fucking people! Just give me back my life!” He ripped out his axe and stood before the spider like an executioner. Then with several savage and over-headed swings, he carved its body into pulp with each and every word he spoke. “GIVE! ME! BACK! MY! WIFE!

Solomon jumped to his feet when Bruno was dragged out of the armory and ran after the man, but the sounds of the Nord's hard-fought victory and all the rage that spilled out at the same time reached him before he reached them. The Imperial stopped just short of the broken wall and listened instead, and his expression turned from fear for Bruno's life into something worse -- fear for the man's sanity. He sympathised with the loss, even if he'd never had a wife of his own, but the savagery that occurred just beyond the dark precipice spoke of a man that was threatening to fall apart.

He looked over his shoulder at Janus, all enmity between them forgotten. "I had no idea he had a wife," Solomon said softly. He hesitated. Fury led to darkness, and despite his own losses, the spymaster had never allowed himself to go down that road. It was his biggest rule. But then he'd never invited disaster by trying to settle down and raise a family. Suddenly the box of clothes in Bruno's hut made sense and Solomon turned away. This was too intimate. He wasn't supposed to be seeing this. Joy would know what to say, but not him.

Instead, Solomom busied himself with the weapons and searched for a sword to replace Janus' saber. After a moment of Janus’ empathy for the big man’s screams, he went to help Solomon with the endeavor, his head bowed. As they perused the stock of sharp metal and grindstones, Janus spoke, “Why an inn?” He asked. Solomon had to know what he asking, his voice less biting now, “Some of us were put in embassies. Why an inn?”

It took a second for Solomon to change gears and put all thoughts of Bruno and his past aside. “To gather intelligence,” he said and lifted a slim, slightly curved blade out of the weapon racks, and continued to speak while he held it up to inspect it. “Not very exciting, and definitely not the kind of position that my training and experience would point towards, but… well, you were there,” he explained and sighed. The sword looked to be an Akaviri-inspired katana, similar to the old weapons that the Blades once used. “Makes it all the more embarrassing that I didn’t see this coming. Whoever this Lord of Moths is, he kept a tight lid on everything. What about this?” Solomon offered the sword for Janus to try.

Janus took the blade by the hilt and tested its balance with a finger on the flat of its blade. He spoke as popped it up and caught it again to give it a test swing, “It’s no saber. Leaves my weapon hand unguarded.” He observed, “Can’t half-sword with it. Beautiful blade though.”

He looked to Solomon, “The Blades couldn’t warn the Emperor before the Dominion attacked. They had enough time to marshal an army and land on Cyrodiil’s shores.” Janus shook his head, “Things happen.”

He plucked another sword from the racks and nodded. A side-sword, fine craftsmanship for Breton upperclassmen. Decent protection for his hand, it’d do. “I should repay you for the blade.” Janus went to work belting it to himself, “Before I leave. What’s your price?”

Solomon evaluated the worth of the sword in septims for a moment before he realized the futility of trying to do so. What use did he have for money at this point? Instead, another thought occurred to him and he looked from the blade back to Janus.

“Teach Henry and Joy how to swing one of those,” he said. “Just for a week or two. You can’t defend them when you’re gone, but you can help them defend themselves. You said it yourself -- they’re dead weight. If they try to help me now, well…”

The Imperial sucked in air through his teeth. “Don’t give them more than a week myself. A month, tops. Which I’ll take from them.” He met the Colovian’s gaze. There was nothing but cold steel in Solomon’s eyes. “You know I will. Isn’t that what we do? Churn people up and spit them out?”

Turning Janus’ words back on him and tugging on his heartstrings was playing dirty, but Solomon didn’t care. This is what it took to win in this craft. “Give them a fighting chance and we’ll call your debt paid.”

“They stay here.” Janus said, equaling Solomon’s steely eyes in intensity. A little bit of Havel peeking through, “You and I both know what we are. It’s been a neat little stage play.”

“I’ll do it. If only to make sure Henry doesn’t trip over himself and put his big fucking axe through his forehead.” Janus frowned, glancing to see if Bruno had come crawling back yet and seeing he hadn’t, “You send Joy on one of those fool’s errands to take back a city, I’ll dress you like a buck. She’s a cook. She cooks.”

“She ain’t like us.” Janus nodded, spitting in the palm of one of his tattooed hands and offering it out to Solomon.

It wasn’t a difficult decision. Joy learning how to fight was secondary to the primary goal of keeping Janus around a little longer. Delayed plans eventually turn into cancelled plans, Solomon knew. The longer it took for the man to leave, well…

He nodded, spat in his own palm and shook on it with the Colovian. “She cooks,” he echoed. “That’s fair.”

“None of us came crawling out the womb with weapons in hand.” Bruno’s voice rumbled from behind. Upon turning around, they found him staggering back through the hole in the crumbling wall with his weapon in hand. He was covered in sticky ichor and blood, and sweat was pouring down his face. It was hard to make out in the lighting, but his eyes were red even if it didn’t look like any tears had fallen from them. Those floodgates held strong even if the dam had cracked. They shifted between the two men with a still-bitter scowl on his face. “No one’s a fighter ‘til the hour comes. Cook,” he scoffed, “she’s also a Nord. You’d do well to treat her like one.”

Bruno turned, pointing his axe at the hole from where he emerged. He said, “Thing’s dead. Say the word and I’ll board that hole up ‘til we’re ready to see where it leads,” and as he turned back to march past the other two men, he added, “we will not speak of this.”

Janus shook his head. He’d seen plenty Nords die, man or woman. He’d make damn sure he wouldn’t see this one die, least not on some errand, that much he could do. He turned from Solomon to follow Bruno out, the crossbow slung on his shoulder, his hand resting on the pommel of his new sword. A badge of his new debt. “I’ll start the lessons tonight.” He called over his shoulder.

“Thank you,” Solomon replied. “I appreciate it.”

He waited until the two men had left the armory, his eyes fixed on Bruno’s back. The spymaster would have to keep an eye on Bruno from now on and make sure that his mental state didn’t deteriorate further to the point that he became a danger to himself and others. Freeing Daggerfall and giving the man his home back would be the best he could do for him. He sighed before he turned back around. “Alright, now, where are you?” he mumbled to himself and set about the task of rummaging through the mess the spiders had made of the place, searching for something he had squirreled away down here years ago.

It took him more than ten minutes before he finally unearthed the chest he had hidden from beneath one of the overturned armor tables. Solomon grunted and wiped the sweat off his forehead. “Finally,” he growled and hoisted the chest upright. He produced the key from his pocket that he had dug up from the bottom of his backpack earlier, when he had settled into his suite at the top of the castle. He tried it on the lock; it still fit snugly. The mechanism resisted him for a moment as he tried to turn it, however, and Solomon fought the rust until he hissed in frustration and zapped the lock with a small bolt of electricity, shocking the oxidized metal clean off.

The chest opened smoothly this time and he threw back the lid, regarding the items that greeted him within with a heavy-lidded gaze. Solomon clenched his jaw. He had hoped he would never need any of it anymore, but the world had different plans. The Imperial fingered the hilt of his old gladius, the pommel carved from ivory and emblazoned with the Dragon of the Empire. Its touch brought back battlefields long past and the lives he had taken there flashed before his eyes.

He reached in for something else and rose to his feet, holding it out in front of him to inspect: the armor and battledress of an Imperial commander, modified over the years to suit the needs of an agent of the Penitus Oculatus. The steel breastplate, decorated with swooping eagles and molded to fit the shape of a muscular chest that he no longer possessed, the elegant vambraces and the pauldrons, carved in the shape of a raptor’s snarling head, were still in fine condition. The artificer metalwork had held up admirably over the years. The white fabric of the hooded battledress, however, complete with the red cingulum straps and the shoulder cape that indicated his rank, trimmed with fur and sporting the coat of a wolf across the shoulders, was worse for wear. It would require serious stitching -- and refitting -- for Solomon to wear it again. Still, he wanted to have it, even if it was just a ceremonial piece. They were at war again, and what was a soldier without his uniform?

“For the Emperor,” Solomon whispered.

The Great Game Begins

Afternoon, 17th of Sun’s Height, 4E206
Ken Muhyr
Ilessan Hills, Glenumbra, High Rock

Solomon hurried up the stairs, familiarizing himself with the layout of the keep once more. He passed the half-empty library, the alchemical workstation, the arcanery and a bunch of rooms and suites on his way to the top, but none of them held anything for him. He knew what space he wanted -- nay, needed -- for himself. Big enough to serve as a strategium and high above the everyday going-ons of the castle below, where he could plot and scheme undisturbed. The spiral staircase ended at last as Solomon reached the top floor, slightly out of breath and with an ache in his knees. He’d gotten soft. At least the climb would help him get back into shape.

A large, circular chamber awaited him, already furnished with chairs, tables, rugs, closets and a mahogany bed. Solomon dropped his backpack on one of the cabinets and lit a few of the candles with a snap of his fingers. He meandered through the room, his fingers brushing against the furniture and the tapestries on the walls that bore faded images of battles fought long past. A large table dominated the center of the room and Solomon looked at it for a few seconds. Returning to his backpack, he produced his map of High Rock and unfurled the papyrus across the wooden tabletop, pinning the corners down with paperweights. Solomon took a step back and looked around, ducking low and rummaging through the cabinets.

“Aha,” he said and held up a box of chess pieces. The white king went in the center of the Ilessan Hills, representing the fortress of Ken Muhyr and its new inhabitants. He deliberated over the next piece and eventually settled on the black rook, placing it over Daggerfall -- the High Priest of Stendarr. Not the leader, but an important avatar of strength for the cult. He fingered the black king and sighed, placing it off the map. The Lord of Moths, High Priest of Akatosh, waiting in the wings, his location unknown. In a similar fashion, the rest of the black pieces were distributed across the other cities of High Rock, painting a gloomy picture; a single white king surrounded by nothing but enemies.

“Big things have small beginnings,” Solomon whispered.

Pulling up a chair, Solomon sat down and allowed himself a moment of rest. Eventually his gaze looked beyond the map in front of him and he replayed the events of the past days over and over in his mind. The people he had lost in the inn. His guests. His barmaid. Lucy, the old cook. Henry had been close to her. Solomon knew that she had snuck him treats every so often, like the grandmother he’d never had. He’d allowed it. Was there something he could have done differently? Could he have saved them all? The Imperial rubbed his temples and noticed that he was chewing his jaw and tapping his foot.

You can’t let the stress eat you alive, an old commander’s voice echoed in his mind. Don’t live in the past. Don’t live in your regrets. Focus on the here and now, and on the future. You cannot change the past. You can always change the future. Solomon dropped his hands to the chair’s armrests and exhaled slowly, forcing himself to sit still. Tension was still wound tightly into his limbs and the knot in his stomach threatened to squeeze the life from him if he paid attention to it. He hadn’t felt like this since he was a young man, when the Great War had been its most hopeless. But he had other commanders back then, orders to follow, superiors to trust. All he had now was people looking to him for leadership, or people doubting him and telling him this new war was already lost. No matter how large the room was, he couldn’t shake the feeling that the walls were slowly closing in on him. Abruptly, Solomon got to his feet again.

He stepped through the double doors on the other side of the room, emerging onto a spacious balcony. The wind immediately tussled his hair, as high up as he was, and he leaned on the railing on both hands, looking out over the valley and the Ilessan mountains that surrounded it. Pine forest stretched ahead as far as the eye could see, punctuated here and there by rivers and other bodies of water, and wisps of cloud drifted by lazily overhead. He took a deep breath of fresh mountain air and closed his eyes, savoring the sensation of the sun on his face, and he allowed its light and warmth to expel the darkness from his mind and his heart a little. There was still hope, no matter what Janus said. They had this place, for one, and they had their lives and their freedom. Wars had been won with less. Sometimes all it took was one person to tip the scales. It was his duty to be that person or to die trying. What else did he have to live for?

After a minute or two had passed, he straightened back up and rapped his knuckles on the stone railing. “Back to work.”

A Home of Stone and Air

Afternoon, 17th of Sun’s Height, 4E206
Ken Muhyr
Ilessan Hills, Glenumbra, High Rock

Their journey had been tense, but ultimately uneventful.

The sunrise had come as it always did, which was an immense relief to them all. Fortunately the world had not been cast in eternal darkness. In the light of Magnus, it was like the horrors of the Serpent’s night had never happened. Birds chirped once more and a warm summer breeze whispered down the fields and forests. The group packed their belongings and set off in silence and formation.

For two days they travelled along the empty roads that led away from Daggerfall, as fast as their feet could carry them. Strange as it was, there was no sign of the undead that had chased them out of The Loyal Hound, and Solomon deliberately led them around the smoldering ruins of the inn, wisely giving them a wide berth. He had no desire to cross paths with the headless horseman once more. He wondered where the undead had gone to -- perhaps they had crawled away somewhere else to die once more, or the sinister force that animated them had directed them out of the sunlight. Either way, their journey was unimpeded, in part because they continued to avoid any inhabited areas, even going off-road where necessary to stay away from the villages and hamlets that Solomon and Bruno knew to exist. They could not be sure that encounters with other people would not turn out to be dangerous, and Janus had managed to heal himself -- to Solomon’s pleasant surprise -- so they did not need to risk it.

The night they had spent on the road, however, had been less pleasant. An early darkness fell once more and they sought cover in a cave a little ways away from the road, having already arrived at the foothills of the Ilessan range that sheltered Ken Muhyr -- the group had made good time. Solomon kept first watch and grimaced when he could sense the burning lights of the Serpent overhead in the black-soaked skies once more.

He could not see anything but he could hear things moving through the trees in the distance. Throughout his watch, Solomon kept a firm grip on his falchion until Janus relieved him, and once in his bed he laid awake, tense and… afraid. What little sleep he managed to get was filled with waking dreams of dead men grasping him from below and pulling him into the pitch-black deep, the iridescent eyes of slaughterfish circling him as he sank.

But the morning came once more and banished the horrors of the dark. The forested hills turned silent again, save for the sound of birds and small critters that dashed through the underbrush in the shade of the pine trees -- the road they had followed had petered out and given way to forest and sloping grassland. Solomon, however, could not shake the feeling that they were being watched as they traversed the uninhabited valleys, mountains rising up on either side of them, the snow-capped peaks gleaming in the sunlight. If it weren’t for the situation, the scenery could only be described as idyllic, but he couldn’t enjoy it and as much as he tried, he could not catch anyone or anything in the act of spying on them. He picked up the pace instead.

They finished the second leg of their journey just after noon, further away from any areas of civilization than Solomon had been in years. The walls of Ken Muhyr rose up to meet them as they turned around the bend of the babbling brook they had followed on Solomon’s directions. “At last,” Solomon mumbled to himself, and hope filled him at the sight. “You’re still here.”

The keep was built into the side of a mountain and overlooked one of the valleys that lay nestled between the the Ilessan range’s tallest peaks. A single drawbridge crossed the semi-circular moat that surrounded it, and tiers of fortifications and courtyards crept up the mountainside, culminating in a series of towers and turrets that lorded over the lands below. It had clearly been abandoned for a while; there were many holes in its walls and several of its structures had collapsed entirely, strewing debris across the courtyards and cascading down the mountainside. But the parts that still stood were sturdy enough and plentiful enough to shelter them from most of the elements… or worse.

“It’s a little worse than I remember,” Solomon said over his shoulder, “but it’ll do. Come on.”

They filtered into the keep through the gate and the first thing Solomon did was raising the drawbridge with the mechanism inside. Once he was finished, the spymaster exhaled deeply. For the first time since the zombies had broken the windows of the inn, he felt some measure of safety. It would take siege engines -- or wings -- to reach them now. They went up, through the courtyards, passing training dummies, stables, forges and even a complete and functional ballista, until they climbed the steps of the great hall.

Dust and cobwebs coated the inside, from the black-and-white tile floor to the vaulted ceiling above, and a strong wind coursed through the near-empty space. Only a few crates of unidentified supplies and a long table greeted them, a far cry from the feast-worthy hall that the room must have been once upon a time, and parts of the ceiling were supported with rickety-looking wooden support beams and structures.

“Alright,” Solomon said and turned around. “The doors to your left and to your right lead up to various rooms and suits. Claim a bed and make yourselves at home. For those with combat skills and the inclination to use them, the keep has bowels too,” he explained and pointed to a staircase in the far corner that descended into the rock of the mountain. “That’s where the store rooms and the armory are. Knowing old castles like this, something has probably moved in and made its home in the dark there by now, so I want to clear that out as soon as possible, lest we’re ambushed in our beds by hungry spiders or goblins,” Solomon said.

He didn’t mean to, but his gaze found Joy and Henry as he continued. “As for the rest of you, this place could clearly use some housekeeping and I’m sure we’re all hungry. Down the end of the hall is a hearth and a kitchen -- see if there is still anything we can use, and feel free to make a fire there. We’re as safe here as we’re ever going to be.”

Then he looked up at the ceiling and the rooms he knew to be above them. “There’s a library here, though I don’t know how many books are left, an alchemical workshop and an arcanery. Feel free to use and peruse them at your leisure.”

Solomon clapped his hands together. “Let’s get to it, people!”

Call to Arms

ft. everyone!

The three made it back to Bruno’s hut without incident and Solomon gave a nod to the watchful shepherd by the window as they slipped back inside. He turned to Sinalare and Sihava. “Thank you for your help,” he said in a low voice. “It matters more than you know. I think it’s time that I inform the others.”

He made his way to the middle of the small cabin and cleared his throat. “Everyone, if I might have your attention for a moment. I have some news to share. Bad news.” Solomon’s face was somber, though his eyes were alive with grim determination -- not the face of a defeated man, but the face of a man that knows the war has only just begun. He took a deep breath and looked around the room’s expectant faces in turn before he spoke again.

“Daggerfall has been overthrown. The king and his family have been executed and the nobility hunted down and slaughtered the man. A cult has infiltrated the Imperial Faith, led by an individual known as the Lord of Moths and High Priest of Akatosh, who has allegedly predicted… all of this,” he explained and gestured to the black sky outside, “and they have seized power. Sihava has learned that the leader of this cult in Daggerfall calls himself the High Priest of Stendarr, and he claims that every city in High Rock has fallen to his allies, presumably other so-called High Priests. They wish to use this event, whatever it is, to carry out a purge against the ruling class and establish a new state. They are obviously enemies of the Empire. More importantly, they are our enemies. Sinalare and I were attacked by their cultists and we were forced to flee the city after killing them. They are not on our side.”

He paused for a moment to give his words time to sink in. Then he reached inside his pocket and pulled out his rosette for the others to see: the all-seeing eye of the Penitus Oculatus stared back at them. “I am not just an innkeeper. I am an agent of the Empire and it is my sworn duty to protect it against threats both from without and within. As such, I will be working to resist this cult and their machinations. But I can’t do that from here. There is a castle, a keep, nestled in the mountains northeast of here. Ken Muhyr. It’s been abandoned for a long time. The Penitus Oculatus has designated it as a fallback point and safe house for situations such as this, stocked with weapons, armor, supplies, books, and so on. It has never before been used in that capacity, but the time has come,” Solomon said. The more he spoke, the straighter his back and the more fiery his eyes became.

“If anyone wishes to aid me in exercising my duties to serve the Empire, your help is most welcome. Even if you don’t, there is room in Ken Muhyr’s walls for all of you. We are each brothers and sisters in arms now, arrayed against both the cult and the undead, and there is strength in numbers. We can’t stay here -- the cult will reclaim the land outside Daggerfall for their own purposes.”

He looked at Bruno, who had denial entering his hundred yard stare, and a solemn tone crept into his voice. “I know this is your home, but the cult outnumber us a hundred-to-one. Come with me and we will be able to bring the fight to them once we have regrouped, resupplied and hatched a plan.”

Solomon put the rosette away again and clasped his hands behind his back, an officer once more. He swept his gaze through the room again. “What say you?”

Janus regarded the rosette with unimpressed eyes. He’d seen them before, carried one himself even. But he turned his in at the end of the Civil War and did his best to forget he ever had one. “‘Less you pull an army out your pocket, I’m not swearing to a cause that ain’t mine.” Janus shrugged, no sign of an easy smile coming, “I’ll follow you to your castle for the protection of the others, but that’s as far as we go.”

Having sat in silence for the most part, her hands resting against the neck of her lute, it was Janus that made Joy’s head turn. It shook too, slowly but surely defiant of his words. “But we need you,” she said softly at first, her words picking up pace and weight as her mind painted the scene of Daggerfall in flames, and blood running over the streets. “This is your cause. This is Bruno’s… Sihava’s cause. Mine and Henry’s too…”

If anyone else felt to scoff at the idea of a barmaid standing to Solomon’s call— Joy did not. “People are dying,” she said desperately, her eyes wide but her posture steady. Taking a breath, she ran her tongue over her teeth as her gaze scanned the room, her hand balled to a fist that she wouldn’t know how to throw to save her life.

Joy felt everything. Anger, sadness, exhaustion, and fear, but there was something else too, buried and fighting from drowning under it all. Her hands fell on her hips and she sighed from her nose before turning on her heel to meet Solomon’s gaze with no trace of her smile, just burning sincerity in the brittle blue of her eyes. “I’m with you.”

The fire in Solomon’s eyes had spread, not just to Joy but slowly to Bruno too, burning away the shock and denial and replacing it with anger and rage. His heavy breathing, the huffing and puffing, replaced the silent air surrounding him as he straightened his back and marched toward the fireplace, growling as he pried loose the hatchet stuck in one of the logs beside the hearth as if he were silently cursing the gods in his mind. “First undead, now this…” he muttered. With his axe over his shoulder and his bow in hand, he stared down Solomon and his rosette, his twisted and angry countenance still perpetual on his visage. “I’ve already watched my home burn down once,” he snarled, “and I’ll be damned if I stand by and watch it again. Solomon, if you’ve got a plan then I’ll wait… but it better involve killing as many of those fucks as possible.”

Janus didn’t meet Joy’s gaze, but he felt it like burning coals held against the side of his face. She didn’t understand. From the time she likened splitting a man’s face with a blade to music and dance, he knew. Even Solomon swaggering in and flashing his fancy little badge didn’t understand any amount of patriotism wasn’t worth it to Janus. He fidgeted with his tattooed fingers and only muttered again, “Ain’t mine.” he looked at Solomon, then to the others and back, “You got my word I’ll split any prick down the middle stands between here and that castle. I’m not fighting this war with you.”

He stood then, grunting and wincing as he got to his feet, “Any of you can’t see it’s already been fucking lost then you’re all fools. We could barely hold an inn, think of how well it’ll go we try to retake the whole fucking Kingdom.

Sihava thought.

Janus was right. There was no hope for High Rock. Any war they might wage had already been lost. She had no allegiance to these people. No allegiance to the Empire either. Solomon had already revealed his secret; there would be no pleasure in peeling it back now. She was gifted enough in subterfuge that even if the entire countryside was crawling with these priests and zombies, she would be able to survive with...minimal effort, really. She could just leave, if she wanted. She should just leave. It was the smart thing to do. Go to Skyrim, or if that wasn’t far enough away, Cyrodiil or Elsweyr. High Rock wasn’t worth it anymore. Nobody to steal from. Nobody to trick. All of her skills would be...not unused, of course, but used wrong. If she was smart, she’d just walk out and never see these people again.

But when had she troubled herself with what had been the smart thing to do?

The warmth of her amulet, when she’d gone to Daggerfall with Solomon and Sinalare. The stupid joke that Joy had made in the inn, before the country had gone mad. Her conversation with Inzoliah on the road. Solomon, staring in horror up at the Serpent’s horrorlight. Despite herself, and she wasn’t quite sure exactly when, she’d started to care about these people. Was staying with them a bad idea? Yes. Very much so. Could she stop herself anymore? Not likely.

She walked the few steps over to Solomon and laid her hand on his shoulder, giving a single sharp nod and letting what certainty she felt leak over into his mind. I hope I’m doing the right thing, Nocturnal, she thought grimly. Her amulet stayed cold.

Sinalare stood near the cabin’s entrance, still clutching a bloody rag from when she cleaned herself off outside. Solomon was an Imperial agent, which shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise to her as it did. She tensed on reflex, already placed as near to the building’s exit as she could be, but held off on leaving, like she would have in the past. It was no threat to her - she had to drill this into her mind, reminding herself over and over that those days are long gone, as well as her ties, and she in fact was not standing across a battlefield from this man, despite the sudden reminder. She remained silent for several minutes, simply keeping herself sane as her mind raced and jumped from thought to thought. Her nerves stopped her from properly considering or hearing just about anything he’d said afterwards, so she slowly refocused on the conversation.

Henry got to his feet, fingers fidgeting with the handle of the axe that Bruno had given him, eyes darting furtively around the room between the others, wondering whether it was appropriate for him to speak. He cleared his throat and found some measure of courage. “I’m not much good at fighting, sir, but… I can help make the keep a good place to live,” the young man said. He’d stared in awe at the Imperial rosette. To think that he had spent years under Solomon’s roof without knowing what kind of a man he was. Spies and such had always seemed like larger than life to him. Then again, so had everything else that had happened this night.

He looked at Joy and the ghost of a smile flickered around his lips. “I’ll clean and wash our clothes and run errands and so on, and you can cook and sing and mix drinks, like you did, miss.” Then Henry looked at the others again and swallowed. “So it won’t be all uncomfortable or… or anything. That’s what I -- what I wanted to say.” He sat back down quickly and looked at his feet.

“Thank you all,” Solomon said, gaze lingering on Janus a little longer than the others. He didn’t appreciate the man’s defeatist comments. Now was not the time to be undermining morale. “Hope is not lost as long as we draw breath,” he said pointedly. Joy’s stalwart declaration had been admirable, but Solomon had not seen an immediate use for her until Henry reminded him that the keep that was to be their new home would need tending to as well. Inzoliah had not said anything yet, but Solomon was content to let the older Dunmer woman formulate her thoughts a little while longer.

In the meantime, he felt Sinalare’s gaze stabbing into his back and he turned around to look at the bloodied Bosmer by the door. He knew that look in her eyes. It tugged at the frayed stitches of scarcely-healed wounds in his own mind. “I was in Cyrodiil,” he said softly. “Third Legion. Saw action in Anvil, Bravil, Skingrad, so on. In the winter of 174, my men and I hunted patrols and Thalmor officers in the Great Forest. And I was at the Red Ring, when Lord Naarifin was captured and the Imperial City retaken. I saw what the Dominion did there. I buried all of my--”

He took a deep breath and stopped, closing his eyes for a moment before opening them again. “I killed more of your kind than I can remember. Swore I’d never trust another Aldmeri elf.” Solomon chuckled. “But here we are. For the record, I thought we made a good team back there,” he added and nodded in the direction of Daggerfall.

“What about you? Where did you serve?” he asked.

Sinalare’s arms crossed in front of her chest, her jaw set and muscles tense. Her gaze slipped to admire Bruno’s floorboards as if they were a fascinating book. Tersely, she answered.

“Hammerfell. I fought under Lady Arannelya. A long time ago,” she mumbled at the end of her sentence. With a deep breath, she raised her head and glanced around at the others in the room. “I… I gave up fighting for causes.” She considered all the strange things they had seen that night, and couldn’t meet anyone’s eyes.

“I’ll come with you,” she said, before her brain could even catch up with her mouth. Immediately, she wasn’t sure why she had said it at all - seriously, causes were placed far in the past, and she wasn’t looking to take up a new one, aside from gold. Sinalare had said she’d never believe in one again. And she didn’t, she insisted, she was only going along with the safest way to prolong her life, for the time being. She shuffled her feet, wrung her hands together a few times.

As soon as she finished talking, it was like the cabin shrunk three sized. The heat was overpowering and the others’ presence stifling. “I need some air,” she snapped, and turned abruptly to the cabin’s door. Or a drink. she thought. She couldn’t stand to be near everyone. The door swung closed behind her with a thud.

Janus quickly followed suit, not saying any words as he made for the door. In his eyes, this was just another con-man drumming up the sympathies of fools. He was one once. Once. He wasn’t going to fight anyone else’s wars for them, and this time they asked, there wasn’t even mention of gold. He placed his hand on the knob and said over his shoulder, “I’m readying my horse.”

He didn’t wait for an answer.

Bruno stood among them quietly, allowing the information to swirl in his in a boiling whirlpool of emotion. It was chaotic and difficult to process, mostly leaving him to stare at the inside of his cabin and all that he has made with his own two hands. This wasn’t the first time he was forced to leave his home, but this time it was made worse by the fact this this home was of his making. He imagined filling it with a family as his father and mother had, and it suddenly became crystal clear why they died so brutally defending a home that was doomed from the start. He would’ve fought and died to defend his home; twofold if he had a family to defend. What would come of his home in his absence? It would certainly be raided, maybe burned to the ground. The cattle… they’d definitely attract the undead horde. If not them, then the cultists and marauders who sacked Daggerfall. He understood what he had to do, even if it only gave his home a slim chance. This place had to look tapped.

He turned toward the front door where Janus had exited through and tossed a few solemn words over his shoulder, “I need to cull my flock before we leave… take whatever you need from here. If it’s not bolted down, it’s yours.” With that, he stepped into the night with a sharp axe in hand.

Inzoliah was content for most of the meeting to watch the discussion without commenting. The badge Solomon had been waving around meant nothing to her. At least, not as much as it meant to some people. A few flinched when he revealed it, a few seemed to get angry or scared maybe. But it could have been a reaction to the news of Daggerfall’s King being killed. Honestly she wasn’t too surprised, being a ruler in High Rock had a life expectancy similar to an Imperial Legionnaire. That’s what she had learned from her time at court here. It was practically the provincial pastime to kill nobles. Funny then, that she had contributed to that in her own small way. Her attention gradually came back to the room. Janus seemed to not be on board with the innkeep-turned-agent Solomon’s plan to head for a clandestine castle. Most everyone else seemed okay with the idea. Inzoliah had a small vision of herself on a castle battlement, flinging great blobs of fire into a stinking mass of undead and her mind was made up on the spot. “Well, I have no love for High Rock or the Empire but ‘twouldn’t hurt to help either out.” She stood up and brushed her robes off, seemingly unable to remove the permanent layer of soot and ash that clung to them.

As Joy watched practically everyone else leave the room around her, she gave a small wave to Sihava, who she was pleased to see make it back in one piece, and whom she was glad would be around a little longer. As her gaze caught the last image of Janus before he walked out of the door, she set aside a thought in her mind to speak to him later. She had to. Bruno too. With one last sigh, she turned again and found Henry.

“Alright then,” she spoke out into the tense silence that had been left behind. “Let’s see if we can find any food for the road, you and me. Anything that will bring any comfort on our journey.” She smiled again, bringing her hands together behind her back. Her fingers fidgeted, and clenched against her palms but she kept a smile for the young man. As the redhead cleared free a tickle in her throat, she brought her hands back in front of her, smoothing down the fabric of her skirt to her knees, before placing a hand on Henry’s shoulder to give him a playful pinch.

Having something to do filled him with a sense of purpose and Henry nodded, returning Joy’s smile with one of his own. “Yes, let’s,” he said, nodded, and set about the task of upending Bruno’s pantry in search of something edible.

Solomon looked outside at the dim shapes of those who had stepped out for a breath of fresh air or a moment to clear their head. He exhaled slowly through his nose. Something broke his reverie, something wet and insistent -- Sirius nuzzled Solomon’s hand and whined quietly. The spymaster glanced at his dog and ruffled the fur on his head. “I know, boy,” the Imperial whispered.

“Everything is about to change.”
The Dagger Falls

ft. @Lemons and @LadyTabris

Joy and Henry tended to Janus and that freed up Solomon’s hands and his mind for other matters. He got up from the bed and stepped back out of the hut, into the cold and deathly night. He didn’t look up, even though he could feel the Serpent staring daggers into the back of his neck. It was a deeply uncomfortable sensation and he took a deep breath before sighing hard and closing his eyes, wishing so very hard that daybreak would come soon. He stood there, rubbing his temples, and weighed his options.

It was his duty, explicitly outlined in a warrant signed by the Emperor himself, to gather any and all information pertinent to the survival of the Empire. This definitely counted as an existential threat. He could only be sure about Daggerfall, but something told him that this wasn’t just happening here. The sky, the Serpent… if they couldn’t see the stars, then surely nobody could. Perhaps all of Tamriel was under attack. But he couldn’t do anything about the rest of Tamriel. He could only do something about High Rock. And right now, that meant going to Daggerfall and finding out who was sacking the city.

Sirius had joined him outside and Solomon sank down on his haunches next to the dog, still wide-eyed and panting hard, whining softly at his master’s soft touch. “It’s going to be okay, boy,” Solomon murmured and ran his hand through Sirius’ plentiful black coat. “Stay here with Bozo and the others. Okay? Stay.” His tone was commanding, but not unkind, and the dog settled down on his rear and licked his chops as if to say that he understood. Solomon nodded and straightened back up, though it was a while before he moved again. He stood still, eyes staring blindly into the gloom, while he processed what had happened.

“I’m going to the city,” Solomon announced a while later to the people inside as he stuck his head in through the door. Bruno and Joy were busy with Janus, so Solomon looked towards the others instead. “I have to find out what’s going on.” He hesitated for a moment. How much about his motivations should he explain? They’d probably already guessed that he wasn’t just an innkeeper, and if Breton society had collapsed there was no point in keeping secrets. But still… “Anyone coming?”

Kneeling in the corner, Sihava opened her eyes for the first time since she’d entered Bruno’s cabin. Praying to Nocturnal had yielded...predictable results. No response. Of course, the Daedric prince had never actually spoken to her, not really. She’d only ever communicated in the subtlest of ways. Often, Sihava hadn’t noticed them until they’d made themselves obvious. So she needed to make her own way, now. And she desperately wanted to know what was happening. An undead uprising and the sacking of Daggerfall, all in one night. The Serpent’s sign burning above. All of it was connected somehow. Sihava had spent her life in search of power. And knowledge was power.

Not to mention, she added to herself, I don’t much like Bruno, and as far as I can tell, he doesn’t like me. The less time I spend in his house--indebted to him--the better for everyone. Especially me.

She sent some thoughts to Solomon, then: an image of herself, an image of Daggerfall, a nebulous feeling of readiness. Nodding once, more to reassure herself of her decision than anything else, she rose to her feet smoothly, cracking her knuckles with a series of satisfying pops. Then she felt an odd sensation on her chest, and realized: there was a faint warmth emanating from her amulet. Not enough to be comfortable or uncomfortable, but more than enough to be noticeable. A ghost of a smile flitted across her face for half a moment at the acknowledgement.

Sinalare was leaning against the wall, some distance away from the rest of the group. Her hand twitched irritatedly, tapping against her thigh. She was aggravated by what was going on. She truly thought she had seen enough city-destroying level disasters when the Great War ended, and yet here one was, directly in front of her, and she stood doing nothing, safe in a shack. Irritation pricked at her the longer she stood still, anxiety about her companions and the events of the night only growing as long as she didn’t distract herself.

Solomon’s announcement was welcome. The innkeep was, clearly, more than that, but Sinalare hardly cared, so long as he continued to be as capable as seemed. She pushed off from the wall, her unsteady hand coming to rest calmly on her sword-belt. Her nerves relaxed once she knew she’d be outside again, doing something -- sitting still never agreed with her.

“I’ll come,” she announced. “I’ll be of more use out there than in here.”

He was still not used to Sihava’s arcane method of communicating but he refrained from flinching this time and merely nodded in acknowledgement. It had been a chaotic fight at the inn but Solomon hadn’t failed to notice her skills in stealth and misdirection. The Illusion magic, in particular, was impressive. Given that they were walking into a presumably hostile city, her abilities would be invaluable.

His eyes fell on Sinalare after that and he didn’t say anything for a moment. She had been antsy and restless until he had called on her and Solomon recognized that for what it was immediately. He was the same, and he felt a strange kinship with the Bosmer despite their obvious differences. The question of whether he could trust her was still alive in his mind and the idea of having someone that was once an enemy watching his back made him uncomfortable. After seeing her fight, and now seeing her fidget, he was sure that she was ex-Dominion.

But if there was one thing that old soldiers hated the most, it was waiting. He couldn’t stand it and neither could she, and now she had seized the opportunity to do something useful. Solomon couldn’t deny her that. They were all on the same team now. “Alright,” he said eventually and unsheathed his falchion. “Let’s do this.”

Leaving Sirius to rejoin Bozo and the others inside, the three of them set off towards Daggerfall, keeping a low profile and hugging the lay of the land to stay out of sight from any potential sentinels outside the walls. The once-wooded areas outside the city had made way for farmland and they moved silently through the stalks and rows of corn and grain, staying off the roads to avoid any unwelcome encounters. After half an hour they began to approach the killing fields outside of the gates and Solomon sank down in a ditch by the side of the road that led up to the walls, surveying the field in front of them.

The bodies of those slain in the slaughter they had first witnessed on their arrival remained where they had fallen, but the laughing killers had disappeared. The columns of smoke that rose over the city had thinned and diminished and less flamelight illuminated them. Most important, however, was that the bells had ceased ringing, and a strange silence had descended over the city. Solomon surmised that the people that had sacked Daggerfall had started fighting the fires, which meant that the fighting -- if there had been any -- was over. It was still and quiet outside the gates, which remained wide open, probably shattered off their hinges, and Solomon could just barely make out that the streets beyond the high arch of stone were devoid of people. Staying low in the ditch, they followed the length of the road, shrouded by the intense darkness and the shadows cast by the crops that whispered over their heads. Solomon’s anxiety disappeared with every step they took, replaced with a reassuring, iron resolve. The closer he was to danger, the less agitated he felt. It was a strange paradox that he had never been able to adequately explain, but it sure came in handy now.

After waiting in the ditch for ten more minutes to make sure that the field outside was well and truly abandoned, Solomon and the others broke cover and sped across the frozen ground -- their breaths steaming in the inexplicably cold air -- in order to kneel down by one of the corpses that had been left in the dirt. Solomon rolled it over to reveal that it was a middle-aged man, clearly in good health and garbed in fine clothes, who had been stuck through the neck with something viciously sharp before bleeding out in the mud. A merchant or an aristocrat, Solomon thought, and he mumbled something to that effect before he left the dead man to inspect another corpse.

They were all like that. Rich men and women, dressed in their evening finest, who had been run down and killed like game. An uncomfortable sensation crept up on Solomon as memories came back of his work, before the Emperor had been assassinated and he was reduced to gathering intelligence at a wayside inn, his field privileges removed -- certain groups he had investigated, festering in High Rock’s dark underbelly, who had whispered of overthrowing the rich and seizing control for themselves. With black foreboding, Solomon turned towards the city gates. His gaze lingered there for a moment. Was the gate left undefended because the unknown belligerents did not expect anyone to come from outside the city? Were they aware of the dead rising to drench the countryside in blood? Had they been counting on it?

Solomon beckoned for his allies to follow him as he crossed the remaining distance to the towering city walls and huddled up close against them, the vast shadow cast by the stone monolith shrouding them from sight, the sundered gate two dozen yards to their right. “Alright,” he whispered and looked Sihava and Sinalare in the eye as best he could in the near impenetrable gloom. “We can either chance it and go in through the gate, or we stay out here and keep moving along the wall until we find another point of entry -- a sewer grate or something. The gate appears to be undefended and I have a feeling that whoever has taken control of the city isn’t expecting anyone to come in from the outside.. That’s why I say we take the gate, but you never know. Maybe we should play it safe. Thoughts?”

A jolt of nerves hit Sinalare as the idea of crawling through a sewer was mentioned. Going underground was the last thing she’d like to do. She leaned over a little to throw a glance at the gates. It would probably be fine, right? She hesitated to voice an opinion, fearing a wrong choice.

Sihava held up her hand, the deep blue glint of an invisibility spell dancing along her fingers, and gave a little smile. Holding up her other index finger in a ‘hold on’ motion, she breathed deeply a few times to slow herself down, or to calm herself--a strategy she’d used countless times to stop herself from doing something reckless--and let the spell creep over her, fading her from sight. She stalked down the road towards the gate, making sure to remain as quiet as she could. After all, no matter how invisible you were, you could still make just as much noise. Her breaths faded to quick, light, and silent as she passed through the gate.

Sinalare pressed back against the wall, hoping Sihava would have success at the gate. “That’s effective,” she mumbled.

The streets beyond the gate that greeted her were still dimly lit by the smoldering structures of the houses that stoo I Ud there, many having gone up in flames during the night’s chaos, now reduced to standing half-structures aglow with embers, sending the occasional shower of sparks into the sky. Not every house was burnt; whether randomly or by the hand of some unknown methodology, some were spared while others had suffered. Vortices of heat swirled through the streets, mercifully banishing the freezing air that wafted into the city through the open gate, sending flurries of ash and debris scattering with every gust. Visibility was limited, as smoke still hung cloying and blue between the buildings, not thick enough to snatch one’s breath away but close to it.

Five men unexpectedly stepped out of one of the unburnt houses, oblivious to Sihava’s invisible presence. All were dressed in grey robes and they wielded weapons -- a mace, an axe, a hammer, and so on -- that were clearly coated with fresh blood. “Was that the last of them?” one, a dark-skinned Redguard, asked the others.

“Yes, brother,” a morbidly pale Breton replied and raised a hand to point, his finger extended in the direction of the heart of the city. “We should go. The High Priest will speak soon.”

“A glorious day,” the Redguard said, a beatific smile on his face, wildly at odds with the near apocalyptic scene around them.

The group of men turned around and began to walk away deeper into the city, leaving the gate still undefended and the streets empty once more. Sihava had remained unnoticed.

She grit her teeth, barely resisting the driving urge to throw them against each other with a quick rune of Frenzy at their feet. There was something more important here to worry about. She should go back. Show the image of the men to Sinalare and Solomon, recollect with them, make a plan, figure out how to do this more intelligently. They seemed smart. Probably smarter than she was at this kind of thing, at any rate. If she was back there, then they would probably grab her by the shoulders and pin her to the ground until she agreed to settle down and wait for an opportunity.

But this was a perfect opportunity, right here! Sure, she could try to slow herself down with measured breathing, like she’d done so often in the past. But...what kind of raiders wore gray robes and called each other ‘Brother?’ What kind of bandit leader was called the High Priest? What ‘glorious day’ were they talking about? Her curiosity was fatally piqued by this point, and she was inescapably in its grip. They’d said it was the last; who knew when there would be another way to find where the leader was? With a quick glance backwards--they can handle themselves, right?--she slid behind a wall and let her invisibility drop. Better to save the magicka, and she could tail idiots like these with her eyes closed. She threw out a thought over the wall, hoping that it might reach the two outside, but unsure whether or not it would: they gray-robed men, their conversation, and then, of course, Sihava behind them as they walked.

Then she followed with silent feet, trailing them into the ruined husk of Daggerfall.

When it remained suspiciously silent and Sihava did not return, Solomon crept up to the side of the gate and dared to take a peek -- only to find the streets empty and the Dunmer woman gone. “Son of a bitch,” Solomon muttered under his breath and looked over his shoulder at Sinalare. “Looks like we’ll have to make our way through the city.” He had caught a snippet of what he thought must have been communication from Sihava, but the only thing he had been able to make out was a vague impression of a group of armed men. The fact that these men were now gone, and Sihava too, meant that she was either discovered and taken by force, or that they left and she followed them. Solomon knew dark elves as headstrong and independent people, so he didn’t put it beyond her to leave them in the ash like that.

Fortunately, the ash gave them a trail to follow. Even with the fire-fueled gale that swept through the city, the footprints of the passage of such a large group could not be erased from the street fast enough to be hidden from Solomon’s experienced gaze. The Imperial and the Bosmer stuck to the shadows as well they could, but they had to kneel down in the middle of the road every so often to check the trail to make sure they were still going the right way. It was during one of these moments that they were suddenly interrupted.

“There!” came an excited voice from an alley, and Solomon looked up sharply as he leapt back to his feet. Another group of armed insurgents -- they swept out of the alley and fanned out in a circular formation immediately, trapping him and Sinalare by surrounding them. There were six in total, four men and two women. They were outnumbered three-to-one.

“Wait!” one of the women called out before Solomon could say anything. “I know his face. From the inn outside the city. The Trusty Dog, was it?”

That prompted Solomon, who still held onto his falchion tightly, to look at her more closely. He didn’t recognize her, but it looked like she had recently cut off most of her hair and her face was marked with red paint in a strange symbol… or was it blood?

The Loyal Hound, actually,” he said tersely.

She scoffed. “What are you doing here, innkeep? You’re supposed to be dead. You, and all the other sinners out there.”

He shrugged, thunder on his brow. “Didn’t take.”

Another voice behind him spoke up. “You’re surrounded. Drop your weapons.”

Solomon’s scowl deepened. “All I am surrounded by is dead men.”

He elbowed Sinalare with one arm to spur her into action and raised the other in a bright flash of lightning that struck one of the gray-robed women square in the chest, throwing her off her feet.

Sinalare spun to face the opposite direction as Solomon, her left hand flying out in front of her, sending a blast of flame at the two nearest robed men. The flames blew them back, one dropping his sword so that he could block his face from the heat. Her right hand flew to her sword, and she moved to engage a gray-robed woman. The strange woman blocked Sinalare’s blows, once, twice, three times - the Bosmer stepped closer still, and launched her leg out in a low attack. Her shin struck the woman’s thigh, disorienting her, and Sinalare knocked her sword aside, slicing into her unguarded neck. The woman’s blood spattered and her spasming body thumped to the ground, writhing as her blood flowed onto the street.

The gray-robed figures were unprepared for the vicious onslaught of the two Great War veterans, and Solomon could see the fear in their eyes as the street lit up with flashes of lightning and bursts of flame, the blood of their comrades splattered across the cobblestones. But they found their resolve -- they were fanatics of some kind, Solomon assumed -- and put up a brave effort. He had killed the woman in front of him with his lightning bolt, its power fueled by his anger but also draining so much magicka that Solomon relied on his sword for the others. His skill and experience outmatched theirs put together and he dismantled their offense in a clinical fashion, falchion singing with the thrill of blood purchased with honest steel, his face set into a grim sneer. He parried the Redguard expertly, used his free hand to slap his weapon away and pivoted on the spot, a roar escaping his throat as he extended his blade horizontally in his spin and decapitated the man with a single, clean stroke. Another fell to a series of brutal slashes and stabs, a page from a swordsmanship instruction manual come to life, that the Breton was far too slow to stop.

Between him and Sinalare, only two of the six gray-robes remained just a few seconds after combat had erupted. They backpedaled and turned to run, cries of alarm already rising in their throats, but Solomon lifted a piece of charred debris with telekinesis and flung the projectile after them, knocking one down and sending him tumbling onto the ashen street. The other, however, was fleet of foot and Solomon cursed. “Sinalare! After him! I’ll finish this one!” he yelled and bore down on the man he had knocked down with ill intent.

Sinalare wrenched her sword out of the recently-made corpse below her. The man’s blood pooled under her feet. At Solomon’s words, the bosmer’s attention flew up to the fleeing man and she set out after him, smears of blood left where her quick feet landed on the cobblestones. She took three long bounds, raising her free hand to cast a bolt of lightning. The electric projectile launched at the zealot. A cry of pain was torn from his throat as the magic struck his right leg and he went down, wailing the whole way, his weapon abandoned. Prostrate on the ground, the last fanatic’s face filled with horror as he watched Sinalare’s last bloody steps towards him. Her foot caught his shoulder and she stepped down, hard, thrusting her sword into his chest.

She pulled back her sword, which was dripping with fresh blood. She turned to Solomon, from several paces away, and with a smile, she called, “Got him!”

With the assailants slain, an eerie, soot-filled silence descended over the streets once more. Solomon nodded at Sinalare to convey his respect and gratitude. She was his blood-sister now, a comrade-in-arms. Whatever their past differences, he felt that he could trust her. It was a weight off his shoulders.

Up ahead, the streets opened up into a wide city square. A large crowd had gathered there, beneath the wafting smoke and the swarms of sparks that soared on the air, staring up at a makeshift podium where three dignitaries appeared to await their execution. Those that thronged at the front were almost exclusively dressed in the same gray robes as the group that Sihava had followed to get there, but there were plenty of seemingly ordinary people further back, most of whom looked frightened and confused. More gray-robes patrolled the edges of the crowd, wielding maces and batons, and applied them liberally to keep the corralled city masses in line.

Someone, a bearded man in a white robe, wielding a massive hammer, was speaking, but his voice did not carry far enough to reach beyond the edges of his audience. Fortunately for Sihava, nobody seemed to be paying really close attention to the streets that emptied into the square -- clearly, whoever these people were, they believed they had done a thorough job at securing the city.

The wind changed, and snippets of the bearded man’s voice carried far enough for Sihava to hear. “... ever the outcast, now the brightest… as foretold by our prophet, the Lord of… on this blessed day.” She would have to get closer if she wanted to hear the rest.

Giving a quiet “tch,” she ducked behind the burned-out shell of a building. As good as she was at sneaking about, she was in the nerve center of their entire operation now, as far as she could tell. No point putting herself at risk. She steadied her breathing, calming her racing pulse. Come on, Siha. This is no different from that time in Solitude. You can do this in your sleep. She let the shimmer of invisibility cloud her over again, then slunk about the edges of the crowd, being careful to avoid any pools of ash that could leave her footprints, or the roaming grey-robed men. If she bumped into one, she knew, she was NOT going to have a good time.

Come on, big guy, she thought grimly as she slowly edged her way closer to the white-robed man, what are you saying? She was so close now to figuring out what was going on, she could almost taste it.

Her expertise paid off and the voice of the white-robed man grew in power until she could hear his words clearly. “Stendarr’s might has guided our victory here today,” he said and lifted the hammer over his head, eliciting a roar of approval from those at the front of the crowd and a demure murmur of forced assent from the rest of the citizenry. “Just as the machinations of Akatosh, Arkay, Kynareth and the other Divines have guided the victory of our brothers and sisters across the cities of High Rock. We will restore balance. The wealth and prosperity that has been hoarded by the so-called elite, the kings and lords in their castles and mansions, their lives full of avarice and degeneracy, will be redistributed among the people. Rejoice, my fellow citizens! You have been spared -- you have been deemed worthy. Weep not for the nobility that we hunted down like the dogs they are, or for those that succumbed to their sin and tried to resist the cleansing. Weep not for those outside the safety of the walls of our great city, for they shall be judged by the Serpent, and those that are pure will have nothing to fear from the servants of the great constellation.”

He took a few steps closer to the people on the platform with him, bowed and shackled, awaiting their fate. “As High Priest of Stendarr, it is my pleasure to tell you that this is merely the beginning of a new era. The gods have ordained it, and the Lord of Moths has enlightened us to this truth. How can anyone question his word now? Everything he has prophesied has come to pass. Recognize now the authority of the High Priest of Akatosh and his humble servants, or perish. Because once dawn breaks and the sun rises on Tamriel once more, on Dawn’s Beauty herself, it will be a new world. The land outside these gates will be cleansed, ripe for the taking, to feed and clothe us. A new world indeed… one that we will build together.”

Looking towards his prisoners, the High Priest raised hammer again and scowled. “But without them. No more leeches, my children. No more parasites like the so-called King and his family, or anyone that stands with them. Their unjust and sinful rule ends today.”

The High Priest’s robe stained red and the sound of the hammer being dropped, crushing heads beneath its inexorable weight, was drowned out by the bloodthirsty cheers and horrified gasps of the crowd.

The invisible thief brought her hand up to her mouth reflexively. She had no love for kings, but murder was murder, whoever the victim. She fought past the nausea, holding grimly on to her mission. Come on, Siha, focus. What did he say? The Lord of Moths? She searched her memory for anything like that--King of Worms, Wolf Queen--but nothing was forthcoming. She'd never put much stock in the divine, at least not recently, but somehow, she doubted that Stendarr--the god of Protection--would have been alright with the slaughter of last night, or that Arkay would have ordained the undead.

Still. This 'High Priest of Stendarr' did bring one comfort to her. This was happening across High Rock. Not Skyrim, not Cyrodiil, not Morrowind. Just High Rock. Lips set in a grim white line, she carefully backed away from the blood-soaked stage. Her invisibility didn't have long left. It was past time to go.

The triple-threat trio of Solomon, Sinalare and Sihava met up again as the Dunmer retreated from the packed executioner’s square and they abandoned the city as quick as they had entered, leaving only the six corpses of the cultists behind in the smoking corpse-hull of Daggerfall. The benefits of Sihava’s unique method of communication became evident when she was able to soundlessly relay what she had seen by projecting the memories into Solomon’s mind, who did not recoil from her arcane touch this time -- he devoured the images and the sound of the High Priest’s voice greedily as they hurried through the shadow-shroud beneath the stalks of corn outside the city walls.

It was terrible news. If all of the cities of High Rock had indeed fallen to this murderous doomsday cult, then there were precious little safe havens left in the province. But Solomon could still think of one -- a place deep in the mountains where they could rest, resupply and regroup.

“Ken Muhyr,” he whispered to himself. “I hope your walls still stand.”

Welcome back, @A Man Is No One. I'm truly sorry to hear your life has been impacted so negatively by the coronavirus (and other things, I'm sure), and I hope that you can find some peace and satisfaction in writing once more.

How do you feel about the Elder Scrolls?
Fantastic premise. I'm gonna give some thought as to whether I have enough time to spare, but you have my attention.
ft. @Spoopy Scary

With every passing minute they put more distance between themselves and the chaos at the inn. Solomon kept looking over his shoulder in the hopes of seeing a victorious Janus emerge, backlit by the increasingly distant blaze, but he was disappointed each time. Aside from him, everyone that had been in the common room with Solomon had made it out, and Henry had survived too. Everyone else, all the other guests and the staff -- his cook, his cleaning lady, his barmaid -- had perished, torn apart and mauled by the voracious undead. Now that the clamoring and the combat had ceased and the surge of adrenaline began to fade, as the still, impenetrable blackness pressed in on them, it didn’t even feel real. Not even the starless sky above his head felt real, or the freezing chill in the air, or the Serpent burning like hot coals, staring down at the world with malice.

“Don’t look at it,” Solomon said to the others in a low voice. “Don’t look at the Sign. It’s… there’s something wrong with it. It’ll stop you in your tracks and make you deaf and dumb. Keep your eyes on the horizon and your heads on a swivel. There’s no telling what else might be lurking out here tonight.” He sounded confident and commanding, but inside he felt just as confused and afraid as the others. He had lost more than any of them and the weight of that sat heavily in his guts, like a toxic clump of lead. But they weren’t out of the woods yet, and Solomon had to focus. They were in a warzone now and he was their commanding officer. There would be time to mourn later.

His eyes furtively scanned the rows of grain and corn on either side of the road. Each wavering shadow was another corpse stepping out of the dark until he blinked and the crops were once again just that: crops. Still, he kept a white-knuckle grip around the hilt of his falchion, leaving behind a trail of black blood, a droplet falling from its curved tip in the cadence of his steps. He left behind a trail of his own blood too, from the various bite wounds and claw marks he had been dealt in his fight against the undead horde, but he paid it no mind. He’d suffered and recovered from a lot worse. Solomon kept up a rapid pace, too fast for talking, and the group moved in silence. It felt wrong to speak anyway; as if they might disturb something and shatter the fragile peace they had found on the road.

After two miles, one-third of the way to the city walls, Solomon turned and finally saw what he had been looking for: Janus, sat astride his brave steed, catching up to them at last. He breathed a sigh of relief and the group halted for a moment, but their collective breaths were caught in their throats when they saw that Janus was slouched forward in the saddle, face buried in the nape of his horse’s neck, clearly no longer conscious. Henry shot forward to take Vodevic’s reins and began to whisper the horse’s name into his ears to calm him down. Vodevic himself was clearly frightened and exhausted, whinnying nervously while his muscles trembled and his eyes were rolling in their sockets. “Good boy,” Henry cooed, finding his own courage and purpose in calming the horse. Janus had entrusted him with the stallion’s name -- this was his task now. Mercifully, the headless horseman was nowhere to be seen.

Meanwhile, Solomon inspected Janus. His clothes were wet with blood and there was what looked like a giant bruise on his temple, but he was alive -- a slow and steady pulse could be felt in his wrist. Solomon looked over his shoulder at the expectant faces of the others and nodded. Once Henry had finished calming down Vodevic, Solomon climbed into the saddle behind Janus and wrapped his arms around the big man to keep him steady. He was too heavy for any of them to carry. Solomon groaned at the weight of the man. “What in Oblivion do they feed you people… wherever you’re from,” he muttered. They had to keep going and find a healer for him in the city. Out here wasn’t a safe place to stop and tend to his wounds. Solomon used his heels to spur Vodevic into a light trot, setting the pace for the others to follow.

The remaining miles until the city came into view were mercifully uneventful. The city appeared from behind a rolling hill as the road turned towards the high walls of Daggerfall. “We’re close now,” Solomon said to the others, daring to speak a little louder. “Just a little --” His words died in his throat as he realized what he was looking at.

Daggerfall was on fire. They could see the city clearly now, a mile away from its gates, and the eerie sound of the alarm bells ringing began to penetrate the stillness of the air. Thick columns of smoke rose up from behind the walls, lit from below by raging fires, some of which were visible through the massive city gates that were open wide. People were spilling out, just small figures in the distance, backlit by the all-too familiar incendiary light of the fires, scattering in all directions. They were fleeing the city. Had the undead risen in Daggerfall too and set fire to the jewel of Glenumbra? Perhaps not; he saw others too, too fast and too coordinated to be zombies, chasing after the citizens and cutting them down in the fields in front of the walls. Even from this far away, he could hear the killers whooping and hollering, celebrating the slaughter in a twisted fashion.

Solomon felt the painful knot in his stomach tighten even further as the enormity of the situation sank in. The citizens of Daggerfall were fleeing to their doom. They would find no safety in the dark countryside. And with the city fallen to an unknown foe and the inn burned to the ground by the death knight, Solomon felt his resolve falter at the thought of being forced to wander the countryside until daybreak. They needed shelter -- to rest, to eat, to heal. He checked Janus’ pulse again and found that it was weakening. “Fuck,” Solomon growled.

“This is no place for us to be standing around.” Bruno said, his voice breaking the despairing silence. “Come. My cabin should be nearby. We should remain quiet once we get there. No sign of life ‘til morn.”

It took a second or two for Bruno’s words to register with Solomon. Of course -- he’d forgotten that the shepherd lived here, outside the walls. He looked at the Nord with visible gratitude in his eyes and nodded. “Agreed. Lead the way.”

It was perhaps another half hour of travel before the group happened upon a homestead - it looked dead and abandoned under the night sky with nothing lighting its interior, and its size left a lot to be desired if this would truly be their shelter for the night. It was a small, one room cabin meant to house one or two people, but it was surrounded by a fenced-in pasture. The livestock that would normally be fast asleep were restless and fearful under the Serpent’s light. Undoing the latch, Bruno led the others through as he played sentinel at the gates. He silently cursed the darkness as he tried to look down the road toward Daggerfall, and on the other side toward The Loyal Hound. Immediately running up to his side was a black and white dog, whining and fretful, and pressing itself against his leg and seeking it’s master’s comfort.

“Don’t worry Bozo, I’m home now.” He said, petting the dog’s head.

The inside of the cabin was quaint. Small, as expected, but quaint and surprisingly well kept. There was a large bed in one corner of the cabin that took up more space than was needed, using up the already limited space, not to mention the cooking space, workbench, and what have you, which made the furnished porch make more sense. But Bruno knew that his guests weren’t about to complain about their shelter.

“There’s a door to the cellar next to the fireplace,” Bruno said, “though it’s even smaller and there’s not much headspace. At least there’s beer down there, though.”

He stepped outside, seeing Solomon struggle with Janus. “Let me help you with him.”

Together, the two men -- along with Henry’s more-hindrance-than-help form of assistance -- were able to carry the wounded Janus inside and lay him down on the bed. Sirius had found Bozo and the two dogs enjoyed a moment of happiness at being reunited, at which Solomon shot them an agitated shush. Using his hidden blade, Solomon cut open Janus’ clothes to reveal the injuries beneath: two slashes on his torso, along his ribcage and down his back, that fortunately hadn’t cut too deeply. It was the blunt force injury on his temple that had knocked him out. Thinking on his feet, Solomon conjured half of an ice spike in his hand and pressed the magical shard of ice against the Colovian’s temple to reduce the swelling. Meanwhile, he instructed Henry to cut up some cloth and make field dressings for the cuts.

“Never thought I’d be laying a half-naked man into my bed,” Bruno remarked sardonically, “but what can you do.”

Too wired and too tired to respond to the wisecrack in kind, Solomon only shrugged and sat back against the wall to make space for Janus’ wounds to be tended to while he dabbed at the man’s temple with the ice. He looked out into the rest of the small cabin, made even smaller by the others as they filtered in, and looked at each of them. Some, like the Dunmer women and their respective magical abilities, had revealed hidden depths. Others were just regular citizens caught in a nightmare, like Joy. He exhaled slowly, leaned his head back and closed his eyes for a moment.

“Fucking hell,” was all he could say.

“I’ve got an alchemy table in here.” Bruno said, gesturing to the inside workbench. “I’m no expert or anything, but I can get him started on some pain relief if nothing else. Hopefully it can reduce the swelling.”

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