18th Midyear 4E208, late evening, Alik’r camp…
To Speak Ill of the DeadThe Trial of Gregor Sibassius
The sun had yet to set, and that meant that there was still time. Every minute in which Gregor did not arrive back to their tent was a minute lost with him, perhaps forever. All that she could do was sit. Sit in front of the mirror, gracefully as possible. Her back was straight, shoulders relaxed, her head high and chin pointed. No expression.
The fingers of her left hand held a thin kohl, which she swept over the lids of her eyes. They were no longer bloodshot, the bags had gone - a simple touch of magicka sorted that, all it ever took was the slightest effort. She hadn’t been able to find the time lately, now all she had was time in abundance. Time alone, time to think, time to be scared. So this was all that she could do, paint a face to hide her face. Her dress, simple cloth - fastened in a halter around her neck and clasped in place with a thick gold choker. As she had taken it from her clothing bag, she had remembered buying it in Hammerfell, how she’d been saving it for a special evening. Special evenings did not belong to her any longer, and so what was supposed to mark a memory was just a piece of gold now hanging around her neck like a noose.
Raelynn placed a hand on her chest, expecting to feel her heart beating like that of a newborn bird - fragile and trembling. There was still the pain, grasping onto her ribs, unable to let go for now… But she was still, as calm as still waters. Her hands did not shake, her chin did not tremble, she was just still.
Gregor's return was silent, like an owl gliding on its wings, and it wasn't until the tent flap opened that Raelynn would have noticed his presence. He was dressed entirely in his old black battledress, complete with hooded cloak and scarf pulled up to his eyes; an outfit that would have been wildly impractical for any mortal in the Alik'r. For Gregor, who no longer felt heat and had every reason to cover his visage, it was merely practical. Every inch of his skin was hidden. His only visible features were his eyes, glowing faintly like a predator's in the dark.
He did not say anything. Something was amiss, he could tell, and he waited for Raelynn to explain.
Gregor’s silent entry was something strange indeed, but she was used to his presence and it did not cause her to flinch, or strike a fright through her. She kept her eyes on her own in the glass, until in the background of the mirrors image she could make out his. Without turning, she looked into them and spoke as clearly as she could, “they know, Gregor.” They were words she had never wanted to say, words she said and took blame for deep within. “They know what we did.”
For almost half a minute it looked like Gregor had turned to stone, so motionless was he, and when he moved to sit down it was slow and cautious, like an old man, or more accurately like someone who has received very bad news. The words out of his mouth were soft and filled with trepidation. “What happens next?”
Raelynn began to run a comb through her hair. Slowly, slowly… Looking at her own reflection in the mirror, Gregor in the background - she watched him lower himself to sit as though he were wading through quicksand. “I… Found some level of agreement with Daro’Vasora… We’re to meet them at a cave by nightfall. I asked her to bring her most trusted - and there we gather.” She stopped momentarily with the comb midway through her hair. “I don’t know what happens beyond that… I don’t know how much I can protect you, protect us
The reply came as barely more than a whisper. “I’m sorry. For this. For everything. You don’t have to protect me. This isn’t your… fault, your responsibility. Save yourself, if it comes to that.”
She continued to smooth her hair down with the comb, only this time did she turn her head to actually face Gregor properly, “I didn’t throw you to the wolves in Gilane, and I’m not going to do so now either. I…” She paused, wondering what more she could say, and turned back to the mirror, resuming the ritual she had started. “Whatever happens, I’ll be by your side.”
Slowly, Gregor shook his head. He put his face in his hands. The only sounds were the teeth of the comb going through Raelynn’s hair and the muffled activity of the camp beyond the tent. “Thank you,” Gregor said at last.
“Before we get started here, I want to make one thing absolutely crystal clear; what you’re about to hear is going to be upsetting, it’s going to hurt, and if word of this gets out to the Alik’r, we’re all dead.” Daro’Vasora announced to the gathered group around the fire that had been set up under the overhang that she had spent with Raelynn and Fjolte the night before. It was a beautiful night, the air was cooling down but despite of the temperature beginning to crawl lower and lower, Daro’Vasora didn’t feel cold; there was something far worse at stake here, and the sugar had yet to run its full course. She felt exhausted.
“I gathered you all for this meeting because this affects you all most of all, and I’m hoping shared history counts for something. For those of us who were there at the beginning, and those we met in the rangers, we have all survived the unthinkable by learning to respect and trust in one another.” The Khajiit began, letting the words sink in as she paced around the fire, only occasionally making eye contact with those seated around the fire.
“Point is, I’ve come across some hard news to swallow that has challenged a lot of what I thought about us as a group, and I promised I would keep it quiet until we all had a chance to speak together as one because despite how I feel about this particular situation, I cannot ignore everything else we’ve all been through, and I want to stress that when I get to the reason for our gathering, I cannot have anyone scream or shout or otherwise draw attention to us; our lives depend on how well we keep our shit under wraps.” The Khajiit said sternly, pausing to take in the faces across the flames.
“It does not matter how much we’ve earned good will with the Alik’r, this will certainly cause some of us to die, if not all of us. Let that sink in, if you would. I fancy seeing tomorrow, and the day after, until we see our ultimate quest done.” Daro’Vasora said, stopping and scanning her eyes around the group to make sure that she registered looks of agreement and understanding.
The Khajiit sighed, wrapping her arms about her waist and stared into the flames, gathering her thoughts. This was something she still couldn’t believe she was about to say, and she still didn’t want to believe. Her gaze scanned up to Raelynn, who was staring blankly ahead, virtually expressionless, the flickering flames highlighted the golden shimmers of make-up she’d painted her face with.
“I asked each of you because we are friends, companions, and we’ve all done some rotten shit over the past couple months, if not our entire lives. So, you can imagine how hard it is for me to have to say something like this, and I just want to say that I will not be the one making a decision from this, just making my own suggestions. You’ve all made it very clear how you all take to me making controversial decisions on my own.” She looked to Jone and Jode, imploring her ancestors for guidance and strength.
“Fuck it, here goes; I learned this morning that Gregor is a necromancer, and he has a trail of soul-trapped bodies in his wake. Nblec was one of them.” Daro’Vasora said suddenly, almost blurting it out. She rolled her shoulders and neck, trying to center herself and trying to ignore the sinking pit in her heart and soul as she uttered the words; it felt like the words hit the group as hard as they hit her earlier.
“I will leave it to him to explain what he has done, but by whatever god you beseech for help, hear him out. Despite the weight of what I have just said, he deserves to have his story told by him. I myself don’t know the details or why, but I’ve learned to trust in others who have trusted in me.” Daro'Vasora said, meeting Raelynn’s gaze and sighing before crouching next to the fire, staring into the flames. “So, let’s hear his story and decide what happens next when we’ve had a chance to listen and discuss it.”
Latro looked up from the flames playing with the shadows of his face, making his fierce eyes and harsh frown that bit moreso. Of course it was all a show. He had to be implacable, harsh, strong. Every bit the son of a Chieftain he never was. He was again shirtless and shoeless, the small scars gained over a lifetime of rough living now standing out paler than his tanned skin along with the new ones added the past weeks, lithe and corded muscles looking stronger than the man himself. “Speak,” He said with some authority, his expression softened somewhat as he looked away from Gregor, voice so soft the man before them all would have to read his lips to know what he said, not that they moved much with the whisper, “Friend.”
Despite having only known the entirety of the group for all of a couple of days - tonight would be the first time they would see Fjolte’s face devoid of a smile, or any kind of joy. Why he’d been asked to attend this, he wasn’t rightly sure. He hoped it was merely to be there for Raelynn, and not that she’d expected him to jump to her defence. That was not a position he wanted to be in, but still he sat at her side, and when she’d placed her fingers on the sand he took them into his hand, and nodded in her direction, to which she simply returned a collected stare. This was not his quarrel, not a place for him to share his opinions - yet, at least. He watched as her eyes moved slowly over the audience before them, landing on Latro as he too spoke out.
Slowly the black-clad figure seated by the fire began to uncoil from his position. The knees that had been pulled up almost to his chest extended and the arms wrapped around them released their grip, gauntleted hands finding purchase and support in the sand. Gregor looked up from the same spot between his legs that he had been staring at for the entirety of Daro’Vasora’s monologue and finally threw back his hood while pulling his scarf down, revealing himself. It could not be undone anymore.
The flickering light of the campfire was unkind to his face. His cheekbones cast long shadows over his gaunt cheeks, his lips appeared to have almost disappeared, so colorless were they, and the orange dancing flames were reflected in cerulean in the light behind his eyes. He was dead, that much was obvious. If any of those that had been summoned and gathered by the fire gasped, he ignored it.
Staring ahead into the fire, he began to speak.
“My family is cursed. An illness that ravaged my father’s brain, stealing his mind and his memories, took him from me when I was twenty-eight summers old. Before him, my grandfather suffered the same. And my great-grandfather. I learned this when I read the documents and journals my father left to me in his will. These described in great detail his search for a cure, a preventative measure, to save himself and his children. Magic, alchemy, prayer, surgery… nothing worked. Even after his illness had set in he continued to search, desperate by then, and it wasn’t until right before his passing that he came upon the trail of a final option. One last thing he hadn’t been able to try. One last method of cheating death. And with the last entry in his journal he left the task of exploring that possibility to me. His final words were thus; “it has to be you.”
That last option was necromancy. Lichdom.”
For the first time, Gregor looked around, meeting the eyes of the party each in turn. The expression on his face was not one of defiance or pride, as had been so common before whenever Gregor’s methods were questioned, but unassuming, sincere humility.
“At the expense of the souls of the Dwemer, and others before them, I have achieved this by bartering with the Ideal Masters, Daedric lords of the Soul Cairn, one of the infinite realms of Oblivion. I believed that if I stuck to the souls of outlaws, those who had already forfeited their place amongst the living, I was justified in doing so. Not just for myself but for my younger brother and my younger sister as well. The subsequent arrival of the Dwemer and their actions in the Imperial City marked them next. They were the enemy to you,” Gregor continued, eyes falling on Daro’Vasora, “one that some of you could even begin to sympathize with, but they were just a resource to me, waiting to be harvested. Not the foot soldiers and the common rabble but their leaders and officers. Worthy souls for a worthy sacrifice. Nblec first and Kerztar later. When you were all busy saving Daro’Vasora, Raelynn and I tried to assassinate Rourken. She was too powerful… far too powerful. But the major that had served as Sevari and Zaveed’s boss was a suitable alternative.”
He paused and returned his gaze back to the flames. “Then there was the Dwemer necromancer in the prison. His soul was stained black with death. If not for our timely intervention, Bakih would have been next. It seemed only fitting that I should take his soul, from one necromancer to the next, to put an end to his abuse of the souls of the innocent. Sirine struck the killing blow, unwittingly becoming a part of my crimes. I felt so vindicated, so justified, I merely laughed in her face…”
Silence stretched on for a few moments. “It is no small measure of irony that it is only now, through the clear lens of a dead man’s eyes, that I see how cruel that was, and that I know that this is no life for my siblings. I was afraid, you see. I was so terribly afraid… and that fear gave birth to a monster, the Reaper from the Pale, who thought that the ends justified the means -- any means. I lied, I murdered, I condemned. For all of that, I am sorry. I’m sorry that I lied to you, Daro’Vasora, about the medicine; that was just an excuse I made up. Jaraleet, I am sorry that I pinned Nblec’s death on you. I’m sorry that I put all of you in danger by acting so selfishly. I’m sorry that I led you all to believe that I am a good man,” he said, his voice growing more strained the longer he spoke.
His words caught in his throat and he looked at her with an expression so pained that it was as if his firstborn had crumbled to dust in his hands. No further words came and he averted his gaze. After a few seconds he managed to find his voice again. “Do not think harshly of her. She saw past the monster, judged me for the worth of the man beneath and thought me not beyond redemption. She did the same for Zaveed. It is her way.”
With a final, solemn nod, Gregor signed off on his words. “That is my story. I swear it is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. If you have any questions, ask them. If you have any fears, voice them. If you have any judgement… go ahead. Just know that the monster died out there in the desert, buried deep with my mortality in a pool of glass. I am just Gregor now.”
As Gregor spoke of her, the Breton beside him simply closed her eyes - her lids slowly meeting each other, she exhaled a long breath and squeezed on Fjolte’s fingers.
“I…” uttered a single voice amongst the crowd, a tender and vulnerable thing; the cadence in Calen’s voice lacked its usual projection, its sing-song whimsy, and instead trembled as he tried to find the strength and wisdom to summon the proper words to mind. He usually found little issue with remaining the neutral observer like his tutors had taught him to be so long ago, but now he found it too hard to accept what he was hearing. For the first time, he felt speechless. He looked up from his feet and onto Gregor’s emaciated face, illuminated by firelight, and he felt nothing but pain in his chest. To think he had truly been so heartless.
“I wrote a song for you once…” Calen said, trying to figure out where he was going with this as he went. “I sang your praises as if you were one of those vigilants… was that ever true? Was that a lie, or did you pretend that you were one of them? How many…?”Calen…
she thought, looking to him as if he were her brother. She’d dreamt of him, of shielding him from great darkness and now here she was - she’d been responsible for bringing it to him. She thought back to his blood on her hands, his face as white as snow. If it was not for the warmth of the flames to conceal it, she wondered if she’d see that same shade of white, sickly. Raelynn felt his words, the inflections of his voice - even when the Nord just spoke, it was melodic.
Nothing was coming to Meg's lips; frankly she was impressed that Calen had managed to muster up something to say. Try as she might to say even a word, her mouth was clamped shut in a straight line, very different from the easy smile that normally graced her face. The waves of thoughts in her mind were thunderous, however, and threatening to take her under. Once more her mind returned to night of the party, her conversations with both Jaraleet and Gregor, her suspicions about Nblec, and how the night had simply ended with her feeling stupid for not listening to the Argonian in the first place. He had known, hadn't he? Green eyes shifted away from the hands curled on her lap to cast a heavy lidded glance in the Argonian's direction, though it was merely for a second before she looked back at Gregor.
Necromancy, so vile, so disgusting. She could see in her mind’s eye the places she'd traipsed through with J'raij, the altars, the bodies, the bones, the sickening stench. To think such a person had been among them for so long, someone who stole souls
from others. To think there had been people who knew of these vile deeds-
What was there to think and feel? They had been her family, people she had trusted with her life, people she had been willing to put her life on the line for. She believed in them blindly, overlooking suspicions no matter how strong, pushing them away and to the back of her head so that she could be happy and at peace. Innocent, pure? No, that had just been stupidity and childishness; it no longer deserved a place in her, not anymore. What trust? It seemed no one here had trusted others enough until the truth revealed itself and there was nothing else to do but admit to the crimes. Meg could feel the bitterness of her thoughts as her lips remained sealed tight, her now lackluster eyes finally making their way to Sora once more. It was only then she felt something other than betrayal; her lips curved downward into a saddened frown. It was painful thinking how this news had to have affected the person who had been going out of her way the most to make things right while trying to keep them together.
At last she spoke, her voice as dry as the desert sand. "Fuck if I know what t'say..." Her teeth pressed hard against each other, grinding. "Kinda feels like... nevermind." She fell silent once more, unwilling to share her thoughts for the time being.
Raelynn’s eyes fell on Meg as she spoke, the girl whom she had watched grow, the girl whom had shown great bravery. She’d sat in their room that night, Gregor had comforted her while she had patched up Jaraleet. Meg was truly innocent, and as she glanced over and across the flames she saw parts of that innocence drift away. She felt the stinging itch in her chest again, but it was too deep within her to scratch.
As the conversation progressed, Anifaire felt increasingly disturbed. She related to Meg’s speechlessness; furthermore, the tense situation urged her not to speak at all, even if she did have something to contribute. Eyes stuck on the creature that was Gregor, she was on edge, worried at any moment the tension would snap.
“I was with the Vigilants for a long time,” Gregor said to Calen, leaving Meg to her thoughts for the time being. “That much was true, and we slew many an abomination together. What I didn’t say was that they were a means to an end. Every time we cleaned up a necromancer’s lair I would sneak out a book here, a scroll there.” Could he tell them that he had turned on the Vigilants eventually? No. Even now, there was such a thing as too much honesty, Gregor realized, and it pained him. “Until I eventually learned enough. The Vigilants died… fighting an Altmer necromancer that was beyond anything we’d faced before. It was from his scrolls that I learned of the existence of the Ideal Masters. I carried Hannibal’s body to Falkreath myself, to make sure he was buried properly. It was… awful.”
The apology to Daro'Vasora felt like it evaporated like a cup of water on a desert rock. Her gaze didn't waver from the flames, but the bone in her teeth grated. “So, what exactly are you now?” She asked Gregor, prodding a log further into the fire. “What was it worth, how many souls again?”
“How do we know?” Latro said, shifting in his seated position next to Sora. It felt like the words he’d thought up were for himself, though this trial was not aimed towards him. “When is the Reaper going to come calling again, Gregor? You looked me in the eyes and told me you were happy I was alive after Sevari and I barely survived the attack on our lives. There was sincerity there, I thought, and now sincerity here.”
“And then after that you fucking lied.” His voice grew cold and unforgiving like a winter’s wind. It was as if his next words were going to be on punishment the likes of which he practiced in the Reach. But, once again, he breathed and his eyes were cast to Sora for but a second before going back to Gregor’s pale ghost-lit pupils, “How do any of us know if those souls really were enough?
Latro’s words cut Raelynn to the core, he was someone that… What was he exactly? He was Daro’Vasora’s lover but he was more than that to her. An unexpected friend, a friend with whom she had shared intimate secrets with, some with only him. She couldn’t meet his eyes, not now. She could barely remember the day she’d met him in the infirmary. She remembered healing him, but mostly the memory of stroking his hair was the most vivid. The absolute silence of that moment had been a peaceful place to escape to when she’d felt scared. Now the silence from the very same man was what scared her.
Gaius was...stunned, perhaps. No, not quite the right word. Poleaxed, maybe, was closer to the truth. He hadn’t known Gregor. He hadn’t shared any of the hardships that the man-turned-Lich had shared with the rest of group, didn’t know who Nblec was, and felt supremely out of his depth. He hadn’t seen much of the undead, past a few draugr during his time in Skyrim; his job was to kill men and mer. Living creatures. But he’d seen the aftermath of their attacks throughout the weakened empire, and there was a special nook of his heart reserved solely for hating them. His thoughts churned as he struggled to reconcile the idea of the steady Imperial that he’d held in his thoughts--Gregor Sibassius, whose exploits he had heard just a touch of here and there from some of his old friends from the Jeralls in the past day--to the…the...creature
in front of him.
He abruptly stood, walking away from the fire a few strides and staring out into the desert as he tried to forcibly calm his hammering heartbeat and found little success. He was reasonably sure that the gnashing of his teeth was quite audible.
As the mutterings and the thoughts of the council subsided, Alim glanced this way and that. He’d been less than enthused throughout the entirety of the hearing, which was an oddity as all here would surmise. Even in the direst of circumstances, he was always able to find some modicrum of humor or good will. But as it stood, this seemed to be exception.
He cleared his throat, and leaned forward. It was as if he had materialized out of the crowd, though truth be told he had simply been quiet and hung back to allow others their questions and comments. It was time a few of his friends learned a bit about him, however.
“Well, this has been enlightening.” He spoke aloud, no doubt drawing attention to himself. He looked far more rugged and unkempt after having languished in the prison for Akatosh knew how long. His normally tied hair, cropped at the front was undone into a long dark mane, and there was a handsome goatee on his face.
He sighed, knowing he wouldn’t be able to provide much needed laughter in this dark time. Only experience. “I must admit I am biased.” he remarked, his gaze drifting to Gregor. He shrugged almost guiltily. “I don’t really like you, Gregor.”
He let the remark sink in. “However, I assume that since we’re here in a council, and you being at least my traveling companion, that you have a shot at redemption. Other necromancers we would simply behead and be on our merry way. Because most of them deserve it. You might not. I cannot provide an insightful ruling. It’s not my place. However, I can tell a story.”
Clearing his throat, he waited until at least most eyes were on him. “A few years ago I left my life as a sailor somewhat unexpectedly and violently, and found myself in Elsweyr. I met some very fine folk there. But after a week or so, I received word that Khajiit were being stolen. Well, they were disappearing, but they were being stolen, truth be told. As a forward scout and mage I infiltrated a cavern system with a few of my newfound Khajiit friends and ran aground of an order of dark mages wielding black magic.”
The memory wasn’t something he cherished. He would delete it from his mind if he could, were it not for his brother’s involvement. “I personally killed the Necromancer leader in front of a dozen helpless, tied up Khajiit. Khajiit bound and scared beyond belief. That their soul would be entrapped and their bodies used
He halted his speech, shaking his head. He would not mention his brother. Not now. “Necromancy is the foulest magic a man or mer can wield. But I have looked into the face of an evil son of a bitch. Someone who would go against nature and all sense of morality to further their own agenda.” It was something that could always get Alim disturbed. He still shuddered to think what would have happened had he not been there. “I have to say that I am at a loss. The fact that Gregor has been caught not only lying, but practicing that bastard of a magical art means his honor is beyond repair save the highest form of redemption… and I have also seen a bit in his eyes...I saw in his eyes what I saw in the vile sorcerer I killed… But I have also seen goodness.”
He realized just how much of a downer he was being, and shrugged again. “Hell, he might be a good drinking partner if he could control his inner demons. But make no mistake...they are
demons… If I were to make a ruling, and again, it is not my place so worry not. I would not see Gregor harmed or removed from the group. But I would not trust him either, and a group member we cannot trust is nothing short of a liability. We should watch him, and work with him to purge these dark urges. We should be a team for him. We cannot lose our own roles in this. We need to support him and attempt to aid him, lest we are as bad as the Dwemer. But I am afraid if left unchecked, there could other innocents at stake. Some of us could be bound and helpless...used for schemes and treated as meat puppets.”
He took a long breath, and shut his mouth. It was their turn now. “Hope that helped.”
Anifaire listened raptly as Alim talked, surprised by the story, yet she could not peel her eyes off Gregor. The man’s strange change in appearance was disturbing like nothing she had ever seen, and simply hearing normal words come out of his mouth was alarming. He looked like he should be buried. It was like watching an accident; she couldn’t turn her head to look at her companions’ reactions, though they made her almost as nervous.
Alim’s words hit Raelynn too, it was because of Alim that she was here and that was something she would never be able to forget, or be grateful to him for. At least, in some ways she was grateful - for all the good she’d experienced on the road, she’d experienced much terror alongside it. Yet here they all were together still. She met Alim’s eyes with her own, they were so familiar and warm and he was beautiful inside and out, he had been there for her without judgement from the beginning. She could only hope that would remain. She mouthed across the flames to him; “thank you.”
Latro nodded along. It was years ago in the Reach that one of his tribesmen had been caught cavorting with Grave-Singers. He cut the Traitor’s Cross in him without much of a trial. Gregor was lucky in that regard, that he was not caught among his people, for there would be no words or stories. Just blood. “I too have put the blade to a Grave-Singer. His ilk was not there to save him. Only a sentence and an execution.” He looked to Gregor, “But I am not with…” he hesitated, knowing the lies and ambiguity that shrouded his true past, but threw the trepidation over his shoulder, “with my tribe. You and I are among friends, Gregor.”
He looked to Raelynn, the only thing keeping his voice from being a vile hiss was their history as friends, instead it came out flat, “What have you to say?” He straightened, “What we decide affects you the most out of us, and you have a role in the decision.”
Gregor held up a hand and looked to Raelynn, requesting that she held her silence for a moment longer. “If I may, I would like to answer some of your questions first.” He turned to Daro’Vasora.
“I am a lich. The Ideal Masters guided me in a ritual that has placed my soul… outside of my body. I am not sure where it is, truth be told, but powerful magic binds it to me and animates me. This same magic will keep my body frozen in my current condition. I will not age. Any wounds I receive, unless they should be too grievous for the spell to overcome, will be undone. I feel no hunger, no thirst, no warmth, no cold. Most importantly, my brain will not deteriorate. Whatever happened to my father and his ancestors cannot happen to me anymore,” he explained, his voice as neutral as he could manage.
Her next question was not so easy to answer. Gregor opened his mouth and closed it again. Instead, he took off one of his gauntlets, revealing the mottled, darkened skin of his hand, where the blood had pooled, and rolled up his sleeve far enough to reveal the tally marks inked into his skin. Five of them were fresh. There were fourteen all told.
“They will be enough because my pact with the Ideal Masters is finished,” Gregor said and looked at Latro. There was a great sadness in his eyes. “Alim… does not really understand. I was never the subject of inexplicable ‘dark urges’. None of you were ever in danger and you never will be. I had a plan. It has been carried out, for better or for worse. My work is finished. I am no longer afraid.”
Daro'Vasora regarded Gregor as he began to take off his gauntlet and had to suppress reacting to the grotesque discoloration of his hands and fingers past a brief widening of her pupils. The tattoos told the tale of too many lives lost, but she simply nodded, grinding the bone even further as his gaze returned to the fire. He mind wandered to her discussion with Latro earlier and his struggles with Pale-feather. If Gregor was speaking honestly, and she had no reason to suspect he wasn't at this particular tribunal, this Pale Reaper wasn't so dissimilar to Pale-feather. Her gaze shifted up to Raelynn, who was beginning to stir and a pang of sadness for her friend filled her heart. If for no other reason, she shared that part of Raelynn's struggle, at least.
Explanation of his appearance or not, Anifaire could not hold back her reaction once Gregor had removed his gauntlet. The last thing she wanted was to draw attention to herself, but the gasp escaped her nonetheless and finally she peeled her eyes away, unable to look anymore.
At his words Raelynn almost flinched. [i]Dark urges[i]. And still she had been called to speak, by Latro no less. Where to start? What to say? All she knew was that she must be true. This situation felt crude to her, she was sat under a microscope and her laundry aired. She took her time, freeing her hand from Fjolte’s and placing both on her thighs. She was sat on her knees, looking picturesque in the light of the fire, and yet its flames did nothing to warm her countenance. She could barely tell whether or not she’d been listening, watching. Who had she been looking at? Perhaps it had just been the fire, the hottest parts of the log at the bottom that burned red against grey.
“I shan't repeat the gross details of my ordeal, but you all know that I have been a changed woman since,” she began, clear and resonant against the silent tension. “We all know why that happened,” she had to stop, and the Breton almost began to lean forward under the weight of mood surrounding her, the air thick and choking. “More than all of you I have seen his darkness… I've seen all of him, good and bad. This man risked his life to make the world brighter for me once more, to shine a light against shadow so that I wouldn't have to fear… He almost died because he thought he'd lost me…” For the first time, Raelynn's head bowed down, her face concealed.
Once again, slowly, she came back up - air in her lungs. “I am not afraid of this man, but I am afraid that tonight I may lose the love of my life, never knowing whether or not I could save him.” She placed a firm hand on Gregor's thigh, fingers splayed against it as she gripped him there protectively. Suddenly, one tear rolled down her cheek - carrying with it the black kohl that outlined her eyes. A thick, harsh crack over perfect porcelain.
Calen hugged his arms amongst the crowd and shuddered. A lich. Much like the King of Worms himself? He read many stories of awful necromancers and liches of days long past, like those of Mannimarco or Potema, but to see Gregor stand here this evening with all life stripped from his face, he knew what he said to be true. He couldn’t claim any knowledge or understanding of the process to lichdom, only that it was said to require unspeakable and horrific acts to sever himself from his own soul. The bard could taste bile in his mouth. His mouth opened slightly, but no words came out. Instead, he looked upon Gregor with hurt and pity, and shook his head. He never wanted to turn his back on a friend, but for the first time, he was the first one to turn around and walk away.
The lich watched him go with heavy eyes and a heavier heart. It had always been his opinion that Calen was the best among them, the most pure, the most righteous, the kindest and, in a sense, the wisest. To see the young man he had known for longer than anyone else present turn around without another word and leave was a special kind of pain that would have brought him to tears before. Now, with the ripples in his soul coming from so far away, Gregor could not even bring himself to do that. It was a dull ache that rang inside his mind and his chest. He desperately wished it was sharp. One last time.
It was very tempting to follow suit and leave like Calen... but Meg didn't. For once she knew that she could no longer run away from matters that were important, or push them under the rug. Seeing Gregor looking so different than anyone could remember sent chills down her spine, and she couldn't keep her gaze there for more than a moment, looking back to her lap instead. Her initial shock at the matter had calmed, but it did nothing to take away from what she still felt. His story- how much could she believe of what he said was true when such a heinous thing was hidden from them all?
"So..." she finally uttered, looking up at Gregor, though unable to meet his eyes. "Yer a lich- guessin' there ain' no goin' back from that. So." Her teeth ground against each other once more before she breathed out. "What were y'thinkin'... I mean, 'bout us, the group, did y'think you'd just stay? Or somethin' else?” She paused once more before continuing. “An’... y’mentioned yer siblin’s… what’re y’gonna do for ‘em now?”
“I don’t know,” Gregor said softly, turning to Meg, seizing the opportunity to distract himself from Calen’s departure. “At the very least I have bought myself more time to try and find another cure for them. It won’t be any help if the Dwemer aren’t defeated, though. How can we be sure they won’t do a repeat of the Imperial City massacre elsewhere? That’s why I want to stay.” He stared at Meg, even if she couldn’t meet his gaze. “I want to help.”
Finally meeting his eyes, so different than what she remembered, the Nord woman nodded before returning her gaze to her lap. She wanted to believe him, and perhaps she did- he had never hurt any of them, at least nothing that she knew of- but she didn't know if that was enough.
“Judena?” Daro'Vasora called out to her Argonian friend, a woman she considered as much family as her own flesh and blood. “Have you anything you would like to say?”
Judena stood stock still as she listened to the news, her journal poised and ready to follow along with the meeting having dropped suddenly at the revelation. Her eyes burrowed into the corpse of the decent young man she had grown to know. Roiling through her was disappointment, disgust, and rage. Stooping only to gather her journal at Daro’Vasora’s address to her personally, she dusted off the cover with a firm swipe. Her beard inflated, darkening at the base. Her spine straight as a board, neither blinking nor a twitch across her body - tension coiling like a tightly wound bit of twine.
“I have plenty to say, Daro’Vasora.”
She drew up a deep breath, her voice hard as stone with uncontrolled hiss at the end of her words. “I am appalled! Disappointed, angry
that what I thought was a nice young gentleman had been a monster since the start. A monster that we had been harbouring this entire time!”
Her fist clenched around her journal and she glared at Gregor. “You were robbing innocent people of their afterlife in your quest to protect yourself from memory loss.
” Pointing accusingly at him, “It disgusts me, I would never want anyone to suffer deterioration of the mind, of those present know very well how I struggle daily to maintain my sense of self.”
“I do not care for your reason, Gregor. It is no means to an end when the end is absolute horror."
Clenching both of her hands she turned to Daro’Vasora, beseeching her friend knowing she would understand, “To be soul trapped by a necromancer robs one from their afterlife, if my soul was stolen it would break my soul’s reincarnation cycle with my Hist. It terrifies me, the very thought of never to returning to the sacred pools.” Shaking her head, “I do not know if others realize this weight of consequences he had chosen to partake in.” Speaking helped articulate the wave after wave of emotion she felt crashing over her.
The Khajiit nodded in agreement. “And I would be denied my journey to the Sands Behind the Stars to live among my ancestors who have guided me through my whole life.”
Looking to him once more, his horrifying appearance refuelling Judena’s anger. Throwing her hand at him, “You are a shell, a dead man walking. It is against the natural order, worse still you have dragged us all unwillingly into your insanity.”
That did it. Judena. It was Judena who pried at the floodgates, wrenching them open with her words and still Raelynn sat as stone faced as she could, and just let them fall. She didn’t want to weep, to cry out loud. She sucked her lower lip into her mouth and bit down on it. Judena was right in her words, and passionate. Raelynn wanted to go back to the morning at the hotel, she wanted to take the time to sit beside the Argonian and share an apple with her. Time.
Jaraleet had been silent ever since the conversation had started, watching as everyone reacted as Gregor’s secret was revealed to them all. “What has been done has been done already. No matter our feelings, our opinions, that won’t change.” He finally spoke, his voice cold and devoid of any emotions. “I understand that this is a….hard time, to say the least.” Jaraleet continued on, his eyes scanning the room before they finally settled on Sora. “But, right now, we need to come to a decision about what to do, the rest can wait. At least for the moment.”
“Like Daro’Vasora said at the start, if word of this gets out to the Alik’r, we’re all dead. It won’t matter what we think about Gregor, about what he has done, we’d be equally guilty as him in their eyes.”
Anifaire gulped, fearing for their place here. It was the last thing she wanted jeopardized, just as she was feeling comfortable, yet it wasn’t as though she had any place in the decision. She curled in on herself slightly, tensing, waiting, and trusting the others she knew to handle the situation, if hesitantly.
Latro sighed, his eyes closing with it before they opened again. It had not been long ago when he told the Argonian he was going to drop his guts at his feet and then do the same to half the party. But this was not then, and that was not him. He regarded his companion with a nod, “We wait.” He said, “We wait until we’re out of this damned desert and then decide what happens.”
He looked to the rest of the party, frowning, “We only need to decide what that is.” He said, crossing his arms and looking to Gregor, “We can’t kill you, so any talk of execution is for naught. We can force you into exile.”
With his breathing finally brought back under control and his heart no longer pounding so loudly in his ears that he had difficulty hearing, Gaius turned and walked back to the fire, lips tight and nostrils flared, heaving a laborious sigh. He stared at Gregor with eyes that were little more than slits, clenching and unclenching his fists until the knuckles cracked all on their own, struggling to keep himself controlled.
“I don’t know you,” he rumbled slowly, “and I won’t pretend to know what’s happened to this group since Skingrad that would have something like you so ingrained within it. But nothing good has ever come of meddling with Oblivion, and you are the proof of that.” He panned his head about. “If this being
,” he spat the word out like a swear, “that might have once been a man has done all of this for such a petty reason, then nothing he says can be trusted.” He crossed his arms, eyes glued once more on the lich. “I say, we leave him for the wolves.”
“Good luck finding wolves in the desert.” Daro’Vasora sighed, standing at last. “If I might interject, I have some thoughts on this whole wretched situation. Gregor,” the Khajiit said, looking the man in the eyes with a steely stare. “You might not be able to change the past and your actions, but you are still accountable for what you have done, the choices you’ve willingly made. As Judena has said, you have cost 14 people an afterlife and despite everything they could have done to deserve it, I know of at least one who did not. That’s on you, and no amount of pity or remorse will undo that inkstain on your ledger. That said…”
She turned to the group, her body slouched, her features offering an air of resignation. “As stated before, I won’t be the one to decide what happens here, but if we’re going to vote on it, I’m going to vote that Gregor remains. Like Jaraleet said, what’s done is done and we can’t bloody well change the past, but we all know what the future holds. We’re about to march into Skyrim, a land that is occupied by the same bastard Dwemer that sacked Imperial City and took so much from all of us. Look, I am as fucking disgusted by all of this as any of you are, but if we lose Gregor, we lose Raelynn, and I know at least one of you wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for her.” The Khajiit said, looking to where Calen had had been for a brief moment.
“Many of us are going to get hurt, and maybe even fatally so, on the road ahead. There’s no sense pretending that isn’t what we’re about to face. Gregor lied to us, used us, hell, Raelynn’s torture and my own suffering at the hands of Zaveed can be stretched back to his initial choices in Gilane.” Daro’Vasora’s fist tightened before she reached up suddenly, tossing the bone into the fire. “But listen to us; we’re talking about lynching someone who hasn’t done a damn thing to us when the rest of the world seems sure as shit intent on making us suffer for every bit of it. If we cast Gregor out, we are accountable for that, as well. He takes another soul? That’s on us. At least in our company, we can keep an eye on him and see if his promises actually mean a damn thing.”
The Khajiit walked over to Gregor, crouching in front of him, regarding him for several moments, shaking her head. “Let’s be clear. Your words mean nothing to me, your actions do. You’re going to live forever and you no longer feel like selling off people’s fucking souls to some heartless Daedric shitheels, great.” she spat, jabbing a finger into his chest. “Earn it. Spend all of eternity making this world better than you could have had in your mortal life time. Put your undying body to use and be our shield against our foes, and help us reach Red Mountain alive. That will be your penance in my books.” she said firmly, glancing towards Raelynn before stepping away to the outside of the circle, feeling the cool air brush through her fur. The circle felt suffocating all of a sudden.
“Just my thoughts. Do with them what you will.”
“I agree with Sora’s words.” The Argonian spoke, his eyes trained on Gaius in case the Imperial man did something suddenly. “I can’t speak of any morals, nor pass any judgements; it is not my place to do so. But I know that the road ahead won’t be easy and that we’ll need all the help that we can get.” He continued on, briefly turning to look to Gregor. “If you offer us your help, then I accept it.” Jaraleet said, crossing his arms over his chest. “Think what you will of me, but I aim to ensure that we survive.” He finished, shaking his head slightly. “We can’t afford to bleed ourselves dry, not when we have so many enemies. Think about that.” He added before finally falling silent.
“I’ve made more enemies than any of you will ever know.” Latro said, grunting as he got to his feet to side with Jaraleet, “And let it be known to us all here…”
His eyes went over every other set of them in the cave until he fell on Gregor’s, “If you give me or anyone else a reason to count you among them, you won’t be one for long.” Latro frowned, sighed, “So I am begging you. Stay my friend, Gregor.”
Meg had stayed as she was, head bowed and messy bangs falling over her face, covering her expression. Her ears were still ringing from everyone's words, but the ones that were sounding the loudest were what Judena had said. She swallowed, mouth dry yet eyes threatening to tear up. She had heard the rage in the Argonian woman once, when she had given her the news of Sora's capture in Gilane. This... was different. There was nothing soft about her words, each statement was like an arrow at the Imperial man- lich
- straight, true and piercing. And who better than Judena to know how it must feel to no longer remember things, especially that which mattered? It had been a small source of amusement, hearing the elderly woman mispronounce names, or a sense of familial bonding when she would read accounts from her journal... but for once, hearing those harsh words made it clear to Meg that it was much, much more than that.
And then, Sora's words. Skyrim. They're in Skyrim. They-
She couldn't think of that. Not right now, with emotions running much too high already. Swallowing hard yet again, she took a deep breath and let it out, hoping that some of the stress, anxiety and tension would leave as well. It did not. Licking her lips, she looked at those gathered before her eyes landed on the Khajiit woman who was now a little apart from the rest. So far Daro'Vasora hadn't led them astray, and as of now, she trusted their leader the most.Stendarr, I don' call on y'much, but please, guide me.
"I... I agree. Gregor should stay."
“Fine,” Gaius muttered to himself, wheeling about. “I’m getting out of here before his face makes me sick.” With that, he stalked out of the cave and disappeared into the rapidly-deepening shade.
It was only recently that such a barrage of disgust and insults would have provoked Gregor into a fit of great rage, spurred on by that damnable pride of his. Now it just left him feeling weak and reeling. It was like he had awoken from a dream only to find he had set fire to his own house and burned his family alive. Fourteen afterlives denied… he wanted to throw up. Gregor still vividly remembered what it felt like to derive sadistic pleasure from condemning them to the most ultimate humiliation and punishment that existed. He looked even paler than before and the expression on his face was cold as ice, his mouth a thin line and his eyes deep and hollow. He almost wanted to defend himself. If he didn’t, it meant he just accepted what they said about him. Was he ready to come to terms with his status as a monster? Raelynn’s words in the oasis spring echoed in his mind when he had asked her that very same question. But no good would come of it. It didn’t matter. He looked down at the ground and thought about what Daro’Vasora said instead. Penance. Shield. Prove it.
Was there a path towards salvation? Perhaps he could still earn his right to exist in this realm. And after that, when all was said and done, he could retreat with Raelynn into the shadows of obscurity and live out the life together that they wanted.
“Thank you,” he said, his voice barely more than a whisper. Beyond the circle and the light of the campfire, a host of ghosts stood silent vigil.
Crossing her arms, Judena heard Sora’s reasoning, Latro’s logic, Jaraleet and Meg’s acceptance of those terms. Finally tearing her glare away from Gregor, she looked to the retreated backs of Calen and Gaius. Struggling now to remain angry… her eyes settled on the small and doubtlessly convicted form of Raelynn, her beard remained inflated. There was no appealing to her, Judena turned her thoughts of anger to the tragedy that both of them presented. Hugging her logbook to her chest for a few moments before slowly opening it in her palm, flipping through pages - from over a couple weeks ago knowingly searching for a moment that tugged at the back of her mind. Landing on the night at the party, she had taken time to describe how merrily everyone enjoyed themselves full of fine foods, brilliant smiles, and great company. Everything felt so far away even while she groped for some semblance of peace in this storm of emotions.
She began to read her thoughts from that night the pages had a few drops of wine and crumbs in the crease. Her beard receded as she spoke, “Third of Midyear, fourth era two hundred and eight. My compatriots Megana and Gregor have moved onto other company, our talk of life, love and the things between unknown to them means the world to me - while I fear what the new day brings whether that is a hangover or more darkness. I am not afraid, love will always be found here.”
Over the fire she looked to Raelynn. “Daro’Vasora, I do not want Gregor here - my heart rumbles with so much anger. I see logic in our safety coming first, I hate keeping secrets even for good reason.” Closing her eyes.
“We simply cannot run nor push this problem away. Concessions, reigns, and chains will be needed if we are to move forward with this monster amongst us.” Closing the logbook with a soft swip
“Then let that be your vote, Judena.” Daro’Vasora replied with heavy resignation with her tone. She was so damned tired of all of this, the intrigue, the lies, the divines-damned war. She couldn’t remember the last time she slept soundly, nor a day gone by without some fire or another to try to put out and she was taking it all in stride… but this was getting to be too damned much.
“I’m going to go gather my things and plan our next move. You have my vote, my thoughts on the matter. The rest of it is up to you lot.” She said, turning to look at Judena. “Come find me when you’re of a calmer temperament. I’ve got something for you.” the Khajiit said, pausing as if considering if there was more she needed to say before shaking her head and walking away from the cave, letting the cool air fill her lungs and heart.
“Chains.” Latro said, frowning at Gregor before looking to Sora, “That’s my vote.”
He turned and left behind Sora.
“Chains?” came the voice of Raelynn again, her eyes wide - distraught. “No. No. He’s not a monster, please don’t do this-” her voice raised, the words laced with desperation. “I won’t let you, I won’t.”
Fjolte placed his hand out and onto her leg with a solemn expression, “Raelynn.” He sighed - it was a gruff sound, from the back of his throat. He really didn’t want to be here, he didn’t. This was not his business and yet she’d made it so. All he could do was speak from his experience, the group was relatively quiet now and he ran his free hand over his face - exasperated. “I’ve been around and seen a lot of things. I’ve done things myself that you couldn’t imagine, and honestly I’d rather you didn’t. Don’t have a reputation for being smart. I make a lot of mistakes, wrong calls… There’s only one thing I’ve ever been sure of - faith. My faith.”
The Nord’s voice was clearer now, this was who he was - a man who could deliver words to comrades in times of great need. “I believe in second chances, I was given one. I was given another one. The woman beside me gave me my second chance. She gave me my third, probably my fourth. Point is I’ve gone through a lot of chances I probably didn’t deserve… Won’t know til the day I kick the bucket if I’ve redeemed myself enough to make it into Sovngarde…”
“Our power to forgive, and redeem, and change - it’s what sets us apart from real
monsters. I’m not gonna sit here and act like what Gregor here has done wasn’t monstrous, but a real monster wouldn’t walk into this circle - let alone sit down and listen...“ Fjolte sighed again, glancing across to Raelynn who was shaking now, her chin trembling, yet her hands were placed carefully on each knee still. “I know I’m not part of this group. I don’t know Gregor, I don’t know most of you. I just follow the path that my faith sends me down. I see now why the path brought me here. I offer my services to you, I will be his chains.”
Gregor looked at him, a hint of curiosity breaking through his mask. “How?”
The monk did not want to meet Gregor’s eyes, but the situation required it. He would have to get used to the sight, and he met them with his own ocean blue eyes with a half-smile. “I’ve travelled… Learned things, methods. Helped Raelynn get her magic back… I’ve put back together fragmented minds on the road, I’ve walked people away from their demons - helped them fight back against the darkness inside their mind…” He realised that this would sound incredibly cryptic to any in the circle who were not familiar with spirituality, and he sucked in a long breath through his teeth. “Together we can walk a path, Gregor, that will help you heal - prevent the urges of which you speak… We can discover what is left of you to be a force for good. But it cannot be walked alone, he can not be weighed down by iron.”
There seemed nothing left for Meg to say now. She had given her opinion, as useless as it probably was, and ultimately she guessed the decision of how Gregor was to remain with them would be up to wiser and more capable people than her. What she needed was to sleep. Or to drink. Or both.
Without a fuss or sound, the Nord woman rose and silently left the rest.
Jaraleet looked on as Meg left the group, letting out a soft sigh before he turned to look at those that remained. “I have nothing else to add, you all know my thoughts on the matter already.” The Argonian said, walking out of the cave shortly afterwards he was done speaking.
With nigh on everyone having departed from the meeting, Gregor closed his eyes and held his head in his hands -- not a gesture of sorrow but of relief. There had been reasonable fear to think that they might have settled on his execution after all, as misguided as that would have been. He understood, perhaps better than anyone, the sway emotions could hold over one’s actions. After almost a minute of silent contemplation, Gregor looked up at Fjolte again, seeing nothing but sincerity in the man’s eyes. He wasn’t sure what the Nord would want of him but a part of him was open to the idea of surrendering his spiritual healing to someone else -- someone that wasn’t Raelynn. He did not wish to hurt her any further. “I accept,” he said with a nod.
Whether out of satisfaction or in contempt Gregor did not know, but the ghosts at the edge of the light dispersed and vanished.