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


Recent Statuses

3 mos ago
5 year anniversary with my girlfriend today. Thought it would be a funny date back then because of April Fools but also because I wouldn't forget it. Logic held up so far.
10 mos ago
Staff members don't show up as "profile visitors". Y'all never know how much I'm creeping... *winks aggressively*
2 yrs ago
If you look on the homepage at the specific user counts per subforum you'll see that Free is the least popular roleplaying subforum. If you want more activity, shop around.
2 yrs ago
Fabricant has been noticed by the authorities. Have a nice day.
2 yrs ago
Happy birthday, RPG! You're 10 years old today. They grow up so fast.


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

25-year-old Dutch guy living in Amersfoort, NL, with my girlfriend. 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

I'll get started on my CS as soon as I've got time to properly sit down for it. The general idea is an older (50s) Dutch ex-Commando that saw supernatural shit in Sarajevo during the Bosnian War, culminating in the discovery of a death cult embedded within the forces under Ratko Mladić that tried to turn the Srebrenica massacre into a sacrifice for an Elder God. That was enough fuckery to drive him to retire and become a cop in the lazy Dutch countryside instead, but that's where he discovered freaky freaky European folkore shit driving the XTC production and trade in Brabant. He retired again and became an alcoholic in bumfuck nowhere, Montana, USA, until he was forced to shoot a wendigo in his own front yard and finally realized that, apparently, it is his calling to face the supernatural.
Bridges over Troubled Waters

Hank and Dervs Scribblings
Sunset, 14th of Sun’s Height, 4E208
Southern Druadach Mountains, West of Falkreath Hold

And there was a sight that one didn’t quite get used to.

Perched over an abundance of game that most hunters would have been boastful of harvesting in a week, the hulking half-naked Orsimer woman with striking body tattoos that contrasted her veridian complexion like the remnant of snow on pine needles was busy effortlessly pulling the skin off of a hare in a singular motion, leaving the musculature and actually edible bits exposed to be cooked by the fire she was kneeling in front of. Beside her, a pair of deer were about to suffer the same fate as the rodent, and perhaps most unsettlingly, a fox. Zaveed looked at the bushy tail and reflexively checked his own to see it was still there.

Best proceed with caution. My fur is much too handsome to be ripped off with such flourish. I bet I taste like shit. he thought with a disgruntled frown. Still, Mazrah was one of the few people Zaveed had yet to speak with, and given the stares she sometimes offered him were as pointed and twice as dangerous as that spear she carried proudly, he figured it was high time to bury the axe.

The metaphor made him suddenly very conscious of the axes at his hip. Rolling his eyes, he walked by a tree stump and drove them into the dead wood. Maybe it would both announce his presence and lack of hostile intent. One could hope.

He approached, regarding the game’s gradual dissection into something more recognizable as food. “You know, I’ve done that to plenty of fish, but it’s taking some getting used to when half the things you eat on the road are also covered in a coat of fur.” He said, crouching beside Mazrah. “You’ve been most successful at keeping everyone fed, I figured I should probably personally thank you for it because I sure as shit cannot hunt on land and eating twigs and leaves doesn’t seem to favour my digestion.”

Mazrah looked up when she heard the axes hit the wood. Her eyes followed him as he talked and sat down next to her and her face was inscrutable until he was finished, and then some. Eventually a small smile played around her tusks and she shrugged. "Bah, don't mention it. It's my pleasure. You folks would be useless otherwise." Mazrah impaled the rabbit on spit she was preparing, which already featured one of its brothers or sisters, and hung it over the flames. She nodded at the collection of earrings on Zaveed's ears. "Nice, that. You've seen a lot of the world then?"

He tilted his head so the firelight could catch the metals so Mazrah could see them more clearly. He tapped each in sequence. “The Alik’r Desert. Gilane. Wayrest. The Gold Coast. Simmerine.” he named off each, the metals and engravings different between each. “It’s a sort of history I carry with me. On the other side goes from Senchal, my first, across Valenwood, Alinor, and one where I’d found myself in Lilmoth of all bloody places.” he smiled towards the flame.

“I don’t recommend that particular spot. Argonia has an unhealthy assortment of insects that could even carry the likes of you away or carve away at my ears. So I’ve seen much of the world, but there’s still much of it I haven’t seen.” he gestured to the valley below. “I suppose I’m due for another earring. I suspect I’ll have a few more before my journey is through.”

Zaveed's description of Argonia made Mazrah wince and chuckle at the same time. "I like that," she said and nodded. "It's good to remember where you came from and where you've been. You've seen much more than I have. I heard people say that you were a pirate. Is that true?" she asked, and her voice did not betray whether she judged him for that or not.

The Khajiit’s face scrunched in mock indignition. “Privateer, I’ll have you know. I was official, even had a fancy letter of marque saying I was allowed to be a professional scourge.” he stared at Mazrah for a few seconds before his expression burst into a laugh. “But I suppose pirate is close enough. The main difference is I served the Dominion’s interests rather than personal interests… at least on paper.” Zaveed said with a wink.

“You don’t strike me as the sort to be particularly offended by that sort of thing. I am what I am, I make no apologies for it. Much like you are a scantily clad demi-god of an Orsimer who could probably crush a breastplate with your hands… or thighs.” he grinned. “So, is Mazrah just a huntress, or is there more to that tale?”

Always susceptible to a good bout of flattery, Mazrah relaxed and laughed her loud, unapologetic laugh at Zaveed's compliments. "I'm not really offended by that, no," she said. "I just hope you weren't kicking down the smallfolk while you were a privateer, excuse me. If there's one thing I can't stand, it's injustice. And arrogant men. And especially not the combination of the two." She tucked a rebellious braid back behind her ear and set about the task of skinning another rabbit.

"Mazrah the huntress, that's me, but not just a huntress. I'm the huntress," she said and looked up briefly to aim her dagger at Zaveed in mock accusation. "The Envy of Hircine himself, young man. My mother bore these tattoos and her mother before her and so on until before there were cat-people. See these lines on my flank? That's the sabercat I killed when I was seventeen summers old. And this… what is this, a diamond shape, I guess? This is the Herron's Lance, a move I've used to kill three Dwemer. Everything my mother taught me is on my skin and none are my equal," Mazrah explained with unmistakable pride in her voice and her eyes. "Best hunters in Orsinium. All the world, too."

There was a number of things Zaveed had done on the seas that could definitely be described as injustice, but despite preying on merchant vessels, he’d never killed anyone who was defeated or unarmed. A reputation as a butcher wasn’t a great one to have, and recognizing your flag as one that would mean mercy instead of certain death meant that crewmen of other ships often surrendered to fate and simply made due without their cargo.

He decided not to mention the particulars; Mazrah didn’t seem the sort to appreciate high-seas crime as having various levels of conduct one adhered to.

His gaze followed her finger, the lattice of tattoos impressive and as storied as his earrings. “Remarkable, truly.” Zaveed replied sincerely. “Might I inquire as to what lured you away from Orsinium? From the sounds of things, if I might be so bold as to guess, you didn’t wish to be taken as some chief’s hunt-wife. Your interest in the fairer sex hasn’t escaped my notice; I imagine Orsinium isn’t as accepting of the lifestyle you choose to live as you’d like.”

"You're right to think so. Women going after women doesn't sit well with their idea of having a bunch of wives for themselves," Mazrah replied with a wry smile and perceptible bitterness. "I love my people but they have some dumb fucking traditions. After my brother got himself kicked out for trying to start a war between us and everybody else, I took my chance and followed him. Just out of the city, mind you. Haven't seen the shithead in years. Spent some time in High Rock but those Bretons have a fat stick up their arse, lemme tell you, so I went to Hammerfell. Ended up in Gilane after the Dwemer came and you know the rest."

She eyed Zaveed and thought back to what Sirine had said; that it wasn't his fault he'd joined the Dwemer, that he hadn't had a choice. "What happened to you? Start from the beginning."

“You sound like someone who would have prospered in Khajiiti society; there’s no word for rules in Ta’agra. We call those thjizzrini, foolish concepts. Sure, there’s the usual laws of the lands, you can’t escape that under the Empire and then the Thalmor… men and mer simply can’t let a man live a life on his own terms. But we Khajiit have been in Tamriel since before Topal the Pilot ‘found’ our home; I suspect we will be around long afterwards, too.” Zaveed replied with a smile before letting out a sigh.

“That is such a simple question with no quick and simple explanation. From your tone, I am going to assume you mean how I ended up as a knife for governor Rourken.” He looked down, tapping his knees in contemplation for several moments before deciding to slump down into a seating position, his arms locked around his raised knees.

“Sevari hired my crew for a job, saying he needed the best captain and a load of discretion. It was the first time we’d seen each other since we were cubs, he claimed he didn’t know I was Captain Greywake, commander of the Merrunz Wrath. But I think, perhaps, a part of him suspected. Perhaps a description of me, perhaps a chance gaze. Perhaps a foolish hope his brother was still alive. Regardless, he convinced me to take his job with a load of gold and things didn’t warm between us; too much time had passed without answers.” the Khajiit sighed, glancing to Mazrah before turning back to the flames.

“We didn’t know the Dwemer invasion was happening; we were heading North for some clandestine assignment of his he refused to give me the particulars of and none of that bloody well mattered in the end because a storm unlike the likes I’ve ever seen before hit the Wrath and I damn near well broke my arms trying to keep the ship from capsizing. We struck a hidden reef and started taking on water, and it was enough for the storm to take us.

“Pieces of my ship were torn from their moorings, my crew pulled from the deck like some damned water spirit demanded payment for their transgressions. It wasn’t long after that I couldn’t hang on any longer and found myself in the water, and by morning, I was washed up on Gilane’s beaches with a Dwemeri rifleman shoving a gun in my face.

“I was brought before the head of their secret police; he was a clever man, that Kerztar. He knew a capable man when he saw one, and my brother and I were offered a simple choice; serve them as their foreigners who knew the cultures and people of Tamriel and force the Dwemeri rule, or go die in a fighting pit.” Zaveed grunted, a scowl across his face. “I chose the one that could at least give me the hope of returning to my life, or at the very least one I could call my own. I don’t do well in cages, nor do I fancy dying.”

He shook his head, looking over to Mazrah. “So, after discovering that the terrorists who attacked a convoy of prisoners, broke more out of a Redguard-run prison, and murdered an administrator had been dropped off by Roux Dupris, Sevari and I were tasked with hunting down your cell and bringing the governor’s justice down upon them. It was a job I admit I took enjoyment in; I was active again and doing what I do best. You might be one of the greatest huntresses in the world, but I am a legendary hunter and killer of men. I just knew that Gilane had a form of peace under the Dwemer, and suddenly I was told to go find the people who set a bunch of murderers, rapists, and arsonists back into the streets? I felt like a fucking folk hero, and the people cheered me for it.” Zaveed said, his tone a bit tense. He didn’t apologize for what he was, but he didn’t much care for what his words were going to drag out of Mazrah, kicking and screaming into the light.

“But in the end, Gregor bested me in a duel when I found him, I nearly died, Raelynn saved my life and told me I needed to earn my second chance. I met Sirine literally the morning after and decided helping her find her brother was a good start; I was in a position where I could find out if he was a prisoner. My Aldmeri marine sister and the Dominion envoy were attacked by more insurgents in the streets, and I found them… and they knew Sevari as a criminal. They slapped chains on my brother and were intending to bring him back to Alinor for trial and presumably execution.” Zaveed sighed, his head bowing. “I wasn’t about to lose my brother again. Sevari escaped, and we headed out of the city while my Dwemeri credentials still meant something. We ran into you lot hours later and you know the rest.”

It was a lot to digest. Mazrah had listened to the Khajiit’s story in a silence that lingered long after he had finished speaking. She looked around the camp slowly while her mind turned, occasionally glancing back at the spitroasted rabbits to make sure they weren’t being overcooked.

“Well, at least you’re honest,” she said and looked at Zaveed with a look of resignation. “If it were me, I would have fought in the pits and died, if that was to be my fate, with my dignity intact. I’m not a kneeler. But it’s true that you lived to see another day and if that means that you can fight the Dwemer now…” Mazrah trailed off and rubbed her chin in thought. “You can regain your honor. Or gain it, if you never had any in the first place.”

“A man’s only worth his word.” Zaveed repeated a mantra he spoke of so often. “I’ve never tried to hide who or what I am, what I’ve done, none of it. You’ve seen full well what happened with Gregor and to a lesser extent Jaraleet, but I feel the worst has passed for me. You all have had time to adjust to my being here, and I don’t think that anyone’s particularly worried about my intent at this juncture. Is that fair to say?” he asked.

“I’ve always had honour, but it’s such a funny, fickle thing. Honour to your culture is quite different than that of a Khajiit, or a Nord, or an Altmer. We all have different codes of conduct, yes? For a Khajiit, we think it’s hilarious and stupid for someone to stand and fight against impossible odds when you can simply retreat and strike again when the moment suits you.” the Khajiit said, with a smile.

“A bit of folk wisdom from my people is that most, if asked who would win in a fight, between a massive, powerful Senche-raht and a tiny Alfiq. Most would say the Senche-raht. How could it lose? It’s massive, fast, powerful. Some are as tall as two Altmer.” Zaveed said enthusiastically, raising his hand as high as it would go before pointing a finger at the ground. “But ask a Khajiit, and they will say the Alfiq.

“The Senche will be unable to eat, unable to sleep, without the tiny Alfiq biting him and disappearing into the dark before he can turn to face his tiny annoyance. Eventually, he will have no choice but to leave. All great empires eventually do. Who do you think we are, the Senche-raht or the Alfiq? The Dwemer think themselves mighty and the rest of us as puny, stupid mud slingers, but here we are, wearing them down one little bite at a time.” Zaveed said with a shrug, reaching his hands out to warm them by the flames. The smell of cooking meat was rather appetizing at this point.

That made Mazrah laugh. “It is said that when the current Orsinium was first settled in the early days of the Fourth Era that the valley suffered from a mosquito problem in the summer. It got so bad that the Ornim were afraid to speak because the little bastards would crawl into their mouths if they did, so thick was the air with them,” she said and lifted the spitroast from the fire. The rabbits were done. She put one of the rabbits on its own stick and handed it to Zaveed with a smile.

“The mosquitoes were breeding in the lake below the city. The king had the Ornim bring snow and ice from the mountaintops and melt it in large rock bowls in the sun, so that the people still had water to drink, and then he poisoned the lake until all the mosquitoes were dead and their little insect lineages ended.” Her eyes sparkled with amusement and she wagged her finger at the Khajiit. “An enemy that never kneels and knows no limits is not to be trifled with. You might have started a slave revolution in the fighting pits. Who knows? Now you are only alive because of Raelynn, and because of Sora. You needed a lot of luck to get here. Luck runs out.”

She bit into her own rabbit and her eyes rolled back while she moaned in exaggerated appreciation of the taste. Nothing tasted as good as game you’d bagged yourself, after all. “How did Gregor beat you, anyway?” she asked and raised an eyebrow.

Zaveed bit into his own rabbit gratefully and chewed thoughtfully, buying time while he pondered an answer. Although he assumed most of the group figured it out already, Zaveed didn't want to become a gossip and bring more discord among the already strained group. After he swallowed, he said, "Nothing in my dossier on Gregor suggested he was a mage. His attire and choice of weapons, as well as witness reports, didn't give me a clear picture of what I was going into.

"I encountered him by chance instead of having time to plan the encounter, and so it came down to my skill with a blade. I wasn't counting on him being a conjurer, so fighting a two-sided skirmish caught me off guard, I was disarmed and then run through when he had his opening." Zaveed shrugged non-committally.

"I make my own luck, I plan ahead, and I stack things in my favour. Forgive me for saying so, but I have far more choices outside of a cell rather than inside of one. I cannot imagine I'd have had much fortune convincing desperate men that listening to me would earn them freedom as opposed to killing me. I've seen what desperate men do when they're given a simplistic resolution; they pursue it with an entrhalled devotion rather than a sense of reason." He bit into the rabbit again.

“I suppose not,” Mazrah admitted wryly. “But that is only because men are weak. With a handful of Orsimer huntresses you could topple any tyrant.”

"Oh, is that an offer? Because I must say I am mighty tempted." Zaveed responded with a grin. "You're not wrong about men; most are prideful and stupid, which is a volatile mix. Most of the captains and crew members I had the most esteem for were women. Planners and logistically minded, more prone to cooperate than swing their dicks around… in a manner of speaking. I felt women were more likely to be trustworthy and stick to alliances, as well."

She raised her eyebrows. "Well well," Mazrah said, clearly impressed. "I didn't expect you to be so… I don't know, forward-thinking? We really need a word for 'supportive of women'." She grinned and clapped Zaveed on the shoulder. "I'm starting to see why Sirine likes you."

"I thought it was my roguish good looks and impeccable sense of style." Zaveed smiled. "Part of why my heart's always been out to sea; I've no patience or love for feudal systems with lords and counts and presumably inbred rulers. Out there a man… or woman," he winked at Maz, catching himself. "Can live by their own rules, no silly traditions or stuffy obligations to uphold. My second in command was a woman, actually. A pyromancer who really loved just taking what she wanted. Neither of us were meant for polite society."

“I don’t know what a pyromancer is but she sounds like a character,” Mazrah said. She looked around herself and tutted, disappointed by the absence of whatever it was that she was searching for. “One moment.”

The Orsimer got up and disappeared into the camp, only to return less than a minute later with two bottles of ale. She gave one to Zaveed and sat down again. “Now tell me how a cat like you ended up on a ship in the first place,” she commanded with a smile.

Zaveed took the bottle with a pair of fingers, frowning as he pulled the cork with a claw. Mazrah didn't realize how heavy of a question that was; he would spare her the heavy answer. "I grew up in Senchal with Sevari and my sister Marassa. I ended up losing them to people in power and I had nowhere else to go, so I decided to get away from the city that took everything from me."

The Khajiit took a drink of the ale, not particularly bothered by its warmth. He twirled the bottle around in his fingers as he contemplated it all. "I joined the first crew that took me, I was… 12, 13 at the time? Eventually the ship became mine after a very long road. It's now currently resting beneath the waves close to Gilane."

“What of your parents?”

“What parents?” Zaveed smiled tersely.

Mazrah scoffed, frustrated. “You did not spring from the earth, Zaveed.”

“As close to it as one could come, I suppose.” Zaveed replied with a sigh. He looked to his Orsimer companion with a resigned gaze. “My mother was a brothel whore, and who knows who the fuck my father was. My sister and I were abandoned as soon as we could more or less walk and talk for ourselves in the streets because I suppose my mother found us a liability for her business, or her owner decided that children aren’t a worthy investment. I suppose I should be grateful; neither of us grew old enough to be pressed into that particular line of work. Satisfied?” he asked.

She was silent for a bit after that. Orsimer society would never have allowed something like that to happen. Of course prostitution happened in Orsinium, it happened everywhere, but it wasn’t an institution like she had learned it was in many other societies. Children didn’t fall through the cracks like that in the Stone City. “I’m sorry,” she said eventually. “I can’t imagine something like that. It doesn’t happen where I’m from. It takes a village to raise a child, after all.” The Orsimer frowned and sighed. Is that why Zaveed had turned out the way he did, only focused on survival and taking what he wanted? It made sense that he didn’t respect honor if nobody raised him to tell him that. “Now I have a better idea of why you are the way that you are, at least.”

The Cathay smiled with a half-hearted shrug, but his eyes remained heavy. "Disappointing, I know, and an even poorer excuse. Thing is, you walk a certain path long enough and if it ever occurs to you to look back where you've come, it's hard to think that there were other ways. Other options." He said, taking a drink from his ale. "I don't apologize for what I am, but I swear on all I am that I will walk another path. I will find a better way."

“I’ll drink to that,” Mazrah said and emphasized the statement with a swig of her own ale. “That’s good enough for me. It’s not like you have much of a choice now. You can’t undo the past.” She stared into the flames and fell silent, for once unsure of what else to say.

Zaveed held his bottle up in cheers, standing up with ease of movement that seemed at odds with the weight of the conversation that had come to pass. "Well, Mazrah, my dear, I'm thankful we finally crossed this threshold and gotten to know one another. I appreciate the drink, and the fruits of your macabre dinner party." He said with a wink, patting her gently on the shoulder. "Until next time, and if ever you need a hand with anything, don't hesitate."

With that Zaveed stepped away from the warmth of the flames, his mind filled with a rather sizable bit to mull over. He wasn't sure if he crossed the bridge with Mazrah, but at least it was being built.

The sun had settled below the horizon and dusk retreated across the night sky to follow it while Gregor walked. His face was stoic, almost expressionless save for a slight furrowing of his brow, and his gait was that of either a man annoyed or a man on a mission. As it so happened, Gregor was both. He could feel in his bones that tonight was the night. This sacrifice would be enough. It was an exhilarating thought and the lingering negative emotions that remained from his confrontation with Raelynn were slowly expunged. He knew he loved her and that he wanted to spend the rest of his life with her, but the Pale Reaper also knew that she was nothing compared to the importance of his task. If she couldn’t deal with the consequences of his path then so be it. He did not need anyone. He could walk the long walk alone. He had been alone for ten years before. What was different now? Nothing.

He took a deep breath, enjoying the sterile, clear smell of the desert at night. Gregor turned his head this way and listened for any sounds of the party and the oasis encampment he had left behind, but none were audible. He had walked far enough. Nobody would interrupt him here. Gregor looked up at the stars and stared, recognizing some of the constellations. He briefly wondered if the sky would look different later. Focusing on the here and now, Gregor looked down and took off his backpack, rummaging through it to find the necessary tools and ingredients. He used his foot to clear and flatten an area in a circle and then drew the pentagram with bone meal and blood. He paused to look at his hands -- they were steady as a rock. Gregor smiled to himself. He reached into the backpack again and pulled out the black soul gems. Five points on the pentagram for five souls. It felt… predestined. The universe had guided him towards this moment. He sank down onto his knees in the middle of the pentagram and placed the gems where they belonged, gently pressing them into the sand so they would stay upright.

A thought occurred to him that stopped him in his tracks. For such a monumental moment, everything he was doing felt so… mundane. His movements were just ordinary movements, even if the objects he was handling were extraordinary. The clothes he was wearing, the way he styled his hair… there was nothing special about it, about him. And yet, if everything went according to plan, these would be the last things he would ever do as a mortal. The Pale Reaper shrugged, eager to get on with it, but Gregor found himself looking up at the sky again. Wouldn’t it be appropriate to reflect on everything that had brought him here?

He thought about his family, first and foremost. The familiar memories of his childhood and his youth, the carefree years in Anvil, all together and happy. Gregor remembered the long afternoons in the golden summer light out in the yard with his father and his brother, playing at being soldier, Hector doing what he could to instill some actual skill and discipline them, but often powerless to stop the boys from simply rolling around on the grass and smacking their wooden swords edge-to-edge. The memory made him smile. Marcus had been so eager, so hungry, to devour everything he could learn and catch up to his big brother. Gregor had never been a very passionate child and had seen fit to do things at his own pace. Such were the luxuries of the firstborn, he mused. He remembered how his mother would watch them from the kitchen window and call them inside for dinner when it was ready. Every time, Hector would take a moment to kiss Gaia and whisper something to her that Gregor could never hear. The way his mother smiled without fail meant that it was probably something sweet.

And Julia was born, of course, bringing some lightness and silliness into the dynamic between the big brother trying to be important and the little brother wanting to be just like him. Even as a young girl she’d always been playing with her dolls, fussing over them and bothering her mother for things to satisfy their fictional needs. Gregor knew, deep down, that Julia had children of her own by now. He wondered if they knew his name. Gregor took a deep breath and suddenly became aware of the tears on his cheeks. The memories were so vivid, so clear, that recalling them ripped open old wounds almost instantly. And yet those memories were the very thing that Gregor cherished and wanted to protect most of all. He did not want his life to be stolen from him by a disease. And as much as it had hurt to leave everything and everyone behind, to go so far away for so long that any nieces and nephews he could have might not even know who he was, it was essential that he had -- for their sake too, or they would suffer the same fate that he had and be forced to watch their mother wither away and die before her time. And, ultimately, with the passage of enough years, that same death would come for them too. There was no future for the Sibassius bloodline without Gregor’s intervention. He held their lives in his hands.

He gingerly put the last soul gem in place. The air changed immediately. Something was coming. Gregor closed his eyes and did not startle when the five soul gems were cracked asunder by an incorporeal force. He did not have to look to feel the essence within slither free from their crystalline prisons; the screams of the Dwemer’s victims echoed from somewhere far away. These souls were steeped in fear and malice. He spread out his arms.

“Welcome,” the Pale Reaper whispered.

13th of Sun’s Height, 4E208
Southern Druadach Mountains, West of Falkreath Hold

The rains had come and gone. Gregor had weathered them all in silence as he stood vigil during the dark mountain nights and even now, when the sun pierced the heavens and bathed the valley below them in light, droplets of rainwater and dew still clung to his faceless armor and his black cloak. After Daro’Vasora’s speech, Gregor helped to unload the horses without being asked. His undeath made him tireless and while his movements were slow and measured, he was steady and reliable. Gregor ignored the glances of the others and said nothing when he stood shoulder to shoulder with Sora as they unfastened more supplies. What was there to say? Weeks had passed without incident but that wasn’t enough time for anyone to forget what had happened. Gregor didn’t blame them or expect otherwise. He focused on helping out where he could instead, putting his strength to use and spending most of his sleepless nights watching over the party -- but never alone. There was always at least one other person awake, to keep an eye on him as much as anything else. Gregor had ignored their stares too and retreated behind the inscrutable steel of his helmet.

Once their work was done and the camp was set up, Gregor briefly looked around for Raelynn and saw that she was speaking to Fjolte. It had been too long since Raelynn had spoken to anyone that wasn’t him or Jaraleet. Gregor’s self-imposed status as a silent pariah did not have to be hers as well, so he decided to leave her to it. While he certainly had the tireless energy left to forage for food he knew the party wouldn’t like it if he wandered off on his own and out of their sight, so Gregor sat himself down on a fallen tree at the edge of the camp and did the same thing he had done so many times before: take care of his blade. The weight of the claymore in his hands was comforting and he laid it across his lap before he produced a whetstone, a cloth and some blade oil from his backpack. He looked up occasionally while he worked, taking note of Zaveed speaking to Latro, but for most of the time Gregor focused on his thoughts.

Fjolte had recovered some of his memories with the use of a strange and alien mixture of herbs during one of the nights they had made camp. Gregor did not pretend to understand how the Nord’s concoction worked, but it had summoned visions that Gregor could only assume to be the truth of the matter. They were disturbing and he hadn’t found the courage to talk about them yet. He remembered a fight between himself and Raelynn just before he had set out into the desert and the words that he had spoken were nothing but awful. Had it really been him? Gregor had asked himself that question a hundred times. It had been his body and his voice but the words he had spoken to her in their tent seemed so cruel, so callous, so loveless… it was hard, very hard, to believe that they had been his own. It wasn’t the first time that Gregor had felt that sometimes he wasn’t in control of his actions. There was a side to him, or there had been, that could almost be said to have a mind of its own. He had tapped into the darkness in his soul deliberately before, but this was different. Was that why he hadn’t been able to recall those memories? Because they weren’t truly his? Everyone had always said that the dark arts were corrupt by nature and that one couldn’t practice them without becoming a monster themselves. Gregor had never wanted to believe that and had always considered that to be superstitious nonsense. Perhaps there had been truth to it after all.

He listened to the rasp of his whetstone across the rippled edge of his sword, the chirps and songs of the birds in the trees behind him and the soft whispers of the wind through their branches. The air was cool, he knew, and it would be a pleasant change for the others. It all felt the same to him. Gregor wasn’t even bothered by his wet clothes. He had tried to made peace with these changes ever since they had left the gathering of the tribes behind but it was hard to say if he was making progress. Some days he felt liberated by the lack of sensations, some days he felt a deep yearning for biting cold or searing heat. He saw that the others had started a fire and watched as a cooking pot was hoisted over the flames. Gregor had tried to eat something on Raelynn’s insistence and found that it tasted like nothing. He hoped the others would enjoy their meal.

Sevari was among those tending to the stew. Gregor hadn’t spoken to him since the Khajiit had pressed the barrel of a pistol to his face in the prison. In fact, he hadn’t spoken to anyone that had been in that damned room with the damned Dwemer executioner since then. While that was probably for the best, it nagged at him that he had never thanked Zaveed for his unlikely intervention. For him to defy his own brother after the argument he’d had with Gregor in the oasis… it was deserving of gratitude, whatever Zaveed’s motivations might have been. Gregor saw him speaking to Latro and wondered when the time would be right. Would it ever be? Was there a point to waiting around for some magical signal to tell him that it was alright to express his thanks? Probably not. If he was to talk to any of them again, he would have to initiate that. They could easily and wilfully go the rest of their lives without seeing him again. Gregor knew that. Not for the first time, Gregor questioned what he was doing here. Perhaps it was nothing more than a fool’s hope to think that he could redeem himself in the eyes of the party. Still, there was only one way to find out.

A voice came from his left. “Is it true what they say about you?”

Gregor turned his head and saw Mazrah standing there with her arms crossed and her head tilted, staring at him like a historian might stare at a curiosity. There was no disdain or hatred visible in her eyes. Gregor wondered why she approached him now. The two of them hadn’t spoken since… the party, he realized. That felt so long ago already.

“Yes,” he said and averted his gaze.

Mazrah frowned and took a step closer. “Show me.”

Gregor shifted and grabbed the hilt of his claymore tighter. A drop of water slid down his helmet’s visor and fell on the soft earth below. “No,” he whispered.

The huntress looked at him with something approaching pity, but not unequivocally so. She’d been told what Gregor had done to turn him into this thing. It was hard to imagine the nice man she knew from the party to be such a killer. Worse than a killer, even. Hell, it was hard to imagine their faceless traveling companion to be those things, too. There hadn’t been a single instance of aggression or trouble from him, not one word of protest -- not even a whisper.

“You’re a strange man, Gregor,” she said at length and shook her head. “We’re going to forage for food. Are you coming?”

He shook his head and squared his shoulders. “I have to finish this,” Gregor said and resumed whetting the blade with the stone.

Mazrah could see that the edge was already as sharp as it was ever going to be. She finally took the hint, however, and her posture softened a little. “Take care,” she muttered and returned to the camp, discomfort visible in her eyes. She wasn’t easily disturbed but being around Gregor… it was like the very air itself was stifled by his melancholy.

Behind her, the lich was left alone with the birds, the wind and the rasping of his whetstone. Pine needles had fallen from the trees and settled on his cloak, and he looked like he’d been sitting there for more than a hundred years.

Keeping an eye on this. Playing Assassin's Creed Origins (not quite the right time period, I know, but still) has given me a lot of inspiration for pre-medieval settings and characters.
2 years later
Blackbough, Velen

Autumn, sometime in the 13th century

Everything was tense. Just like it had been the day before, and just like it would be the day after. There was a dense fog surrounding Blackbough tonight, and a heavy rain had only just let up so the scent of mud and wet grass was pungent throughout the air - even from inside the inn room. The windows were not well sealed, and so the condensation crept in - leaving an eerie mist against the already dirty windows. The sky had not been clear all day, and so it felt even darker, even though the time indicated that the sun would not have yet set.

She was roomed next to the stables, and so the prominent sound was that of horses whinnying, snorting, and nickering. The walls were thin, she thought that if a horse were to get upset and kick that its legs might burst through. Hopefully there would be no thunder to disturb them tonight. Still, there was a humble hearthfire in this room to keep her warm, and it was kept mostly away from the common room. She didn’t have to listen to the drunken chatter of the patrons. Just horses.

Just horses and a howling wind.

Avery sat on the wooden stool, biting her thumb as she looked down at pages of parchment lined up on the floor (there had been no desk here), a series of missives from an old friend from years ago, who had recently gone missing. In the corner by the bed, she had set up the three stands that were her megascope, and beside from that, there a small trunk of various other items. The emptiness of this room was a stark contrast to what she had grown used to, but it didn’t bother her right now. What was bothering her was the contents of the letters. The letters that she had been chasing leads on for what had felt like forever, and that is what had brought her to Velen.

In the tavern of the inn, all anybody was able to talk about was the Odd-Eyed sorceress who left her room only for food, and to tend to her own horse in the stables. The horse in question was a beautiful creature, definitely well bred. Black as coal, with a white flash shaped like a diamond between her eyes. A quiet animal too, she did not fuss like the other horses did.

There was little else to learn from the letters, and she reached into her pocket and took from a pouch a single sugared almond and popped it into her mouth. “Where are you?” she whispered under her breath, feeling as though she was still no further forward in her search, fearful that the trail was about to dry up.

The man with two swords galloped into the village of Blackbough at full speed. His steeds was clearly spooked and almost kept running past the inn; only with decades of experience as a rider was the man able to coerce the horse to stop. He brought her into the stables, where he briefly admired a black horse with a white patch on its head. When he discovered that his saddlebags had been torn, the man cursed.

“Fucking drowners,” Valker said and sighed. Not much was missing but he'd have to find someone that could tailor leather properly to sow the bag back up. That wasn't a guarantee in every village in a place like Velen. His clothes (a leather jacket fortified with chainmail and padded fabric over a black shirt, clay-colored pants with armoured knee guards, sturdy boots and thick leather gauntlets) were still wet from the heavy rain from before, and his hair was a mess. Blood was plastered on the side of his head and there was a dark red spot on his left leg. Alongside his swords was a new weapon on his back; a crossbow, small enough to be wielded in one hand.

With heavy, painful footfalls the witcher entered the tavern's common room. Before anyone could say anything, Valker spoke up. “A bottle of stout, innkeep. No, fuck that, make it vodka.” His voice was rough and bitter and he sat down at one of the empty tables with a crash. “Son of a bitch,” he muttered and laid out the contents of his first aid kit in front of him. A dose of Swallow had taken care of the worst of it but he would have to stitch the wounds back together himself.

The innkeep, an older gentleman with greying hair, and forlorn eyes, did as requested. He reached under his bar, feeling the painful creaking of his knees as he went. He walked to the table, just bringing the bottle. “Looks like yer need the --” he noticed the eyes. Those were the eyes of a Witcher. He backed up slowly, trying not to seem rude, but he felt very unlucky at that moment. A Witcher and a sorceress under his roof. It felt like a bad omen, an accident waiting to happen - but he held his tongue and hobbled back over behind the bar, face visibly strained. “Agnes, did yer get the soup done? She’ll be through soon - don’ make her be waitin’ like yes’day…” It was true, Avery’s visits to the common room had been as regular as clockwork.

“Aye papa, hot an’ ready on her table… Will ye just sit down already, me an’ ma can handle the folk tonight, alri’? An’ I won’t take no for an answer t’day.” A girl, who could have been no older than sixteen faced off against her father, hands on her hips and an exceptionally stern expression, that was matched by that of the mother who had popped her head around a corner to see what the fuss was about. “She’s ri Bill, she be ri. You sit your arse down.”

From the hallway came the sound of heeled boots taking small steps, it was indeed the Odd-Eyed sorceress, as expected. Dressed in an unusually practical garment - a low cut, hooded tunic - with sleeves that ran over the backs of her hands. It was belted in the middle with an armour styled corset, rich brown in colour. As bottoms, a long leather skirt split into three distinct sections. Thigh high sienne toned boots peeped through the splits that sat over the front. Her hair was, as always, fixed in a bun.

She came through and into the tavern, her table positioned at the very back, the steam rising from the bowl of soup was welcoming tonight, there was a haunting chill in the air - almost ethereal in its quality. Avery wasted no time in digging in, she didn’t want to waste too much of her time in here - there was work to be done, even if she didn’t know what that was. As she looked up to view the patrons, as she had grown accustomed to doing, she saw a strange figure hunched over a table, his back to her. Strangely familiar, was that silhouette - and the energy she felt from him was too. “Valker?” she asked herself, squinting in his direction. If it was, he looked in bad shape. It had been two years…

She pushed herself up from her seat, leaving the soup behind as she strode over, she had to know if it was him, and as she came closer, her suspicions were confirmed. “It is you.”

The witcher was in no mood to be bothered by the townsfolk and was about to turn around with a scowl on his face when he realized who it was that was talking to him. He’d recognize that voice anywhere. “Avery?” he said and by the time the two of them were face-to-face, his expression had changed to one of surprise. With his bloodied face and the heavy bags beneath his eyes, it was almost comical. He stared at her for a few more seconds, from her ever-remarkable eyes to her decidedly more practical outfit than the last time they had seen each other. She looked fit for the road -- well, as fit as a sorceress would ever deign herself to look.

“What the hell are you doing here?” he asked, the question itself more hostile than his tone. Valker scratched his head and gestured at the table. “Sorry -- you’re welcome to sit, if you want. It’s just… a very big surprise to see you all the way out here.”

Avery herself took on an expression of surprise when she saw his face properly, in the orange glow of the hearthfire and the candlelight he looked exceptionally worse for wear and a far cry from the distinguished gentleman from Novigrad. But his eyes, his eyes were the same. She was about to give him a scornful answer until he remembered himself, still, she had leaned back as if to take a deep breath and scold… It wasn’t until then that she realised how tense she was too…

“Looking for a friend,” she replied softly, her eyes falling over his wounds. “You’re hurt.” Talk about stating the obvious. “You’re hurt and your clothes are soaked through…” The woman’s hand fell over the kit he’d placed on the table, and she gave him a rather piercing glare - “you’re not going to do this yourself now, are you?”

“Why not? Got my vodka to dull the pain,” Valker said and looked around the tavern. “Don’t trust any of these people to do it right.” He looked back up at Avery and thought about what she’d said. Strange. He did not believe in coincidences, and yet when it came to Avery they appeared to be piling up. What could it mean? “Is your friend missing, or just hard to find?”

She ruminated on his question for a moment, her thumb tracing over her lip as she thought how best to answer, she was not in the business of letting her secrets be known. “Well…” she began with as playful a smirk as she could - considering her mood, “she’s winning this round of hide and seek by a spectacular margin.” That would do. How did she feel about Valker being here? Avery wasn’t sure, last she’d seen of him was at the banquet for the Baron, which hadn’t ended well. He’d left, probably with Celes.

Without giving it too much thought, the sorceress began plucking up the items of Valker’s kit, rolling them back into the bag. “Come on then, nobody wants to see you do it out here. Follow me.” With that said, she turned around and began on her way back to her own room. They could speak privately in there, she just hoped he could get up.

Ever mysterious. “Fine, keep your secrets,” Valker muttered under his breath as Avery walked away. He got to his feet, grabbed the bottle of vodka and took a long swig. Feeling the eyes of the villagers on him, Valker turned his head to glare at them and they all hastily returned to what they were doing. Satisfied, the witcher followed the sorceress into her room. His eyes immediately fell on the rolls of parchment spread on the ground but he respectfully refrained from inspecting them too closely.

“Nice,” he remarked sarcastically. It was nothing like the comfort Avery had been privy to in Kraeg’s Hill. “Must be some friend to see you living like this.” He leaned against the wall and took another swig of vodka. “You don’t happen to be any good with a needle and thread, are you?”

The first thing that Avery did was scoop up the parchments, and place them face down on the round, crooked seat of her stool. She moved in such a way that it appeared natural, and not so as to hide their contents - just a simple and graceful tidy up of needless clutter. “I don’t live here, merely staying temporarily.” She replied in a quick and curt manner, casting a sidelong glance at him as he leaned against the wall, knocking back the vodka from the bottle. She wasn’t going to say anything else about her friend.

“I’m not a tailor, so sadly I’m not any good at all,” she held a pause, letting half of a smile flicker over her lips. “I am however, a sorceress. I can enchant your needle. It will be much tidier than anything either of us could achieve with our bare hands.” Avery lifted her hand, fingers waggling back and forth as she mumbled under her breath. The needle in the first aid kit began to squirm and glow with a similar aura to the one that was suddenly alive in her hand. “Show me where it hurts then.”

Valker raised an eyebrow at the sight of the wiggling needle but he wasn’t about to argue, nor did he care about preserving his modesty. The witcher swiftly stripped down to his underwear, displaying a cut on his arm, a series of bite marks on his right flank and a rather large and unsightly gash on his thigh, the one responsible for the dark red blotch on his pants. And there was the wound on his head, of course. He looked at Avery with a little uncertainty. “Where do you want me? On the chair? Or does it not matter?”

It took her a moment for her to realise she was staring at him. She held a finger between her lips thoughtfully as she observed his body and each wound. His stripping down reminded her somewhat of their first meeting - when the Witcher had done the same thing then (even if was in less of a fashion as this). To be reminded of it now was strangely disarming. Avery blinked and looked away before bringing a hand to her cheek to cover a slight redness she could feel forming on her cheeks. “Just… Sit on the bed,” she blurted out as she turned away from him to a dresser which had seen better days. She took a bowl from within, and with another wave of her hand it was filled with warm water. Had she a cloth? Never mind, she could conjure one.

That he could do. Valker made himself as comfortable as the bed would allow and let out a soft groan as his body disapproved of sitting down, getting back up and then sitting down again. He silenced it with some more booze. He wasn’t looking to get drunk, exactly, but he knew everything would be more manageable with a warm buzz. It was really nice to see Avery again, he realized. Especially with Celes nowhere in sight. He almost opened his mouth to ask about that but caught himself in time. Just shut up and drink, idiot, the witcher scolded himself and did as he was told.

“Looks like whatever you were hunting tonight gave you a good fight…” Avery commented as she approached with her water, and now a clean cloth too. She took a seat at his side, leaving a comfortable distance between the two of them. One leg hung over the bed with her foot on the floor, and the other she tucked under her rear on the edge of the bed. “Is that why you’re here? A contract?” She asked politely as she took the cloth, dipping it delicately into the water before she began to brush it over the blood on his arm from his cut, almost hesitant at first, until she got going.

“Bah,” Valker grunted and scowled. “Just drowners.” He did not like to admit that the necrophages had almost gotten the better of him, but any seasoned witcher worth his salt would still tell you not to underestimate a group of determined enemies, even if they’re just nekkers. Pushing the frustration aside, Valker focused on her second question. “No contract. I’m looking for one of my brothers. We’re pretty sure he’s dead but we don’t know where or how.”

He looked at Avery with a heavy, serious gaze. “Dead witchers should be burned.”

She listened to him as she continued to clean his arm, the needle now starting its work on pulling the open wound on his leg back together. “Hmmm…” She lifted her head when he looked at her, and could feel a deep intensity from him that, had she not met him before, might be off putting. “You were close to him,” she said, an assumption based on what she could gather from his emotions, from the way he spoke. “I’m sorry for your loss,” she added sympathetically.


Valker fell silent and stared ahead. Had he been close to Domren? In the same way he was close to all his brothers, yes. But their deaths were to be expected. It was only ever a question of when. Witchers did not mourn. There was no time for that, no place in their culture. One could only appreciate their efforts and achievements and give them a proper funeral pyre and that was that. He wasn’t looking for Domren just out of sentiment. There was a weight to his words that Avery might have missed. A witcher turned into a wraith was a very dangerous thing indeed, one that the world should be spared from wherever possible. It did not happen often and usually witchers did not have any unfinished business that tied them to this world, but if one were to fall in battle against a particularly important and hated enemy… it was possible. As long as Domren’s fate was a mystery, the School of the Wyvern had a duty to find him and recover his remains.

He sighed and looked back at Avery. “Thank you,” he said and gestured at her efforts with his free arm. “It’s… nice to see you again. I would have liked for it to be under more pleasant circumstances.”

She let him have his silence, the Witcher’s had their culture and way of dealing with loss that was different to her own. She was not as stoic as Valker seemed to be, she was turbulent inside, but that was as much to do with what she knew was in her friend’s possession as it was anything else. Avery stopped dabbing at his arm, biting her lip nervously at his comment.

“It’s good to see you too,” was all that the usually talkative woman could say at that time, she glanced down to the needle and noted that it was about halfway through the task, the glowing aura setting a numbness against the wound so it wouldn’t have been uncomfortable to bear. Finally she found words for him, “if you would like my help, you need only ask. I’ll be heading out come morning, so if there’s anything I can do - a spell… Well, just name it.”

Now that was an interesting offer. Valker looked at Avery with appreciation and began to ponder how she could best help him in his quest when his ears caught something at the far edge of his hearing, and the gaping maw of the wyvern’s head resting against his chest shivered. The chilling mist that crept up against the windows began to spread. On the other side of the wall, the horses whinnied nervously.

“Something’s wrong,” the witcher said softly. He turned his head so that his good ear faced the windows and he frowned in concentration. Was that just the wind howling, or… “We had best finish this another time,” Valker continued, more urgently. “I have to get dressed.”

One did not need to have superhuman senses to feel the chill that crept through the air, to watch the mist spread across the windowpane. Avery stood quickly, moving to her trunk of belongings. She took from inside a black velveteen capelet, and what appeared to be a silver dagger which she sheathed and wore around her belt. She acted so quickly, her only thought being that this was more than had happened in Blackbough since she’d been here, and that meant it could potentially be a sign from Urszula. It was as though she had been waiting for the moment to arrive; “I’m going out there.” she announced with a steeled expression, not waiting for his response. Whatever it may be, she was equipped with enough magic to send it back, and if it was in fact something to do with her missing sorceress, nobody else in Blackbough was more qualified to stop her, either.

There was a silence outside. A cold, grating silence broken only by a sharp wind that seemed to be encircling the village of Blackbough. It ran through long blades of grass, whistling discordantly as it went. There was something hauntingly spectral about the quality of this wind, it was picking up small pieces of debris as round and round it moved - but the severe tension that was hanging in the atmosphere made everything feel slow, and slower still as a gloom began to rise from the ground.

It was grey at first, but the more form that it took then the brighter it appeared. Touched by moonlight, opalescent and alive. There was a green haze to it where it could not rise, a heaviness - plumes of sulphur dragged from the swamp bringing an otherworldly stench with it that tinged the air.

As the mist continued to fill the town from the outside in, villagers took to their homes, barred their doors and hid - children were told to stay under the bed as their parents held tight in a frightened embrace. Even they knew that something was horribly wrong.

Avery stood outside of the stables, her breathing was heavy as she let her eyes take in everything. She could feel the immense foreboding dread as if it were a physical touch against her bare skin. There was something malignant behind that fog. From the corner of her violet eye she caught sight of a flashing light from behind the curtain and she turned her head to face it, her posture taking a defensive stance in case she needed to move…

“Urszula?” She spoke aloud, even though she already knew that this was something else entirely.

From behind the mist, a tall and torn cloaked figure swooped through like some kind of bird - there was a corrupt grace to it, the same wind caught hold of the clothing and it flapped noisily. That was a recognisable sound - the movement of clothing, it was recognisable and natural, far unlike the noise that came from the creatures mouth. It was a shrieking sound, a disembodied wailing that was hard to place where it came from. It certainly did not come from the mouth of the creature, for it had none - just an empty space where a jaw should have been found… There was skin there, but it was apparent the flesh was gone, for it clung to the creature’s protruding bones. The hands were gnarled and claw like, the way they were posed was unnatural, it looked painful and grotesque.

“A wraith…” Avery whispered under her breath, pulling free the silver dagger, a spell forming in her free hand. Where was Valker? She could hold off a wraith by herself, sure, but killing one would prove to be a far more difficult feat for her. She was about to take aim at the wraith in front of her, when once more in her peripherals, she caught sight of a similar flash of light that had preceded this one… Then another… Then another, followed by a chorus of the phantom shrieking. “Valker!” She yelled out, voice cracking.

Now she was scared.

At last, the witcher emerged from the tavern, fully dressed and with a grave expression on his face. His silver sword looked as sharp as ever in the baleful moonlight -- it was already in his hand.

“If you know a binding spell, a magical trap of some kind, now would be the time to use it,” he said as he joined Avery’s side, his own voice calm and steady. The wraiths were circling as they closed in and Valker knew it was only a matter of time before they would disappear and reappear right next to them -- such was their way. With a single, fluid motion, Valker made the Sign of Yrden with his fingers and a circle drawn in glowing, purple runes appeared on the ground around them. “Within this circle they will become slowed and, most importantly, tangible. Strike then.” His gaze had been fixed on the wraiths but he briefly glanced aside to look at Avery. “Everything will be alright.”

As if on cue, the first of the wraiths appeared to flicker out of existence in a puff of ash and dust. Valker raised his sword defensively, his teeth bared and brow furrowed in anticipation. With a loud, piercing scream, the apparition materialized behind him and swung at him with a ghostly blade. Valker pivoted and sidestepped out of the way, quickly bringing down his sword across the wraith’s exposed back. The silver blade struck true, cutting into the nightmare’s skin and bone as if it was living flesh and blood, and it howled as it made for the edge of the circle. Valker tried to strike again but was forced to evade another attack as a second wraith swooped in. How many were there? Valker rolled, sprang to his feet and thrust his sword forward, the tip digging deep into this new foe’s chest -- or what remained of it. The tattered rags that were draped around its horrendous form swam in the air like fabric through water as it recoiled from the touch of the sword. Valker spat at it.

“Come on then, you ugly piece of filth!”

Valker needed one of them closer, to strike a killing blow - now that she could do. “Get ready!” She said in his direction, her voice was an angry growl from under her hood and she scowled at the wraith, her jaw clenched. She let go of the dagger but it remained where it had been, as if she were still holding it. She aimed a hand towards the recoiling spectre and clenched her fist as if she was grabbing it; she spoke her incantation through gritted teeth, feeling the creature reject and fight back against the binding spell that snapped around it. It howled out in terrible pain. Avery began to pull her hand back slowly, and the wraith moved too - as if there was a long chain that she had the creature on as it was dragged towards Valker. She was strong, and fighting against every bit of power that Avery was using, the sorceress prayed that the Witcher would act quickly for she couldn’t keep this up for long.

Never one to miss an opportunity, Valker dashed towards the wraith as Avery reeled it in and turned a running leap into a full-body turn, rending the wraith across with a wide slash from his blade. The ghostly, disfigured woman screamed her last, a warbled and distorted sound that ended abruptly as she burst apart in a cloud of green flame.

One down. Looking around, Valker saw that there were still five left -- and they were all moving in. “Shit.” The witcher dove to the ground and unceremoniously pulled Avery down with him as the five wraiths appeared in a circle over their heads, their ghastly weapons and claws tearing through empty air a split second later. “Run!” Valker yelled in Avery’s ear as he got to his feet, dragging her back up and supporting her during a mad dash deeper into the town. Horrible screams and ragged bellows pursued them.

Valker pushed Avery further behind him as he turned around to the sight of the five wraiths soaring at him in formation. Valker cast Yrden again and quickly pulled a flask from his hip; Tawny Owl. He would need to cast as many Signs as he could against these magical foes. He backed away to the edge of the circle, forcing the wraiths to approach him through it, which slowed them down and forced them to materialize again. Valker raised his hand and a blast of flame and sparks shot forth from his palm, breaking the wraith’s formation as some of them caught fire and backed away while they shrieked and writhed in the air. He had never seen ghosts move in unison like this.

“That spell,” he said over his shoulder, interrupted by the attack of one of the wraiths, which he handily parried and forced back with an overhead swing. “Can you cast it on all of them at once?”

With barely any time to catch her breath, she watched as Valker pushed back against the wraiths, each of them she could feel - she could sense their anger and torment, she could practically taste it. “Yes,” she replied breathlessly, before raising her two hands into the air, one foot behind the other as if to steady her balance. It was almost futile in this weather, the ground was caked in slippery sludge from the rainfall. It was a thick bog, surrounding by the mist and heavy evil presence.

Her hands looked to be holding something round, like an invisible ball - there was even weight to it. Once again, Avery spoke out the words of her spell; ”I bind you to this plane - I bind you to your bones - I bind you to this plane…” Over and over she repeated the words in the magical tongue, a shimmering circle of magic rose around the five wraiths as they tossed and turned through the air like fish in water - their dresses like delicate fins. This was far more difficult than holding just one, the five of them pushed back, and Avery was forced backwards through the mud but she held her stance upright and spoke the words louder.

Trapped in her ring like this, surrounded by her essence they screamed out and whatever pain and anguish she had felt before she now felt tenfold. It broke her chanting, only for a moment as she herself yelled out in pain. She would only do it once, the circle began to slip away and one almost escaped until the sorceress continued her spell, with conviction and authority in her voice, despite the fact that her ears were ringing and her head felt as though it would split. She damn well hoped Valker had a good plan.

Valker backed away from the wraiths, trapped as they were in the Yrden circle by Avery’s spell. He hooked something loose from a loop on his belt and threw it at the spectres with an almost lazy flick of his wrist. The Dragon’s Dream bomb detonated and a cloud of gas cloyed the air over the wraiths.

“Brace yourself,” Valker said to Avery.

A second blast of Igni struck the gas cloud. An enormous plume of fire roared to life as the gas was ignited, the force of the explosion sending a shockwave through the village, rattling doors and rooftops. The inferno consumed the wraiths entirely and their screams were drowned out by the noise of the searing flame, consuming the oxygen around it at an alarming rate. Valker felt the breath being snatched from his mouth and he backed away even further, raising an arm to shield his eyes from the brightness of the destruction wrought by the chemicals.

The fire turned to smoke and billowed up into the sky, leaving behind naught but five piles of crystallized dust -- the only remnants of the wraiths’ essence. They had been destroyed entirely. Not confident that they could rest easy, Valker cast a glance at Avery to make sure that she was still alive before he stalked through the village, blade at the ready, making sure that there wasn’t a second wave of wraiths -- or something worse -- coming. The cold and unnatural mist dispelled and the sounds of nature, silenced until then, came back from beyond the limits of the village. Satisfied, the witcher returned to the sorceress. “Are you alright?”

Once the smoke had fallen, and the air had cleared - so did the ringing from Avery’s ears. Her head was still sore but it was subsiding now. She regained her balance and relaxed her posture, her arms fell to her sides languidly. She observed their surroundings almost suspiciously, she still had a sour feeling in her. Something wasn’t right, but there were no more threats now, at least. Valker’s quick thinking had ended the battle in a spectacular fashion that, had Avery been less concerned, she might have appreciated a lot more. She nodded in response to his question. Physically, yes, she was fine - but inside… She was not feeling quite so well. “I’m… Yes, I’m alright, thank you…” she said, her tone and manner dazed. The sorceress stepped towards the Witcher, and as she met him she placed a hand on his arm and looked right into his eyes, “I want to talk, if you’re done here, then let’s go.”

Avery stepped around the piles of the dust, her eyes falling over them momentarily before she carried along on her way - back towards the inn. Valker would either follow her now, or meet her there later. She just needed to be back in the comfort of her room once more.

Valker sighed as he looked around. The explosion that had ended the threat of the wraiths had left a large scorch mark on the ground and burned the leaves off a nearby tree. He had a feeling the villagers would find a way to blame him -- and Avery too, probably -- for the emergence of the spectres, despite their efforts to defeat them. Before any of the peasants got the brave idea to unlock their doors and actually verbalize such an insult, the witcher turned and followed Avery back to her room. He was curious what she wanted to talk about but also concerned by her apparent dazed state of mind.

Once back in the room, Valker returned to his place on the bed and looked at Avery a little awkwardly. “Could you do that thing with the needle again while we talk? I think I reopened something with all that exercise out there.”

He need not have asked, the needle, having sensed his presence was already getting back to work. Avery had set it the task of closing Valker’s wounds - the enchantment would not end until it had been done.

Meanwhile, she paced the floor - eyes glancing over the mud that was splattered up her clothing and over her boots. She removed her capelet, pulling back the hood. Her hair had fallen loose from her bun in the scuffle, and it lay in thick, unruly waves to her collarbones. She turned a sneer at the rest of the mud, and began to remove the jacket - revealing nothing but a white cotton vest shirt underneath. “Damn dirt,” she cursed in an agitated tone. “Urgh,” she groaned before shaking her head, trying to ignore it as best she could, so that she could verbalise what had happened. “Valker, there was something wrong with those wraiths,” she spoke directly, not bothering to say anything but what had happened. “They were unusually strong, even in their great number, wouldn’t you agree?”

“Yeah,” Valker said with a frown. He, too, had stripped back down to his shirt and underwear so that the enchanted needle could get back to work, and had picked up the cloth that Avery had used earlier to wipe down the fresh blood from his reopened wounds off of his skin. Despite the severity of the situation, his eye could not help but land on Avery’s body. The cotton vest did not do a very good job of concealing the shape of her curves, or the effects the cold was having on her--

He cleared his throat and looked down at the ground. This wasn’t at all how he’d imagined they would be half-naked in a bedroom together for the first time. “And they were organized. Did you notice how they moved in unison? I’ve never seen anything like it. The whole situation is wrong. Wraiths haunt a place, they don’t appear in a village like this without a good reason. I’ve heard of them being drawn to botchlings or other cursed creatures but I highly doubt we’re dealing with something like that here,” the witcher said, thinking out loud. He noticed he’d left the bottle of vodka on the nightstand and reached for it. Before he took a swig of his own though, he looked back up at the sorceress and offered it to her. “You look like you need a drink.”

“I’m afraid if I start with that I won’t stop…” she confessed with a sigh, she had been on the road for a while. As she made her way over to the bed, she began to undo the clips that held the skirt in place finally pulling it away before scornfully dropping it with some annoyed force, the wet leather slapped against the floor. As she took the bottle from the Witcher’s hand, it occurred to her only then that she was almost entirely nude - save for the vest, her boots, and some (thankfully modest) shorts. She let the thought sit, and found that after she had taken a long drink from the bottle, it didn’t bother her. She’d seen the strumpets wearing less on the streets of Novigrad.

The strong heat of the vodka burned her throat but it was rather nice considering how cold it was, she let the warm feeling wash over her, and found that after the first drink she wanted another - the second wound up being a significantly larger mouthful than the first. The sorceress quickly handed the bottle back to Valker before she began with the third… “I’m worried. Damn, fuck,” her fist clenched and she made her way back around the room again. “I did notice, and… When I trapped them I could feel them inside of me, their hatred was like a flame burning up inside of my mind. I’ve never had that before from a monster or ghost…” She stopped walking and wrapped her arms around her chest, feeling a chill fall over her. “I don’t know if I sensed something behind the wraiths. But there was something else, Valker… it scared me.”

Nodding in approval at the sight of Avery partaking quite generously of the vodka, Valker accepted it back just quick enough to hide his smile behind a large swig of his own. Perhaps this day could be salvaged after all -- and by extension, the mess he’d made of things in Novigrad. He brought his thoughts back to the present and thought about her words. “Well… my guess is that there’s something here in Velen that isn’t happy about my presence. Something that can control wraiths,” he said and raised his eyebrows and his hands. “But I have no idea what that could be. A more powerful spirit, perhaps. Then again, I’ve been in Velen for two weeks already… so it’s either something decidedly local to this area, or it’s only angry now because we’re back together.” He paused and frowned at his own words. “You know, now that we’ve met again.” He sighed and silenced himself with more vodka.

“A sorceress could control wraiths,” she said quietly, a level of shame in her voice while she walked back to the bed to take the bottle again. She had been right, she wasn’t going to stop now that she’d started. She placed it to her lips and walked back across the room. “Or summon them… Valker, I told you about my lost friend… Why is it that my first thought was that she might be behind this?” She couldn’t bear to look at him now, and so she turned away and moved back to the dresser, placing the bottle on its surface before placing her own hands there too. Avery shook her head and looked down only to find herself staring intently upon the grain of the dresser, at the fibres of the wood and the pattern they made. He’s been here for two whole weeks? she asked herself, a strange feeling clawed at her, as if she was upset she hadn’t seen him until now. She’d been in Velen for long enough too…

“Really?” Valker asked, surprised. The extent of the magic that sorcerers and sorceresses were capable of was largely unknown to anyone except them, and even then it varied greatly between individual practitioners. “Sounds like the worst kind of necromancy.” He narrowed his eyes when it transpired that Avery kept the bottle for herself as she stared at the dresser, all mysterious and enigmatic and decidedly alluring. Valker got to his feet and crossed the distance, the enchanted needle following him, unfailing in its work. He hesitated for a moment before he brushed a hand against her back in a vague attempt at reassurance while he grabbed the bottle with his other hand. “But it doesn’t make sense that a friend of yours would send wraiths to kill us,” he said. Valker looked down at her. “Avery,” he added, imploring her to meet his gaze. “Why are you looking for her? Who is this friend of yours?”

Something happened when he touched her, the way that his fingers felt against her - even through the fabric of her shirt. A vibration, that tingled through her powerfully. She released a shuddered breath and her eyelids fluttered, it had taken her by surprise. She wasn't sure how she hadn't noticed it before, it was very, very pleasant, and it was for that reason that made her take a small step back. This wasn't the time for those things. Not now! she told herself, concentrating on his words instead, trying not to look back at his fingers.

“You're right, she wouldn't,” she said aloud so as to reassure herself. Valker was of course, right to have questions, she just didn't know how much she wanted to answer. “Urszula was a mentor to me when I studied, she helped me and taught me. A few weeks ago she began to send me a series of letters implying some danger, that she must go into hiding.” Avery needed another drink, she hated sharing these things, being vulnerable. “I'm trying to find her because it's the right thing to do. I owe her that much.”

“That makes more sense,” Valker said and handed the bottle back to Avery after he was done with it. For now. “The last person to see Domren alive said he was headed for Velen. A sorceress goes into hiding and a witcher is killed…” he added and let the words hang in the air for a second, his eyes studying Avery closely. The way her body had reacted to his touch had not gone unnoticed by the witcher. “I don’t believe in coincidences.”

Avery took the bottle and drank again, the burn becoming less and less the more she did so. It was not as satisfying without it, she decided. “It almost seems like too big of a coincidence… Besides, she's been even more cryptic and spiteful in her letters than usual, it wouldn't surprise me if she wasn't here at all now.” She held the bottle back out to Valker, noticing that it was getting rather close to being empty. When he mentioned his brother, she felt the tension grow. She hadn't heard of another witcher being spotted in Velen while she'd been travelling, two witchers in a short space of time seemed unusual enough to warrant gossip. “Where did you begin your search?” she asked him, meeting his eyes with her own.

“South of Oxenfurt. You wouldn’t believe what the people near Downwarren say about the swamps. No sign of Domren, though,” Valker said and shrugged. He, too, noticed that the bottle was almost empty. He finished it and put it down on the dresser a little harder than he’d intended to do. “Oops.” Valker looked at Avery, a calculating look in his eyes. “Listen, you should make yourself comfortable. I’ll ask the innkeep to wash our clothes for us and get some more to drink. Doubt they have any erveluce in a place like this, but I’ll ask.” He gestured towards the bed and nodded reassuringly. “Alright?”

“Actually, I'd prefer more vodka,” she admitted with a gentle shrug of her shoulders. “Oh! Since you're going that way anyway…” a smirk tugged at her lips as she did as requested and made her way to the bed, “please get some iced buns!” Her words were a little too enthusiastic… Vodka. Avery sat herself down on the edge of the mattress, and began to unlace her boots - it was proving to be slightly more difficult after… How many shots was it? She giggled at her efforts quietly although it soon began to frustrate her, why were they so tightly wound? “A dʼyaebl aép arse!” she cursed under her breath, her lips curling.

Valker smirked at the profanity in the Elder Speech while he gathered up their clothes. “Vodka and iced buns. You got it.” With that, he left the room and found the innkeep and his family arguing in hushed tones, no doubt animatedly discussing the events that had transpired outside the walls of their inn. They fell silent as Valker approached and before they could ask any impertinent questions, the witcher made his desires known instead and the thunder on his brow indicated that he would accept no delays and no prying. In return for their efforts, two more bottles of vodka and some iced buns, Valker left a little more coins than strictly necessary on the bar.

He stepped back into the room and held up the spoils of his exchange with the locals. “I’ve always found that the best way to get over a traumatic event is to drink myself into a stupor,” he admitted casually and made his way back, sitting down at the foot of the bed. He handed one of the bottles and the iced buns to Avery before he uncorked his own and immediately downed a healthy dose of the stuff. “Be nice to do it with some good company for a change.”

“The locals must think this to be quite the scandal, really,” she chortled as she finally succeeded with her boots. Now that was taken care of, she scooched herself into the middle of the mattress, the bun in one hand and the vodka in the other. With a tap of her fingers against the neck of the bottle, the cork flew out. It was a bit of a show off move, but she was amused nonetheless. She gave Valker a smug glance too as she mirrored him and drank from her own bottle. She had forgotten just what they'd been talking about already. “Good company? Where?” she laughed, turning her head from left to right - a playful sparkle in her eyes.

He waved dismissively. “I don’t give a shit what the locals think. This isn’t a church of the Eternal Fire, after all.” The way her loose locks of hair bounced around her head and the way her eyes glistened with mischief made Valker crack a smile of his own and he playfully punched Avery in the shoulder. “You, of course.” He, too, forgot momentarily about his search for Domren and the weeks of miserable treks through mud and frequent bouts of combat against drowners that lay behind him. A feeling of frustration and impotence had clawed at the edges of his mind for the last few days, but that was nowhere to be found now. “How did Reeve take it when you left?” he asked suddenly. “I always wondered.”

Reeve? She hadn’t thought of him in a long time, the smile fell from her lips and she took another long swig from her bottle as she thought of how best to answer that. “He was angry, he was drunk. He threw a temper tantrum like a child, and all that did was validate my decision… Alistaire on the other hand, he practically jumped for joy. It was the most movement I’ve ever seen from him.” Avery could picture the petulant old codger very clearly in her mind. Always drinking, always eating - everything in excess. He was stupid too, always a terribly greedy opinion on things too. “Urgh…” she shuddered and turned a frown. “I gave a lot of my life to that court…” she sighed wistfully before taking a bite from the iced bun. Not wishing to say anymore, hoping that Valker wouldn’t pry further.

Valker shrugged with a grunt. “Fuck them both. They can rot in their miserable little town forever. Meanwhile, us globetrotters now get to enjoy the sights and luxury of such illustrious places as Blackbough,” the witcher said and raised his arms around him. It was clear that the vodka had loosened both his tongue and his wit. “Where the bannisters are made of gold and the blankets spun from the tail hairs of Zerrikanian stallions.” He grabbed the raggedy blanket that covered the bed and pulled it free, only to hold it up for Avery to see. “Behold! See the beauty, the craftsmanship? Ah, if only those drunkards could see us now.” Valker shook his head in mockery before he raised his bottle in a toast to Avery. “Cheers.”

Avery did laugh, at the sight of the very same serious Witcher who had ridden through Kraeg’s Hill - now sat in little more than his bloomers, waving a blanket around. “Speak for yourself, the only drunkard around here is you.” She could not deny him his toast though, but she had something more apt in mind; “to our adventures, long may they continue.” There was a soft sincerity in her voice as she settled down from the laughter. It was so very nice to see him here, despite how things had last ended. With that thought in mind, she had a question of her own now - since it seemed to be that time, “so… What did you do after Novigrad? After the banquet?” Technically that was two questions, and when she realised it was, she shifted her glance to the side and ate more of the bun.

Valker braced himself at the question and bought himself some time by throwing back vodka like it was going out of style. He looked at Avery and wondered very hard if honesty was the best policy. Then again, there was no way she didn't know. That's why he had left, after all. “Well… after I'd made a right fool of myself, I packed my bags the next morning and left. I thought… you see, I didn't… I wasn't… equipped to deal with that kind of fuck-up. I fled,” he confessed. “Went right back to work. In hindsight, that was a mistake.”

He paused and something, though whatever it was was probably heavily influenced by the vodka, made him grab Avery's hand in his own. “I'm sorry.”

There it was again, that tingling sensation - although it was significantly less surprising when he was only touching her hand, but her eyes still widened. She’d known about it immediately when she saw Celes the morning after. Celes was not good at blocking thoughts from those who could hear them, and Avery had heard a lot of it. A lot more than she’d have liked to. It was both her disobedience, and that she had left Avery alone at the banquet that were cited as reasons for their working relationship ending shortly after.

She looked down at his hand on hers and blinked. “It’s all in the past now, you’ve nothing to apologise for anyway.” There was an awkward feeling that took over, and so instead of shaking it off, she attempted to drown it out with a sizeable amount of the vodka.

“Either way, I regretted it,” he said softly. He could feel his heart beating faster the longer he looked at Avery. Or was that just the alcohol? An interesting question that could only be answered by putting it to the test. He shifted closer to her and, after a moment's hesitation, put an arm around her shoulders. “What a day, huh?” the witcher said absent-mindedly. His heart was beating even faster. Even now, she still smelled good. Nope, that's definitely her and not the booze.

Avery watched the way he moved, and glanced to watch as his arm came around her - it was nice, actually. She hadn't expected it, she hadn't done anything for it. The alcohol took over her now, allowing her to feel relaxed and she leaned into him. Was that what he wanted? It was what she wanted. “Valker…” she uttered softly, with a smile and a redness on her cheeks. As she moved closer to him too, his nerves tipped over into her and she may have heard more than she should have, and answered too - “what did I do?” she asked, looking confused.

It was a big relief to feel Avery responding so well to his touch and the way she whispered her name to him caused a shiver to go down his spine. It had only taken him years to figure it out, but here they were. “What?” Valker replied, confused as well. “I didn't say anything. You didn't do anything.” He smiled and squeezed her arm. “Aside from being… wonderful.” The witcher blinked and quickly took another swig of vodka, feeling his own cheeks turn red.

She blinked again, several times. “Well you're wonderful too you know. Wonderful and strong…” she giggled, pressing her finger to his nose with a smile. The vodka had well and truly settled within her now, in fact it had felt a little like it had hit the hardest in the last few moments. “Ohhh…” she gasped before sitting up, looking suddenly like a woman on a mission. Like a woman who had just remembered something very, very, urgently important. She pulled herself away from Valker, hopping out of the bed with a wobble. “My babies!” she squeaked as she tip toed across the floor, heading with purpose to her Megascope. Not realising how utterly inopportune it was to do this now. She began fiddling with the dials on each stand, but nothing really seemed to be happening. Alcohol had put up a wall that was impossible to break through with logic. “Valker!” she said, alarmed. “Help me with this thing!”

A bittersweet mixture of disappointment and amusement spread through Valker as Avery abandoned him in favour of the machine at the other end of the room. He sighed and pushed the feeling aside. “Avery's babies…” he mumbled to himself, wondering what it could mean. “Her cats!” he exclaimed, believing himself to have solved the riddle. “Alright, alright, I'm coming,” he said and got up with a groan. He had to steady himself before he made his way over, bottle still in hand. Valker stared at the megascope with a puzzled expression. “Avery, I have no idea how this thing works,” he admitted.

“I don’t either…” she groaned, even though she knew she'd used it recently. “Fandangled thing,” she continued with a crossed brow before sighing. “I'm sure all you do is tweak and rub the dials, say the incantation… But I can't for the life of me remember which one to do first or how.” She was struck with disappointment, and she really did miss the cats too. “It's alright it's alright its alright…” she slurred as she began to wander around the room. “They're sulf-sefficent.”

“Absolutely,” Valker said. “Cats -- why, cats can do anything.” He followed her around the room with his gaze but almost fell over when he had to turn his head to keep up with her. “Where are you going?” he asked, bemused. “Come here. I wanna give you a hug.” The witcher began to stumble after her and drank more as he did so. Should anyone have seen them, it would surely be a conical sight.

The sorceress chuckled as Valker followed her around. It was a game now, and she liked games. As he staggered towards her, she hopped up onto the bed and walked over it to the other side. “I'll let you have a hug,” she said in a coy voice, breath laced with alcohol. “You can have a hug if you tell me something. Something… Something… A fact! A fact about yourself! Then you can have a hug.” Once again, she looked incredibly proud of herself, and she watched in anticipation of what he might share with her.

What an odd game. “Very well,” Valker said as graciously as he could and leaned against the dresser for support. “Well…” he thought, wondering what Avery might like to know about him. He decided to go with the first thing that came to mind. “I'm sixty-four years winters old.”

He did not look it. That made him older than Reeve, older than the Baron - but still younger than her. Only by a few years. He didn't need to know that. “That will suffice, come and get your hug,” she remained in her spot, and only just realising what was about to happen she fell shy, and brought her arms to her sides and looked around the room rapidly, at anything other than the witcher. If she had been sober, there would have been none of this nonsense - but for now, she was enjoying it.

What the hell was he getting himself into? Valker wasn't a hugger. He wasn't afraid of physical intimacy at all but his various forays with women in that field had rarely included something as innocent as a hug. And yet, with Avery standing timidly before him, it felt like anything but innocent. He sensed that, despite all the alcohol, this meant a great deal to her. And that meant that it meant a great deal to him. Valker approached slowly, like a man trying not to startle a nervous animal, and stopped in front of Avery. They were close enough to kiss now, if only she'd look up at him. But that wasn't the agreement. Gingerly, tenderly, the scarred witcher put his arms around Avery and pulled her into an embrace.

How could the same man she'd witnessed tear across the battlefield with the wraiths be so gentle now? She hadn't realised just how long it had been since she'd been held like this until he did. Until Valker held her, and that (despite the fact she was drunk) took her breath away. The brunette smiled against his chest, radiating happiness from her being, and her arms began reciprocating the hug. Slowly they reached around him too - one around his middle and the other over his shoulder. There wasn't a great difference in their heights and so it didn't take much for her to lean up to whisper in his ear - his own words back to him, “what a day…”

As her arms returned the hug and he felt her simple joy at being held, Valker tightened his embrace slightly and pulled her against him -- this was a hug with conviction now, one of intimacy, and Valker closed his eyes. “I should have done this years ago,” the witcher murmured and pressed his splayed hand against her lower back, his fingers moving in small, slow circles against her skin through the fabric of her shirt. Her voice in his ear, her body against his, her arms around him -- it was everything. His cheek grazed hers as he moved his head to look her in the eye. Their noses almost touched. “You are a very special woman, Avery Vexx,” he mumbled.

“You're doing it now,” she replied quietly, her eyes closed too, but her mouth hung open and she bit her lip. Those circles, that part of her back. It felt heavenly, and was provoking feelings of arousal. Her cheeks began to feel hot, and the softest of moans escaped her. She opened her eyes with a start and shuffled, hoping to stop that. His words felt better than his touch could have though, and the mild embarrassment melted away with them as they pierced the air. She felt safe, free, and comfortable with him - in his arms. The arms she had been so enamoured with on their first meeting. “That's not my real name,” she whispered softly, removing a hand from his back to rest on his chest, her own fingers painting circles on him now. “My name is… it's just Averina.”

She almost scoffed at how completely silly that sounded, and when she realised what she'd confessed she looked at him sternly, “don't you dare tell anyone though, I mean it.” The finger that had been painting his chest was now jabbing him half-playfully, and half-threateningly, but the embarrassed laugh soon followed and she buried her face in his chest.

“Averina?” Valker repeated and resisted the urge to laugh. “I shan't tell anyone, I promise. I can see why you introduce yourself as Avery.” He smiled, sincerely and fully, and laughed a soft, warm laugh in his chest when she buried her face in it. She had tried to play it off but Valker was sure he had felt her react to the way his hand caressed her back the way women usually did. If she did not want to pursue that sort of thing, he would respect that, but he had to be sure. Maybe he'd imagined it. And so he ran his fingers up her spine while his other hand moved up to the back of her neck, his strong thumb just behind her ear while his fingers entwined with her hair. They were so close together…

Oh it feels good, he feels so good, she thought to herself, unable to stop herself from tipping her head back and moaning out his name, “Valker,” she purred sensually, her body pressed against his with the motion of his finger on her spine. His magic connecting to hers - electrifying. She began to feel a familiar sensation in her stomach, one that was private and intimate and she smiled until she remembered where she was, abruptly. This had all happened quickly, so quickly. She was in Velen, searching for Urszula. Flushed, she pulled herself out of their embrace at once. “I'm sorry,” she muttered as she turned away from him. “Maybe… I don't…” she continued as she backed away, hiding her red face. “I… Don't want this to spoil our work together…”

For a second, Valker looked like he had been slapped in the face. He quickly did his best to regain his composure and smoothed a hand through his beard. His breathing was heavy, laboured almost, and he averted his gaze in bewilderment. Never had a rejection stung like this before. He chastised himself -- whether or not to allow him that level of intimacy was her call alone, she did not owe him anything. The witcher nodded, first to himself and then in Avery's direction, even though she was looking away from him.

“I understand,” he said, and although his voice was slightly strained, it was obvious he did his best to sound sincere and unwounded. “It could… get in the way, yes.” The more he looked at her, the more he wondered if that was the real reason. Why was she hiding her face? Was she… ashamed of something? “It's alright,” he added. “I'm not mad or… anything.” He hovered in place for a second, wondering if it was time for him to go and get his own room.

Truth was, he didn't want to go.

“We can just talk,” he said softly. “Like before.”

But she did want him, whether that was the alcohol or a desire that had been there all along - that was where she remained uncertain. She knew she liked him, but did she like him that much? Surely she did, even as she briefly thought on it, Avery knew there hadn’t been many days in the last seven years where he had not crossed her mind in some way or another. She felt so young, so naive. So incredibly unsure of this territory. In a politicians hall she could dominate and control conversations about all manner of things - but right now, behind closed doors with Valker she had no idea of what to do.

The sorceress had been enjoying their closeness, that much was true. To save herself from standing awkwardly, quietly she began to potter across the room - walking on tip toes again with a tipsy wobble added. In a quick motion she plucked up the Zerrikanian stallion blanket from the floor where it had been dropped, and wrapped herself in it before climbing back over the bed - stealing a glance at Valker’s eyes as she got comfortable on her side. She could see he was confused, slightly hurt. Was it her telempathy or her own real feelings that made her feel hurt too?

“I'd like to talk,” she said in a soft voice, blinking slowly. She placed her hand on the empty space beside her. “What were we talking about before?”

Valker returned to his place on the bed and thought long and hard about her question. “I can't remember,” he said eventually and laughed quietly to himself. The vodka brought more solace. “Oh, wait, I remember now. The angry ghosts and your friend and my dead brother. Damn, gloomy topic.” He was slurring his words now. “You know, we should save that for tomorrow. Tell me about yourself. What are your powers?”

That made her smile. She rolled onto her back and looked up at the ceiling, giggling in a demure fashion. “You know what I can do. I make things what they're not…” Her face grew more serious, the vodka still had a hold of her and had loosened her lips. “I was a very… sensitive child. I could feel… emotions, read thoughts.” Avery sighed and closed her eyes, “I can use that. To make things what they're not.” Even she knew that she'd said too much, and so she rolled back onto her side with a smirk, “oh and I can hold lightning in my hands, make the earth move to my will, trap wraiths… And conjure the most beautiful outfits too.”

“Read thoughts?” Valker asked, suddenly concerned. He stared at her quizzically, the way only drunk men trying to bring their vision back into focus could do. “You do that often? Oh!” he exclaimed, interrupting himself, and waved at her urgently. “Conjure a pretty outfit for yourself. I wanna see.”

She did not answer his question, she merely wiggled her eyebrows with an impish grin. As for his next request… Shr could conjure a pretty outfit alright. The witcher should have known better…

She dragged herself up from the bed and gave a modelesque strut around it, the blanket still wrapped tight around her like a cocoon. She made sure that his eyes were on her and her only, she swayed and shook her hips underneath the woolen cape - adding a feeling of theatre to the spell. After some more suggestive shaking and twirling she let the blanket drop dramatically to the ground, revealing that she was still in her vest and shorts. Valker, on the other hand was in an especially pretty scarlett doublet, and for extra effect, she'd had a feather boa draped around his shoulders. “Oh… Oops!” she feigned surprise, holding her hand up to her open mouth, hiding a grin. “Must be the vodka…”

Valker stared at Avery through squinted eyes. “Yeah, I don't see anything different,” he mumbled. “Try again?”

“No… there's a difference alright,” she replied in a honeyed tone as she moved back towards the bed. It looked very good on the witcher, she almost wished she'd conjured matching trousers for him too. He looked just as handsome in it as he did at the banquet. “Look closer,” she said through a yawn as she crawled over the mattress to her spot of the bed, her head landing softly on the pillow but she still watched Valker with mischief in her eyes. “Keep looking, handsome…”

It was then that the grizzled witcher noticed the conjured garments on his person. As he looked down at the doublet and, with growing amazement, at the boa, nothing happened at first. Nothing continued to happen.

And then he burst into laughter -- loud, raucous peals of laughter. He laughed and howled until he had tears in his eyes and he collapsed on his back on the bed. “Yoouuu she-devil,” came his strangled voice through hiccups and giggles. “Not what I meant! Nice jacket, though. Thanks.”

“I made you laugh,” she slurred against another yawn - this time stretching her arm above her and bringing it back down to rest her hand in the curls of her hair. Her eyes were drooping and the pillow was extremely comfortable all of a sudden. Her whole body felt so heavy that pulling her knees up was a struggle. “I made you laugh…” she mumbled again, the hand that had been in her hair dropped towards Valker, landing on his own. After that, her eyes were closed and her breaths soft. The sorceress had fallen asleep.

“Not many that can say that,” Valker said, still smirking like an idiot. As Avery fell asleep and her hand fell into his, he looked at her with heavy-lidded eyes and gave her hand a soft squeeze. “Sleep well,” he mumbled and decided that Avery had the right idea. He closed his eyes and drifted off himself, into an uneasy maelstrom of dreams where Avery rejected him for the spectral form of Domren over and over again.

Why did her head hurt so much? Why was the morning sun so aggressive? “God where am I?” she croaked out, her mouth as dry as a handful of sand. She slowly dragged herself up from the bed and immediately caught the scent of vodka in the room. It made her gag. “God no,” she protested and moved quickly to clear the bottles away - to purge the room of the smell that was so aggravating. There was nowhere to put them, “God,” she repeated again, the necks of the three bottles positioned between her fingers. She had no choice, she was hungover and desperate to not have to look at them… At once she opened the window and dropped them outside into the long grass, “poison!” she spat as she brought the shutter back down, finally turning to look at the bed only to see Valker in it, his tall form stretched out over the spread, feathers around his neck and a red doublet adorning his chest. “What in the name…?”

Avery then caught a glimpse of herself, hair like a birds nest, her face unattractively pale - she had no pants on. Just undergarments. She crept gingerly to her trunk and picked at what was inside, until she realised that she could just cheat this morning… While Valker lay sleeping she ran her hands over her body dress and bring back colour and glamour to herself once more. The very same outfit she had worn when they went to hunt a werewolf, as it happened.

Thinking to spare him any embarrassment of them making eye contact when he woke up, she quietly left the room. Electing to wait for him in the tavern. She was in dire need of food, too…

Fifteen minutes later, the witcher appeared, dressed in his own gear (the innkeeper had put the basket of washed clothes just outside the door to Avery's room) and with his weapons on his back. He looked remarkably spry and fresh for a man who had just drank more than a liter of vodka the night before, but witchers were gifted with extraordinary metabolisms and the slightest hint of darkened veins on his face betrayed his use of Swallow to wash away the headache. He ordered a plate of food for himself and sat down opposite Avery.

“Are we going to talk about the doublet and the feathered… thing?” he asked bluntly. His expression was inscrutable.

Avery was already tucking into her breakfast - bread with a side of bacon, and an especially sweet honeyed tea to wash it down with. She looked up at Valker, her expression as nonchalant as it could be, she shrugged, “you spent the evening with a trickster…” Her eyebrows raised, her smile turned downwards as if to say ‘what did you expect?’, but she meant nothing by it.

“I may have a lead on Urszula,” she said, carrying on into normal conversation after clearing her throat. “I'm heading out soon, I don't know where your search for your brother takes you next but I can help you, I still want to help you find him…” Avery brought the warm mug to her lips and inhaled the scent, the sweetness of it was far preferable to the vodka.

“I’m glad you have a lead because I don’t,” Valker said. The innkeeper’s daughter brought him his food with a mixture of awe and barely-contained excitement and Valker had to resist from rolling his eyes. Young girls and their misplaced love for swashbucklers and warriors… he ignored her and focused on Avery and his food instead. “Like I said, I don’t believe in coincidences. It’s possible, maybe even likely, that whatever Urszula is dealing with is related to what Domren was investigating before he disappeared, especially after that business with the wraiths yesterday. I’d like to come along, if you’ll have me,” he said and looked up from his food to observe Avery’s reaction.

“I couldn't get out of the inn yesterday, the storm… Hardly the weather for horses, as calm as mine is.” she began to explain as she took a healthy drink of the tea, she watched from over the rim of the mug as the girl practically fawned over Valker. She was pretty, and shapely too. She wondered if a girl like that interested Valker. It had been no secret in Kraeg's Hill that he'd visited the brothel after their encounter with the werewolf. The daughter reminded her very much of a typical small town girl. Avery smiled pleasantly up at her, after she had clearly felt the gaze of the Odd-Eyed sorceress upon her - enough so to turn her attention from the witcher and to his female companion, whose smile suggested that she was relishing in spoiling the girls moment.

After she'd left, Avery nodded along to Valker's words. “There's a place quite deep in the swamp where it meets a large, very steep rockface. There was a great magical interference in the surrounding area that I could sense, so much that I have not been able to teleport to it. I suspect it's some kind of veil that is hiding a cave or den…” She was keeping her voice quite low, and spoke with absolute confidence. “With sober mind, I wonder if such an interference could be linked to the attack. In any case, I’ve been wanting to check it out.” When it came to him requesting to tag along, she flashed him something of a delighted smile, “oh, and yes, you're coming along, so you'd best eat up.”

Valker’s eyes lingered on the retreating girl perhaps a tad too long, but he returned Avery’s smile with a small one of his own. “Good. Thank you. I will,” he said and proceeded to wolf down his food. He had nothing to say about her suspicions, really. When it came to magic witchers were little more than conjurers of cheap tricks and, with experience, capable cursebreakers. He assumed she knew what she was talking about. “That black horse in the stable, I assume it’s yours?” he asked in between bites.

“Her name is Midnight,” she responded with a smile, tucking a curl behind her ear as she ate a mouthful of the bacon. That would help soak up the alcohol at least, she was already feeling better for it. His eyes on the behind of the girl did not go unnoticed by Avery either. That answered her own query, and she smirked. Truthfully, she was feeling nervous now, she would either find something, or nothing. She wasn't sure which she preferred. Something else to talk about…

“I have to ask… Pardon if it's considered rude, but…” Her fingers began to tap across the table, and she tilted her head to one side curiously as she looked upon Valker's face. At the thin dark lines. She'd seen them before too… “Does… that hurt you?” she asked in a quiet voice, some concern in her tone.

“Good name for such a beautiful steed,” Valker said with approval. He, too, was feeling much better now that he’d filled his stomach and he leaned back in his chair, slowly nursing the apple juice the girl had brought. As for Avery’s question, he stared at her without comprehension initially before he understood what she was referring to. “It used to, but that changed with time and experience. Now it just feels… hm… potent? Witcher potions are toxic and it’s only because of our mutations that our bodies can process them. If I imbibe a lot of them in a short period of time, especially the decoctions I derive from monsters, feeling the toxicity coursing through my veins is like that tingling in your mouth if you eat too much pineapple, but much stronger. It makes me feel alive.” He shrugged and smiled apologetically. “I don’t know if that makes sense. Hope it answers your question.”

Unsure of what to make of the information, she just gave him a nod of acknowledgement, and raised her finger to her lips as she often did when in thought. “I know very little about witchers, the processes, traditions… I've never given much of it any thought. At least not until I met you, now I find it all quite fascinating…” Realising she probably sounded like the fawning women and common folk who probed him for information, she retreated behind her mug and finished the last of her tea, turning her face away to gaze off into the distance while he finished his food too.

“Most people just think we're freaks,” Valker said, his voice revealing neither here nor there what he felt about that. “Genuine curiosity is refreshing. There's a lot I can't really tell you about because… well, I don't know. Knowledge has been lost. We're a dying breed. But if you have any questions, ask away.”

“Some people feel the same way of mages,” she added, somewhat sympathetically. They had that in common. “Anything different…” she sighed, looking at her fingers as she rubbed them together gently causing a small sparkle to appear there. She could feel the eyes of the patrons on she and Valker both, and so didn’t take him up on his offer of more questions. More than anything, she wanted to quiz him about the scars across his body - but that would mean admitting she’d taken a long look at them, and it would mean bringing up that she’d done such a thing last night. “If I think of any more, I shall take you up on that.” With a final glance she noted that his plate was empty, as was hers. “Ready when you are.”

“Suit yourself.” Valker got to his feet and made his way to the stables, expecting the sorceress to follow him. He made sure that the contents of his saddlebags were still there -- it wouldn’t be the first time if some peasant turned out to have sticky fingers -- before guiding his horse outside. It wasn’t the same animal he’d arrived at Kraeg’s Hill with, seven years ago. That horse was long dead. This was a chestnut mare with cream spots on her flanks, not particularly large but with a very staunch and unflinching temperament. An excellent horse for a witcher. He mounted the horse and squinted against the rising sunlight. “Fuck off,” he mouthed quietly.

And follow she did, making sure to give as polite a smile as she could to the Innkeep and his family. She followed behind Valker, moving from him to reach her own horse - who, judging by the noise she made, was happy to see Avery again. She responded by placing her hand under the chin of the mare, and pressing their foreheads together briefly. “Good morning sweetie,” she cooed before opening the gate and walking her out. Once out of the stable, Avery set her foot into the stirrup, using her weight on it to get the boost she needed to mount the house. “Good girl,” she said, patting Midnight’s neck affectionately.

The horse began to trot back and forth as if impatient, giving her head a nod. “I know, I know… You know where we’re going.” Avery clicked her tongue and let Midnight find her way to the side of Valker’s horse. “We’re heading north until the path forks and then I’m afraid it’s the winding road… Through swamp.”

Of course it just had to be the swamp. “Wonderful,” Valker grumbled and made sure his necrophage oil was fastened to a strap that was easy to reach. Drowners and water hags infested those waters like nowhere else, it seemed. He looked at Avery and frowned. “How do you usually make your way through the swamp without a witcher by your side?” he asked, fishing for an excuse to keep his sword sheathed for once.

“With great difficulty. I can hold off some monsters… As long as I keep going and don’t look behind me.” She knew it sounded reckless, and she waited for his words of admonishment as she began to lead Midnight out of Blackbough at a gentle pace. They could speed up once they hit the open roads. “That said, the interference is quite powerful in the area. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s cleared most threats off. Can’t be sure of that until we get there.” There was of course, her silver dagger for if a threat got too close and magic just wasn’t going to cut it in the same way that a blade would.

As they approached the exit of the town, she began to feel as impatient as the horse had been. She hoped they could make it to their location as quickly as possible, especially seeing as Valker’s mood had seemed to shift and he was far less talkative than he’d been the day before.

“Ah,” was all Valker had to say about that. It was looking like he was going to have to get his hands dirty after all if they needed to defend themselves. He looked at Blackbough one last time and muttered something under his breath as he saw at least six faces that were glad to see them go. Turning back to Avery, he motioned for her to lead the way.

Avery clicked her tongue again, and gave a gentle nudge to the horse to speed her up into a comfortable gallop. It was pleasant to be able to ride again after several days of being cooped inside by the storm. Had her hair not been in a bun, she imagined it would feel good to have the wind through it, and of course the company was very welcome but her mind was occupied with thoughts of her mentor.

It was a fair ride to their destination, and by the time they’d made it through the swamp - even having ridden over the sandbars had left the legs of each horse coated in a layer of mud, dirt splashed across the shoulders. It was particularly noticeable on the black coat of Midnight. But they were here, and it was as the sorceress had expected - very few monsters had been lurking and any that were had kept their distance. Now, they came face to face with a tall wall of rock, that crested at its peak into a grass covered hill from what could be seen. A darkness surrounded the area, a lack of light from all of the trees that were growing against each other, knotted branches and roots made it a treacherous place to be… A slip into the swamp here had undoubtedly caused a sticky end for more than one unlucky individual.

There was a stinging vibration in the air that she felt across her skin, giving goosebumps even under the warm layers of her gear. It was so prominent it almost seemed that she could hear it too. “Feel that?” She directed at Valker as the dismounted her horse, landing with a light splash as she touched the ground.

She paced towards the centre of the rocks surface, a hand on each hip and focussed expression. “It’s definitely an illusion or enchantment of some kind… There’s an entrance here.”

Valker joined her by her side and followed where she was looking. Predictably, his medallion hummed. He’d had to deal with illusions once before when hunting a foglet and the witcher had been forced to ask a mage that lived in the area for help. “I’ll take your word for it,” he said and folded his arms in front of his chest. “Not my area of expertise. Do you know how to dispel it?”

“I do…” she remarked with a sigh as she glanced across to him. She held out both of her hands and began to move them in a manner which made her look as though she was simply rummaging through the air. After what felt like a few moments too long, a purple light began to emit from what had been seen to be rock - it began to peel away like paper and disintegrate - revealing a small, dark mouth to a cave. They would each have to stoop down to pass through it. Avery moved first, taking a careful step in the direction, placing a hand either side of the opening as she steadied her step, bowing her head to get in.

After several fumbled steps, the entrance opened out into a vast cavern - cold and damp, and dark too. It was the echo of her steps on the stone that gave indication as to how big. Now, to turn on the lights… The sorceress hastily formed a shining ball of white light in her palm, with a flick of her wrist she threw it to the ceiling of the cave, and as the light travelled upwards she could make out the path before her, and the unmistakable shapes of torches on the walls. It had definitely been inhabited recently, then.

More agile and dexterous than the sorceress, Valker slipped into the cavern with ease and his cat eyes were in the process of adjusting to the gloom when Avery’s magelight bathed everything in stark white. He did not say anything as he advanced into the cave; not because he was upset with Avery in any way, but because he had slipped into the focus and determined silence that he adopted whenever he was working. This was no different. However, it quickly became apparent that while the cave might have been home to someone or other recently, it wasn’t anymore. The placed was furnished; a desk, a bed, a few chairs and even a carpet on the floor emerged from the gloom as they advanced. A locked chest stood by the foot end of the bed and two half-eaten meals were sitting neatly on plates on the table. Mold had already set in.

As Valker walked around the table to inspect the other side of the vaulted cavern he nearly tripped over something on the ground. “Shit,” he said quietly and took a few steps back. It was Domren’s corpse. Unmistakable. Something (no man could do this) had nearly ripped him to pieces but Valker recognized his armor, his weapons and what little remained of his face. There was no time to mourn, however. The place was still saturated with magical energy and it was too soon to tell if the witcher’s killer was still around. Plenty of creatures were accomplished masters of stealth, after all. Valker drew his silver sword and resumed methodically inspecting every inch of the place.

Avery was less methodical, she moved to the desk, opening drawers only to find them empty… She checked the shelves only to find blank parchments and a dry quill. Even the barrels and crates were just filled with straw and burlap fabric. The chest was of interest to her, but it was locked - and probably with an enchantment too. There was no doubt about it that Urszula had been here, the blankets on the bed had her perfume… It wasn’t until Valker spoke - as quiet as it was, that she was pulled from her frantic search and she too approached the body. She gasped and put a hand across her mouth, turning away instantly.

“Is that…?” She asked quietly, looking back over her shoulder to observe Valker. He was now extra cautious, his Witcher’s sword held as he carried on. Did he want to talk about it? Move the body? Was there anything she could do? If she asked him if he was alright would he even tell her whether he was or not?

It took a few seconds Valker to register and respond to the question. “Yes,” he said without looking up at Avery, his voice devoid of emotion. “Yell if you see anything unusual.” It wasn’t necessary to explain why, he figured. The more he looked, however, the more he became convinced that there wasn’t anything dangerous here. His medallion appeared equally affected on either side of the cavern by whatever residue lingered here. It really was just a cave with cold and damp walls of rock and a few pieces of furniture. That was it. Admitting defeat, Valker resheathed the sword and returned to Domren’s corpse, kneeling down beside it to inspect it more closely.

“Where is your medallion, brother?” he muttered under his breath.

Finally, she resigned herself to the fact that there was little she could do to help him - he didn’t need it, and maybe it was silence that he needed more. Meanwhile, she needed to continue searching for anything that could be of use to her. It was the chest that kept drawing her attention. As Valker continued to examine the corpse, Avery stepped with hesitation towards the chest - it was rather grand looking. Made of a heavy metal - this was not a chest that would be forced open either, Urszula had been diligent in selecting it…

As she knelt down beside it, she felt an energy emanating from the surface - or was it from inside? There was a keyhole, but something in her instinct told her that a key was not going to open this chest. Had Urszula left it here for Avery? If that was the case, then it would only be Avery who could open it. Had there been a cipher in the letters? They had seemed quite normal and nothing about Urszula had ever suggested she has a type for written puzzles. No, this was a chest of sentiment… Her eyes lingered over the keyhole and she grew frustrated thinking of how many attempts it was going to take her to open it. Urszula had always lamented that Avery could be impatient during her schooling… Was it that easy? Stealthily, Avery turned her head to check one last time what is was that Valker was doing. He was still occupied, and so she took the opportunity to speak to the chest - or rather, command it, “open” she said bluntly.

Nothing happened.

“Damn!” She cursed as she rose to her feet with her eyes closed and an angry scowl. She held her breath in anger for a long time, before sighing out - exasperated. “I don’t think there’s anything here, Valker…” she spoke quietly from where she stood.

It was hard to tell what it had been that had killed Domren so violently. The deep gouges cut into him would suggest claws, but they would have had to be enormous to nearly bisect him they way he had been. Valker could not think of anything that would follow a witcher and, presumably, a sorceress into a cave to fight them there that had claws like that. Ancient leshens, draconids and fiends were the only creatures he could think of that had that much tearing power. Half of them wouldn’t have even fitted in the cave without destroying everything else inside. Looking up, Valker confirmed that the furniture wasn’t even slightly damaged. Whatever had killed Domren in here had done so suddenly and without a struggle. It was a worrying realization.

“I think you’re right,” he said in response to Avery and got to his feet, surprised to see her anger at being stumped by a chest. He quickly realized it was merely displaced anger, of course, and that she was just upset they hadn’t found her mentor. Valker’s mission, on the other hand, was technically complete, except…

The witcher gestured towards Domren’s corpse. “His medallion isn’t here. Whatever killed him probably took it. That means it might be sentient, or at least covetous in nature. However… there are no signs of a fight, no signs of a struggle. Anything large enough to physically tear him apart like that would have destroyed everything in here by merely being inside the cavern. Domren wasn’t killed elsewhere and moved here, there’s no trail of blood and the amount of it caked onto the ground here suggests he died where he stood. So we’re dealing with something that can control wraiths, kill a witcher without leaving a trace and probably purposefully take his medallion,” Valker summarized. For the first time since they entered the cave, he showed any emotion. He scowled. “That is bad news.”

“And that’s based only on what we’ve seen…” It was time to shake off the feeling of anger, or at least let it sit at one side for now. She brought her thumb to her mouth and gently nibbled as she thought about what he’d said. It didn’t sound like a common creature that was for sure. “A being like this probably has more powers too… That we have yet to see.” A chill ran down her spine at what she was suggesting to herself. She questioned yet again if this was the work of a sorceress, of Urszula. “I can’t reasonably rule her out Valker. That would be dishonest of me, and I don’t want to lie to you…” she admitted as her arms wrapped around her torso. It really was cold in the cave. “I don’t believe it was, but… I can’t rule her out until I am able to locate her.” Slowly she turned her head to meet his eyes, under the magelight they looked like embers, flickering - alive with an intensity that suddenly she found herself looking away from, for the first time.

Urszula. “Possible, I suppose,” Valker mused and looked at Domren again. “Seems rather inelegant for a sorceress. Still, you are right that she can only be eliminated as a suspect once we find her. I assume she sent you those letters with the expectation that you would eventually find this place. There must be a clue of some kind she’s left behind.” His gaze turned on the chest and he approached it to inspect it properly, sinking down on his haunches in front of the lock. “No luck?” he asked.

“None.” Avery sighed, stepping back to the chest, taking a position behind Valker - watching him more than she looked at the chest. “There’s no key but it’s clearly magical, or has something magical inside. Maybe it’s not for me… Maybe she’ll be back when she’s ready.”

Or, what if the chest is the key? She wondered, and upon the realisation she sprung into action, slipping down to her knees beside the Witcher, reaching out a hand to finally touch the lid - the same spell that she had used on the entrance was once again forming from her body. Her energy shifted so as to dispel the last illusion in the cave. To her absolutely amazement, it worked. Just as had occurred with the entrance, purple magic tore at the fabric of the spell and burnt it away with a slow but ferocious energy - dissolving away the rectangular shape into nothing. What was left in the place of it, was a small talisman, hung around a cord of leather. An amulet of some kind… Carefully, Avery reached out a hand to pick it up, string first. It was nothing like the medallion that Valker wore. As she held it up to their eye level, she began to lean ever so slightly into him so that their shoulders brushed. She did not realise, for she was too busy inspecting the detail of the talisman. It looked like a sun, just a simple gold sun on a string. “Hmmmm…”

Valker, too, was too busy watching Avery’s actions to notice her arm against his. “Is that Nilfgaardian?” he wondered out loud. Their symbol was the Great Sun, after all. Her perceptive success at dismantling the illusion did not go unnoticed. “Well done, by the way.”

“It looks it, but somehow I think that’s secondary to whatever magic she might have imbued this with… She has worked in Nilfgaard, however…” She took the necklace into her hand again and found her way back to standing, slipping it into a pocket for now. “Thanks, but it’s not a job well done until, well… I find out what it’s for. I feel better though… For having found it.” She gave him a half smile, before her gaze fell upon the corpse once more. “What do we do with Domren, do you need help?”

“No,” the witcher replied and walked back to Domren. He removed the dead man's swords and scabbards from his body. “We burn him and bury his bones in the swamp.” Valker hoisted him up and placed the corpse on the table, swatting away the plates of food. After taking a step back, Valker raised his hands and a burst of flame erupted from his hands, engulfing Domren and immediately setting his clothes and the table beneath him on fire. Now it was simply a matter of waiting. Valker stared at the improvised pyre and crossed his arms again. “Rest in peace. Your Path ends here,” he mumbled.

It was not a place she wanted to remain, and so the sorceress retreated from the smoke and headed back to the swamp. As her eyes adjusted to the natural light she took a seat on a rock by the horses, who, had surprisingly stayed exactly as they had been. In fact, Valker's mare had joined to Midnight's side and each seemed to be enjoying the company of the other. Valker would want some time and space, and truthfully, so did Avery. She removed the necklace from her pocket and kept looking at it, studying it closely - as if to find a chip or scratch that would give indication to its secrets.

After ten minutes, Valker emerged from the cave and fastened Domren's swords to his horse's saddlebags before he turned to face Avery. “It only happens very rarely that I end up without any clues to work with,” he began, “but I'm out of my depth here. If that amulet is going to tell us anything, you're going to have to be the one to figure it out.” It annoyed him to have to admit that and he looked away, kicking a small stone across the swamp. “I'll help however I can. I want to recover his medallion.”

Her eyes followed the stone as far as she could. She heard it fall and land into one of the pools of water with a gentle splash. “I'll figure it out, I'll take it to another sorceress if I have to…” Avery was sat cross legged, swinging her foot back and forth absentmindedly. She realised that it hurt her to see him this way. He was defeated, or disappointed… Hard to read as always, that would never change. “I'm sorry, Valker.” She spoke comfortingly, having decided that anything was better than nothing - even if it only soothed her.

When had anyone ever said that to him, especially with such sincerity? Valker didn’t quite know what to do with it and shrugged. “It’s alright. Witchers don’t die in their beds. This is our fate,” he said, but his voice did not sound like he was entirely at peace with it, nor had the furrowing in his brow ceased to set his face to thunder. “Some monster will eventually get the best of us and that will be that. Way of the world.”

To that, she didn’t know what to say. She wanted to approach him, to put an arm around him or show him anything, any small piece of kindness - but she resisted and stayed where she was. “It’s hard for me to comprehend it… Death, I mean. I haven’t thought about it since I was much younger… But it follows you, doesn’t it?” Avery hadn’t meant to say such a thing, she hoped he wasn’t offended or found it callous. But, the more time she spent with Valker, the more she came to understand his way of life - and that of witchers in general. To her, they’d always been a mysterious caste, alluring and inviting. Like handsome strangers in a cheap novel. She was coming to learn it was not a lifestyle to be fetishised. The sorceress began to experience pangs of guilt for ever having done so.

“It does,” Valker said in agreement and without judgement. He was all too aware of how different his life and that of his fellows was compared to that of almost everyone else. It was only career soldiers that Valker had ever felt any sort of kinship with, but even they did not understand what it was like to test yourself against something inhuman time and time again. “But I have no plans for dying just yet. Witchers can live for a long time if we’re cautious and clever.” He looked back at the cave and wondered where Domren had failed. With a sigh, Valker turned back to Avery and gestured towards the amulet. “Another sorceress, you said?”

She stood and nodded, “perhaps another can decipher the meaning. Someone not part of this, but that’s a last resort. Not until I’ve tried everything anyway.” Avery tried to smile, the mood had been on the heavy side for a little too long, and she took her place in front of the horses, touching the underside of each mare’s chin. “I know some still, but I’d rather be cautious - I’m well aware of the reputation we have for being, well…” manipulative, intrusive, self-seeking… It didn’t need to be said, and she’d rather not have those words in her mouth around Valker - even if she had been guilty of many of the qualities. “Oh, and yes - I hope that you have many more years in you… So keep being clever.” The whimsical way in which she said it, and the spark that appeared in her eyes as she stole a look at him was almost flirtatious, but she turned away shortly after, to continue fussing over the horses.

That was unexpected enough to draw an unseen smile from Valker, whose eyes lingered on Avery while she busied herself with their mounts. He found Avery to be a confusing and often contradictory woman. For some reason, it didn’t bother him. Something told him that if he simply gave it time, she would… what, exactly? Come around to him? Open up to him? Something like that. Valker cleared his throat and swung himself in the saddle. “Where to? Back to the inn?” he asked. The witcher did not relish the idea of returning to Blackbough, where they would undoubtedly be seen as unwelcome troublemakers.

“I think that the trail is cold for me now… I don’t suppose I have need to stay in Velen any further, so yes - I have to collect my things.” The brunette wasn’t entirely sure of where her path was to take her next, and she almost hoped that Valker might ask her to accompany him for at least a little longer. “What are you going to do now?” She asked curiously while mounting the black mare. An innocent question that she hoped would allow her a glimpse into his plans - to gauge if there was room for her there. Upon noticing she was hoping for that, she cleared her throat and took hold of the reigns of the horse, as if by performing a mundane action she could rattle those thoughts and ideas free.

Valker stared at her with one raised eyebrow. “I’m coming with you, of course.”

Avery laughed a little louder than she should have - but she could not work out whether his answer was facetious, or if he was just being deliberately obtuse about it. She felt more awkward now and so pushed forwards back over the path, avoiding eye contact. “Come on then,” she said laconically.

There she was again, being confusing. “I’m perfectly serious, Valker declared and irritably urged his horse to follow her. “Once you’ve collected your things we can leave this swamp behind, rightfully so, and go elsewhere for you to do your magic… stuff... ” He rolled his eyes at himself and started over. “The point is that I’m not going anywhere until we’ve learned what happened and I have Domren’s medallion back.”

Now she felt even more awkward, and it was just as well that she was riding in front of him, so he didn’t have to see the pained grimace on her face when she realised her own mistake. She almost didn’t know how to respond. “I just assumed you would continue on elsewhere, I didn’t think you’d want to wait for me to do my magic stuff...” Even just speaking the truth made her feel worse, and she brought her palm up to her face, placing it over one eye and cheek while she sighed. “My mistake…” she muttered under breath. “With my things at the inn, I should manage to work it out… I won’t keep you from finding the medallion…” Oh God shut up! She told herself, not able to decipher how she’d gotten here.

“I have nothing better to do,” Valker said without thinking. “I mean -- there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing. I could use a break,” he corrected himself and groaned inwardly. It seemed both of them were entirely unsure of what to expect from the other. “And I’m curious to see what you’re going to do, and where you’re staying these days.”

Moving the conversation on seemed preferable to sidestepping perplexing questions and interactions. The night before had left her so… Unsure of Valker, or at least of her real feelings. “Lyria,” she answered. “I’ve been staying in Lyria. I have been for quite a while actually, it’s nice there. It’s warm, and not wet… No swamps or gaseous marshes in sight...” That was better. She found her words again, and the fervent blush began to leave her face. “I actually advise a Lady now, believe it or not,” she let out a soft chuckle, and held her head higher, letting the mare pick up speed as the path began to open up.

“That must be an improvement over Reeve,” Valker quipped, He, too, was pleased that they seemed to have moved past that bizarre moment. “I haven’t been to Lyria in ages. Let us be off.”
Precipice of Change

This one is.

Morning of the 19th of Midyear, 4E208
Gathering of the tribes, Alik’r desert, Hammerfell

Somehow, after all had been said and done with the gathering, Raelynn had found she had slept quite well. For the first time in what felt like a long time, she had drifted off and stayed that way. It had not been a peaceful sleep, but she had not been harassed by the plague of frequent waking, of sweating, of horrendous nightmares. The gathering had been and gone. Everyone that mattered knew their business now. Everyone that mattered knew everything. The words and confrontations had stung her, and she still felt a sharp pain in her chest in the cavernous space where her breath had been dragged out by the angry grip of her companions. Yet, they were both still here. Or at least she was here. Gregor was not, but strangely she felt no worry of his whereabouts.

She stared up from her position on the bedroll, Gregor’s side was practically untouched. Her side was crumpled and had still had her warmth within it and the pillow had an indentation to it from where she had been resting. There was a single smudge of black kohl against the fabric.

She brought her hands to her face and slowly drew her fingers under her eyes gently, adjusting her vision to the morning light that was sifting in. She sat up, letting the blanket slip from her frame. Gregor must be with Fjolte. She knew the Nord was an early bird and it made sense to fetch Gregor at that hour for whatever it is they were going to do. The thought crossed her mind of whether he might be off somewhere in a situation that she had been in with him. Walking the smoke. Her face scrunched as she fell deep into that thought, bringing a closed fist to her chest, it wasn’t pleasant to imagine and so she tried to shake it free with a soft shrug of her shoulders. Raelynn blinked, her sapphire orbs glossy with the dew of rest, and she made her way outside of the tent, her clothing a simple pair of linen trousers and a cropped vest.

She found a soft spot of sand to sit in, on her knees and took a deep breath in, letting her shoulders soften. It wasn’t until she did so that she realised how heavy the weight of that tension had been, the feeling of anger and the bitterness that had been consuming her... Her arms fell to her sides before she moved them together, one hand on top of the other in the shape of a point. Then she made a slow diving motion to the sand, her hands pushing against it as she brought herself flat, stretching out her back under the warmth of the sun. It probably looked so strange to any of the passers by as she worked through a series of poses, holding her body as still as a statue - even when it resisted against the stretches and she faltered. Even when the feelings of vicious spite held onto her fiercely. She just tried to breath and let them roll away, before moving in a graceful flow through her salutations, finally arriving back on her knees at the very end of the sequence.

He would be back soon, and so the Breton made her way back into their tent, and began her second ritual of the day — her hair. Carefully she combed it, removing the knots that had formed through the night, shaking free the grains of sand until it was smooth and shiny as ever, soft enough that her hands could now work through the lengths to form it into braids. She hadn’t braided her hair in so long, she thought as she did so, watching herself in the mirror - her tongue poking out at the side of her mouth in concentration as her oiled hands turned strand over strand, leaving behind lustre and the scent of lavender and oranges.

It didn’t take long for the worry to start to seep through, now that she was no longer occupied and just waiting. Her eyes flickered over the tent. She picked up a book and pressed at the pages but the she could not absorb the words. She plucked through her belongings, perhaps if she changed her clothes it might pass some more time… A dress today? Trousers? A tunic? And what about a belt? What about some rings - an earring, a brooch? Boots or sandals? What colour today? Maybe violet, maybe white… Finally she huffed out a long sigh and folded her arms over her chest, she was just going to have to wait it out…

The lich slipped into the tent like the tent like a phantom at the opera. There was more substance to his presence now, it seemed, and the face that revealed itself when the black hood was thrown back and the scarf pulled down from his nose bore, ever so slightly, signs of life in its eyes. Even if Gregor and Fjolte hadn’t achieved anything yet, he felt a little better to know that they were going to do something, even if it was only getting his memories back. Thinking so hard about what happiness meant to him brought back the love he felt for Raelynn at the forefront of his mind and he looked at her with a smile that brought some warmth to his cold, sharp face.

“Good morning,” he said and sank down on his knees next to her, his eyes going over her fresh clothes, her oiled and braided hair. She looked good, healthy, well-groomed. Gregor hadn’t taken care of himself since the ascension -- there was little need, since his skin no longer produced sweat and his hair no longer became greasy -- but there was still a disheveled quality to him, an inevitable consequence from walking around. He untied his hair and handed the leather strap to Raelynn. “Would you like to style my hair today?” he asked and gestured towards her braid. “Looks good, what you’ve done.”

There you are she thought to herself as she watched him enter the tent through the reflection in the mirror. Her natural reaction was still to steal a glance at him, and she looked over her shoulder to do just that, but the difference in his face caught her off-guard again, and all she could manage was a quick smile before she turned back to the clothes piles in front of her. “Good morning to you too…” she uttered softly, lowered over the piles as she folded them back up into a neat pile.

With him beside her, she felt more at ease - and immediately noticed a lack of smell, and by that she could not detect the scent of smoke staining his clothes, nor of any herbs which only served to make her curious about what he had been doing. She held the strap between her fingers awkwardly, looking at it… It filled her with a mixture of emotions, images from the last night became clear. How she’d undone his hair from it’s knot before they had made love. With a soft sigh she placed it on the dresser, out of her sight. She could not deny him his request, despite her feelings and so she gave him a sideways look before breaking her silence, “not Gregor Sibassius asking for someone to style his hair?” Ahh, there was a smile.

She picked up her comb and shuffled herself so that she was behind him, and tentatively at first she began to pull it through his hair. Combing from his hairline to the tips slowly, as if he was made of paper and she was scared to tear him.

“Not just someone,” he said as she moved behind him to do as he had asked. “Only you.” He hadn’t failed to notice how she had looked away from him quickly after seeing him over her shoulder. It stung, but… what could he realistically expect? Gregor knew he looked like a corpse. It would be tremendously magnanimous if Raelynn could ever get used to that, let alone after a few days. He pushed the thoughts aside and focused on the homework Fjolte had given him; make her laugh. It had been too long. “Fjolte made me climb a rock,” he said and smiled himself at how silly that sounded when stated so bluntly. “Can you imagine that? Went surprisingly well, though.”

“Climb a rock?” She asked, peering over his shoulder to be closer to his face - as if to check his expression. She stopped combing - holding the tips of a section of his hair between her fingers, her eyebrow raised quizzically. “I… Sometimes I don’t understand that one, but…” there was only one thing she wanted to know, and even if the thought of Gregor climbing a rock were amusing, she needed to know what else they had done - discussed… If he felt better. If any of it had helped. Raelynn bit her lip and moved back to focus on his hair, her movements relaxing as she discovered that no, combing his hair did not hurt him. “But he must have had some… Deep and mysterious reason for it, I suppose.”

Gregor shook his head gently, restricting his movements so as not to disturb Raelynn’s combing too much. “He wanted to look at the sunrise while we talked. Well, I suppose you’re right, there was a lesson, about overcoming a challenge to find the path waiting for me. There was a slope back down on the other side that would have been much easier to scale.” He fell silent as he wondered if he should tell Raelynn about the things Fjolte had volunteered about his past, but Gregor eventually decided against it. “He’s going to help me recover the memories I lost surrounding the… ascension, I suppose would be the word for it. But we didn’t really do anything yet. He was mostly just relieved I didn’t throw him off the cliff.”

Raelynn nodded along as he spoke, her fingers were now running through his hair too - and she was doing about as much styling of it as Gregor was… She was just combing quietly. First the with the teeth, and then her fingers delicately followed, twirling strands absentmindedly as she listened. “It’s a good job you didn’t throw him off the cliff. The damn fool would have survived and would likely try to tell everyone he’d performed a triple somersault from the peak…”

So all they had done was talk, that was interesting... Her eyebrow raised again, her lips narrowing into a pout while her mind worked through the information. “I see… Did he tell you what that would entail? I mean… Are you? Is that what you want?” She asked, leaning over his shoulder again, her fingers splayed over his scalp. “Sorry… of course it is, you need to know… you need your memories.” Once more, the Breton retreated to his back and carried on.

“I do,” Gregor said, not picking up on the implication behind Raelynn’s trepidation. “As long as I don’t know what the Ideal Masters exactly did to me and my soul, I’m not… whole. Once I am, we can see about treating me. He…”

The Imperial trailed off and cleared his throat. “Fjolte wants to help me become the man that can give you a home. ‘Nobody can hate that man’, he said. I haven’t forgotten what I promised you, Raelynn.”

“I trust him... To help you that is,” she admitted in a soft voice as she focussed her attention to his hair again. She sat quietly for a while, just combing. Just enjoying the mundane task he had asked of her, her shoulders and posture became relaxed the more she ran her fingers over him, and she was almost able to forget the situation at hand - even with the discussion of the Ideal Masters… The ritual gone wrong. Eventually she knew what she wanted to say; “and don’t go thinking you’re going to just give me a home. We’ll do it together, I want… I want to make that a perfect home for you just as much.”

That was cause for Gregor to fall silent for a while. His eyes were downcast and his hands lay silent and limp in his lap. “Are you sure?” he asked her eventually, his voice heavy with uncertainty. “Do you still want that with me? You were at the trial, you saw how they all… everyone hates me. I’m a monster. Just… it’s just… I need to be sure you know what you’re getting into. You could lose friends over this. Over me.”

Raelynn sighed, her hands falling by her own sides. She watched as his hair fell loose again from how she had been holding. Uncurling from itself. He needed strength, he needed to be held up and all she could think about was their night in the spring, how she had raised him up with reassurance and with love. It was all she had, afterall.

“I shan’t think of the trial when we’re in our home. When I’m in your lap by our hearthfire… Reading something, maybe reading to you. I won’t remember Gaius when we wake each morning, and you bring me flowers from our garden… When I work in my study… I won’t think of it.” Her voice wavered, a melancholy pierced her words but her eyes were warm, and slowly she let her arms wrap around his waist from behind him. “There is no home without you. Of course I’m sure.”

When she wrapped her arms around him he placed his own hands over hers, the coldness of his touch hidden beneath the leather of his gauntlets. It was such a simple gesture and yet it was possessed of more power than any sword or spell. Gregor closed his eyes and let the wave of emotions roll over him -- relief, love, gratitude. Even now, even in his current state, she could reach him in ways that nothing or nobody else could. “Thank you,” he whispered and gave her hands a gentle squeeze. He found that he could truly believe in Fjolte’s words now. There was cause for hope. With her, for her, Gregor had every reason he needed to push himself to rebuild. “I think I might take up gardening,” he said eventually and opened his eyes again, a faint smile playing with his lips. “Make sure the house is surrounded by life. It’d feel good to nurture something like that, don’t you think?”

She hummed in response, drawing upwards to place her head against his shoulder as she closed her own eyes. “Yes it would… There will be windows that are open, and carry the scent of your wonderful flowers through the rooms… It will be beautiful.” Raelynn allowed the image of the home to form in her mind as she spoke, smiling as she did so. “Our bedroom should have a balcony that overlooks your garden so I can watch you at work… And we can spend our evenings there, watching the seasons change.” Her voice was barely a whisper, just a warm and dreamy breath. Her arms reacted to his touch, and she held him tighter.

“Perfect,” Gregor said. This is what Fjolte had meant, he was sure of it. How could anything be a more powerful anchor than this? “Everything is going to be alright. I have faith. As long as we have that to work towards, we will be just fine.” Some of his confidence returned to him and he extracted himself from Raelynn’s embrace so that he could turn around and face her. She was still unsettled by his face, he knew that, but she was going to get used to that. She had to. Gregor smiled at her and his eyes smiled along with it, the otherworldly quality of his gaze tempered by the human warmth and emotion that shone through. He didn’t look so bad now. “I love you, Raelynn Hawkford, and I will do everything in my power to deserve the love you’ve shown me.”

He already had. But… This was important to him, feeling like he was working towards something for her was important - essential even, to him becoming himself again. She couldn't take that from him. As Raelynn met his eyes with her own, she recognised them at once, darker than ebony and warm as they'd always been. The eyes she'd fallen in love with. Everything else had changed, but as long as she had his eyes everything else would be fine. “I love you too,” she answered with one hand on her chest in a fist. Wishing to kiss him, but still unsure… She simply rose up once more, unclenching and placing that hand gently on the back of his neck before pressing her forehead to his - a sign of loving solidarity. Raelynn's lips touched the tip of his nose but she did not kiss him. Instead she spoke as softly as she could, “always.”

While he yearned for her kiss, Gregor understood that she might not be ready. It would take time to reach that level of physical intimacy again. He tried not to let that realization sour his mood, the optimism that she had filled his heart with. Sitting back and letting Raelynn get back to what she’d been doing, the Imperial decided to bring up a lighter topic of conversation. “Any plans for the rest of the day?”

The rest of the day? It occurred to her that today was the last day they’d be spending with the tribes, and this fact brought her out of her state of relaxation with a quick curse, ”shit” she began, fumbling over her clothes to begin the packing. “I wanted to find some merchants before we left… I need some supplies.” Her hands reached for her satchel, and she rummaged through it - even in such a hurry she moved delicately. “I need some more plants, reagents, an oil… among other things too…” She looked back up to Gregor, a slight panic across her face, before she shook her head. “I’ve gotten myself into a tizzy now…” Raelynn’s shoulders began to shake as she laughed quietly. “I should get a move on, really… I want us to have just, some us time. If you want to…”

It was endearing to see Raelynn panic over something as mundane as supplies again. Gregor gave her a reassuring pat on the arm. “You have plenty of time. In fact, I’d like to come with you. I want to see if the merchants have something I need,” he said, his hands performing the routine gear check without looking that had become second nature over the years, making sure he had everything on him -- his money, his weapons and his various belongings and nick-nacks. He put his hood up and hid his face behind his scarf. “Can’t see anything, right?” he asked, slightly nervous.

“You want to come along?” she asked, slowly blinking in surprise before she ran her lower lip through her teeth, a shy smile appearing there. “You know I can’t really recall… When we’ve done something quite so mundane, together.” The Breton leaned towards Gregor, moving her own hands over the scarf, gently tugging at it here and there. She made folds against parts of the the fabric to deliberately cast shadows over his face, and smoothed it out over his shoulders where it had been on the crumpled side, allowing him to look neat and as though it was simply the stylistic choice of a gentleman. “That’s better, needed a woman’s touch.” She tilted her head while looking at her handiwork. She could still see his eyes. “What is it that you need?”

While waiting for her answer, Raelynn got to her feet and hung the satchel over her shoulder - in the full sunlight, while standing, she looked unusually frail - even by her willowy standards. Still, she held her graceful posture - and actually, she could feel some kind of bizarre joy in the idea of them running an innocent errand together.

“You’ll see when we get there,” Gregor said as they stepped out of the tent and began making their way to the center of the camp, where the market stalls were. He didn’t want to speak the idea out loud -- it sounded a little dumb when spelled out and he wasn’t sure if it would work until he tried it. “Let’s just say I’m looking for something to make me a little less inconspicuous, despite your best efforts with my shawl,” he added after a few seconds and glanced sideways at Raelynn with a smile. She couldn’t see that but maybe she could see it in his eyes.

“Well, alright then if you say so… I don’t mind the shawl so much though…” She commented with a smile, unsure as to whether she should link her arm through his. Did he want that? Maybe on their walk back. It was still early enough for things to be quiet and uncrowded. It was welcome too, Raelynn wasn’t fond of being jostled around droves of people. Aside from the odd tribesman, the market was very empty indeed. The scent of spices hung in the air alongside the familiar sound of food hitting a hot pan - that loud sizzle that was enough to rouse hunger in most. Her eyes followed the line of stalls. It certainly wasn’t Gilane or the Imperial City, but the familiarity and absolute normality of a morning market was a comfort to her. Not even Gregor could stop her from pottering over to the spread of trinkets, supplies, and folded coloured fabrics. She oohed and ahhed at most of everything.

She picked up a bunch of dried flowers, holding them in one hand while she continued to look at the wares of this particular merchant. He had books too, oddly enough, but she was already carrying too many as it was. She pursed her lips to the side, it really did pain her to leave them, but she finally settled on some more parchment, an ink pot, and the dried flowers.

There were still several more stalls to peruse, at least.

In the meantime, Gregor strayed from her side once his eyes found the stall he was looking for; an armorer’s shop. The Redguard staffing it regarded Gregor’s approach with wariness and he refrained from greeting the Imperial, perhaps hoping the black-swaddled figure would leave if he ignored him. That suited Gregor just fine for the moment and he perused the gear on offer in silence. It was an eclectic ensemble and he doubted that the man crafted many of the pieces of himself. There were a lot of different styles on display and Gregor figured that the man was a merchant, not a blacksmith, and that his collection had been acquired by trade instead of craftsmanship.

He paused when he saw an old greathelm, forged from dark steel, in the unmistakable style of the knights of the Third Era. It was a relic from a bygone age, or at least fashioned in its image, and Gregor stared at the faceplate for a long time. It was a symbol that represented chivalry and virtuous living, standing up for the poor and the downtrodden. It was a barbuta helmet with an enclosed visor, sporting a horizontal slit to look through and a series of tiny holes below that to breathe through, that could be flipped upwards on a pair of hinges by the temples. He could hide himself, Gregor the monster, behind it and become something else. Something better. Looking down at his armor, he realized the helmet would compliment the rest of his equipment quite well. It would look natural, normal, like he’d always been a hedge knight, a wandering guardian…

The exchange of septims was quick and unspoken and the Redguard merchant nodded, grateful to be rid of the shady customer. Gregor turned away, averting his face, and quickly lowered his hood, pulled down his scarf and donned the helmet. The world closed in around him and he was briefly submerged in darkness until it sank properly around his head and he could see through the visor. His range of vision was larger than he had expected but he could still very easily see the edges of the helmet when he looked up at the sky or down his nose. It was strangely comforting; a reminder that his identity, his nature, was now hidden. This could be the beginning of becoming the man that Calen had believed him to be. One day he might even be worthy of the ballad the Nord had composed for him.

“What do you think?” he asked Raelynn when he caught up with her, the sound of his voice metallic inside the greathelm.

The Breton had been far too interested in her find to notice, or hear Gregor’s approach. She’d managed to find, strangely enough, a copy of a book she had remembered reading years ago. She may have had too many already, but one more was not going to hurt. Just one more… She was internally justifying it to herself. It’s not another vanity item, it’s not shoes, or a cloak… This is useful. Yes, useful.

The voice came as a shock to her, it sounded as though it echoed, and she slammed the book shut in her hands and turned to face the sound. It was Gregor, in a greathelm… That had been what he wanted then. It was as clear as day, he looked like a Knight, a slightly disheveled one, but a Knight all the same. Raelynn carefully brought her thumb to her lip, and traced the outline, deciding how she felt about it. She couldn’t see him at all now, but something about this gallant appearance enticed her and that was clear as day too in the way that her eyes narrowed as she continued to hold her gaze on him. She liked it.

Of course! She was hesitant about it, but she let a hand drop to her satchel, through the goods until she found what she was looking for. She also removed a hairpin from within one of her braids, causing said braid to fall loose from its place and become a curled strand grazing her collarbone and framing her face. “You need just one thing more,” she commented with an alluring smile as she lifted the sprig of lavender from her bag, and stepped towards him to pin the small flower on the breast of his cloak. She wondered if it looked silly, if he would even like it… But she had seen Knights in Daggerfall with the flowers of Lady’s on occasion. Stepping back, she took in as much as she could of his darkened, concealed visage - her expression more a question, and that question was, do you like it?

Gregor’s hand brushed against the lavender. He thought back to their first night in Anvil and the Imperial lowered himself in the same proper curtsy he had greeted her with then. It felt like a something out of a dream. “My lady,” he said and inclined his head before rising back to his full height. “You honour me with your mark.” It was obvious that yes, he liked it.

She couldn’t help but chuckle at it, that despite everything they could find a moment like this. That despite all of the darkness they had both endured, when it was just Gregor and Raelynn together, golden moments could be found. “Sir Gregor,” she said somewhat theatrically, playing along with him gleefully, lowering her head in his presence. She almost wished she had on a dress so she could give him a lady’s curtsy back. “My Knight, I require your assistance and guidance to return me safely to my tent…” There was an added eloquence to her speech that was somewhat a mockery of the true nobility, but it was not malicious.

In a demure fashion, she stuck out her elbow for him to take, looking away from him as if shy of it, too chaste and innocent to be touching a man. Deliberately overacting with a smile in their little game, when really she was testing the waters of whether or not this was going to feel strange, feel alien to her. Yet, she wanted his touch all the same.

Immediately grateful for the helm as it allowed him to maintain a perfect poker face while smiling behind the visor, Gregor stepped up to Raelynn and hooked her arm through his, his other hand resting on the pommel of his silver longsword. “Of course, my lady, this way,” he said and they began the trip back to their tent. He could walk with his back straight now, the urge to hide himself and stick to the shadows gone. It was remarkable what one piece of armor could do for a man. “Thank you,” Gregor added, softer, his voice meant for just the two of them now. “For humoring me.”

This is probably how they should have started their relationship, she thought to herself as she strolled quietly arm in arm with him. It was a stark contrast to their early morning in Anvil when they were walking similarly, driven only by lust and their eyes harbouring a sinful hunger. Now, all she could feel was a deep and heavy pang of regret. How was this going to work now? There were still things left unsaid and undiscussed, their fight for one. If he really was going to go searching for his memories he’d find that one - and they would be forced to acknowledge it then. For now, their moment was a peaceful and happy one, so she pushed any other thoughts and fears to the side and placed her hand on his arm - her thumb moving in small circles there. The soft warmth of her eyes and her relaxed countenance gave little away as to the feelings inside.

“No,” she began as she turned her head to the side to look at him - forgetting his face was behind the steel now, she turned back, “thank you for coming out with me.” Raelynn paused for a while as they made their way - she moved so lightly over the soft sand, feeling the heat of it warm through the soles of her sandals. She would miss the desert for some things, she was sure of that, and yet she couldn’t wait to be rid of it all the same. “I want us to do… More of this, just me and you. I…” What the Breton wanted to confess was her frustration and upset at their relationship now suddenly being the business of all of their companions… That she was bitter that they were now likely under the scrutiny of everyone and all she wanted was this. Solitude.

Gregor understood perfectly well how she felt. After everything it would be an incredible blessing to be able to just retreat into the shadows of a woodland home and forget the worries of the world and the judgement of others. But that was not to be their fate just yet. Gregor had made up his mind -- he wanted to stick it out and see this dangerous, lopsided war through to the end, even if it frightened him to think of everything that could go wrong. It was jarring to think that he had stared down Rourken less than a week ago. Where had all that sensible fear been that day? Marching down the hallways, mowing down innocent servants with volleys of Dwemeri gunfire, his heart naught but stone; it was a far cry from the way Gregor felt now. He had been so sure of himself, his skills, his path, as if Destiny itself had been on his side. Now he knew that was nonsense. There was no greater force that looked after him. He had alone in his madness -- alone, except for Raelynn.

“I do too,” he said at length as he roused himself from his reverie. “The world has different plans for us, though. We cannot know peace until the Dwemer invasion is stopped. Rourken won’t forgive us for what we’ve done…. what I did. We’ll just have to steal these moments where we can for now. I sincerely believe that these people, as strange as it is, stand the best chance at succeeding out of anyone. I want to help.”

A pregnant silence fell. “I want to repent,” Gregor added quietly.

“You’re right, and I want to help too… I never thought that my trip to the Imperial City would ever bring me here.” Her pace slowed down as she thought reflectively upon her journey. While only a short amount of time had really passed, so much had changed. “I’m a very different woman to who I was when I left Skyrim last… Do you remember in Anvil that I feared this war?” She asked as she glanced up at him again, “I thought to leave and head home?” Her hand squeezed tighter around his arm as she looked to the ground. “You convinced me to stay, convinced me I could help and now… Well, I suppose that I believe it. Not only that, but I want to help… Sora, Latro, Jaraleet, Judena… All of them. Help in all the ways that I can, if it means I get to steal even one of these moments with you from time to time…”

Suddenly her free arm found its way to him too, and she delicately held onto him with both. Embraced him with both. “We can both repent, Gregor.”

It was undeniable that Raelynn had some level of involvement in Gregor’s actions. He’d instinctively almost told her that that was nonsense and she had nothing to repent for… but that wasn’t really true. The woman on his arm had had every opportunity to try to stop him, to talk him out of it, to chastise him. She never had. Gregor knew she’d been swept up by the force of his personality and his mission and that there was a darker, more vindictive side to her that enjoyed seeing her enemies laid low, but he wondered how Raelynn felt about everything now. Did she have regrets? Did she wish, like him, that everything could still be undone? Or was she just unhappy because Gregor had been caught in his web of lies?

He decided to ask her outright. They had promised to not have any more secrets between them, after all. “Do you regret being a part of… what I’ve done?” Gregor asked. “If you could do everything over again, would you stop me?”

There it was, a question she hadn’t wanted to be asked, she didn’t fully know the answer. She stopped dead in her tracks, and let go of him. Carefully she stepped away and made her way over the sand. Instinctively she wrapped her arms around herself as if a great chill had taken over her. “I wanted to help you to be saved, I know that to be true. You made me feel safe and I… I should never have pushed you, something changed when I, when I fell in love with you, when I saw you - thought you were dying.” Her voice trembled, she paced again - feeling not that much different than she had only nights ago. “I didn’t realise until it was, well…” Her voice quietened and she looked everywhere as if the answers were in the space between them. She looked everywhere except at him. “Yes I would have stopped you.”

Stopped him from what? Taking souls? The Ritual with Nblec? Hunting down Zaveed? Rourken? His Ascension. She had tried to stop him in the prison… She did not entirely regret what they’d done together. He had made her safe. But she did regret not being able to save him. “I told you that all I wanted was to save you Gregor…” Her hands grasped at each arm and she bent forwards slightly, her teeth setting a pressure on her lower lip as she shook where she stood. “I’m sorry that I couldn’t.”

The black knight could only stand and watch, the steel of his helm an impassive barrier that revealed nothing about what he was thinking or feeling. It was hard to see her like this and know it was because of him. It was also strange to know that she would have stopped him, had she known then what she did now. Would he have even let her, or would he have pushed her away to become just another heaping on the pile of sacrifices he’d made in pursuit of his goal? Perhaps the only series of events that could have led them to this moment was the one that occurred, and if anything had changed they wouldn’t have been here together.

“I don’t think there was anything you could have done,” Gregor said, sounding defeated and speaking truer than he knew -- truer than he remembered. “I’m sure that if you tried to stop me, I would have pushed you away. I was far too obsessed… I’d already sacrificed so much. But it’s good that you would try, if you were given another chance to do so. It means I haven’t ruined you completely. I would never forgive myself if I had.”

“This heat…” she said quickly as she wiped a finger under each eye. “The sand…” she continued, trying to blame the wetness of her eyes on something else, unwilling to cry in front of him now, least of all when the crowds were slowly beginning to appear. “It’s a rather bothersome place,” she mumbled over a shaking breath, dabbing at her cheeks with a small handkerchief she had taken from her satchel. The Breton took a deep breath and stood up straight again, interlacing her fingers together while she peered out at the horizon now, her eyes narrowed so as to stop another tear from forming and falling.

“I can try my best now, I can try my best to help you — find your… soul,” finally she cast her eyes upon him, without turning her head. The irony was… Well... She lifted her head again, and swallowed back any remaining sadness that had been threatening to invade their moment, and with grace she added, “I still believe I can help your family, I owe it to you and to them, for my part in this...” In her hands, the handkerchief was being wound tightly around her finger as she spoke her truth, it was painful, but she wanted him to feel her conviction and stalwart dedication to still saving him.

“Then not all is lost,” Gregor said, mustering the most optimistic thoughts he could. He didn't really believe that Raelynn could help his siblings. More experienced healers and alchemists than her had tried. But nothing was impossible. Maybe a fresh mind and a pair of eyes was exactly what this illness needed. “If they can be cured and live healthy, fulfilling lives until a death at the hands of a more natural cause, then I shall consider my quest a success after all. Thank you.” He closed the distance she had created between them and placed a reassuring hand on her shoulder. “Soon there will be no cause left for tears. We shall be out of this desert before long.”

There was the Dwemer medicine which Daro’Vasora had alluded to. After enough time had passed, Raelynn set to question her about it. But not now, now was their last day at the camp with Shakti’s tribe before they set off towards the Reach. With Gregor’s hand on her shoulder, she felt steadier still and yet as if they were on the precipice of change, something was coming. Things had never stayed quiet for long on the road so far, but today was quiet. She knew only that she had to be strong for Gregor now, regain the trust of the companions, become stronger in herself - find a way to harden to steel. All of these thoughts circulated in her mind until finally she placed her own hand onto his.

“You’re right… Who knows what will happen next for us, for us all... It’s a long way until our journey’s end. Let’s find moments to cherish as often as we can.” If he had not been wearing his helm, this was a moment where her hand would have instinctively found his cheek to caress. For Raelynn, it was still too soon to really know who Gregor was now, how much of him was still there and which parts of him were gone, she felt a plangent grief within her born of regret but she did not let it rise to the surface.

Besides, there was hope on the horizon. There had to be.
This is one of the most useful resources on this site. I'm definitely going to use this as a sacred text I desperately cling to for salvation guide if and when I try my hand at GMing again.
To Speak Ill of the Dead

The Trial of Gregor Sibassius

18th Midyear 4E208, late evening, Alik’r camp…

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. I-...”

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.
From: Elder Scrolls: Vengeance of the Deep
Post Written: A SHADOW FALLS
Written By: @Stormflyx
Written Words:

“But he’s not alone.”

A sharp and resonant voice rang out amongst the quieting chaos as the battle was seemingly reaching it’s brutal climax. As the flashes of magical energy withered down and the last crumbs of rubble hit the floor with the smouldering clouds of ethereal ash - there was one woman who stood in the eye of the storm.

A single long, thick braid of ash blonde hair was hanging from the crown of her head, so bleached from the Hammerfell sun that it appeared almost silver in the otherworldly luminescence of the room. Her eyes were hardened - the colour somewhere between the steel of a sword and the blue of oceans and outlined with dramatic charcoal. There was a dewy glow on her skin as the magicka contained within her potion wore off and left her dead centre between her fallen paramour, and Governor Razlinc Rourken.

Dressed in white, she wore a light chain armour fashioned into scales across her shoulders in a bronze shade - so delicate it was that it would barely be functional against anything the Dwemer had in her arsenal against them if what Raelynn Hawkford had witnessed from the shadows under the guise of her invisibility, was to tell her. Rourken was perhaps a Master Sorceress and she and Gregor were outmatched physically, and still she was not about to let another finger be laid against him.

Rourken was shielded, but that would not stop Raelynn from making sure she had her full attention. He needs time she thought to herself, as she unrolled a scroll that had been gripped in one hand and read out the phrasing with such an unwavering intensity that she surprised even herself. She did not aim for Rourken, no. The single bolt of lightning was fired up to the ceiling - to a chandelier that was central in the room - made up of Dwemeri alloys and crystalline glass shards. How beautiful it must be illuminated. She imagined how painstaking and agonising it would be for a servant to light each candle. Agony that would immediately be erased at the scintillating beauty that would come from it.

The bolt tore through the alloy with such a ringing ferocity and a cacophonous blare of vibration that shattered every piece of crystal. Glass rained down over the room like a spray of diamonds.

“He has me.”

I understand that is way more than a line or a paragraph. I still wanted to share it.
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