Out For Blood
Colovia, 18th of Second Seed, 4E208
The hefty Imperial let out a weak groan, eyes fluttering as consciousness slowly begin to filter back through the dim swampwater of his mind.
"You're finally awake, hmm?" There was a nudge to his side and he tensed up, fighting nausea as his head swam and pain warped his senses. He tried to speak, but only a jagged cough came out, reinforcing the already painful jolts that rocked him. His eyes finally slid languidly open, and he managed to shift his head to look balefully at his savior-cum-tormentor. She was Nord--not an Altmer, he sighed gratefully, at least someone was still looking out for him--with a youthful complexion, a handful of years younger than he was. Maybe...four, five, if he had to hazard a guess. Pretty, he thought, with bright green eyes, deep-chocolate hair tied back in a simple bun, and a spattering of freckles across the bridge of her nose. A wry smile was twisted on her face, and she looked at him with an eyebrow raised. "Even awake, you still look like Oblivion came to Nirn again."
Only then did Gaius gather up the energy and fortitude to look down at himself, and the sheer surprise very nearly jolted him into lucidity. Gone was his suit of armor and his family-cribbed mace; all he had left was his precious shield. He wore only the tunic of burgundy linen that he'd worn his plate over, and even that was...compromised...by the hole that shredded through the center. His face screwed into a mirthless cross between grin and grimace, and he laughed weakly. That would explain the pain. It looked mostly healed, but he couldn't for the life of him remember where it had...
And then he remembered.
Two days prior...
Time was running out.
Skingrad had been taken by the Dominion. Not much time was left before it was sealed, and Gaius still had so much ground to cover, so many faces to search, until he was finished here. He dug deep into his reserves and continued his forward march, armor stripped off in favor of light garb. He had little reason to fear combat, and speed was paramount; all he carried with him was the mace he'd taken from the Milonem manor and his ever-faithful shield. Every person he passed was examined, every tent scanned. His teeth gritted together as he stormed past a patrol of Thalmor that swirled about the refugee camp, rapidly putting everything in order and making sure everybody was prepared to move inside of the city at a moment's notice.
He'd saved the quarters of the Colovian Rangers for last. He wasn't sure why, considering; it seemed the first place Helena would flock to, given her disposition. She'd never been one to shy away from combat; though she wasn't a soldier, she belonged to a family of one, and had chosen to carry on the Milonem legacy at least in part by training to surprising skill with her longspear. The Colovian Rangers were a perfect fit. And yet he'd delayed. For days. And, in the end, he knew why, though he didn't wish to admit it to himself: Gaius was afraid. He knew full well how many had died in the Imperial City, and he knew how unlikely it was that Helena had escaped, but until he confirmed it otherwise, at least he could attempt to retain some feeling of comfort in assuming she was alright. But after the last disastrous endeavor of the Rangers? That tiny comfort had shattered into thousands of fragments. He heaved a heavy sigh. This trepidation had never been his way, but it seemed he couldn't help himself until now. And so, ever-so-close to the city closing its gates and forcing him inside, he found himself trudging up a hillside towards the now-deserted tents of the Rangers.
He supposed that Rhea, Daro'Vasora, Judena and the others had left by then, probably the day before. They, after all, had nothing tying them here. A part of him idly wondered where they'd gone as he searched the forlorn canvas tents that hung in the eerie silence. It was probably better off, being without them; the further he divorced himself from the one who'd slotted that damnable lexicon into the device, the better it was for his overall health, both physical and mental. Not only were they likely hunted by those that would realize that this whole situation was their doing, but it shunted the guilt that ate away at him off to the side where it could gnaw at his psyche in private instead of doing so very openly.
A gleaming piece of metal, one of the few left in the camp, caught his eye, and he hastened over to look at it. It took him a moment, but after that crucial period of recognition, a grim determination stole over his face and his fists clenched tight enough to feel them creaking: it was a very recognizable longspear point, the bloodstained haft lying beneath it in three pieces. He picked two of them up, inspecting them for a moment. The determination fled, to be replaced with seething rage.
This was not Dwemer doing.
He'd seen their work; while deadly, yes, it was...not crude, exactly, but very much forceful. Not graceful, that was to say, and certainly not the razor-sharp keenness to slice clean edges through an inch of solid, fire-hardened oak. No, he'd only seen this kind of damage to military hardware in a single context before: Elven weaponry. And just like that, red curtains fell in front of his eyes, and spittle sprayed through his clenched teeth as he struggled to control his burgeoning fury. Dwemer. Dwemer. Focus on the Dwemer. Do. Not. Fight. The. Thalmor. And he almost succeeded, too. He could feel the wrath beginning to ebb, and a heavy breath nearly banished it entirely.
And then he heard voices. Altmer voices. Indistinct enough that he couldn't hear what he was saying, but by the tone, it was some sort of banter. And laughter followed. He stilled, then rose to his feet, tucking his hands behind his back both as a show of deference and to conceal the shortsword-like longspear point, and left the tent, trembling with a combination of confusion, frustration, and barely-concealed fury.
"Excuse me," he called to the Justiciars, voice tense, "I don't suppose you know what happened to the rest of the Rangers after the rather ill-fated raid?"
The two turned towards him, faces mostly seeming bored, and one shrugged. "Is it any of our business what insects choose to do in their burrows?" His face twisted into a mocking smile. "Perhaps they got themselves killed like the rest of their idiot resistance. One can hope, yes?"
And just like that, the red curtains descended again. Thicker this time. All of the pent-up anger, fear, and hatred inside Gaius found its outlet and burned through him as he exploded into motion. With only his tunic and shield, he snapped into high speed and careened at the two elves.
He managed to close the distance. Enough. The element of surprise on his side, he rammed the spearpoint into the chest of the shorter of the two Altmer--the one who'd spoken--and then slammed it home with his shield, feeling a savage glee as it pierced through to the other side. Another shield bash to the remains of the spear haft, twisting it to the side, and the elf's spine split in two. Eyes twitching, too shocked to scream, he slumped to the ground like a puppet with his strings cut, babbling incoherently in a language Gaius didn't know.
He pivoted rapidly, catching the second elf's voulge on his shield, before lashing out with the hand that was clenched around the spear, punching the Altmer in the chin and knocking him to the dirt. He stalked up to him, heartbeat pounding aggressively in his ears. "There was once a man who was tired of anger," he ground out, flipping the spearpoint into a backhanded grip. "He had wished for vengeance, and it had consumed him, and he had promised to never let it consume him again." He stopped, standing above the only semi-conscious Thalmor, glaring down with narrowed eyes. "I am not that man anymore." He brought his hand high, preparing to slam home the blade.
A blossom of pain began to spread from his torso and, looking down, he could see an Elf-worked arrowhead sticking straight out of his chest. He staggered, half out of surprise, and the makeshift sword dropped from his suddenly nerveless hand. He tottered for a moment, then fell.
And then there was darkness.
Colovia, 18th of Second Seed, 4E208
Gaius stopped his pained cringing and his face went slack as he looked to the ceiling.
They're going to be out for blood now, aren't they.
At a sound above him, he snapped out of his reverie, turning--with effort--back to his savior, who held out a potion vial to him. "Health potion. Sorry I'm no mage. You owe me for the Septims to pay that priest," she said, only half-joking, it seemed. He reached out and clumsily grabbed the potion, chugging down the foul-tasting liquid and sighing as it numbed the pain slightly. He tried to speak, and only a sandy choke came out. She held out a hand. "Hang on, hang on! You're still hurt. Here, drink some of this:" she held out another vessel, this time a nice, plain mug filled with a thin soup.
He drank some of it down, barely managing to avoid vomiting it up, and felt it soothe his torn-up throat. He fixed her with his pained brown eyes. "What...day is it?" he managed to hiss out before he was wracked with a fit of intensely painful coughing. "Nine above," he swore through the cough.
The Nord blew a strand of her hair out of the way. "18th of Second Seed. You've been out for days."
A current of shock ran through Gaius' body before he eventually managed to ask the important question through his pain: "What happened?"
Two days prior
The sneering, furious Thalmor held his voulge over the unconscious Gaius, preparing for the coup de grace.
And then held it.
And held it more.
The green aura around him refused to waver, his eyes bulging as what he recognized as a paralysis spell held his final blow. Then the Imperial who had slaughtered his partner was waltzed out from under him by a Nord who winked cheekily and blew a kiss at the immobile elf before tying his limbs, gagging him, and sauntering back to the loaded cart that had, only moments ago, rolled up to the former encampment of the Rangers and refreshing the spell for good measure before whipping the horse hitched to the cart and trundling away. In the distance, he could see that the archer that had saved his life was under similar circumstances.
By the time the paralysis had worn off and the Altmer had freed themselves of their bonds, the cart was long gone.
Colovia, 18th of Second Seed, 4E208
"Thank you," rasped Gaius quietly.
"Don't mention it," she said lightly, fishing an amulet of Talos from underneath her shirt as the cart rolled down the road and dangling it in the Imperial's face for a moment before replacing it where it had been before, "I saw you kill a Thalmor, and anybody who does that is good enough to save for me as long as they're not a skooma addict or something, and you look far too together for that." She turned back to the front. "We'll be in Chorrol within the day, and the priests and mages there can patch you up better than me."
"Wait," Gaius croaked out, prompting her to turn, "what's your name?"
She smiled. "Hlastag Autumn-Cloak. And yours?"
He made to speak, then hesitated, name on his tongue. "...Janus. Janus Galtius."
She gave an even more dazzling smile, and he felt even worse than before. The lie tasted bad on his tongue.
Chorrol, 27th of Second Seed, 4E208
Gaius--or, as he was now known to those he'd met in Chorrol, Janus--had been up and walking since three days ago, and he was feeling even better today than before. He was feeling...well, as well as could be expected. Hlastag had turned out to be very interesting, as well as--he admitted to himself--quite pretty; a promising young merchant, she'd decided to cash in on his thirty-odd Septim debt to her not through simple money, but through services. Of the options he'd been given, he chose to be a bodyguard, and even through the slow, careful walk his injury forced him to adopt, his imposing frame and demeanor had dissuaded a number of unsavory characters thus far. He'd spent the last of the money that he'd brought with him out of the Imperial City on a pauldron-adorned chestplate, and he felt less naked. Not as good as he felt in full armor, of course, especially not his decorated, General-presented set, but better all the same.
At the moment, he was returning to Hlastag's modest shop. She'd taken over the Chorrol general store from its last owner, and her outgoing, pleasant nature disarmed many and let her coax them into spending more than they might've otherwise, and perhaps more than they should've. He'd rarely seen her without a face-splitting grin, and whenever he had, it'd been after a particularly stubborn or frustrating customer.
As he walked, breathing as deeply as he could without stressing the scar on his chest, he looked around, admiring the city around him. In particular, the truly, tremendously massive oak tree that loomed above him. He stopped a moment, then headed towards the base of the oak, sitting down heavily on the low wall of dense gray stone that wrapped about the tree's base. He sighed, looking up into the sky through the person-thick limbs. For the first time in over a week, he found himself smiling, and sat there for almost an hour, just looking at the placid sky and letting the quiet hubbub of the city square was over him. It's not as though being angry will bring her back, he thought, his smile turning bitter. She wouldn't want that, now would she, Gaius? He'd missed the Imperial City, but Chorrol wasn't bad. Perhaps staying here wouldn't be all that bad. If nothing else, the temple to Stendarr brought him some measure of comfort. Being so near the Legion's patron felt almost destined. All told, Chorrol was a nice city.
His thoughts turned to the one who had rescued him, and he let out a small, contented sigh. They'd become quite close; while it had started with them bonding over hating the Thalmor and telling the stories of precisely why they did, it had rapidly escalated past that. He felt like he'd known her for far longer than the past nine days. He laughed quietly; they'd had nothing but time to talk as he recovered from his injury in the back room of her shop, and he'd learned much of the irrepressible young Nord. She was from Solitude; they'd swapped stories of the old city, laughing about its idiosyncrasies and dissecting its politics. She'd started off as a Stormcloak sympathizer and lived in Whiterun for a spell, she said plainly, but after the war had ended, she'd seen no more reason to hold on to a rage that would never find outlet and returned to her home city. She'd told him rambling jokes about the Jarl of Whiterun, Balgruuf, and how he would arbitrarily show up in the Bannered Mare and get utterly hammered. In return, he'd told her of Legate Rikke's off-the-record parties and how a strict, no-nonsense Legate could be far more obscene than he could be once she got some drink in her.
His face turned pensive and he began reminiscing about his time in Skyrim before, with a grunt, he banished the wandering thoughts from his head and lifted himself to his feet, finally returning to the Northern Goods And Trade. The building was ancient--pre-Oblivion Crisis, he thought--but after some tender care, Hlastag had restored it to what it might've been in the past.
And that's when things became strange.
The irrepressible Nord was hunched over on the counter, and he could tell by the shaking of her shoulders that she was silently crying. His heart jumped. "Hlastag, what's wrong?" he asked, trying to keep the worry from edging into her voice. By way of answer, she held out a scroll to him and he picked it up, reading through it.
Anvil had fallen to the Dominion. Hlastag's family lived there.
And just like that, the fury came singing back. With great, great effort, he breathed deeply, restraining himself from smashing his fist straight through the countertop in front of him. "I'll be back in a moment, Hlastag," he said, voice quiet and controlled. Focused.
She looked up, red-rimmed eyes bleeding tears. "Are you leaving?"
He stared off into the distance, lips tight and bloodless. "Not yet." With that, he turned on his heel and marched out of the store, making a beeline straight for the blacksmith.
By the time he reached it, the proprietor, an older Argonian named Jad-Neena, had nearly closed it. He smashed the door open, stomping in and slamming his heavy hand down on counter. Jad reeled back at the colossal bang, looking at the fixated rage on the face of his friend with some trepidation. "Divines, Janus! What are you--"
"I need armor, Jad-Neena," Gaius growled. "Best you have."
Jad's face fell. "This is about Anvil, isn't it?" He shook his ponderous head slowly. "Come on, Janus. I know you were in the Legion a while back, but with the sacking of the Imperial City, there's nothing the Empire can do. The last thing we need is another Great War on top of the dwarves. Just...let it lie."
"I'm not seeing this stand. I'll die first." The two terse sentences were enough to give Jad pause. True, he hadn't known Janus for very long, but the Imperial had always been a quiet, personable sort, never the type he would peg for this kind of impulsive aggression. He closed his eyes, quietly weighing his options.
"Alright, Janus. What do you need?"
"I've got a chestplate, shield and pauldrons. I need everything else. Steel, if you have it. A sword too."
Jad thought for a moment, eyes flickering up in his head as he calculated, then looked back at the Imperial. "...I assume you were going to pay for that?"
The reply was terse and short: "Once I get the money."
Another shake of Jad's head. "I could do some things on credit, Janus, but for something like this, I really need a good chunk of septims up front. If you don't have that, then there's not a lot I can do for you."
Gaius gnashed his teeth, hating the delay. "The tassets, cuisses, greaves and sabatons, then?"
Jad sighed, seeing that Janus wasn't going to be put off easily. "I suppose I can do that much, as long as you pay for it later and give me, say...twenty Septims. If you'll just let me...?" He pulled out a length of measuring-twine marked at regular intervals and Gaius acquiesced, impatiently letting himself be measured. Once Jad was finished scrawling the measurements down on a piece of parchment, he spooled the twine back up and took one more look at Gaius. "I should have these done in two days. You can come by and pick them up then, hmm?"
As Gaius tossed a few septims down, snapped around and stomped out, Jad closed his eyes and sighed again. "Poor fool's going to get himself killed."
Chorrol, 29th of Second Seed, 4E208
It felt good to have heavy armor on again. It wasn't as good, didn't fit as well as what he was used to, and he didn't have anything on his arms or head, but it was still good to have. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply. Yesterday, he'd gone to the temple of Stendarr for a final healing and a final prayer. As he'd done so, he'd felt Stendarr's blessing flooding through him, fortifying his muscles and steeling him for the fighting to come.
The old building's stairs creaked underneath his heavy sabatons as he made his way downstairs to find Hlastag waiting for him, looking far better than she had yesterday or the day before. "Jad told me about the credit, Janus. Don't think I'll forget about it. He's too good to hunt you down, but I'd do it. And you know I could, too." She sat down, rubbing her temples. "I don't think it's a good idea for you to go to Anvil. It's just you against a whole occupying force. You need someone to help you." Raising her head, she gave him her trademark lopsided, wry grin. "I heard from an old...associate...in Hammerfell that there's an insurgency fighting against the Dwemer there. If you help them--and from what you've told me, there's no lost love between you and those dwarves--they might help you, right?"
Gaius raised his eyebrows, though he knew she couldn't see past the helmet. "An insurgency? People fighting against the Dwemer?" His voice was sharp and bitter. "Well, it can't end up worse than how the last group turned out." As much as he hated to admit it, she was right. With all of his anger, all of his righteousness, he was still just a single man against a city of magically-skilled Altmer. If he could get fighters, though, trained fighters that knew how to fight an uphill battle, there might be more waiting for him in Anvil than what a Nord might call a glorious death. Eventually, he nodded at her. "Thank you again, Hlastag. And don't worry. Once I get my windfall, I'll pay my debt to Jad. He's too good not to." He meant it, too. The 150-odd septims were no small sum, but, he recalled, he and his family had been in far worse financial straits before.
He stepped forward and gave her a gentle, metallic embrace. "I'll miss you," he murmured before he marched, back straight, haversack bulging, shield on his back, off to the west. To Hammerfell.
Abecean Coast, Hammerfell, 5th of Midyear, 4E208
"Gods, it's so hot."
Gaius had spent time--plenty of time--in hostile climate before. He'd spent an extended amount of time in Skyrim, after all. But, at heart, he was a Cyrodiil man, and so the warm, tropical currents of the Abecean Sea and the blasting heat of the Alik'r to the north wrapped him in a frustrating heat-sandwich. It was beautiful, of course: the sapphire waves to his south lapped gently against the stones, such a far cry from the wild slashing waves of the Sea Of Ghosts to the north, his only other real exposure to the wild ocean. Anvil didn't count; too cosmopolitan. Even the north was beautiful; it wasn't quite the true Alik'r yet, but a vast expanse of innumerable hoodoos and rocky crags among which flew enormous birds that Gaius occasionally saw from far off.
But for all that beauty, all that wild independence, it didn't make it any more comfortable. Especially with padded plate steel covering him, being way too huge for his small haversack. He didn't think he was in any danger of heat stroke or anything, but it was damn uncomfortable and put him in a bad mood. He'd already chewed through his entire waterskin twice today and then some thanks to a conveniently-placed spring, and it wasn't yet midday.
Unwrapping his newly-begotten map of Hammerfell, he thought he was perhaps somewhere just south of Taneth, and was rewarded in this by the appearance of buildings wavering in the heat-haze off to the north. Sighing in relief, he trudged across the barren ground towards it. Six days of traveling rations had him hankering for some real food to eat again, and a bed at an inn--he hoped the few Septims he had found in a discarded purse on the side of the road back in Cyrodiil--sounded pretty good about now.
When he finally arrived, he was exhausted, and his chest felt like it was about to reopen despite constant infusion of Restoration magic. He needed somewhere to rest, or he would fall over, he knew. He stumbled over to the first moving creature that he saw, and gave it a lame smile.
"So sorry," he spoke through his teeth, "but could you point me on the way towards the local inn?"
"Of course," said the short, gray-skinned elf, pointing with two fingers up the broad street, "it's just that way, the Six Shields. You can't miss it."
Nodding his thanks, Gaius turned.
And then stopped.
And turned again. His eyes narrowed. Something about that woman had seemed...off.
He looked at her again. Concentrated past his thirst, the heat, the sweat dripping down his face. Short. Elf. Wearing Dwemer-metal bangles. Not Redguard. There was an insurgency against the Dwemer in Hammerfell, meaning that they'd taken it. The pieces began to slowly click together in his mind, and as they did, his anger swelled and once more, the curtains descended.
A growl built in his throat and he ripped the shield off of his back before charging at the suddenly terrified woman, wielding it like a mace.
He swore, stumbled, and ground to a halt at the sound of Dwemeri hardware that he'd come to fear, and growled like a cornered animal as a patrol of five Dwemer pointed their weapons at him. Guns in front, the desert and Abecean behind. No way to win. He didn't trust this armor enough to get past those horrifying death machines, and he could see from where he stood the pale blue glow of primed soul gems in the receivers of the finely-crafted rifles. The lead Dwemer stepped forwards, gun still trained on Gaius' unhelmeted head, before he began to speak, voice bitingly caustic.
"Alright. I don't know who you are, or where you came from, but in Volunfell, we don't assault random citizens in the streets. Put up that shield--no doubt stolen, by the workmanship--and don't try to do anything clever. You're coming with us." He smiled sardonically. "After all, you're not much in a position to argue."
Prison near Gilane, 13th of Midyear, 4E208
And so the mighty have fallen. They looked up to you, Gaius.
He slumped back in his cell--devoid of all belongings, down to the fine tunic replaced with rags--and, quietly singing an old Legion marching song, settled down to wait.