Old SoulsBefore the storm...
14th of Sun’s Height, 4E208
Southern Druadach Mountains, West of Falkreath Hold
Several weeks had passed since the other Imperial man in the party had advocated for Gregor’s execution. The two had avoided each other ever since, Gregor steering clear of Gaius with a wide berth, but now that his business with Zaveed had been settled the lich felt that it was time to try and break through the hostility that Gaius felt for him. He wasn’t sure if it was a good idea and he was pretty sure that Gaius wouldn’t exactly be thrilled to speak with him, and yet… something told Gregor that he should try, at least.
Many of the others had left camp to forage for supplies, leaving the small village of tents mostly deserted and unusually quiet for this time of day, and it didn’t take long for Gregor to find Gaius in front of his tent. He approached but stopped a respectful distance away and inclined his helmet in the other Imperial’s direction. “Hello Gaius,” Gregor said. “Let me guess: the capital?”
Gaius was tired. Exceedingly. It had been nearly a month, he thought, since he’d been sprung from Kthrakz, but the bone-weariness that had been following him since hadn’t quite lifted. He sat quietly before his tent, leaning back gently against a rock as he whittled idly at a small piece of firewood with an artfully-worked knife that he’d managed to barter away from a merchant back in the Alik’r before they’d left.
He jolted upright, nicking his thumb slightly with the knife, as his spoken name surprised him. Then, after a moment, he realized who’d spoke it, and his eyes narrowed as he shook his cut hand out. His voice, when he spoke, was distant and cold. “Talos Plaza district. What do you want.” Though it was phrased as a question, the flat voice didn’t seem very particularly so. “Or are you just here to ruin my day?” He tossed the knife up and down in his hand, wondering whether or not he could put it through the visor in Gregor’s helmet at this range. Probably not,
he reasoned, sighing quietly to himself.
“Ah, yes,” Gregor said in remembrance as he sat himself down opposite Gaius -- still at a distance. “I know the Plaza. Beautiful area. I used to come to the city with my wife to visit… hmm, this antique bookstore, what was it called? Vivaldi’s? Does that ring a bell?” He deliberately ignored Gaius’ other comment. He had not come to trade insults.
“Mhmm.” The reply was rather sullen, as befit Gaius’ dour look. Despite the fact that Gregor was at quite a respectable distance, he shifted away slightly, not out of an actual desire to shift away, but rather to send a message. “I know Vivaldi’s. Knew. Whatever. I am familiar.” He heaved a heavy sigh, finally looking Gregor dead-on in the eyes and ceasing the veneer of courtesy. “I don’t like you, Gregor. I rather hate you. What do you want?”
“We are going to be working together for the foreseeable future,” Gregor replied, surrendering to the fact that making pleasantries with Gaius was a fruitless endeavor. “I am not asking that you like me. I don’t deserve that much. But it will not do well to stand shoulder-to-shoulder in battle with so much hostility between us. I don’t resent you for hating me, Gaius. I understand how you feel. I rather admire you. My father served as well. We have to find a middle ground, where we can at least depend on one another to do our duties.” His voice was even and calm in the confines of his helmet and his eyes shimmered in the gloom, betraying no emotion whatsoever. “Agreed?”
A loud snort followed Gregor’s statement as Gaius let out a short, scornful laugh. “If nothing else, you’re at least well-spoken.” A moment, and his jagged smile faded. He dropped his head and sighed, the barely-restrained anger leaking away from his voice. “At the minimum, you can count on me to put myself in front of a blow,” he plucked at his haphazard set of armor, “though I don’t know how effective this will be against something like Zaveed or Sevari’s guns. I don’t know how much I trust you, and I don’t think that will change anytime soon. But I’m a long way from home, and infighting is something that won’t make it any easier to get back.”
He stood up, walking over to Gregor. And though the distaste was evident on his face, he stuck out his hand. “Agreed.”
They shook on it. Gregor relaxed a little and nodded to himself. “Good, good,” he said and sat back down, gesturing for the other Imperial to do the same. “Feel free to send me away if you have no further desire to speak with me. That said, I’m curious to learn more about your time in the Legions. My father never talked about it much. What was it like?”
“Tiring and dangerous,” sighed Gaius, taking Gregor’s motion to sit down, resuming idly whittling as he spoke. “Long marches in the sun wearing full plate, slogging through marshes in the foulest of weather only to find that the Stormcloaks set up an ambush for your platoon, and though you might win, it’s only a pyrrhic victory because so many of you die and so few of them do.” He looked up at the clouds. “But with that comes the fulfilment. Hard, tiring, dangerous. It’s all of those. But knowing that because of it, a war ended? People can sleep more safely in their beds, because you’re there? It makes it all worth it.”
He let out a low, contented hum, trying not to display how disturbed he was at how…normal
Gregor was. He’d built him up as some terribly evil being, and perhaps he was, at least in a sense. But with all of the anticipation that he’d had for the lich, this surprised him more than anything else he could have thrown at Gaius.
Gregor nodded. “Sounds about right. I was in Skyrim during the Rebellion. I did my best to stay out of the path of the armies but I saw the aftermath they left in their wake sometimes. All those graves, broken men…. I suppose you could argue that me and my allies were waging a war of our own, but I can’t imagine what it would have been like on the battlefield.” He paused and cocked his head. “Did you make it out okay?”
A laugh escaped Gaius, one that was perhaps just a touch bitter. “I did, for almost the whole war. Of course, I have plenty of scars, but none give me trouble but those from Windhelm.” He stripped off pieces of his armor; gauntlets first, then after some trouble, the cuirass. Removing the gambeson, or rather the thick coat that was acting in place of one, he half-turned, enough for Gregor to see the livid red scar that ran ropelike down his back, all the way from his left shoulder to the opposite hip. “After the battle, there were those that weren’t all too keen on the Empire’s victory. This is a token from one.” He shrugged, pulling the coat back on. “This one’s the worst, though.” He stuck out his left arm a bit, tracing the needle-thin scar that ran across the belly of his bicep.
“I lost a gauntlet at some point during the battle,” he began, “and someone came at me with a long elven-metal sabre. All I could do was catch it on my arm.” He pantomimed holding his arm over his face, almost as though he was trying to hide his eyes from the light. “And my arm never fully recovered.” He shoved the arm out as far as he could, and winced as it locked long before it fully straightened. Holding it for a moment, he sighed as he let it fall. “But far be it for me to complain. I still made it out better than most.”
The lich whistled appreciatively. “You’re made of tough stuff, Gaius. My father was at Red Ring but he made it out practically unscathed. This is something else.” He paused for a few seconds before he placed his index finger to the temple of his helmet. “He came home with scars in here. I don’t mean to pry…” Gregor stopped and chuckled. “Well, I am prying. Did you have any demons that followed you home?”
Gaius’ eyes widened fractionally. “Red Ring, was it? They still teach that when they go over battle strategy. It’s a legend.” Another moment, and he dropped his head. “I think we all have some demons in us, the Legionnaires. Skyrim...well, you’ve been there. It’s a dark, cold place in the winter. Inhospitable, hard to deal with. I was in Whiterun, watching the snow blow over the mountains in the north, when we were called out double-time to mount an assault on Ivarstead, try to establish a foothill in Riften Hold. Dead of night. The commander underestimated just how harsh Skyrim can get.” He drew in a shuddering breath. “We weren’t even halfway when frostbite and hypothermia started setting in. A few of us managed to find shelter in an old ruin called Valtheim. Fifty men set out from Whiterun; only seventeen made it back. Of course, there are more demons, but that one sticks in my mind. I’ve seen people being cruel often enough for it to be commonplace for me, but when nature itself slaughters you wholesale...there’s a different feeling to that.”
He rubbed a finger into his aching temple. “What about you, Gregor? Anything left in that skull of yours that still resembles something a human would feel?”
It was a harrowing story in and of itself, but Gregor’s eyebrows raised as it was told in full. “Valtheim, you say? There were necromancers in that area in the spring, I remember tracking them down…” He sighed and shook his head, incredulous at the coincidence, and at how Gaius’ story turned out to have an even sadder end than he himself had thought. “I think I may have found some of your friends’ bodies when we put them to the sword.”
His question was rudely phrased but Gregor did not blame him. He was silent for a bit while he thought of the best way to answer that question. “I still feel love,” he said at length. His voice was soft. “That’s enough for me.”
Upon hearing the fate of his fellow Legionnaires--some of whom he’d been good friends with--Gaius trembled briefly. He covered it as best he could with a scornful snort at Gregor’s next statement, but it wasn’t hard to hear the quaver in his voice, nor to see his hands shaking as he tried and failed to resume whittling.
“...Better a good death under the sword than more years of unlife,” his eyes hardened momentarily, “like you would give them now.” But there was no bite in the insult, and a moment later, he dropped his head into a heavy sigh. His voice, when it resumed, was quiet, almost a whisper. “I’m tired, Gregor. I’m so tired of anger. If you don’t give me a reason to, I won’t try to stand against you.”
Gregor understood Gaius’ reaction. He was only a necromancer out of necessity, after all, not from some misplaced lust for power or lack of empathy. “They’re at rest now,” he said softly. “I won’t give you a reason. I swear it on my family’s honor. Theirs is worth more than mine at this point. I just…” He trailed off and sighed. “I just wanted to live. I don’t want to hurt anyone anymore.”
Another quiet laugh--this one lacking in all malice, or at least most malice--and Gaius rose to his feet, cracking his back. “I’m getting too old for this,” he muttered before holding his hand out to Gregor again, this time not shying away from the lich. “I know we just shook on it, but…” he smiled lamely, “once more wouldn’t hurt. For your family, and for mine.”
After a moment’s hesitation, Gregor rose to Gaius’ height again. His hands moved up, however, and he removed his helmet so that his fellow Imperial could look him in the eyes. Gregor knew what he looked like, but he wanted Gaius to see the sincerity on his face. Cradling the helmet under his left arm, he took Gaius’ hand with his right one, and then his left as well. Auroras swirled lazily in the light of his eyes. He nodded. “For our families. Gods preserve them.”
Gaius flinched as Gregor removed his helmet, but fighting the revulsion back in his throat, he locked his eyes against the other man’s. Because, he realized...whatever else he might be, whatever he might have become, a man he remained. “For our families,” he echoed, privately grieving. And then, after a moment’s trepidation--he knew full well what the gods thought of undeath--he gave an extra squeeze on Gregor’s hand. “And may the nine Divines smile upon you,” he added, voice quiet, but filled with conviction.
Laughing softly, Gregor shook his head. “Let them smile on you. I have other powers watching over me now.” He appreciated the sentiment, however -- immensely, in fact. He had not expected anything like this from Gaius and it spoke to the man’s character that he had managed to put his beliefs aside to let them become true allies. It was a form of self-sacrifice, Gregor knew. “Thank you,” he replied, dropping his voice to match Gaius’, and spoke the words with feeling.
“And thank you too, Gregor,” replied Gaius. “I wish…” I wish I could’ve known you before all of this.
But he let it go unsaid. What had happened, had happened. What was, was. Gregor could no more return to a normal life than Gaius could forget his own family. Instead, with a heavy sigh, he sat back down against the tent and looked pensively at the model of the White-Gold Tower that he’d been whittling. He closed his eyes for a moment and leaned back against the tent frame, letting the wind brush over him as he fondled the miniature between his rough, calloused fingers. “I wish I was home.”