Coranil trudged up a snowy hill with an arctic blast hitting him in the face, but he endured. It would only be a few more minutes; Nightcaller Temple was already in sight. It was late at night, but the moons reflecting off the snow helped light his way.
The building he was approaching had once housed a temple of Vaermina, but for the past twenty or twenty-five years, it was used as a temple of Mara. According to Coranil’s order, however, the priests of Mara were driven out or killed and the place was now a Thalmor installation. He could see why they had picked it. It was close to the shore, providing easy access for boats, but the elevation of the hill was high enough that a lookout would have an unimpeded view for miles. It was close to Dawnstar, which might have been a drawback, if not for events that had occurred some years back involving an artifact created by Vaermina, in which the whole town was plagued by horrible nightmares until the artifact was destroyed. Coranil imagined that none of the townspeople dared go near the temple these days. By the lack of footprints in the week-old snow, Coranil surmised that he was correct in his assumption. Just as with other Thalmor locations, the outside looked deserted. There were a few empty barrels and a cart with a broken wheel in the yard, but there was no evidence to indicate that anyone inhabited the temple at all.
He stepped up onto the porch and reached for the door handle—and froze in terror. The last time he’d walked into a building of this nature, he had been captured and tortured for weeks. He liked to say that it didn’t bother him and he wasn’t afraid of anything, even torture, but in the back of his mind he knew he was lying to himself. How could he not be afraid? A few of the scars and healed bone breaks still ached; his ear, which the healers had not been able to save, was a torn, jagged stump; and the vision in his left eye was still fuzzy. He would probably never see well out of it again. Nobody expected Coranil to be stoic all the time; there was nothing wrong with admitting he was petrified of what he would find on the other side of this door. But he still had a job to do, so after indulging himself by standing there trembling for a few minutes, he steeled himself, called a ward to his left hand and carefully opened the door.
He was met with confirmation that this was indeed a Thalmor installation when an armored Altmer swung a blade at him. As soon as Coranil encountered the enemy, his training kicked in and allowed him to push the fear to the back of his mind where it belonged. Raising his warded hand to deflect the blow, he called chain lightning into his right hand and let it fly. The Thalmor guard’s armor sizzled and popped with electricity as he fell to the floor with lifeless eyes.
No one else attacked, so Coranil took a moment to look around the room. It appeared to be a standard temple, with pews in two rows up through the center of the room to a pulpit at the front, and a shrine to Mara sitting on a table off to the left. Straight ahead was a doorway, and Coranil snuck through it into the tower.
The corridor and a flight of stairs wound around a high center chamber, at the bottom of which was a platform where, if the intelligence was right, a statue of Vaermina and a Daedric artifact once rested. Now, it was home to a trophy case of some sort. A short distance down the hall, stairs began to descend into the keep, but there was a door at the top, which Coranil tried first. It opened onto a library comprised of two levels. He walked into the upper level and scanned the room, which was mostly in ruins; only two bookcases held books, both of them on the lower level. Up here, there was nothing but crumbled stonework and scorched shelves containing dozens of burned tomes. Across an archway, a set of stairs led down to the level below.
Coranil found a fully robed Thalmor agent sitting amid the ring of bookcases, studying a heavy volume. The sight of the robes caused his heart to skip a beat, but he swallowed the lump in his throat and zapped the Thalmor before she had the chance to look up. He searched the agent, and the rest of the library, for any information on the Coat of Storms, but he found no paperwork, just a couple of books he decided to add to his personal collection. There was a chest behind a locked door, and he looted it for a sword, an enchanted necklace, and a couple of potions.
He found some bedrooms and an alchemy lab down the hall from the library, and though he killed the Thalmor sleeping in their beds as quietly as he could, he inadvertently alerted a wizard in the lab to his presence. Both threw up wards, and they began pelting each other with fire and lightning spells, both sustaining minor injuries as they fought. They were fairly evenly matched; this battle would most likely be won by the mage whose ward lasted the longest. As Coranil’s magicka began to run out, he feared his opponent might emerge victorious. He sent a quick, silent prayer to Talos that he would be killed outright and not captured again. Before his reserves were completely gone, he ducked behind a bookshelf and pulled the sword he had picked up in the library.
“Are you hiding?” the Thalmor wizard taunted. “You coward! Show yourself and fight me like a proper mer.”
But Coranil knew better. When it was a fight to the death, pride only went so far. Hiding behind the bookshelf wasn’t cowardly; it was strategic. The other mage would soon run out of magicka as well, and then Coranil could attack.
The wizard edged toward the shelves Coranil knelt behind, stopping just before he reached it. Although he couldn’t see, he could hear his adversary pulling the cork on a bottle, likely opening a magicka potion. With that, Coranil lunged out and swung the sword. It was a blind swing, but it was effective, as it severed one of the Thalmor’s hands. The wizard screamed, and Coranil came around and shoved the blade into his chest. With a thick, wet gurgle, the wizard collapsed dead onto the floor.
The shelf his enemy had reached for was full of magicka potions, and Coranil quickly drank one and tucked another under his belt. The screams would probably have alerted more of the Thalmor, and he was going to need his magic reserves to fight them.
A quick search of the room turned up a note, and Coranil smiled as he read.
As I mentioned previously, this research must be completed as quickly as possible. I demand that you stop tinkering around with those blasted potions and examine the enchantments on the cloak right away. I do not need to remind you that the Emissary will be most displeased if we take Willshroud to him with no idea what it does.
Willshroud was here! Had he not gone to Windhelm, he wouldn’t have even known how important it was. He might have even burned the facility with the artifact inside. It seemed some of Rowan and Ben’s Thieves Guild luck had rubbed off on him, not to mention the fact that it was Nocturnal herself who had notified them about Willshroud in the first place.
Coranil pocketed the letter and did a more thorough search of the lab, and he found Willshroud tucked in a drawer beneath an alchemy table, one he had almost missed. “Thank you again, Lady Nocturnal,” he whispered as he pulled the cloak from the drawer. It was forest green, made of lightweight linen, and embroidered in silver with a stylized image of Boethiah holding a sword high in the air. The cloak emitted a subtle vibration of magic.
Conscious that others might be coming after hearing the wizard’s screams, Coranil folded the cloak and stuffed it into his knapsack, then descended a flight of stairs and made his way through a doorway and up the steps that wrapped around the center chamber. He was torn. Should he make sure everyone was dead and burn the keep, or should he get out while he could? With the weight of Willshroud hanging on his back, he realized there was only one choice. He had to get the cloak out of the tower. He could always come back and destroy it later.
At the top of the stairs, he came upon a familiar face. A Thalmor justiciar stood there, arms folded, regarding him smugly. She was yellow-haired and lovely, but her sneer detracted from her beauty. She hadn’t recognized him yet because he was still in shadow, but he knew her well. They had come up together during their training for the Thalmor. He wondered what she had done to get stationed in Skyrim.
“What sort of fool believes he can burst into a Thalmor facility and steal such an item?” she demanded.
Coranil reached the top step and stood in the light. “I would be that sort of fool. Hello, Lillandra.”
Her eyes widened. “Ondolemar? Is that you? I heard you were killed when Markarth was taken. Why . . . what are you doing stealing from us?”
“You mean you do not know?”
Recognition crossed her face, and she said, “Ah, you must be the one they captured at Northwatch Keep, yes? I had heard they caught an ex-Thalmor skulking around. One that worshiped Talos, no less. How is it you are still alive?”
“My captors waited too long to kill me, and I managed to escape.”
“I will not make the same mistake, I assure you.”
She called magic to her hands, as did Coranil, and he got his ward in place just in time to deflect a firebolt. He countered with a Chain Lightning spell, and Lillandra was knocked backward with a painful “Ohh!” She righted herself quickly, but the shock slowed her down enough to allow him to come farther onto the landing, less vulnerable without his back to the stairs. “Is that all you have?” she snarled, sending another firebolt at him, and it caught him in the shoulder.
“Are you taunting me, Lillandra?” he asked, ignoring the pain of the blast. “I believe you have been in Skyrim too long. Perhaps their rough manner has rubbed off on you.”
“Never!” she cried defensively. She always was too easily provoked. “How dare you compare me to these . . . Nords! I’m not the heretic, the one who bows to that false god!”
Coranil shot another bolt of lightning at her and she squealed, but she came around with another blast of fire, growing frustrated when he shrugged off the pain of her attacks.
“I will make you scream, Ondolemar, I promise you!” she cried, sending another firebolt on the heels of the previous one.
This one went wide and Coranil was able to dodge it, and he flung another lightning bolt at her, catching her full in the chest. The bolt, combined with the pain of the other shock that was still coursing through her body, made her drop to her knees, evidently not as resistant to pain as he was. She managed to raise a ward between herself and Coranil, but her power was waning and the ward would only block so much. He strode forward, drawing his mace, and swung hard, shattering her skull with a sickening crunch. Lillandra’s eyes rolled back in her head, and she dropped.
Coranil checked her body and pulled an enchanted ring from her finger, but otherwise he didn’t find anything useful. He was right next to the door; yes, it was best at this time to get out before he was discovered. He would come back later to look for more clues and destroy Nightcaller Temple, with the Thalmor inside.
He made for the exit and retreated down the hill and through Dawnstar as fast as he could, not slowing down until the settlement was well behind him. He was tempted to head home first like he had planned, but the Palace of the Kings was the most secure location for Willshroud; thus, he veered east at the crossroads and headed for Windhelm. Coranil didn’t waste any time, and he reached the capitol, cold and exhausted, after less than two days on the road.
It was midnight when he arrived, and the guard, whom he didn’t know, refused to let him into the palace. “You shouldn’t be here, elf,” he snarled.
“The High King will be expecting me. I am here on behalf of Karine.”
The guard glared at him, but he stepped into the palace and slammed the door. Coranil rolled his eyes. It had been years since he’d had to use his mother’s name as a password to get into the Palace of the Kings, and even longer since someone had called him “elf” as though he didn’t deserve to be called anything else. Most of Windhelm’s residents still distrusted the Altmer in general, but they knew him and he rarely had trouble. It was annoying now, when all he wanted to do was get inside where it was warm and get some rest.
The guard came out a moment later and waved him inside. “My apologies,” he said stiffly.
“No worries,” Coranil replied amiably. “I assume the High King is asleep?”
The guard shook his head and pointed to the throne, where Ulfric lounged, reading over some paperwork. Coranil left the guard to his duties and walked through the long hall toward the king. He noticed that the White Phial and Staff of Magnus had been placed in a new display case behind the throne. The Jagged Crown sat on Ulfric’s head, and it seemed to weigh heavily on him. He looked older, tired, and his skin had taken on an ashy hue.
“Do you ever sleep?” Ulfric asked him.
“Do you?” He unslung his knapsack and pulled out the cloak. “The investigation of Nightcaller Temple was very successful, Your Grace.”
Ulfric raised an eyebrow when Coranil handed him the cloak. He took it and ran his hand over the soft fabric, as well as the embroidered patch depicting Boethiah. “Any idea what enchantments it has?”
“I am afraid not. The Thalmor were in the process of researching it when I took it.”
“And what of the Thalmor?”
Coranil shook his head. “I wanted to get the cloak to you as quickly as possible. I will go back and take care of them now.”
“Research the cloak first. You said you thought you had a lead; none of my other contacts has turned up anything. I hate to leave the Thalmor in the temple, though; I’ll send someone else to get rid of them so you can focus your energies on finding out what this does.”
“As you wish.”
Ulfric closed his eyes, and a pained expression crossed his face. He shook his head quickly as if to clear it.
“All right, Your Grace?”
“Why wouldn’t I be?” the High King snarled. He handed Coranil the cloak. “I’m tired, that’s all. Put this on the shelf with the White Phial. I think I’ll turn in.”
“I will head back to Whiterun at first light.”
“Fine, fine. Have a good night, Coranil.” Ulfric shuffled out of the great hall, scratching his back as he went.
Coranil took the cloak to the display case and set it on the shelf next to the White Phial, unsure what had just happened. Ulfric had never been one to act his age. He was sharp for a man of seventy, focused, and he rarely raised his voice. To snap at Coranil over nothing was extremely out of character for him. As he studied the pieces in the display case, he wondered if all that magic was starting to influence the Jagged Crown.
He went to his regular room and settled in, then took out a quill and a sheet of paper. He probably wouldn’t see the High King before he left, but this was something that shouldn’t be ignored, so he wrote him a note.
At the risk of seeming disrespectful, I could not help noticing your condition had deteriorated in the past few days. I am concerned that the proximity of the Jagged Crown to the other artifacts in the Coat of Storms may be having a detrimental effect on your health. I would recommend that you remove those items from the great hall and make a point of not wearing the Jagged Crown when you are near them.
When he entered the great hall for breakfast early the next morning, Ulfric was absent as expected. Coranil gave the letter to Jorleif, stressing the importance that the High King read it as soon as possible. He ate a quick meal and got on the road, anxious to get home.
He arrived in Whiterun a few days later to find Kaawenyth—Kaaley—whom Ulfric had assigned as his second, just leaving town. She met him inside the city gates, humming a tune and munching on a sweet roll. The Bosmer was tiny, easily a foot shorter than he was, with pearly white hair that hung to her shoulders like brushed silk, golden eyes with a mischievous glint, and a brilliant, toothy smile that made one suspect she was up to no good. She was wearing armor, but only in the most basic sense of the word. Although her legs, arms, and torso were well protected, her shoulders were completely bare. Golden hoops hung from her earlobes. She carried a glass bow and elven arrows, and two daggers were strapped to her thighs.
When the wood elf saw him, she stopped and put a hand on her hip. “There you are. I was told to come find you, but you never showed up. I was just leaving.”
“My apologies. I was, uh, finishing up a mission and had to go to Windhelm before returning to Whiterun.” He could not imagine why he felt the need to apologize to this girl, or why he had stammered through it.
Kaaley tore off a piece of the sweet roll and stuck it in her mouth. “Well, I’ve got something I need to do now,” she said around the food. “I’ll be back in a couple of days, and we can work out the details. But just so you know, being your ‘second’ does not mean you can boss me around.”
Coranil raised an eyebrow. “I would never dream of it.”
“Good, just so we’re clear. Hmm, this sweet roll is stale. See you soon.” She graced Coranil with her most winning smile and headed for the gate.
Coranil made his way to the back door of his shop, which he found unlocked. The corner of his mouth twitched—whether it was in amusement or annoyance, he wasn’t certain.
When he had been seeing Rowan, she had asked her mother to put a “protected” shadowmark on the door to the General Goods Store, signifying that thieves were to leave the shop alone. He’d had no trouble since, with one very notable exception, a certain Bosmer girl he had just passed on the way into town. Although he was sure Kaaley was the culprit, he entered the building carefully and had a look around. Everything seemed to be in its place, except for the pastry plate, which was empty. He hadn’t been home in weeks; it was no surprise it was stale. But she hadn’t taken it because she was hungry. She had lifted the pastry solely to taunt Coranil, and he knew it. And yes, there it was: a chicken feather on the counter. The feather was a perfect, snowy white, the same color as her hair.
Coranil picked up the feather and twisted it between his fingers. Ulfric wanted him to work with this wood elf, this minx, who broke in his shop, stole mere trifles, and left white chicken feathers on his counter. At times like this, he couldn’t imagine either of them surviving such a relationship.
With a sigh, he opened a lockbox under the counter and put the damned feather in it to join the six others. “I wonder, where does she find those white chickens?” he muttered.
A/N: Thanks to wilvarin-chan on deviantART for saving Coranil’s life and creating Kaaley. Kaaley’s image is part of the SR Elf Followers Mod by sarrai on Nexus: http://www.nexusmods.com/skyrim/mods/34063/?