Rowan, Dolff, and Ben left their horses at Kesh the Clean’s camp and made the half-hour trip down the hill to Bthardamz on foot. The road ended at a steep flight of stairs that led to a landing and then another flight up to the ruin. Just as they reached the first set, two sentries turned onto the landing and attacked. A woman in leather armor stood on the landing and fired arrows while a man in rags charged down the stairs, brandishing an iron sword. Dolff made short work of the man, while Rowan and Ben finished the woman off with an arrow and a lightning bolt. Then they made their way up the steps.
They followed a winding pathway through stone corridors and past a door that seemed to be barred from the inside, and then to a dead end in a courtyard on a lower level. More stairs led them past a spinning blade trap to a portcullis, which Rowan opened by throwing a nearby lever. The gate opened onto the main entrance.
The party walked into an anteroom with a couple of chests holding some gold and minor loot. The anteroom in turn opened onto a large chamber with several urns like the one at the shrine. Some stood upright, and some were overturned, but all oozed with pus, and a vivid green mist rose from the discharge. The odor was oppressive, and Rowan gagged. They all stood there for a few minutes, acclimating themselves to the stench. Rowan kept telling herself it was no worse than draugr ruins, but as bile rose in her throat, she wasn’t so sure. She grabbed her water skin and took a sip.
When all three finally felt like they could manage, they started into the ruin. They navigated many crumbling hallways containing urns with the green mist. When they came upon a room with a few sleeping Afflicted, Dolff drew his sword.
“No,” Rowan whispered. “They’re sick, probably helpless. I don’t want to kill them unless we have to.”
“If we don’t, there’s a good chance they will leave here and spread this sickness. You heard what Kesh said. Peryite was marshalling them here so he could release the plague on the world.”
“He’s right,” said Ben. “They may not be enemies in the strictest sense, but they still need to die. Besides, we’ll probably be putting them out of a lot of misery.”
“You keep telling yourself that,” she snapped. “It’s not right.”
“Is it right to allow them to live and let them kill hundreds or thousands with the disease?” Dolff challenged.
“We don’t know that will happen.”
“Oh, come on, Ro,” Ben groused. “You know how the Daedric Princes work. Do you think Kesh is wrong and Peryite brought them all here to keep his ‘blessing’ from the rest of the world?”
Rowan looked into the room at the Afflicted, one of whom was moaning in his sleep, and she knew the boys were correct. In the right circumstances, even one of these people could spread disease over the whole province. And Peryite would make sure the right circumstances occurred. “Very well,” she said, “but quickly and painlessly.”
The boys nodded, and they quietly entered the room.
There were four Afflicted, one of whom was already dead. Each of them took one of the others and ended their lives quickly with a sword or dagger to the heart.
“I’m sorry,” Rowan whispered as she peered down at the woman she had just murdered.
Dolff placed his hands on her waist. She leaned back into his arms, and he kissed her head. “This is no different than killing an enemy soldier or bandit in his sleep, love. They’re helpless at that moment too.”
“You’re not making any of this easier.”
They passed another room where three Afflicted prayed to Peryite, begging him for a sign that their suffering hadn’t been in vain. Again, Rowan hesitated, unsure whether Peryite was right about her being perfect for this job—right up until one of the Afflicted spotted Ben and vomited on him.
The spray was as bright a green as the mist, thick and acrid, and Ben immediately succumbed to the urge to join his assailant. As he fell to his knees and retched, Rowan shot over his head and dropped the Afflicted with one arrow. Dolff easily handled the other two, who were too weak to mount much of an attack. After his breakfast had finished coming up, Ben crawled over to the edge of the room and leaned against the wall, digging into his pack for a Cure Disease potion, swearing every inch of the way.
“Might not be a bad idea to drink a Cure Poison potion, too,” Rowan told him.
“Gods damn it,” he muttered, holding his stomach. “Why couldn’t Peryite be the Daedric Prince of flowers and bunnies?”
Rowan and Dolff couldn’t help it—they burst into laughter.
“It’s not funny!”
“The Daedric Prince of flowers and bunnies is not funny?” Dolff taunted him.
“You’re not going to think it’s funny when you get puked on.” He finished downing the two potions, then drank some water to get rid of the taste. He finally staggered to his feet, took the shirt from one of the dead Afflicted, and wiped as much of the vomit from his face and armor as he could. “Let’s just get this over with,” he grumbled, and they moved on.
As they drove deeper into the ruin, they saw more of the oozing urns, and the lush vine started showing up as well. It spread across floors and wrapped around objects, creating an intricate network of greenery throughout. The vine was the only healthy-looking thing they saw. They fought Afflicted here and there, and they also began to encounter dwarven spheres and spiders. Ben went after them with glee, happy to be fighting something that wouldn’t puke on him. When he got shocked by a dwarven spider, he just shrugged it off.
“Not the worst thing that’s happened to me today,” he quipped.
The farther into the ruin they went, the more prevalent the vine became. They continued to fight Afflicted when they came across them, but they would go through whole sections where there wasn’t a soul present—or alive, anyway. They did encounter half a dozen people who had already succumbed to the disease. Fighting those who attacked was one thing, but killing the sleeping or those too weak to fight didn’t get any easier for Rowan. Maybe she was too kind-hearted, but she thought that was a better problem to have than being totally heartless. Not that she thought the boys were heartless—perhaps they were just more practical than she was. After all, Dolff was the one who didn’t want to kill Orchendor just because Peryite had told them to. And they were only killing the Afflicted so they wouldn’t spread their disease across Tamriel.
Maybe if she were the leader Peryite had said she was, she would have put her foot down and insisted that they not harm the helpless. But a good leader listens to her people, and though she hated it, she had to admit they were right.
Rowan shook her head to clear it. This was not the time or place to start second-guessing herself or the boys.
They entered a high chamber with several tiers and ramps, and the vine—bigger around in some places than Rowan was—was draped over several huge boulders stacked in the middle. There were no Afflicted in the chamber, but they did fight two spheres and two spiders, and they met a dwarven centurion at the top of the last ramp. Rowan stood back and shot arrows at its head while Ben and Dolff hacked away at it, dodging its massive hammer as it swung at them. Dolff got caught by the weapon and swept across the floor, and he hit the wall hard. Though he was largely uninjured, he was dazed and unable to get up. With Dolff out of the fight, Ben stepped back and started hurling lightning spells at the centurion, and it finally fell to the floor with a huge crash.
“That thing was a bitch,” he mused as he ambled over and began looting the giant machine.
Rowan went to Dolff, who was sitting against the wall, still holding his head. “All right?” she asked him.
“Aye. Just bumped my head and got the breath knocked out of me, but I’m fine. A little embarrassed.”
“Don’t be silly. We’ve never fought one of those before, and we knew as soon as we saw it that it wasn’t going to be easy.”
“I need to start carrying a bow and arrows. Some things you just can’t fight up close.”
She leaned in and gave him a kiss, then looked up at Ben, who had just come over holding a glowing orb. “Pretty,” she said.
“I think this was its power source. I don’t know if it’s worth anything, but I thought I’d take it and find out. Also got some ebony arrows for you and a humongous soul gem.” He placed the arrows in her quiver. “Dolff, you ready to move?”
“Aye, I think so.” He got to his feet, and they moved on.
They navigated more winding tunnels and fought more dwarven guardians, but the deeper they went, the fewer Afflicted they found, and the cleaner the air was. Even the vines and the urns with green mist disappeared for a while, and all that was left was the steam from the Dwemer mechanisms.
They finally came around a corner to find more vines. The floor was covered with them, and this may have been the source. In the center of the room was an odd tree which glowed with many yellow pods. At the top was a sculpture of two dragons, and the tree and vines seemed to grow out of it.
An Altmer wearing black mage robes strode through the center toward them. As soon as he saw them, he retched, covering them all with green vomit. Rowan managed to shoot an arrow and Ben got off a lightning spell before they all collapsed to the floor, sickened by the bile. Fortunately, it was enough. Orchendor, already weakened from disease, died very easily.
“Gods,” Dolff groaned, “I feel like my insides are coming out.” Immediately thereafter, they did. He bent over and retched violently.
Rowan lay on her side, holding her stomach, and held her breath to keep from throwing up. She had a feeling that if they let the disease take hold, a couple of potions weren’t going to cure it. Ben seemed to be unconscious, and Dolff was incapacitated as well, so it was up to her to retrieve and distribute potions before it was too late. She just hoped it wasn’t too late already. She struggled with the straps of her knapsack until she finally wiggled out of it, then got potions out for herself—one Cure Disease, one Cure Poison, and one healing potion. She drank first so that she could help the boys, and it was all she could do to keep the elixirs from coming back up. They worked fast, though, and in a few minutes she started feeling better.
While she was waiting for them to work, Dolff managed to recover enough to get his potions down as well, and he helped Rowan with Ben, carefully pouring the liquid into his mouth while she held his mouth open. After a moment, Ben coughed and sputtered, then turned to the side and threw up.
“Water,” he choked out, and Rowan handed him his water skin. He drank a few sips and swished it around his mouth before spitting it out; then he held out his hand. Rowan gave him the Cure Poison potion first because it was the least bitter, and he swallowed it as quickly as he could without risking it coming back up. He had to rest before drinking the other potions, and he lay on the floor with sweat beading on his brow.
“Ben, you have to drink.”
“I know, I know. I just . . . holy Talos. Help me sit up.”
Dolff pulled him to a sitting position, and Rowan sat behind him to hold him up while he drank the other two potions. His skin already burned with fever. He laid his head back and rested it on her shoulder, breathing heavily until they started to work, then finally sat up on his own. “You think the potions are enough to get rid of that disease?”
“I hope so,” said Rowan. “I guess we’ll find out.”
The rested a while longer before dragging themselves up and finding their way out of the ruin. The fresh air outside was welcome, and they sat on the steps and rested for a long time as the residual nausea finally waned. Rowan touched her brother’s cheeks and forehead to determine whether the fever still raged, but his skin was much cooler. After a while, they headed to the shrine.
Kesh didn’t speak to them, simply waved them over to the urn, where the incense was still steaming. After the stench, bodily fluids, and debilitating nausea she had experienced in the ruin, she dreaded standing over the urn, but she stepped up to it anyway. Fortunately, all she felt was the same dizziness and disorientation she had before, and it was manageable. Dolff held her steady as her consciousness fell to darkness and the two ghostly skeevers returned.
“Well done, mortal!” said Peryite. “All things are in order now, and Orchendor roams the Pits. His betrayal will be punished, and your obedience will be rewarded.”
“What will become of the Afflicted?”
“Did you leave any alive?”
Rowan shrugged. “Well . . . no. At least, not that we know of.”
“The Afflicted are merely vessels for my blessing, and I can always find more. Another overseer will replace Orchendor when the time comes, but for now, all is cleaned and ordered. Go, seek your fate, but tell your lover to beware the power he will unleash when he wields the Coat of Storms.”
The skeevers disappeared, daylight returned, and Rowan looked down to see Spellbreaker at her feet. She picked it up and handed it to Ben, who waited nearby, and then turned to Dolff.
“He said the weirdest thing. He said to tell you to beware the power you’ll unleash when you wield the Coat of Storms.”
“Me? But Da—well, maybe he won’t wield it. Maybe he’ll give it to me.”
“Do you even want that kind of power?”
Dolff shook his head vehemently. “Not in the least. But I guess we’ll see what happens, won’t we?”
* * *
5E 20, 29 Second Seed
Just standing outside Yngol Barrow and looking at a small shrine someone had set up there, Coranil knew it was a trap. If he went in, it was very likely that he wouldn’t come back out again. Every fiber of his being said not to enter the ruin. But if there was even the slightest chance that the Amulet of the Guardian was inside, he had to take the risk. Thus, he pressed his hand against the scar on his chest and said a silent prayer to Talos before stepping inside.
At first, it wasn’t ruin at all; it was just a frozen cave. But the ice and snow finally led to a Nordic crypt. There were some chests and urns, but nothing was moving—living or undead. He came upon a puzzle gate comprised of three pillars, a throne, and a lever, but the gate was open. Coranil took the time to study the puzzle anyway, just in case the knowledge came in handy later. A pillar showing a whale rested in an alcove where water cascaded behind it, a hawk showed on a pillar under a shaft of light shining in from above, and a snake pillar stood among scrub brush and dirt. They obviously corresponded to the type of environment each animal lived in. The throne, however, was a mystery, unless it was as simple as sitting on it. But how would someone throw the lever if they were sitting on the throne? It was well out of reach.
Coranil searched every nook and cranny, every chest, every urn, and every alcove as he went through the ruin. He even drank a frost resist potion and checked a submerged room. But aside from a few gold pieces, he didn’t turn up anything. As evidenced by the puzzle gate, someone had already been here, and they had cleaned the ruin out. If the amulet had been here, whoever had cleared the ruin had probably gotten it as well, but he had a feeling it had never even been here.
He finally reached a spot where he could go no further. A dragon claw door stood in his way, and there was no dragon claw key to be found. All he could do was turn back. “Damn it,” he muttered, then turned around and went back the way he had come.
When he arrived at the gate, it was closed, and a gray-robed Altmer woman stood on the other side. His chest tightened, and he drew a quivering breath, trying desperately not to show his fear to the Thalmor who smirked at him triumphantly.
“Ondolemar, I presume.”
“I do not go by that name anymore.”
“So I have heard. It is fitting that you should change your name; a traitor like you does not deserve the name your father gave you.”
Coranil ignored her jab, not interested in trading insults with her. “Was the amulet ever here?”
“Of course not, you fool. You walked right into my trap, just as I suspected you would.”
Coranil noticed furtive movement behind the Thalmor, and his head swam with euphoria when he realized who it was. He still refused to let his captor see any emotion on his face. “Perhaps I am a fool,” he said. “Or are you the fool for believing I would come alone?”
She never finished her sentence. She gasped, her smug expression turning to one of bewilderment as Kaawenyth crept silently up behind her and stabbed her in the back. The Altmer fell to the floor, and Kaaley knelt over her and buried the dagger in her heart. Then she looked up and smiled.
“You were told to stay in Whiterun,” he barked.
“Well, fortunately for you, I often don’t do what I’m told. Any idea how to work this contraption?”
Coranil told her the combination for the pillars. “Unfortunately, I was not able to discern how to work the lever from the throne.”
“Maybe we don’t have to. Maybe if I just sit on the throne and get up, that will be enough.”
Coranil watched her as she moved gracefully from pillar to pillar. Her movements were fluid, efficient, never more than was necessary, and utterly quiet. Kaawenyth was normally so animated, he had never realized how stealthy she could be, but he never heard a sound from her until she came back to the lever after sitting on the throne for a moment.
She threw the lever, and the portcullis lifted into its recess. “Ha, it worked!” she squealed as he stepped through. “Sorry I didn’t follow your orders.”
“Do you honestly expect me to believe you’re sorry?”
Kaaley shrugged. “Eh, you’re right. I worried; I couldn’t help it. You knew as well as I did that this was a trap.”
“Yes, I did, but I had to check.”
Kaaley turned and started back toward the entrance, and Coranil followed. “What now?” she asked.
“Now we report to Ulfric. This lead may not have panned out, but he will want to know about it, and there is still the note about Northwatch Keep.”
“I thought you said you had cleared it.”
“We did, and burned it to a barren shell, but it nags at me. I feel as though we are missing something.”
“Maybe Selene and the other operatives will turn something up.”
They emerged from the cave just before sunset. The air was crisp and cold, but there was no wind and the sky was clear. There was a stillness that gave the illusion of peace, but it was soon shattered by the snarl of a frost troll somewhere in the distance.
“Never stays quiet for long, does it?” Kaaley mused, as if reading his thoughts.
“Kaawenyth, thank you,” he said softly.
“You’re welcome.” She gave him a bright smile, her eyes sparkling in the setting sun.
Coranil swallowed a lump in his throat. Kaaley was lovely; there had never been any question about that. But in this light, with that smile, she was breathtaking. Now, more so than when he had seen the closed portcullis in the ruin, he realized he was in trouble.