"I think so", I said with an impish grin.
"Ooohh..." She clapped her hands in delight, then quickly shrugged out of her linen shirt to try the new piece on. It fit her perfectly. "A real Palonirya", she sighed happily. "Say, Sister, I hope you didn't pay for it?"
I coughed. "Well, actually... no, I did not."
Smiling brightly, she hugged me. "Thank you, that's so sweet of you. To think that you broke into Palonirya's just to get me a shirt..."
"Do not mention it", I murmured, somewhat embarrassed. "Something inferior would not have done for my Sister, would it?"
She ran her finger over the soft material. "I've always wanted one of her creations, but I couldn't get into the shop. Does she still have that watchman sleeping on the premises?"
I shook my head. "I suppose she thought him too expensive. You do have to pay watchmen, after all."
She giggled. "For the price of this shirt alone she could probably have paid him for a month."
"Make that three months, or a bit longer", I corrected and produced the bracelet I had taken for myself.
Antoinetta gasped. "How lovely... those are definitely your colours."
I smiled. "I rather like it myself. And I am glad you like the shirt."
She nodded enthusiastically. "I love it. And of course I'll wear it only on special occasions. I don't want blood stains on this one." She beamed at me, then changed back into her linen shirt and put the silk one almost reverently away.
"Now, tell me about your contract. How did it go?" We settled down comfortably and I told her about Faelian's demise. Halfway through my narrative, Gogron and Telaendril came in. I could not help but notice the little smile playing about the Bosmer's lips, but of course I refrained from commenting. What went on between these two was, after all, none of my business.
They greeted us warmly and sat down with us. I finished my tale, and the conversation turned to other matters. Telaendril had picked up the latest gossip in town, which she discussed in great detail with Antoinetta. Since I did not know most of the people involved, I was content to just sit by and listen to their chatter.
After a while, Gogron rose and stretched. "Care for a round in the training room, little Sister?" he asked and looked at me.
I hesitated briefly, then nodded. "This should be interesting", I agreed, and we excused ourselves. The girls did not seem to mind terribly, as by now Antoinetta was busy showing off her new shirt, and enjoying Telaendril's suitably envious comments.
We escaped to the training room, and Gogron grinned. "Blessed silence", he said. "Of course, I love Antoinetta as a Sister, but sometimes she's a little... exhausting." He shook his head. "What is this fascination you women have with clothes, anyway?"
I shrugged. "Do not ask me", I replied. "I do not share this fascination."
"Yeah, I noticed", he said. "You looked a little bored." He drew his axe. "Well, shall we?" Seeing my doubtful look, his face took on an expression that was probably meant to be reassuring. "Don't worry, I'll be careful. In fact, I want you to show me something." I raised an eyebrow. "You're smaller than I, and a lot faster", he explained. "I could probably take you out with a good hit or two, but I would have to land one first."
"I see", I said thoughtfully. "You want me to show you a few dirty tricks. Something that will slow down an opponent who is quicker than you."
"Exactly", he said. "In return, I can perhaps teach you a thing or two about fighting the big guys."
I grinned. "Deal", I said, drawing my sword and dropping into a crouch. "Now, try to hit me..."
I had hoped that the training session with Gogron would leave me sufficiently tired so I would sleep dreamlessly that night. I was wrong - I did not sleep at all. I was exhausted, but midnight came and went, and still I was tossing and turning restlessly. Around me, my Brothers and Sisters were sleeping peacefully, but by two o'clock I finally realised that I would find no rest tonight. Quietly, I got up, dressed, and left the living quarters.
Vicente was of course up and about. The vampire was sitting at his desk, writing something into a small book by the light of a single candle. As I tentatively knocked on the doorframe, he looked up, slightly surprised. A moment later, the surprise gave way to a warm smile.
"Hello", I said softly. "Are you busy? I do not wish to interrupt you."
He closed the book. "Nothing that can't wait", he said dismissively, putting the book into a drawer. "Please, come in."
I did so and sat in the armchair. He pointed towards a bottle of wine with a questioning look, and as I nodded, poured me a goblet. Then he sat down opposite me. "Well?" he asked. "What can I do for you?"
I sighed. "I could not sleep", I confessed. "I did not want to disturb the others, so I came to see whether you would care for some company." Suddenly, I felt myself blushing. "I am sorry", I said contritely. "That just sounded as if I had come to you because no one else was available. That was not what I meant."
"I didn't think it was", he assured me. He settled back comfortably and looked at me. "Would you like to tell me about your latest contract? You were back quickly, so I assume everything went smoothly."
"Without a hitch", I confirmed, and proceeded to tell him the story. When I got to the part where I had wheedled information out of Thoronir, he laughed softly.
"I would have loved to see that merchant's face", he admitted. "The poor fellow probably didn't have a chance to begin with, and when you threw that spell at him..."
I shrugged. "I wanted to be on the safe side. He might have become suspicious if I had just asked about Faelian out of the blue."
"Chances are he wouldn't", Vicente disagreed. "Because you're quiet yourself, you tend to underestimate other people's desire to gossip. Especially merchants generally don't, in my experience, need much prompting to start talking. Proprietors of more expensive shops will probably be discreet about their customers, but even most of them will happily chat about everyone else."
"That innkeeper at the Tiber Septim was certainly reluctant to talk about her patrons", I said. "But I am getting ahead of myself." I continued with my story, and he listened attentively. When I told him about my excursion to Claudius Arcadia's house, he shook his head and sighed.
"You mean the man was actually stupid enough to use his own basement for the ritual? In that case he certainly got what was coming to him."
"Judging from his diary, he did not care much about being caught."
He snorted derisively. "That's the problem with most people. They don't think things through to the end. But to be honest, I had expected something along these lines. When Lucien told me about the contract, he didn't seem too impressed with our client."
I raised an eyebrow. "You knew about the contract?"
"Not the details. Lachance just mentioned that he had a simple, straightforward little task suitable for a new initiate."
"Well", I said. "From what Arcadia wrote in his diary it seems that a few years back, Rufio killed our client's daughter during an attempt to rape her. Whether or not he really intended to murder her I do not know, but to her father that did not make a difference."
Vicente made a disgusted face. "So that's what this was about. Pity the girl didn't manage to kill him herself."
I gave him a startled look. This reaction was not what I had expected from a vampire and a former mercenary. He returned my gaze levelly. "It may surprise you to hear that from someone who used to be a mercenary", he said, echoing my thoughts almost exactly, "but I have no sympathy for men forcing their attentions on women who do not welcome them. If they can't win a woman with their charms, there are plenty of whores available." I was mildly astonished, but tried not to let it show. "Besides", he went on, "losing control like that is a sign of weakness and poor discipline, and that is something else I have no sympathy for."
That, of course, I could understand. Without discipline, he would not have survived three hundred years as a vampire. Still, I found it very interesting that he had such strong views on the matter, but I thought it prudent to refrain from commenting.
He pulled himself together. "You were telling me about Faelian when I interrupted you", he said, rather abruptly changing the topic. "Please, go on."
Obligingly, I told him the rest of the story. When I had finished, he nodded approvingly. "Very elegant", he congratulated me. "Phillida will never connect us with Faelian's death, if the affair even comes to his notice at all." He smiled at me. "Considering how much you dislike interacting with people, you handled this very well."
I looked at him thoughtfully. "Could I have done it just as well if I had been a vampire?" I asked suddenly. Had I been less tired, I probably would have swallowed the question, but exhaustion made me less careful than I would normally have been.
He blinked in surprise; I had obviously caught him off guard. He thought for a moment, then nodded slowly. "As a young vampire, without question. If you take care to feed regularly, you can blend into society with ease. In fact, I know of at least one vampire in the Imperial City who lives there as a nobleman, a respected member of the community." He looked down at his hands. "After a while, though, feeding regularly doesn't help to keep up appearances. With me, the change happened after more than two hundred years. It might be that with Elves it comes at an even later point, I don't know."
I frowned. "A nobleman in the Imperial City? But... would not his neighbours notice that he is only outside during the night?"
He shook his head. "Not necessarily. You see, that problem we have with sunlight is also something that depends on age and on feeding regularly. A young vampire who takes care not to starve herself can walk about in the brightest sunlight and not be harmed at all." He paused for a moment. "I, however, can no longer do that, no matter how well I have fed."
I hesitated briefly, then asked softly: "Do you miss it?"
He was silent for a long moment. "Sometimes I do", he said at last. "Of course, I'm not instantly reduced to a pile of ash if I look out a window during daytime. But travelling during the day, even if the sky is overcast, is no longer an option for me, which is sometimes inconvenient." Another pause, then he shrugged. "Fortunately, I've never been particularly fond of admiring sunsets, so I don't miss that much most of the time." I noticed how careful he was to avoid any impression that he was trying to talk me into accepting his offer.
"You said that you see vampirism as a gift", I noted. "So far, it does not sound like much of one. There must be something to balance all this?"
"Immortality", he said simply. "Unless someone kills you, of course, but that's always a risk in our line of work. Also, a vampire is stronger and tougher than an average mortal. The skin hardens, so we aren't easily damaged by weapons, unless they are magical. We are also immune to certain forms of magic, and we never become sick. Vampirism is like a jealous lover, it won't allow another disease beside it." He paused briefly. "All in all, I think the benefits outweigh the drawbacks, but that's just my opinion."
We sat for a long while in silence. Behind me on the desk, the candle flickered and finally died. Vicente got up to replace it. I waited until he was seated once more before I said, "I have not yet decided what I will do."
"You don't have to", he said gently. "Once you decide to do it, that will be final. I heard rumours that one of the mages in the Arcane University knows something about a way to cure vampirism, but I'm not sure whether there is anything to it." He looked into my eyes. "Accepting my offer will mean changing your life. I am aware of that. I meant it when I told you I would wait as long as necessary. And I will accept your choice, whatever it will be."
"I know", I said softly. "I would not have come to you tonight if I doubted your sincerity." I held his gaze for a long moment before I lowered my eyes. I took a sip from my goblet, more to hide my growing feeling of uncertainty than because I was thirsty.
"May I ask something of you?" he said, breaking the silence. I nodded, wondering what he could want. His next words surprised me yet again. "Tell me about yourself", he said. "About your life before you joined us."
I raised an eyebrow. "I thought Lachance told you everything about me before I arrived."
He shook his head. "I'm not sure how much Ocheeva knows. I was only told your name and that you are a Dunmer. Later I learned that you've spent some time in the Imperial Prison, but that was only when Lucien came here with the contract for Valen Dreth."
"'Some time' is really an exaggeration", I shrugged. "I was only there for a few hours. As to what I did before that..." I took another sip of wine. Strangely, I did not really mind his curiosity. After all, he had readily told me his story when I had asked about it several weeks ago, so it seemed only fair to tell him mine now. I decided to start at the beginning.
"I was born in Morrowind, in a little village a few days' travel northwest of Narsis. I doubt you have ever heard of the place. I never knew my father; I was told he died of a fever shortly after my birth. After his death, my mother turned to religion, and my earliest memories are not of our home, but rather of the temple where she spent hours every day praying to the Tribunal.
"As a child, I never questioned her devotion, but as I grew older, I started wondering about these strange gods who were supposedly still living in their respective cities. When I was old enough, my mother insisted that we go on a pilgrimage to Mournhold. We spent days camping in front of the temple where she hoped to catch a glimpse of Almalexia, but of course we never saw her.
"We finally had to return home as our money ran out, but some years later, when she had saved up enough again, she dragged me on another pilgrimage, this time to Vivec."
I took another sip from my cup. "You have been to Vvardenfell. Did you visit Vivec?"
He shook his head. "We considered it, but then decided to land in Seyda Neen instead. From there, we headed directly to the Ashlands." He hesitated slightly. "On my way back I avoided the larger settlements altogether."
"Vivec is huge", I continued. "I had never before been to such a large city, and it did not take me long to realise the opportunities it offered. The sight of my mother grovelling before the Temple priests sickened me, and one day I decided to simply become lost. Getting lost is very easy in Vivec. I do not know whether she searched for me at all, and I do not care. I never saw her again, but I assume that the coming of the Nerevarine and the shattering of the Tribunal shook her badly.
"I lived in Vivec for a couple of years, keeping to myself and stealing whatever I needed. Eventually, though, I tired of the city and its people, and I made my way back to the mainland. I wandered about for a bit, slowly drifting to the west and across the border to Cyrodiil, and finally came to the Imperial City."
I shrugged. "It is not a particularly exciting story, I am afraid, but that is more or less all there is to say."
"More or less", he repeated with a smile. "How did you end up in prison?"
"I got careless", I admitted. "Two guardsmen caught me when I was trying to break into a warehouse. They dragged me off and locked me away, but a few hours later the attempt was made on the Emperor, and his bodyguards tried to get him out of the city on a supposedly secret route. That route led through my cell, and of course I took the chance to follow them. In fact, I am one of two people alive who witnessed Uriel Septim's murder."
"Yes. One of the guards survived. The assassins were all killed, but not before they finished their job. They did not seem to be professional killers, by the way."
"From what I have heard, that's what the Watch thinks as well", he mused. "For once, there's a murder they don't try to pin on us."
I nodded. "The killers looked like members of a cult or something like that. I have no idea who they might have been, and to be honest, I do not really care." I shrugged. "Anyway, I made my way through the sewers and back to the Waterfront. I knew that the Watch would be much to busy to bother hunting down a petty thief. Well, and a few days later I had to silence a watchman as I was breaking into a Waterfront warehouse, and that night Lachance visited me."
I realised that my throat was getting dry, and drained my goblet. "Thank you", I said as Vicente refilled it. "I am not used to talking so much."
"I appreciate it", he said with a wink. Then he became serious again. "And I appreciate your sharing your story with me", he added in a low voice. I just inclined my head, feeling that no reply was needed. We sat for a while in companionable silence as I slowly emptied my second goblet.
"I think I will go to sleep now", I said at last. Rising, I placed the cup on the table and looked at Vicente. "Thank you", I said quietly.
"Anytime", he replied simply. "Sleep well."
To my surprise, I did.
"Ah, there you are." Ocheeva greeted me. "Tea?"
I nodded as I sat down, and accepted a steaming cup from her. It smelled sweetly of herbs and spices, with a touch of honey. I inhaled the fragrance, then tasted carefully. Ocheeva poured another cup for herself, then sat down opposite me.
"I trust you have recovered somewhat from your ordeals in the Imperial City", she said, winking at me. "All those people to talk to... how you must have suffered."
I grinned. "Horribly, but as you said, I am quite recovered. Why, do you have something for me?"
She nodded. "I do indeed. You'll find this one quite relaxing - it depends entirely on stealth, and the objective is not to be seen by anybody. Are you game?"
"That sounds most promising", I replied with a certain enthusiasm. It had not even been a week since my last contract, but there was no need for me to rest. I was still thinking about my late night conversation with Vicente three days ago, and perhaps getting out would help me to finally bring order to my thoughts.
The Argonian chuckled quietly. "I knew you would like that." Then she put a parchment onto the table and smoothed it. I bent forward to look at it. It was a map. Ocheeva pointed to a spot right in the middle of nowhere. "Nestled in the mountains to the west lies Fort Sutch. It is the home of the warlord Roderick and his mercenaries."
I studied the map more closely. It showed the Gold Coast and part of the Colovian Highlands, a part of the Empire where I had never been before. Rumour had it that you could walk for weeks there without meeting a single soul, which sounded like paradise to me after the bustle of the Imperial City. However, I had also heard that the caves and ruins of the region were a favourite hiding place of bandits and necromancers.
"Roderick has recently taken ill", Ocheeva continued. "He now lies sleeping, kept alive only by the daily administration of a powerful medicine." She looked at me gravely. "Whoever arranged this contract wants it to look like Roderick died from his illness, so discretion is essential."
If it had been me who arranged the contract, I would want to make very sure nobody could connect me with Roderick's death. Mercenary bands had a reputation for being fiercely loyal to their leader, and I would not want them breathing down my neck after having disposed of my enemy. Our client's desire for discretion was quite understandable.
"You must infiltrate Fort Sutch, find Roderick's medicine, and replace it with this poisoned bottle." She placed it on the table. "You must not be detected", she emphasised again. "The mercenaries will be suspicious if they find an intruder in their sanctuary and Roderick dies shortly afterwards. If you are detected, the poisoning will most likely fail, and Roderick must be killed in some other manner. That will, of course, forfeit your bonus."
She leaned back in her chair and reached for her teacup again. "There is no time limit on this contract, but I suggest you leave as soon as possible. It's a long journey, and we don't want Roderick to recover from his illness before you can strike." She drank some of her tea. "Talk to Teinaava", she advised. "As far as I know, he has been to the general area of Fort Sutch, and he might know something about it."
I nodded and rose, emptying my teacup as I did so. "I will leave at once", I said, pocketing the poison.
"Walk in the shadow of Sithis", she said, and I was dismissed.
"Fort Sutch?" Teinaava looked surprised. "Yes, actually, I know the place. It's mostly ruined, but a sizeable portion is still standing, though only the underground parts are still habitable. I used it as a hiding place once, after a contract had gone... less well than I had expected." He eyed me curiously. "Why do you want to know about that Sithis-forsaken place?"
I quickly gave him the gist of what Ocheeva had told me. He listened with a thoughtful expression. "I see", he said finally. "Yes, I think I may be able to help you. Fort Sutch is naturally well defended, but it has a weakness." I gave him an encouraging look. "Not far from from the ruins of Fort Sutch lie the ruins of a tower. That tower was once part of the Fort Sutch Abbey. The two ruins lie apart on the surface. But underground, they're connected by some now-flooded tunnels. Wet and dark, yes... but surely unguarded." He grinned at me. "I hope you can swim. But it is a perfect way inside, for from within the fort, it looks like the tunnel is caved in. It may be by now, of course, but it wasn't when I was hiding there."
I nodded slowly. "I am not afraid of a little water", I said.
"Then you should be all right", he reassured me. "The entrance is probably overgrown and hard to find, but it's there."
"Thank you, Brother", I said. "I will make some preparations and be on my way. It is still early, and I hope to get at least as far as Skingrad before nightfall."
"Good luck, and may the Night Mother guard you", he said.
Packing what I needed only took a few minutes. I prefer to travel light, and for this contract, I would not need much in the way of equipment. When I was done, I hesitated briefly, then went downstairs to say good-bye to Vicente.
I opened the door a crack and knocked as usual, but no answer came from within. Silently, I entered and looked around. A small oil lamp was burning, and in its light I saw Vicente. He was asleep, of course - I should have thought of that, since it was early morning. He was lying flat on his back, his hands folded on his chest, and appeared to all the world like a dead man. His bed was little more than a plain slab of stone, which bore a certain resemblance to a bier. I looked at him for a long moment, feeling a slight catch in my throat for some reason. Then I stepped out and closed the door quietly behind me. I had work to do.
Keeping Teinaava's words in mind, I stopped at the Mages' Guild on my way out of Cheydinhal. A friendly elderly Redguard sold me a spell that would let me breathe under water for a short time. Thus equipped, I went to retrieve my horse and set off for Skingrad.
I had only been to Skingrad once or twice before, but I liked the city. Count Hassildor, the ruler, was reputedly a powerful wizard and a very private person, but for all his reclusiveness he appeared to have his domain well in hand. Skingrad was a nice, quiet city with clean streets and neat houses, just big enough that not everyone knew everyone else, which suited me perfectly.
I made my way to the West Weald Inn, which I knew had decent rooms. I secured one for the night, along with an excellent supper, and went to bed early.
The next morning, I set off shortly after dawn. According to Ocheeva's map, Fort Sutch was located somewhere north of Anvil in the wilderness, and any road that might once have led there was long gone. I expected to have to search around for a while, and I wanted as many hours of daylight left as possible.
The day had started gray and overcast, with gusts of wind and heavy, low clouds threatening rain. I bundled up in my cloak as best I could and kept my head low to keep the wind out of my eyes.
I stopped at an inn for an early lunch, and when I came out again, it was raining. Cursing my luck, I drew my cloak more tightly around me and mounted my mare. She was no more thrilled to be out in this weather than I was, but trotted off obediently.
As Teinaava had advised me, I stayed on the road until I almost arrived at Anvil, then veered north into the wilderness. The rain had lessened a bit, but the wind had picked up, driving the wetness into my face and under my cloak though I tried my best to keep it out. It was slow going across the rough terrain, but in this weather that did not matter - I could not see very far in the rain, and had to strain my eyes to avoid missing a detail and riding right past the ruined fort I was looking for.
The scenery would have been beautiful in less inclement weather. The hills and mountains around me were covered in high grass of a peculiar yellowish hue. In the sunlight it would probably shine golden, but in the rain, it just looked like sodden straw. Huge rocks covered in moss and lichen were strewn everywhere, and every now and then patches of shrubbery and small copses of firs and pines dotted the landscape. It was easy to see how the Gold Coast had come by its name, although right now I was in no mood to appreciate its beauty.
The afternoon dragged by, and the rain showed no sign of letting up. As the early dusk set in, I was thoroughly drenched and miserably cold. I decided that searching around in the failing light was pointless, and started looking for a sheltered spot to spend the night. Perhaps I would even manage to start a fire...
I was so lost in my reveries of warmth that I almost did not see the tiny speck of light moving in the distance. When I finally became aware of it, it had nearly vanished behind a cluster of gnarled pines. I hurried after it and squinted to discern what it was.
The light moved a bit erratically, but at a more or less constant speed approximately at a right angle to my direction. A lone traveller, probably, with a lantern. I wiped the rain from my eyes and slid from my saddle. I would follow the light, and I did not want to risk being outlined against the darkening sky. The high grass shielded both me and my mare from view, but it also made keeping track of the light more difficult. Pulling my sodden cloak around me, I led my horse towards the tiny beacon.
I followed the light for nearly an hour, slowly gaining on it but taking care not to get too close. The unknown wanderer plodded on determinedly, keeping a more or less straight course westward. My mare showed signs of exhaustion, and I was aching for a rest as well, when the light suddenly vanished. Frantically, I wiped my eyes and tried to locate it again, but it was gone.
Swallowing a curse, I quickened my pace. The ground was treacherous, and I slipped and stumbled more than once, but I had to reach the point where I had lost sight of my beacon. Only when my horse whinnied in protest did I slow down a bit. I would gain nothing if she broke a leg here in the middle of nowhere.
As I walked on a bit more cautiously, a cluster of large boulders began to emerge from the gloom ahead. This had to be the spot where the light had vanished. Whoever had been carrying it was probably still around somewhere, so I reluctantly slowed down even more.
Minutes later, I realised that what I had taken for boulders were actually the shattered remnants of a wall. It was broken and weathered, but still clearly recognisable as man-made. I squinted, trying to make out details in the poor light, but I was still too far away.
At last I reached the ruin, and in my exhaustion it took a few moments before it dawned on me that I had arrived at my destination. I stood before the remains of what must once have been a massive fortress, but was now little more than a huge pile of rubble, overgrown and weather-beaten. The only recognisable structure still standing was the base of a large tower jutting from the ground like a broken tooth.
Nobody seemed to be about, but with the wind whipping the grass and the rain and falling darkness obscuring my vision, I could not be sure. I tied my mare to a stunted pine nearby, then ducked low into the grass and crept closer.
The mercenaries were either very sure of their hiding place or very much concerned with other matters - they had posted only one sentry near the entrance to the tower. He huddled miserably next to a tiny brazier of dimly glowing coals, rubbing his hands and occasionally gazing out into the growing darkness. I gave him a wide berth and circled the ruin, looking for the remains of the smaller tower Teinaava had told me about. I had small hope to find it in the poor light, but I wanted to get at least an idea of the terrain before I started looking for a place to set up my camp.
It turned out, however, that my Argonian Brother had a very good memory. His instructions, now that I had located the fort, proved precise enough that I actually found the former abbey tower in surprisingly short time. As Teinaava had predicted, it was almost completely broken down and overgrown with vines and bushes, but still easy to find if one knew what to look for.
Using my sword, I cleared away some of the overgrowth and eventually succeeded in uncovering a weathered, but still solid looking trapdoor. By now it was fully dark, and I briefly weighed my options. Then I decided that this was as good a time as any to get my job done. Excitement had temporarily banished my fatigue, and I was eager to get this over with as quickly as possible and return to somwhere warm and dry. I checked the watertight pouch I had tied to my belt which contained the vial with the poison, a selection of lockpicks, a small flask of oil and some other items I thought I might need. Then I tried to pry open the trapdoor.
I failed, of course. Sithis only knew how long the hatch had been exposed to the elements. The wood was slightly warped and the hinges were rusted, and not even by oiling them could I get the door to open. In the end, I had to get my horse and tie one end of a rope to her saddle and the other to the iron ring set into the hatch. With our combined strength, we managed to pry the door open wide enough for me to squeeze through. I patted my trusty mare on the neck, tied her again and gave her her bag of oats. Then I drew a deep breath and descended into inky darkness.
Teinaava had not exaggerated - it was wet down here, and the water was cold. Since I was already drenched by the rain, however, I barely noticed. I flicked my fingers, and the blackness around me dissolved into blue light. I was standing in a low corridor built from rough-hewn stones. The walls were slick with moisture and algae, and the brackish water came up to my knees. The floor was sloping gently downwards ahead of me. It looked like I would have to use that spell I bought from that Redguard after all.
Shivering from the cold, I set off, trying to avoid splashing too loudly. It was not yet late enough that I could safely assume most of the fort's inhabitants would be asleep, and neither was it prudent to trust that they felt sufficiently secure in this remote location to let down their guard.
Slowly I made my way into the deepening water, and finally I had to swim, then to dive. A quick wave of my hand, and a very strange feeling spread in my chest. Impulsively I held my breath as my head went under, then realised that it was not necessary. I fought a momentary panic, for this went completely against my instincts, but I quickly calmed down again. With slow strokes I swam through the murky water, only to discover that a few feet further ahead the ground was rising, and soon I was on comparatively dry ground again. I looked around carefully, but there was still nobody in sight.
I took a moment to shake off the water as best I could - my invisibility spell would not hide any wet footprints I left. While I waited, I listened carefully, but apart from the far away sound of dripping water, I could hear nothing.
Finally I decided to risk moving on. Looking back, I was satisfied that I left no noticeable traces. I followed the corridor, and as I rounded a corner, I could make out a dim, unsteady light somewhere ahead.
Someone was moving behind the next corner and I froze, quickly casting my invisibility spell. Then I noticed that whoever it was was moving away instead of towards me, and I followed silently. As I approached the corner, I could hear voices.
"I just don't know", a deep, rumbling male voice said. "Is the medicine sustaining Roderick's life, or just postponing his death? How can he survive for so long with a fever so high?"
"Roderick's fever is in check, unlike your tongue!", a woman replied in heated tones. "How can you think such things, after all he has done for us? For you? Have a little faith."
I quietly crept closer and peered around the corner. A few feet away the corridor opened into a room, and in the doorway two people were standing, an Orc and a middle-aged Redguard woman. Both wore heavy armour and had weapons strapped to their backs. They were in the middle of an argument and quite oblivious to my presence.
"Faith?", the Orc was saying. He snorted derisively. "Are you telling me we're supposed to rely on the good graces of the Divines to keep Roderick alive? Even he would laugh at such nonsense!"
"Then what would you propose?" she shot back. "What more can we do? That medicine is keeping Roderick alive. For now, that's the best we can hope for."
The Orc sighed deeply. It sounded like very distant thunder. "I know, Neesha. And I meant no disrespect. It's just that... I hate waiting around like this, watching him suffer!"
How touching. I was beginning to wish they would stop talking and be gone. They were effectively blocking the passage ahead, there was no way I could sneak past them, even invisibly. There simply was not enough room.
"As do we all, dear friend", Neesha said soothingly, laying an affectionate hand on his arm. "Do not fear. I have been assured that the medicine will restore our Roderick to full health. But it will take some time."
It would take very much longer than either of them was prepared to wait, if I had anything to say in the matter.
"Then let us trust a bit less to faith, and a bit more to our own strength", the Orc suggested, mollified. "I shall guard the medicine cabinet myself. Just in case."
"And I shall continue my vigil at Roderick's side", she replied, not to be outdone by her companion. "It's just a matter of time before our leader returns to us. I can feel it in my heart."
I was feeling positively sickened by the whole exchange, but it had served one useful purpose: the Orc would lead me directly to the medicine cabinet. Once I had located it, it would be just a matter of patience to wait for a moment when it was not zealously guarded. The moment would come eventually, I knew - even huge Orc warriors must sleep sometimes.
The two finally moved along into the room, and from there into another corridor. I noticed that even the parts of the fort that were inhabited were at best dimly lit. There were torches here and there on the walls, but they did little to dispel the perpetual gloom that hung in the high ceilinged rooms and the low corridors.
I had no trouble following them, even though I kept a healthy distance. Once I had to move aside when another of the mercenaries, a rather pretty young Bosmer woman, came walking briskly in the direction from which we came. Since she, like the others, was wearing heavy armour, I heard her approaching long before I saw her, and she never noticed me.
We finally wound up in a hallway that opened into a balcony. On the latter I could dimly make out a bed on which a prone figure was lying, illuminated by a few candles. I guessed the man to be Roderick, but I had no desire to walk up to him and get a closer look. This time, I did not need to get close to kill.
The Orc stopped at a corner of the hallway and leaned against the wall. Behind him I could see a comparatively well lit alcove containing a cupboard. It appeared that I had reached my destination.
I retreated behind a corner and became invisible once more. My boots were far from dry inside, but at least I had stopped leaving wet footprints some time ago. Silent as a shadow, I glided past the self-proclaimed guard towards the cupboard.
They had not even bothered to lock the thing. I opened my belt pouch, took out my flask of oil and carefully dispensed a drop onto each of the hinges. I waited a moment, then slowly opened the door, which as I had hoped made no sound. Inside there was nothing but a single glass bottle, the likes of which are sold in every alchemy shop across Cyrodiil. It contained an oily, dark brown liquid and looked for all the world like the one I had in my pouch. Quickly, I took it and replaced it with its poisonous twin. I was done here - Roderick's own people would do the rest.
Getting out of the fort proved just as easy as getting in, which was fortunate, for by now I was so cold it was all I could do to keep my teeth from chattering. I gritted my teeth as I sank again into the cold water, and breathed a sigh of relief when I left it. My relief, however, was short-lived, for when I squeezed through the half open hatch I discovered that it was still raining outside.
I decided that a change of plans was in order. Since my task had gone much smoother than I had expected, I resolved to make a short detour and spend the night in Anvil. I really wanted a hot bath and a dry bed, and everything had gone so well that I felt I had earned a little reward. I mounted my mare and made my way across the hills to Anvil.
I arrived at the gates shortly after midnight. I left my horse in the care of a sleepy Redguard at the stable, then asked for directions to an inn. The friendly guard at the gate informed me that there really was only one that was fit for decent folk, namely The Count's Arms on Anvil's main street. I thanked him and proceeded directly to the inn.
By the time I got there I was numb with cold and still soaking wet. I was shivering so badly I had trouble talking to the innkeeper, but fortunately he saw immediately what I needed and ushered me upstairs to a very comfortable room. A little later I sank gratefully into a tub of steaming water.
I slept badly that night, and when I awoke, I discovered that I had a light fever. I got up nonetheless and went downstairs to have my breakfast and be on my way. However Wilbur, the innkeeper, took one look at me and gently but firmly directed me back upstairs. I opened my mouth to protest, then shut it again as I realised there was really no reason for it. My job was done, I was in no hurry, so I could afford to spend a few days here. I was not feeling too bad, it was just that I was not feeling to well either. Wilbur thoughtfully deposited my breakfast on the nightstand and went to send for a healer.
Obediently, I crept back between the sheets, then propped myself up and picked at my breakfast without much enthusiasm. The arrival of the healer, a brisk Bosmer who introduced herself as Laralthir, gave me an excuse to put the tray aside.
Laralthir quickly examined me and announced that I was in no danger, but not fit to travel, either. She advised me to stay in bed for a day or two and sleep as much as possible, and left a bag of herbs, together with instructions how to prepare tea from them. Then she departed.
I sank back into my pillows while the innkeeper bustled about and made my tea. At last he put the steaming mug down on my nightstand, urged me to ring if I needed anything, and left me. Gratefully, I closed my eyes and enjoyed the sudden silence. Slowly, I drifted into sleep.
I was dreaming, and fully aware of it, which was highly unusual. My mind was surprisingly clear, unlike that time during my childhood, when I had been very ill and had suffered from fever-induced nightmares for days. It was as if I was looking at myself from the outside, only I could not see myself - in fact, I could not see anything at all. I was standing in pitch darkness, and everything was deathly quiet.
The air around me was cold, and though I could not discern a particular smell, there was a slightly stale quality to it, as if it had not been disturbed for generations. It was absolutely still, not a breeze stirred it, and yet I somehow felt that I was standing in an open space rather than a room. The ground, at least, felt firm beneath my feet; I was definitely standing, not floating.
I tried to turn my head to look around, and it was then I discovered that I could not move. I could still feel my arms and legs, it was just that they would not obey me.
I fought down a sudden surge of panic. Drawing a deep breath, I tried to force my left foot to move. Nothing happened. Sweat started to trickle down my cheek, itching uncomfortably, but I could not lift a finger to wipe it away.
The cold was beginning to get uncomfortable, creeping through my clothes and under my skin. It was not cold enough for me to freeze, but definitely cold enough to make me wish I could move around to get warm.
Slowly, I became aware that I was not alone. There was someone here - no, I thought, not someone. Something. I did not know how I could be so sure of it, for I still could not hear a sound, and the darkness around me was as impenetrable as before. But my instinct told me that some creature was there, and it was not friendly. I had to get moving before it found me, or to get out of here by some other means. I closed my eyes and willed myself to wake up, but nothing happened.
"That won't work, you know", Vicente said.
My eyes snapped open, and there he was, standing beside me. I could see him clearly, even though there was still no light, and everything else was shrouded in darkness. "What are you doing here?" I asked, but he just shook his head. "I'm not really here. As you've already noticed, you're dreaming."
I tried to nod, but my head would not move. "I noticed", I said instead. "But I still do not understand what all of this means."
He sighed. "Then you're stuck here. It can't move very quickly, but eventually, it will find you." He looked me over, and in his eyes was a curious mixture of emotions. I had no idea what to make of it.
He raised his hand to wipe away the drop of sweat that had trickled down my cheek, and I gasped in astonishment. "You can move!"
He nodded. "Of course. I told you that vampires are not affected by certain kinds of magic. We can't be paralysed, for example."
I looked at him thoughtfully. "So", I said slowly, "if I was a vampire, I would be able to move and find a way out of here?"
"Yes", he said simply.
So that was why he was here. He was my way out, but there was a price. I knew that I did not have much time to make my descision. The thing out there was moving, and it would find me sooner or later. Paralysed as I was, I would not have a chance when it did. I might wake up when I died in this dream, but then again, I might not.
I realised I did not really have a choice. I looked at Vicente. "Help me", I said quietly.
He nodded and took a step towards me, embracing me. He held me tightly as he kissed me, and I closed my eyes. I would have liked to put my arms around him as well, but I still could not move them, so I had to be content with returning his kisses, which I did passionately.
Slowly, his lips moved away from mine and down to my neck. There was a brief, sharp pain as his fangs pierced my skin, but I barely noticed it. Distantly, I felt my blood leave me as he drank eagerly.
Finally he raised his head to look at me, still holding me. I felt a little faint, but otherwise unchanged. "It will take a moment", he said, but it was already starting. My whole body began to itch, then to burn. I cried out, and he hugged me more tightly to him. I felt something leave me, but at the same time strength flooded my limbs, and I found I could at last move my arms. I clung to Vicente as another wave of burning pain surged through me, then ebbed away.
He held me patiently, stroking my hair and keeping me upright until it was finally over. I drew a shuddering breath and opened my eyes again.
I was standing on a vast plain that stretched in every direction. The ground was broken and riddled by holes. There were no colours nor shadows, everything was a dull, featureless gray. Everything, except a formless blob of blackest shadow somewhere to my right. It was moving slowly, a dark cloud billowing this way and that, and I knew that this was the thing that was hunting me.
Just behind it I could see an arch of broken, gray stones. It glowed faintly, and within a featureless grayish mist swirled and sent thin tendrils across the cracked surface of the surrounding stones. This was the exit, I knew - and I had to get past the shadow to reach it.
I looked at Vicente, who was still holding me, studying my face. He gently brushed a strand of my hair aside and kissed me on the forehead. Then he let me go. "You'll find the way now", he said. I nodded silently, not trusting myself to speak. He raised his hand in a gesture of farewell, then he vanished. I was on my own once more.
Carefully, I took a step forward. Moving was no problem now, my body even felt more lithe and powerful than before. I felt fairly confident that I could fight my way past the black thing to the gate.
Suddenly I noticed the sword hanging by my side. I drew it and examined it. It was a strange blade, not one of those I had owned over the years. I had seen such swords before, though: the Emperor's guards had carried them. They came from Akavir, and he blades were rumoured to be sharp enough to cut a falling feather.
The hilt fit into my hand perfectly, and the balance was just right. I did not bother to sheathe it again, but strode confidently towards the archway.
The shadowy guardian noticed my approach. Part of it rose from the ground, like a watchdog raising his head and sniffing the air as it smelled an intruder. The shadows moved and shifted, and slowly condensed into a vaguely animal-like shape.
I slowed down and held my sword before me, eying the thing warily. So far, it was moving slowly, but I had no idea how quick it could really be.
An instant later my caution proved to be entirely justified. Without warning the thing exploded into motion, extending inky tentacles towards me. I jumped back and brought my blade down across one of them, neatly severing it. The thing emitted a high shrieking noise, almost too high to hear, and recoiled. The severed tentacle dissolved without a trace. I glided a few steps to the side, and my sword flicked a few times into the darkness. The thing shrieked again, then lunged at me.
It almost caught me. Silently cursing my overconfidence, I leaped out of the way and rolled over my shoulder, then rose again in a fluid motion. One of the tendrils had touched my sleeve, and in the place where it had struck, the fabric was beginning to dissolve.
I knew I had to finish the creature quickly. Despite my new powers, a single well-placed hit would be enough to cripple or even kill me. Retreating a few steps, I studied my opponent.
It was still roughly shaped like an animal the size of a very large dog. It had four "legs", and a shadowy lump in the place where a dog's head would have been. The tendrils snaking around it, however, did not fit the image. The whole form was constantly shifting and swirling, and I had no idea where its vulnerable spots might be, if it had any at all.
Experimentally, I thrust my sword at its "head". The blade cut through the darkness, and the thing screeched again, but it did not appear to be lethally wounded. I jumped backwards to evade the tentacles striking at me and cut one off with a quick swipe of my sword.
Suddenly an idea struck me. The darkness around me had dissolved when I had changed into a vampire, but the light was still dull, just bright enough to see. And my enemy was apparently made of shadows... I had not used a light spell for quite some time, but the correct gestures came back to me easily. I waved my hand, and a bright light flooded the immediate area.
The effect was astonishing. The thing screeched again, so shrilly I almost dropped my sword to cover my ears with my hands. Then it sank into the ground like water draining into a crack. Moments later, it was gone.
I drew a deep breath and sheathed my sword. Cautiously, I took a step towards the portal, but nothing happened. The thing was gone, at least for now. And I had no intention of waiting for it to reappear. Without further hesitation I stepped through the arch -
- and woke up. The setting sun was painting the walls of my room a bright gold, and the breeze blowing through the open window smelled of the sea. My fever was gone, my head felt clear, and I was ravenous.
As if on cue the door opened and Wilbur peered into my room. When he saw that I was awake, he smiled broadly and entered, bearing a tray with a mug of tea, a steaming bowl and a small loaf of fresh bread. It smelled wonderful.
"Good evening", he said cheerfully, depositing the tray next to my bed. "Did you sleep well? You look much better."
"I did, thank you", I replied, seeing no need to tell him about my strange dream.
"Good, good", he said pleasantly. "Now you have some nice hot soup and another good night's sleep, and tomorrow you'll be as good as new."
I sat up and hungrily reached for the bowl. My host nodded appreciatvely as I fell to, then went back downstairs, not without telling me again to ring should I need anything.
What I needed most, apart from my supper, was peace and quiet to think. The dream had deeply disturbed me, not only because its meaning was perfectly obvious. While I ate my soup, I replayed the whole sequence in my mind. I remembered everything very clearly, another indication that this had been no normal dream. It had been a message.
I put the empty bowl aside and settled back into my cushions, nibbling at the last of my bread. I would follow Wilbur's advice and sleep some more, and tomorrow morning, I would head back to Cheydinhal. At last, I knew what I had to do.
"Greetings, greetings", Ocheeva welcomed me. "Good to see you're back. I trust everything went well?"
"As planned", I confirmed. I gave her a quick report to which she listened attentively.
"Perfect", she said when I had finished. "By now, Roderick should be dead. I assume we will soon receive word of his demise." She went to a chest and retrieved a rather bulky parcel that was wrapped in plain, unbleached linen. "Here", she said with a peculiar smirk as she placed it on the table together with a fat purse. "You have earned your bonus. You'll find its magic most useful."
Curious, I unwrapped the bundle. Ocheeva was watching me closely, and chuckled quietly as I stared in disbelief at the contents of the parcel. Antoinetta will have a fit when she sees this, I thought, unfolding the gown and holding it up. Skirt and sleeves were of deep black velvet, while the bodice (which was cut a trifle low for my taste) was made of burgundy and gold brocade. A heavy belt of hammered gold and a pair of gold trimmed black velvet slippers completed the outfit.
My gaze went from the gown to Ocheeva and back. The Argonian laughed. "Don't worry, it won't bite you", she teased me. "I thought you might like something to help you the next time you have to move among people. It is called the Deceiver's Finery, and it bears a rather subtle enchantment that will make others more well-disposed towards you."
"Thank you", I said politely, privately hoping that the size would not be right. For the life of me, I could not imagine myself in a dress like this.
Of course, Ocheeva guessed my thoughts. "It will fit perfectly", she assured me. "That's part of its magic, of course."
I sighed and rewrapped dress, belt and slippers. Then I excused myself. I went to the living quarters, which at the moment thankfully were empty, and deposited my reward. Then I made my way downstairs.
I silently opened the door to Vicente's quarters. He was at his desk again, writing something. When I came in, he smiled and started to say something, then he looked at me more closely and remained silent. For a long moment, neither of us spoke. Then, quietly, I said, "Yes."