A quintet of hoofbeats thundered across the Dragon Bridge as night fell over Haafingar. The waning moons above provided little respite from the darkness, pierced only by shining magelights hovering above our column. Our mounts did not slow for the signal to halt from the Hold guards in their crimson armour, nor the refugees fleeing on horse and on foot as they scattered before us, faces stricken with terror. Many of them had little more than the clothes on their backs, torn and bloodstained as they tried to escape the cursed city.
Our destination came into view as we crested the next hill; the city of Solitude, capital of Skyrim. Smoke and fire rose from within her walls, coalescing in a roiling violet cloud of energy that cast the entire area in a dark, threatening glow. We did not yet know what horrors lay in wait within, but pressed on all the same, unceasing and unwavering.
It wasn’t long before we reached the stables on the outskirts of the city. The Imperial Legion and Solitude Guard had turned the area into a command post; both gates to the city had been sealed, and soldiers manned layers of makeshift barricades of wood and stone, hastily erected before them. Those too injured or infirm to flee further from the growing menace overhead lay by the roadside, several of them huddled together and praying to the Divines for deliverance. At long last, we brought our exhausted steeds to a halt and dismounted.
We had travelled light from the Hall in Hjaalmarch; I carried little more than my fur-lined robe, runic axe and bandolier holding a handful of potions and scrolls, which also served to fasten my staff behind me. Teldryn, as usual, was clad in his well-worn chitin armour, ebony katana by his side. Illia and Brelyna wore short robes and had daggers belted to their waists, while Valdimar’s dark plate armour reflected the gloom lingering over the city. He bore a heavy mace in one hand, holding a full helmet under the other arm.
“What do we think?” I asked them, gazing up at the city.
Illia and Brelyna gave each other a meek look. Sometimes I forgot that they were new to the Order; only months before they had been dabbling in witches’ rituals and college classes, not battling against magical catastrophes that threatened the lives of thousands.
“They’re souls,” decided Brelyna, the young Dunmer looking to Teldryn and I for approval. “The people still in the city… their souls are being captured in that vortex. Used for some kind of necromancy, no doubt.”
Valdimar simply stared, determined. He was a Nord of action and of duty; he was practiced in the arts of war magic, but he was no scholar.
“Just like you said, Palatinus,” agreed Teldryn, inclining his helmet towards Brelyna. “The spectre that escaped that ritual in Wolfskull Cave-”
“You there, halt!” called one of the guards. “Get back on your horses and go home. The general has this well in hand.”
“We’re here on behalf of Jarl Ravencrone of Hjaalmarch, to assist Haafingar in her time of need,” I replied, speaking with a tone of authority. It was something of a white lie, though the Jarl had named me a Thane of her court. “Take us to the general at once; I’m sure he’ll know where we can help the most.”
The guardsman looked us over for a moment and nodded. It was difficult to tell if he actually believed us, or if he just wanted the group of armed mages to be someone else’s problem. “Apologies, my lady, I had no idea.” He pointed to the farmhouse by the stables. Legionnaires were clustered around the building, runners and couriers going to and fro to relay orders to the other officers. “He’s inside. Just… watch your words. He’s not in a good mood.”
Pushing our way through the throng of soldiers outside, we found General Tullius leaning over a long table in the middle of the farmhouse. Any unnecessary furniture and homewares had been carelessly pushed aside when the Legion commandeered the building, the common area now composing of only a few chairs and a map of the city spread across what was once a dining table, lit by a half-dozen flickering candles and the burning hearth. Flanked by a Thalmor advisor and a pair of his commanders, the general’s brow was well and truly furrowed as they debated a plan of attack.
I opened my mouth to introduce us as Tullius slammed a fist on the table. “By the Eight, what is it now?” As he turned his gaze to the five of us, I could see the guard hadn’t been lying. “Who are you, and what do you want?” His scowl indicated that his authority had already been questioned a few too many times tonight.
“I’m the Palatinus of the Order of the Lamp; we need passage into the city so we can put an end to all this.” With a military man like Tullius, I figured the straightforward approach would be best. The Thalmor advisor narrowed his gaze in recognition of the Order, peering down his nose at us, but the general and his commanders looked on blankly. “Have your men open the gates for us and we’ll be on our way.”
Tullius simply sighed and shook his head. “Out of the question. Go back to wherever it is you came from. The Legion has this well in hand.” He looked us up and down; between our robes and mismatched armour, he clearly didn’t think much of our little group. He pointed to one of his men to escort us out. “This is a delicate business. We don’t need any amateurs getting themselves killed and jeopardising our operation.”
“Amateurs?” I asked, incensed. Tullius was starting to get on my nerves. “The Order’s been dealing with magical disasters for thousands of years.” I took a moment to cool off before continuing. “Please. We just want to help. All I ask is that you let us into the city.”
“I already told you, it’s out of the question!”
“General,” muttered one of his commanders. “The battlemages from the Shadow Legion are still days away. If they’re magical specialists, we might-”
“I wouldn’t trust these lowlives, General,” overrode the Thalmor advisor in a nasal tone, “I can send word to the Hegemony in High Rock. The Adamant Order can be here by morning.”
I wasn’t exactly pleased to hear the Adamant Order was still around, but there were more important problems to worry about.
“You don’t have until daybreak!” I pleaded. “We can work with you, help your soldiers take-”
“Enough! Get these intruders out of my command post.”
“Do you have any idea who she is?” Teldryn spat, furious. The anger simmering beneath his chitin mask had finally boiled over. “Without her, vampires would have thrust the world into an endless night. Without her, a disaster at the College of Winterhold could’ve consumed all of Tamriel. Without her, a rage of dragons would have burned your precious city to ashes. All while you and the Stormcloaks bicker over which patch of this frozen wasteland belongs to who.”
I maintained eye contact with Tullius as a heavily-armoured legionnaire grabbed my arm, ready to drag us outside. His commanders were taken aback by Teldryn’s fury as he listed some of the Order’s achievements from our short time in Skyrim.
“Every moment we wait out here, you condemn the hundreds trapped within the city walls to certain death,” continued Teldryn. “Their blood is on your hands, general.”
He made a convincing argument.
General Tullius threw up his hands in defeat. “Fine! Fine. I’m sure I can make you useful somehow.” He looked to the congregation in the now-cramped room. Between the five of us, the Imperial officers, the Thalmor advisor, runners, and other soldiers, there was hardly any standing room left. “Legate Rikke, Captain Aldis, and you,” he ordered, jabbing a finger towards me, “stay. Everyone else, out.”
“You’re making a big mistake,” sneered the Thalmor advisor, jostled by the passing soldiers filing out of the building. I gave the others a nod, indicating for them to wait outside. “You can be certain Emissary Elenwen will hear of this.”
“Didn’t you hear the General, Canonreeve?” Rikke jeered, a smug expression crossing the Nord woman’s face. Even Tullius’ stoic mask cracked into a barely perceptible grin. “And I thought the Thalmor were supposed to be masters of etiquette.”
The Altmer shot withering glances at each of us as he stormed from the farmhouse.
“Alright, ‘Palatinus’, you’ve got my attention,” said Tullius, visibly more relaxed as the air in the farmhouse cleared. “What exactly is going on in my city, and what are you planning on doing to stop it?”
“Falk didn’t tell you?” I asked, puzzled. “I specifically instructed him… Divines, he didn’t say anything?” The situation had just gone from bad to worse. I froze as my mind frantically sifted through the possibilities. Back in High Rock, the Order of the Lamp had been an established, well-respected organisation for centuries, trusted by the nobility. It seemed that Skyrim’s people were not as willing to take me at my word, especially with their ingrained distrust of magic and mages. I hoped that after tonight, that would change; provided we survived.
“Hey, look at me, soldier!” demanded Legate Rikke, snapping me back into the moment. “What’s happened? What didn’t the Queen’s steward tell us?”
I took a deep breath. “Last week, the Order dealt with a cabal of necromancers operating out of a cave to the north-west. They were well supplied, organised and capable, and they were performing a ritual to bind the soul of the Wolf Queen. Potema.”
“You’re certain?” asked Tullius, furrowing his brow. At the very least, the soldier could finally put a name to his enemy.
“There was no doubt, General. I stopped the ritual, but some kind of… remnant of her spirit escaped.” I pulled a few folded notes from my bandolier, placing them on the table. “I’m no expert on the Dark Practice, but I’ve spent some time researching what the Wolf Queen is planning now that she’s been returned to the world of the living.” I turned the pages towards the Imperial officers and continued, pointing towards the section in question. “Potema is buried somewhere beneath Solitude. Some accounts I uncovered suggested that her tomb is warded against intruders; she’ll need to break through those same wards to reach her remains and regain her corporeal form.”
“And what does that have to do with the glowing storm over the city?” asked Captain Aldis, gesturing to the violet light shining through the farmhouse’s windows. “That’s Potema?”
“For the moment? I think so,” I confirmed, glancing outside. I’d swear it had grown more ominous in the few minutes I’d been indoors. “She’s gathering power from the city’s dead to break through the ward. When she’s finished, I can only assume she’ll raise an army from what’s left of Solitude.”
“And after that?” asked Rikke, looking over the map. I can only imagine she was estimating the size of Potema’s forces, should she succeed.
“There won’t be an ‘after that’,” scowled Tullius. “Given you’re here, I’m assuming you know how we can stop her before that happens.”
I nodded, assuring the Legionnaires there was a path to victory tonight. “I told Falk that he would need to retrieve the remains and have them sanctified, or destroyed. We’ll just have to do it ourselves.” Tullius nodded, indicating for me to continue. “The only problem is, I don’t know exactly where they’re entombed. I was planning on making a run for the Hall of the Dead; hopefully they have some kind of record there.”
The Imperials muttered among themselves for a few moments, aligning their newfound knowledge and resources with what I could only assume was an existing plan of attack. “It’s a good plan,” admitted Tullius. “I’ll muster some of my best men to escort you and your companions to the Hall of the Dead. They’ll then advance to the Blue Palace to reinforce the garrison while you go and deal with Potema.”
“It’s as good a plan as any,” I agreed.
“Meet Legate Rikke and I at the gates in 10 minutes. You’re dismissed.”
Hand to my heart in a gesture of thanks, I took my leave of the Imperial officers. The rest of my Lamp Knights waited beneath the farm’s windmill, eyeing the Thalmor advisor as he mounted a white mare and fled, no doubt back to his masters at the nearby embassy. I waited for him to pass, crossing the well-trodden soil to rejoin my fellows.
“You’ve certainly got a spring in your step,” stated Teldryn, wryly. “I take it things went well with the Imperials?”
“Is it really surprising?” I asked, a slight smirk on my lips. “Our priorities might be different, but we’re both trying to stop a power-hungry necromancer from turning an entire city into an army of the dead.”
Teldryn laughed. “When you put it that way… it certainly beats carving a path through the Imperials ourselves.”
Illia and Brelyna looked on, somewhere between appalled and curious; Valdimar was stoic as ever.
“Were you actually planning on doing that?” Brelyna asked, straight-faced. Teldryn simply stared in response.
I always found a bit of levity does wonders in situations like these.
“So, um, what is the plan, exactly?” inquired Illia, focused on the task at hand as always. She seemed out of her element with so many people around, soldiers especially.
Runners were already on their way from the farmhouse to disseminate the results of our meeting. A number of Legionnaires, clad in heavy armour, started to head up towards the rally point at the city gates. “The Imperials are going to help us carve a path through to the Hall of the Dead,” I explained, drawing a rough map of the city in the dirt with my boot. “From there, they reinforce whoever’s left in the Blue Palace while we go and put an end to Potema.”
Brelyna tilted her head side to side, trying to align the map with what we could see of the city. “Shouldn’t we be helping to protect the High Queen, too?” she questioned, confused. “If there’s people stuck in the palace, they’ll need our help.”
I sighed in exasperation; not at the Dunmer initiate but at the cruelty of the situation. “The danger to those in the palace is a symptom,” I stated firmly. “We need to deal with the source while we still have a chance. Whatever is happening here, it has to stop before it gets worse and threatens more lives.”
I could see the initiates were facing the same dilemmas that had been placed before me dozens of times. Sometimes, we simply couldn’t save everyone. All we could do was our best.
The dire silence between us was broken as someone pushed between Teldryn and I to get a look at the crude map. A young Breton boy with short dark hair, perhaps not even in his teens, wearing a heavy coat with an Legion blade hung over his back like an adventurer’s greatsword. “You guys are going back into the city, right?” he asked, determined. “I want to fight, too.” I couldn’t help but admire his resolve, as naive as it was. There was something familiar about him.
“Run along to your family, boy,” instructed Valdimar. He looked like a giant alongside the child, clad in armour with a mace over his shoulder. “It’s not safe for you here.”
Truth be told, it wasn’t safe for anyone here.
“I was running errands in the city when it started… when I got back here, Katla was gone and there were all these soldiers,” he recounted, downcast. He must have been one of the children I’d seen working the stables on a previous visit to the city, and an orphan at that. If he’d been in the city when the attack began… Divines, I didn’t even want to imagine it, much less what it was like for a child. “Captain Aldis always says I’m too young to join the Legion, but you’re those spellswords from Hjaalmarch, right?” He pointed to the Order of the Lamp insignia pinned to my robes. Hardly the radiant, polished pieces we had back in High Rock, this was simply a small silver disc I had inscribed myself. “That mercenary in the Winking Skeever said you were looking for recruits. I can fight, so maybe I can come with you?”
An orphan, abandoned by his adoptive parents and rejected by those he respects in the wake of a massacre. In the face of such hopelessness, it was little wonder he was looking for something - anything - to hold onto.
Valdimar sighed as the boy ignored his instruction, and Teldryn simply scowled. “We should get moving,” the Dunmer suggested, turning away from the lad. “Don’t want to keep the soldiers waiting.”
“I’ll join you up there soon,” I agreed with a nod. Teldryn rallied our companions and began the walk up to the gates. I knew the boy was going to get himself into trouble by the end of the night, fighting or not. I took a knee and removed my Lamp pin, looking the boy in the eyes; he bore a strange cocktail of hopelessness and determination. Though I suppose a strange cocktail of events had led to this point.
“I’m Sabine Lamont, from the Order of the Lamp,” I introduced softly. “What’s your name?”
“Blaise,” he replied, averting his gaze. “I live here at the farm, but-”
There wasn’t any need to make him dredge up likely painful memories of his parents. “Tonight, Blaise, you’re an Initiate of the Lamp Knights,” I said, pinning my insignia to his coat. His face lit up, if only for a few moments. “But the Lamp Knights are a team, which means everyone has an important job, okay?”
“Okay,” he nodded, excited. “What do you need me to do?”
I drew one of the scrolls from my bandolier, sealed with a Restoration sigil - Guardian Circle - and presented it to the boy.
“Those people down there,” I started, gesturing towards the sick and infirm abandoned by the city gates. “They need our protection, Blaise. I need you to keep them safe until I get back. Make sure they have whatever they need, alright? Water, blankets, food; I’m sure you can scrounge up some at the farm here.”
“I can handle it,” asserted Blaise, taking the scroll from my hands. “What’s this for?”
“Powerful magic,” I explained. “If anything comes out of the city before daybreak, you open that scroll and call for the soldiers.”
He admired the pristine vellum and intricate seal before unceremoniously stuffing it into his belt. “You can count on me, um…”
He gave me an awkward salute.
“You’re a good kid, Blaise. This’ll all be over before you know it.”
Minutes later, the Order of the Lamp and a three-dozen soldiers, clad in Imperial steel from head to toe and weapons at the ready, formed a rough formation before the Solitude walls. Legate Rikke stood at the fore, and the Order of the Lamp was likewise prepared for battle on their left flank. Breylna and Illia held destructive magics at the ready, Valdimar had donned his helmet, and Teldryn had unsheathed his blade, Daedric companion not far from reach. Magical armour flowed over my robes, and I held my runic Dawnguard war axe in a firm grip.
“OPEN THE GATES!”
On Rikke’s bellowed order, a pair of guardsmen pushed open the main gates into Solitude, our combined force rushing into the city’s main street. But few among us were prepared for what lay within...