The moon was out when I awoke, stinging and scraped all over in a room I knew not where. Stone clung to my body like shackles, and the velvet of my stolen clothes clung to the grazes on my elbows and knees. Shadows had swallowed the room, permitting just a stream of light to gush over the statue straddling me. The comforting weight of my bow and her quiver had been taken from me and the trenched wounds in my neck were left as hollow and empty as the room.
Nothing. He just left me to recover at the feet of his Prince. Shaking, I eased myself up to my feet, skirting around the offerings at the statue’s feet as I backed away from Molag Bal’s horned jaw. Something in the statue’s eyes just seemed wrong; they had a cold, empty look too hungry to be anything but real.
“You lie. You’re no flower of the desert.”
The voice came from everywhere. Hollow, dry, and harsh like the rush of foul air when the seal on a tomb is broken. It smelled like a grave, but one where the coffins are exposed to the air. A mausoleum, or a Sanctuary tomb.
Don’t show fear. Don’t give my name, don’t turn my back, and don’t show any weakness. “Where are you?” My own voice echoed off the walls, feeble and hollow like a child’s.
“You’re late. The feast is about to begin but you’re unprepared. Make yourself a worthwhile meal, will you?”
Frost had started blooming on the glass of the window, crawling across the puddles of blood on the floor. “Who are you?”
The whole room grew silent. Not a whisper from the frost, not a footstep from me. The walls themselves seemed to close in around me, stone brushing up against me as a needle-like finger pressed against the back of my neck.
“Your worst nightmare.”
He seized the back of my stolen dress and flung me forwards, forcing me against the door as he hissed. “Run. Run if you can. It makes it infinitely more interesting. Twenty… Nineteen…”
Cold air whistled down the back of my neck as candles all around the room burst into flame, swaying in their torch brackets as if keeping time with the vampire. “Eighteen… Seventeen… You’re trying my patience!” He hissed, and I bolted, forcing my way through the door and letting it bang into the wall behind me.
I was in a wide corridor flooded with candlelight, with the flames in their brackets swaying as if counting. The only darkness now oozed down the walls between the iron torch brackets, seeping onto the stone floor amongst the bloodstains.
Light…good for hunting vampires but not so much for hiding from them. I headed to my left, past screams and odd yelps coming from behind every door…and the hissing. Everywhere the hissing. Like the strained breaths of a dying man, clawing at the weapon embedded deep in his side.
“Three… Two… One…Tick tock, tick tock, little elf. Your time is running out.”
I forced myself through a side door as the hiss came from behind me, complete with a blast of foul air like the musk of the grave. Damn…quick, old ways. Weave, put up barricades, block off paths, and find a hiding spot. Turning, I forced myself against the nearest door, barging through and slamming it behind me.
It stank of blood and rotting flesh in here, but it was dark and isolated enough to make a reasonable hiding place. Sliding down the door, breathing a sigh of relief, I began formulating the start of a plan. If I could get outside somehow, ideally up a tree or some other high place, I could perhaps convince this vampire without putting myself in any more unnecessary danger. Place like this has to have a balcony of some kind. I was no Flyer, but I could still climb up a wall and slip in a window without the homeowners noticing. Easing myself up, I dropped into a crouch, pausing in the darkness.
That’s when the growling started.
I scrabbled up and bolted as those things barked, forcing myself through the door as at least six black, snarling things gave chase, barking and snapping, one seizing me by the ankle and pulling as I fell through a set of double doors to the ballroom. White, jagged teeth fell on me, I screamed-
“Down! Black Shuck, Gytrash, all of you, get down!”
Those things backed away as I forced myself up, running blind until I smacked into something hard and ice-cold, seizing my neck in long, skeletal fingers. “Now now, I’ve already given you a chance to run, little flower.”
His nails dug into my neck as he tilted my chin up to look at him, pinning me against the wall. Shadows cowered from his form, ashen-skinned with glowing eyes and the Prince’s horned face holding a jagged cloak closed around his armour. The deathly pallor of the vampire had done little to steal away the ashen grey of Dunmer skin, though Azura’s glowing curse had been stolen clean out of his eyes.
“Elsweyr’s Peony…” he inhaled and two jagged fangs showed in his jaw, “you have the distant sands in your blood after all, little elf. Now do hold still.”
I couldn’t even scream as he went for me, clawed fingers digging in as the dull punch ran through my neck. I didn’t even need the hot wetness of my own blood running down my neck to know that he’d bit me, piercing my neck with a hot, burning sensation.
“Stop struggling, it’ll only make it worse!”
He forced me into the stone wall of the ballroom, pinning me there as something cold, sticky, and clotting smeared against a bare patch of skin. Blood? Of course. There’s plenty here, smeared on the stone walls of the ballroom almost like art. It’s definitely the kind of art that belongs here. An execution at the stake by the Altmeri Dominion, setting fire to oil smeared on the victim’s skin. A black cat in an inky smear of the vampire’s blood – at least someone tried to fight back – with a red noose of human blood around its neck. A woman laying back, wrists pinned high, legs forced apart to the point where it hurts.
Typical art of the Prince of Domination and Enslavement. Probably more, blurring in the black and red as he bit down harder, fangs tearing into my neck and making everything move in front of my eyes. The black hounds that savaged me, the stone walls, the vampire pinning me to the wall, and the black and red blood scaling up the wall, swinging on the chandelier to perch right above us-
That is no blood!
“I’m not going to force you again…hold still!”
His cold fingers wrapped around my neck again, pulling me forward and slamming me into the stone wall as he glared deep into my eyes. His fangs were wet with blood, my blood, and a thin droplet ran from the fringe of his lips as he hissed in my face.
Trying to frighten the prey into submission…but there was far greater danger scaling up the wall, perching atop the stony back of a gargoyle and drawing a slim blade. Those black, hounds of his, Black Shuck and Gytrash or whatever it was he called them, had hunkered down, staring at the intruder and growling.
“I can see how you see me.” I hissed back. “You think what I was is what I am now, right? Young, dumb, and too scared to dip my toes in the water without realising I can already swim?”
The vampire recoiled as if I’d slapped him, his clawed hand leaping away from my neck like it was on fire. “What?”
“You’re not my first vampire, now get down!”
I shoved Count Lefanu hard in the chest, pushing him out the way as the figure in familiar red and black armour swung from their perch on the chandelier, swinging the blade at my throat. Ducking aside, I hit the ground as he missed and hooked his ankle around the outer ring of the black iron chandelier, using it to flick his body up so he could grab hold and climb back on.
High ground…high ground and speed were the advantages of this branch of assassin. Flyers were quick, agile, and lethal, and this one was no different. Leaping from clinging to a picture frame, to vaulting off a corner onto a gargoyle’s wing, gripping it with one hand and using it as a point from which to leap atop me, dagger drawn and pressed to my throat.
Not yet, s’wit! I drew my knee right up into his crotch, the wince leaking from behind the shrouded cowl as I lifted the Flyer’s lightweight body up and drove my heel up through the fork of his legs as if stamping on a bug. Count Lefanu’s hounds had descended on the assassin when I forced the ebony dagger off my neck, digging my nails in and getting a good handful of his face as I scrabbled up to my feet amongst the six, snarling beasts.
The Flyer was barely able to pull himself up onto another picture frame, aiming a solid kick at the hound sinking its teeth into his calf before leaping up, seizing a gargoyle and lunging backwards as blood and torn leather drifted free. As he dived backwards, his spine seemed to twist, turning him over from ankle to wrist onto his front before seizing the chandelier once more and swinging on it, vaulting from the iron and leaping off the wall to lunge at me once more with dagger drawn like a scorpion’s tail and a look of pure malice in his brown eyes. Bet that was the first time a target had ever knocked him out of sync before. Had to be. Only the very best Flyers are let out on actual manhunts.
The two impacts to the crotch may not have done much to slow him down, but I could wind him a bit. I bent low as he leaped down, arching the ebony dagger over my back, ready to plunge it downwards…and reeling backwards out of the air as the heel of my hand struck him right in the solar plexus. His limbs flailed as my second strike, a plain street-fighter’s punch right to the throat, knocked him back even further as Count Lefanu’s hounds descended once more.
No more, quick, go! I backed away, turning to run for a set of balcony doors as one of the dogs yelped behind me. A shadow flew above me as the assassin leapt onto a gargoyle above the doors, glared down at me, then swung down and smashed the glass with blunt elbows and feet so the lethal shards rained down upon me. The crystal storm ended as I stagger back over the broken glass, the assassin swinging on the doorframe and onto a stone porch to stare me down and let me notice the slight scratch across my throat.
He did that on purpose. Could have slit my throat there and then, but leaving just a graze…that was for clawing at his face. The angry, red lines my nails had raked in showed up clear as day across the window of his face just visible over the cowl. That was payback, and a reminder of what he was here for.
I scrabbled to my feet amongst the shards, chips of glass latching onto the soles of my feet as he leapt down and plunged his dagger into the stone where my heart had been just moments before.
When the hounds descend on him, that’ll give me a precious few seconds to get a head start. High ground isn’t just the territory of the Flyers, and though my bow is Gods-know where, I’m still an archer through and through. All I need is a roof to get upon and aim from, and what I’m actually aiming with winds up meaning very little.
I made for the outer wall of the castle as I heard the barks and snarls of Count Lefanu’s hounds descending. The maze of little balconies, gutters, gargoyles and window ledges made perfect perches both for assassinations and escaping, even for one that wasn’t a Flyer, scrabbling at the steel drainpipe as I pulled myself up onto a porch, seized a gutter, and hauled myself up onto a window ledge. One of the dogs yelped below me as the assassin scaled a flat wall onto a porch across the wide balcony, looked over at me, and I swear to the Gods he growled.
This was personal now. I could fight back and hit him in the crotch, and I could fight dirty like this was a street battle, but when I got up to the high ground and encroached on his territory, it got personal. With broken glass making my bare feet bleed, I was right in his sights and he wasn’t gonna make it easy.
Just climb! I made straight for the gargoyle above the window, clambering up the cold stone and seizing the wing as the assassin began scaling the seemingly flat wall between us. The glass bit in further, tearing at the soles of my feet as I scrabbled upwards and began climbing onto the gargoyle’s back, using it as a kick to reach up for a gutter. Might be…no, is the best shot I’ve got.
I jumped from its stone wings, slamming into the glass of a window pane and leaving a bloody print on the glass. Not black, but red! Red! RED! Not the assassin, not anymore! The victim who will never be! Seizing the gutter, I hauled myself up and closed my hand around a drainpipe, swinging on the metal pole until I shot up let go, flying before landing with one, two, three rolls on my side atop the roof.
Up! Up now! I forced myself to my feet as the Flyer leapt atop the roof behind me, cruel dagger pressed to my throat as he hissed in my ear. “You’re up very high, little mer. You know it’s a long way down. Nobody will hear your cries and pleas over the screaming winds. Wait no, that’s not the winds! That’s the Sanctuary. You know which one I mean. The one that should be screaming in the Void.”
I flung my fist back over my shoulder, the leather edge of the shrouded cowl biting into my knuckles as I hit him in the nose. Got him! I turned and sank my teeth into his wrist as he recoiled, forcing the dagger away from my neck as I stamped my heel into the instep of his left leg and knocked him off balance.
It only left a brief window to escape, but it was enough for me to run across the flat middle of the roof, sprinting on the broken glass in my feet before the Flyer seized my wrist.
What did my mother say? If a strange man grabs you by the wrist, twist the hand, hit where I told you, and rip it back. Turning in to face him, I twisted the hand he’d grabbed around to seize his wrist in return. Turning in to his grabbing hand, I dodged the dagger’s thrust and punched him straight in the throat. As he staggered back, gasping for breath, I wrenched back the little finger on his grabbing hand and snatched my wrist away. How he squealed when the bone snapped, spluttering and tearing at the shrouded cowl in a vain struggle for breath.
Without my bow while he held the only weapon, there was only one thing I could use to kill him. How far…about the height of the average family house in Anequina. Count Lefanu better have a bloody health potion or something. Seizing the choking Flyer by the dagger-holding hand, I dragged him to the edge of the roof and jumped off with him.
The whipping of the air seemed to bring new life to the assassin above me, straining to break free of my grip so the dagger would no longer simply inch towards my ribs and instead plunge between the bones into the flesh within. He thrashed like a fish as we wrestled through the fall. Pure hatred for me shone in his eyes amongst the inflamed scratches my nails had left behind, and his free hand grabbed hold of my throat, squeezing.
No rules in a fight, Savil, this is to win! Not to look good and give them a fair shot! His fingers tried to dig into the bite wounds on my neck as I forced the assassin’s body above me and spat in his eyes. Blinded for a split second, I rolled the assassin’s body under me, bending my knees in and forcing the balls of my feet into his stomach as he struggled to pull me beneath him-
The force shuddered up through the assassin under me, sending my elbows into my chest and crumpling my left leg into itself as I toppled sideways onto the stone balcony with a hard thwack and another grisly crunch. Chips of broken glass poked into my cheek and the point of my ear, falling back to the stone with a coating of fresh blood as I dragged myself up. Rolling onto my stomach, I forced myself onto my palms and found blood.
Not mine. The offending pool of blood leaked from under the head of the Flyer that broke my fall. My shoulder crunched more as I pulled myself up from the Flyer’s limp and shattered body, dragging my left leg behind me in the broken glass. Bolts of pain embedded themselves in my thigh as I pressed down on it, rocking back onto my right heel as my left leg bent the wrong way with a wet squish.
Over. Done. I sighed, letting go of the breath I didn’t know I was holding. The velvet dress I’d stolen had been ripped to where wearing it was useless, and either sweat or blood made the fabric shreds sticky against my skin. Those black hounds no longer growled, padding on silent paws to sniff the assassin’s corpse. Even the stink of death in the air was sweet as I sank onto my elbows and right knee, forcing myself to crawl back into the trashed ballroom.
Broken glass had spilled into the room amongst the blood and bones, glittering and embedding themselves into my forearms as I dragged myself into the room. A few paintings – graphic scenes mostly – had been pulled off the wall, and somehow the black iron chandelier had fallen from the ceiling; its remains laying crumpled and forlorn like a bride collapsing at the altar. Candle wax dripped on the floor, oozing and hardening towards the Dunmer crouched in the corner, shaking like a leaf with his arms protecting his head and neck.
No way. No way in Oblivion! “Count Lefanu?” I gasped, forcing myself into a kind of sitting position with my left leg stuck out to the side. The foul air of a vampire’s lair - rotting corpses, congealing blood and all - couldn’t be any sweeter as my lungs begged for breath.
Sure enough the vampire looked up at my words, glowing eyes as wide and panic-stricken as the twin moons. “Is it over?” He squeaked, shrinking back as I tried pulling myself to my feet.
“It’s over, don’t worry. I killed him.” I groaned, leaning against the wall as Count Lefanu got to his feet, glancing around as if expecting another intruder in shrouded armour to leap down from the walls.
Gods, please don’t let that happen. “What…what was that?” His voice still had that high, thin squeak to it. Like the last string on a lute.
“A Flyer. An assassin. Must have snuck in through an open window or something. We Dark Brotherhood have always appeared when and where we’re least wanted.”
I winced and slid down the wall as the pieces of my thigh moved out of place, cursing to myself as the muscle shifted with a wet squish. The smell of internal bleeding around the break must be like honey to a bee, yet he hadn’t left the far corner, pressed up against the walls.
“W-what’s this ‘we’ about? Are…you’re not…” He squeaked, cowering once more. “You’re not here for…True Prince, you are!”
I couldn’t believe it. The vampire – the servant of Prince Molag Bal of Domination and Enslavement, who chased through his castle, flung me into the wall and bit into my neck – seemed to be quaking at the sight of me. He barely managed a weak hiss as I slid down the ballroom wall, backing away as one of the black hounds padded over to its master.
“Don’t worry, I’m not here for you, promise. I…agh!” I swore and seized my thigh, feeling something move beneath the skin. “I owe you some answers, but I need healing…Gods, I think it’s broken in two places.”
Now he’s got motivation to help me. Withholding information. Works an absolute charm at stopping the executioner’s pyre or headsman’s axe from coming too close.
“Right…right…” A black void to Oblivion appeared in his hand, pulling through another one of those loping, crocodile-headed daedra. “Zuyv’ocath, fetch the potions of blood!”
Blood potion…useless, but it might help the splitting pain in my leg. “Count Lefanu, I’m not here for you as an assassin. The Dark Brotherhood didn’t come here for you, he came for me.”
Whether the vampire paled or not was hard to tell, but the claw-like fingers around my neck were shaking. “For you? How about I have you drained dry as hay and your blood bottled? That’ll get rid of the Dark Brotherhood assassins.”
Atronach salts, might not be the best line to start an explanation with. “Hear me out, ok. There’s a way of getting rid of the Dark Brotherhood, but I need your help. That’s why I came for you, Count Lefanu…Gods…” I winced, the air hissing through my teeth as my thigh shifted of its own accord. Something seemed to be poking at the back of my thigh from the inside.
“Here, but start talking!” He snapped, taking an ornate, corked bottle of a red liquid that probably wasn’t the healing potion I was expecting. “The sacrifice has a secret agenda, the ballroom will never be the same again, and Dark Brotherhood assassins! Lord Molag Bal, you are testing me so.” He muttered to himself as he handed me the bottle.
Believe me, vampire, the Prince of Domination won’t be the only one testing you if this goes wrong. I shuddered and necked the blood potion, my stomach trying to throw it back up again as it reacted to the foreign substance. “First…what do you want to know?” I winced, a scream trapping itself in my throat as the bones in my thigh struggled to knit themselves together.
“You can start with why the Dark Brotherhood want you dead.”
Suppose that’s as good a start as any. “It’s a long story. Let’s just say we have a bit of history and we didn’t exactly part on good terms.”
Understatement of the century, but let’s not freak him out any more. “I won’t go into details, but the point is that they’re gonna keep coming after me until this ends. That’s why when I heard about you I knew you’d be perfect, Count Lefanu.”
It wasn’t exactly a lie, but I was certainly pushing it. The vampire didn’t seem to believe me though. “And what role would I play in this…issue, of yours.” The hiss was back to his voice, though whether that was to intimidate me or just because of the fangs was another matter.
“I have the beginning of a plan, involving several just like you. Champions of all the Princes, the blood of Sithis. There’s no way in Oblivion the actual Princes would be able to help, but their champions can. In our mortal world, you’re possibly the best example of Molag Bal’s. You’re the best representative of the Prince of Domination and Enslavement. As much as I hate to admit it, this is war. I am at war, Count Lefanu. The Dark Brotherhood will not stop until they’ve tracked me down, and mortal means cannot stop them. I’m building an army.”
He let go of my neck, backing away as the bones in my leg set themselves and I stood up, ignoring the broken glass in my feet. “It sounds insane, but it’s true. An army of the Daedra, with you as the head of Prince Molag Bal’s division. I’ve already gained the Father of Vampirism’s favour. His mace is back where I’m calling home in Skyrim, but that’s not enough. Count Lefanu, I need you.”
He seemed to be deep in thought; the golden glow in his eyes had glazed over, and one of his fangs nipped the corner of his lip. “I see. You’re being hunted down by the Dark Brotherhood, who are known to be a cult of elite murderers that have killed everyone from beggars to emperors, and you want me to fight them with you?”
He spread both his arms wide and clicked both his fingers, sending purple light into the scattered bones and forcing them into their original skeletons. “Throw her from the balcony, and make sure her body remains intact! Any Dark Brotherhood assassins need to see that she’s dead.”
“Now wait!” I yelled as the resurrected skeletons grabbed me under the arms, hauling me across the broken glass. “They won’t stop when I’m dead! You’ll be next!”
Count Lefanu clicked his fingers and they stopped, holding me in place as their bones rattled and groaned. “I’m sorry, I fail to see how I would be in any danger.” He purred. “The only Dark Brotherhood assassin to enter the castle is still warm and tempting in death on the balcony.”
“You think that was the only one? We Dark Brotherhood often go out in pairs. One as an assassin, the other as a scout relaying information back to the Sanctuary. Their daily route, notable places they visit, anyone that offered them refuge, and that sort of thing. That’s where you come in. By taking me into the castle, you offered me sanctuary. You aided a fugitive from the Dark Brotherhood. Count Lefanu, you’re a loose end to be cut off.”
Whatever courage he had regained since the Flyer’s surprise attack shattered around him, draining like the remains of ash grey in his skin. “No way…n-No! You’re lying!”
“Are you willing to take that risk? The Dark Brotherhood does not give up, Count Lefanu. They will not stop until your soul screams eternally in the Void.”
His hands were shaking too much for him to click his fingers again. “Let her go!” He ordered, and the skeletons dropped me. “W-What should I do? How do I stop them?”
“Come to Riften. Find any thieves, they’ll know who you are. They’ll send you to me and we’ll go from there.”
“B-But what about…w-what if more assassins show up? You said they don’t give up.”
“Keep guarded at all times. Summon more daedra, raise the dead, but do not let yourself be alone at any time. That’s how we like the targets: alone.”
“Right, right, where will you go?”
“Back to Riften. I took a travelling companion with me and he’s probably waiting for me in Evermore. After that…well, only the Gods know where their champions are.”
“You don’t know?”
“No…no, you’re the first champion of the Princes I found. Though I do know that I need my bow and her arrows back.”
Count Lefanu clicked his fingers a final time. “Show her where her weapons are. Sacrifice…what should I call you? F’lah… promise me that once this is over, the assassins won’t come for me any longer. They won’t pursue me, and un-life can continue as normal.”
I bit my lip as the skeletons took my arms again, leading me out from the ballroom. “I can promise nothing…but I swear to the Gods, to Lord Molag Bal, you will do him proud and he will reward you.”
The vampire’s fangs glinted a bit at my words. “Oh, and Count Lefanu? Call me Silence –”
“– for you walked barefoot over shattered glass without making a sound.”
I left him with that as his resurrected skeletons dragged me to the main doors of the castle, thrusting my bow and her quiver full of arrows into my arms before throwing me out of Castle Lefanu. The rain from earlier had stopped, but the dirt track snaking through the hills down to Evermore had already splattered my feet and legs with mud. The dress I’d stolen was nothing more than shreds. Scratches, cuts, and bleeding wounds littered my body. Hawk had better remember where he hid my armour, as the night air blew cold around my bare skin.
Where was that thief anyway? In the bushes nearby? Or…wait, he probably saw the fight between me and the Flyer. He might have…Gods, if he has, I’m gonna kill that idiot!
Who cares if I’m running through the town practically half-naked? This is important. Equipping my bow and her quiver on my back, I began sprinting down the path, slipping in the mud and on the stones. Wet grass stuck to my legs, tickling as I headed down towards the city of Evermore. From a distance I could see the guards’ flaming torches drifting through the city, gathering at the gates and outside the taverns. A small group of them stood by a familiar thief, chainmail clanking as they laughed.
“Really? Dark Brotherhood in Castle Lefanu! Alright boys, own up, which one of you set the murder family on the Count? I’ll see to it personally that whoever Black Sacrament-ed it gets a raise!”
“You don’t understand! My partner went up there and the Dark Brotherhood are after her-”
“If I were her, I’d be thankful for an assassin showing up. At least they make it quick and there’s no risk of growing fangs.”
For a Breton, he sure went pretty white at times. “No way…” He shook as he saw me, eyes wide like he’d seen a ghost. I suppose with the stolen dress being nothing but rags and the glass in my feet making me leave footsteps of blood behind me, I could kind of pass for one of the departed.
“Count Lefanu’s sorted. I’ll send a courier to him when it’s safe. Don’t worry, the Dark Brotherhood assassin’s also dead. Now let’s go, High Rock’s freezing.”