Morthal proved to be a sleepy town of about a hundred buildings, probably less than a thousand people. Tiny for a Hold capital. There was a gate, and a partial wall, but much of the town's defenses revolved around the stretches of water resulting from the huge marsh to the north. Many of the houses sat on stilts, and boardwalks connected strings of them. Numerous boats were tied to the many docks, and men and women carried fish and crustaceans into the town. A mill sat just outside the town, and there were a number of farms scattered about, some with an abandoned look to them.
When asked about funeral arrangements they were directed to a hill behind a burned-out house, near the wooden hall that was the seat of the Jarl of Hjaarlmarch. They found the Priest of Arkay, the man responsible for taking care of burials, in the cemetery. The robed man was working along with some grave diggers wrestling a small coffin out of the ground.
“Poor Helgi,” said the priest, nodding toward the child's casket. “Something keeps digging her up.”
“How did the child die?” asked Nora, feeling her heart going out to the parents. She knew how it was to lose a child, the cruelest of events.
“She died in a house fire, along with her mother,” said the priest, nodding toward the burned-out house down the hill. “Her father, Hroggar, claimed that his wife started the fire in the kitchen with bear fat, but many people in the town find that suspicious. Especially since Hroggar took up with Alva the day after his family died.”
Of course it was a small town, and so rife with gossip. But something about this story sent a chill up Nora's spine. She had worked with Nick Valentine, the detective, on cases in the Commonwealth, and found that she had a nose for that kind of work. Be nice if I had Nick to talk with, she thought.
“I want a traditional Nord burial for my friend here,” said Nora, gesturing toward the body Lydia and Sofia were laying on the ground.
The priest walked over and looked down on the face of Toccata, still fresh and beautiful as she had been transported in the frigid conditions and decay had yet to set in.
“She was beautiful. And it looks like she died by violence. What happened?”
“She died in battle,” said Nora, holding back the tears that threatened to spill from her eyes. “She was courageous and steadfast, and is now in Sovngarde.”
“I hope so,” said the priest.
“No, I know so. The Goddess Kynareth showed her to me.”
The priest gave her a strange look, like he thought she might be mad. Nora didn't care. She knew.
“Do you want to take her armor and weapons.”
“I want those buried with her. And a good coffin, with a headstone.”
“That will cost you,” said the priest, who had obviously been thinking of a pauper's ceremony.
“A donation of a thousand gold?”
“That will be more than enough. And thank you.”
“Anything else going on in this area?” asked Nora, suspecting that there was something dark under the quiet of the town.
“Lots of people have been disappearing in the marsh,” said the priest, looking out over the swamp that surrounded the town. “Not just strangers, but marsh-men, those who know how to navigate the fens. And no one knows what happened to them.”
“Sounds like some evil is out there,” said Eldawyn, her eyes looking out over the swamp with an intense expression.
“Why don't we pay a call on the Jarl,” said Nora, looking at the longhouse.
Jarl Idgrod Ravencrone sat her throne in the small hall. Small in comparison to Dragonsreach at least. She was an old woman, with eyes that seemed to look into the soul. A couple of guards and a steward were in attendance, and a young boy ran around yelling and screaming, while a pretty young lady with a passing resemblance to the old Jarl chased after him.
“I come to pay my respects, Jarl,” said Nora, bowing.
“Such courtesy. But I see that you are no usual traveler. There is a power about you. And a destiny.”
“How do you know that?” asked Nora, giving the woman a curious look.
“I see visions, my dear. Sent to me by the Gods? I have no idea, but sent to me by something.”
Another chill up her spine, though Nora could see that knowing this creepy old woman could be to her advantage.
“I wanted to talk to you about the burned-out house to the south of this hall,” said Nora, looking back at the children who were disrupting the hall. “Your grandchildren?”
“My children, dear. For some reason the Gods gifted me with them at an age where most women can't have children.”
Nora felt that there was something dark there as well, but not her business.
“Hroggar's family died in that house. Hroggar claims it was a cooking fire out of control. Many of my people think that Hroggar started the fire himself.”
“For what reason? Why would a man kill his own family?” Unless he was crazy, thought Nora. Seems to be something in the water here.
“Lust will make a man do much evil. Hroggar moved in with Alva the day after the fire. My people believe he was cursed.”
“Why not have him arrested?”
“On hearsay and rumors? No, I have a mission for you, my dear. You can find out what my people cannot. I can see that you have the abilities to get to the bottom of this. I will reward you for your efforts.”
Nora nodded in agreement. This crazy old woman seemed to be wiser than most rulers. She wanted proof before she punished a man, no matter what her people were saying.
“I have business to the north, in Ustengrav. But I can take some time to look into this.”
“Must be important business to see such a beautiful young thing to such an evil place. But I see that you will get what you seek, and gain the power you need.”
Just how much does this Jarl know about me, thought Nora as she made her way to the town's Thaumatergist's Hut, the home of the region's one alchemist.
The alchemist, one Lami, seemed scatterbrained, like many scientists Nora had known. She had a wide variety of potions, but very few ingredients.
“I keep experimenting,” said Lami, looking into Nora's eyes. “That uses up my stock, and most of the experiments amount to nothing.”
“I need a number of healing potions, and some cure disease as well,” said Nora. “Oh, and a dozen contraceptive potions.”
“Planning some hanky panky, eh?” asked Lami with a smile. “Not that I'm judging, and better to have protection than an unwanted child I say. But maybe you should get a potion of pregnancy termination, just in case.”
“A what?” asked Nora, intrigued. Not that she liked the option of abortion, but there were times it was necessary, especially if one didn't want to embrace celibacy, and couldn't afford a baby to get in the way of the mission. She knew mistakes happened, even with potions or pills. Even with rubbers. And she wasn't about to become celibate.
“Give me a couple of those as well,” said Nora, counting out gold coins on the counter. It set her back quite a bit, but it would be worth it if it kept her people happy, and healed.
“You've just given me more business than I could have gotten in a month otherwise,” said Lami, counting the coins as well.
“What do you know about the burned-out house?”
“Hroggar's house? Terrible story. The man murdered them; I say. But if you want more information, go talk with Falion, the mage, at his home, if you're not afraid of such people. Or his sister, who runs the inn.”
Nora walked over to Falion's house. There were only a couple of hours of daylight left, and she wanted to get things done and get on with her quest. Only the girl she had seen in the Jarl's hall accosted her on one of the boardwalks.
“Did I hear right,” asked Idgrod the Younger, stopping Nora. “You are going to Ustengrav?”
“Why yes. Why do you ask? Is there something there you want? Perhaps to come along with me?”
Nora didn't think the pretty young woman would be much good in the ruins, but maybe she had some hidden talents, like her mother.
“Oh no. I'm no adventurer. But I have a problem. I have been having visions, like my mother. Some great evil is watching us, preparing to strike. A monster.”
“Do you know where this monster is?”
“No. But Falion may have a clue. If you ask him.”
Nora knocked on the door of the mage, entering as a voice asked what she wanted.
“I've come to see the mage,” said Nora, walking into the house and finding a Redguard man in the robes of a wizard.
“If you come to accuse me of raising the dead and sacrificing children, you can turn around and walk out,” roared the man, standing up from his seat. “I have not, and have never done that.”
Nora looked around at the one room house, occupied by the mage and a young girl who seemed in no distress whatsoever. There was an enchanting station and an alchemy setup, as well as books here and there.
“I'm not here to accuse you of anything, Master Falion. I am an aspiring mage myself, and have several in my party.”
Falion cast a spell and Nora felt the energy wash over her. Nothing harmful. In fact, she had felt the spell before.
“Interesting,” said Falion, walking up to her and looking at Nora with curious eyes. “You have much power in you. Perhaps you should seek out the College of Winterhold so you can go from aspiring to master.”
“I'm thinking of it, after I take care of my current business. But right now I have a question.”
“I talked with Idgrod the Younger, and she told me of her visions.”
“Yes, yes. Poor child. She has the gift of her mother. More like a curse. And she has more on her mind than she can handle.”
“Well,” said Nora, filing that information away for the future. “She said something of visions about a monster. Any idea what she might be talking about?”
“Yes,” said Falion, taking his seat. “Talk with Lami, and she will tell you about a bandit haunted tomb she saw while she was looking for alchemical ingredients. A day to the East, past Stonehills. Probably full of Draugr, zombies, maybe even vampires.”
Shit, thought Nora. Another day, maybe two, out of her way. But she had committed to this mission, and the people of this town were counting on her, whether they knew it or not.
“Are vampires a big problem in this region?”
Falion laughed, a sound that carried no mirth. “Not until recently, though it has a long history of hiding the blood suckers. Movath, a master vampire, used to lair out in the marsh. That place is still cursed, and you would do well to stay away from it. Now, if there's nothing else.”
Nora walked to the inn, looking for more information. It was looking like they would on the road tomorrow, heading back the way they came. She missed the teleporters of home, and wondered if there was a magical equivalent she might use.
* * *
Nora had gotten the party rooms in the inn since it was too late to hit the road that day. They would move tomorrow on the Frostmere Crypt, riding from before dawn on lightly burdened, fresh horses. She thought they might get there by early evening and assault the Crypt. While she had been hoping to meet up with a man for the night, there were none to be found in the inn with the exception of the awful Orc bard that assaulted their ears. If his lovemaking was as good as his singing, she was just as happy to avoid his embrace.
Jonna, a Redguard like her brother, Falion, had been delighted to get some customers in, since very few people stopped in Morthal these days. The price of the rooms and the bath gave her, according to what she said, enough to keep the inn open for another month. The Redguard fascinated Nora. On Earth they would be called Black, or African American, though they looked different. Lighter skinned on the whole, with fine features and light-colored eyes, they really fit no Earth ethnicity. She thought them beautiful, and Jonna was a prime example of the people.
The bath, in an annex of the inn, was well decorated and had an immediate calming effect. The smoke of incense rose from holders, while the soft light of wall sconces made everything look good. The water steamed, and was at the perfect temperature for relaxation. All six of the women gathered there since the water wouldn't remain hot for long. So all disrobed and got in. Nora had been surprised when Lydia joined them, since the Housecarl was a beauty, and there were at least three bisexual women in the party. No one was crass enough to hit on her, though, so everything went smoothly.
Nora had always been a people watcher, and now she checked out her companions. All were pretty, some more than others. Except for her and Eldawyn, all had breasts in the C to D range. Nord women were hairy, armpits, legs and groins, just like Europeans had been before the war, and most people of the Commonwealth to this day. Nora shaved her legs and armpits when she could, and kept her bush well-trimmed. Eldawyn, like all elves, had no body hair, and a small bush that appeared to be her natural length.
There was a mirror in the room, one of the few Nora had seen on the planet, and she looked at her body in it, comparing herself to the Nords. The most noticeable aspect was her breast size, B cups. She had inflated to C when she had Shawn, but they had returned to normal size soon after waking from cryo. There had been stretch marks, but they had disappeared under the effects of Lorenzo's oil, then the Supersoldier Serum. Her body was fit, also as a result of the serum, but what little fat she had still carried to this world was just about gone. Not to say she didn't have curves, just not as pronounced as her companions.
Nora looked like an athlete, a female sprinter who had done some body building without hitting the extremes. Broad shouldered and narrow hipped, a muscular build with pronounced abdominals, muscular legs and well-defined arms. She still looked too thin for her considerable strength, but the serum had restructured her muscles so they were mostly fast twitch fiber, and several times stronger than they looked, with much greater concentrations of mitochondria than those of normal humans. In fact, she had won strength contests against some very fit men in the Commonwealth. She massed almost twice as much as she should have, given the dense muscles and the hardened bones that were almost break proof. McCready, her one-time lover, had once said that she looked like a superhero. She wouldn't take it that far, but she was satisfied that she had a body that would do what she wanted it to do, most of the time. She had large nipples on her breasts, something that drove men to distraction, and the muscles on her arms and legs weren't the only things that were tight. The skin was pale, with a scattering of light freckles, though her face was tanned from the sun. She had been growing her raven hair since arriving in Skyrim, and could now put it into a ponytail reaching halfway down her back, getting it out of her way during combat. And her eyes? Some men, and women, had told her that she had the most beautiful eyes they had ever seen, a deep blue that could shift into ice when she was angry.
“You have a beautiful body, my Thane,” said Lydia, blushing as soon as she said the words.
“I didn't know you were into women, Lydia,” said Eldawyn in a teasing manner, moving closer to the Housecarl.
“I am not into women, my Lady,” answered Lydia, always so proper. “I but speak the truth. My Thane has a warrior's body, though still feminine. It is beautiful, just as a fine sword is a delight to the eye.”
Nora laughed at that. She was glad that her body functioned as it did. It made it so much easier to kill that which needed killing. She also wanted to be attractive to either sex, and she did seem to have that effect. She had always loved sex. Nate had been her love, but not her best lover. She had remained faithful to him, but the realization that he was gone had set her free to enjoy what the world had to offer. And people seemed to find her attractive enough that she was seldom turned down. So she was happy overall.
After they dried and dressed they tucked into a meal. Nora ate more than any two of the other women, her metabolism demanding everything, protein, fats and carbohydrates. She needed fuel, and would weaken much sooner than a normal person if denied sustenance. A weakness, and one that had hurt her in the past, but one she was willing to bear, since she could eat...
“Sweet-rolls,” she said, rolling the word off her tongue like it was the most wonderful thing in the world. And she then proceeded to devour a half dozen of the rich pastries.
“Share your bed tonight?” asked Eldawyn when the others had retired.
“Of course. I think both of our demons need the stimulation.”
That night she had no dreams, and believed that the sex had driven them away.
* * *
They started before dawn and rode fast, pushing the horses. They passed Stonehills just after noon, and the sun was beginning to set when they reach the crypt. The long row of steps leading from it showed it to be another Nord ruin. People were fighting at the bottom of the steps, and woman against a trio of men. She was holding her own, but when Nora charged in the fight was over.
“Get out of my way,” screamed the woman, waving her blade. “I've had it with these assholes. I want out.”
The woman threw a missive her way and ran into the dusk. Nora was willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. There promised to be many more bandits for her to take care of inside.
The crypt was no problem at first, and the party moved stealthily through the corridors and rooms. Nora and Annekke, the best at stealth, led the way, taking down bandits with arrows. At one point a couple of bandits charged them after the pair had killed another two. The bandits were taken down by arrows before they got within sword range.
“Not bad,” said Annekke, looking over with a smile.
“Thanks,” replied Nora, proud of how she was improving with the bow. While nowhere near the proficiency of the ranger, she had seen great improvement over her archery from when she had first tested with Aela.
There was a puzzle, no problem for Nora's mind, and then they were into the cavern at the center of the crypt. The dying bandit leader was there, complaining that one of his people had stolen his sword and was going to place it on an altar somewhere. The man died after having his say, and the party moved on with no regrets for the orc.
A blue light shone ahead, a Khajiit struggling to put a sword on the altar while a glowing azure figure attacked him.
“Wisp Mother,” said Eldawyn, pulling up fire in her hand.
Nora didn't know what a Wisp Mother was, but Edla seemed to think it was trouble, and it was glowing blue, the color of cold. Nora pulled up her own fire spell, and along with Sofia they bombarded the creature with flame. It raised illusions around it, which did nothing to divert the triple balls of fire.
“What should I do?” she asked Eldawyn when they got to the altar and she had picked up the sword, obviously some kind of artifact.
“I think you need to place it in the cradle,” said the elf. “This was a summoned creature, and I bet the blade prevents it from coming back.”
“Sounds good,” said Nora, placing the blade carefully in the stand. Something glowed, and she had a feeling that a barrier had been dropped and the monster known as the Pale Lady wouldn't be coming back. Then another sound came to her, and looking to see that her people weren't reacting she knew what it was.
“This way,” she said, leading them over a stream and toward another set of stairs. She could see the curved wall when halfway up, and ran the rest of the way, the singing of the wall growing louder with each step.
Iil, it said, and the word unlocked in her mind with a dragon soul, letting her know she now had the first word of Ice Form, the ability to freeze enemies.
“Seems useful,” she said, leading the others out into the night. They started off for Stonehills, reaching there before ten and staying the night.
* * *
The exhausted horses walked into Morthal about two in the afternoon. Nora had pushed them hard, probably harder than necessary, but she had wanted to get back to town and see how Idgrod the Younger was doing. Her heart had gone out to the young woman. Nora didn't have visions, but she knew how her nightmares affected her. She could only imagine that it was worse seeing future events that might or might not occur. And not knowing which it was. They put up the horses in the stable and paid for their feed, then headed for Falion's house.
“Idgrod,” said Nora by way of greeting as she saw her on the boardwalk. “I killed the monster in Frostmere Crypt. Have the visions gotten better?”
“No,” groaned Idgrod, her young face stricken and showing her deep distress. “I'm still having them. A dark monster who will come for us all.”
Must not have been the right one, thought Nora. She needed to get to Ustengrav, but she was invested in this young lady's problem and couldn't just leave her to suffer.
“Falion,” she called out as she knocked on his door.
“Come in. Come in.”
“Falion,” she said as she entered the hut, flashing a smile at the man's adopted daughter, then looking at the mage. “We cleared out Frostmere Crypt. Put the Pale Lady to her rest. But Idgrod is still having horrible visions. I think I didn't kill the right monster.”
“I think you are right. I wonder if it has anything to do with the vampire problem we've been having.”
“Vampires? You knew about vampires and sent us after a damned Wisp Mother.”
“She needed putting down, Adventurer. So you still did a service to the hold. But now we need to address them.”
“What about the burned house? Your sister seemed to think it was a curse.”
“You could check into it.”
Nora left the house pissed at the mage, almost ready to knock him on his ass. Not a good move. There seemed to be too many evil mages in this land, and it needed as many good mages as it could get. So she swallowed her anger and led her people to the burned-out house.
The feeling hit her as soon as she walked into the ruined structure. Something was here. Not really evil, or harmful, but not right. And then she saw her, the glowing figure of a little girl.
“A spirit,” yelled Lydia, drawing her sword.
“Housecarl, stop,” yelled Nora, putting out a hand to keep Lydia from moving forward. “It's just a little girl. And what's your name, sweety?” she asked the spirit, crouching down as if she were talking to a live child.
“Helgi,” said the ghost. “And my daddy said I was not supposed to talk to strangers.”
“I'm a friend, honey. What happened to you?”
“It was hot and I was afraid. Then it got cool and everything was okay. Would you like to play a game with me?”
Nora could imagine the terror the little girl must have felt while the fire moved closer. If Nora found that her father had been responsible she wouldn't need the Jarl's justice. She would take his head by herself.
“Can you tell me what else you know?”
“The other one doesn't want me to talk. But if we play and you can find me, I can tell you. It has to be after dark, though, so the other one can play.”
“Okay. I'll come after dark.”
The spirit of the girl faded away, and Nora resolved to find out what happened. First she visited Idgrod the Elder to tell her what she had learned. And to discuss her daughter.
“My daughter is none of your business. I appreciate what you are doing, but there are some things here that don't welcome your attention."
Nora left the hall feeling uncomfortable. She didn't have time to dig too deeply here, and the Greybeards were waiting. So, settle the question of the burnt house and the little girl who couldn't find peace, then go after the vampires, wherever they could be found, and then head out.
* * *
Nora and her team napped through the afternoon, eating a meal at the inn and walking outside as the night was falling. They hurried to the house, where the spirit of Helgi awaited them.
“Are you ready to play?” asked the little girl. “If you can find me, I can talk to you.” And with that the spirit faded away.
“The cemetery,” said Eldawyn with conviction. “Her body is there, so that is where she will go.”
The party ran out of the house and up the hill to the graveyard, to find that the coffin that the men had been placing back in the ground was again exposed. The little girl stood over the coffin, waiting.
“The other one is here,” said the girl, and suddenly the temperature seemed to drop around them.
“A vampire,” yelled Lydia as the red eyed woman came running out of the night, fangs bared.
She headed straight for Nora, ignoring the others, moving with incredible speed. The woman grabbed Nora with arms of frightening strength, starting to bend her back. Nora went with it, pivoted on a foot and pulled the vampire over a hip into a Judo throw. The vampire landed on her back with a scream, started to scramble to her feet, and fell back with a pair of swords thrust through her body. Eldawyn sent flame into the creature, which went up like she was made of oily rags.
“A fucking vampire,” said Sofia, staring down at the burning woman. “We've got fucking vampires. I don't want to become a fucking vampire.”
“Then don't let them bite you,” said Annekke, stringing her bow. “Simple.”
Maybe not so simple, thought Nora. That creature had been stronger than she was, and if not for her martial arts experience it probably would have sunk its fangs into her neck. From what she understood, vampires turned mortal through the transmission of a disease. The cure disease potion would save anyone bitten, but she only had two of them. Should have bought a bunch, she thought, but she hadn't known what she would be dealing with while shopping.
“Laelette,” screamed a man, running out of the night with torch in hand. “What did you do to my Laelette?”
The man looked like he wanted to attack, but thought better of it seeing the six women with weapons out.
“She was a vampire,” said Nora. “She attacked us.”
“No. It can't be. She went off to join the Stormcloaks.”
“Who are you?” asked Nora, feeling sorry for the man who had just discovered that his woman had become one of the undead.
“Thonnir. I work at the mill. And Laelette was supposed to meet Alva in the marsh before leaving.”
“The other one tried to make me like her,” said the spirit of Helgi, reappearing. “But it got so hot.”
The vampire tried to turn the child, but Helgi got caught up in the fire and burned to death, thought Nora, shuddering.
“Who is Alva?” asked Recorder.
“Isn't that the woman that Hroggar took up with,” said Lydia, staring at the child's spirit. “Maybe we should look over her house.”
The house was in the shadows, and the party crouched nearby waiting for the patrol to pass. The guards off, they moved to the door and found it locked.
“Anyone have any bobby pins?” asked Nora, getting blank looks. “Lock picking tools?”
“I have some lock picks,” said Annekke, pulling a couple of the iron hooks from her belt pouch. “I used to be able to pick with the best of them, but it's been a long time.”
“Give them here,” said Nora, taking the picks and a regular knife and going to work. She had picked hundreds of locks in the Commonwealth, and had become something of an expert in the craft. These were different locks, different tools, but after breaking one pick she figured it out. The mechanism was much simpler than those of Earth, and soon she heard the lock click open.
The house was fully lit by wall sconces and a fireplace, and a man was getting up from his seat as they crept in.
“You cannot have her,” screamed the man who Nora assumed was Hroggar, waving a cudgel in the air and coming at them.
Nora stepped forward, left forearm rising in a block that caught Hroggar's descending arm, right palm striking his face and rocking his head back. The club dropped from his hand and he fell back, unconscious.
“Someone tie him up,” ordered Nora.
“You have to teach me that way of fighting,” said Annekke, looking down at the unconscious man.
“Sure. When we have some time.” The Nords basically fought by swinging fists into each other until one when down. No defense, no finesse. She thought some of the martial forms of Earth would catch on here, especially with smaller people like the women. Something to think about another time.
They took a key off of Hroggar and searched the one room house. Nothing incriminating, but there were some stairs leading down to a door. The key they had taken opened the lock, and the evidence they needed was there. A coffin, with a journal sitting inside.
Nora read the journal with a sense of horror. There was a master vampire in the area, who was turning selected townspeople into his own kind. Others were just food, and Nora thought of the abandoned farms she had seen in the hinterlands. And the master was planning to take over the entire area, turn it into his private vampire kingdom.
“We need to talk with the Jarl,” said Nora, looking at her people. “And then we have a master vampire to take down.”
She really didn't like the idea of facing something that powerful. Laelette had been bad enough. A vampire infinitely more powerful and his minions? She might be risking all of their lives going after him, but she couldn't just walk away and let all of these people die. Or be doomed to an unlife that would sentence their spirits to Oblivion.