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A Late Arrival (Kirstia's Second Adventure, Chapter 2)


gregaaz

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This awaits you on the path you have chosen...

 

I fought for a while to catch my breath, those whispered words echoing loud in my head. Even though what I'd experienced had clearly been a dream, it had set my heart racing and filled my gut with ominous tension. The fact that The Teacher's children started shifting, agitated, inside me did nothing to salve my discomfort. 

 

I kept thinking of The Teacher's words as I ate my breakfast. If her intention was to warn me away from my path, she hadn't chosen a good tactic. If there's anything I've learned in the last year, it's that avoiding problems doesn't accomplish anything. I hid from my family's problems for twenty-five years, and all I got from it was poverty and misery. But when I confronted my fears and misgivings directly, as I did again and again during my quest to find the Sybil, I'd found only success and victory, even against terrible odds.

 

No, as I spooned saltrice porridge into my mouth, I concluded that in this, I'd have to ignore The Teacher's warning. As long as I remained ignorant to the nature of the magical influence over me, I'd never be free. I could only be the master of my own fate if I understood the full scope of that destiny; not just the identity of the powers setting events in motion, but also the means by which I can influence or even overturn their plans. 

 

And so I'd be going to Riverwood. I had three routes to choose from - south via Riften, southwest via Valtheim Towers, or west straight through to Whiterun. After some brief consideration, I decided to retrace my earlier steps and take the road straight west. It was still early in the afternoon when I reached the alchemist's house by the crossroads; this time I pressed on westward. I hoped to reach the outskirts of Whiterun by nightfall, though I had my tent, bedroll, and kindling in case I needed to make camp in the wilds. I just hoped that the lands to the west were as well secured and patrolled as the way east. I'd heard the howls of distant wolves, but other than a few travellers I shared the path only with occasional Stormcloak patrols.

 

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By the time I reached Heljarchen, the sun was high in the sky and I was starting to feel the chill of the wind. If I remembered the map right, this was the last Eastmarch settlement before I entered the territory of Jarl Balgruuf, and I considered stopping here to rest and warm up. But I also noted that noon-day sun and knew that if I stopped here for a few hours, I'd be spending the night here as well. So I pushed further east, into the snow-blanketed forest of the borderlands.

 

Any hopes I'd harbored that the road might remain save through the rest of my journey quickly died as an armed woman stepped from the woods to confront me. She looked me up and down, an ax held loosely in her hands. I expected her to say something, to utter a challenge or a demand, and so it caught me slightly off guard when she swung at me without any further pretense. I leapt back once, then twice, dodging her first swings, but then my retreat stopped short as I backed into the trunk of a tree. Fortunately, my breastplate deflected her third swing, but I could feel the strength behind it. 

 

I sidestepped, trying to open the distance, while I also drew my sword. The Nordic blade was one of the prizes from my return to Northpoint. It had been my father's, taken as surety of his safe conduct by the bannermen when he arrived as an exile all those years ago. On our return, it was one of many family possessions that Mother and I had successfully reclaimed. Now, sat in my hand like it had been made just for me. As the brigand swung around her ax for another blow, I stepped into and through her fighting space, stabbing outwards with the well-balanced sword. The bandit's thickly padded armor offered her no protection against the keen steel, and with a single shout of surprise she froze, dropped her ax, and finally fell backwards into the snow. 

 

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Fully aware now that the road was no longer safe, I slowed my progress and kept a more watchful eye to the tree line. Fortunately, no more bandits tried their luck with me, and soon I came across a hopeful sign about the safety of the road: a large Imperial Legion camp, complete with fortified palisade. Approaching the main gate, I waved down the man whom the other gate guards seemed to be taking direction from.

 

"Centurion," I said, making my best guess at his rank, "may I enter and warm myself by your fires?"

 

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He considered me with a skeptical eye. "Coming from Eastmarch are you? How do I know you aren't in league with Ulfric's boys?"

 

"Aye, and from Windhelm at that." Then I tried my go-to line for disowning the Stormcloaks: "but I'm no friend of Ulfric's. He scattered my family and sent my father into exile for opposing him. I've got no sympathy for him or his Stormcloaks."

 

The man studied me, clearly unconvinced, "I think... if I were a Stormcloak spy, that's exactly what I'd say. Maybe I should take you down to the Penitus tent and we should ask you a few questions."

 

I think I knew his game - if I backed off and tried to leave, it would only confirm his suspicions. So once more I confronted the threat directly. "That would be fine, as long as the tent's warm. I've got nothing to hide when it comes to the Stormcloaks."

 

My retort provoked a laugh from the man. "You're a bold one, I'll give you that. Come on, follow me. We'll let the boss decide if you can stay."

 

"Sure, lead the way," I agreed, then followed him into the camp. After a short walk, we reached the command pavilion and, at the centurion's prompting, I took a seat.

 

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The legate was studying a campaign map and didn't immediately turn his full attention to me. At length though, he spoke.

 

"I hear you're a traveler come from Eastmarch. Not the safest road to take."

 

"No," I agreed, "the bandits kept me on my toes once I passed Heljarchen."

 

The legate turned then and considered me. "Bosmer? No, that's not right. I don't see many Nords with elven blood. You must have an interesting story."

 

I was confused only a second, but then pointed at my antlers. "These? Not a gift from either parent, I'm afraid. They're not exactly a curse... but certainly an imposition."

 

"Speaking in impositions, I hear you asked to be let into the camp. Rather suspicious - and risky - for an Eastmarcher."

 

I shrugged. "I'm not an Eastmarcher, and before you ask I'm not in league with the Stormcloaks either. My name's Kirstia Bjissen and my home city is Markarth."

 

"Cassius Varo," he exchanged, "and you'll forgive me if I'm a little skeptical of that answer. Can you prove that you're from Markarth?"

 

"That's a fair question. Look in my pack," I gestured to the backpack I'd left at the mouth of the pavilion, "you'll find my temple vestments and wreath."

 

Varo nodded to the waiting centurion, who started riffling my gear. The legate didn't wait for for the verdict though, instead joining me at the table. "So not just a citizen, but a priestess as well? What were you doing in Eastmarch then?"

 

"Trying to find a Dunmer scholar, actually. And that's what I'm still trying to accomplish. I'm told he's likely in Riverwood now, on the way to Falkreath Hold." I paused for a moment, then added, "I don't suppose he passed by this way?"

 

Varo shrugged. "If he did, it didn't come to my attention." Gesturing at the bottles laid out on the table before us he continued, "help yourself. I'm sure you've worked up a bit of a thirst on the road. And pardon my rudeness, but would you mind answering some questions about the state of affairs in Eastmarch? If you have no tie to Ulfric Stormcloak then I'm sure you won't mind."

 

I retrieved one of the bottles and worked the cork free. "I don't know how much I can tell you about the mood of the city itself. I only stayed a day, and that in the Gray Quarter. But I'd be happy to recount what I saw."

 

Occasionally sipping ale from the bottle, I explained what I'd seen - the foundries running day and night, the regular patrols, the state of the city fortifications - and what I'd heard, especially in terms of the general discontent of the city's Dark Elf population. Varo listened with interest, occasionally interjecting a question or seeking to clarify a point. We spoke for some hours, and soon night was settling over the camp.

 

Pouring me some more wine, Varo smiled to me. "Thank you," he said, "I know you didn't plan on camping overnight. But I can offer you a warm tent and a good breakfast in the morning if you want." 

 

"I suppose that's a fair exchange," I conceded. And to tell the truth, breakfast the next morning was pretty good. It certainly wasn't anything fancy - a hearty grain porridge topped with wild mushrooms and accompanied with a link of sausage - but it filled me up and gave me the energy to resume my journey. Still, somehow I'd imagined that the legate would merit fancier food.

 

After I finished chewing on half of my sausage link, I asked him about it. "Legate Varo," I said.

 

"Cassius, I insist."

 

"Very well. Cassius, I'm surprised you're taking the same rations as the common soldiers. I always assumed that officers ate in accord with their higher station."

 

Varo nodded at my statement. "That's a fair assumption. But out here, there's no guarantee supplies will make it to us on a regular schedule. It'd be foolish to bring in fine foods when we need every bit of cart space for war materiel. And besides, this isn't bad, is it?"

 

"No," I agreed, "not at all. You're an interesting one, Cassius. Not at all what I imagined of an Imperial legate."

 

"I'll take that as a compliment, Kirstia Bjissen. Perhaps we'll meet again in the future. But for now, I imagine it's time you resumed your journey."

 

He was right, and after I finished my meal I retrieved my travel pack and set out for the gate. Fortunately, it seemed that the bandits were mostly contained to the no-man's-land between Heljarchen and the Imperial camp, and soon I was passing the farmland of Frostfield, the far edge of the settled part of Whiterun Hold. The area seemed placid, but it only took surmounting the next hill to see that the peacefulness was an illusion. The debris of a recent battlefield testified to the Empire's supply problems with the blackened hulks of burnt carts. 

 

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Keeping a cautious eye out for looters - who might be just as happy to relieve me of my goods as they were to steal from the dead - I pressed on until I started to share the roads with patrols of the Whiterun Guard. Secure in the knowledge that I'd reached a relatively safe region, I took to a light jog and quickly found myself at the twin bridges over the White River. If I went east, the path would take me to the hill where Mother and I had fought necromancers at a standing stone the year prior. Today, however, I would proceed south, through the foothills until I reached Riverwood. 

 

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It only took a few questions to the locals to learn who Forrien would have had to speak to about getting his permits: the town's de facto mayor, Gerdur. I found her behind the lumber mill, supervising some workers as they piled fresh-cut logs, no doubt awaiting transport to points north.

 

"Gerdur?" I asked. 

 

"Aye," she said, "who's asking?"

 

"My name's Kirstia. I've just arrived from Eastmarch. I was hoping you'd seen the man I'm looking for."

 

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She crossed her arms, considering me. "You're not some bounty hunter, are you? I don't get involved in that business."

 

"No," I said, shaking my head, "I'm trying to find a scholar, but it seems like he's always one step ahead of me. His brother told me he might be here trying to get a permit to enter Falkreath Hold."

 

"A scholar, you say?" She started walking away, but beckoned me with one hand to follow.

 

"A scholar... a Dark Elf, perhaps?" she asked at length.

 

I nodded affirmatively. "His research is relevant to a... problem I have," I said, pointing at my antlers.

 

We'd stopped by the riverbank, by a piled cord of wood. Gerdur quickly set about retrieving a piece of cut wood and then began chopping it into segments.

 

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"Ha, I'd wondered about that. Problems like that are exactly why I don't have any truck with wizards. Truthfully, I don't normally gossip about other folks' business, but you seem like you have enough problems already."

 

"You'll tell me where to find him, then?"

 

"Aye. The fool was here the better part of a week, changed his mind over and over again about where he wanted to go. He finally settled on Helgen, little garrison town just north of here. He left in a cart with some pilgrims - I imagine he's arrived there by now. Most likely holed up at the Resting Pilgrim Inn."

 

"The Resting Pilgram? I guess I'll check there first. Thank you, Gerdur, you were a great help."

 

"Aye, aye, save the flattery. And good luck with your... problem."

 

I didn't waste time hanging around town - I could feel that my quarry was close now, and I set off through the north gate immediately. I ascended the foothills further along a series of switchback paths that ascended higher and higher until a sight brought me up short. Standing stones, just like the one on the hilltop east of Whiterun.

 

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These ones weren't exactly the same. Each had a carved motif - a thief, a wizard, and a warrior. They were silent and lifeless, but I could feel a subtle charge in the air; like a low hum rising up the through the soles of my feet. Could these standing stones grant me the same power as the one on the hill? Could they make me even stronger? I reached out to touch the nearest one, but then I checked myself. I had a sense that I needed to make a choice here.

 

I looked at each stone and considered carefully. Though my body had been charged with magical power since I found that strange wall beneath Ivarstead, I've never been a spellcaster. The thief might be appropriate. I certainly did my share of sneaking and lockbreaking and treasure hunting in my youth, but still... it didn't feel right. No, I realized with growing certainty that the warrior was who I was right now. With only the faintest bit of hesitation, I reached out and traced my fingers along the grooves of the stone.

 

The stone awakened under my touch, and just as before, the spheres of power emerged. I disrobed quickly, silently warning The Teacher's Children to withdraw deeper into my body. While the process of accepting the spheres had been difficult the first time, this time I knew and understood what I needed to do. Pulling my cheeks apart and relaxing my back passage, I pushed backwards against the smooth, slightly warm spheres. It still took some effort to draw the first one inside me, but after that the process went smoothly. 

 

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I twisted to help the spheres around the bend in my cuts, then slid down the pole as far as I could. As the spheres probed deeper inside me, my whole body blazed with magical energy. I could feel my the muscles in my arms growing harder, and suddenly the bands at my biceps felt might tighter. For a time, it seemed like the world was slowing down around me. I noticed every detail. The call of distant crows, the sharp edges on the leaves at my feet. The warmth of the afternoon sun on my back. And then the magical wave consumed me completely in an explosion of fluids from my nethers and a loud cry from my mouth. Dazed, I only half felt the spheres of power retract from my body, then I flopped senselessly to the ground.

 

At length, my wits came back to me and I arose. The sense of the world slowing down had left me, but I still felt as if my senses were heightened. Looking down at my slightly sore arms, I realized that my biceps, my thighs, even my waist and tummy, had all thickened. I felt a newfound strength in my arms and sureness in my fingers. I took a moment to adjust my magical bindings before I donned my armor again, feeling a newfound sense of confidence and power.

 

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By the time I found came across the crossroads between Helgen and points west, the mountain chill was starting to set in, and I shivered slightly. With my heightened awareness of the world, I think, had come a heightened awareness of the temperature. Still, it seemed I didn't have much further to go. I pressed further south along the trail... and then I stopped. Something had caught my eye, but it took a moment to recognize it - at first I just had a strong impression that something was out of place. At length, I found what had drawn my attention: carriage tracks.

 

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Specifically, carriage tracks turning off the stone road and down a dirt track into the woods. Rationally, I told myself that this could be anything, but in my gut I had a strong sense that this was the carriage I was looking for. I followed the tracks as the wended around dirt cliffs and in and out of muddy ruts until in the distance I could see a half-toppled carriage through the mist... and an armed man beside it.

 

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Approaching, I kept one hand on my father's sword. The whole situation reeked of danger, but maybe, I told myself, I was letting my nerves get the better of me. Still a dozen paces from the man, who seemed to be rooting through the contents of the wagon, I called out to him.

 

"Hello there!" I said.

 

The man jerked and spun, raising his sword to the ready.

 

"What-- who?"

 

"I'm looking for an elf. Forrien Hlaalu. Have you seen him?"

 

The man looked confused for a moment, then he laughed. Just a single, mean bark of laughter. "You chose a real bad time to get lost, sister," he said. "Maybe if you ask real nice, on your knees, I'll let you go."

 

He started to approach, his face all menace and lust, and I drew out my father's sword. That put an end to his slow stalking, and he charged me. 

 

He wound up, preparing to strike, and I thrust at him once, then twice. The first blow skittered off his breastplate, but the second caught him low in the thigh. He yelped in pain and his flinch spoiled the sword swing he was about to let loose. I didn't hesitate, closing the distance and grabbing him by the shoulder, I smashed the pommel of my sword hard into his face. The nasal guard on his helmet turned what would have been a fatal blow into a mere broken nose, but his balance was broken and I used the momentum to drive him back and onto the ground while landing two more strikes to his face. Dazed, he was helpless when I stepped back and drove my sword into his armpit and down into his heart.

 

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After I caught my breath for a moment, I approached the cart. All the dread I'd felt before came back fully vindicated as I discovered its contents: corpses, drenched in blood. Apparently the poor pilgrims had been led off the main road and butchered by this bandit... and I suspected he wasn't alone. I circled the cart warily, on the lookout for returning accomplices, but no immediate danger confronted me. However, I also found no sign of a dark elf amidst the carnage. 

 

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But I smelled a sign. Iron and sweat on the air, and not just from the cart or from the fallen bandit. I smelled blood... to the south. I glanced around the edge of the depression where the ambush had occurred and saw muddy footsteps... and dark splotches, up the hill and around a large boulder. I followed, still watchful for ambushers, until a golden-green light caught my eye. The source was a little winged thing, some kind of magical artifact flitting in a circle over... I circled a large rock and saw what I had strongly suspected I'd find: an elven corpse.

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Behind The Scenes

Ugh, kind of hit some writer's block midway through. I think I need to find Kirstia a companion sooner rather than later so I can gave some more biplay during the 'in-between' moments, though I'll hold off until the main plot has kicked off.

 

While I was walking to Whiterun, I got to see a lot of examples of my custom Stormcloak leveled lists at work. I didn't spot any errors, though I did get a nice view of the steel scale mail from Realistic Armors that I thought looked very nice. Unlike the Imperial Legion, Stormcloak soldiers have a chance to use either their own unique gear or generic armor, which lends to their more loosely organized structure.

 

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Closer to Riverwood, I was reminded about the need to change the location of an ACHR record. Troubles of Heroine puts a Khajiit highwayman fairly close to the Riverwood bridge. This is however a bit problematic because Checking on the Roads also puts an NPC in that same general area. I think it goes without saying that having two forcegreeting NPCs in very close proximity is asking for trouble, so let's move the highwayman. 

 

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I still want him to be in the general vicinity of Whiterun. I think we'll move this guy to the road outside the east gate. This is a less heavily traveled area that doesn't have any competing NPC interactions right now.

 

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Edited by gregaaz

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 the spheres of power emerged

 

lmao. Not the first time you called them that, but I had to comment.

 

Did they vib your controller?

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8 hours ago, VirginMarie said:

 

lmao. Not the first time you called them that, but I had to comment.

 

Did they vib your controller?

 

I got varying strengths of vibe throughout the scene - since I was pausing to take screen shots and stuff I didn't get a perfect 'actual use' feel but the levels of intensity seemed appropriate.

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