11th of Sun's Dusk, 4E 175
Two months after the signing of the White-Gold Concordat...
Hans was shaken from his sleep by the shrieking of the wind. His rest was troubled, and did not give him comfort; his mind kept plaguing him with visions of his last few, conscious minutes.
Stirring where he lay, sharp pangs of pain from most of his body immediately forced him to take his every move slowly. As he sat up, he found himself bleeding still. He was, however, relieved that he was seemingly in control of his own body again, and that he seemed to no longer host his ancestor's spirit in his head.
The witch hunter looked around the laboratory, finding nothing besides discarded armour plates strewn about everywhere, with no sign of his previous companions... at least at first glance. Sighing, he looked down, grasped the hilt of the dagger sticking out his shoulder, and pried it off with a subdued whimper.
"Koskova!" Panting, he croaked, putting all his strength into his lungs. "Koskova, are you there? I'm... I'm bleeding out!"
Nothing but the wind answered Hans' call. Everything was still and eerily silent; it was as though the witch hunter was the only one left in the fortress. The roars and moans of distant horrors and even the chittering of rats could not be heard.
"Sigmar preserve me..." He grumbled to himself as he made the effort to stand up. His ravaged body protested every step of the way, but Hans perservered. Fashioning makeshift bandages out of the many sealed parchments he carried in his coat, Hans did his best to patch himself up and staunch the bleeding.
As he applied his experiences while training in the basics of battlefield triage to himself, Hans spared some time to think about the status of his mission. While van Hal's malevolent presence was nowhere to be felt, the witch hunter had no way of telling if the blasphemous spirit was truly gone. Not only that, but with himself having been severely wounded and with each man in his retinue either dead or missing, Hans knew he could not stay in Vanhaldenschlosse for much longer.
"Hrmph!" The witch hunter winced as he tightened a piece of parchment around his wounded leg. It took him a quarter of an hour to finish up as best as he could. Grimly satisfied, Hans moved to find a way out of the fortress.
As he shambled his way through the ruins, painstakingly retracing his steps and avoiding traps along the darkened corridors, Hans tried to keep his eyes focused on the path ahead, and away from the bodies of his men. Whether through the influence of the unholy sorceries at work in Vanhaldenschlosse, or simply because of blood loss, the witch hunter started to hallucinate seeing phantoms and shadows ligering near where his fallen comrades lay. Some even looked vaguely familiar...
"Focus!" The templar hissed to himself. "Have to... keep moving..."
It took Hans an hour to find a way out, via a flight of crumbling stairs leading from the abandoned great hall to the fortress' outer ward. After observing the room for any traps, Hans immediately got to work on getting rid of the rotten planks barring the doors to the outside world. He made sure to stop and look around every once in a while, still wary of any skeletons lurking about. Fortunately, no more undead horrors shambled into view, and the witch hunter soon managed to pry the last of the planks loose.
Sighing in relief, Hans pushed the doors open. Almost instantly, a sustained gust of unusually frigid wind almost knocked Hans on his back as he exposed himself to the outside world. Squinting to get a better look of what lied before him, Hans felt all hope in him slowly dissipate, leaving nothing but despair in its wake.
There, right in the middle of Vanhaldenschlosse's outer ward, a fierce blizzard raged like none the witch hunter had seen before. Its occurence baffled Hans to no end; Sylvania was not known to host such extreme, more northern-like weather, not even in the middle of autumn.
Cursing his luck, and whatever daemonic forces working against him, Hans steadied himself before heading out, into the snowy open. He chose not to stay for another second in van Hal's haunted edifice, and decided that he had much better chances of survival venturing out into a blizzard, rather than a fortress stacked to the brim with undead horrors.
The conditions outside impaired visibility to a significant degree. Hans struggled to move around as he vainly tried to search the surrounding area for the nearest footpath. The witch hunter knew that trying to travel in the Sylvanian countryside alone and on foot was tantanount to suicide, but he had no better options to take. He just tried to keep in mind that the Hunger Wood preyed on the unwary.
Suddenly, a distinctly lupine howl echoed in the air. Hans, troubled as he was, took little heed of it... until it was followed by another behind him, then another to the side, and another to the front, and another, and another, until he was completely surrounded from every direction.
The witch hunter sighed. He reached inside his coat and drew a pistol.
Endain Nirdil's ears twitched. He wiped under his nose and looked back, but his legs kept moving. "What is it?!" He shouted, making sure his voice was loud enough to be heard as the blizzard raged on all around his family.
"This was a bad idea!" Miraala, his wife of eighty-six years and a renowned musician in the Imperial province, complained. By now, her travelling boots sunk into the snow with every step. "To think that we could be safe and warm in Falkreath right now! Perish the thought!"
"I wanna go home." Osmund, the couple's young son, complained. "I don't understand. Why do we have to leave the house behind? I miss my friends."
"It's not safe for any of us at home anymore, sweet thing. You'll get used to travelling, in due time." Miraala soothed her son, before turning back to her husband. "Endain! We need to turn back and rent ourselves some rooms in a Falkreath inn! Now!"
"Ugh," Endain paused to cast a candlelight spell on himself for a third time since running into the blizzard. "I did not anticipate the weather in Skyrim to shift so suddenly, you know! And we're hardly "safe" in Falkreath! There could be Thalmor spies lurking there, just waiting for people like us to saunter in!"
"Did one of your "records" mention the Thalmor having a presence in Falkreath?" Miraala derisively inquired, hands to her hips, rust-coloured eyes narrowed. Sighing, she wrapped her shawl firmly around her neck and over her mouth. "You know what? Never mind all this — just find us some shelter, before we all freeze to death!"
"F-fear not, m-m-mother." Ashryn, their daughter who worked as an alchemist's assistant, tried to cast a fire cloak over herself again, only for her spell to fizzle out due to her inadequate magicka reserves. "I can c-cast this w-w-with enough pract-t-tice. Ev-v-ventually."
Miraala gaped at her in shock. "Endain! Our daughter's teeth are chattering in this cold!" She quickly fished out some spare cloths from her pack before wrapping them around Ashryn.
"I'm n-n-not a ch-child, mother..." Ashryn complained as Miraala fussed all over her.
"Oh, by Sheogorath's winged cheese..." Endain scratched his head, muttering to himself. He stopped walking and turned around. "Okay, okay! You're right, darling! Let's head over to Falkreath and find ourselves an inn! I'm sure some Thalmor n'wah won't murder us in our sleep there!"
"Language!" Miraala glowered at him. She looked like she was about to say something further, when a muffled crack in the distance interrupted her. "What was that? Did you hear that just then?"
Edain looked at his wife in confusion. "Did I hear what just the—" Another crack, louder this time. A dog or a wolf could be heard yelping. A man's scream soon followed.
"Namira's teeth, someone's being mauled by wild beasts!" Miraala was quick to say. "We need to get out of here before they attack us, too!"
Endain casted a clairvoyance spell. A line of glowing blue energy appeared on the snow, leading to where they heard the noises were. "It's just a short distance from here. We should investigate and see if we can help!"
Ashryn seemed to light up at the prospect of testing her mettle against wolves, but Osmund's grey skin visibly paled in fright. Miraala tried to argue with Endain, but he had already disappeared behind a snowdrift. Muttering curses and prayers to the daedric princes, Miraala beckoned her children to stay close to her as she hurried after her husband.
Sword in hand, Endain rushed through the snow, his cloak flowing behind him as he ran. Eventually, he encountered several wolf footprints in the snow, suggesting the presence of a pack on a hunt. He wasted no time following the tracks until he came upon a most gruesome sight.
A strangely-dressed, tall-hatted figure stood amidst a scene of carnage. The figure rested a reddened greatsword with an unusual, wave-like blade design over its shoulder, and clasped a strange, engraved contraption made out of what seemed like wood, metal, and gold in its free hand. All around it, the corpses of six large wolves lay, their blood soaking into the snow.
Endain smirked, re-sheathing his sword. "Hmm, I see you're capable enough to defend yourself, serjo. Well done!"
The figure suddenly whipped around to face Endain, revealing himself to be human — likely a nord, judging from his height and complexion. His stance and the way he carried his blade indicated his status as a warrior of some kind, and his scarred and bandaged face further suggested as such. What alarmed Endain was how exhausted and bloody the man looked, and how he suddenly cast his tired, dazed expression aside in favour of fury the moment he had a good look at the dunmer addressing him.
"Bleib mir fern, teuflische Mutant!" The man exclaimed as he hazily lifted his gloved hand — the same one holding the tube-like contraption — and pointed it at Endain. "Beginne... ugh, beginne mit dir!"
A tense moment passed, with Endain looking on in confusion. Eventually, the strange nord lost his grip on his device, causing it to fall into the snow. The nord himself stood still, looking paler and more unbalanced by the second.
"Are you..." Endain took a few hesitant steps forward. "You don't look well, nord. Perhaps you'd like to accompany us on our way to—"
The nord dropped to his knees, then to his hands. He coughed a handful of blood into the snow before keeling over and falling on his face. Endain hesitated for a second, uttered a curse, then dashed over to the man, regretting not taking basic lessons in Restoration when he had the chance.
Up close, the full, rather disturbing extent of the damage inflicted upon the nord's body was made much clearer. There was a gaping, partially-clotted wound on his back made by a stabbing weapon of sort, along with several other, similar cuts. Turning the man over on his back revealed a plethora of slash wounds, blunt force trauma, puncture wounds, and even bite marks that made Endain wince just by looking at them all.
"Oh, you poor fetcher," Endain muttered as he examined the unconscious nord's injuries. "How you managed to stay alive all this time... I have no idea."
It took only a little longer for his family to arrive. After surveying the wolf carcasses scattered about with horror, they looked surprised to see just what kept Endain busy.
"His pulse is weak, and he's lost a lot of blood." He observed, shaking his head. "I've seen a lot of wounds like this in my books... I don't think he's going to make it, even if we manage to stop the bleeding."
"S-shouldn't we at least t-t-try?" Ashryn said. "I m-mean, we c-can't just leave a man behind to die like this. We can t-take him to that castle, over th-there!"
"Castle?" A wry smile tugged at Endain's lips. "Heh. Don't be ridiculous. This place is as empty as—"
"Endain." Miraala laid a hand on her husband's shoulder. "Look."
He looked at her in confusion, until he hazarded a glance behind him. "Oh."
The blizzard did well to hide what appeared to be the ruins of an ancient nordic castle, complete with mossy, delipidated walls and towers. In actuality, Endain thought, its size and obviously militant design made it look more like a fortress, made to endure sieges and the like. The dunmeri family stood in awe of the sheer immensity of the edifice, even though it was already reduced to just a shadow of its former self.
"I... don't understand." Endain muttered to himself in disbelief. "I've been to Skyrim and travelled to this area of woodland before... multiple times, in fact. I never saw this fortress before, however. Not even once."
Ashryn brought out her map of Skyrim. "It d-doesn't appear on the map, either." She showed it for everyone to see.
"What's this thing, mother?" Young Osmund tugged at her mother's hand, pointing to an object in the snow nearby.
"Hush now, sweet thing." Miraala's gaze was focused intently on Ashryn's map. "I'm a little busy, here. Let us grown-ups talk for now."
"While this is certainly quite the interesting phenomenon," Endain shook his head, positioning himself to carry the unconscious nord's body. "We should study it a little closer in another time. We have more pressing matters to tend to."
"Right," Miraala slowly nodded. "Let us hope this castle proves comfortable, and houses no surprises for us. My nordic colleagues often spoke of, and even sang about these... fiendish revenants prowling ancient ruins such as this."
"Those are called "draugr", my dear. Hrmph!" Endain grunted as he lifted the nord from the snow and to his shoulder. Unsurprisingly, the nord weighed heavily because of all the equipment he seemed to carry under his strange garb, as well as the metal breastplate he wore. "And you needn't worry about them; between Ashryn's flames and my Alteration expertise, a few decomposing undead warriors are no match for us."
The family of dunmer made their way into the nordic fortress. It was difficult to find an entrance because of the adverse weather impairing visibility, but thanks to Endain's knowledge of fortifications, they eventually came across a ruined gatehouse.
"Through here!" Endain shouted behind. He returned his gaze to the path ahead and pressed onward. "Almost there!"
Ashryn conjured up a burst of flames from her hand to briefly illuminate the way. What she saw on the snow just a few steps from her own feet made her yelp in shock.
Fearing his family had come to danger, Endain turned around, unsheathing his sword from across the hip. He expected to see draugr, bandits, or some wild animal. Instead, by the light of his daughter's flames, he saw dozens of human bodies on the ground, partially buried by the snow. All were dressed in ratty uniforms in browned shades of yellow and black, though only a few wore armour or carried weapons.
Strangely, the bodies were in various stages of decomposition, and were lathered in what appeared to be fresh dirt. It was as though they were just recently dug up from under their graves.
Deciding that the questions in his mind must be answered much later, Endain put his sword back in its sheath. "Nothing to be afraid of, here! Come on, let's not waste any more time out in the open!"
More dead bodies greeted the dunmer upon finally entering the fortress proper, although these ones look freshly slain. The floor at the entrance was blackened by scorch marks, dried blood splatters decorated the walls, and just up ahead, the macabre sight of four men pinned by massive spikes to the wall made Endain pale in fright and disgust, to say nothing of how the rest of his family reacted. Evidently, something terrible had occurred in this place just recently.
"I'm having second thoughts about walking into this place..." Miraala said, as she followed after Endain.
"Look on the bright side; at least the blizzard is behind us." Endain muttered, red eyes warily scanning the corridors ahead for traps and other dangers. "And the Thalmor would have a hard time trying to find us now. They certainly won't expect us to be hiding in a decrepit ancient nordic fortress that just appeared out of nowhere."
"What if they do find us?" Miraala asked. "Nothing stays hidden from them forever."
Endain shrugged, easily. "I'll see them coming. We'll be long gone by then."
"Is this going to be our lives now?" Ashryn carefully stepped over a corpse. "Living in fear of the Thalmor as we move from town to town, hoping they won't catch us?"
"Not if I can help it." Endain said. "I've a plan, love, but I need you to give me a little more time. Trust me, we'll all get through this. For now, though... at least until the weather outside disperses, I guess we'll just have to make ourselves at home."
13th of Sun's Dusk
Hans was shaken from his sleep by the shrieking of the wind. That, and the sound of incessant, indiscernible chattering.
At least, he thought, he was still alive.
Cracking one eye open, instead of seeing the snow or the sky, Hans saw a ceiling made out of quarried stone. His first thought was that he must have dreamt everything, and that he was just about to embark to Sylvania later in the day. The witch hunter was proven incorrect upon simply looking to the side, where the familiar, woodworked walls and dusty tapestries of Vanhaldenschlosse's great chamber greeted him.
Indeed, Hans just realised that he was lying down on a makeshift bed made out of straw, and looking down revealed that most of his clothes were gone, and his wounds had all been cleaned and bandaged somehow. Who could have dragged him out of that blizzard and had been kind enough to tend to his injuries?
Suddenly, the unintelligible whispering intensified, and the sound of approaching footsteps alerted Hans to the fact that he wasn't alone in the room. Adrenaline surged within the witch hunter's bloodstream as instincts and training came into effect.
A disciplined mind could only carry a man so far, however. As he tried to right himself, Hans' body was wracked with agony, forcing him to slow down. By the time he managed to sit up on the bed, his "visitors" were already upon him, and he was still deprived of a weapon.
Standing near the foot of his bed were a pair of mutants... females, by the shape of their bodies and the swell of their bosoms. Both possessed skin as grey as ash, and had angular faces that somehow reminded Hans of how Imperial artists depicted elves, especially with how their elongated ears ended with a point. The first of them, the taller of the two, had eyes coloured a brownish red, like the colour of rust. The other one had purely red eyes. The rust-eyed mutant was — strangely enough — dressed like a noble, what with the impractical amount of jewelry hanging off of her. The red-eyed mutant appeared much less opulent, despite the golden trim incorporated in her hooded robes.
The finely-dressed mutant ran her eyes up and down on Hans, quietly examining him. The witch hunter propped himself up on his elbows and stared back, trying to see their intent. While he would normally assume that any mutant had something terrible in store for the likes of him, Hans gave these grey-skinned women the rare benefit of doubt — he, for some reason, could not detect the taint of Chaos or vampiric corruption upon their bodies, despite their obviously deformed state.
With a pained grunt, Hans leaned back and decided to learn more about his unusual situation. After all, what choice did he have? His body would not even let him stand up.
Before long, the finely-dressed mutant seemed to reach a conclusion on Hans, slowly nodding her head. She opened her mouth and said something, but its meaning was immediately lost on Hans. The robed mutant also spoke a few words, but once more, Hans failed fo understand anything out of her.
"Reikspiel." Hans rasped. "Speak... Reikspiel."
The two mutants looked to each other, appearing quite vexed. They then took turns speaking to Hans in a couple of other languages, but to no avail. Could it be that these "Sylvanians" spoke no word of the most widespread tongue in the Old World? Hans wondered if he was still even in Sylvania. Vanhaldenschlosse's familiar confines certainly contrasted with his thoughts.
"That's enough," Hans waved his company off. They appeared startled to hear him raise his voice. "I can't understand—"
The growling in his stomach interrupted Hans mid-sentence. He couldn't help but feel awkward and annoyed at the same time as the two mutants shared a chuckle at his expense. After all, the last time mutants laughed at him, he slit their throats open and watched through the glass lenses of his mask as their corrupted bodies burned to cinders.
To the credit of these mutants, though, their amusement soon died down in seeming favour of concern. The finely-dressed one said something to her robed kin, who nodded and walked over to a backpack sitting on a nearby table. From there, Hans watched her take something out before returning to the bed and reaching out to him with a handful of what appeared to be... well, hardtack.
At times like these, one should not be picky about what they eat.
Still more than a little wary, Hans studied the food being offered before gingerly accepting it. He was trained in the Order to detect harmful or corruptive substances hidden within food, and to his surprise, he found the biscuits clean, if a bit cold. Splitting one into two revealed no worms residing in it, which was certainly a rare sight. The witch hunter eagerly scarfed down the hardtack.
Suddenly, there was a loud knock on the door. Hans' instincts told him to drop his food and reach for a weapon. Instead, he watched as the finely-dressed mutant strode across the room and unlocked the door. The witch hunter wasn't surprised in the least to see more mutants step inside — a male and what appeared to be a child. Like the women, these mutants had grey skin, reddish eyes and vaguely elven characteristics.
The child mutant ran over to the finely-dressed one as the male followed behind, brushing bits of snow from his furs. The finely-dressed female bent down and hugged the young one as a greeting, then stood up and planted a kiss on the male's lips, who returned the gesture. Hans watched them smile and talk amongst themselves like one would expect out of a loving family. For a man like himself, it was a surreal scene; the witch hunter had long believed that mutants only thought about butchering innocents and destroying civilisation in the name of the dark gods.
It wasn't long before the male noticed that Hans was awake, propped up against his bed and in the middle of devouring an entire week's worth of hardtack. Laughing quietly, he dropped off his backpack and his peculiarly-shaped sword for his wife to take before taking a chair and positioning himself beside the templar's bed.
Hans stared at the mutant as the latter began to take out books and mouldy tomes from a satchel by his side, stacking them on the floor as he did so. The ash-skinned, scholarly mutant was dressed in heavy furs and a cloak, and he carried with him several kilograms' worth of assorted survival equipment. It was clear to Hans that this particular mutant, unlike his kin, took the time to prepare himself to face blizzards and sub-zero temperatures.
By now, the mutant's books had piled up to an impressive height. Hans was puzzled to see so many items coming from such a small satchel. Once he was finished taking out all the books he thought he needed, the mutant snatched the first one his spindly hand reached and immediately began reading it in front of the witch hunter.
"Ehem," After a while, the mutant cleared his throat, looked up from his book, and said, "Skilur... þú... uh, mig?"
Hans frowned, putting down the biscuit in his hand. "What did you just say, greyskin?"
The mutant seemed to note the displeasure on Hans' tone and expression. He casually dropped the book in his hands, snatched another from his pile, and began reading into it.
"Ymmärrätkö... erm..." He cleared his throat again. "Ymmärrätkö... minua?"
Hans figured out what the deformed and miscoloured man was trying to do. "I don't understand that, try again." He shook his head.
Seemingly unperturbed, the mutant cast his book away, took another, and repeated the process. "Kas sa mõistad mind?" He asked, after another while.
The witch hunter reclined on his bed, sighing deeply. "No. Still not Reikspiel." He said, shaking his head again. He had a feeling this would go on until Hexenstag. "I'll settle for Bretonnian."
Hours passed. Hans was already half asleep after devouring the hardtack he was given and then some, courtesy of the robed mutant. The male mutant did not show signs of slowing down, though, as he continued to recite phrases from dozens of different languages in hopes that Hans understood at least one.
By now, the finely-dressed mutant had retired next to the fireplace, her young child curled up in her lap. The robed one sat awake, reading some of the phrasebooks the male had discarded. Hans yawned and pulled up his covers, a prayer to Sigmar in his mind. He was just about to nod off, when the male uttered something familiar.
"Forstår du meg?"
Hans' eyes widened at that. As quickly as his ravaged body allowed him, the templar sat upright on the bed. "That's... that's the language of the Bjornling Tribe — a wretched collection of unwashed raider northmen!"
The mutant seemed shocked to receive such a furious reaction from Hans. He opened his mouth to say something, but was cut off when the templar, in a surprising feat of endurance, ignored the pain wracking his limbs to reach out and take the weathered tome from his hands.
With a trembling grasp, the witch hunter tore into the book. It was written in the Norscan Bjornling Tribe's runic language indeed, but it was hardly a tome that either tempted unsuspecting readers into Chaos worship or summoned daemons into the material realm, as Hans had suspected. Actually, it seemed to be some sort of cookbook...
"What the devil..." Hans muttered as he read a passage on how to prepare "spriggan soup". He flipped through the pages and eventually found a section that served as something of a diary, which also contained a few phrases in a language called "Atmoran", translated into "Nedic". One of them was, "Do you understand me?".
"Worthless." Hans tossed the strange book aside. He no longer felt like sleeping, and he quickly gestured for the stunned mutant in front of him to continue.
Gulping, the male took another book from his pile and read into it. In the period of another few hours, Hans kept steady as the mutant continued reciting phrases for him. More unfamiliar tongues from the mutant tested Hans' temper, but he did eventually speak phrases from other Norscan dialects, his vocabulary drawing closer and closer to Reikspiel.
It was early in the morning when the mutant, exhausted from sleep deprivation, yawned and mumbled another phrase.
"Verstaat... u mij...?"
Hans opened his eyes. For the first time in a long time, he smiled. "Marienburg... where House van Hal originated. Just a little further to the east, and..."
The mutant rubbed his eyes, dropped his book, picked another one, then read into it. Fifteen minutes later, he said,
"Verstehen Sie mich?"
Hans openly grinned. Nodding, he collapsed into his bed and let sleep overtake him.