Ysgramor’s tomb was not near as daunting the second time she stood in the entrance hall in the shadow of Ysgramor’s likeness. She had already been tested by his warriors and had proven herself worthy, but that did not take away from the majesty of the tomb, nor did it make the task that awaited her any less terrifying. She had killed Kodlak’s wolf spirit, and then her own, but what if she failed the twins? She’d thought about it all the way to the tomb, wondering if Kodlak himself had created some special circumstances that made it possible. What if those circumstances no longer applied.
As if Vilkas had read her fears in the lines of her face, he lowered a hand to her shoulder as they approached the side entrance that led straight down into the temple. “Farkas first,” he said.
“Are you sure?”
Vilkas nodded. “Farkas first.”
She glanced over his shoulder toward Farkas, who was marveling at the statue of Ysgramor. “Farkas, let’s go.”
“Wait, aren’t we both going?”
“I’ll wait for you here,” Vilkas said. “Be strong, brother. Soon your spirit will be free.”
“No, we should do this together, Vilkas. We took the blood together, we should end that part of our lives together too.”
“We can’t do everything together, little brother.” There was such sadness in that statement, as if he’d made the revelation long ago, and only just now decided it was time to share it with Farkas.
“Sure we can.” Never so easily swayed, Farkas stepped up to his brother, but Vilkas didn’t move. “I don’t want to do this alone. I need you with me.”
“You won’t be alone.” Vilkas glanced up at her, a silent pleading in his eyes for her to do right by his brother. “You’ll be with our shield-sister. She’ll watch after you when I’m not there.”
Both of them were looking at her then, their faces so similar and yet so different. She’d never thought she would have family again, people she loved so much it made her entire soul ache. “Come on, Farkas. I’ll protect you.”
He hesitated, once more looking toward his brother for something, approval, perhaps? Vilkas nodded, and Farkas followed her down through the stone tunnel and into the ceremonial chamber where unnatural blue flame still burned in the pyre. She unslung the bag from her shoulder, the stink of the witches’ rotting heads wafting through the burlap when she dropped it onto the floor at her feet and bent to open it up.
“It feels strange in here,” Farkas noticed. “Almost like we’re not alone, but not in a bad way, you know?”
She wondered if the Harbingers of old still lingered there in that chamber, hiding from Hircine and avoiding the Hunting Grounds, as Kodlak had done, or if Kodlak and the other Companions had launched their battle from Sovngarde to bring them home.
“We’re not alone here,” she reached into the bag and brought out a head, the ooze of rot slick in the witches’ hair, its dead and angry eyes staring up at her as if they might blink back to life and curse her where she stood. “The souls of the Harbingers of old linger here sometimes to avoid being taken to the Hunting Grounds.”
“Oh.” He’d taken off his helmet, the long locks of his hair rustling against the shoulders of his armor as he stretched his arms back to loosen the muscles. “Like Kodlak?”
“No, not Kodlak,” she shook her head. “Kodlak is in Sovngarde, probably deep in his cups and sharing battle stories with Ysgramor himself.”
“I hope I meet him there one day.”
Luthien’s lips lifted, a soft smile playing over her lips. “You will, Farkas.” Stepping up to the pyre, she turned back to look at him again. “Are you ready to face your wolf spirit in battle?”
She watched his Adam’s apple leap against a heavy, gulping swallow, and when he nodded, a slice of hair fell across his face. “Let’s send that beast to the depths of hell.”
Dropping the head into the flames, it sparked and crackled as the fat began to melt away, hair catching fire, and for a moment she swore the witch grinned maliciously at her, but before she could lean closer to inspect it, she heard Farkas holler in surprise as the snarling spirit of his own beast charged at him.
“Son of a b—” he barked, slinging his sword downward and connected with the ethereal wolf. It yelped and staggered back in surprise, but its docility only lasted a moment. Raging forward again, it snapped its teeth at him, Luthien rushed in to catch it off guard from behind, unslinging Wuuthrad from her back and bringing it down into the arch of the beast’s back.
It spun on her, jaw slavering as it growled, skulking in to attack. She didn’t let it. She swung Wuuthrad again, connected with its neck, but behind the beast, she saw Farkas drop to the ground, as if every blow she struck was hurting him as well.
“I’m… all right.”
“Here.” She lowered Wuuthrad long enough to toss him a healing potion, then gripped the long handle tight in her hands and raised it across the top of the beasts head. It whined in pain, slinking away and heading back toward Farkas, as if to make one final plea for him to hold onto it, but before it could reach him, she stuck the sharp curve of her axe into its back and it fell fizzling into a pile of blue ash that smoked and smoldered on the floor. Catching her breath, she lowered Wuuthrad to the floor and leaned on the handle. “Are you okay?”
“Is it… dead?”
“Yes, it’s dead. Can you stand up?”
“I think so.”
He stumbled a little when he stood up, but quickly righted himself, rising to his full height and stretching. “Hey, wow,” he marveled. “It’s like warm mead running through my entire body, and I’m missing aches I didn’t even know I had.”
“So you’re all right then?”
“All right? I feel good! This is how a warrior is supposed to feel.” He grinned and flexed the muscle beneath his armor, then hiked toward her to grab her shoulders. “You did it. You really did it.” Letting her go, he danced backward. “I gotta go tell Vilkas. He’s never gonna believe…”
His voice was already a trailing echo on the stairs, body disappearing into the cavern that led back into the entrance hall where Vilkas waited for news. Luthien stayed in the chamber alone, not seeing the point of walking all the way back up there if she was just going to return in a moment anyway. She leaned on Wuuthrad again, allowing her heartbeat to slow and listening to the whispers of Harbingers past in the shadows.
She hadn’t heard them the last time, even though Kodlak had assured her they were there. She couldn’t even begin to imagine the hardships that troubled their spirits, the constant running even after death, the search for a safe place to hide when all they wanted was to go home to the Hall of Heroes. That was no way to spend the afterlife, now when they spent their whole lives fighting for honor and glory.
“I wish I could release you all,” she muttered into the shadows. “Send you all home to Sovngarde where you belong.”
“Maybe you will, one day.” She hadn’t heard Vilkas coming down the walkway. Looking up, his face was solemn, serious, as if he had never been more ready to get down to business in his life. “Just like you did for Kodlak and my brother.”
“And now I will do the same for you.”
He swallowed hard as he approached her, and for the first time since they’d met, she saw real fear in his eyes. “I don’t know if you can, but I am willing to die to find out if I can beat this wretched curse inside me.”
The left corner of his mouth twitched upward, but it wasn’t a whole smile. “Then let us show this beast of mine that I don’t need him anymore.”
“Together,” she nodded.
“Together,” he agreed.
Vilkas wolf spirit was ready to fight before the witch’s head began to burn on the pyre, leaping out from the spirit realm and attacking him viciously. Even as he railed against it, sword connecting, driving it back, it overpowered him and drove him to the floor. Luthien fell in behind it, fighting it off and back it into a corner, but it didn’t want her. It wanted Vilkas, and no matter how many times she brought her blade down to fight it off, it always skirted around her and flew back at him as if it truly would tear him to pieces.
“You have to fight it, Vilkas,” she cried above the growling, vicious echoes of hate that fueled the beast. “I can’t do it alone.”
“It’s too strong.” He blocked it with his sword, but the wolf ducked underneath, teeth snapping at his knees.
Luthien fell in beside him then, pushing and holding the beast back until he found his stamina again, and came back to the fight. For a while it seemed he was winning, driving it back against the edge of the circle, but its fierce attack knocked him to his knees.
“You are not your monster,” she told him. “He doesn’t own your spirit, Vilkas. You do.”
That revelation gave him pause, and for a split second she thought the beast was going to take him down, but he found his strength, and with renewed vigor he flew at the wolf and shattered him back to the Hunting Grounds for all eternity. He fell to his knees, and at first she didn’t know if he was hurt, or if he was just overwhelmed by everything that had just happened.
His eyes were clear, calm and soft when he lifted them to her face, tears welling in them and threatening to fall. “Is it over?”
“Yes,” she whispered, raising a hand to rest on his cheek, a tear dripping down over her thumb when he blinked. “It’s over.”
Vilkas lifted both hands to the back of her head, and he was trembling when he drew her near and breathed her in. “I can’t smell your blood rushing through your veins anymore, or feel the thunder of your heart.” He kissed the top of her head, then her forehead and her cheek, the tip of her nose before he nuzzled his own nose over the place he’d just kissed. “I’m free, Luthien. I’m really free.”
The emotion of her laughter nearly choked her to tears.
“Thank you,” he whispered, lips hovering just over hers. “Thank you for believing in the man inside me. Thank you for setting him free.” The overwhelming hunger was gone from his soul, but the loss of the beast within hadn’t taken away from his need for her. When he kissed her, she tasted the future, their future, and she knew anything was possible… everything was possible.