Farengar Secret-Fire, who’d been longing for such an opportunity to meet with a dragon up close since Luthien had gone to fight the beast terrorizing the western watchtower long ago when Balgruuf was the Jarl of Whiterun, was prodding and poking at Odahviing when Luthien and Farkas walked out onto the porch again. “Just a few tests, nothing painful for a… for someone of your size, I assure you. A blood sample, maybe a scale or two…”
Odahviing railed and shot a vicious stream of fiery protest that sent the screeching court wizard running and prompted the guards to draw their weapons.
“Hold your fire,” Luthien called out. “You too, dragon,” she added as she approached.
“Dovahkiin.” His massive head swept in her direction, eyes widening with intrigue. “You have reconsidered my offer, hmm? Onikaan kron? You will release me, ro laan, if in return I promise to take you to Skuldafn and stop helping Alduin?” There was hope in his voice, tentative trust and so much sorrow. His pride had gotten him captured and she wondered if Alduin would even take him back into his ranks if he betrayed her and returned.
“Yes,” she relented. “I will set you free if you promise to take me to Skuldafn.”
“Onikaan koraav gein miraad. It is wise to recognize when you only have one choice. And you can trust me, Dovahkiin.” He nodded with great certainty. She wanted to believe him; she really did. “Zu’u ni tahrodiis. Alduin has proven himself unworthy to rule. I go my own way now.”
Farkas stepped up to stand beside her. “And when she defeats Alduin, will you hold to that promise as well? To serve her?”
“Geh. Yes. If the Dovahkiin proves that she is worthy, than I will do whatever she asks me.” Turning his head back to Luthien once more, he said, “Free me, Briinah, and I will carry you to Skuldafn.”
“Vignar,” she called over her shoulder. “Tell them to release the trap.”
“Release the trap!” the old man cried, his mighty voice ringing through the porch only to be followed by a host of angry, frightened protests. Were they serious? Had they lost their minds?
“We went to all that trouble to catch that dragon, and you’re just going to let it go?”
“Yes,” Luthien nodded. “Release the trap and let him go.”
“All right, but it’s your funeral.” The guard leaned down to make sure she saw his face. “If you need to catch him in there again, don’t ask for my help. You’re on your own.” There would be no next time; of that much she was sure. Either she was going to destroy Alduin, or he would destroy her. “Get ready to open the trap.”
The chains unhitched and the trap began to lift with a screaming groan that, for years to come, people claimed echoed all the way to Riften. Odahviing began to back up, lifting and stretching his long neck until he was free, great feet stomping backwards and making the entire palace tremble.
“Faas nu, zini dein ruthi ahst vaal.” He circled around until he faced the sky and then turned his head over his wing to find her again. “Saraan uth. I await your command, as promised. Are you ready to see the world as only a dovah can?”
She looked to her right, into Farkas’s eyes, and once more time seemed to stop as they stared into one another’s souls. They were the brightest, most intense clear blue she’d ever seen, like the sky on a brisk winter day, the kind of sky that made her want to wrap up warm blankets and cuddle near the fire with someone she loved… with him. Always, he seemed to be saying with his quiet heart. Always, she answered with nothing more than a smile.
All eyes were on her, but she didn’t care who was watching. She may never get another chance to hold him in her arms. She threw her arms around his neck and squeezed him. Every muscle in her body trembled, threatening to give out on her when she finally began to withdraw. She swallowed hard against her anxiety, lifting her gaze to his. “Farkas, I love you.”
He smiled at her, and it was the most peaceful expression she’d ever seen cross his face. He lifted his hand to linger against her cheek, thumb sliding down to trace across her lips. “I know.”
He’d said it to her a thousand times in the last five years, with his eyes and his actions and deeds. It was the only truth she’d ever known for certain in her heart and he’d never even said the words. He didn’t have to. When his mouth came down over hers, it was as if he breathed every ounce of his strength into her and that final kiss alone felt powerful enough to carry her through whatever horrors lay in her path and all the way back home.
“I’ll be waiting for you,” he told her.
Nodding, she blinked and the tears spilled down her cheeks as she began to back away, throat aching and chest tight. She struggled to pull herself together, clenching her fists at her sides as she steadied herself.
“I’m ready,” she told Odahviing. Her stomach fluttered with nervousness far greater than any she’d ever known. She was leaving everything she’d ever loved behind, and there was no hope she’d ever make it back, but they were all counting on her to save their world. “Take me to Skuldafn.”
“Zok brit uth. I warn you. Once you’ve flown the skies of Keizaal, your envy of the dov will only increase.”
“Show me,” she said, gripping onto his horns as he lowered himself so she could climb up onto his neck.
“Amativ. Mu bo kotin stinselok.”
From the back of the dragon, everything below her seemed so small, she herself felt insignificant. She looked back over her shoulder one last time at Farkas. Vignar stood beside him and the old man lifted a hand to salute her, calling out, “May Kynareth guard you as you pass through her realm, Dragonborn.”
Odahviing stalked forward, toward the end of the porch where he could unfurl his wings for liftoff. Luthien held tight, fidgeting in her seat, glancing down at the people behind her. Under the heavy crack of wings, he pushed off and she watched as everyone below grew so small she could barely even tell they were people anymore.
Lifting her head to the sky, they soared higher against the wind, into the clouds and she lowered her gaze to the amazing world below. Green rolling into white, trees scaling mountains, their great peaks like jagged mouths lifting to kiss the sky. She must have gasped in awe because Odahviing unleashed a mighty, roaring laugh, calling back over his shoulder to her, “Brii, hmm?”
“It’s amazing,” she cried, leaning in closer.
Hair blowing, snow and ice pelted at her face. She should have been freezing, but the dragon’s body was so warm beneath her that she felt as comfortable as if she were sitting in front of the hearth on a brisk day with a mug of spiced mead. When the sun broke through, she felt its heat in ways she’d never known it, and it seemed so close, as if she could reach up and pluck it from the sky. Odahviing flapped his wings, carrying them higher and higher before spreading them wide and diving downward, spiraling like a great, red leaf on the winds of autumn. Luthien leaned forward and gripped tight.
She thought of many things as she soared through the sky. Vilkas would have appreciated the moment, the opportunity to do something no one else had. Ulfric would have lifted his voice in roaring celebration of the experience. But there was only one person in the world she would have shared that moment with if she could. Farkas would have leaned into her and muttered something so simple, yet so profound, and she would have known exactly what he meant.
In a matter of hours, Odahviing carried her across a span of land that would have taken a week or more to walk, dipping down low into the mountains and circling around the Nordic ruins of Skuldafn. He landed with a heavy, ground-trembling thud that stirred attention from a host of draugr deathlords and they began to march toward them before she could even slide down from his back.
“You are on your own here, Dovahkiin.” He turned back to look at her, eyes wide with fascination.
“Thank you, Odahviing,” she bowed her head to him in respect and he followed with the same gesture before his mighty wings carried him back into the sky.
She had very little time to call upon the well of power inside her, but she was going to need every ounce of help she could get. She summoned her Daedra and her Storm Atronach, and together they headed forth to face the army of draugr who guarded the ancient ruins where Alduin had set up his portal into Sovngarde. But even more imposing that that draugr army was the fleet of dragons that circled the sky, and every last one of them had been set with the task of making sure she never made it to Alduin’s portal.
It was chaos, every moment of her struggle outside the walls putting a dent in her stamina that wasn’t easy to replenish. Twice her bound Daedra fell to draugr deathlords, and her Storm Atronach was never far behind, but they battled on until they reached the temple, leaving three dead dragons and more than a dozen deathlords in their wake. She pushed through the doors of the temple, grateful for a silent moment to gather her senses, but no sooner had they slipped inside before her dremora announced, “I smell weakness,” and began stalking forward into the ruins and drawing the attention of every restless draugr and deathlord within.
She felt stupid for coming to Skuldafn alone, every strand of hope inside her dwindling and snapping as she burned through her potions store to replenish both her magicka and her health. She found a few stray potions on the altars of the temple ruins, but it would never be enough to carry her through her final task—if she actually made it to Alduin’s portal.
After battling through the draugr guarding the Nordic puzzle that promised to take her even closer to her doom, she dropped down on and old bench and lowered her head into her hands. She could hear her conjured army of two wandering around the ruins, bored and oblivious to the fact that she needed to rest. For just a minute, maybe ten minutes…
Every dungeon and ruin she’d ever explored in the course of her short life, had been explored with her best friend, and the fact that he wasn’t there made her feel as if getting through it would be impossible alone. There was no one at her back muttering, “Get ready for a fight.” No one to reassure her, “I’m still here.”
Leaning back against the wall behind her, she sighed and closed her eyes. She didn’t sleep; she wouldn’t dare, but she didn’t move again until her health, magicka and stamina were all at full capacity. Rising to study the puzzle and scanning the ruins for clues, she muttered to herself as she worked the symbols in her mind, occasionally glancing back and speaking to her Daedra as if he were actually listening.
When she finally solved the puzzle, the gate opening in the upper right corner of the sanctuary, he started toward it on impulse, informing her, “I smell weakness.”
“Of course you do,” she sighed, drawing Wuuthrad from her back and starting toward the opened door, her Storm Atronach rolling beside her.
The remainder of the temple wasn’t so bad. There were a handful of deathlords waiting, a couple spiders, but the real challenges cropped up as soon as they passed through the doors that led back outside. Alduin’s dragons patrolled the skies, swooping down to rain so powerful she lost her Atronach again, but the Daedra stayed strong, hacking through the host of draugr that marched in to attack. She didn’t know how they got through them, but they did, following the pathway left until she saw the streaming lights of the portal to Sovngarde.
Chanting led her straight up the stairs, where a dragon priest in deep concentration stood before it holding it open with his staff. Luthien drew her bow and ducked back to crack the tension from her neck. It had been years since she’d faced a dragon priest… a lot of years. She and Farkas had gone to Highgate Ruins to find the word of power there, and had it not been for the adventurous mage, Anska, they’d might not have made it out alive. Vokuun had nearly killed all three of them, but Anska had kept him busy while Farkas and Luthien took out the draugr and atronachs before joining her in battle to take him down.
Luthien hadn’t yet finished her training at the College of Winterhold at the time, and she’d come a long way since facing Vokuun, but there was no way she could face the dragon priest guarding Alduin’s portal to Sovngarde alone. She was just preparing to return her bow to her back when her blood-thirsty Daedra ran up the stairs with his sword drawn, slicing it down into the priest’s shoulder with a deafening roar that alerted every draugr left standing the grounds of Skuldafn.
With no choice left but to fight, she summoned her Fire Atronach, who immediately charged into battle, giving Luthien just enough time to draw Wuuthrad. Nahkriin assaulted her small with shock magic and bolts of fire, the shock magic immediately disintegrating Luthien’s Atronach and the fire driving her Daedra to his knees. Getting close to him felt impossible, but she didn’t have a choice. She flew at him, blade swinging and hacking as he hovered backward and shot streams of shock magic into her body that drained away her own magicka so quickly that if her Daedra fell, she’d never be able to resummon him.
He made her chase him straight into three draugr, holding up her ward with one hand while firing fireballs with the other. Her Daedra had healed enough to join her, driving back the draugr to allow her room to slip through them, and meeting with Nahkriin once more near the edge of the stairs, she drew her axe and brought it back down, dropping it into him with such force it drove him to his knees. On the ground, she was able to wedge it free with a stiff jerk, and then she sunk it into his chest one last time, his ancient body falling slack on the paving stones.
She dropped to her knees, exhaustion promising to be her undoing, but as she gasped to catch her breath she glanced back over her shoulder and watched her Daedra’s sword slip into the heart of the last draugr standing.
All was silent in Skuldafn.
Still catching her breath, she reached down and unclenched Nahkriin’s bony fingers from the staff he’d used to open the portal. She took his mask too, and then pushed to her feet, staggering back up the stairs to the altar and glancing down at the place the portal had been before the fighting started. Wedging the priest’s staff into the ground, the earth beneath her feet trembled as the portal reopened, streams of swirling light every color in the spectrum rising out and whirling toward the sky.
Chills moved through her, every hair on her arms rising as she stepped toward that portal. She swallowed hard, jaw clenching tight against her own fear. She had no idea what waited beyond that portal, no way of knowing if she’d ever come back once she passed through it. Closing her eyes, she drew in a deep breath and summoned her power, then turned over her shoulder to sever her bond with her Daedric companion.
“Farewell, old friend,” she said as he railed against dismissal with growling protest. Then she lifted her face to the sky and prayed. “Father Akatosh, I have been proud in the past, claiming to be following your will, but I know not why you’ve sent me here. To question you is a fool’s greatest err, but from the start I have followed this path you forged for me. All I ask on this final leg of my journey is the strength and fortitude to do as you would have me do.”
Opening her eyes and staring into that swirling light before her, she drew one final breath and then she stepped into the portal. Falling, she was falling through the warmest, most wonderful waves of sound and color. She could feel every emotion, her body filled with pleasure and pain, fear and bravery, conviction and doubt… There was no time, and yet time seemed to have wrapped her within its folds like a cloak, spinning and turning and drawing her down, down, down…