The moonlight didn’t seem so red when Vilkas ducked out of the grotto. It shone down from overhead, casting pale pink hues over his bloodstained hands, which he held up for further inspection. Drawing in a deep breath, a strange sense of peace filled him, and for the first time in more than a year the beast that dwelt within did not battle against his passive emotions.
He felt, oddly, lighter than he had in a long time, almost like himself again, the self he’d been before he and Farkas had taken the blood and become true Companions. And though the underlying current of sorrow that gripped and drove him after losing Luthien before he ever had her still lingered, it felt like an old wound that would heal with time.
Vilkas hadn’t realized just how much she had affected him. Of course that was silly; he knew, but he’d spent so much time allowing himself to rage over not winning her that he’d actually forgotten there’d been life before she came along. Peaceful life. Mundane life that brought regular enough adventure to leave him feeling almost content with the path that lay ahead of him. It had only been a few months, but maybe he could finally move on.
Focus his time and energy on finding a solution to the problem of the beast, instead of dwelling on all the things that made the monster inside him seethe.
“Well met again, Hunter.”
The calm voice of the ghostly white stag in the moonlight startled him from his reverie, and when he looked up a moment’s dread trickled through him. He had defied a Daedra, the very Daedra he’d be cursed to spend his afterlife in service to. Clearly, this would not end in his favor.
“I couldn’t do it,” he announced, taking a tentative step toward the stag. “I failed to bring down Sinding, as you asked.”
“Not a failure, my servant. By bringing down the other hunters, you turned the chase inside out, and they were no base prey. You continue to amuse and impress, young wolf. Go forth with my blessing.”
“But the ring…” Vilkas stammered, his fist clenching until he could feel the weight of that ring carving into the skin of his finger. “The curse…”
“The curse has been lifted,” the waning spirit proclaimed. “Wear that ring and hunt as you see fit…”
And just like that the shade of Hircine was gone.
Somewhere in the distance a dragon roared, the mighty flap of its wings cracking against the wind.
Vilkas looked down at his hands again, black blood crusting and drying over his calloused fingers, his knuckles and wrists. With a shaking grip, he twisted the Ring of Hircine free from his finger and dropped it with a heavy thunk into his palm. The intricately carved wolf stared back at him dully, and no more could he feel the weighty pull of its once unpredictable magic. It still possessed magic, the undercurrent of its presence tingled across his skin, but it held power over him no more.
He dropped it into the pouch across his belt, and lifted his face into the night. He could make it home by morning if he traveled quickly. And in that moment there was no place on Tamriel he’d rather be. With his brother, with his pack… his family. He would give the ring to Kodlak. The old man would know what to do with it, set his focus on finding a way to bring the Harbinger of the Companions a bit of peace before the end.
And with that in mind he set off into the darkness, traveling through the long night until he saw the quaint, familiar beauty of Whiterun rising against the early morning sun like a beacon in the North. Trails of smoke billowed toward the sky in grey puffs, and with every step he took toward the city, the familiar scent of hot coals, ash and sulfur from the Skyforge wafted out to meet him.
“Companion,” the guards greeted from the edge of the gates.
“Well met,” Vilkas replied, heaving his way through the heavy doors that guarded his city from harm.
His shoulders suddenly felt the ache of his own armor, his legs the strain of the fast-paced sprint that brought him home far faster than if he’d simply walked. He was hungry. His body felt heavy with the rewarding kind of exhaustion that would yield a semblance of restful sleep. It was good to be home, a relief, actually.
But as soon as he stepped through the gates, he knew something was off. It was still early, but the city was not entirely silent. He heard distant screams from beyond the merchant circle, and as he drew closer to Breezehome, the house his brother now shared with Luthien, he swore he heard the clear and distant ring of battle.
There was no smoke belching from the chimney of Breezehome, no sign at all that anyone was sleeping there within, and though he’d grown accustomed to seeing the thane’s home empty over the last few years, the fact that it seemed devoid of life in that moment concerned him. Even if Farkas and Luthien were still out in the field on the job he’d assigned them, shouldn’t Lydia be home, tending the fire of their hearth?
The pace of his footsteps quickened, past Breezehome, beyond Belethor’s General Goods and into the empty merchant’s circle. The well yawned silently in the center of town, and all the stalls felt purposely devoid of life. Just beyond and above the tavern, on the hill where Jorrvaskr magestically reigned, he saw the blue flash of steel in the morning sun. A familiar battle cry clenched the muscles in his stomach with fear.
And then he was running, taking the stairs into the wind district two at a time, yanking his sword from its scabbard as he ran. By the time he reached Aela, she stood above two bodies.
Silver Hand by the make of their weapons. Her ancient armor was washed in the blood of her enemies, the black claw face paint she wore smeared across her cheek and trickling red, as though a dying hand had reached up to grab her face in one last attempt at victory. Her shoulders heaved, her chest rising, falling and her brilliant green eyes wild with the thrill of battle.
“They snuck over the walls in the night,” she told him, her voice distant as a fading dream. “Thought to attack us when we were vulnerable in our beds.”
“The Silver Hand,” he hissed, scanning the bodies littering the steps leading into Jorrvaskr, the blood painting the pale grass. “Farkas…” he started toward those stairs, but Aela grabbed his shoulder to hold him in place.
“Your brother is fine,” she assured him. “He fought and killed many of our enemies this morning, but…”
Vilkas thought his heart had stopped as the next worst thing he could imagine grappled with his mind. “Luthien…”
“The whelp isn’t even here, but Vilkas, the Harbinger… Kodlak…” Aela lowered her head in shame, a surge of internal grief strangling her words before she could speak them.
Vilkas grabbed her shoulders, a flare of anger rising in him. “Kodlak, where is he?”
In all the years he’d known the Huntress, he’d never seen her exhibit any signs of weakness. Her violent bender after Skjor’s torturous death had been carefully tucked away and hidden before she made her way back to Jorrvaskr, unlike Luthien who’d worn the brunt of that grief emblazoned across the breastplate of her armor for all to see.
But there were tears in Aela’s eyes when she finally lifted her head. Guilty tears that slipped through the tracks of bloodstained war paint on her face.
His fingers dug harder into her flesh, bruising as he shook her. “Where is the Harbinger?”
“Vilkas, you’re here.” Torvar stepped through the front doors of Jorrvaskr, his face long with untold grief. “The old man was asking for you.”
He shoved Aela from his path and darted up the stairs, nearly knocking Torvar over as he ran. He found his brother in the mead hall on his knees, kneeling beside Kodlak, gripping the old one’s hand and shaking his head in denial as tears dragged down his blood-spattered face.
Farkas had never been one to hide his emotions. Clean tracks dripped down his dirty cheeks as he sobbed and bid the old man not to die.
Vilkas swept in on Kodlak’s left, leaning desperately over the man who’d been like a father to him and Farkas almost as long as he could remember. Long after Jergen had gone and left them, Kodlak remained, steadfast, devoted to the twins as if they were his own sons.
“Harbinger,” a desperate breath carried that word. “Harbinger, I am here.”
“Vilkas, my boy, you came.”
“You’re going to be fine, Harbinger. What can I get for you? What can I do?”
“There is nothing you can do, Vilkas.” Every word was an effort. “I am… dying.”
“No, Harbinger,” he refused that truth. “I’ll send for the healer… Ria, make for the temple of Kynareth at once, bring Danica.”
“Vilkas.” Kodlak’s hand caught his, old, cracked fingers tightening around his wrist. “Hearken to me, my son. This has to end,” he managed. “The cycle of vengeance… It must be…”
But Kodlak’s request was never complete. With a wheezing exhale, last life left him in a spray of blood across his lips and Vilkas roared in fury. The quiet beast he thought he’d beaten prickled beneath his skin, itched as it stretched just beyond his reach. “This was her,” he glared across Kodlak’s body at his sobbing brother, “her doing. If she and Aela hadn’t…”
Farkas’s tears were immediately stifled by his brother’s accusation, a fire glinting in his pale, glassy eyes as he rose up onto his knees. “Don’t you put this on her, Vilkas. Don’t you dare.”
“Where is she?”
“She isn’t here.” Ria knelt at Kodlak’s head and tried to lay a comforting hand on Vilkas’s arm. He jerked free from her touch.
“Isn’t that convenient for her? Not to be here when she is needed most.”
Farkas rose from where he’d knelt like a tower of terror, his face red with grief and a wrath in his eyes unlike any Vilkas had ever seen before. “I said don’t you put this on her,” he growled. “The Silver Hand would have attacked here sooner, or later. This wasn’t their fault.”
“Farkas is right, Vilkas,” Aela lingered in the doorway. “If you’d only seen what they did to Skjor…” her voice trailed off for a moment, so quiet he almost didn’t hear her over the thumping of his own heart in his ears. “It was only a matter of time before they brought this to our door.”
“Only a matter of time,” he sneered. “Nothing you say will ever convince me that this wasn’t brought on by your vengeance! Did you think nothing of the rest of us while you were raging across the land? Did you think even once about Kodlak when you were tearing the Silver Hand to shreds?”
“I thought about all of us, Vilkas. I thought about Skjor. I thought about how it could have been you, or Farkas, Ria or Njada up on their table, skinned alive like some animal not fit to live. I thought if I could just…” She faltered, shook her head and stared down at Kodlak’s body on the mead hall floor. “I thought if we fought back, it would end it.”
“All you’ve done is make it worse. You and the whelp.”
“She was only following my orders.”
Narrowing a nasty glare over her as he made his way to his feet, he then turned his glare on Farkas. “Where is she? She should have been here.”
“I don’t know where she is,” he shook his head.
“What do you mean you don’t know where she is?”
“Kodlak sent her off yesterday morning, and she wouldn’t say where she was going, said he bid her not to. I tried to accompany her, but Kodlak said she could take no shield brother or sister, that this was atonement for the things she and Aela did in the name of vengeance. She and Lydia left shortly after you did, and she said she didn’t know when they would return.”
There was no atonement for the things she and Aela had done, not now, not with the Harbinger lost to them all.
Glancing down at Kodlak, Vilkas reached over and with trembling fingers closed the lids over his unseeing eyes. The old man looked as if he were only sleeping, but Vilkas knew better. He would never rise again, never offer comfort or wisdom, never provide guidance again.
“She will atone only when this madness is finished and the Silver Hand are wiped clean from these lands once and for all.”