There’s a vulture perching right off-screen, And it whispers bitter and chaotic things, And the weeps turn quick into bullying. It’s so easy to see, everyone can agree Stop listening. I know you’ve heard it before, But then it wasn’t enough. You don’t wanna be held back from the substitution. I know you’ve seen this before, And now enough is too much. You don’t wanna be set back when the substitution comes.
–Silversun Pickups, Substitution
There was a tunnel at the back of the cathedral, and Rei took Sabrael’s hand so they could walk through together. He didn’t know what still lay ahead, and he hoped he wouldn’t be too distracted. That word was in his head and repeating, over and over. One little nonsensical syllable pounding like a hammer and growing ever louder and stronger and drowning everything else out.
“Stop it!” he yelled, grabbing both sides of his head.
“It’s okay, ” Sabrael said, stroking his back. Rei could feel his fear and his love, and, at least the latter, was soothing. “We’re almost out. I can smell the outside.”
Together, they hopped off a ledge, climbed a small dirt hillock, and soon they saw the white light of the outdoors. Rei felt Sabrael’s excitement and watched as his kirin ran to the opening. He felt the terror before he saw Sabrael’s arms windmilling and his feet skidding, and he lunged forward, throwing his arms around the daedra’s chest, pulling him back from an edge that was nearly invisible from the inside for the blinding daylight.
Sabrael shivered and panted as he clutched Rei’s arms. He could feel the little creature’s heart racing beneath one hand.
“I’ve got you, sweetheart,” he breathed, his own muscles weakened from fear. “That’s why we don’t barrel towards the unknown.”
“I guess not. But how do we get down? Look, that’s where Lake Ilinalta empties into that river, it would be perfect. We…We don’t have to go back, do we?”
Rei gently switched places with Sabrael so that he could step out into the fresh air. That sunken tower was bad enough, but the fug of this tomb, and the cold damp was absolutely hideous. The clean mountain air was like every good thing he could imagine, inhaled and absorbed through his lungs. It was almost good enough to silence that word.
“Look here,” he said. “These outcroppings could get us down if we’re careful.”
Sabrael sidled carefully up along the mountainside and looked down. “I don’t think you’ll have a problem.”
Rei looked back down, and, indeed, for him it was a matter of light hopping, if not long steps. Carefully he lowered himself to the first one. “Can you make this one?” he asked.
“The knapsack is a bit heavy.”
“Alright, just lean forward and I’ll catch you.”
Sabrael’s nerves were uncomfortable electricity, but Rei silenced them as Sabrael slowly fell forward. He caught his kirin under the arms and gingerly backed up, feeling the heel of one boot slip against the edge of the outcropping, until, finally, Sabrael stepped down off the initial ledge and planted his feet on the new one.
“Wasn’t so bad, was it?” Rei asked.
“No, not at all,” Sabrael answered, mustering a smile.
One by one, they descended the small, rocky outcroppings, until they were both firmly planted on the grass below.
“Water!” Sabrael breathed, running ahead again.
Rei smiled as he felt his joy and ran after him, first towards the river and up to the lake, through lush, green grass and patches of lupines. He had to alter his stride so as not to completely outrun his kirin, but that was okay. Finally, they reached a spot Sabrael deemed suitable, and began shrugging the knapsack off carelessly.
“Careful, beauty,” Rei chided gently. “The Dragonstone.”
“Oh,” Sabrael blushed. “Right, sorry.”
Rei began to strip in kind, laying his weapons carefully on the ground and covering them as best as he could with his armor and clothing. The air was brisk against his bare skin, making goosebumps erupt as it cooled his sweat.
“So you are gonna swim with me!” Sabrael exclaimed.
“If you’re as warm as you say you are,” he answered, crossing his arms over his chest. “And I don’t know how much swimming I’d like to do. That last time was rather stressful, and I don’t think I did a very good job.” “Maybe I can teach you better, then?”
Rei closed his eyes and tried to mitigate the usual annoyance. Sabrael was only excited and wanting to help, that’s all.
“We’ll see,” he said as Sabrael’s face started to fall in response to Rei’s emotion. He strode over and bent to press his lips softly to his kirin’s. “Don’t take it personally. I’m just tired, and that word just won’t stop.”
Sabrael pulled himself close, and they held each other quietly for a while. Rei felt easiness fill him and slow his heart. He was aroused, his kirin was aroused, but it was just something That Was. An instance of desire that, for once, only needed acknowledgement to be satisfied, to be observed as a testament to their bond. “I love you, Sabrael,” he breathed. “So much.” “You’re all I’ve ever wanted my whole life,” Sabrael answered. “I’m so happy you’d work so hard for me.” “Only for you, beauty. Feeling you right now makes the effort so much more worth it.” “C’mon, let’s take a swim.” Rei returned his kirin’s smile and stepped back as the familiar process took place before him, the dissolution of one form and the materialization of the other. Fully formed, a burst of joy filled Rei’s heart through the large creature who shook his head, as if fully shedding the discomfort. He reached out and stroked the dark turquoise cheek and leaned against the velvety muzzle that pressed against his neck. “I’m sorry it’s so hard to keep your other form,” Rei said. “It gets easier every day, even if it’s not noticeable. It’s a slow process.” “I know. And you are warmer. How did I never notice?” “Sometimes it’s easy to overlook things when our minds are…preoccupied.”
Rei nodded. Sabrael’s telepathy seemed to overpower the pounding of the strange word, and it was a relief. After a light kiss was planted on his cheek, Sabrael turned towards the water and began the laborious process of getting into it from dry land. “I should’ve done this in the water,” his voice echoed in Rei’s head, followed by a small giggle. “Phanuel always made fun of the way I’d do things without thinking. He’d get annoyed, kind of the way you do when I make bad decisions, but that was his way of…of trying to make me be better, I guess.” Sabrael was now fully in the water. Although it only came up to his knees, he had an easier time of moving. Rei moved with him, his hand on the arching, muscular neck. “Neither of our ways are right. Sometimes annoyance is unavoidable, no matter who you are, but getting angry or making fun aren’t the right ways to teach.”
The kelpie nodded his head slightly.
They waded out while following the shoreline. The water was very cold, but just as he’d promised, Sabrael’s aura warmed Rei enough that it wasn’t that bad. When they got to the edge of the lake, when the water was up to Sabrael’s neck and Rei’s chest, Sabrael lowered himself and pushed himself ahead, legs held up to his chest, undulating slowly from side to side.
Even though he was moving slowly, Rei still had trouble keeping up as the water deepened. His chest constricted. Without the urgency of his kirin’s well-being to spur him on, the old fear resurfaced. Hesitantly he lowered himself, too, and tried pushing off in the way Tauryon had told him. It was terribly awkward with no storm to hide his lack of experience, and soon self-consciousness made him plant his feet back down in the soft mud and stand (though the water was deep enough now he’d had some trouble finding the bottom and felt a momentary and embarrassing jolt of panic). “It’s okay, Rei,” Sabrael said, wheeling back around. “Just get on my back.”
“This is a bit of an odd situation,” Rei mused as he hoisted himself up to rest where fur met scale. “I suppose it is,” Sabrael giggled, swimming slowly. The sensation of water flowing past his bare legs was nice. “You’re the only one I’d ever let on me like this.” “You’re likely the only water creature I’d ever trust enough.”
“I’m glad for it,” Sabrael said happily. “Hang onto my mane.”
“Because I wanna have some fun! Grab on.”
“Sabrael…” he said as his stomach tied itself into a knot. He could feel the excitement and playfulness of his kirin, but the intensity wasn’t helping his anxiety.
“You’ll be okay, trust me! I won’t let anything happen.”
Rei took his shaking hands and wrapped them in the flowing hair that wafted about in the water like beautiful blue-green moss. His heart was pounding, even as he felt Sabrael channeling soothing feelings towards him.
“Now I know how you always felt when I was scared,” Sabrael giggled. “Ready?”
Rei took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He trusted his kirin. “Okay. Whatever it is, do it quickly before I jump ship.” The daedra giggled again, and without much warning, Rei felt himself nearly fall backwards as Sabrael surged forward. For a moment, though, he felt the joy he’d always felt when he rode a horse at full gallop. The only difference was the water, which felt brilliant as it swirled against his naked skin, warmed by the strange aura of his equally strange lover. But then… “Hold your breath!” Sabrael said. “Quick!” Before he could protest, Rei felt himself rise just slightly, and on pure reflex he caught a quick breath just before he was plunged beneath the surface. As he felt his body lifting, he squeezed his knees more tightly against Sabrael’s flanks and pulled himself down so that he lay against the serpentine body. Managing somehow to open his eyes, he couldn’t see much more than muddy, greenish water and the vague outlines of freshwater plants, but Sabrael zoomed over and around obstacles as if he’d known the place his whole life. He knew they weren’t down for very long, but it felt like ages, and in a good way. Rei found he liked being carried around on the back of a kelpie as it played, although a lot of it he knew was likely his bond with this particular kelpie. Sabrael’s joy was especially pure in his native form, and it filled Rei’s heart so completely, he almost forgot himself and let go to hug him. Once Sabrael sensed Rei’s dwindling oxygen, he shot upwards at a steep angle, as quickly as he could, until he breached the surface. Rei felt weightless as he gasped for air before he felt the body beneath him arc and fall back gracefully into the water. Sabrael resumed his steady pace again, and Rei leaned forward to actually hug him. “I told you I wouldn’t let anything happen,” he heard Sabrael giggle. “This is the happiest I’ve ever felt you.” “It was unreal,” he said through breathless laughter. “Wanna play some more? I’ll understand if you don’t; I have a lot of catching up to do.” “Let’s just play it by ear, beauty.”
“Can you scratch them, too?”
Rei grinned and leaned forward to scrub the furry, wet ears, and when Sabrael was satisfied, they continued their romp.
By the time they were done, Rei was starving and pleasantly exhausted. He’d clung to Sabrael through twirls and rolls and loops, through jumps, and sometimes they would find a shallow spot to splash each other. Now, as the sun was setting behind them, they sat on the shore, back next to their belongings. Sabrael kept his form, leaned on one side with his tail wrapped loosely in front of him, while Rei reclined with his head against one sleek flank. “It seems like more and more you do me good,” he said. Sabrael didn’t say anything, but nuzzled his shoulder. Melancholy was settling in. “What’s wrong, beauty?” “I…I wasn’t entirely honest with you,” he answered. His physical body snorted, and Rei took that to be kin to a sniffle. “About what?” “I wanted to find you, you know. Sooner, before you met Clavicus. I had every intention to, and it had nothing to do with me being shy. Well, part of it did, but not all.” “I thought you said it would have taken a lot out of you.” “If I had acted before you fled it wouldn’t have been an issue. I could’ve stayed by my lagoon. Or wherever you went on the islands. I feel like maybe, if I had made that little extra effort to meet you, all this heartache would have been avoided.” Rei was too confused and curious to be annoyed, although he could feel its presence as well. “What’s done is done, I guess.” “I guess. It was Phanuel.” “What about him?” “Phanuel’s kind of…well…he’s kind of mean for a kelpie. In a protective way. When he learned about you, when he would catch me surfacing too close to shore, he would get so mad.” “Do all kelpies distrust us?” Rei asked. “Well, most of us know to keep our distance, but Phanuel had more reason than most. I have more reason than most, but I could never be mean the way he could. We had a sister, Ramiel. We were all three from the same clutch, and she was blue-green, like us. I remember she was light, like…like a robin’s egg!” Rei reached back and stroked the damp fur to his side. He wasn’t sure how such a thing could happen telepathically, but he could swear he heard his kirin’s voice crack. “She wasn’t shy like most of us are. She’d go right up to shore and dig for pretty shells or look for things to eat in the tidepools. Our mother told her always never to do that. We were closer to Auridon back then. But Ramiel always thought she knew how to stay hidden. One day she just never came back.” “You think it was an Altmer?” Rei asked. “There’s no way to know for sure what happened, I guess. Something could have eaten her, but it mostly likely was someone looking for an exotic pet or…or something. And eight or nine years later I’d lounge in my lagoon, exactly the same way Ramiel would have done.” “Why do you think you did that?” “I like stargazing,” Sabrael answered. “Phanuel hated it, but by that time I’d discovered I could fight him off if I had to. And then I saw you one day down the shore…oh, Rei!” Rei smiled.
“Phanuel was there when you got caught in the rip current that one time. If it weren’t for him, you might still have all your soul. He wanted to let you drown, but I couldn’t. Even if it wasn’t you. So we tussled while I tried to go after you. Luckily I got to you in time, but ever since then he was on me every chance he got.” “Watching you?” “Watching me, treating me more or less like his fry than his brother. Not that there were many other kelpies around, but we were the only ones who would ever get into real fights. I’d figured out your general routine, you see, but it was always a battle to even just see you from a distance. It’s been so long, I doubt you could see anymore without shaving my fur and looking real hard, but for a while both of us were kind of chewed-up.” Sabrael shook his head, and his ear flickered, so Rei reached up to scratch it. “Ohh, thank you,” he said before continuing: “I don’t think Phanuel ever meant to be mean, or at least I don’t think he ever thought he was. When Ramiel disappeared, he just changed. When we set out to find our own homes, he never left my side, and I think he just saw what he did as being protective. But I loved him, you know? And he’d been with me for so long; it wasn’t so much a fear of the outside that kept me from setting out for so long as it was of just being alone and of disappointing my brother. He had his mate, of course, but still I felt like I’d be leaving him alone, too.”
“I wish I could say I could relate,” Rei said. “I know the fear of disappointing people you look up to or love, but I think you know how I handle that.”
“I guess we’re all different.”
“I can’t picture you fighting that way.”
“It was a combination of defense and wanting what I wanted so badly that I would fight for it. We eat meat, mostly. Our teeth might look flat, but they’re sharp, see?”
Rei lifted Sabrael’s upper lip once he’d turned his head towards him, and Sabrael dropped his jaw. Indeed, his teeth bore nasty serrations.
“At the end of the day, we’re just daedric beasts. Some might be nice like us, some might be mean, and others might just be in-between. I don’t think Phanuel would have done anything to outright kill me, but it was better to not take the chance. You saw how big he was.”
There was still an overarching sadness that made Rei’s heart ache. “But you miss him.”
“I do. I miss my lagoon. It hasn’t been as long for me as it has you, but it’s been long. I couldn’t tell you the last time I saw another kelpie.” Rei felt his throat tighten. He’d never given any real thought to what Sabrael had done beyond the resentment at how long he’d waited before doing it. “You gave up everything for me,” he said. “I’m not saying all this to make you feel bad,” Sabrael said quickly. “I’d do it again if I had to. But…” “I know. I miss my home, too. Maybe it’s getting to be time. Maybe when whatever I’m called to do here is over and done with, we can go back. Find a quiet spot somewhere by the coast like we said that one time.” “You wouldn’t be worried about how you look or your past? Wherever you go is where I belong, so if you preferred to just keep away, I wouldn’t complain.” “I suppose Tauryon was right in that no one need know. I can’t imagine many besides Tauryon are still even alive; I doubt there’s anyone left who would recognize me through the changes.” “What would you do for work?” “We’ll figure it out, beauty,” he said. “Just one step at a time.” Happiness radiated from his kirin again, and he, equally happily, held the head that bumped against him.
“It’s getting late, and I’m starving,” Rei said after a moment. “Are you ready to head back?”
“I think so. I’m hungry, too.” Rei pushed himself up and stepped back to allow Sabrael space to transform. He shivered violently against the bracing late evening air when his little kirin was fully changed. He’d become so used to the warming aura that he’d forgotten it was there, and its sudden absence was shocking. “Oh, Rei, I’m sorry! I should’ve let you put your clothes on first.” “Just come be close, beauty.” Sabrael smiled brilliantly and stepped into his arms, looking up so that Rei could kiss him deeply. The cold wasn’t so bad with his kirin pressed against him, and he gently pushed him back down to the ground and loved him as best as he could, wondering with amusement if there was anyone nearby to hear Sabrael’s sweet cries as they echoed off the mountainside. “““““ Rei didn’t sleep much once they’d retired to their room above the Bannered Mare’s tavern. Sabrael had knocked right off as he usually did once his head hit the thin pillow and never stirred each time Rei would slip out from under his arm to pace the room or to trudge downstairs to buy a drink from the rather snippy barmaid. The tavern grew emptier and emptier as the night went on, and he’d hoped maybe Hulda would be up late, if somebody had to be. Not that he was particularly in the mood for company or conversation, but he liked Hulda well enough, and even periodic, broken conversation would have been better than hearing that confounded word bounce around in his mind. Saadia wasn’t the type for small talk, although she certainly seemed interested in letting him know in no uncertain terms that she was bearing a secret he absolutely should never ask about. He didn’t know when he finally went to bed the final time, drunk enough from mead that the word seemed a bit duller, but it had to have been close to sunrise. It seemed like seconds between when he finally managed to doze off and when he felt his shoulder being shaken timidly. “Rei, wake up,” Sabrael whispered. “It’s the crack of dawn,” he mumbled. “Lemme sleep.” “It’s nearly eleven.” “It’s what? Ugh.” Rei pulled the covers over his pounding head. In the end, the mead and the word had joined forces to make him feel absolutely awful in every way. “C’mon,” Sabrael prodded. “You said we have to get the stone back to that Farengar person first thing. I didn’t want to wake you, because you never sleep this late, and if you’re doing it now you must really need it, but-“
“Sabrael,” he said emphatically. “Just hush, please. One second.”
“It’s a hangover. I didn’t think I drank that much, but I guess I must have.”
“You only had a glass of wine with dinner,” Sabrael said.
“I wasn’t sleeping. That word is just constant. So I’d go down and drink to try and damp it.”
“Poor Rei,” Sabrael cooed, climbing into bed and wrapping himself around him. “Poor me,” Rei echoed facetiously. “I was at its mercy, and I just couldn’t say no.” Sabrael giggled. “Have you eaten, beauty?” “Mmhm. I didn’t think you’d mind if I took your purse. I took a bath, too. I smelled like the lake.” “Good boy,” Rei sighed, taking on the laborious task of rolling over. “I’m impressed you did all that on your own. Normally you need me with you.” “Well, we have been here a little while. It’s not quite as scary.” “Still, I’m proud of you.” “Thanks, Rei,” he answered, pale cheeks lightly flushing pink. He kissed his kirin quickly and finally started to get up. His stomach churned, and his head felt ten pounds heavier, as if the “fus-es” had built up while he slept and now had to be let out. “Beauty,” he moaned, reaching out and drawing Sabrael to him once he’d swung his legs over the side of the bed. “Go downstairs. Order whatever she has that’s greasy and salty. I’ll be down in a minute, okay?” “Okay. We still have a couple of full water skins.” “Thanks for reminding me, sweetheart.” In its odd, paradoxical way, the normally unappealing intake of eggs soaked in the grease from the sausage that had been fried before them quieted Rei’s stomach and made functioning a little bit easier, though stepping out into the bright noontime sun did nothing for his head. Still, he and Sabrael made the climb up to Dragonsreach, their precious relic wrapped in cloth and held to his kirin’s chest. When they stepped into Farengar’s office, there was someone else with him. A woman with a hood pulled low enough to obscure most of her face leaned against his desk as they discussed locations on a large map spread out before them. They were lost in their own world until Rei stepped close enough to cast a shadow over them. “Oh!” Farengar almost squeaked. “Oh, it’s you. Back from Bleak Falls Barrow, I see. How’d it go?” Rei looked behind him and took the stone from Sabrael’s hands before silently offering it to the court wizard. “Ah, yes, this is it!” he exclaimed. He turned to his companion and added, “I told you my assistant here would come through.” Rei bristled at being called his assistant, but he continued to say nothing. “You went and got this yourself?” the woman asked. “Good job.” Rei bowed his head slightly. “I need to be going,” she said to Farengar. “Let me know the instant you find something useful.” “You’ll be the first I tell, I assure you.” “Good.” Rei didn’t bother to watch her leave, instead he continued to look at the man he’d risked life and limb for. “It’s so good to have proper muscle around,” the mage said. “You have no idea-“ “My fiancee and I risked our lives for this,” Rei interrupted. “I didn’t get a satisfactory answer last time, so I’ll ask again: What can I expect in compensation?” “And I’ll tell you like I told you last time, that’s the Jarl’s business. Now if you’ll excuse-“ He was interrupted again by shouting and the sound of leather shoes pounding the wood floor outside his office. Rei turned to look just in time to see the Dunmer who had stopped him on his first visit. She looked horrified. “Farengar, come with me at once!” she barked. “A dragon’s been sighted at the western watchtower!” “A dragon?!” Farengar repeated with a sort of obliviousness that made Rei’s lip curl. “How exciting!” “You should come, too,” the Dunmer said, ignoring Farengar as he nearly leaped over his desk to presumably find Balgruuf. Or the dragon. “Why?” “Because the Jarl finds you valuable, and because as his housecarl I’m telling you to.” Sabrael’s hand was on his arm, and he looked over. “I know you don’t like being told what to do, but she’s not doing it to be mean.” Rei closed his eyes and tried to will away the pounding in his temples. Finally, he nodded and followed the woman out of the office and up to the second floor of the palace where Balgruuf was standing, apparently startled by Farengar’s sudden appearance and enthusiastic babbling. “Is what he says true, Irileth?” the Jarl asked the Dunmer. “Is there really a dragon?” “It seems so. You,” she said, gesturing towards a guard who had been leaning against a wall, panting. His helmet was in one hand, and his dark hair was plastered to his forehead with sweat. “Tell him what you told me.” “He was by the west- by the western watchtower. Soon as I saw ‘im I ran back here as fast…as fast as I could.” “Good work,” Balgruuf said. “Go get cleaned up and get some mead and some rest. You’ve earned it.” “Thank you, sir,” the guardsman panted. Rei watched as he stumbled back downstairs. “I’ve mustered our more reliable guards at the gate,” Irileth said. “They only await your word.” “Good. And you, Rei Ginsei. I’m glad to see you.” “I retrieved the stone just as Farengar wanted,” he said. “Yes, yes, and we’ll talk compensation later. I would consider it a tremendous favor, however, if you would go with Irileth to the watchtower.” Rei wanted to protest, just as he had wanted to tell Farengar to get the stone himself, only now the disinclination was compounded by a hangover and some bizarre magical word lodged in his brain. Even so, there was that same calmness, that same reason. “I’ll do it. But I need to get into my armor first.” “Do it quickly,” Irileth said. “If we’re not at the gate when you’re ready, come find us. Gods willing you won’t be too late.”
“Rei?” Sabrael asked as he jogged to keep up as he strode quickly back to the Mare.
“What is it, beauty?”
“You kind of made it seem like you’re going to go alone.”
“I dunno. Your feelings are kind of scattered. I guess because you’re tired.” “Mostly I’m a bit flustered,” he said, springing up the stairs to their room. “But now that you mention it, yes, I do believe I was aiming to go this alone.” “But I wanna go with you.” “I’d rather you didn’t.” “Why?” Sabrael protested. His worry ground against Rei’s skull. “Didn’t I just get through that awful tomb with you?” “I just don’t like the thought of dragons, in general,” he answered, wrinkling his nose at the smell of his armor padding. Normally he had time to have it washed between uses. “I’ve dealt with cliff racers before, but something tells me it’s a bad idea to go in thinking a dragon’s just a bigger version that breathes fire.” “I guess so, but…” he took a deep breath, and Rei felt him trying very hard to gather himself. “…but it doesn’t matter what you say, I’m coming with you! If you’re in a position where you might get hurt, I should be there with you.” It stung a little bit that Sabrael was more courageous in terms of facing a dragon than he was in defying Rei’s wishes. “Fine,” he said, “but know this isn’t going to be like Bleak Falls. If you get scared and want to hide, I wouldn’t hold it against you, and I would rather you keep yourself safe than try to be heroic.”
Sabrael nodded. “Alright. I promise.”
Rei wasn’t surprised to find that there was nobody by the gate, and so he pushed his way through, wondering how Sabrael would be able to keep up with him. This wasn’t a situation which allowed for him to clip his stride.
“Sabrael,” he said sharply as he turned suddenly, catching his love before he could crash into him. “We need to run, okay? Keep up as well as you can, but don’t kill yourself trying, alright?”
“I’ll be right behind you, Rei,” he giggled.
Rei smiled and planted a kiss on his kirin’s forehead before turning back and running hard across the drawbridge, cutting some distance by leaping from a place in the city wall where a chunk of stone had been broken away, landing in a minuscule stream and nearly turning his ankle on a slippery rock. He recovered quickly, though, and continued running towards the watchtower, immediately noticing black smoke rising from its location.
Irileth and her small cadre of guards were standing a ways back, observing the damage and talking amongst themselves. Rei slowed to a stop and raised his arms above his head to stretch his shoulders. He squinted his eyes hard against the headache running so hard with a hangover had granted him, that word pestering him on every pulse in his temples.
“Good,” Irileth said, “we didn’t have to wait.”
Rei nodded and licked his lips as he purposefully slowed and deepened his breathing. Surprisingly quickly, Sabrael was by his side again, beaming up at him proudly as he panted with his hands on his knees.
“Don’t do that after you run, beauty,” he said. “You might pass out.”
Sabrael nodded and arched his back to stretch.
“Well, men,” Irileth said. “I don’t see any dragon, myself, but if you could explain this mess some other way, I’m open to ideas.” Indeed, the tower was half-collapsed, and patches of grass and dislodged wooded beams were food for small fires. “We’ll fan out, scour the area. If you find survivors, assess their wounds and, if you can, bring them back here. Come on, boys.” Rei jogged towards the wreckage with the others, but while his compatriots spread on either side of him, he headed to the tower, climbing over rubble to check inside. “Get back!” a voice barked at him. “What?” he asked. “Why?” “The dragon,” explained a battered guardsman as he pulled himself out of the tower, favoring one leg. “The dragon’s still here!” “No, Mister,” Sabrael offered, bouncing ahead to offer his shoulder to the limping man. “The dragon’s gone. You’re safe now.” The guardsman didn’t flinch at Sabrael’s appearance, possibly because of shock, and gratefully leaned against him, but he was no less agitated. “He’s still here,” he insisted. “He is, I can feel it!” Rei was somehow not surprised to realize that he could feel it, too. It was something deep in his veins, something alive. The word, strangely, stopped being a nuisance and started becoming more…tangible. “He’s right,” Rei said. “It’s coming back.” “How do you know?” Sabrael asked. “Get him back in there,” he ordered before grabbing his bow and turning and shouting to everyone else: “It’s coming back! The dragon’s coming back, be ready!” “What are you-” Irileth began as she ran up to the tower, only to be interrupted by a distant screech. Rei jumped down to the ground from his perch atop the rubble and looked to the south with everyone else where the gracefully arching shape of what Rei had only ever seen in storybooks was growing ever larger, its roars becoming louder. He stood, mystified, his heart beating so hard he wondered if he wasn’t going to just drop dead from wonderment. It took the beast swooping low over them all and leaving a trail of angry fire behind it, nearly singing him, before he snapped out of his trance. He was somewhat relieved to see he wasn’t the only one, although he noted not everyone was as lucky as he had been. If he didn’t get moving, though, he knew luck wasn’t about to save him again. The creature wheeled around, shrieking and roaring, every noise accompanied by a gout of flame. It was nimble in spite of its size, and Rei was having more trouble than he cared to admit getting a proper bead on it. But most of his shots landed. Nearby, Irileth conjured bolts of lightning to hurl at him, and not too long after, a volley of translucent blue icicles joined it. It took some work, but finally the dragon was weakened enough that he could no longer fly. Its landing wasn’t graceful; it fell more than it “landed”, shaking the ground below its feet, but it wasn’t going to simply go down. As guardsmen closed in on it, it screamed, burning every one of them that he could. Rei dropped his bow without a second thought, drew his sword, and took his own run at the scaled terror before him. A jet of fire came towards him, the accompanying roar deafening him as he drew closer, and he dodged, feeling the heat burn through the leather covering his upper left arm. When he reached the massive head, he saw the pupils in its intelligent eyes contract. He wasn’t well-versed in the body language of dragons, but he could swear that it was surprise that he saw. The dragon snapped at him when he was within reach, and he rolled beneath the creature’s chin, finding himself momentarily shadowed by its soft throat. Before it could move, Rei thrust both his swords upwards and into the dragon’s neck, its blood gushing forth and drenching him before the head fell to the side and onto the ground. There it was, that thrill, that one he only ever got from killing men or mer. The dragon was a beast, but it wasn’tthe same as a wolf or a bear or a vampire. It was…familiar… He shoved the swords deeper and savored the choked, rasping cry as the dragon bled out onto the grass. It was making noises that sounded like they could be words, but they were indecipherable. Rei stayed that way, pressing his weapons in as far as they would go, until the dragon stopped breathing. Rei yanked his blades from the otherwise pristine, cream-colored neck, and admired his kill, barely aware of his compatriots gathering around. Suddenly, light began to emanate from beneath the thick scales, and flesh began to burn away. Everyone around him backed away quickly, but he didn’t want to move. He stepped close as the body burned, its golden light enveloping him. He felt strength fill his core, almost the way Vile’s strength had filled him, although this was somehow purer, more powerful. Images flashed in his mind like memories – people, places, words without meaning, except for one… “Rei!” Sabrael called behind him. “Rei, are you okay?” “It can’t be,” one of the guards said. “Someone like him?” “What else could it be?” asked another. Rei turned towards the others who were now gathering around him. “What are you talking about?” “You just…you just stole that dragons soul!” Rei felt laughter bubble up from his chest, and he realized he was grinning. “Do you not know what that means?” asked a guard. “Nonsense,” he laughed. “Akatosh would know better.” “I dunno. Only one person can absorb the souls of dragons, and that’s the Dragonborn.” Rei mulled it over for a moment. It fit the bill, he supposed. The new clarity of that word (which had now become silent), the feeling of kinship. The bloodlust. “Well, try shouting,” one of them prodded. “I don’t know how to do that.” “You must, why else would this have happened?” He closed his eyes and thought of “fus”. What was “fus”? “Fus”… …is “force”… …is power. Without thinking, the magnitude of the word filled him, generating power that wormed its way from deep in his belly through his lungs, and exploding from his mouth. He, himself, could barely hear it, but the group of men in front of him staggered backwards, some even falling. Thankfully Sabrael wasn’t in the line of fire, but he felt a nice sort of control as he watched the others collect themselves. “I, um,” he said, trying not to snicker. “I apologize. I had no idea that would happen.” “No harm done,” said one of them. “Dragonborn…” “Stop all this yammering about dragon blood,” Irileth interrupted. As she and the men began to have a light argument over Rei’s apparent gift, Sabrael touched his arm, and he looked over. “Rei, are you…Did that dragon really give you its power?” “I suppose so. Oh, Sabrael, it’s beautiful.” Sabrael’s hands were up by his chest, and he swallowed. “You feel bloodthirsty,” he said. “I am, I won’t lie, and, gods, I want more! But, beauty, you must believe I wasn’t expecting any of this or to feel this way.” “I believe you. This just seems an awful lot like the way things were with Clavicus’ vestige in you.” “It won’t be like that,” Rei said. Taking a deep breath, finally coming down from his ecstasy.
“Dragons, we know now, are like people. To me, anyway. I won’t be mean to them, beauty, I promise.” Sabrael looked down, and Rei’s stomach knotted with his worrying. “Look, I’m certain this is what Azura was talking about,” he said. “Why would she send me down the same path she saved me from?” “You’re right, Rei, I’m sorry. I guess I’m just a little, you know. Skittish.” “I understand. Nothing will change, Sabrael, okay?”
His kirin smiled and nodded quickly as his spirit relaxed. “Okay.”
“Come on, let these take care of things here. We need to talk to the Jarl.”