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He looked down at the Sanctuary beneath the Eldergleam, tears coursing down his cheeks. The Sisters lay in pools of their own blood, dun-colored robes stained with it. They hadn’t had a chance against those that came for them, who had slaughtered them and Jerbodun and Hahnu. He’d never seen a dragon die before, had never heard of mortals killing them. The Priests were lying; dragons could be as mortal as anyone else when faced with an axe. Barely eleven years old, and he now knew the biggest secret of the dragons. He somehow doubted he’d make it to twelve; his earlier life made him all too aware of the brutal world beyond the Sanctuary.

Numbly, he left the protection of the Tree, walking amongst the corpses of those that had been his friends and protectors for the last few years. Playmates, teachers, surrogate sisters…all dead. All the memories and potential, ripped away. They hadn’t known what to do with him, that night three years ago when he ran from bandits to hide in the seemingly shallow, nondescript cave he had all but fallen into. It had been so long since he’d had new clothes or a wash—the boy must have looked like a complete vagabond. They had been divided, at first, on even letting him stay the night, for men of any kind were not allowed here. That was when she spoke up, her Voice cutting through the babble around him and summoning him before her. The boy was not a man, she had declared, and children were as welcome to remain as any woman. That moment changed his life, staring up into those cerulean eyes for the very first time in what would become many.

His vision grew bleary as he approached the dragons. Hahnu had been so close. Seven years carrying her baby, she had but three to wait until it emerged. Now it never would.

The boy sobbed, stumbling against the cold, slick side of Hahnu’s birthing sister, Jerbodun. She had never really liked him much, but she had been civil enough, and amazed at his ability to learn their language. Even under the Great Paarthurnax’s tutelage, the Dragon Priests still took years to master the Tongue. Hahnu had been so proud of him. She would take him with her, she’d declared, when it was time to return to her mate. He would be her Priest.

Jerbodun began to glow, and he staggered backwards, hope making him breathless. Was this the way dragons healed themselves? Was she about to rise, none the worse for wear after her battle? The hopeful look fell from the child’s face, replaced with horror as the body began to burn, turning to bones in moments as a bright, whirling essence rose up like a wraith from snow. It hovered in the air for a moment as he gaped.

Then it started toward him.

He screamed in terror, trying to flee, but the light caught him, surrounded him, sank into him. He gasped, euphoria such as he had never known sweeping through him, then crashing him back down to reality. Finding himself staring at the ceiling of the cavern gulping air as if he had nearly drowned, he realized that he could still feel it, a tiny spark inside his mind. All he could think was that somehow he had trapped Jerbodun’s soul inside him when it should have gone to the afterlife.

The boy rolled onto his side and was sick.

A thought occurred to him and he scrambled to his feet, moving as far from Hahnu’s body as he could. Jerbodun had been an accident, but he wouldn’t risk the making the same mistake with Hahnu and the little one. He looked away from the blood-splattered face of the dragon, tears blurring her to a golden smear that thankfully erased the rivulets of red. Above him, the Earth Mother that guarded the Eldergleam gazed down at him for a moment before vanishing into the tree. There was nothing more for him here. There was nothing for him anywhere.

He stumbled outside, wondering what kind of strange creature he was. He had devoured a dragon’s soul! Blasphemy! Heresy! He was some sort of abomination, he was sure. Cursed. He’d always been cursed.


He froze, then rushed forward, skidding to a halt next to the dying priestess laying against the wooden arch of the temple marker. He caught her shaking hand in his, clutching it as if he could keep her life tethered to her body. “Sister…” should he tell her?

“Meric,” she coughed, flecks of blood foaming at the corners of her mouth as her breath hitched and rattled in her lungs, her eyes already glazing over, “Go. Tell Paarthurnax…Alduin betrayed…” she died with a final spasm of her fingers, but she had gotten out what she needed to say.

He stared at her. Him? Talk to the brother of the Dragon God? That was…that was insanity!

What if he knew? The boy’s heart started to pound as he sat back on his heels. What if Paarthurnax took one look at him and knew him for the abomination that he was? He would be executed, just like those that had challenged the Dragon Priests. Except he had done worse than talk out of turn, he had eaten a dragon’s soul. A dragon he knew. A dragon that had trusted him.

His death was going to be extraordinarily painful, he just knew it.

“You there, boy!” someone yelled, and he jumped as he was forcibly spun about by a soldier. Beyond him, a Dragon Priest sat astride a horse, gazing his way behind the narrowed eyes of her mask. “What are you doing? What happened here?”

“Paarthurnax,” he croaked, mind so numb with dread he wasn’t even thinking. He was a lowly orphan—the name of such an exalted being should never grace his thoughts, let alone pass his lips. “The priestess said I had to tell Paarthurnax.”

The reaction was instant. There was a shuffling as people shifted in outrage, and the soldier’s face darkened, his hand pulled back to strike the boy, when the Priest’s voice called out. “Wait.” Her voice was firm and commanding, so assured it should never even occur to someone to disobey her.

Meric winced as the man grabbed a handful of his short golden curls and pulled him over to the Priest’s horse, forcing him into a kneeling position. It was painful, and his legs would sport some new bruises from where the man kicked him along the way, but he didn’t resist. “What is your name, boy?” she asked coldly.

This was it; the Priest must know, they knew everything. He was almost relieved; if he died, he would never have to face the Great Paarthurnax. “Meric,” he replied humbly, keeping his gaze down near her feet so no one could accuse him of being disrespectful.

“You came out of the Temple of Kyne,” she stated, but he nodded anyway. “What happened to the Priestess laying there?”

He bit his lip to choke back a sob, but the soldier took his hesitation as defiance and gave him a hard cuff, sending him sprawling. “The Priest Lokus asked you a question!”

Meric nodded, starting to pull himself out of the dirt when the soldier put a boot on his chest, holding him down and making it painful to breath. He gasped, pushing futilely at the foot pressing down on him, to no avail. The Priest watched dispassionately from her mount, saying nothing. Feeling his ribs creak ominously, he gasped out something deliberately unintelligible, thinking furiously. Where before his mind was numb with grief and dread, now it raced, trying to reason out how to survive this. Hahnu would not be avenged by his death!

The soldier leaned down, putting more weight on the boy, face leering out from under his horned helm, “What was that?” he asked, putting just a bit more pressure on his heal.

A rib snapped. His howl came out as a pained gasp, but the sound seemed to galvanize the others into action. Another man strode forward quickly, shoving the soldier off him. “Do you intend to kill him before he can answer?” he thundered, reaching down and hauling Meric to his feet by the scruff of his neck. The first soldier looked belligerent, reaching for his sword. His savior noticed, and scoffed. “Just try it.”

Thinking better of his actions, the man’s hand curled into a fist, dropping by his side. His look of promised retribution fell on the boy, however, and Meric knew that the moment he wasn’t needed anymore, there would be more pain. Before things could get worse, he blurted out, “She tasked me with secrecy!”

Everyone stopped and turned towards him, and he nodded, trying to look firm. “The woman there is Head Priestess Eivor, direct servant under the Dragon Ha-- Lovaasunslaadhahnu.  All the priestesses are dead, and she tasked me to secrecy, to tell only the Great One what happened here.”

As one, the soldiers and attendants looked toward the Priest. “Dyre, go see if he speaks truth,” she commanded.

Meric’s heart seemed to stop as the big man turned towards the cave entrance. “Men aren’t allowed in there!” he shouted, grimacing and clutching his cracked rib.

His tormentor laughed, grabbing a handful of his hair again and shaking him. “So what does that make you, Curls? Did they chop it off?”

“It’s a place sacred to Kyne,” he explained, daring to look up at the Priest in his desperation. “Please. If he goes in there, then he has to die for the transgression.”

“Don’t look at her!” the man growled, slapping him without releasing his grip. “If all the priestesses are dead, who’s to know? Is their dragon still in there?”

Meric looked right up into the narrowed eyeslits of the mask and said, not bothering to hide the tremble in his voice, “Yes.”

Priest Lokus twitched slightly, hands tightening on the reigns. “Stop,” she commanded Dyre, her own voice shaking just slightly. Attendants rushed to assist her as she slid from the horse, but she was already halfway to the cave mouth by the time they reached the broken-looking animal. “Hold him,” she instructed Dyre, striding into the darkness of the shattered Sanctuary.  

The large man reclaimed him off his tormentor with a few sharp words. Apparently his name was Langer. It didn’t suit him very well; Dyre towered over him by at least a head. “Damn,” the man swore, pulling off his helmet to give the boy a quizzical glance, “What’s in there that she had to go herself?”

“Secrets,” Meric found himself saying with a shudder.

Dyre gave him a sympathetic look. “Do you have family we can send you back to?” he asked, his tone abruptly gentled.

Meric smiled grimly, hand still pressed protectively over his side. He knew how this would go. “Even if I did, there probably won’t be enough to send back.”

A shaken Dragon Priest was a rare sight, and one that people usually didn’t live to tell about, for one reason or another. So when Lokus stumbled back out of the Sanctuary and ordered everyone to do an about face back to Bromjunaar, no one asked any questions, but speculation abounded. Meric was tied, gagged, and thrown into the back of one of the carts, left to bounce and slide around as they moved far too quickly for safety across the rocky landscape. They camped that night in the shadow of the Throat of the World, long after the sun went down. Langer dragged Meric to the Priest’s tent by his hair, apparently taking delight in the boy’s struggles.

Lokus was reclining on a plump red cushion when he was shoved into the tent, hands still bound behind his back, his left side bruised from the cart, the sides of his mouth raw and bleeding from the coarse rope used to gag him. Normally, he might have been tempted to stare at the lush tent, at the woman in sumptuous robes across from him, mask absent to allow her to drink, stick-straight brown hair falling listlessly around her all the way down to her hips. Now, he was just too tired. Too tired to struggle much, too tired for terror, or tears. Langer ripped the gag from his sore mouth and he couldn’t even whimper.

The look Langer gave the reedy, rather pinched-looking woman skirted the border of disrespect. “Is there…anything else you need?” he asked leadingly, with a familiarity Meric had never heard one use with a Priest of any kind.

Lokus barely seemed to notice, taking a hard swallow from her glass and dismissing him with a curt wave of her hand. “Leave us,” she barked.

Shooting Meric a glare full of smoldering resentment, the man left, aiming a kick at the boy’s injured side as he passed. The moment the tent flaps were tied behind him, the woman raised a hand ringed with ghostly blue light that flit over the cloth sides of the tent. The noise from outside ceased abruptly, leaving them in relative silence as she examined him.

“So, what am I to do with you, boy?” she asked rhetorically. “I’ve no doubt you know. You must have seen, and despite your age Dyre says you’re no fool.”

“I know what’s coming,” Meric finally said when she trailed off.

“Do you?” she countered with grim amusement. “It’s only because you will not let me deliver your message for you that you still have a tongue. I must say, I’m impressed with your ability to withstand pain. Most children would have given up after a ride like that.” She paused, watching him keenly, then shrugged when he offered no response. “Once we reach Bromjunaar, you will have no chance to tell me. Do you really think you can stay firm in the presence of any dragon, let alone the Great One, second only to the Son of Akatosh himself?”

Meric took a deep, careful breath. They had partially Healed the crack in his rib, not wanting it to snap completely and puncture a lung, but it was still sore, and the mass of bruises along his other side caught stiffly. “I do not expect you to believe me, but I have served under the dragon Hahnu for nearly four years. She trusted me—she told me so. She saved me from wandering alone. If my life ends when we get to the Capitol, I still wouldn’t regret my time with her. I would no sooner betray her confidence than my own mother’s.” Memories tried to swamp him; of the first time he had looked up into the warm blue eyes within the golden mask of her face, the same color as the sky in autumn; playing the harp for her as best his meager skill could, and telling her of the fate of his mother, who could no longer teach him; the first time she had laughingly tried to teach him a Word of Power, and he had sent baskets and pots flying with his first try. A tear escaped his watering eyes, and he hastily wiped it on his shoulder.

The sound of glass shattering recalled him to where he was, and his head jerked upward to see the Priest glaring at him in undisguised fury, blood dripping from her hand where she had shattered the bottle she grasped. Panicked, he fell backwards as she rose, striding purposefully around the table with murder in her eyes. Reaching down, she grabbed him by the hair, as Langer liked to do, yanking him off the ground to stare dead into his eyes. “Don’t you ever take that tone again,” she hissed, throwing him against the side of the table. “Dragons are aspects of the gods! They are our rulers and we live to serve them! No dragon would befriend any mortal; not a king, not a priest, and certainly not a little nothing like you!”

Meric gasped and tried to evade her hands as she reached out, but a swift foot sent him sprawling. In an instant she knelt over him, capturing his head in both her hands, long nails digging into his skin. With a sideways jerk, she bashed his head into the leg of the table. “If you ever speak of a dragon as if she were your whore of a mother again, you will deliver your message as an undead thrall, do you understand me?”

Rage boiled up within him, as if a dragon rose from the depths of his mind, and without thought of consequences, he glared back up into her puckered face and snarled, “Don’t talk about my mother.”

Her eyes went wide and she paled, gaping down at him as if she didn’t know what he was, her hands jerking back from his head as if he’d burnt them. Blood trickled down one cheek where her lacquered thumbnail had punctured it, and her eyes followed it as if her life depended on it.

She threw herself away from him as if he carried a blessing of Peryite, her eyes never leaving him, even as she dismissed the spell still shimmering along the canvas of the walls. “Langer!” she shrieked, her voice shrill and holding none of the regality of earlier.

His tormentor very nearly ripped his way into the tent, sword drawn. His eyes widened when he saw the sweating, trembling state Lokus was in, but at his startled gaze she collected herself. “Tomorrow, this brat walks behind the cart. If he falls, drag him. As long as he doesn’t die before he can complete his task, I don’t care what else you do with him.”

It took two weeks to reach Bromjunaar, and by the end of the first Meric was certain Lokus meant for him to deliver his message as a thrall, as promised. Lying where they had left him dragging behind the cart until the Priest called for him, he stared up at the stars, veiled by a red aurora that seemed rather fitting to him. His body was a mass of bruises and cuts, but once he had seen that harridan of a Priest, he would do what he could to Heal himself. He hadn’t been able to use magic for long, but the priestesses had insisted that the more he used it, the stronger he would get. Given that Langer liked to try to ride his horse over Meric’s legs after he fell, or toss trash in the path of the cart for him to be dragged through, he was having quite a few opportunities.

“Still alive, boy?” Dyre asked, appearing as a black void between him and the sky. It was a nightly ritual by now.

“Why? Was I supposed to die today?” he asked, trying to manipulate his swollen face into a smirk. Jerbodun had taken him to task many times for his arrogance, but Hahnu had always laughed, saying it was fitting for a dovah to be arrogant. Meric had always wondered what she meant, that he had the soul of a dragon. He had taken it as a compliment, thinking it meant only that she thought he would be a strong warrior one day. Now, he was unsure. Did not dragons take the power of those they defeated? Was death not the ultimate sign of defeat? Had he somehow unlocked the method the dragons used to steal another’s power?

Whatever was happening within him, it seemed to unnerve those of the Priest’s retinue even more than it did him. His arrogance in the face of their brutality infuriated them, but every day that Dyre walked him through the camp to Lokus’s tent, the whispers grew more hushed, fearful. He shouldn’t be alive. No human could be dragged like this, day after day, and be able to walk upright, defiant, to face down a Dragon Priest every night. He’d eaten thrice this week, and was allowed one cup of water a day.

The boy should be dead, and wasn’t, and everyone in camp knew it.

If assuming an arrogant demeanor made them too afraid to kick him, he would play it to the hilt, even if all he wanted to do was lie down and let it end. He owed Hahnu too much to give in until someone else knew who killed her.

By the time they reached Bromjunaar, Lokus’s control over her followers was slipping as her anxiety continued to show. They showed Meric as much deference as her, to the point that Dyre began bringing him soup and health potions when he checked on him every night. The boy made sure to get to his own feet before accepting them, no matter what he had been dragged through. The day before they reached the Capitol, Lokus had him beaten, but no one but Langer would do it. She had him Healed, then horsewhipped him herself before them. Meric bit his lip until it bled, but didn’t scream once. A dragon’s soul, Hahnu had said. A dragon would not be pained by so pitiful a creature as Lokus.

That night, Dyre took him to bathe in the river, then presented him with clothing that fit surprisingly well. He watched silently as the boy dressed, unable to suppress a wince as the cloth caught on still-open lash marks. “When we met, I pitied you,” the man said abruptly.

Meric glanced up at him, startled.

“I thought you were a child—you seemed so innocent. Lost, confused, grieving. I watched you that first day they dragged you and knew you would die, yet night after night you have struggled back to your feet. Not one in a hundred men would be standing today after what she put you through, and yet here you are.”

“What is your point?” he asked tiredly.

“What are you?”

Meric laughed humorlessly. “Haven’t you been listening to Lokus? I’m nobody.”

Dyre crouched, hazel eyes gazing straight into Meric’s blue. “I don’t believe that. Who are you, really?”

A moment passed as they regarded each other, then Meric looked away, out into the night. “I don’t know yet.”

Crickets chorused out in the wavy grass beyond them, but Dyre remained where he was, examining the boy. “Whoever you will be,” he said finally, “I think he shall be very fearsome. His manner will be resolute and his word unchallenged. When we found you we lived in awe of our Priest. Lokus was everything to us, the whole world below the dragons. She was strong, and untouchable, and we worshiped her for it.”

Meric glanced over at the man, one eyebrow arched, “’Was?’” he echoed.

“The moment she met you she began to fail. Whatever she saw in that lair broke her, yet you emerged the stronger for it. Her will has beaten against yours for over a fortnight, and you have not faltered. We thought her more than human, but it is you that has shown inhuman fortitude. Where once our allegiance was sure, you have guided it astray.”

Licking lips that cracked and bled with the slightest provocation, he narrowed his eyes suspiciously at the man. It had to be some kind of trick. There was no way Dyre could be implying what Meric thought. “Just say what you mean,” he commanded, certain even Dyre would cuff him for that insolence.

Dyre did no such thing. “If you survive tomorrow, my sword will be forever yours to command.”

He wasn’t dragged behind the cart that day. Lokus ordered it before riding to the front of the column, but he was placed gently on the back of the cart instead. Dyre walked along beside it for a while, leading his horse by hand. “Have you ever been to Bromjunaar?” he asked the boy.

Meric nodded. “When I was five. My mother was commissioned to sing for the Harvest Gathering.”

Dyre shot him a startled glance, his gaze taking in the soft golden curls that seemed to glow in the sunlight after their washing the night before. “You’re Ceridwen Golden-Harp’s son? The greatest bard to journey from Atmora?”

Shoving down the howling grief hearing her name called up, Meric shrugged, “Until one of the High Priests took a liking to more than her music, anyway.”

The man was silent for a long while, until he quietly stated, “Your mother’s death galvanized them, you know.” At the boy’s sharp glance, he grimly nodded. “The female priests nearly rioted. Ceridwen was a much-beloved figure, and the only keeper of much of our heritage that is now gone forever. If he would dare touch her, they felt no woman was safe. No priest will ever be able to do to a woman what was done to her without repercussions, perhaps even death.”

Meric looked back out over the tundra. “Yet he still lives.”

Dyre sighed. “Yes, he does.”

For another long stretch of time, silence reigned between them.  Greif bubbled to the surface of his mind and heart again as memories returned to plague him. Ceridwen bending to place his fingers over the strings of her moonstone harp, the sun glinting off the golden curls that tumbled down her back. The same glint off Hahnu’s scales as the rays of light pierced through the wind-smoothed holes in the roof of the Sanctuary. The acolyte casting him out of the room the temple had gifted his mother for the Gathering, days after she was supposed to return. Blood glinting off Hahnu’s face plate. Refusing to cry, Meric cast about for something to talk about. “Where did you get these clothes? I haven’t’ seen any other children with us.”

“I bought them in Windhelm for my son. He’s a bit older than you, but about your size.”

Meric smirked, “Doesn’t take after his father, then?”

Rewarded with the rare sight of the man smiling, Meric was rather glad he had asked. “No, he takes after his mother. She’s this tiny little thing from the other side of the Druadachs. Don’t let that fool you, though. She’s tamed and trained more warhorses than you or I will ever see. Saering looks to be going more the clerk rout, though. Not that the world doesn’t need more clerks, but…” he winced, looking up over the cart and the group ahead. “The Capitol just came into view.”

He wanted to look. He wanted to stand up and gape as he had the first time he had seen it, the sprawling metropolis that housed even more people than Saarthal had. Spanning both sides of the mountain range, it reached deep underground and into the mountains on either side, but its crown was the Skyborn Altar, high up on the mountain, where dragons and man met. “As I said,” he replied, swallowing the dry lump in his throat, “I’ve seen it.”

The soul of a dragon, Hahnu had said. Dragons did not cry, either out of grief or fear. Whether she had actually named him dovah or not, he would not disgrace her by being anything less.

The other Priests didn’t seem to know what to make of him. Four of them, including Lokus, milled about the room, speaking urgently to each other. They spoke the language of humans, since it appeared at least two were not very versed in Dovahzul. Lokus had stumbled the first time one of them Spoke and the room began to tremble. Meric began to wonder just how low Lokus was in their hierarchy, seeing her deference to the others. She told the tale of what she had found—the dead priestesses, Hahnu graven and cold and covered with her own blood…and Jerbodun’s bones, as clean as if they were polished. This seemed to shake them as nothing else. Dragons did die, it seemed, but as he had first suspected, they could be revived an infinite number of times by the Son of Akatosh. For one to be reduced to nothing but bones…

It seemed he knew two secrets of the Dragon Rule: Dragons could die, and Dragon Priests could be afraid.

This, then, was what truly bothered them. They questioned him relentlessly, but he resolutely told them that he had been tasked to secrecy. Whenever he began to be overwhelmed or frightened, he told himself that he had the soul of a dragon, and a mission, and stood tall and uncowed in their presence.

Perhaps that had been a mistake.

The shock spell caught him by surprise. A priest with a dun-colored mask strode up to him, razor-edge tendrils of light passing from finger to finger. Unlike Lokus’s mask, his was made of metal. “This gets us nowhere,” he declared. “We should just torture it out of him.”

Somehow, Meric managed to shrug, reminding himself that power was truth in the world of dragons and their Priests, so he must appear strong, even if he was anything but. “If you all take me to the Great One, you will all hear my message regardless. However, I think he might be annoyed to learn that something meant only for his ears graced yours first.”

The final priest rose at last from his seat in the far corner, shrouded by curtains and tapestry. Meric felt his stomach drop as he took in the gold mask, the tusks gleaming in the light from the braziers. He’d had no idea the Warlord himself was there. It wasn’t arrogance, real or feigned, that kept him rooted to the spot as the man came towards him. Suddenly, he was grateful that he’d been given nothing to drink for several hours, but nothing could hide the widening of his eyes.

“You wish to see Paarthurnax, boy?” a deep voice, like a low-toned bell, echoed out from behind the mask. His tone was slightly mocking.

Meric swallowed, nearly overwhelmed by the sheer aura of power about the man, but that growing part of him resented it, wanted to match that power with force of his own. Summoning just a bit of that part of him, he met the Warlord’s gaze. “I have to. I will not break my word.”

“Hm,” the man replied thoughtfully. He glanced up and nodded to the guards beyond, and they leapt into action, pulling cudgels from their belts and forcing him to his knees with a few well-placed blows. “I admire your tenacity,” the Warlord said when Meric’s face had been ground into the floor just before his boots. “Spirit is a good thing, but yours, I think, must learn to bend, or I shall be forced to have it broken.” The boots vanished from his vision as the man walked away. “We have enough, I think, that we no longer need your message. Lokus saw all she needed—”

“She didn’t see who did it,” Meric interrupted, knowing the beginning of his death sentence when he heard it. “That is the message I am to deliver.”

There was a long pause. “Teach him to respect his betters. We’ll leave the second lesson for tomorrow,” the Warlord stated, and swept passed him out the door, followed by the two other metal-masked priest. Lokus rose from where she had been kneeling on a cushion before the Warlord, watching him with a smug smile on her face. Apparently lesser Priests were not permitted to wear their masks before the High Priests.

“Let’s see you keep that overconfident attitude now, brat,” she hissed.

Once more, rage rose up to overshadow his every thought, and he bared his teeth at her, “Nii los hin pahlok tol fent oblaan,” he told her. The resulting shaking of the Temple knocked both the guards to their knees. Lokus squeaked in terror and fled.

If the Warlord expected him to be more bruised than he was, he didn’t show it. Perhaps he thought they had Healed him before presenting him to Paarthurnax. In any case, Meric was marched out to the Temple steps, where his shirt was ripped from him. Two guards held his arms as a third whipped him before the city. It was not an uncommon sight here, but there were a few surprised murmurs about his age. They increased as his hands were released and he did not fall to his knees. Around his feet the stone was splattered with his blood, and his back felt as if it were on fire, but he didn’t let himself fall to his knees. Dragon soul, he told himself with every lash. He had a dragon’s soul, and dragons did not bow before any mortal. He couldn’t keep the tears back, but he choked on every sob that tried to escape.

“Right,” the Warlord said genially, halting next to him. “You wished to see the Great One, and now you shall get your wish. You will walk there on your own two feet, and no one shall assist you. If you fall, you will be left there like trash, and trodden underfoot. We shall see how long your resolve lasts.”

The priests went first, climbing onto grand chairs with poles affixed to them. Slaves came and lifted the poles onto their shoulders. Meric followed behind, trailed by guards. People stared as he walked passed, wondering. He had just been publically whipped, so he was a felon of some degree, and yet he was being taken to the Altar? He could not be an offering, for he was not perfect. Each step was agony, for the stone of the city was so cold it might as well have been ice, and they had taken his shoes last night, whipping the bottoms of his feet with broad leather strips so that he wouldn’t try to run. Trash and wedges of shale cut his soles. He knew if he looked behind him that his every footstep would be outlined in red. The lash marks still bled freely as well, and he began to feel just a bit dizzy from the loss.

They reached the steps to the Altar and the priests left their chairs behind, ascending on foot. Many of the slaves were the hated pale elves, so it was no wonder they were not allowed to see the holy ones. Steeling himself, Miraak put his foot on the first step, and began to climb. This was Skyborn Altar, not the Throat of the World. It only felt as if he were climbing seven thousand steps. Soon, snow covered the steps as well, numbing the pain but causing new worry. Experimentally, Meric cast a Healing spell. Instantly, a guard stepped forward and grabbed his arm, halting him. Another guard dipped a dagger into a wide-mouthed vial and handed it to his captor. Meric suppressed a yelp as the dagger was slashed across his forearm, but he was released instantly after. Another attempt at Healing proved it to be a magicka regen poison, and he sighed in annoyance, turning to follow the priests. He almost missed the startled glances the guards exchanged at his response.

Meric smirked, imagining what they would be saying if their tongues hadn’t been cut out. Maybe he was cursed, but he’d made it this far, and he wasn’t going to ruin it by showing weakness now. He may not look like a dragon, but if nothing else, he had Jerbodun inside his mind, and he would conduct himself with a dragon’s pride.

It became harder to hold to that when the Warlord reached the top, and the mountain began to shake.

“Oo, Lot Paarthurnax, Mu drun wah hi pahlokaal goraas, mey wo saag rok kent gemindok ok funrah okmaar.”

The guards dropped to the ground, hands covering their ears as their faces contorted in pain. Meric watched them curiously. The one who had cut him opened eyes that grew round to see the boy still standing. He glanced away dismissively, climbing the rest of the way to the Altar.

All his confidence evaporated.

The Warlord alone was standing, mask at his feet as he bent at the waist before a massive dragon the color of the moss that grew on slate. He was bigger than Hahnu. Somehow, Meric had assumed dragons must be like animals, with the females eclipsing the males in size. It seemed this wasn’t so. The Great One was craggier than the dragons he had met, and he wondered briefly if it was because he was male and needed more armor. His jaw sported many small horns, almost like a beard, and his eyes...they were blue, like Hahnu’s. Not as deep or as warm, but for some reason it helped him conquer his fear.

Paarthurnax glanced at him, then turned to the Warlord. “Daar los ni med hi, wah vos vorey kelnat volzah yunrot. Fun zey fos hi mindok hinmaar.” This time the boy did stagger, so much greater was the dragon’s voice than a mere mortal’s.

The Warlord didn’t move, but the one who used lightning magic flinched at the scolding. Lokus and the other looked tense and vaguely confused, unable to follow the interchange but knowing a chiding tone when they heard it. “Zu'u nutiid wah hi Lokus, wo koriaan fos lost vahlut. Rek lost ni faal Zul,” the Warlord said, motioning toward the woman.

Lokus trembled as Paarthurax’s head swung around to pierce her with his gaze. “Speak, then,” he said impatiently.

“I…” she swallowed, looking down. “I came upon this boy on the Aalto Plain. He is the only survivor of a terrible attack on a temple. Some forty priestesses, slain. And…and two dragons. One was nothing but bone!”

Paarthurnax paused, tilting his head a bit. “Fah vahzen? This you are sure of?” At her emphatic nod, he muttered, “Vir zurun.” He seemed to be pondering this when her next words pierced the cold air.

“The other was pure gold, a female, and gravid.”

It happened so fast even the Warlord was left gaping. Lokus wailed in terror when the Great One knocked her to the ground, one claw holding her pressed to the earth as he gazed straight into her face, so close he would barely need to move to bite her head clean off. “Nii nis kos! You lie; you must!” he snarled. Flames licked from the corners of his mouth. “Tell me this dragon was not heavy with offspring!”

“I cannot lie to you!” Lokus screamed, “I would not! I dare not!”

“You are certain she was gold? Not copper? Fun zey vahzah!” he shoved her harder into the ground as the other priests watched, stricken and amazed.

Blood began to foam out of her mouth as she said, desperately, “I speak the truth. I only tell what I saw.”

To Meric’s amazement, the Great One took off, leaving Lokus half crushed as he surged heedlessly into the air, keening. The other two priests hurried over to Heal her, but Meric paid them no mind. He’d never heard a dragon keen before. They’d flown over him all his life, challenging, bellowing, but always the sound was assertive, filled with rage or domination. This sound, though, was the purest expression of grief he’d ever heard, and it ripped open the shield he’d been holding over his heart for the last fortnight, summoning his sobs to the surface.

The sounds of the city below ceased, everyone stopping and turning upward to gape in awe as the Great One passed over them. Lose stones fell from older buildings, and many people dropped to the ground, crying with soul-deep sorrow they didn’t understand.

The Warlord was just struggling to his feet when Paarthurnax landed, whirling on them as if he thought they were to blame. The wind off his outspread wings propelled the priest backwards across the cobbles where he collapsed to his knees. “Wo?” he bellowed. “Tell me who did this. Aus fent kos vothni oblaan. I shall rip them from existence itself!”

Lokus shot a hand towards Meric, small eyes wide with desperation. “We don’t know! He would not tell us!”

Meric swore his heart stopped as the Great One advanced on him, knocking him to the ground as he had Lokus, though his claws remained reassuringly on the stone. Meric found that hard to appreciate with the dragon’s teeth a hair’s breadth from his chest, those storm-blue eyes whirling with fury and anguish as they stared into his. “Wo lost drehlaan daar volrog? Tell me and I will spare your life!”

He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “No, you will not,” he countered.

Paarthurnax drew back in surprise, then leaned back in, eyes narrowing. “Child, tell me who has done this.”

“The only one that can undo it,” he whispered, glancing toward the remaining Priests to make sure they could not hear. “The men who came to the Birthing Place bore the mark of Alduin himself.”

Trembling in every scale, the dragon growled, “Nid! You lie! I will tear you to pieces if you dare utter such falsehoods again!”

Heartache and wrath galvanized him, sending him to his feet, standing nose to nose with the second greatest dragon in existence with three of the most powerful mortals alive as witness. In the last month, Meric had lost everything, and now that his mission was complete, he’d reached the limit of what he could take. “Enough!” he snarled right back into that fearsome visage. “I am Meric, born of the greatest bard in Atmora and student of the dragon Lovaasunslaadhahnu, and I would not tarnish their names by lying to you!”

It was only after the angry words were out and the dragon in his soul settled down to fume that he realized he had said all of that in perfect, unaccented Dovahzul.

The Priests stared, eyes wide. Paarthurnax reacted as if he had been turned to stone, unmoving save for the pants of his breath. Meric wiped the tears from his cheeks and glared at them all. “She took me in,” he said to the Great One, not bothering to switch back to the language of man. “She was there when I had nobody, and now she’s gone! They just came in and killed them all! And I…I hid, like she told me to. I hid, while they died and…I wish it had been me. I wish she was still here, and I wasn’t.”

Paarthurnax lowered his head to be face to face with the boy, staring for a long moment into his tearful, defiant eyes. “She took a student?” he asked. Meric nodded. “She did not take students. That, she said, was my task, and I took it to humor her. Why would she make an exception for you?”

Meric shrugged. “I didn’t know. But…she said…she told me once that when she looked into my eyes, she saw the soul of a dragon.”

The Great One drew back again in surprise, then leaned in closer, almost touching the boy as he studied him. “Could it be?” he rumbled to himself. After an eternal moment, the Great One rose, craning his head on his long neck to find the Warlord. “I am taking this boy under my protection,” he said to the Priests’ great shock. “Heal him, indoctrinate him into the priesthood, and bring him back a week from today.” With that, he launched himself into the sky, disappearing from view in moments.

The Warlord dusted his robes, walking over to Meric with measured strides. The boy watched him wearily, too worn out and hurting far too much to try to run. When golden light arched around the man’s hands, Meric looked up into his graven face, examining the dark brown eyes for some sign of what he was thinking. “Shouldn’t you be doing that for Lokus?” he asked, not bothering with her title.

“She neglected to get the full story, and now will pay the price,” the man said carelessly. “Dukaan, Morokei, leave her,” he called to the others. Meric glanced over to Lokus in surprise, watching the dull pebbles of her eyes burn with hatred as their gazes locked. “If she makes it down the mountain she will have earned Healing.”

“The Great One seemed fairly displeased,” Dukaan protested mildly. “Should we not assure her demise?”

“She has caused us enough trouble already, but I see your point.” Straightening, the Warlord Konahrik turned to regard the woman struggling to get to her knees. “Priest Lokus, I hereby strip you of your name and the mantle of Priest. Live or die as you are able, but do not show yourself in the city after today.” With that, he turned and swept past Meric and the others, heading back down the mountain.

Morokei strolled up to the boy, handing him Lokus’s hardened leather mask. “So,” he said, his voice revealing the nasty smirk hidden behind his moonstone mask, “you are the son of Ceridwen. Such a lovely woman. She had quite a beautiful…singing voice.”

“I recall,” he said, taking the mask and examining the man, emotions tightly hidden away.

“You should put that on,” the priest urged. “Wouldn’t want the common rabble to think you’re one of them anymore.”

“Right,” Meric agreed neutrally, carrying the mask in his hands and following them down the steps.

Konahrik was waiting for him at the last landing, where the snow gave way to cleanly swept stairs. A man in servant’s garb knelt before him. “It seems Lokus’s followers somehow knew what might transpire. The entire group just pledged themselves to you.”

“I thought they might,” he replied evenly, glancing up at the Warlord. “Is there any reason I cannot have them?” he asked lightly, as if it didn’t matter.

The Warlord shrugged. “Normally, it would be at least a decade into your training before you were allowed any servants. You wouldn’t have a retinue that size until you were in your thirties. To date, I think you may be one of the youngest Dragon Priests not born into the order.”

“But Paarthurnax has taken me under his tutelage,” Meric supplied, realizing what the man was getting at.

Konahrik nodded slightly, continuing down the slope. “Saves me having to feed them until the next mass sacrifice, anyway.” He paused again, turning to regard the boy. “You really should choose a name,” he added, then moved on, this time without stopping.

Meric descended the steps, going over what he knew of Dovahzul. He wanted something similar to his own name, if possible. He didn’t want to lose himself to this new life. As he turned the last set of stairs, he caught sight of Langer and Dyre amongst the crowd, waiting. What was it Dyre had said? “Guided our allegiance…” he muttered, then hurried forward before Konahrik could be lifted into his chair. “Allegiance Guide,” he said, and when the man looked at him uncomprehendingly for a moment, elaborated, “Miraak.”

“Meric; Miraak,” the Warlord tested, then made a motion that suggested he was rolling his eyes. “It’s a stretch, boy, but it will do.” Motioning for the slaves to lift both him and Meric into the air, he called out in his bell-like voice, “I present to you Miraak! Serve him as you would Us!”

That done, the slave holding him up lowered him carefully, then joined the other three carrying the chair, leaving him to his own devices at the bottom of the steps. Dyre and Langer made their way over carefully, kneeling before him. “What is your wish, my lord?” Dyre asked. It seemed Langer was choking on the words.

“Did Lokus have a room or something here?” he asked. Dyre nodded without hesitation. “Then we go there, where my wish is to sleep for about a week.”

Dyre nodded again, ushering him over to the sedan chair Lokus had ridden in to the base of the steps. Meric looked at it askance a moment, then settled gingerly onto the cushion. When the men shouldered the poles and began to make their way into the city, his new followers began to cheer. The crowd caught the mood, cheering as he passed, and the newest Dragon Priest reluctantly placed the symbol of his new life over his face.

The Warlord watched the boy move through the masses, the cheering growing until it rang from the mountains. Morokei moved to stand next to him, hands folded demurely before him. Konahrik knew better; the mage was a vicious weasel at the best of times. “Oh, my. I wonder what they think they’re cheering for,” he said pleasantly, a hint of laughter in his tone.

“The people are too stupid not to be easily led,” Konahrik stated, unfazed. “This infatuation of theirs will pass easily enough.” He snorted, “Miraak, indeed.”

“He’s going to be trouble,” Morokei warned.

“Undoubtedly,” the Warlord agreed, turning to head into the Temple, “but the brightest fires burn out quickly. It’s only a matter of time before he does something fatally stupid. And then the world will forget him quickly enough.”

“You’re right,” Morokei sighed, watching the boy step onto Lokus’s former front porch and wave to the crowd before disappearing inside. “He’ll never last.”
Long before Alduin was sent forward in time, a young boy is named dovah. 

This story is a stand-alone one-shot, though could technically be a prequel to Dragon Kin.

Dragon language translations: 
“Nii los hin pahlok tol fent oblaan.” 
--No, it is your arrogance that shall end.
“Oo, Lot Paarthurnax, Mu drun wah hi pahlokaal goraas, mey wo saag rok kent gemindok ok funrah okmaar.”--Oh, Great Paarthurnax, We bring to you an arrogant youth, a fool who says he must disclose his message himself.
“Daar los ni med hi, wah vos vorey kelnat volzah yunrot. Fun zey fos hi mindok hinmaar.”--This is not like you, to make another deliver bad tidings. Tell me what you know yourself.
“Zu'u nutiid wah hi Lokus, wo koriaan fos lost vahlut. Rek lost ni faal Zul.”--I present to you Lofty, who witnessed what was left. She has not the Voice.
“Fah vahzen?"--For sooth?
“Vir zurun.”--How odd.
“Nii nis kos!"--It cannot be!
"Fun zey vahzah!”--Tell me the truth!
"Aus fent kos vothni oblaan."--Their suffering shall be without end.
“Wo lost drehlaan daar volrog?"--Who has committed this atrocity?

Other Dragon Kin works:
 Dragon Kin: Beginnings : Dragon Kin: Anniversary : Dragon Kin, Chapter 1: Lakeview Manor

Ysmir and Miraak by Evil-is-Relative  Hello Odahviing by Evil-is-Relative  Dragon Aspect by Evil-is-Relative
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Oh dear mercy, where to begin? With the sheer immediacy of the setting? The ability to flesh out a shadowy vague cult into something recognizable and foreign at the same time? the believability of the characters? It's all here, wrapped up with an intriguing plot to boot.

As prologues go, this story is what the Star Wars prequels wished they were. All the necessary clues are there to the absolute terror Miraak will become, and yet, we still root for the indomitable child dragged behind the cart and sympathize as he mourns the kindness torn from him by Alduin's treachery.

seriously waiting with baited breath for the rest of this story to emerge.

so, vision: well, skyrim and the other elder scrolls did lay some groundwork, but what she does with it is magnificent.

originality: holy handballs what she does with the bare bones ES gives her.

technique: haven't seen better.

impact: well? where's my sequel, dang it!
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ms-katonic Featured By Owner Nov 8, 2015
Miraak backstory!  I know some of this was in Dragon Kin but it's different seeing it actually written!  All the dragon cult details, and the priests whose masks we take in game all there as living men, Paarthurnax and seeing him turn against Alduin in that moment, and Miraak the Dragonborn as a boy from Atmora, who doesn't know he's Dragonborn yet but will go on to do great things.

I felt so bad for the kid, but at the same time, he has a Dragonborn's strength and resilience and we know he'll come through.  Awesome read!
Evil-is-Relative Featured By Owner Nov 8, 2015  Professional General Artist
Llama Emoji-03 (Sparkles) [V1]  Thank you! The Dragon Cult has always fascinated me, even though I knew it was a horrible organization to live under. 
gh0st-of-Ronin Featured By Owner Nov 4, 2015  Hobbyist Writer
But when the world remembers... that world will cease to be, Kohnarik. 

What can I say about this one? Wow. Just wow. This was definitely beautiful in more ways than one. What starts out as truly sad and heart wrenching, became a roller coaster ride of cringing and pity. And a bit of cheering. I truly like how you let pieces of the arrogant Miraak that we know shine through Meric in his painful and humiliating march. This was my favorite part(well, there were a lot of favorite parts): 

“Enough!” he snarled right back into that fearsome visage. “I am Meric, born of the greatest bard in Atmora and student of the dragon Lovaasunslaadhahnu, and I would not tarnish their names by lying to you!”

Awesome. Makes writing a pure antagonist Miraak harder with such a tale like this, right? But hey, evil is relative, right? xD Not all antagonists are just evil to be evil. 

So................... Darva is going to suck the soul of her grandma???? =( 

Well, this is one of my favorite pieces you have written! =) Thanks for sharing! Wish I read it sooner. I did want some emotional trip some time back! 
Evil-is-Relative Featured By Owner Nov 4, 2015  Professional General Artist
This was certainly more abuse than I've heaped on many of my characters (if you can really call him "mine"...), but I figured that the Dragon Cult was full of assholes, might as well not pull my punches. Aaand now you know why Miraak set out for a hostile takeover. 

That's actually my favorite part too. That's sort of where he really steps into the dragon spirit, I think. 

I have a thought on that. I will note you. 

Not the Atmoran bard, no.

Always happy to take someone on an emtional roller coaster. ;P
gh0st-of-Ronin Featured By Owner Nov 5, 2015  Hobbyist Writer
The whole 'villain' just for the sake of a villain can be done right once in a while. Even then, it can't be an over saturation of them either. Safe to say, it's good to have a balance of 'why', a few assholes, and some good beating to really express a "villain's" purpose. It's a good mixture. It was violent, but hey... it has a purpose. 

Evil-is-Relative Featured By Owner Nov 5, 2015  Professional General Artist
Well at least that is evidence, since after I finished this I wanted to cry and hug the breath out of my baby!Miraak muse. 
ripond Featured By Owner Sep 30, 2015   Writer
Yes, omg YES! This was BEAUTIFULLY written. This is so going in my favorites. I do hope that we get to see young Miraak get justice for his mother. Heck, if you went more into his history And Ysmir's history (I still want to know all of her story, and you did say maybe :D ), I promise I will squee like a fan girl every time I see you've posted something.
Oh no, so now it's confirmed who is buried there...and only one soul was taken when they died, that means Hahnu is still probably there OMG And with little Darva there, that could be bad, so very bad. How did Delphine find out about it? What could she possibly be planning? Does she know Who is there? What in Kyne's name could she possibly Hope to gain? Oh no...she's not hoping to goad Parthy into confronting them is she?
Evil-is-Relative Featured By Owner Sep 30, 2015  Professional General Artist
Glomp! You have no idea how hard I was grinning when I read the words "beautifully written." Unfortunately, this is most certainly a one-shot, but you will get a bit more of his story later on in Dragon Kin.  Part of this is in a later chapter; the whole thing didn't fit, but I really, really wanted to write it. :D 

He is plotting something... You'll see....Ebil Laugh 
Wynnifredd Featured By Owner Sep 30, 2015
Oh, you already know what i htink of this'n. I'm waitin' for the rest of it already. ;P
Evil-is-Relative Featured By Owner Sep 30, 2015  Professional General Artist
Wynni! You got my hopes up! 
Wynnifredd Featured By Owner Sep 30, 2015
i sowwies. must i write a critique now? is me waiting impatiently for more not enough? 
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