It had been nearly a week now since James Madison had seen the light of day, and he was beginning to have quite enough of the dusty, crumbling Nordic ruins of Volskygge. He had chosen to enter the ruins of his own volition, yes, but he hadn't been expecting the journey to drag on for as long as it had been. He had assumed (perhaps a bit too optimistically) that this quest would be similar enough to the others he had taken, but these ruins in particular had long since begun to get on his nerves in a way he wasn't familiar with. They were much too long and winding, and filled with more enemies and traps than he cared to face. And whatever was keeping its eye on him in the ruins certainly wasn't helping with his aforementioned nerves, either.
By this point, James had slaughtered more draugr than he could count. The disgusting undead creatures always irked him. He despised how unmoving they were when he approached, only to stir and rise to their feet from their resting places without warning. The amount of draugr buried in these ruins with the same weapons they possessed in life was also quite troublesome. He knew of the Nordic practice of burying the dead with the same weapons they possessed in life, since the Nords believed the souls of the dead would need their weapons in whichever afterlife they ended up in. Even so, this practice was proving to be rather inconvenient to the mage as he struggles to fight off their reanimated bodies.
With a sharp blast and a flare of orange heat emanating from his staff, James shoots a fireball straight through the head of a draugr that had just begun to rise from its coffin. He pauses for a moment to watch it slump, now headless, back into its resting place. He had caught that one soon enough, but it didn't set his mind any more at ease. How much longer would he have to continue through this labyrinth of stone walls and aggravating enemies? Despite everything, the mage still feels no closer to his goal than when he entered nearly a week ago.
Even with his doubts persistent in his mind, James continues along through the Nordic ruins, careful not to muck his boots with the more frequently appearing webs strung out along the floor and the walls. Using his staff to carefully brush them away, the mage curses under his breath in annoyance. Spiders. It always has to be spiders. With his luck, he really should have expected this. The first quest in years that Thomas decided to sit out for and James is left to deal with one of the most disgusting species in Skyrim all on his own.
He gives a light shudder as he thinks about it. The chittering sounds they make to communicate are always like grating on James' ears, and the scuttling of their legs as they move about never fail to unsettle him. Their unusual size has always been a point of alarm for him as well. The largest frostbite spider that the mage had ever encountered had been nearly twice the size of the bear (or, rather, it appeared to have been at the time), and it was a much larger pain to take down than neither he nor Thomas had been expecting. Fortunately for James, most of Skyrim's spiders only went up to his waist in height. Still, when dealing with the disgusting vermin, he hesitates to even use the word "fortunate."
With a simple wave of his staff, James incinerates a thick, white web blocking his path. He watches as it dissipates into nothingness, and snuffs his nose at the awful scent that follows. Careful to watch his boots as he steps over the ashes, the mage enters the next room and is at once greeted by what he now dreaded most.
The room is brimming with frostbite spiders. None of them appear to be so large as to cause him any major trouble, but he still finds it unpleasant. He feels a shiver crawl up and down his spine, causing his body to involuntarily jerk at the feeling. Countless sets of eyes are placed upon him, one by one by one, and the mage feels every single one of them.
James almost wants to kill Thomas for leaving him to do this alone. Almost.
They descend on the mage like moths to a flame, chittering and clicking their venomous fangs together in communication as they scuttle towards him. James' heart leaps in his chest and he grimaces in disgust, not taking one second more of hesitation to begin blasting his fireballs at the hideous vermin.
One by one, the creatures begin to die before him. He is quick with his staff, and more than eager to get the job done. Even so, it isn't quite doing the job fast enough. He takes an excessively large step out of the way of a spider that gets a little too close for comfort. James isn't exactly looking to get poisoned today, so it takes no level of hesitation to sentence the spider to a fiery demise before any harm could be done toward him. Another set of fireballs follows and three more spiders are withering before his eyes. He turns his attention to a smaller, more manageable group of the wretched creatures and readies up his staff to fire at them when he is met with a loud "thwap!" against his chest.
The web hits him hard and fast. The surprise of the attack alone is enough to send him stumbling back and flat on his back before he can register what's happened. Searing pain surges through from the back of the man's head, and a deafening ringing begins to drown out the hideous noises of the spiders rapidly approaching him. With a loud groan, James grits his teeth and rolls over as best as he can to try and get back on his feet. Dizziness overtakes him and his vision sways this way and that, and for a moment the group of enemies seems to double in size.
A few more moments and they would be upon him. Pulling himself to sit upright, the mage gropes around along the ground for his discarded staff. Blinking through his increasingly blurring vision, he spots the artifact glowing a soft orange just a few feet away from him. He begins to reach for it when a nearing spider enters the corner of his vision.
It leaps for his chest. With a forceful grunt of effort, James manages to grab it by the sides of its head, and not a moment too soon. The spider jerks around, pushing and pulling against his grip with all of its might, desperately vying for an opportunity to sink its venomous fangs into his skin.
Gritting his teeth firmly, the mage delves deep inside of himself to bring forth the power he needs. In an instant, a spell roars to life in his hands, and the spider caught between them begins to squeal and cry with agony as it burns alive under his magic. It doesn't take long for the awful creature to cease its movements and fall to the floor with an unbecoming thud.
Empowered by the adrenaline and magicka rushing throughout his being, James turns his focus to the rest of the spiders that are descending upon him. Without blinking, he raises his palms towards the group and allows the red-hot blaze of fury to take each and every one of the spiders as his victim. The mage continues his barrage of destruction until each one collapses into a heap of burning demise.
It isn't until James believes he's the only living creature left in the room that he allows himself to extinguish his spell. Once the rush of coursing magic slows to a calming stream, the pounding agony in his head returns. He lets out a sharp hiss as he grips his injury firmly. With a quick glance, he's grateful to find there isn't a speck of blood to be found on his hands. Still, the hot pounding of pain through his skull nags at him incessantly, and he finds himself desperate for some kind of relief.
Rubbing soothingly at the growing bump on the back of his head, James reaches for the satchel attached to his hip and begins to dig through it. The sharp clinking of bottles makes him wince regretfully, until finally he locates his target. In a smooth, practiced motion, the man pulls the bottle out of his bag, pops the cork off without much regard for where it lands, and downs the red syrup with a few hefty gulps.
To his relief, the health potion kicks in the moment its sweetness graces his tongue. James feels the aching and pounding assaulting his head begin to lift. He drinks and drinks until there isn't a single drop left, and rips the bottle away from his mouth to gasp for air.
As James sits on the cold ground, trying to level his breathing and wait for his wound to finish healing, he feels a deep warmth rise to his cheeks. Gods, the show he had put on was utterly humiliating. He feels an undeniable shame rise inside of him, threatening to boil over. A voice within beckons him to relax. There had been no one around to see the battle, after all. But it's a lie, James knows it. He feels it. Someone, somewhere, had seen his failure, and they were having quite a chuckle about it behind his back.
Hurriedly, the mage rises to his feet. The bitter smell of the cave's dry air had combined unpleasantly with the faint smoke still emanating from the dimly smoldering ashes of his enemies. James finds the smell to be quite disgusting, and decides this to be his excuse to hurry along his way without another thought about it.
Carefully stepping over the remains of the spiders, James retrieves his staff and examines it thoroughly as he continues along into the next room. He silently thanks the gods for whatever force had prevented his artifact from taking damage in the fall. He had no idea what he would do without it.
James moves along quickly, avoiding irritating traps as best as he can and smiting the disgusting undead draugr whenever they meet. Despite his best efforts to save face to no one in particular, he begins to find it increasingly difficult to conceal how impatient he is to get through this awful death trap. He feels as though he had entered the ruins ages ago, and yet he still seems no closer to his goal.
The mage suppresses the deeply rooted urge to admit defeat and head home to the comfort of his husband's arms. He has far too much on the line, especially after Thomas had implied that James would be running home in fear before long. The mage feels the hot flush of anger on his neck and face at the memory. To be sure, his anger continues to be the only thing keeping him in these dusty, musty, stuffy old ruins. He will prove the man wrong.
But when James lays his eyes on the draugr death overlord commanding the following room, he feels the sinking feeling of dread. All of a sudden, he becomes certain he'll be hearing Thomas mock his cowardice when he returns home empty-handed, having been turned away by the sight of an especially lethal enemy.
At the peak of an impressive set of cracked stone stairs sits a singular throne, with the undead figure sitting entirely motionless upon it. Given that Volskygge wasn't the mage's first escapade into these sorts of ruins, James identified it immediately. It was, however, his first time being challenged to face such a creature on his own.
Dread begins to swell inside him as he silently debates his next move. To challenge the draugr means to risk his life in a way he hadn't done since the civil war. Compared to this enemy, the spiders were nothing. They were a momentary annoyance, an itch on the elf's skin that was solved without much consideration. This draugr, by comparison, is a death sentence waiting to happen.
James should turn around and leave. He knows he should. He should suck up his ego and go fetch Thomas so they could face the overlord together, just as they always had done before. But his pride, his damned pride, continues to get in the way. The mage was absolutely convinced he'd never hear the end of it if he turns back now, going and acting like a weakling who needs to ask--no, beg-- for help from a stronger adventurer.
James shifts uncomfortably on his feet, stuck teetering in the entryway to the vast room. He can't take his eyes off of the monstrous creature. They're almost glued to it, like it had cast a spell to steal his attention out from under him.
In all of his staring, the mage notices a soft glinting from the draugr's forehead. Strangely, he squints at it. He leans this way and that, trying to get a better look, a better hint to indicate what exactly he had seen. James finds no relief to the curiosity that now itched at his mind. Momentarily disregarding his fears and the internal dilemma he created, he takes a reluctant step forward. Then another, and another, until he's reached the base of the staircase that the draugr's throne sat so elegantly atop. Closer now, he can spot the glinting light from its forehead as he cranes his neck left and right, forward and back. Even after getting so close to the creature, he still hasn't the faintest clue what he's looking at.
James places his foot on the first stair before him and, with a panicked flinch, stumbles backwards, nearly tripping over himself again. How could he have been so careless? Despite how decomposed draugr are, they never seem to fail to detect when something approaches them.
The man pauses at that. He knew that to be true: draugrs were incredible at detecting foreign presences. More often than not, they knew he and Thomas were there before they had the privilege to say the same. So why, then, does this one not stir? It should have seen him coming from across the room, and James certainly gave it enough time to attack him. But even so, he had managed to get so close to it without it ever giving the slightest indication it saw him.
Even now, as James cautiously ascends the stairs toward the draugr sitting atop its gaudy throne, he wonders why. Had it failed to resurrect with the rest of its kind? Was it playing dead to fool him? Is he walking into the world's easiest trap?
The moment his foot meets the stone flooring at the top of the stairway, he sees it: a single gold and turquoise glinting arrow had been embedded into the draugr's head. James cranes his neck for a better look. No, it wasn't just embedded into its head. Someone had fired this arrow with such force that it had gone cleanly through the rotting skull of the creature and pinned it squarely to the stone backing of its throne. It was dead before it even got the chance to live again.
The mage almost laughs at the absurdity of it. It seems impossible for someone to get into this room completely undetected and to take out such an intensely powerful being with just a single arrow. In fact, it is impossible, James decides. He shakes his head dismissively and turns to move on. It was a cruel joke to play, setting the stage to imply such a ridiculous notion as they had. Shame on them. Regardless of whatever had actually killed this thing, James only considers himself fortunate that it had been before he arrived. And there was no real need for Thomas to know about this bout of luck, just as long as he gets home with his prize in-hand and his pride intact.
Mumbling and grumbling to himself, James absentmindedly wanders into the next room, shoving open a door he briefly regards to be far heavier than is necessary. But as he enters the next room, he's entirely shocked to realize it isn't a room at all.
He finds himself standing ankle-deep in a considerable amount of pristine snow. Sharp winds whip this way and that, slicing through James even through his layers of clothing. Somehow, he had made it back outside. And, from the looks of it, he was now at the peak of the mountain that the ruins had been constructed inside of.
James squints as he looks up at the sky, finding it difficult through the hearty wind and the clouds. It's a dark night, much to his displeasure, but from what he can tell based on the positions of the two moons that hang high above Skyrim's vast lands, it would be morning soon enough.
As he stares up at Masser, the larger of the two moons, James feels a subtle sadness fill his chest. The feeling is hollow, empty, longing. It pains him deeply, and he knows immediately what the familiar feeling is.
"I wonder what Thomas has been doing," he says to himself, barely audible over the wind that floods his pointed ears and catches in the hood of his enchanted robes. It suddenly occurs to him that he had initiated this journey without much regard for the other man. A deep-seeded worry begins to rush through his veins, and he feels the urge to go home immediately and check on the well-being of his spouse. The sudden need to get his prize and leave kicks him back into action.
With a newfound determination, James hikes up the pants of his robes and begins to sludge through the thick snow. One loud "crunch!" after another fills the night air from under his boots, assaulting his ears along with the sharp winds, but he continues on. As James rounds the corner to begin climbing the stone stairway up to the ledge and onto his final challenge, he readies up his staff with a firm expression on his face. He will not allow himself to be distracted.
The very moment his foot reaches the final step onto the highest ledge of Volskygge, a splitting sound erupts into the night air with an explosion of dust to accompany it.
James feels a deep familiarity with the scene before him. The stone coffin lays crooked in front of a foreboding wall, covered from top to bottom in a language he does not know, yet somehow always understands. The wall beckons him, softly whispering and pulling him forward with its blue mists to guide him. James feels the deep desire in his chest to approach the wall and allow it to tell him its secrets, but his mortal senses tell him no, not yet.
The mage watches with great caution, readying himself for the battle that is to come. The creature, a decomposing horror with torn rags covering its filthy flesh, levitates out from its tomb. It lets out cries and screeches of fury sharp enough to pierce the harsh winter air, and James feels goosebumps rise up from his skin at the sound. He watches in deep tension as Volsung, as the creature was called in life, floats to an upright position and summons a nasty-looking white and blue spell to each of its hands.
James feels his heart leap when he lays eyes on the dim face of the dragon priest. The face, a pale orange color that glints a soft red even in the blue hue of the moonlight, stares right back at James with a red-hot fury. No, it isn't a face. It's a mask.
And it will belong to James soon enough.