The single word, Shouted from Tamriel's highest mountain, echoed across Falkreath Hold, bypassed the Jerall Mountains, swept across the Heartlands and reverberated off the many walls of the Imperial City. It finally found its way through an open window near the apex of the monolithic building that was the Imperial Palace. The window led to a lavishly decorated bedroom, and from the bed with enough blankets and pillows to keep a giant comfortable, a pair of green, almond-shaped eyes slowly opened.
I know those voices, thought Hippolyta Septim I, Empress of Tamriel and Slayer of Alduin, etcetera. Amongst her closest friends and counsel, she humourosly referred to herself as 'She-who-has-too-many-titles'. With a swift yawn, she rose from her expansive bed and reached for the silk robe hanging nearby. As she draped the thin garment about her willowy shoulders and tied it at her waist to shield her naked body from the mild draught of First Seed's pre-dawn, she leaned out the window and looked north. Across the jagged caps of the Jerall Mountains, just barely visible from her chambers atop the Palace, she could still spot the raging clouds that perpetually capped the Throat of the World. It was from the monastery atop this great peak that the Greybeards, wise old practitioners of the Way of the Voice, once again cried out for the Dragonborn, requesting her presence. What could they want this time, I wonder. She mused. The hermits had called for her only once before, just after she struck down the dragon Mirmulnir and devoured his soul, subsequently discovering her status as Dragonborn, a legendary warrior blessed with the soul of a wyvern and access to the oldest of magicks, the Thu'um. The rest, they say, is history. Now it seemed the Empress was to embark upon yet another epic journey that would shake Nirn to its bones.
Despite the early hour, Hippolyta knew that if she did not begin preparing for her long-awaited return to Skyrim immediately, she would be bogged down by the never ending tedium that seemed to appear like weeds whenever she was close to making a decision. Sighing, she made for the door to her chambers, inlaid with a silver dragon. As Hippolyta opened one of the doors, one of the guards with the same symbol emblazoned on his chest stationed at her door turned to peer into the room. Upon seeing his Empress in her current state of dress, his eyes immediately shot up to meet hers with great intensity. Hippolyta's pouty lips momentarily twitched up into an amused grin.
"Y-your Excellency!" He blurted out just a little too loudly. "How may this one be of service?" He asked, striped and furry tail waving about nervously.
"Peace, child." She said in a low, smoky voice that had soothed countless nerves over the course of her rule. "Would you inform my eldest to meet me in my solarium please? And you," She shifted her attention to the second guard, who snapped to attention stiffly. "If the cooks have begun preparing breakfast, kindly have them bring a platter up for us."
"Of course, Your Excellency." She affirmed before marching swiftly off, her Khajiit companion hot on her heels. With her orders given, Hippolyta returned to her room to dress, all the while wondering what exactly the old hermits would have to tell her this time.
Hippolyta turned her head and smiled softly as her firstborn daughter entered her solarium. The pale blue glow of the mushrooms she used for crafting potions mingled with the orbs of pure light hovering above sconces in the wall, illuminating the younger woman's face, so like her mother's, but softened by the influence of her father. Her light green dress was overshadowed by a cloak to ward off the chill in the infant spring air. Unlike her daughter who had lived in Cyrodiil for most of her life, Hippolyta had spent years in the harshest of environments, and remained unfazed by the small changes in the Imperial City's weather.
"Ariadne, my little sweetroll." She greeted warmly, using a childhood pet name as she rose from her chair to envelop her daughter in a hug. "Sit, please. Let us enjoy ourselves for a while." She returned to her seat and gestured at the expansive silver platter brought out by a servant moments ago. Cuts of fruit from the jungles of Elseweyr, fresh juices from the West Weald, warm bread and sausages and cheese, all capped off with a flagon of Altmeri featherwine, a light spirit generally enjoyed with breakfast or by youth.
Over the next half hour, Hippolyta and Ariadne went back and forth with questions and answers about the happenings in their lives. As Empress, the many demands associated with governing Tamriel left little time for Hippolyta to spend with her children, hence her greater interest in Ariadne's life. While her daughter was being groomed to eventually take up the mantle of Empress, she was also pursuing a mastery of the Restoration school. The pursuit was a reflection of Ariadne's gentle soul, Hippolyta had previously deduced, a feeling of pride enveloping her like a blanket. While in the early days of Ariadne's study she had personally taught her, her daughter's incredible grasp of magick owing to her Breton heritage had quickly surpassed the Empress' not unimpressive repertoire of Restoration spells. She was currently apprenticing under Janee-Shon, an Argonian priest of Arkay when not being tutored in the political arts.
As the sun broke the horizon and she finished telling her mother a rather humorous story about one of their patients and the flagon of featherwine began to run dry, Ariadne swallowed a bite of fruit. "It is good to spend some quality time with you mother, but I know that there is something you must tell me. You would not have sought me out so early elsewise." She stated. Hippolyta lowered her gaze and smiled a little.
"Alas, you are right, but this could be the last time we see each other for a while." She admitted resignedly. Ariadne blinked but said nothing. "Last night, the Greybeards once again called for me." That caused Ariadne's thin eyebrows to rise.
"For what, I cannot fathom. What I do know is that while I answer their summons, you shall have a chance to put all you have learned to the test by sitting the Ruby Throne in my absence." She said. Ariadne looked hesitant.
"How long will you be gone?" She asked.
"To travel to Skyrim and answer the summons? Perhaps a little more than a week, if I am to take the train. For my quest? Even the Greybeards cannot know such things." She answered. The train she referred to was a recent and groundbreaking invention. For years previously, a team of scholars and builders had been researching Dwemer automata with the hopes of being able to create their own. While they had failed to divine the animation process that had disappeared with the dwarves, they had conceived the idea for a transportation device that ran using steam-powered pistons to turn a set of wheels and propel it along a set of tracks, much like the Dwemer creations that still walked ruins all across Tamriel. When they had presented the idea to Hippolyta, along with plans to build tracks all throughout Tamriel to allow for rapid transport of goods and people, she had quickly seen the benefits of such a device and granted them both her blessing and funds to complete their project. As of the present day, Cyrodiil served as the main hub with rails reaching into the corners of every province, save Black Marsh, whose terrain had been giving the builders fits for over a year now, and the volatile wasteland surrounding Vvardenfell.
"At least a week as acting Empress..." Ariadne muttered. "I suppose I could handle that."
Sensing her hesitance at being tasked with such responsibility, Hippolyta got out of her chair and stepped towards Ariadne. "None of that now, sweetroll. Come here." She opened her arms and Ariadne glided into another embrace. As her daughter rested her head against her bosom, Hippolyta kissed her forehead and stroked her three foot braid, several shades darker than her own wheat golden locks that fell midway down her back.
"I have nothing less than complete faith in you, Ariadne. Your mind is sharp, your judgment is sound, and the dragon blood runs as strong in you as it does me." She assured softly. Hippolyta gently pushed Ariadne's chin up so she could look into her brown and green-speckled eyes. While quite tall at five feet and eleven inches, Ariadne's Breton blood guaranteed she would never reach anywhere close to her mother's height of exactly seven feet.
"I know you can do this, my little sweetroll. You just need to have a little faith in yourself." Something that Ariadne had always been a little short on. "Can you do that for me?" She asked. Seeing the love swimming in her mother's eyes brought a joyous smile to Ariadne's face.
"... Alright." She acquiesced. "I will try." Hippolyta smiled.
"That's my girl." She whispered, squeezing her daughter just a little tighter. "Now we must prepare. Would you collect Mirabelle, Earynwe and Casiim so I may say goodbye to them as well? I have a few things I must collect before I go." She requested. Ariadne nodded.
"Of course, Mother." She affirmed, standing on her tiptoes to try and give Hippolyta a kiss on her very high cheek. With a small laugh, the Empress crouched so her daughter's lips could meet her cheek. "I love you." She said.
"I love you too." Ariadne chirped before skipping off.
By the time the sun had rose above the walls surrounding the Imperial City and its citizens had awoke, Hippolyta stood ready at the train house, wrapped in a midnight blue dress and a leather belt with nine white stars around her waist, representing each of the Divines. Attached to her belt was the sheath holding her dragon bone longsword, Freedom. It was a very old blade; one she had carried from the Sack of the Thalmor Embassy up to the Battle for Alinor, the final confrontation between the third Aldmeri Dominion, the Imperial Legion and Hippolyta's brainchild, the Free Army of Tamriel. On her hands and around her neck rested a silver and ruby necklace and two silver rings on each index finger, one with an inlaid emerald and one with a sapphire. Their inlaid jewels identified whether they bolstered Hippolyta's health, magicka reserves or stamina, and the regeneration of such. Her dress was enchanted as well, dulling the effects of hostile spells and allotting more power for blows with her sword. Her knee-high boots dampened shock and frost spells, and the silver and ruby circlet on her head would quench any fire. She had a thick cloak draped over her shoulders as an additional shield against the ferocious winds of High Hrothgar. At the entrance to the private car reserved exclusively for the Empress and her company, a Bosmer and an Orsimer watched Hippolyta intently. The Bosmer held all the hallmarks of a ranger: A set of boiled leather armour, a hood, an elvish bow and arrows, and a simple steel dagger at his belt. The Orsimer wore a full set of her people's characteristic, spiky green plate mail and hung an equally green war axe on her belt. Both had a black velvet half-cape draped over their non-dominant arms, a shield outlining a crown embroidered in golden thread.
The low-ranking Legion soldiers milling about chanced glances at them out of curiosity. The officers' eyes were more wary. The varied reactions stemmed from ignorance and awareness about who the two were, and what exactly their capes signified: They were members of Hippolyta Septim's Praetorian Guard.
The Legionnaires were not privy to the reason for the Praetorians' presence, as the elite soldiers answered only to the Empress. But judging by their destination, they had a fairly decent idea. Even to this day, dragons roamed Skyrim's skies, and had begun to expand beyond the Jerall, the Velothi and the Druadach Mountains. Those that strayed were often less than friendly, or had returned from a long trip to Akavir (theoretically) with one or more younglings, as noted by Imperial scouts. Hippolyta was taking no chances, and to bolster the forty Legionnaires that would be accompanying her, saw fit to add her personal guard to their numbers.
The Empress had turned to busying herself by bidding farewell to her children. Ariadne stood back a step, maintaining the stoicism often required of the Empress of Tamriel, even if it was only as acting Empress. Hippolyta was focused now on Casiim, her youngest, and her son. He shared her ears- albeit less prominently- and some of her height, but the rest of his appearance was that of his father Nassan. Every time she looked at him, whether it be his short black ponytail, the shadow of a beard on his jaw or his beetle black eyes, she saw her former husband looking back at her. The two had met when Hippolyta had come to Hammerfell to engage in diplomatic talks with the king, in hopes of bringing them back into the fold of the Empire. She had slipped her guards and entered the fighting pits to relieve some stress, and had eventually crossed fists with Nassan. The less said about that night the better, but Hippolyta had never been a gracious loser. The Redguard had sought her out and, impressed by his gumption, Hippolyta had quelled her irritation and replaced it with interest. The negotiations had lasted for months, and in that time, the Empress had become quite smitten with Nassan. With some clever word-work, Hippolyta and her diplomats had enticed Hammerfell back to the Empire. Giddy at her success, she had sought out Nassan and asked him if he would personally help her cement the relationship between the Empire and Hammerfell by marrying her. Initially shocked, but buoyed by her confession of love, Nassan had said yes. Three months after returning to the Imperial City, Nassan, a man who came from a modest and hard-working background was officially recognized as the second Emperor Consort of Hippolyta Septim I. Almost nine months to the day after their wedding, Casiim was brought into the world.
Even Casiim's personality mirrored his father's. He did not take life too seriously, "Because if you cannot stop and laugh at life every now and then, you have not lived at all." He said once. He used his humour to his advantage in battle, which happened quite often, as he had just joined the Legion with the intent of becoming a General. He had accepted from an early age that as the last in line for the Ruby Throne, he would likely be old and grey before he could wear the crown of Emperor. Hence his ambition of ascending to a no less respected position. But even with his hard exterior, his prowess and his training, he was still a mummy's boy, and he knew he had his mother wrapped around his little finger.
"Be careful mother, please?" He bade her with a hug. Hippolyta smiled.
"Of course, dear." She cooed in reply. "Be strong for me; now more than ever, you are the man of the house, understand?" She asked. She had been calling him that for a very long time, ever since his father passed away. He nodded.
"I will. Someone has to kill the spiders in the castle while you're gone." He japed. Hippolyta laughed musically.
"Don't let the girls hear you say that." She whispered as she kissed his forehead and told him she loved him. From Casiim, she turned her attention to Mirabelle, her second daughter. Named after the mage who had perished in the Eye of Magnus Crisis, Mirabelle's Breton heritage was almost completely uninfluenced by Hippolyta's blood. Mousey brown hair that fell to her shoulders and a heart-shaped face would fool anyone into believing she could not be a royal child. Only her height and her verdant eyes gave clues as to her relation to the Empress. Mirabelle was considered the wild child, a fact her father and Hippolyta's first husband Gallifrey noted when at a tender fourteen months she escaped her nursery and began to wander the Palace, crying out for 'Ma' and 'Da'. She was gifted, grasping, and ruled by passion, an attitude that often got her into trouble. Hippolyta had lost count of how many times Mirabelle had gotten into fights with other children, made an outburst during meetings with the Elder Council, or burned something down after a particularly grueling lesson on the many schools of magick. But when she was not in the throes of extreme emotion, Mirabelle was bubblier than a bath half full of soap. Her outlet for her passion was jewel crafting. To this day, Hippolyta still wore the lumpy and warped silver bracelet Mirabelle had made her for her day of birth. Mirabelle's latest project was perched on her head: A circlet made from gold, quicksilver and ebony, winding about like a rope. The three linked metals separated and flared up at the front, twisting into three skyward dragon heads, each with their mouths open in a roar.
"Be safe Mama." Mirabelle bade her as she snuggled into Hippolyta's embrace. "You still have so much to teach me." She said. Hippolyta kissed her forehead and looked down with a smile.
"Oh? And what should I teach you that you cannot learn yourself little bell?" She asked. Mirabelle let a knowing smirk creep up her face.
"What all dragons can do, Mama." She answered. Hippolyta's easy smile dropped a little as this conversation started again.
"We have been over this, Mirabelle." She said with the air of one who had tired of saying the same thing over and over again. "You shall learn my Thu'um once you have reigned in that temper of yours." She had started asking to be taught the oldest of magicks quite some time ago after listening to one too many stories told by tactless or drunken Legionnaires. And every time she was denied the knowledge, she threw a tantrum. Hippolyta privately doubted that Mirabelle would reach a level of maturity where she would be ready to wield such a power until she was as old as her mother.
"But without the rest, it's practically useless! Watch!" She exclaimed and turned to face an empty spot on the platform, surprising everyone with what happened next.
Hippolyta managed to limit her reaction to parting her lips a margin as a blue wave of energy erupted from her daughter's mouth. It barreled forward about ten metres before fading into nothingness. The deep thrum of the no less thunderous Thu'um drew he attention of every single set of eyes in the station. Only the quiet hiss of steam filled the warm air.
Hippolyta recovered her voice quickly enough. "If you learned the first Word on your own, I suppose there is little that can stop you from learning the rest." She sighed. "Very well. I shall teach you the rest of that Shout Mirabelle, but," she held up a finger as her daughter started to look excited. "Only if you promise me to never use it unless absolutely necessary, and only after you prove to me that you can mind your temper by refraining from any outbursts until the next day of your birth." She stated. Mirabelle's expression rapidly went from excited to crestfallen.
"My next- but that's almost a year away!" She protested. Hippolyta nodded.
"I know you better than anyone else little bell, and with that, I know your love of knowledge will give you the strength to push through this challenge." She replied with a few pats on Mirabelle's cheek that anyone bold enough to say anything would call patronising. The young jewel crafter made no response, but stuck her bottom lip out in a childish pout. Hippolyta's only response was to laugh as she made to bid farewell to her third daughter.
Of the three of them, Earynwe looked the most like her mother. Tall, willowy, fair of hair, green of eye and sharp of pale golden visage, Hippolyta's youngest daughter was the portrait of a classic beauty. What set her apart was the absence of the arrogant nature often present in her mother's people. In its place was an attitude so demure, so shy, that oftentimes Earynwe would not be noticed until later when attending some sort of function. Anything above a moderate amount of attention would set her stuttering and have her looking away with a blush, and even among her family she did not talk much. When she did speak, it was a soft, musical sound that was akin to a dollop of honey for the ears. The loveliness of her voice was only matched by her skill with a myriad of musical instruments and devotion to the literary arts. The bard she had begun apprenticing under had actually come to the Empress and said that he had never had a pupil so talented that he was unsure of whether or not he could teach her anything. A mere year after starting her musical tutoring, Earynwe had wrote a scherzo for a string quintet. It was a very vibrating piece, setting fire to the nerves of anyone who heard it and sending many hearts a-flutter. In the years since her first piece, she had written a five-theme sonata for a wind quartet, two short concertos, and she had once said that she was working on a symphony for a full orchestra. What point she was at in its completion was unknown, as Earynwe remained unusually tight-lipped about her work, even for her. The shy young girl waited patiently for her mother to envelop her in a hug. Her pure white dress shimmered like waves on a pond stirred by a gentle breeze as she hugged Hippolyta with a smile on her face. The gold rings piercing her ears rubbed against her mother's skin, and the baubles in the two small braids falling over her shoulders jingled merrily.
"Behave yourself while I'm gone, alright my little bird?" Hippolyta asked. Asking demure little Earynwe to behave herself was something of a joke, as the girl- who was little more than a teenager developmentally- was the least likely to do anything to draw attention to herself. Nonetheless, Earynwe smiled and nodded.
"I love you, mummy." She said quietly. "Kynareth guide your path."
"I love you too, Earynwe." Hippolyta cooed, kissing both of Earynwe's cheeks and smiling amusedly as her youngest daughter blushed. As she reared up to her full height, the kind and gentle mother faded from Hippolyta's face as the iron curtain of the Empress slammed down to replace it.
"Legionnaires!" She barked, her voice carrying all through the station. Every soldier wearing the sigil of the Empire snapped to attention, the thunder of leather and steel boots a deep and terrifying drumbeat to anyone who would dare stand against the Dragonborn's might. "Roll out!" She shouted. The forty soldiers quickly divided into two groups and filed into their cars two at a time. Hippolyta quickly strode past her Orsimer and Bosmer Praetorians, who fell into step behind her. The Orsimer pulled the lever on the inside of the car, causing the doors to hiss as they closed. In minutes, great engines began to grind and hiss. The train lurched once and slowly began to creep forward. As the four Septim children waved goodbye and the great steam locomotive began to pick up speed, Hippolyta retreated into herself and let her mind wander. Her silent speculation continued as the train barreled north, passing villages, rivers and mountains alike. After three days, she opened the car doors and inhaled deeply, the frosty air of Whiterun Hold filling her lungs.
At long last Ysmir, the Dragon of the North, had returned to Skyrim.
"Your Excellency?" asked Darioth, Hippolyta's Bosmer Praetorian. He and Zhaga gra-Torz had been quietly taking in the fabled monastery of the Greybeards since their arrival several hours ago. The Empress had warned them that the elderly hermits may not speak to them, for their mastery of the Voice dwarfed even hers. Only Master Balfryn had bade them greeting, and even he said it in no more than a whisper. Masters Vuldak, Ursmar, Jalof and Gjukar had remained silent. Despite that, the old men had been quite welcoming, offering them both fish steaks and grilled leeks along with a cup of ale apiece. While each Praetorian was expected to ignore such things as hunger and fatigue, as they were often subjected to such tests in their line of work, none would turn down an offered drink and warm food. During their small meal, the two guards had indulged their curiosity and asked Balfryn half a handful of questions. Things like how long he had been on the Throat of the World, who he had been before he had begun learning the Way, and other superfluous questions. They had run out of questions they dared to broach half an hour in, and had amused themselves with any books they had not perused from the monks' extensive library. Another hour had gone past before the iron doors at the rear of the monastery groaned open. Darioth had hastily put down The Lusty Argonian Maid Collection and rose to stand at attention. Hippolyta looked rather pensive, and did not respond to his address at first. It took a moment, but she eventually looked up with a few blinks.
"Apologies, Darioth. My master's words often warrant much pondering, and this time was no different. What were you saying?" She asked politely. Her warmth made the Bosmer inordinately proud to serve as her personal guard. She treated each of her Praetorians as a friend, and made a point to learn each of their names; something few other nobles took the time or energy to do, if any at all.
"I was simply concerned, Your Excellency. You seem... troubled. Was this master of yours' message one of grave tidings?" He asked. Mouth in a grim line, Hippolyta nodded.
"But I shall say nothing until we return to Cyrodiil. I have no desire to repeat myself." She said, jerking her head towards the monastery's front door. As Darioth and Zhaga marched for the exit, Hippolyta bowed to the five assembled monks.
"Thank you for your hospitality, Masters." She said with a small smile.
"Of course, Dragonborn." Balfryn replied with a smile, overshadowed somewhat by his large beard. "I pray that your Voice will be received by all who must hear it."
"As do I." She replied before addressing all five of the aged hermits. "Su'um ahrk morah, onik julle." She intoned with another bow.
"Su'um ahrk morah, Dovahkiin." Balfryn spoke for his companions who, like the Greybeards of yesteryear that Hippolyta had first met, could not limit the power in their voices to speak normally. With one last small smile, Hippolyta turned in a wave of black and blue silk and fur to glide to the exit of High Hrothgar. Darioth and Zhaga waited half a step before following their Empress out the monastery.
The sight that greeted them was highly unusual, and was enough to awaken the smallest vestige of terror in the hearts of the Praetorian guards. Eight fully grown dragons perched on the stones around the plateau of the Throat of the World, their deep and rumbling breaths sounding akin to some Dwemer engine. Fifteen beady yellow, orange and red eyes focused on the three mortals, matched by the Empress and her guards' six, neither side willing to end the staring contest. It was the dragons who broke the silence. One among them with amethyst scales, immense curved horns, off-white wings and a number of chipped fangs took two booming steps forward and regarded Hippolyta, its snout nearly touching her. As its nostrils flared with an intake of air, Hippolyta regarded the dragon's rounded spines, multitude of scars and compound pupils. This dragon was very, very old; perhaps not quite the same age as Paarthurnax, but she was fairly sure that its age numbered in the thousands.
"Drem yol lok, Dovahkiin." It said in a surprisingly soft and smooth voice. "Paarthurnax-thuri laan mu aam hin grahborodde." It said while turning its head to its brethren.
Burgeoned with curiosity, Zhaga voiced a question. "What did it say, Your Excellency?" She asked. As Hippolyta's ears twitched, a gesture used among elves to signify that a speaker had been heard, the purple dragon moved its gaze to the orc woman.
"Master Paarthurnax has asked that we serve as the Dovahkiin's battlewagons on her quest." It repeated in the Common Tongue, referring to the role Hippolyta had had the dragons who had followed her fill during the Tamrielic Civil War. Her decades of training allowed Zhaga to limit her reaction to a small nod.
"And I thank you for your compliance, wuth gein. Might you trust me with your name?" She asked in a tone slathered with politeness, knowing she was treading on uneven ground. A dragon's name was not something given freely, after all. Only those they considered equal or superior were granted the right to know, and though she was Dragonborn, Hippolyta's understanding of her reputation amongst the general draconic populous had been clouded for quite some time.
"I shall." The purple dragon affirmed with a small bob of his wagon-sized head. "I am Ziiaakkrin, the Ferrier of Lost Souls, and I am the leader of your chosen eight." Ziiaakkrin proclaimed.
"I am Lotstrunnah, the Furious Storm." The orange and blue, flattened-looking dragon stated in a surprisingly high voice for one of its species. A female dragon. She deduced with some interest.
"Zu'u Vokunnirbo, the Shadow Hunter." Said the black-skinned, snake-like dragon huddled in the shadow of a large stone. Hippolyta was again struck by interest; long before she had taken up the mantle of Empress, she had only encountered the snake-like dragons on the Dunmer-controlled island of Solstheim. Then again, word on the dragons' spreading from their grave sites was highly intermittent, even for Hippolyta's extensive network of informants.
"I am Yuvondein, the Keeper of Gold." Rumbled the snow white drake with wickedly pointed spines and a missing eye. His title made Hippolyta cock an eyebrow.
"'The Keeper of Gold', you say." She repeated slowly. "I do not recall you looking as you do when we first met in battle." She said as an opener. Zhaga and Darioth were now listening very intently; Hippolyta rarely spoke of her endeavours hunting dragons when she was still a youth.
If he felt insulted at her barb, Yuvondein did not show it, instead letting a grating laugh loose. "That is because it was not I with whom you did battle, Dovahkiin. I am not the first dovah to hold the name of Yuvondein. It is a name passed down upon the defeat of the previous Keeper of the Strunmahsefeyal, the Mountain of the Horde." Yuvondein explained.
"... And where is this Mountain of the Horde?" Hippolyta finally asked after a moment of deliberation. Yuvondein shook his head.
"That I cannot tell you, for you must find the mountain with your own wits, as all the previous Keepers have done." He apologised. With a small nod of understanding, Hippolyta flicked her eyes over to the bronze-scaled dragon with a rather ram-like set of horns that curved forward into wicked points big enough to skewer a mammoth.
"Zu'u Zahkfonaaryol, the Fire Charger, and I am honored to fight at your side, Dovahkiin." The great horned dragon snarled, raising its head so what little light shone upon the mountain top flashed off his black horns.
"I am Hahlosumah, the Whisperer." The green drake with frills on its head and back and a spade-like tail hissed in a manner that set the three mortals on edge. Zhaga and Darioth because of his voice's resemblance to that of a snake; Hippolyta because of a memory of an encounter with the Daedric prince of manipulation and murder, Mephala.
"I am Dovmaatdrog, the Judge. I thank you for ousting the World Eater from his throne Dovahkiin, for if you had not, Tahzokaan would have surely burned until nothing remained but dust." Thanked the dragon whose spines were nearly as worn down as Ziiaakkrin's, and was the colour of rusty and corroded steel. His wings were nicked and slashed a great deal, and his voice was loud and clear, as befitting one who must have passed sentences unto both mortal and dragon alike.
Finally, one dragon remained. Hippolyta immediately saw that he was smaller than even Lotstrunnah. His wings were full, his spines were jagged, and he was the colour of rich and wet dirt. His pale yellow eyes drifted about quite a lot, and he constantly twitched his leathery wings. A young one, it seems. Hippolyta thought.
"And you, mal gein." She addressed the dirt brown dragon. "Who are you?"
He did not speak for a handful of seconds. "Krosis Dovahkiin, but I am so young that I have yet to be graced with a name." He said with a short bob of his snout. Hippolyta blinked contemplatively and stroked her chin.
"I see. Would you be agreeable answering to Goraansos until such time as you acquire a true name?" She asked. The dragon tilted his head and let out a short blast of searing hot air.
"I believe that is acceptable." 'Goraansos' agreed.
"Now that the introductions are behind us, mount up Dovahkiin ahrk fahdonne. We shall carry you down the mountain to further hasten our quest." Ziiaakkrin lowered his head, allowing Hippolyta to swing her leg over his neck and grasp his horns. Darioth and Zhaga quickly mounted Dovmaatdrog and Yuvondein respectively. With deafening wingbeats and a raging wake of powdery snow, the eight dragons lifted off and dove down the mountain, bearing the Empress and her guards back to Whiterun station.
"Honoured Council members, I thank you for meeting here on such short notice." Hippolyta said to the dozens of members of the Elder Council, clad in their ceremonial red robes. She had been pleasantly surprised upon her return to learn that Ariadne had sent for a meeting of the Council, correctly assuming that something ground-shaking would be afoot for the Empress. Where it would have been another ten days at minimum before every member could make it to the capital, Ariadne's forethought had whittled the wait down to two days. Since her induction, Hippolyta had made a few alterations to the composition of the Elder Council, the end result being multiple additional members from each province so as to remove too much power from the often single representative of any given realm. Such changes were the inclusion the lords and ladies of Hammerfell; the dukes and duchesses of High Rock; the Arch-Masters of the Great Houses of Morrowind; the Lords of Elseweyr; the An-Xileel councilors of Black Marsh; even the King of Orsinium was present. Together, they shaped the future of Hippolyta's reborn Septim Empire. Her eyes drifted to her left, and she could not help but feel a small amount of disdain for whom she saw.
Sicrodion was the Altmer representative on the Council, but he was there to be informed of the Empire's decisions and to convey them to the people of the Summerset Isles, nothing more. After her victory at the Battle for Alinor and inauguration as Empress, Hippolyta had not even blinked before decreeing that the Summerset Isles would be kept under martial law until such time as she believed the Thalmor, and by extension the Aldmeri Dominion's holdouts had been sufficiently cleansed, and 'support of their ideals had been crushed irreparably'. To that effect, the residents received little contact with the mainland in order to prevent the spread of the radical political party's propaganda. Any ships going to and from the islands required an escort and letters of marque written and signed by Hippolyta granting them permission to sail through the occupied territory, and any who carried them acknowledged that their vessel could be subjected to a random screening. Many decried Hippolyta's heavy-handed approach to dealing with the formerly rogue state, and behind her own back, her people uttered oaths like 'traitor' and 'earless', a great insult amongst all mer.
If these opinions had any impact on her, she did an admirable job hiding it.
"I do not wish to keep you for long, so I shall get straight to the point:" Hippolyta clasped her hands behind her back and took a calming breath. "Paarthurnax, Master of the Greybeards, has warned me of a vision he received from the Dragon God himself. He informed me of flashes of lands ravaged by brothers and sisters waging war against each other, burned and frozen over by snow drifts taller than even giants. He told me the vision imparted feelings of pain, suffering and abject terror at the hands of ghostly white men. And finally, he told me that as this white death spreads and blankets all of Nirn, dooming us all to an everlasting night, a hellish warrior sits upon a throne of snakes and laughs as we turn on each other and tear what few mortals remain apart for just a few more minutes of safety." Hippolyta stopped and took another breath. Just repeating the words her mentor had uttered was causing fear to rise in her gullet. With eyes roving, she observed the councilors, who stared back at her in various degrees of rapture, curiosity and calculation.
"In short, men and women of the Council, what I believe Akatosh was trying to pass on to us mortals is the coming of another Oblivion Crisis." She summarised.
Dead silence was all that filled the circular chamber for a good ten seconds. Soon after, murmurs and questions and cries began to fly like hummingbirds in a field of flowers.
"Nahlot!" Hippolyta shouted, the power behind the draconic word reverberating through the room alongside her deafening voice. The Councilors immediately quieted. "Now that I have your attention, perhaps we can discuss this civilly?" She 'suggested'. From the shadows near the great oak doors, Ariadne watched her mother in silent wonder. This was the woman who brought down a government, reunified Tamriel and strengthened its bonds to a point unseen in centuries, if not a millennium.
"I mean no offense Your Excellency, but can you truly trust the spoken word of an old man dictating what he claims to be a vision from one of the Divines?" Asked Tritus Cavalli, the Duke of Anvil. Bald and beardless, his head was as smooth as an egg, and while wrinkles and stress lines marred his face, a small vestige of handsomeness remained. Cavalli had been a Duke since he was nineteen, and his savant-like intelligence had made him an incredibly cunning politician. She was loath to admit it, but Hippolyta knew that it was only by virtue of her greater experience that had allowed her to out-manoeuvre Cavalli when he opposed her. And even then, she had calculated based upon their engagements, that it only worked eight times out of ten.
"The word of an old man, no. What I can trust, Councilor Cavalli, is the word of a true son of Akatosh- a dragon as old as Alduin- who gave me the tools and knowledge I needed to bring down the World Eater." Hippolyta answered calmly. The multitude of wrinkles around his eyes did not lessen, but Cavalli said nothing more.
"Did he see where the gates would open and this white death would pour from?" Asked Mothar gro-Laz, the King of Orsinium. Hippolyta held no small amount of respect for the Orc king. He spoke plainly when he wanted something, and always endeavoured to get straight to the point; his simple approach to politics and rule was a much-needed break form the complicated word dances and vague desires every other royal present engaged in.
"Indeed, and that is one reason I have asked you all here. This white death arises from beyond a giant wall of ice that spans a continent and is as old as Direnni Tower. I know Tamriel as well as any adventurer, and I can say with certainty that nothing of the sort exists anywhere here. And because this land is comprised entirely of men, Akavir can be ruled out. That leaves only one place where this wall could possibly be: Westeros." She stated. Westeros. The Shrouded Land as it was called by some. So few had ventured to the far off land, and even fewer had made the return trip, leading many to believe it to be a myth. Hippolyta herself had met a Khajiit captain many years ago that had braved the trek to the other side of the planet and claimed to have walked among the purely man-inhabited country. When she had shown skepticism, he had presented to her a silver coin embossed with the likeness of one of the land's former kings, Agan Something-or-Other.
"Westeros? This one believed it to be just a legend." said Jo'tungo, Hippolyta's Imperial Battlemage. After appointing him, she had been pleasantly surprised to learn that the inky black Cathay-raht was a descendant of J'zargo, the fiercely competitive mage Hippolyta had ceded the position of Arch-Mage to when she was named Empress. Unlike his forefather, Jo'tungo took a rather more indirect approach to battle magicks, and held masteries in both the Alteration and Illusion schools. He had demonstrated his mastery to her as a Legion Quaestor when holding a garrison with a turma of men during the Whitestrake Rebellion. He had cast a transmuting spell over a platoon's worth of rebels, changing their armour from steel and leather to flimsy pieces of wood. Afterwards, not a single warrior made it through the rain of arrows or his mind-addling rune traps, and the stronghold he was charged with defending was left unmolested as the opposing forces fled or ripped each other to shreds. He did not lose one man that day.
"You are not the only one, my friend." She assured him. "And this is the crux of the matter. Paarthurnax told me that this is not the first time this white death has attempted to consume the world; the men of Westeros drove them back into their icy home thousands of years ago once before. What they have not done is battled this scourge with a Daedric Prince driving it forward. That is where I come in."
"I assume your plan involves more than just marching over there, shouting to the streets that a Daedra moves to consume then while swinging a sword about." King Tulqth of Black Marsh dryly chimed in. The Argonian monarch was highly distinguishable, with his navy blue scales and white fringe, and unlike most of the other natives of Black Marsh, he possessed a dry and sarcastic sense of humour just as prominent as the first day she had met him. He made it hard for her to keep a straight face while attempting to entice him and his people into the Empire, especially when he had been portrayed as pragmatic and fiercely loyal to his people.
"Indeed it does, King Tulqth, but I shall take your droll suggestion under advisement." Hippolyta riposted just as dryly, sending a small ripple of chuckles through the Council. "But no, I shall approach this with more subtlety. I and a Legion of soldiers will cross the seas to Westeros with the intent of 'touring the land of our neighbors for the purpose of establishing relations' with its ruler and all sundry. This will provide us with enough cover to gather intel pertaining to the coming crisis, sway key locals to our cause, and when the time is right, drive these abominations back to the darkness from whence they came." It was a simple plan, but that was how Hippolyta operated: No unnecessarily complicated steps, and if a cover was to be kept, it was easy to maintain.
"And if you cannot sway them? Or if you should fail?" Asked Cavalli.
"Those two possibilities are another point I must address. Because of the severity of this situation, I wanted to give you time to spread the word amongst your own people in whichever fashion you choose, and eventually rally your forces should the Legion and I fail. If that indeed becomes the case, let it be known that my final wish is for every warrior of the Empire to make haste for Westeros to finish the job I started." Hippolyta's voice grew somber as she laid out her contingency plan.
"Ah, but what am I saying? I have no doubt that we will succeed. I've dealt with the worst of Nirn and Oblivion before with naught but a sword at my side, magick at my fingertips and the clothes on my back; what is one last war with the Legion at my side?" She asked flippantly, lightening the mood considerably.
"You have your orders, Councilors. Spread the word to your people and rally your armies. That will be all. General Fire-Eater," She said to the Nord general of the Third Legion, an absolute terror with an axe in her hand, and a renowned fire mage. "Assemble the Third Legion at the Rumare Docks and send word to the Navy to muster the Fourth Fleet."
"At once, Excellency." She said with a bow and strutting off at a fast clip.
"Zhaga?" She turned to her Orsimeri guard, who grew curious at the grin on the Empress' grin. It was the look a child might have when they received a gift that they had wanted for a long time on their day of birth. "Head down to the East Empire Company warehouse and tell them to open Bay Five."
Knowing exactly what Hippolyta was talking about, Zhaga could not stop a feral grin from lighting up her face. "Of course, Your Excellency."
In five days' time, the Third Imperial Legion had assembled at the docks with as many supplies as they could carry, and were loading them onto the six supply galleys that would be coming with them. The supply galleys looked virtually the same as the war galleys, but had had most of the living quarters and barracks removed to make space for fresh water, food, smithing and repair supplies, horses, clothing and the like. Only enough space for a small team of sailors, rowers and twenty soldiers remained aboard the supply galleys.
The Legionnaires themselves would mostly be riding aboard the war galleys, ninety metre ships that could support two hundred men apiece, not including the sailing crew. While they were designed for troop transport and to quickly make landfall to dispense soldiers, Imperial war galleys could still hold their own in naval engagements, thanks to the Dwemer-inspired siege ballistae that had been made standard feature during the Naval reforms. The top two decks housed twelve light ballistae per side, as well as four bow and stern ballistae, totaling thirty-two. These oversized crossbows could fire six or ten kilogram broadhead bolts, pitch bolts that ignited on impact or harpoon bolts if an enemy ship was to be commandeered. While a force to be engaged cautiously, the fleet's twenty Legion war galleys were quite slow and cumbersome, making them less than ideal for frontline combat. As such, they were to be kept in the core of the fleet to provide supporting fire and let the ships-of-the-line handle the fighting.
While four thousand members of the Third Legion were carried by the galleys, the remaining two thousand were interspersed among the combat ships, comprised of frigates and carracks. The frigates were the workhorse of the Fourth Fleet, used as escorts for larger ships and flanking manoeuvres in battle. At forty-eight metres long with two square-rigged sails and boasting thirty-two ballistae, these swift and manoeuvrable ships packed all of the firepower of a war galley into a much smaller and faster vessel. Crewmen excluded, sixty-four Legionnaires occupied each of the twenty frigates in order to operate the ballistae or repel boarders. In addition, the frigates used both light and heavy ballistae. The light were the bow and stern weapons and used six or ten kilogram broadhead/pitch bolts. The heavy broadsiders used twelve or sixteen kilogram broadhead/pitch bolts.
The carracks were the heavy hitters of the Fourth Fleet. Sixty-six metres long and with seventy-four ballistae with which to rain hell upon an attacker meant that the Fourth Fleet warranted only four carracks to carry 148 Legionnaires each. The lower gun deck housed twenty-eight heavy ballistae, and the upper deck housed thirty light. The bow and stern were armed with eight ultralight ballistae- only being able to shoot four kilogram bolts- and two scattershot ballistae, which were highly useful for shredding sails, but only worked at close range.
And then there was the flagship of their journey, Hippolyta's personal floating fortress, the Dream Crusher.
It was the first and only ship of its kind. The chief builder Hippolyta had commissioned to build the mighty war machine had called it a 'dreadnought'. The first readily apparent attribute of the Dream Crusher was its size. The largest man o' wars in the Imperial Navy were the flagships of the First and Second Fleets, the Crusader and the Marauder, both seventy-eight metres long and boasting ninety-six ballistae. The two of them combined might have been able to take on the 120 metre Dream Crusher. Taking influence from the Crusader and Marauder, the dreadnought's frame was composed of Dwemer metal to keep its integrity in the heat of battle. The Dream Crusher took this concept one step further, encasing the timber composing its body and masts in a thin sheath of Dwemer armour. The dreadnaught's shape was unique, tapering only slightly from the stern of the vessel to a point, then sharply narrowing into an angled wedge with a thick bar of metal that served as a ram. If one were to look at the Dream Crusher from above, one might say it resembled a blade, cutting through water and anything in its way. The large volume of metal and the ship's size meant that it was very slow, and even with the immensely powerful and innovative Dwemer steam-powered propeller running at full tilt and a favourable wind in her three enormous square-rigged sails, the Dream Crusher had never reached a speed above seven knots. But the dreadnought was not built for speed.
The very same ship builder commissioned with the construction of the Dream Crusher had said "This ship shall be designed for one thing, and one thing only: To ruin someone else's day." His description had garnered laughs and approving roars from his subordinates. The amount of carnage the dreadnought could wreak was unparalleled, owing to its three decks of ballistae, totaling 120. Each gun deck housed twenty launchers per side, the lowest composed of heavy ballistae, the middle deck were light, and the top deck were ultralight and scattershot. As with every ship in the Navy, should the ballistae fail, the Dream Crusher was not without defenses, as archers and mages could rain down steel and magickal destruction in the absence of giant crossbow bolts. It had taken three years to finish, seen action only once, and despite her offering it to the Imperial Navy for use, remained Hippolyta's property. Grand Admiral Janus Sforza had said that no armed force should possess so much power, and that if she ever wanted the support of the Imperial Navy, she was to lock the dreadnought away unless an event of cataclysmic proportions were to occur. Knowing that she could not sit the Ruby Throne without Legion support, the Empress grudgingly had the Dream Crusher deactivated and locked away from the world.
It was on the newly dusted off ship that Hippolyta, who had commissioned and paid for it out of her own pocket, stood proudly. By her sides were the platinum-haired General Tonje Fire-Eater, commander-in-chief of the Third Legion, and Legate Sattar, her bald Redguard second-in-command. The only other non-sailors and weapon operators on the Dream Crusher were one hundred of Hippolyta's Praetorian Guard. Thus while the dreadnought was lightly-manned, numerically-considered, it was still the most heavily defended ship on the water.
"General, status?" Hippolyta asked. Tonje clicked her heels together and straightened her back.
"Preparation is complete Your Excellency. We stand ready to move on your command." She reported. 'Taciturn' was the word most people used to describe the older Nord. She called it 'efficient'.
"Good. I shall make a speech before we go." She said more to herself as she made for the prow of the Dream Crusher. Letting a splinter of her power bleed into her voice, Hippolyta's words boomed across the docks and the fifty ships of the Fourth Fleet, and up into the air where her eight dragon companions lazily circled.
"Brave men and women of the Legion and Navy! Dov do Tahzokaan! On this day, we stand ready to embark on another great quest. We travel to a land unknown, and the enemy we seek is a stranger, but the one who drives them is far from unfamiliar. The men and women of Westeros have never faced a foe so foul and tyrannical as a Daedric Prince, and if left to be, they will surely be devoured and damned to the lowest planes of Oblivion! It is up to we few, we happy few, we band of brothers and sisters to make sure that does not happen!" She shouted, her voice growing stronger with every word.
"We will not sail forth into war seeking riches, or plunder, or accolades! We will sail forth into war as sword and shield, seeking only to cut this darkness from a world it has yet to sully. For we are the Imperial Legion, the finest military force in all of Tamriel, and the one I am honoured to call my own!" She was positively roaring as she unsheathed Freedom, the ebony core of the dragon bone blade flashing in the light.
"This white death will invariably try to take from us," she began just loud enough for the farthest ship to hear, before raising her voice and bellowing so loud that the people on the other side of the Imperial City felt their homes rattle. "BUT WE WILL GIVE THEM NOTHING! AND FROM THEM, WE WILL TAKE EVERYTHING!!!" She sucked in a much needed breath as six thousand men, women, mer and beast-folk answered her speech with a tremendous roar and rattling weapons.
"Full speed ahead!" Yelled Captain Myrra Horatiu, an aged Breton woman. The call was echoed through every ship in the fleet, and slowly, the frigates moved forth, followed by the carracks, the galleys and finally the dreadnought. The eight dragons hovered above the ships and beat their wings, giving them a little extra boost in speed.
As her ship began to crawl through the Upper Niben River and she waved goodbye to her children standing at the dock, Hippolyta contemplated the voyage ahead. After they reached the mouth of the Niben, the Fourth Fleet would keep relatively close to the southern coast of Black Marsh. Once they had seen the shores of Lilmoth, they would angle slightly north and begin their trek across the Padomaic Sea, stopping at Cathnoquey, the southernmost island in the archipelago separating Tamriel and Akavir. They would rest on the island for no more than three days, to ensure their presence would draw as little attention as possible. From there, they would make all haste southeast to the very tip of the Tsaesci Peninsula for another brief respite. In total, the voyage to Akavir as to be almost seven thousand kilometers long. At an average cruising speed of seven knots, favourable weather and with their rest period on Cathnoquey factored in, the Fourth Fleet would be at sea for twenty-five days at the very best before reaching Akavir. From there, after two days to rest and hopefully avoid the armies of the vampiric and reptilian Tsaesci, it would be another seventy-four hundred kilometers until they made landfall on The Shrouded Land. Again, with favourable conditions, they would finish their journey from Akavir to Westeros in a minimum of twenty-five days.
With these figures in mind as she retreated to her private chamber, Hippolyta knelt by her window and bean to pray. She prayed to Kynareth for eastbound winds and calm waters. She prayed to Azura, so the moon and the stars might light their way at night. She prayed to Talos, beseeching Him to grant strength to her loyal subjects and her for the war that was to inevitably come.
And finally, she prayed to Stendarr to let His wisdom shine down upon her children, more specifically Ariadne, who would rule Tamriel in her absence. In the back of her mind, she hoped that if something did happen in her absence, that her children would show restraint when exercising their great power.
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