"I need you to go and interview Falanu Hlaalu," Taminwe told him. "It only seems appropriate to send you, now you're dead."

That joke was beginning to get on his nerves, which is probably why she repeated it. But she really did want him to go to Skingrad. Tsarrina had made her monthly trip to the Red Dragon Club to do the books, and as always, they'd exchanged gossip while she worked. She'd heard from Silanu about a suspicious Altmer mage visiting her sister. She was in regular contact with Falanu through messages carried by one of their regular customers, Bjarne Long-Arm, who lived in Skingrad and visited once a week. The reporter remembered him. He was the Nord he'd met in the West Weald Inn on his first trip to Gweden.

"I thought at first that she was describing Lathenil," explained Taminwe, "but this was someone else. Tsarrina confirmed that Lathenil was still at Gweden."

"This other mage was buying all the Columbine Root Pulp, Ginkgo Leaf, Ginseng, Nightshade, and Water Hyacinth Nectar he could lay his hands on. That made no sense to Falanu, as they're all ingredients for fortifying Magicka, and an Altmer usually has that to spare. But if they weren't for his own use, who would it be?"

"Go down to Skingrad and see if she has any more clues, and then maybe you could go on to Gweden, and finish up with Lathenil. He's probably calmed down a lot by now, so you should be able to get more from him."

The last time he'd spoken to Falanu was when he went to get the key to Miranu's laboratory, and that was quite an exhausting experience. He made a mental note to refuse any potions, ointments or the like this time, especially if Miranu made them.

Falanu repeated what Taminwe had told him, but added that she'd been curious about where the Altmer was going with all those ingredients he'd bought. She'd followed him after he left her shop, until it was apparent that he was leaving town through the East gate. She'd gone up to the bridge leading to the castle in time to see him pass beneath it and walk up the road. When he turned off towards Silorn, she went out on the Castle hill to watch which way he went from there. He wasn't headed for the ruin itself, but left the trail after it crossed the river. When she lost sight of him in the distance, it appeared that he was traveling due East.

"There's not much in that direction until you get to Fort Black Boot," she told him. "I've been out that way gathering ingredients before, so I know. I don't get too close to the Fort, though. There seem to be conjurers living there, from what I can tell, and I have no wish to be chased by a summoned Clannfear." She marked the fort on his map, so he'd be able to find it if he needed to.

She also described the man's robe, in case he saw him later. It was blue, like a regular mage, or conjurer, would wear, but had a border of gold writing in what looked like Daedric letters. Not a style she'd seen before.

When he left Skingrad, it was to the West. He needed to have another chat with Lathenil before he dealt with Fort Black Boot. That sounded more like a job for the Champion anyway, as conjurers usually hurled spells first, and talked afterward.

Freija saw him walking up to the farm and ran to meet him. "Are you crazy?" she demanded. "There could be more assassins looking for you!"

He assured her that it was much less likely now that he'd faked his death in a bridge collapse. "You'll probably read about that in the Black Horse Courier soon, " he told her. "We just need to leave enough time for an investigation, so there are some 'facts' to quote, and a few witnesses to the scene that can be interviewed."

Freija wasn't easily convinced. "If you're wandering around the country, you should have someone with you to defend you." He got the impression that she meant herself.

He reminded her that she was needed at Gweden to protect Lathenil, but that didn't sway her. "Nelrene's here, and Prizna, and Maeva, and Sugar. That's enough to look after one elf."

She hadn't mentioned Darwen. It turned out that the Bosmer was off on a bear-hunting trip, which undermined his argument further. If Darwen felt she could do that, it really had been quiet around the farm. So Lathenil wasn't attracting any attention, and that probably meant nobody knew he was here.

He went in and spoke to Lathenil. The Altmer was much more relaxed than he'd been the first time, but he was still adamant that the Thalmor were the root of all evil, and responsible for everything wrong with the world. He'd most likely never change his mind about that. Unfortunately he didn't have any information about their activities outside the Summerset Isle. Other than the attempts on their lives, that is.

Lathenil had no idea who the mage was that had bought the supplies from Falanu. The reporter passed on her detailed description of the man's robe, but it didn't evoke any reaction.

When the reporter went to leave, he found Freija, in her travel robe, by his side. "I'm not letting you journey back alone," she told him.

"But you're unarmed," he protested. "How are you going to protect me?"

Freija summoned her claymore and armor to show him. The weapon looked fearsome enough, but just skimpy plate panties? They didn't look like they'd do anything but distract the enemy. She admitted that was one purpose of her outfit, but assured him that it also held a significant Shield enchantment. She was better armored than she'd be with a full set of steel plate. He agreed that it did look a lot better, too. Like many Nord women, she had a lot to display.

As they walked together toward Skingrad, he told her about the Altmer mage and Fort Black Boot. He'd be asking the Champion to go down there when he got back to the city. "But won't that be too late?" she asked. "It's been a day or two since he went there already. If you leave it much longer, he'll have moved on."

By the time they reached the West gate to Skingrad, she'd changed her plans from protecting him, to leading him directly into danger. Conjurers were a known quantity, and it was the unknown that worried her. She could handle a nest of conjurers on her own, and there were ways to keep him safe at the same time. His Illusion skill was quite high, as he'd made a lot use of his Charm spell, and he'd be able to sustain a useful duration of invisibility if he learned that. She was sure the Mages Guild would have that one available.


At the door of the fort, she made him cast the Invisibility spell before they went in. "I'll open any doors," she told him."You should be behind me anyway, watching my back, and warning me if any of them get around us. If you need to re-cast, step behind a pillar, so they don't see you doing it."

As he watched her swing into action, he was reminded that she had been a team Champion at the Arena. She certainly knew how to use that claymore, and mowed down the conjurers with ease. But the summon spell eventually expired, just as another stepped out of a corridor behind them.

Freija had her hand raised to re-cast her bound equipment and was unaware of the threat at her back. He realized that if he called out to warn her, he'd give himself away, just as much as losing his invisiblity would. So he stabbed his shortsword into the conjurer's back as he passed. His howl of pain gave Freija all the warning she needed, and she swung her claymore through his neck.

A clannfear dissolved into smoke a few feet short of the reporter, who hastily cast invisibility again.

The corridors wound on down to a wider hallway lined with stone coffins, from which a broad stairway led up. Around the corner at the top came a hooded figure flinging shock, and the reporter had to duck behind a column. Invisible or not, that lightning was something to avoid. He heard Freija curse in a most un-ladylike manner, and a thump as someone's body hit the ground. The lightning stopped, but whether that was for lack of a source, or a target, wasn't clear.

Remembering that he was still invisible, he stepped back out to look. Freija was standing over a crumpled figure at the foot of the stairs. She moved on, cautiously now, as that last Adept had been more than she'd expected. He hurried to catch up with her.

In the chamber at the top, there was a large stone throne. Sitting on it was the largest woman he'd ever seen, at least eight feet in height, if she'd been standing. Even now, her eyes were higher than his own, and they seemed to be looking straight at him.

That was because they were. The Xivilai was a mage, and could detect his life despite the invisibility spell. She spoke directly to him.

"Who are you that has come to defy those annoying mortals that summoned me?"

He let the spell dissipate, as it seemed pointless now. He introduced the two of them to her, and was given her name, Aranxa, in return. Freija dispelled her bound equipment, and relaxed somewhat. Aranxa didn't appear to be on the conjurers' side, at least.

The huge woman rose from her seat, and led them around the corner to a stone slab, on which there was the naked body of a young Imperial woman. The hilt of a silver dagger protruded from her chest. "They sacrificed this one to bring me here, thinking they'd get a warrior in return," explained Aranxa. "But they got a healer instead. My magic is all Restoration and Mysticism, and I bear no weapons. They were not pleased. One of them attacked me with his magic, but his spells were easily reflected, and he learned a hard lesson."

"Now I'm stuck here in your world, unless you can find this woman's soul and return it. Molag Bal has accepted the exchange, and it is in his world now."

"How can we get her soul back from there?" the reporter asked. "We can't just open up a portal and go fetch it."

"You can't, but I can," she replied. "I am of that world, so it's my right to invite you there. I believe I know where the soul has been taken, too." She waved her hand towards the center of the room, and a blue swirling mist condensed into a small archway filled with blue flame.

He looked at Freija, and the two of them tried to decide if this was a trick. "Before we go," he began "Could you answer a few questions?"

He asked Aranxa what she knew of the conjurers' purpose in summoning her, or rather the Xivilai warrior they wanted. Had they said anything about that?

Not much, but the names Elsweyr and Riverhold had been mentioned. Freija and the reporter recognised those. Elsweyr was the nearest province, and Riverhold was a market town in it, just across the border from here. They might be targets for an attack, and summoned Deadra would be an untraceable weapon to use against them.

"I'll be here when you get back," Aranxa interrupted. "Give me your questions, and I'll think about them. You can have the answers when you return."

The world they emerged into was hot and dry. The sky was red, and full of threatening clouds. Lakes of lava surrounded the island of bare rock they found themselves on, and there was no immediate sign of life, or even undead.

There was also no sign of a portal to go back, so they'd have to go exploring anyway. Freija made the reporter try his invisibility, in case it didn't work here. She tested her bound equipment, too. In this heat, it was more comfortable than the thick robe, anyway.

There appeared to be only one path away from there, so they took it. At the foot of the first slope, a Dremora was waiting, and he was immediately hostile, hurling a fireball towards Freija. She dodged as she ran towards him, and the fireball sailed on into the sky.

"All threat, and not much delivery," was how Freija summed up her late opponent. "But he's just the first. Who knows how many more we'll meet.'

The ones that most concerned the reporter turned out to be the fire towers. His invisibilty proved useless against them, although the fireballs were slow enough to dodge. He drew their fire, as Freija sped through to attack the Atronach beyond. That hadn't seen him, and it didn't appear smart enough to realise that the towers had a target.

The trail they were following appeared to be spiraling outward. They hadn't been able to see anything beyond the lava from where they arrived, so they were hopeful that it wouldn't be endless. The enemies seemed to be closer together now, which might also mean they were close to their goal.

And then they saw her. A ghostly pale outline of a woman stood at the end of the trail, but there was no sign of a portal to take them all back. They ran the rest of the way, but as the reporter reached out to touch the spectral woman, she dissolved into smoke.

Freija pointed to a portal that had just appeared behind where the woman had stood. "We can at least go back and find out what we should do next," she reasoned. They stepped through and found themselves back in Fort Black Boot.


Apparently they'd just done the right thing, as Aranxa was beaming. They'd captured the soul, and she could restore the woman to whom it belonged. "While you were gone, I looked into the fading minds of those you slew," she told them. "Unfortunately, the one who gave them their instructions was not among them. These knew little of the ultimate aims, only their own part in it, which was to summon Xivilai, Riverhold being their target once the army had been raised."

They were surprised that she could read minds, especially those of the dead.

"The memories of the dead do fade rapidly," she explained. "Starting with the most recent, and going back in time. When you get old, you'll notice the same thing happening to you. And the reading of minds is invaluable to a Healer, as you can't ask an unconscious man where it hurts! It was one of the first skills I worked on."

She led them back to the woman's corpse and cast a spell. The dagger in the woman's chest faded away, and her eyes slowly opened. She looked at Freija and the reporter as if she recognised them from the Oblivion realm they'd just left, and then she noticed Aranxa.

She leaped from the slab and clung to the reporter. He cast a Calm spell on her while she was distracted. Not too much, as he didn't really want her to let go. Just enough to prevent any accidents.

Aranxa laughed as he did that, and that also helped dispel the woman's fear. "Don't worry, Alessia," she said. "I won't be here much longer. I can use that portal myself, now you're safely returned."

But before she went through, she wanted to give Freija a reward. (Alessia would reward the reporter, if she wasn't mistaken.) She'd noticed the Nord's immortality and knew that she was scared of its potential consequences. A roll of parchment appeared in her hand. "This is a scroll of Dispel Immortality," she told her. "You haven't been immortal long enough to know if it also stops you from aging, and I can't see into the future to find out. But either way, you may want to use this at some point. It is useless to anyone else, of course, so it has no value, but I think you'll consider it priceless."

"How did she know my name?" asked Alessia, after the Xivilai had gone.

"The same way she knew about my curse," replied Freija. "Not that it's a curse any more, now I have this scroll."

Alessia looked puzzled. How did she beome immortal? And why would she think that a curse?

"We can talk about that on the way back to your home," the reporter replied. "Assuming that you don't mind wearing a ripped and blood-stained conjurer's robe to travel in."

Freija cut him off. She'd just found Alessia's own clothes in a chest by the slab. No bloodstains on them, so they must have stripped her before she was stabbed. The reporter was disappointed. He'd hoped that Alessia would prefer to do without, rather than wear a conjurer's robe.

The look Freija gave him said that she knew what was he was thinking. She changed the subject. "Did you notice that the conjurers here were all Altmer?" she asked.

"Well, they're normally that or Bretons, who have nearly as much Magicka. I'd think you need the extra to be able to summon Daedra all the time. Even more for a Xivilai, that's an Expert-level spell just to summon one temporarily. Perhaps that's why they needed all the potions, if they were trying to summon one permanently."

"But it still required a soul exchange, even with that boost," Freija reminded him. "So I can't see them trying this often."

She had a point, but the Altmer factor had him wondering again if there wasn't something real behind Lathenil's paranoia. He'd have to discuss that with Taminwe. As Aranxa had mentioned, the mage that had visited Falanu's shop wasn't here. They'd have soon spotted that robe of his among the plain ones.