“Where is she?!” Katla screamed at Mira.
“I don’t know!” Mira yelled back. Katla realized she’d grabbed Mira by her robes and pulled her close. She let go and stepped back. It hit Katla she’d never heard Mira raise her voice before. Or sound this scared.
Both women looked back at the barrier, and at the strange stone on the pedestal. Tara had touched it and disappeared in an instant.
“You must have some idea?!” Katla said. Her voice was still raised.
Her heart wouldn’t stop hammering.
Mira composed herself, straightening out her robes.
“I don’t understand why she touched it. I didn’t want her to touch it. Just describe it to me,” she said.
Katla bit her tongue. Was she really blaming Tara?
“She said voices were loud in her head. Maybe they told her to,” Katla said.
Mira looked lost in thought.
“Maybe. I wasn’t expecting the voices to sound so different to her than for me. I can’t make out what they’re saying.”
“Where do you think she is? You must know something. You brought us here.” Katla tried to keep out an accusing tone, but didn’t succeed.
Mira looked at her with her icy blue eyes. She seemed to be fighting fear and anger. She cleared her throat.
“I wanted her to tell me more about the stone. I think I know what it is, but I’ve never seen one in person. Few people have.”
“What is it?”
“I believe it’s a sigil stone,” Mira said simply, as if that explained everything.
Katla blinked. “A what?”
“Sigil stones. They’re…” Mira paused. She looked at Katla with one of her serious expressions.
“…most of what I know comes from reading about the Oblivion Crisis back in the Third Era. Back then, they were used to maintain gates to the Deadlands. They allowed the Daedra to invade, under Mehrunes Dagon’s orders. The stones were inside towers, and the Hero of Kvatch had to destroy them to close the connection to Oblivion…”
“Are you telling me Tara is in Oblivion?!”
Katla put her hand to her mouth. This could not be happening. She felt her heart drop.
“Oblivion is as varied and different as Nirn, all of Mundus, is. The stones can be tied to a specific plane. We have no idea which plane. Maybe it’s tied to a pocket realm. If the stone is locked to a certain spot here in Mundus, which I think this one is, they can indefinitely open and close a portal to that place,” Mira said. She sounded worried.
The two women stared at the stone again. It continued its slow turning and ebb and flow of magical waves.
“We have to get past this barrier! We need to rescue her,” Katla said. She couldn’t stop yelling.
Don’t panic. That won’t solve anything.
“I…I don’t know how to bring it down,” Mira said. She’d stepped back again from Katla. She turned her attention to the walls of the alcove.
“Perhaps, if I can figure out a safe way to remove the cave walls, and if the barrier doesn’t extend inside them…”
“Maybe we can dig under the barrier,” Katla said. She looked at the ground. It looked like solid stone.
She heard a sudden rush of air, as if air was suddenly being pushed into the cavern. Tara appeared on the ground outside the barrier, between where Katla stood and Mira had walked to.
She was on her hands and knees.
She was screaming.
“Tara!” Katla rushed to her and knelt down. “It’s okay, I’m here. You’re back.” She struggled to keep a tremor out of her voice.
In all their time together, she’d never heard Tara scream like this. This was the scream of abject terror. For all the fighting together, moments when one thought the other was about to die, neither had ever sounded like this. This was the scream of a wild animal right before death, when fear is all it has left.
Tara looked at Katla with wide eyes. She blinked, and seemed to recognize her. She stared around the cavern for a second. She straightened up, still on her knees, then put her hands to her ears, as if trying to block out a noise.
“Get them out of my head! Get her out of my head! Get me out of here!” She’d closed her eyes, as if that would help.
“Get me out of here! NOW!”
“Grab my shoulder,” Mira said to Katla. She’d rushed over to Tara, too, and stood behind her. Mira placed a hand on Tara’s back. Katla grabbed Mira, then reached down and put her spare hand on Tara, to comfort her.
“We’ll get you out of here. Hold on and…” Katla said.
Mira cast the teleportation spell.
Katla felt the cold of the void, her hands seemed to almost melt into Mira and Tara. Then a room spun into view, Katla felt her stomach twist, and they were back in Mira’s reading room.
Katla fell to her knees, next to Tara. Tara climbed to her feet, though, lightning fast as always. Katla pushed through the wave of nausea and climbed to her feet.
“YOU!” Tara screamed. She was looking at Mira, her face full of rage. A rage to a degree Katla had not seen before. She took a step back from her.
“I had no idea…” Mira started.
“Why did you bring me there?! You should’ve known!”
“I didn’t want you to touch anything. I thought if…”
“You! Magic! All you ever do is hurt me with it!” Tara was shrieking now. “Nothing but pain! This whole fucking family!”
Mira’s voice quivered. “What happened? Maybe I can…”
“GET AWAY FROM ME!”
A wave shot out from Tara. Katla felt it caress her, gently brushing her hair. It felt like a comfort. The rest of the room wasn’t so lucky.
Mira was pushed back against the bookcase behind her, as if shoved by a large hand. Mira slid to the floor, the breath knocked out of her. Books, scrolls, and soul gems flew off the bookcases, knocked off by the wave. The two chairs and small table between them were knocked over, spilling the unlit candle and an empty goblet to the floor. The doors to the balcony rattled. Something downstairs shattered.
“I need to get out of here,” Tara said. She turned away from Mira and Katla and headed for the long table with the teleportation orbs. A few of them had been knocked out of their stand.
“Tara, wait…” Katla said. Too late, Tara touched one and was gone.
Katla felt her heart pound. She didn’t know which one she’d touched; where’d she gone. Tara seemed far more wounded than when she’d told Katla about Rorikstead. What had happened to her? She’d only been gone for a few minutes when she’d touched that sigil stone.
Katla fought back the sudden fear that hit her. She’d find her. She’d help her. Somehow.
“Bruma,” Mira said. “She touched the one that takes you to Bruma. Third from the left.” Mira still sat on the floor, books and scrolls laying around her. She looked and sounded defeated.
“Are you alright?” Katla asked. “Let me help you up.”
“Go after her,” Mira said. “Take care of her. Help her.” There was a pleading sound. A new type of waver to her voice. “Write me when you can.”
Mira was on the edge of crying, Katla realized. She didn’t want anyone around for that moment.
“I’ll write,” Katla nodded. She walked to the table, braced herself, and touched the orb next to the plaque that read “Bruma”.
Cold air hit her first, when she appeared outside of Bruma. It was refreshing, and a salve to the fresh wave of nausea another teleport brought. At least this time, she’d only ended up on one knee, not completely on the ground. Perhaps she was getting used to teleporting. Katla climbed to her feet and looked up at the gate.
A broken, stone oval arch with spikes sticking out of it. As tall as a castle wall, maybe taller. When it had worked, stepping through the center would take you to Oblivion. To think Tara had gone to such a place.
She needed to find her. She looked towards Bruma, just a short walk from the gate ruin. The city looked much the same as she’d last seen it. Snow dusted the ground, even in summer here. Perhaps that’s why she loved the city. It felt like Skyrim.
Katla glanced behind her and noticed catapults and raised wooden platforms out around the intersection where the road to the city split from the main road of Cyrodiil. There’d been a battle here recently, from what Katla could tell. Tara, or was it Mira, had mentioned something about war between some of the cities here.
She hoped she’d have no trouble getting into the city. She glanced around again, just in case Tara was somewhere in sight. She’d only been a minute or two ahead of her. Where had she gone? Where would she go in Bruma? Was she in Bruma? Or had she headed back to Skyrim, and even now was walking ahead over the nearest hill.
Evening was coming on, though. Tara would’ve stopped in the city first, surely? Katla walked to the city gates. If Tara was in Bruma, she knew where she’d go.
The guards were as friendly as they’d been both times Katla had stayed here. One greeted her and waved her through the city gates. There was an energy here. A happiness Katla could feel.
The Tap and Tack was not far from the gates. Katla took a deep breath, opened the door, and stepped inside.
Tara was sitting at the bar, back to the door, on the stool closest to the corner. Half of the tables in the tavern were full. Only one other person, an orc, sat at the bar.
Everyone was staring at Tara.
Katla never stopped being amazed by how many people noticed Tara. She garnered attention, as much as she didn’t want it. This wasn’t the usual attention, though. People struck by her hair, or those muscles. The energy inside the tavern had a nervous edge.
Colin was talking to Tara.
“Eris will kill me if I give you another. You remember last time. She almost took my head off.”
Colin’s deep, rich voice soothed. Katla had never heard a smoother voice. She imagined he was good at calming people down.
A bottle of Ye Olde Special Brew sat in front of Tara, empty. Katla hadn’t been far behind her. She must’ve drained it as soon as she bought it.
“Give me another drink, Colin,” Tara said. “I have the coin.” Her voice sounded on edge. She was itching for a drink or fight.
“No more for her, Colin,” Katla said. She was still standing by the door.
“Hey! Katla,” Colin said. “It’s reunion night!” He looked at Tara, then Katla. “I take it you two know each other.”
Tara had turned around to look at Katla. The pain in her eyes. Katla’s heart ached. Katla walked over to her. “Come on,” she whispered.
Tara sighed and slid off the stool. “Okay.” She sounded tired.
“Good to see you again, Colin,” Katla said “Maybe we can visit longer another time.”
“Sure thing, kid.”
When they stepped outside, Tara headed for the city gate. Katla stayed by her side.
“Do you want to get a room? It’s getting late,” she said.
“I want to go home,” Tara said. She kept her pace quick. Outside the gates, Tara made her way to the Oblivion gate. She stopped and stared at it. Light flurries fell on them. Snow dusted the ancient stone. The light of the day was fading. Light from Bruma still cut across it, though, tossing strange shadows.
Katla stood next to her and waited. She shook snow out of her hair a few times.
“She’s alive,” Tara finally said.
“Who?” Katla asked. She kept her voice quiet.
“Lysona Meric, too. Members of the order were there. More than a hundred.”
Katla caught her breath. That wasn’t possible, was it?
“I don’t even know where I was,” Tara said. She turned to look at Katla. Katla’s heart ached again.
“Mira thinks…” Katla started.
“Don’t say her name!” Tara snapped.
Katla swallowed. Okay. No mentioning Mira.
“You probably touched a sigil stone,” she said.
Katla pointed at the Oblivion gate. “They’re used to open portals to planes, or realms, in Oblivion.”
Tara stared at the gate again.
“Oblivion? That would explain why it felt so strange.” Tara shook her head. “Something about it felt familiar, too.” She sighed. “I don’t understand.”
The snow stopped falling and Katla spotted a few stars peeking through the fading clouds and darkening sky.
“What did she do to you?” She kept her tone gentle.
“She was in my head,” Tara said. She continued staring at the Oblivion gate. “She showed me my life. Made me relive everything.” It came out a whisper.
“Every painful moment in my life. One after the other. I was there all over again. For all of it.” Tara had turned to look at her. Katla realized she was trembling.
“All the sounds, the smells, the…touches…the pain. All over again.” Her voice remained a whisper. At some point she’d started crying, Katla could see the trail of tears on her face.
“Oh, Tara…” Katla started.
“I want to go home,” Tara said. She turned away from the Oblivion gate and started walking.
“Do you remember where the entrance to that smuggler’s cave is? I don’t want to risk the border gate.” Tara gestured at the catapults. “I don’t know what this was all about, but I can’t risk anyone knowing I’m an agent. I shouldn’t even be in Cryodiil. If only I hadn’t listened…” her voice trailed off.
Katla caught up to her. Tara seemed to be done talking. She’d need time, much like Rorikstead, Katla realized.
This is worse than Rorikstead.
“I do.” She gave Tara a small smile. “Let’s go home.” This was not the time to pry or argue. Tara needed to go home. She probably needed to feel in charge, in control. Katla could let her have that.
The trip through the smuggler’s cave, and tunnels, under the Jerall Mountains took them a few days. Katla remembered enough of the way compared to her previous trip to save them time. They passed fewer people, too. The ones they did cross paths with avoided them. More than one gave Tara a wide berth. Even without wearing Penitus Oculatus armor, she carried herself in a way that pushed people away.
Katla felt it, too. The nights they slept in the tunnels, Tara wouldn’t sleep with her. She’d take watch and sit at a distance from Katla. Katla wasn’t sure she even slept. She caught her writing in her journal at least once, so that was good.
Attempts at a hug or kiss were rebuffed. Tara apologized, “I’m sorry. I…not right now.”
She needs space.
Katla felt her heart sink. What was she supposed to do for her? She’d stare into her eyes, see their haunted look, and feel helpless. She couldn’t comfort Tara. Now what?
Give her time.
They emerged near Falkreath. By this point Tara looked exhausted, so they spent one night in town, renting a room in Dead Man’s Drink. Where they’d first met.
Tara let Katla hold her, and more, that night.
Back on the road towards Solitude, Tara had refused the suggestion of renting a carriage for the rest of the trip, she was back to being distant. On alert.
As if she’s a guard, ready for an attack, Katla realized. Tara seemed to be on the edge of a fight, ready for anything. No one bothered them, though.
It took them over a week to finish the journey to Solitude. Tara refused to travel near Granite Hill, Rorikstead, and even Dragon Bridge. They traveled to Markarth, only briefly stopping for supplies, and then passed several small towns, before hitting the mountain paths that brought them to the northern coast, bypassing Dragon Bridge by approaching Solitude from the mountains and shoreline of the Sea of Ghosts.
It was midday on Sundas when they finally passed through the gates and climbed the stairs to the city walls towards their house.
Katla wanted nothing more than a bath to wash off the trip.
“How about we first…” Katla started as they walked around the last corner. She was cut off by the sight of a Penitus Oculatus agent standing at their front door. Standing guard.
Young and thin, he looked like a fresh recruit. “Agent Blaton,” he said to Tara. “You are to report to Commander Maro in Dragon Bridge.”
Tara had shifted to attention. “Understood. Let me get…”
“Immediately,” the agent said. “I am to escort you.” He sounded nervous, as if he didn’t know how to respond to any deviation from his order.
“Cines, ma’am,” he stuttered.
“I need to change into my armor, Cines,” Tara said. She sounded surprisingly calm to Katla.
“I’ll meet you at the stables in a quarter of an hour. I assume you have a horse you rode to get here.”
“Mine is at the stables. Please. I’ve come off a long trip. I’ll change and meet you there shortly.”
Cines shifted his feet for a moment, as if undecided, then nodded.
“Ma’am,” he said and left.
Once they stepped inside, Tara immediately headed upstairs, to the bedroom.
Katla followed. “Do you think you’re in trouble?”
Tara looked at her. Her eyes were still haunted, but also alert. “I don’t know,” she said. “I’ve never been escorted before. New orders are normally courier visits.”
Tara stripped, dipped her face in the wash basin, then quickly splashed water on herself, to freshen up. She grabbed a towel. “I have to go, though. Now. Whatever this is, it’s important. I can’t say ‘no’.”
“I know,” Katla said. She pulled Tara to her, who was still naked. Tara let her, and buried her face in Katla’s chest. “I wish we had more time.”
“Me, too,” Tara said. She sighed. She pulled away and finished changing into her Penitus Oculatus armor. “Duty calls. I’ll let you know what’s going on as soon as I can.”
Katla went with her to the stables and watched Tara ride away with Cines.
Keep her safe, she prayed to the Divines.
She wasn’t sure which one might answer.