Something was rising in him, something urgent. Before he quite knew what it was, he felt the energetic surge of absorbing the powers of the Flamesteel Blade, the metal bending as if near a source of immense heat. From the depths of his mind, as he controlled her body, he felt Jalinda awake.
"Greetings," the mind of the Old Meddler told her as if nothing had transpired, though warm regard washed out of his mind and into Jalinda's, causing a mental vortex of astonished awareness tinged with bewilderment. "I have many unfinished tasks ahead of me."
"W- what are
you?" Jalinda dared to blurt.
"I," the voice replied slowly, as tenderly as the crackling of a homely hearth, "am mortal like you. My name is Harlwystyr
The name rolled out in a thunderclap that raced away into unseen distances, only to return a rolling echo of deep, teeth-chattering force that made small stones fall and patter around them, and the trees rustle urgently.
Tamriel has need of you
. That soft murmur was calm as a still sea, yet clashed in wave after wave against their shared mind.
Then Harlwystyr seemed to stir deep within and added, "More than ever, I am in need of help. I am not what I used to be. I can coerce thee, of course, but I know I can truly trust ye. The work of subjugated minions is nigh worthless. If deeds are to hold true and lasting meaning, they must be done willingly. Jalinda, are ye with me?"
"I- I am," Jalina burst out, finding herself on the choking edge of tears in an instant. "Harl, direct me!"
White flames rose from her feet, flowing up and leaving her gasping, overwhelmed by Harlwystyr's pleased satisfaction.
"Ye must be the hands that work for me where I cannot be, skulking alone," he said, causing Jalinda's possessed eyes to flash with resolve, showing power enough to make Jalinda's mind cower. "I charge you to gather and safekeep magic wherever and whenever you can, staying in the cloaking might of the shadows as much as possible. Do not spill into bold confrontations out of clumsy marks of pride."
"If anything, you must act like a thief, gathering what knowledge is required to serve dutifully; especially in the retrieving of enchanted objects and scrolls to be studied and then copied, so that we preserve magic for struggles intended upon those yet unborn."
"Harl," Jalinda repeated, "I will."
"Recruit Thalric, and gather new members for the Camlorn Blades. We need many, and they must come from different creeds and with different ideas. However, I know how rarely the needed loyalty and strength are found together - and we need only those we can truly trust."
"V- very well," she said huskily.
"You must help me in what I've been doing for so many centuries: preserving and strengthening the Art - beyond the reach of the few, and into the hands of the many and eager."
"I've walked that path for so long," Harl added truthfully, "that I am not sure I would be able to stop myself from striding down it. It is what I do."
"But now I deliver that charge onto you as well. It is time to do what I have long evaded. By any means necessary, by becoming your new leader or turning Thalric to my service, we will recruit the Camlorn Blades and mages from across High Rock. They must become the ready allies, helping hands, and spies I need."
She had read his plans, and he was right, of course. If he was to manage any of these tasks he'd been stubbornly performing himself for so long, he'd sorely need new allies - especially with his own body destroyed, causing him to inhabit hers.
"Worry not about that, Jalinda. Soon enough, I'll again have a body of my own," Harlwystyr said between Jalinda's racing thoughts.
"In the meanwhile," the old man continued, "the absorbed energies of the Flamesteel Blade - you know now of the artefact's origins - shall supplement our shared body."
"Embrace me," Harlwystyr said.
Even though she found herself on the verge of whimpering at the back of her own mind - the image of her fearful staring eyes flaring to outshine that of the energies surrounding them - Jalinda accepted it.
Her eyes shielded magically from the energies, Jalinda's felt her mind drifting alongside Harl's; with white lightning shooting in all directions within her body, rolling through her. Her arms flew apart convulsively, and then tightened again around the unleashed magic as if it were something solid she could cage with her hands. Not that Jalinda was thinking of caging anything.
Or thinking at all.
She was too busy screaming in pain.
The high, throat-stripping shriek of a young redguard swordswoman lost in agony and horror rang from between the trees in the night, as fires coiling up through her, her every hair standing on end like sharpened daggers, redrew from her, then roared back into her again. It was as if she had been thrown into the fires of Red Mountain itself, torn back out, and then thrown back in repeatedly.
Jalinda was dimly aware of falling to her knees and shuddering helplessly. She was held in check by fires hovering above the ground, unable to collapse onto her face... unable to do anything.
She was sobbing, or trying to, but her body could not breathe, could no longer make a sound. Her mind was awash in clashing, thunderous magic, lightning of power that might well have destroyed her if not Harlwystyr had been standing his ground in controlling the hungry energies.
Jalinda tried to scream, but all that came out was a strangled sound from her throat.
Then the fires left her, leaving only chill darkness.
Jalinda stood alone, blind in the darkness.
Without Harlwystyr there with her, the young redguard was cowering in mute terror, shivering in the cold night.
Eventually, though bare and freezing, she staggered up rises and down slopes, through countless trees. The way was not long, but she would have been lost had Harlwystyr not cast a spell to guide her, appearing as blue mist on the ground. Now she could see her destination.
Somehow she felt healed and with filled with purpose. A part of her wanted nothing more than to shout to Masser and Secunda above, to bellow her delight until folk came awake in their beds across Tamriel to sit up and listen.
And part of her wanted to keep it so secret that not even the young mercenary captain she loved within the cabin would begin to suspect it.
She shook her head and managed a smile. As she eased, she opened the door and stepped inside as quietly as she could.
The hearth was dim, almost out, but someone had placed a wall-torch near the door. Its dancing glow fell upon blankets frozen in the usual twisted chaos left behind when sleepers arise-
And it fell upon Durana Emhardt, her gown-clad body bent back in a graceful bow on the floor. Someone had hogtied her to a leg of the heavy table and her hair was over her face. She lay unmoving. Dead or knocked senseless.
She'd been bound with Thalric's belt.
The door slammed behind Jalinda. She spun around, managing to still a natural urge to leap away from the noise. She might need to be close.
An awakened Harlwystyr gently took over. He faced a half-dressed Thalric Camry, who waved his sword threateningly. Behind its bridge edge - and below the burning torch - the young mercenary captain held the coffer in which Durana had stored Harlwystyr's remains.
Thalric's eyes, as he glared at Harl, were like two poisoned arrows.
"Luckily for my Jalinda's sake," he snapped, "you seem unaware that even simple, sword-wielding mercenaries of High Rock learn a few tawdry secrets every now and then - and lack scruples in exploiting them. Paralysis poisons, for instance, brings on instant topple-on-your-face immovability at the slightest scratch and are a favourite of mine. And poisons like that claim even the mightiest of opponents."
Harlwystyr sighed and shook his head, and then he lunged back as the bright tip of Thalric's sword sang past his chin.
Inside the mind they shared, Harl extended all of his exasperation at Jalinda, who spasmed like a fish on land, sent anger back at him, and stared at Thalric.
"Your remains!" the mercenary captain hissed, shaking the coffer. "I'll destroy them if you don't surrender Jalinda to me."
He bent into a lunge that kept his sword up and menacing Harlwystyr as he lowered the box onto the floor, seized the torch on the wall, and moved it threateningly close to the container. A single fire spat out as a warning.
"Sorcerer, get out of her right now
! Or you die!"
Thalric flicked his blade, securing its tip by Durana's throat, where she lay with her head on the floor, black hair still fallen across her face.
"And so does she!"