Skyrim Diaries, Day 10: Fifty Shades of Grey

Day 10:

The trek to the monks took more wisdom than force. I suppose that’s a pilgrim’s metaphor. A Khajiit on the road warned me of a snow troll among the steps, so I clambered amid the boulders, along the steepest part of the slope I could muster. After a while, I saw the brute, facing the valley as if—with all three of his eyes—he enjoyed the view. Well. Pourquoi pas? Whoever made Mundus also made the trolls. I crept past. We can both have another day.

As I’d promised a man at the foot of the mountain, I deposited some supplies for the Grey Beards at the donation chest I’d found near the mountain’s summit. He had told me the monks enjoyed dried fish, but I didn’t realize that they would demand so much of it.  I know now that there are only five of them—four little, withered men and one I never met. And yet I deposited pounds of fish. On a diet of this sort, their shouts must be positively putrid. 

I scratched at their door, but no one came. I decided to give a delicate pounding, but to no avail. Finally, I pushed open the door, and stood in a foyer of stone and shadow. In a far room, four men jumped up. And perhaps they broke wind in startlement, because some crockery went flying.

They taught me for a day. That’s all I’ll mention. I learned of blood, and time, and Akatosh. I learned of deadly rhetoric, and of how I was not the only one so able to debate. I confess it dazed me—the realities and the threats.The monks would’t let me descend the mountain until my hands stopped shaking.  They set me in the back, amid their little cubiculos and an encroachment of tomes. I suppose I was meant to read myself calm, but all I could wonder was what god would speak to me from which book.

Before I left, later that day, they invited me to partake of their onion soup, which they imbibed with dainty slurping. Not one of the fish appeared. 

I started for Ivarstead in the late afternoon. I wanted the familiarity of the snowberries, or even the predictable ineloquence of the troll. I had time to get to base of the mountain—I should have had plenty. But on that path, from what at first I thought was shadow, the sun went out without setting. The light simply stopped. I stopped. It was as if the night had a locale, and that I’d wandered into it. I backed up, but this kingdom had spread. And what’s more is that nothing within it moved. Nothing but myself and my tumbling thoughts. Then something tall and many-armed stood before me. I thought—or my hope thought—that it was a tree, that somehow I’d come upon it instead of it approaching me. It rose from the ground. It brought stillness to the wind. Then it keened. It threw an arc of blue fire that climbed up the mountainside and down. A goat fell at my feet. I crouched. I prayed to any and all. I loosed a light bolt that moved so slowly that I thought it would never reach its target. It moved at such a drawl that I could see that the tree was a woman with a crown of shadows, that each of her arms ended in a hook. The bolt staggered her. But from her cloak she released little beasts—shadowed things that crawled as eggs from a sac. I clambered back. The woman straightened. Her fire and her beasts washed ahead of her—and I flew backward, over the edge, and down toward the valley that the troll liked to watch.

Skyrim Diaries, Day 9: Company

Day 9:

The inn was warm and not entirely vacant. A female orc eyed my shield as I came in. I’d bought it in Whiterun—a kite of a thing with the yellow of the hold. Now I returned to the tavern door, opened it, and brushed the shield of snow. 

I asked the innkeep for a room, and he said I smelled of lavender and ozone. 

“Well,” I said. “I bet you say that to all the girls.”

“Nah,” he said, “I like dragons tongue and brimstone myself. Felix!” He slammed a tankard onto the bar. “Cut that out.”

On the stool behind the tankard, sat the smallest man I’d ever seen. He wasn’t a dwarf, but perhaps an unlucky Imperial, who rested his chin on his hands (which bore pugilist hand wraps). He leered at my chest.

“O-zone!” the innkeep said. 

Felix blinked. “I got me a scroll of banish living,” he said. “Found it up the arse of a bandit I kilt.”

“Then it’s too bad,” said the innkeep, “that you can’t read.”

The little man scooted off the stool, and made a show of wiping his feet on the inn’s bearskin rug.

“We think his father was a reikling,” said the innkeep. “He won’t bother you more.” 

“I don’t imagine I’m his type,” I said, “if he fancies a rummage in a bandit’s arse.”

The innkeep uncorked me a bottle of Honningbrew.  He said the guard had been keeping close eye on the man, that a woman with a dim brother had gone missing, just after she’d lambasted the Imperial for making fun of the boy. “Maybe I shouldn’t have warned him about your talents,” he said.

I still hadn’t  killed a person since the Khajiit. “I thank you for warning me of him.”

The innkeep—his name was Wilhelm—peered at my shield as it leaned against the bar. “I knew a wizard once. Carried a shield just so he could cast ice on the ground, and sled the slopes.”

“Beats buying a horse,” I said. He watched me for more–but as an innkeep, he knew when to let up. I wasn’t quite ready to tell anyone that bandits—men—were the enemies I feared most. The animals, the undead, even the dragons gave me the luxury of fighting with anything at hand. But for people, I had to spare their lives as well as mine. And Stendarr knows that it takes more expertise to save a man than to kill him.

I sat by the fire, and waited for its warmth to soak into the soles of my feet. The orc—the one who eyed my shield—she was so drunk that she snored while awake. She leaned to me now, and squinted. “I never met a mage—“

“Yes,” I said, “with a shield. It’s rare.”

“I mean a mage who needs to trim her nose hairs.”

I drew myself up.

“I mean, I just thought you people made your finger sort of hot, and then,” she mimed shoving her finger up. “‘’Course, if you say the wrong word, I guess that’s a good way of blowing your head off.”

I wiped my nose—I couldn’t help it. “I think you’ve had enough to drink.”

“Prob’ly so,” said the orc. “But can I ask you something personal?”

“Who? You?”

“Have you ever liked to kiss?”

I stood. “All right.”

“You mean you like it all right?”

“I mean I’m going to my bedroom—and locking the door.”

“I hear that humans like to do it, but that orcs can’t ever try, on account of the tusks.” She sat back, limp. “I just thought if an orc kissed a human, there would be half as many tusks to get in the way.”

“Really.” I watched her press her head to her forehead. “You know, you really should work on your pickup lines.”

She shrugged. “People come to the inn looking for work, I just thought I might hire—“

“You mean you’re offering to pay me for sex.”

“Sex? No. I doubt you’d survive it.”

I hoisted my shield to my back. “I have monks to see.”

***

I slept poorly. The room was too hot. And I confess that in the brass of the candleholder, I gave my nose a thorough going over. 

I left early in the morning, when the dragonflies still dipped on the river. Across the way, a young man with a misshapen head sat by the banks with his chin in his hands. 

Surely this was the boy with the missing sister. I would come back this way, after the Grey Beards. I’d see if I could find the woman—or at least the body to lay to rest. 

I walked for another hour. To the north of the road, now, a horse screamed.

I stopped. From the same direction, a man cried. I dashed toward the sound, through the bramble and a creak.

A bandit thrust a spear at a short man on his steed. The man tried to read from a scroll. I hollered. The bandit stabbed the man. The horse knocked over the bandit, and stood on his head. The scroll fluttered to the ground. 

The horse stomped. The bandit lay in his own brains.  The man—the inn’s Imperial—gasped from the spear. It had run him through. His eyes bugged, and he died. Quick as a breath. 

I gave them both last rites. The horse nickered. If nothing else, I could tell the guard that at least one scoundrel was dead. I nudged the scroll with my foot, and then rolled it open with a stick. Banish Life is an evil spell, and I half expected that reading it would provoke the same conversation as Namira’s book. The scroll was an incantation for Mage Light.

I sighed. I put the scroll in the horse’s saddlebags. I led her by the reins. I didn’t want a mount. I’d seen enough of them dead on the side of mountains, to prefer a long walk to the heartbreak of it all. Besides all that, it’s hard to sneak with a horse. 

The road lead shortly to Sarethi Farm—a plot hoed by Dark Elves and their little clutch of guar. They were busy enough with their potatoes that they didn’t see my tie the horse to their fence post. Maybe she’d live her life convinced that she was another two-legged lizard. I left the scroll. It was the least I could do. Farmers in these parts frequently harvest after dark.

Skyrim Diaries, Day 8: Gods and Monsters

Day 8:

The dragon came to Whiterun, as Balgruuf feared it would. The dragon came, and I went with the guard, and they killed it while I shot lightning from a watchtower. As the creature breathed its last, it spoke to me, as I feared it would. Everything speaks to me. And then from their mountaintop, the Grey Beards spoke to me. And I have really very little to say about any of this, except that yesterday’s priest of Arkay may have spoke more prophetically than he had let on. I will have no choice but to listen to this world.

But here I face a quandary. (“Oh?” you say. “Just one?”) And this quandary is a growing reluctance—perhaps even a sense of taboo—about putting into words the great acts that have already transpired regarding Akatosh, the dragons, myself, and the Voice. I will mention them briefly, because I owe history that much. But I am also aware that if this journal were to fall into the wrong hands, I would owe the world far more. That, and at the risk of sounding like Pettrik, one comes to a natural pause when she considers putting cosmic events to the pen—doubly so when such events are still in process. And furthermore, I find that such circumspection is exquisitely primal. I have heard of children, from all faiths, who hesitate before they agree to drawing a picture of their god. And why shouldn’t they? An image is an attempt at ownership, knowledge, replication, summons. Who wants a god waiting for her on parchment? No. If I am indeed embroiled in the task of speaking for the world, through both word and voice, I feel compelled to utmost caution here. I will mention the hind-parts of these events, where it is practical to do so, but I will not endeavor to present them in their full glory.

I will say that the Grey Beards summoned me to High Hrothgar, to learn the language of dragons. I will also say, that at first, I retired to the library in Dragon’s Reach, where the court wizard plied me with such questions that I wondered if it would be best to anger him so that he would turn me into an urn or some-such. (No luck there, I’m sure. He’d just write his questions on little papers, and stuff me with them.)  I will finally note—apropos of our previous subject—that I opened a book on Namira. And that with pages that carried the stench of a charnel house, she herself greeted me by name, and bid me slay innocents for her gain. I slammed shut the tome, and took it to the temple. One must be careful, dear reader, of what we let live in books.

The next day I set forth to Ivarstead, where I could climb the 7000 steps to the Grey Beards. On the way, a haggard woman hobbled along the roadside, and pleaded for me not to visit “the Master” in the Blue Palace. A herd of goats followed her, sometimes blinking in and out of sight, so I was never sure how many she had. I passed her quickly enough—although I admit I checked to see if she too could teleport. 

With sufficient space between us, I stopped to rest by the mouth of a grotto—where an arm splayed from under a lavender bush. A Nord lay dead at the other end of it. Judging by the nearby draught of Red Water skooma, I could guess why. But then my conscience spoke, with the certainty of instinct—and I knew just then that I could give the man last rites.  So I knelt, by instinct, and I prayed, by the same. And I saw the man’s soul rise in golden particles, where in the place of his body, only his belongings remained. I knelt a while longer; that felt fitting. Then the stench of rot—such as I’d found in that book—wafted from the grotto. What bore it, at first, appeared as a zombie. I mean the headless sort that lumbers so slowly that it seems the earth itself is trying to pull it back into the ground. But this zombie moved fast as a man—or orc, for that matter, for such is what he was. He had nothing on but his drawers. He walked without moving his feet. He bore straight for me, shouting insults about sweet rolls. I raised my shield. I tried to end him with holy fire, but it faded to nothing. I tried to end him with lightning—and it passed through, and splintered an ash tree.  He hollered how he’d kill me. His underwear flapped. Finally, I led him on a chase to a hairpin turn, and shouted him off a cliff.

He smacked a boulder, and lay in a heap. I backed away from the ledge. I shoved off a thought of Namira. Still, I knew it would do no good to give that mangled and re-mangled corpse its last rites. My feeling is that its soul had departed a long time ago.

The breeze blew cool from the valley. I hoisted my shield to my back. And there, at the start of the next turn, stood the inn at Ivarstead.

Of Wenches and Wyrmslayers

This post is about video games and women. I’ve played fantasy computer games since my dad brought home The Bard’s Tale II for the Apple IIGS. Computer roleplaying games have influenced my fiction in ways that range from my proclivity for epic scope to my use of strangeness and suspense. I am an educated woman who’s about to turn 44, and I give a lot of respect to video games. For the most part, in turn, I’ve enjoyed their growing respect for me. We’ve come a long way since the only woman in the video game was the princess whom Mario had to save. I could write a treatise here that touches on everyone from Samus to Lara Croft to Captain Shepherd. But I will settle it all on the fact that I play Bethesda’s Skyrim with a female protagonist, and that she slays dragons, and wins civil wars, and talks with gods, and is basically a badass whose fan-fiction journals have also generated more traffic on my blog than anything else I have ever written.

That said, I must confess that the fans of video games—the players like me—have a long way to go when it comes to women. I’m speaking broadly here. More and more gamers actually *are* women. (And granting the fact that women can make the worst misogynists of all, I’ll accept this as a net win.) But you don’t have to go far on gaming websites to find commentators who say that X female character is too athletic for their tastes, or that Y studio’s games have suffered now that they’ve brought in same-sex romance options. And then, Lord, there is the modding community. A mod, dearies, is a modification to a video game. It usually comes from the player base, where freelance programmers write little scripts that do everything from putting more clutter around a game’s town, to making whole worlds for others to play in. Mods are usually free; they have served as programming portfolios for many coders who have sought to break into the business; and in terms of games such as Minecraft and Skyrim they can proliferate to the tens of thousands, while achieving millions of downloads. When I write my little blog about Skyrim, I talk about my experience with mods. Yesterday, for instance, I found an orc, drunk and sobbing in a burned-out shack. He wondered if I could help him find his lost coin—which we eventually located in his pocket.

So I go hunting for these mods all the time. Some of them are as professional and thoughtful as any studio offering of interactive fiction. But it’s also here, on their download pages, that I want to get drunk and start sobbing too. This is what I found yesterday: Mod 1. Hairstyles! Hundreds of women’s styles to choose from. Dozens of styles for men. Mod. 2 Naughty Girls of Tamriel. Mod 3. High Heels for Vampires. Mod 4. Immersive Wenches. Mod 5. Harem. Mod 6. Spells to change bystanders’ hair. Mod 7. Spells to make people undress.

And this, dearies, is to say nothing of the body mods. I don’t think I would see as many breasts if I pursued a plastic surgeon’s job portfolio. I downloaded one very good body mod—something that made everybody in the game look more photorealistic. I used it to create the on-screen avatar of my female character. She had a stick neck and spindly arms. I upped the weight slider to give her some meat on her bones, and for the most part, the only thing that changed were her boobies. I picked something that looked mostly plausible. I logged into the game, and the women in the town had chests that ranged from noticeable, to opulent, to aggressive, to urban myth. This game takes place along some very steep mountains, and I don’t know how these ladies don’t daily tumble to their deaths.

I ripped out the mod. I found something else. And in my search, I did come across the Practical Female Armors mod, which replaces the bikini-style breastplate/platter with something that actually protects. And I also found a mod that allows women hips, and shoulders, and even a pot belly. (I tried to find the name for you, but my search results came back with Real Girls of Skyrim—and that was not, not what I was looking for.)

My point is that although sensible body mods are out there, they are literally hard to find. And although there exist tons of professional content from thoughtful artists, much of the fantasy about females is still very troubling. I understand that fantasy is the stock and trade of these games; it’s no accident that I partake of a hobby where I can depose an evil ruler, root out slavers, and stop an orc from crying. But I am also aware that in real life, I will not come across any situation where I’ll even have the option to shoot lightning from my fingertips, or play a manticore to sleep with my flute. And call me old fashioned, but I do worry about the fantasies that allow someone to force an impossibly buxom woman to take off her clothes.

Contact and Credits

Hi, all—

I’m taking a break from the Skyrim Diaries, to mention that I’ve posted a Contact page. Honestly, I thought I always had one, but that just shows you what I know. Do send a note if you have an idea, or a quibble, or a simple wish to get in touch.

Also, I think I’ve finally settled into a Skyrim mod list that gives me a varied, clean, and fairly staggering amount of content. I thought I’d post my loadout here. If you want to try it, I think you’ll be pleased. Just run the thing through Loot, follow it’s instructions about the very few patches, and you should be good to go. I’m also supplying this mod list, because it allows me to give credit to the folks who make the content that inspires my narrations. I’m in awe of their work.

So. Voila! All mods come from Nexus, in the Skyrim Special Edition section. The only exception is Interesting NPCs, which you can get at 3DNPCS.com. It’s such an amazing mod that it’s really worth the detour.

Disclaimer: I haven’t played through all of these mods, so I have no idea if conflicts lurk in less-obvious corners of the game. All I know is that Loot says the loadout is error-free, and that my game plays without crashing. If you have questions, corrections, or suggestions, please let me know.

MODS:

A Quality World Map—Vivid with Stone Roads (It’s just a much better map.)

Alternate Start—Live Another Life (Start the game with a variety of backgrounds—and bypass Helgen.)

Advanced Adversary Encounters (Unique, more-powerful enemies. Better spells and resistances. Mini-bosses.)

Andromeda—Unique Standing Stones of Skyrim (Standing Stones grant varied, powerful boons.)

Apocalypse (Spells and more spells, some better balanced than others.)

Apophysis Dragon Priest Masks (Retextures dragon-priest maks.)

Arma Thalmoris (Gives those little asshats better hats for their asses. And capes and boots and shoulder pads.)

Armor and Clothing Extension (More clothes. This also re-dresses some NPCs.)

Bandolier Bags and Pouches (Craft/find bags that allow you to carry more.)

Beasts of Tamriel (Adds about 100 creatures.)

Become a Bard (Play music for money and adoration. Affect morale in the civil war.  Eventually do more work for the bards’ college.)

Better Dogs (They don’t bark. Anymore.)

Beyond Reach (DLC-sized campaign that focuses on High Rock.)

Beyond Skyrim: Bruma (DLC-sized return to Cyrodiil.)

Birds of Skyrim (Tweet.)

Blackjack—A Thief Weapon (Knock out your enemies. Alas, this counts as a crime. Or at the very least, removing their loot counts as pickpocketing. It would be cool if the mod author fixed this, so that sparing a bandit’s life and taking his stuff would not be harder on the karma than, say, mass murdering a hideout.)

Bonemold and Chitin Weapons (Get your Morrowind on.)

BUVARP—Barely Used Vanilla Actors Recycle Project (Many NPCs will have new things to say, after you’ve completed their quests.)

Campfire—Complete Camping System (Lets you set up shelters and use survival skills that allow you to withstand the brutality of Frostfall.)

Caranthir Tower Reborn (Restore a wizard’s tower, and live in splendor. Must be level 20 to start.)

Cats in Skyrim (You get a house cat! And you get a house cat! Even Belethor gets a house cat! Some cats are magical. All are invincible. I do wish they meowed less, as right now you’d think I made my plate mail from emptied cans of tuna.)

Civil War Battlefields (Come across gruesome reminders of war’s destruction.)

Cloaks of Skyrim (Disseminates some astonishing number of cloaks throughout the world.)

Cleric Armours of the Nine Divines (Craftable, steel-grade plate armor for holy warriors.)

Common Clothes (Adds lots of garments to the game. There’s some armor, too.)

Crypt of Darkness Dungeon Hall (A dungeon stocked with enemies and resources.)

Cutting Room Floor (This introduces the director’s cut of Skyrim Special Edition. It restores quests, items, and even whole villages.)

Daedric Entity Restoration Project (Adds daedra for you—and your enemies—to summon. Nudity. Demon nudity.)

Dawnguard Arsenal (Enhanced weapons and spells for better vamp trampling.)

Deadly Spell Impacts (Fire, lighting, and frost spells leave some serious marks on the surroundings.)

Death Alternative—Captured and Death Alternative—Your Money or Your Life (These two mods make it so that defeat can carry consequences other than death. Prison might be one. Slavery might be another. Certainly some of your loot will go missing.)

Decorator Helper—Move furniture. Place loot around your house. Works great with Narrative Loot.

Diverse Dragons Collection (More dragons! Almost 30 unique ones, to be exact.)

Dragon Claw Stands (All vanilla and Hearthfire houses have display brackets for at least some of the dragon claws. Smaller houses display fewer claws, because those things take up a surprising amount of room. Maybe they should do more to pull their weight, like holding goblets, or putting on shadow-puppet shows,  or something. If this mod doesn’t appeal, Legacy of the Dragonborn has a place for all those claws.)

Enhanced Blood Textures (Messy, but not tawdry.)

Equipable Tomes (Make books that give you a boost to your magic.)

Extra Encounters (Immersive encounters, usually of the combat variety.)

Frostfall (Survival mod where you can collapse from exposure. Cool equipment, too.)

Fuz Ro D’oh (A utility that helps with dialogue in mods that aren’t voiced.)

Gildergreen Regrown (See the pretty tree.)

Glorious Fort Dawnguard (Buffy up your slayers’ home.)

Hallgarth’s Additional (Vanilla) Hair (More hair styles.)

Hammet’s Dungeon Packs (Supplies 31 new dungeons throughout Skyrim, Solstheim and a new land, Vorminheim. That last one sounds wormy.)

Heavy Armory (Get 100 new weapons.)

Helgen Reborn (Follow a detailed questline to restore Helgen.)

Hidden Hideouts of Skyrim (Little shelters for you to find. Works great with Frostfall.)

Hope’s Abandon (Dungeon. Big and mean. Author suggests level 40+.)

Immersive Amazing Follower Tweaks (I couldn’t get regular AFT to work. This does great.)

Immersive Armors (Equipment paradise: 55 new armor sets, 396 new shields, and many miscellaneous accouterments.)

Immersive College of Winterhold (Expands the college and gives you more choices.)

Immersive Sounds Compendium (The isle is full of noises!)

Immersive World Encounters (Spreads 70 events throughout the world.)

Imperious (Overhauls the race abilities.)

Interesting NPCs (Adds hundreds and hundreds of interesting people, followers, quests, and super followers.)

Isle of Artaeum (DLC-sized add-on that sends you to Summerset Isle to learn about the Psijic Order.)

JK’s Skyrim All in One (Adds architectural features to a variety of settlements.)

Left Hand Rings Modified (Wear a ring on your left hand, too.)

Legacy of the Dragonborn (A DLC-sized mod that introduces a museum, starts a new guild, and has you collect amazing things.)

Merged Mihail Undead (Mihail makes some truly fearsome monsters, and this compendium includes all the necro-baddies.)

More Staff Variety (Makes it so each staff model can cast all the different staff spells.)

My Home is Your Home (Allow all your followers to hang out together, in the place where you want them.)

Narrative Loot Complete (Adds cultural treasures to the loot tables—paintings, crockery, books, figurines, etc.)

New Beginnings—Live Another Life Expansion (More background options for Live Another Life.)

OBIS Special Edition (Bandit overhaul. They are varied, organized, and mean.)

Ordinator (Complete perk overhaul. Lots of new options.)

Outlaws and Revolutionaries (Lots of quests, some surprising followers, a new player home, and a few amazing opportunities.) 

Path of Champion (Seven dungeons connect throughout the world. Level 10 start recommended.)

Phenderix Arcane Archery (Craftable, spell-effect arrows and bolts. If you want, there’s a chest of limitless supply in Farengar’s study. But smithing the ammo makes it more special. That way, you’ll wait to get out the good stuff for a dragon, say—or maybe that godawful frost troll.)

Populated Cites, Towns, Villages (Adds more people to the places people should be.)

Populated Lands Roads Paths Legendary (Adds more people traveling to the places they should be.)

Practical Female Armors (I’ve written whole articles about how female fantasy armor is silly. This mod is a godsend.)

QUASIPIC Unified Patch Compendium (Patches a number of mods to create synergy.)

Realistic Conversations (Give NPCs a little more logic and variety, in terms of what they say—and how often.)

Realistic Lighting Overhaul (Shadows, reflections, darkness. Better.)

Rich Skyrim Merchants (More money. Maybe he really did sell his sister.)

Royal Armory (Important NPCs have important-looking equipment.)

Rugnarok (I downloaded it just because I loved the name, but the rug overhauls are fantastic.)

Ruined Temple of Phynaster (Rescue a ruined shrine, and fight bosses.)

Rustic Clothing (Clothing texture overhaul.)

Shields of Skyrim (Lots of new shields.)

Silent Moons Camp Reborn (Adds more to an interesting locale.)

Skyhaven Temple—Interior Overhaul and Player Home (Cool stuff. And curtains! Dhova drapes?)

Skyrim Better Roads (Retextures the roads.)

Skyrim Flora Overhaul (This texture mod is graphics intensive, but it makes the world beautiful.)

Skyrim Immersive Creatures (Adds dozens of new creatures.)

Skyrim Reputation (Adds a morality/reputation component to player actions. People treat you accordingly.)

Skyrim Skill Uncapper (Get all the perks.)

Skyrim Skill Uncapper Ordinator (Get all the Ordinator perks.)

Skyrim Underground (There’s stuff going on down there. Dungeony stuff.)

SkyUI (Overhaul your interface, and never look back.)

Solitude Temple Frescoes (Stained glass for sacred spaces.)

Speech Tree (Introduces a yield system, so you can talk your way out of battle. Place this mod manually, after Ordinator.)

Splendor—Dragon Variants (Get 784 possible dragon skins.)

SSE Organic Factions Extension (Different, non-joinable factions vie for power—and grow in power. The mod invites tactical—even political—thinking.)

Static Mesh Improvement (This makes everything look so much better.)

Stendarr’s Beacon—Enhanced and Ruhmastered (Lots of new stuff here. Creepy.)

Summermyst—Enchantments of Skyrim (Grants 120 additional enchantments.)

The Elder Scrolls Tomebound (Grants more magical options, such as new spells, staves, and vampire options.)

The Eloquent Reader (Get speech experience for reading books.)

The Great Forest of Whiterun Hold (Adds an explorable and dangerous wilderness to Whiterun Hold.)

The Paarthurnax Dilemma (Helps you out of a cold-blooded demand that the Blades make in the main quest.)

The Rabbit Hole (Brave a fifty-level dungeon.)

The Rings of Old (Adds some rings from Elder Scrolls lore.)

The Temple of Black Rock (High-level dungeon for characters level 40+)

The Treacherous Hollows (Mid-sized dungeon recommended for characters level 35+.)

The Unfinished Business (Play through eight small dungeons, to follow a story.)

Thunderchild (Find nearly 30 more shouts. Some are quite powerful.)

Unique Uniques (Epic Skyrim equipment looks much better than it did.)

Unofficial Skyrim Special Edition Patch (A must.)

Unread Books Glow (Makes a library easy pickings.)

Vigilant (DLC-sized adventure based on the Viglants of Stendarr.)

Vivid Weathers (Rain, wind, lightning, lighting, and snow.)

Warzones—Civil Unrest for SSE (More battles, battlefields, and bosses.)

Weapons Armor Clothing and Clutter Fixes (Bug fixer.)

Wet and Cold (Immersive weather effects, such as breath clouds of the non-dragon variety.)

WICO-Windsont Immersive Character Overhaul (It’s the best graphics mod I can find, but I have a major gripe: There’s nudity in the default setting. Fine. But when all the clothes come off, the men get loincloths while the women become fully naked. That’s an insult.)

Wildcat (Combat overhaul. Everything is much harder, but most is also configurable.)

Wintersun (Religion mod. Worship a god, live by their tenets, and get blessings.)

Wizard Hats (What it says on the tin. You can make them in all different colors.)

Skyrim Diaries, Day 7: Board to Death

Day 7:

Today brought the harshest lesson. I knew something like this would come. If you read enough books, you realize that when you draw the gods’ attention, you also invite pain. A man in Whiterun prevailed upon me to find an heirloom sword. His family threatened to fly apart without it, as it stood apparently for some midlife crisis involving clan identity versus the need to work for a living. He asked my help with no small amount of shame. He gestured toward the foothills. I couldn’t get much more out of him. So I ambled that way, hoping to find the tracks of the sword thief.

They were easy enough to spot—although they seemed smaller than I expected. I ducked into what looked like an old mineshaft, and promptly awakened eight spiders that clambered from a hole in the floor. They trundled after me in their hairy-legged herd.  I used a static-cloud to end them. The smell of electrified spider is unpleasant, but I took no guilt from dispatching the creatures. If they bite the old or the vulnerable, the poison can make a victim convulse so much that her back breaks. I had noticed, however, that my spell worked better than I thought it would.  And it turns out that this happened, because the spiders were wet.

Peering into the floor hole, I spotted water at the bottom of a long drop, along with some bobbing cabbage and discarded shoes. Odd that, considering that spiders aren’t so dainty with their refuse. I stood in the mineshaft until my eyes adjusted—and there, in a section of the wall that looked cleaner than the rest, I found a button. Well, why not? I pushed it, and the stone slid away to reveal a tunnel–and a vampire.

It startled. I pushed the button again and again, but that just made the door close and open. I backed up. I fumbled in my robe. The creature lunged forward, made something go click, and then caught ablaze from fire jets that shot from the floor. The vampire fell over—dead, or deader, or at least most-certainly seared. I don’t know. I’d fled the cave.

Now I blinked in the sunlight. The thing must have been young to trigger its roost’s own trap—maybe even a newly-graduated thrall. I’d tell the Whiterun guard. I’d tell the temple of Arkay. I would not tell the man who hired me, because I could not imagine that vampires would have ventured into town to seize his great clanfather’s sword.

Clearly, I’d found the wrong stronghold. But now, something felt wronger still. The path where I’d stood was different from before. Its borders had mountain flowers instead of tundra cotton. I turned around.  An Argonian smiled a little hiss from the bushes. She had drawn me an arrow.

I held my elbows. She had gold flecks in her eyes. “You can keep all the arrows you’d like, good lizard.” I spoke too high and too fast. “I’m just looking for a sword.”

The arrow she’d shot lodged in my shoulder. I’d dropped to one knee. She had dropped her bow, and now she approached with an ax. “Bretons are so snobby,” she said.

I raised my hand. She raised her ax. She lifted it farther—and danced in my spell’s cloud of volts. I hadn’t meant to cast it. The spell would envelope her for seconds. I couldn’t disperse the electricity once I’d let it go. The Argonian cried, and went rigid, and dropped.

I had my hands in my hair. Her cape smoked. I muttered a healing spell. The arrow dropped from shoulder. I turned until I found Dragon’s Reach, and then I walked, off the path, through bramble and brook, tempting the wolves and the trolls and anything else that thought to kill me, until I sat in the cool and the candlelight of Whiterun’s Hall of the Dead.

***

The priest folded his hands. I’d told him everything. He wore the amulet that I’d fetched for him this morning, after he’d misplaced it in the undercroft—and now he pointed to mine.

He said, “You follow Arkay, don’t you? I’ve seen you praying.”

“I do, but—“

“But this is your friend’s amulet of Stendarr.”

“I’m a smorgasbord of divinity, apparently.”

“But tell me. Why do you wear an amulet that helps you to block?”

I couldn’t tell him why. In truth, it felt a bit like a hair shirt. “Well, I confess it isn’t the most utilitarian thing—“

“But what if it were? What if this is Stendarr’s advice for you while you move along your smorgasbord?”

A dog wandered into the hall, sniffed a pew, and wandered out.

“You say that Mara told you to speak for the world,” said the priest, “to win as much as you can while dealing minimal death. Why, as a performer you must know that the best way to avoid the odd rotten vegetable is to hide behind a wall.”

I laughed, and it echoed. “I’m a speaker first and a spell caster second.”

“And a sneaker third, I’ll wager—or at least you’re bound to be.” I hadn’t thought of that. “After all, they can’t fight you if they can’t see you, and when push comes to shove, you might have to manage by,” he sort of jostled his hands, “sapping the backs of some heads.”

“I’d rather talk sense to the fronts of them.”

“Of course you would! It’s a matter of mission for you, if not also a matter of pride.” He twinkled, and I squirmed. “You can’t stomp around in armor. That was Pettrik’s mistake. But you can use a shield.”

“With no armor? While I talk, cast, and sneak?”

“It will take some practice, I’m sure.”

“I’ll look ridiculous.”

“Oh, I think you’ll look singular.” He stood and massaged his knee. “Miriamne—if I may call you that.” He straightened his leg, and grimaced. “I’m old. And I’ve seen all kinds of mistakes. And I know, by now, that one person’s error tends to invite those from others.”

“That’s what I found with group work at the college—“

“Yes, but cliche as it is, the biggest mistake is not to try.” I thought of Pettrik and how hard he had tried. “Some bad people will do bad things in your direction. But your job, I believe, is to do them good where you’re able, and to be good—to yourself!—where you fail.”

“That’s very priestly, father.”

He gave a little smile. I’d spoken with more heat than I meant.

He said, “Mara told you to find help from others, did she not?” He walked toward the chancel. “If you’re going to speak for this world, dear, then it’s best that you also let it speak to you.”

Skyrim Diaries, Day 6: Of Wizards and Wineskins

Day 6: 

I slept in that cotton field until mid afternoon. When I awoke, Dragon’s Reach seemed even taller,  amid its train of shadows. From where I’d lain, I crossed to a nearby stream; I was groggy and parched. And as I bent to drink, a woman cleared her throat behind me. She wore some kind of drapery that she’d fashioned into robes. A Khajiit stood behind her, slightly puffed.

“Foolish Breton,” she said. By her accent she too was Breton. “You there! You foul-lucked weasel!”

“Beg pardon?” I said.

“I am a vicious, sorcerous mage,” she said, “and I demand you give me a tribute!” The Khajiit elbowed  her. “Two! Two tributes!”

“I see,” I said. “Judging by your robes, did you last extort a bedchamber?”

She blinked. “Silence!” She drew herself up. “I shall smite you with steamy lightning and prickly heat!”

“I suspect you’re speaking in your second tongue,” I said. “Voulez-vous parler en notre langue originelle?”

If she could cast spells truly, then at that point, I think she would have sent them out her nostrils.

“What would you like?” I rummaged my pack.

She gaped.

“I have a hunk of goat cheese,” I said, “and some bread.”

“Do you have enough for two?” said the Khajiit—and she withered him a look.

“I have two apples extra,” I said, “and,” I gestured toward the stream, “a rather empty wineskin.”

I offered them my pack. “Take what I’ve offered. But if you steal more, I’ll know it.” I wouldn’t know. I wouldn’t have the slightest.

The bed-curtain mage held the sack by the neck, as if she’d just strangled it.

“All Bretons have magical aptitude,” I said to her.  “And some of us have even honed it well enough to hide it.” She let the sack hang. “Get your food, now.”

“Open the bag,” said the Khajiit. He had thoroughly unfluffed.

I met his eyes. Then I turned from them, crisply, as if this movement in itself were a stance. I knelt to the stream, with my back to them. I started to fill the skin. I watched for their reflections to appear beside me.

After the skin inflated, I made that same deliberate turn, back to where they’d stood. The food was gone, and so were they. The rest of my provisions, from what I could tell, remained intact.

I held the wineskin against the back of my neck, to cool off. I had sweated through my underclothes, and some part of me ached in a knot. I would sleep at an inn tonight, behind a locked door. I needed the peace, the rest, the room not to perform for the sake of my life—or for that matter, anyone else’s. Pettrick’s amulet knocked against my chest, as I walked, and that knot relaxed to bile. I had done it, though—cast yet another spell with words. Gods, I’d even fed managed to feed someone. I walked a little lighter now, and the water sloshed.

A ways to the north, a tundra cat screamed, and the sound of her brought a chill to my sweat. This work I had chosen, or at least chosen not to shirk: It wouldn’t always be as easy as chiding hungry peasants. I knew that. It would soon as later face me against the very ones who starved them.

*Many of these narratives have been started and inspired by the glorious mod, Interesting NPCs. You can find it at 3dnpc.com.