My attempts to play Skyrim using only Illusion magic have driven me to intentionally contract vampirism, for the sweet illusion powers it will provide. The disease takes three days to take hold, and I've spent them messing with the Stormcloak rebels for the Imperial Legion. My mission is to deliver some forged orders to a Stormcloak commander in Dawnstar, and on my first morning in town, it happens.
"Your blood boils as your vampiric powers awaken." The screen burns red, then my vision clears. I look around. No-one is staring at me. I switch to third-person view to examine my face: it's grim, steely, shadowed, haunted—so no change that I can see. I also don't have the invisibility spell I was hoping for—I guess that, and the face stuff, come later.
After looking left and right suspiciously, I find the Stormcloak commander and give him the fake orders. He's fine with just taking his orders from whoever runs up to him and gives him some, which is a policy we share.
Back at camp, the plot is starting to take shape. The orders we intercepted revealed the Stormcloaks need reinforcements at fort Dunstad. We changed those orders to say they didn't. So now, we're going to attack Fort Dunstad, and retake the Pale. Again, The Pale seems to be some kind of place with some kind of importance. I am ready to die for it.
It's going to be a huge battle, the decisive one for this whole chunk of Skyrim. So I want to up my game a little. In practical terms, this means lying down on a bedroll and going to sleep for 57 hours—two days to allow my vampiric powers to grow, and 9 more hours to skip to early evening, so that it'll be night by the time we attack.
I awake with a whole host of new powers—no invisibility yet, but one big improvement for a pure Illusionist: a universal 25% boost to the power of all Illusions. I set off.
The men are gathering outside the fort as I arrive. It's dark, a furious blizzard makes visibility even worse, and the fort is surrounded by spiked barricades. We charge.
Rather than just buffing our own troops with Courage, I decide to take a more aggressive role for this final conflict. I use Fear. Anyone I hit with it runs from the battle, but unlike Calm, it doesn't stop our own troops from hacking them to pieces. I neutralise three archers with it before I have to wait for my magicka to recharge, and I bide the time by chasing my last victim, magicky hands waving.
"I yield!" he yells, sprinting away from me in search of some cover. I keep chasing, despite having no way of harming him. Look at my sparkly hands, soldier! Fear them!
"Victory is yours!" He cowers in a corner, hands over his head, terrified of the unarmed elf woman in a dress.
Meanwhile, the troops have smashed down several of the barricades and are flooding the fort, clashing with the Stormcloaks in the courtyard and on the battlements. Belrand storms through them, stopping to dispatch enemies with devastating sweeps of his jagged axe. His ghost wolf is out and equally savage—I see him kill an archer and a berserker.
I get back to my Fearsome work, sending the enemy troops packing just long enough for ours to kill them in small, manageable batches. It takes a long time, and I burn through all of my health potions to survive the hail of enemy arrows, but at last the fort is ours.
It seems wise to heal up before the journey back, and with no health potions, that means sleeping.
Three days as a vampire.
When I wake up, everything's normal for about a second - just long enough for me to read that "As a fully developed vampire, you are hated and feared." Then the entire Imperial Legion turns on me. Ah. This is going to be a problem.
Belrand, to his enormous credit, is still on my side. He summons his wolf, draws his axe, and ploughs into the entire imperial legion.
I run—I still have no health potions, and this is an even higher tonnage of incoming arrows than last night. I zig-zag through the fort to dodge more arrows, and come against against two squads of my former brothers in arms. I hit each one with a ball of Frenzy, and the enormous splash radius catches every one of them with an urge to kill each other. I keep running. I want to help Belrand, but the fight is just too hectic right now. I hop onto a Legion horse and gallop away under a rain of fire.
Once I'm out of range, I veer round and skirt the fort. The sounds of shouts and butchery are still coming from inside, but I don't see anyone on the battlements now, so I cautiously canter back in. Belrand's doubled over on his knees in the center of the courtyard, two Legion soldiers bearing down on him. I fling a Rally spell at him, summoning him back to his feet in a ball of green light, and making him stronger and tougher.
Belrand cuts down two more troops, then jumps into the air and brings his axe down crushingly hard on the last of them. The body flops awkwardly on the snowy stone, Belrand holsters his weapon and looks up at me with a wordless look of, "Well, I guess this is what I do now."
We're in trouble. I mean, aside from the 18 murders and 1 horse theft we just committed. I knew my vampirism would be 'controversial', but I hadn't quite accounted for the fact that my own employers would attack me on sight, forever.
Normally, vampires pass as humans by drinking blood—it lessens their power, but returns their appearance to normal. But they don't sell that stuff in bottles, you have to drink it from a sleeping victim's neck. Whichever way you slice it, puncturing someone's jugular with your teeth and drinking their blood definitely counts as an attack. I can't do it. There's a cure for vampirism, but it involves soul-trapping, which again is against my rules.
The war for the Pale is won—or maybe a draw, now that we've wiped out the Legion forces too—but I can't complete the quest until I talk to General Tullius. And even if I could get past all of Solitude's guards and the entire Legion garrison at their headquarters in Castle Dour, Tullius himself would sooner kill me than talk to me.
I can't end this without closure. I need that check in my journal, the acknowledgement of my superiors, and to genuinely complete the mission I was given as a soldier of the Imperial Legion. So I keep thinking, and I think I have a plan. It's a plan of which the following clichés are true:
- It's a long shot.
- It's so crazy it might just work.
- And it's something I have to do alone.
I've asked a lot of Belrand, and he's done it all unquestioningly—all the way up to slaughtering a whole Imperial army to defend me from persecution as a vampire. But I won't ask him to attack his home, Solitude. Not because he wouldn't, but because he probably would.
I could just tell him to 'Wait here', but I decide to be honest. I'm not coming back from this.
"It's time for us to part ways."
"OK, if you think that's best. If you ever need me again, you know where to find me."
I do. He sounds sad.
I hop back onto the black Legion horse I stole earlier and ride on into the night.
I ride north, to the coast, and come at the city from across the mouth of the Carth river. There's a heavy fog on the water, and it's still dark—perfect for my approach. I slip off the stolen horse and let him stroll back to Fort Dunstad, while I swim quietly across the water towards the Solitude docks.
There are two guards patrolling the jetties, so I cast Muffle: it creates a blue mist around my feet that conceals my footsteps, so I can sneak as close as I like to the guards without them hearing me and turning around. That makes it easy to slip by one on the pier, and another on the winding path up to the city gates.
At the top, though, something incredibly awkward happens. Day breaks. The sun isn't strong enough to burn my skin, but vampires can't regenerate magicka when it's light, and I've cast Muffle again before I realise this. I'm low, and the sneaking only gets harder from here.
While I'm figuring out what I can and can't afford to cast, I spy the horse and cart guy up ahead—and he spies me. I'm rumbled. He jumps off his cart, the guards come running from all directions, and I bolt out of cover.
City guards are dramatically more powerful than Legion soldiers, and I know from hard experience that their arrows can kill me in a single hit if I'm not at full health. And I'm not. That's a problem, because as well as all the ones chasing me, there are two stationed at the gate itself. Gee, if only I was a monstrous vampire who could turn invisible at will.
Shadow's Embrace, the power I became a vampire for, makes me completely invisible and gives me night vision. It lasts for three minutes, but I'll have to reveal myself to open the city gates—you can't 'use' things or cast spells while invisible.
My pursuers still have a rough idea of where I probably am, but no further arrows come near me, and the guards at the gate have no clue I'm even there. I'm in.
Talking to Tullius
Now, it gets harder. The streets of Solitude are crawling with guards, and it's a long route through an open street to get to Castle Dour. I decide to break it up by stopping off at the pub for a drink.
The Winking Skeever is where I found Belrand, and it's restocked with health potions since I last ransacked it for health potions. I run in and steal all the health potions. The entire city guard follow me in, of course, but I barge past them on my way back out before they can really react. Before I go, though, I want to Frenzy them all—start a bar fight that'll keep them all busy in here while I run to Castle Dour. The only problem is, I don't have enough magicka.
I'm about to abandon the idea, then I remember something—I'm ready to level up. All I have to do is pick a stat to improve, and my health and magicka are fully restored. Level 11! Let's Frenzy!
I escape the bar room bloodbath I've just created and burst back out into the streets. I run zig-zag to stymie the annoyingly accurate guards still on the streets, and jump a wall to get up the ramp to the castle.
The last obstacle before Castle Dour are the two Imperial Guards at its door. Running straight at them, I can't dodge both their arrows. I can't Calm them both, because that'd leave me completely out of magicka, and I'll need some once I get inside. Instead I calm the furthest guard, then run straight at the nearest one. Before he can fire, I'm in close combat range, so he puts away his bow and draws his sword. Before he can attack, I'm inside.
Tullius is directly in front of me, surrounded by soldiers. I run at him. He draws his sword. And for my next trick, I spend my last chunk of mana to hit him with my last ever Calm spell, and immediately strike up conversation.
Reporting for duty, sir!
As his men sink their blades into me from all directions, Tullius commends me on my work, and lectures me on the strategic importance of The Pale to the Empire's war effort. The notification pops up: Quest completed.
I quit out of the conversation, amazed to find I'm still alive, and push past the troops to a door to the castle battlements. I have no magicka, almost no health, and I'm stabbed and cut several more times even as I open it.
It's sunny out. My vampiric night vision makes the light dazzlingly white, and at the same time, my skin burns in the sun. The combined effects are so bright that, for a second, I don't realise I'm dead. When colour floods back into the world, I see my limp body slide down the castle door.
Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, you've been a wonderful audience!