A small squeak of terror escapes from my lips as the Justiciar’s smirk takes on a leer of triumph. I recall that right from the start, I had serious doubts about this rescue mission — but it’s cold comfort now that I’m facing a fortress full of Thalmor.
Willing myself to move, I start backpedaling just as everyone draws their weapons. As if in slow motion, I watch as the Justiciar raises both hands toward me, swiftly summoning a glacial light between his palms. I gasp as I’m hit in the chest with a diamond lance of ice.
Blood chilled, muscles seizing, I manage to summon my atronach just as a couple of guards rush in to protect the Justiciar. My wife is already charging at the nearest Thalmor, and our allies follow her lead while Barbie distracts the enemy with fireballs. Seconds later the frost spell wears off — and I reach for Dawnbreaker as I join the fight.
These Thalmor are no joke. Spells are flying everywhere, the Justiciar is behind a wall of guards, and more enemy soldiers are rushing in from every direction. Fortunately our allies seem to be veteran fighters, and all I can see of Jenassa is a whirling blur of blades. In minutes, we’ve cleared out a large space and pushed most of the Thalmor toward the back of the room. I resummon Barbie and pull out my bow, picking off any new Thalmor that try to enter the fray while my allies battle their way to the Justiciar.
Finally we break through the phalanx of Thalmor guards and expose the Justiciar to our assault. He and his remaining guards put up a formidable stand, but their determined defense ultimately crumbles as we press our advantage.
The room is almost eerily quiet as the last Thalmor falls. As we make a cursory search of the bodies for anything useful, our allies inform us that this isn’t likely to be the end of the fighting. We’re told to expect more resistance as we enter the lower levels and make our way to the prison area itself. Since there’s no way of knowing how many Thalmor are still between us and the prisoner Korst, it’s best to be prepared for anything.
Jenassa nods briefly as she wipes the blood from her blades. I grip my bow a bit tighter and reach for more arrows, almost holding my breath as we slowly open the door. Unlike the room we just left, this area is a warren of narrow stone passages leading down into the depths of the prison. Keeping a firm grip on our weapons, we silently indicate our readiness to one another and start our descent.
Almost immediately, we run into a couple more Thalmor. Jenassa and I keep up a barrage of arrows as our allies tackle the enemy. Bursts of enchanted lightning crackle along the hallway as a mage and his guard try to fend us off, but we manage to take them out with remarkable efficiency — despite the rather stormy reception.
Since it’s only a matter of time before the alarm is raised, we leave the corpses untouched and head down a central staircase. We manage to surprise the guard in the next room, and in seconds he’s silenced for good. Moving as quietly as possible, we briefly gather at the bottom of the stairs as we take a few moments to find our bearings.
Choosing a likely direction, we work our way through the lower floors, relying on stealth and surprise to dispatch the remaining Thalmor. The narrow passageways actually work to our advantage, as we encounter small groups of no more than two or three at a time, making our task much easier. Soon it becomes a relatively simple matter of picking off the less observant guards with our bows, and rushing down with our blades anyone still left standing.
Eventually we descend the final set of stairs and find ourselves in the dungeons. It’s a surprisingly large space, almost as big as the main room of the fortress upstairs, with multiple jail cells, rows of shackles on the wall, and several torture devices. It’s clearly designed for quite a large number of prisoners — which is why we’re somewhat taken aback to discover that it’s almost entirely empty.
For a moment we just stand there at the bottom of the stairs, looking around at the unusual sight of a practically pristine prison. Huh. Well, at least we shouldn’t have any trouble finding the man we’re supposed to rescue. It would seem that he’s had the Thalmor’s undivided attention all this time — poor bastard.
Sure enough, around the corner we find a lone bloodstained figure shackled to the wall, and a Thalmor with gloved hands standing across from the prisoner. From the set of razor-sharp implements neatly laid out on the table behind him, it would appear that this Thalmor is the official torturer. Startled at our sudden appearance, he whips out a dagger from his belt and calls for the guards — but unfortunately for him, the guards are in no condition to answer his summons. Moments later, we’ve left the torturer in exactly the same state as his colleagues.
After searching the body, we head toward the stocks in order to help the prisoner. Unsurprisingly, he doesn’t look so good, as he’s clearly lost a great deal of blood — but despite that, I can’t help but admire his stamina, not to mention his sense of humour.
Using the torturer’s key, I step up to the wall beside him and unlock the shackles. As the metal restraints swing open, he immediately slips in his own blood and collapses to the floor. He makes a few weak attempts to rise, but it’s obvious he’s almost at the end of his strength. I’m just about to search my backpack and donate a few dozen healing potions when one of our allies steps in.
The soldiers and the former prisoner clearly know each other well. Korst expresses surprise that we’re actually here to save him, and the soldiers assure him that Valerius wasn’t about to leave him to rot in a Thalmor prison. Since Korst seems to be able to travel, I’m expecting that we’ll be heading back to Helgen immediately — but it appears that these reunited comrades have some catching up to do first.
As if to prove he’s now fit to travel, Korst walks over to a nearby chest, opens it, and retrieves his old armour. Despite the restoration spell, and given his condition when we found him, I’m surprised he can even lift the lid. Refusing all offers of help, he equips himself in steel plate and turns toward us with a nod in my direction.
Wasting no more time, we retrace our steps through the Thalmor fortress and find our way out. Fortunately the blizzard has blown over, but the temperature has dropped considerably and night has fallen. Opening my pack, I retrieve several bottles of strong mead and pass them around to our companions. It would surely be tragic — not to mention ironic — if we went through all this trouble to rescue the prisoner, only to have him and the others die of hypothermia. I’m reasonably sure that Valerius and his contingent of well-armed military veterans wouldn’t appreciate it either.
It’s a good thing our destination isn’t very far away, because there are definitely not enough horses to go around. Reassuring us that they’ll be fine, the Helgen soldiers light up a torch, lend support to their friend, and start to make their way back on foot. Jenassa and I hang back a little as we ride to make sure the pedestrians don’t run into any trouble, but fortunately the trip back is uneventful, and soon we can see the gates ahead.
It’s an unusual sensation to recognize the blackened wall and looming keep of the demolished town, and yet see Helgen not as a ruin of desolation, but as a place of friendship and sanctuary. As I ride past the destroyed buildings, I try to imagine what it might look like as a newly rebuilt community — and I can’t help but smile to myself.
I have to admit, I’m rather looking forward to finding out.