Grazhir :: Skyrim :: Yvara :: 18

21042015

6.2

Dovahkiin

Dragon Rising
Evening Star, 21st, 4E 201

“Farengar!” Irileth called, and appeared in the doorway. “Farengar, you need to come at once. A dragon’s been sighted nearby. You should come, too,” she said to me.

“A dragon! How exciting!” Farengar said giddily; he sounded like a child in that moment. “Where was it seen? What was it doing?”

“I’d take this a bit more seriously if I were you,” Irileth said. I noticed the hooded woman quietly slipping away. “If a dragon decides to attack Whiterun I don’t know if we can stop it. Let’s go.”

Irileth led the way to the meeting area upstairs directly behind the throne, where the Jarl kept his map table. A guard was there as well, covered in the stench of pure anxiety.

“So,” the Jarl said, “Irileth tells me you came from the western watchtower.”

‘Near Elysium? Please be safe, Valdimar.’

“Yes, my lord.”

“Tell him what you told me,” Irileth urged. “About the dragon.”

“Uh . . . that’s right. We saw it coming from the south. It was fast—faster than anything I’ve ever seen.”

“What did it do?” Balgruuf asked. “Is it attacking the watchtower?”

“No, my lord. It was just circling overhead when I left. I never ran so fast in my life. I thought it would come after me for sure.”

Balgruuf nodded. “Good work, son. We’ll take it from here. Head down to the barracks for some food and rest. You’ve earned it. Irileth, you’d better gather some guardsmen and get down there.”

‘Why am I here?’ I wondered. ‘All I did was see a dragon, flee from it, and produce a stone tablet.’

“I’ve already ordered my men to muster near the main gate.”

“Good. Don’t fail me. One last thing, Irileth. This isn’t a death or glory mission. I need to know what we’re dealing with.”

“Don’t worry, my lord. I’m the very soul of caution,” she replied, then headed out.

The Jarl then turned to me. “There’s no time to stand on ceremony, my friend. I need your help again. I want you to go with Irileth and help her fight this dragon. You survived Helgen, so you have more experience with dragons than anyone else here. But I haven’t forgotten the service you did for me in retrieving the Dragonstone for Farengar. We’ll speak more of that when you return.”

“I should come along,” Farengar said quickly as I turned to leave. “I would very much like to see this dragon.”

“No. I can’t afford to risk both of you. I need you here working on ways to defend the city against these dragons.”

“As you command,” Farengar said rather sulkily.

I caught up with Irileth at the main gates; she was giving her men a pep talk, but it only went so far considering that one of them muttered, “We’re so dead.” Still, for the most part, she knew the kinds of words to say to fire up the average Nord.

“Let’s move out!” Irileth ordered, then ran for the gates.

I made it to a point across the road from the watchtower and ducked behind an outcropping of rocks while I waited. I was sure they were not long behind me, but I took shortcuts they did not seem willing to. The tower itself was damaged and burning—well, the vegetation was burning and sending up huge clouds of bitter smoke. Elysium was perfectly all right, so I looked the other way. I could see Ri’saad and his people jogging down the road toward Markarth and could only hope they’d get far enough along to not be caught up in whatever was to transpire should the dragon return.

‘Dragons breathe fire,’ I thought. ‘Or the one at Helgen did. So ice or shock spells, a frost atronach. . . . The lich would be better, but I can’t risk that. I can conjure a bow if necessary. . . .’

Irileth and the guards interrupted my thoughts by finally arriving. “No signs of any dragon right now, but it sure looks like he’s been here,” Irileth said. “I know it looks bad, but we’ve got to figure out what happened. And if that dragon is skulking around somewhere. Spread out and look for survivors. We need to know what we’re dealing with.”

I made a beeline for the tower itself, and as I hurried up the incline a guard ran out in a panic. “No! Get back! It’s still here somewhere. Hroki and Tor just got grabbed when they tried to make a run for it!”

“What happened here?” Irileth demanded. “Where’s this dragon? Quickly now!”

“I don’t know,” the guard wailed, then looked in the direction of the ridge when a horrendous roar sounded. “Kynareth save us, here he comes again!”

I ran down the broken walkway and over to another, jumping up easily and getting a better view. The dragon was gliding in from the south.

“Here he comes!” Irileth shouted. “Find cover and make every arrow count!”

The damn thing kept circling the tower and making strafing runs, either to try to snatch up one of the guards or to bathe everything in its path with fire. I was dismayed to realize that, as I was not wearing my usual gear, I could not cast spells with the casual frequency I normally did. Flinging around Adept-levels spells really did benefit from the enchantments to fortify one’s magicka regeneration.

“You are brave,” I heard the dragon rumble. “Balaan hokoron. Your defeat brings me honor.”

‘Balaan hokoron,’ I thought as I flung more lightning at the dragon. ‘Worthy enemy. Why did it say that while looking at me?’

My atronach was more than useless so long as that thing was in the air, so I did not summon it back when it returned to Oblivion. Instead I prepped bound bow in one hand and cast that instead, giving my magicka a rest. I was not all that good with a bow, but surely I could get some shots to land.

“Brit grah. I had forgotten what fine sport you mortals can provide!” the dragon rumbled.

‘Brit grah. Beautiful battle.’ I drew another arrow, sighted, and released. It flew wide because I had not accounted for the dragon’s speed. ‘Damn. The guards are doing a better job at it than I am,’ I thought in dismay. ‘Back to spells, then. Lightning goes so fast it almost always lands.’

“Thurri du hin sille ko Sovngarde!” the dragon rumbled before swooping down and grabbing a guard. The poor bastard was flung halfway to Whiterun in the blink of an eye.

‘My lord will feast on your souls in Sovngarde.’ One of the guards stared at me in disbelief when I just stood there aiming a spell even as the dragon flamed me with his breath. It barely hurt, really, which told me the fire was magical in nature and thus easily mitigated, especially by a Breton with a fair amount of training under her belt.

They sky had grown much darker by the time our combined efforts saw the dragon crash to the ground; one of its wings had been shredded. I immediately summoned a frost atronach and flung more lightning, staying carefully out of range of the beast’s teeth and tail. A part of me wondered why I wasn’t in a screaming panic, but I had been through so many battles already that. . . .

I sent another shock spell and paused when the dragon threw its head back in agony. “Dovahkiin! No!!”

“Let’s make sure that overgrown lizard is really dead,” I heard Irileth say. “Damned good shooting, boys!”

And then it happened, driving me to one knee with the shock of it, the intrusion and violation of my soul. The dragon began to . . . decay, right before our eyes, and a great wind arose along with streams of coloured light, all of it aimed straight at me.

“What’s happening?” a guard cried.

“Everybody, get back!” Irileth shouted.

But I was frozen in place, the recipient of the display. I suddenly understood in exquisite detail the word Fus—Force, in a way I never had before. And how to use it as a weapon. I knelt there trying to wrap my head around the experience and to regulate my breathing. My atronach crumbled out of existence.

“I can’t believe it!” a guard said. “You’re. . . . Dragonborn.”

I slowly stood up and turned to face who spoke, and tilted my head inquiringly. I already knew what he meant—the dragon had seen to that, and a book I had read some time that was only just then becoming intimately relevant—but still. . . .

“In the very oldest tales, back from when there were still dragons in Skyrim, the Dragonborn would slay dragons and steal their power. That’s what you did, isn’t it? Absorbed that dragon’s power?” When I said nothing he continued, “There’s only one way to find out. Try to Shout. According to the old legends, only the Dragonborn can Shout without training, the way dragons do.”

Another guard piped up with, “Dragonborn? What are you talking about?”

“My grandfather used to tell stories about the Dragonborn. Those born with the Dragon Blood in ’em. Like old Tiber Septim himself.”

I tuned them out for the moment, running my mind over the word Fus, how it was like pushing, against a person, a creature, or the world itself. How I could Shout it. I likened it to using a spell, actually, except that I would use my voice instead of a hand.

“What do you say, Irileth? You’re being awfully quiet.”

“Come on, Irileth, tell us, do you believe in this Dragonborn business?”

“Some of you would be better off keeping quiet than flapping your gums on matters you don’t know anything about,” she said a bit scathingly. Or maybe she was shook up or frightened. “Here’s a dead dragon, and that’s something I definitely understand. Now we know we can kill them. But I don’t need some mythical Dragonborn. Someone who can put down a dragon is more than enough for me.”

“You wouldn’t understand, housecarl. You ain’t a Nord,” one of them said dismissively.

“I’ve been all across Tamriel. I’ve seen plenty of things just as outlandish as this. I’d advise you all to trust in the strength of your sword over tales and legends.”

“If you really are Dragonborn, like out of the old tales,” one of them said to me, “you ought to be able to Shout. Can you? Have you tried?”

‘Well, why not?’ I thought, and turned a bit so no one was immediately in front of me. “Fus!” I Shouted, and still managed to catch one of the guards peripherally with the effect ripple, almost knocking him off his feet.

“By the gods! What manner of power is that?” one guard cried.

‘I take it none of these people have ever witnessed Ulfric Shouting then.’

“That was Shouting, what you just did! Must be. You really are Dragonborn, then.”

Irileth shook her head and addressed me. “That was the hairiest fight I’ve ever been in, and I’ve been in more than a few. I don’t know about this Dragonborn business, but I’m sure glad you’re with us. You better get back to Whiterun right away. Jarl Balgruuf will want to know what happened here.”

Elysium was safe, I could see, but I couldn’t check for sure as I was. I could not afford to have anyone knowing where the Dragonborn lived. I had read that book, heard the legend, listened to the songs. . . . I nodded to Irileth and jumped down from my perch to leave, but paused and looked at the dragon’s skeleton. A quick bit of investigation revealed I could pry loose some pieces, which I did and tucked away. I also grabbed some scales which had fallen to the ground during the decay process. They looked awfully similar to the armor I was wearing—or parts of it. I took off at a run.

I was halfway up the steps to Dragonsreach when a Shout so powerful it shook the world sounded. “Dovahkiin!!” Several guards toppled off their feet and over the edges, into the pools below. I staggered from the force of it, but kept my footing and continued on.

I was met by Proventus. “Good. You’re finally here. The Jarl’s been waiting for you.” He ushered me the rest of the way as though I might bolt at any moment.

“You heard the summons,” the Jarl was saying wonderingly to no one in particular. “What else could it mean? The Greybeards. . . .”

“We were just talking about you,” Hrongar said. “My brother needs a word with you.”

‘And isn’t that why Proventus is guiding me along like a small child?’ I thought.

Balgruuf spotted me finally and said, “So what happened at the watchtower? Was the dragon there?”

“Yes,” I said, intending to keep my words brief. “The watchtower was badly damaged, but the dragon was defeated.”

“I knew I could count on Irileth,” he said. “But there must be more to it than that.”

I sighed as invisibly as I could. “The men with us called me Dragonborn.”

“Not just the men,” Balgruuf replied. “The Greybeards seem to think the same thing. You—you absorbed power from the beast?”

“Yes.”

“So it’s true. The Greybeards really were summoning you.”

The only thing I could recall of the Greybeards was that Ulfric had supposedly trained with them for a time in his youth; beyond that, not much. “They are?”

“Masters of the Way of the Voice. They live in seclusion high on the slopes of the Throat of the World. The Dragonborn is said to be uniquely gifted in the Voice—the ability to focus your vital essence into a Thu’um, or Shout. If you really are Dragonborn, they can teach you how to use your gift.”

“Didn’t you hear the thundering sound as you returned to Whiterun?” Hrongar asked. “That was the voice of the Greybeards, summoning you to High Hrothgar! This hasn’t happened in . . . centuries, at least. Not since Tiber Septim himself was summoned when he was still Talos of Atmora!”

“Hrongar, calm yourself,” Proventus said dismissively. “What does any of this Nord nonsense have to do with our friend here? Capable as she may be, I don’t see any signs of her being this, what, ‘Dragonborn’.”

“Nord nonsense? Why you puffed-up, ignorant—these are our sacred traditions that go back to the founding of the First Empire!”

Balgruuf interceded wearily. “Don’t be so hard on Avenicci.”

“I mean no disrespect, of course,” Proventus said.

‘Yes, you did,’ I thought. ‘Or you’re scared halfway out of your smalls.’

“It’s just that—what do these Greybeards want with her?”

“That’s the Greybeards’ business, not ours,” Balgruuf replied. “Whatever happened when you killed that dragon, it revealed something in you, and the Greybeards heard it. If they think you’re Dragonborn, who are we to argue? You’d better get up to High Hrothgar immediately. There’s no refusing the summons of the Greybeards. It’s a tremendous honor. I envy you, you know,” he said a bit wistfully.

“To climb the seven thousand steps again. . . . I made the pilgrimage once, did you know that? High Hrothgar is a very peaceful place. Very . . . disconnected from the troubles of this world. I wonder if the Greybeards even notice what’s going on down here. They haven’t seemed to care before.” He shook his head. “No matter. Go to High Hrothgar. Learn what the Greybeards can teach you.

“And—you’ve done a great service to me and my city, Dragonborn. By my right as Jarl, I name you Thane of Whiterun. It’s the greatest honor that’s within my power to grant. I assign you Lydia as a personal housecarl, and this weapon from my armory to serve as your badge of office.”

Proventus was quick to hand over an axe. Feeling out the enchantment on it could wait.

“I’ll also notify my guards of your new title. Wouldn’t want them to think you’re part of the common rabble, now would we?”

His manner invited me to chuckle, though I did not.

“We are honored to have you as Thane of our city, Dragonborn. Also, about the reward I spoke of earlier. There is a furnished house here in Whiterun, unused. I am gifting it to you. Lydia can show you were it is.”

Proventus handed over a key.

“Well, back to business, Proventus. We still have a city to defend.”

“Yes, my lord.”

I took that as my dismissal and turned away. A woman was waiting for me near the doors to the city. “My Thane,” she said. “I am Lydia, your housecarl.”

I nodded and said quietly, “Show me to this house the Jarl spoke of.”

“Yes, my Thane,” she replied, and led the way.

It was about then that I realized my voice had changed again a little. There was an unconscious rumble of power hiding in it. I couldn’t be sure if anyone else could hear it, though, or if it was just my long-standing familiarity that made it stand out. I glanced at Jorrvaskr as we went by. I would have to avoid the place when playing Dragonborn. Aela might well figure it out.

The house turned out to be called Breezehome and was right next door to the smithy. It was already fully furnished, which helped, though I would not have cared if it wasn’t. It gave the Dragonborn a “home base” in Whiterun. I looked around inside and nodded. “We will set out for High Hrothgar in the morning. You’re free to do as you wish until then.”

She said, “Yes, my Thane,” and wandered off upstairs.

I took a seat by the firepit to think. The trip to see the Greybeards would tell me a lot about Lydia. My first impression of her was not good. She was stiff and seemed to have a chip on her shoulder. Time would tell. On the way perhaps I could use bound weapons to do some soul trapping for me—I was fairly certain I was proficient enough that that would work. Or I could just keep buying them. Either way, I needed to really work enchanting now, what with being stuck wearing plain armor.

The Way of the Voice
Evening Star, 22nd, 4E 201

We made it to Ivarstead in good time and with almost no trouble at all on the road—we rode, and had not bothered to stop for the ubiquitous wolves along the way—but it was already mid-afternoon and I wasn’t sure how long it would take to climb to the peak. I bespoke rooms at the Vilemyr Inn and spent the evening quietly, with me prompting Lydia to explain to me the details about being a Thane, Whiterun in general, and so forth, not because I needed to know, but to further the idea in her head—and for anyone listening in—that I had no idea. After that I let her do as she wanted while I read a book before getting some rest.

Evening Star, 23rd, 4E 201

We headed out fairly early, buying some supplies from Wilhelm first. At the bridge leading over the river and to the path upward we came across two men talking. The one, Klimmek, was set to journey up to bring supplies to the Greybeards, but I offered to do it for him since I was going anyway. He was grateful to not have to make the climb again so soon.

‘What in Oblivion?’ Partway up a bear nosed out and attacked, which was fine. I summoned a flame atronach and started arcing lightning at it—but then I realized, Lydia just stood back there, staring at nothing. Was she a coward?

The next time we ran across hostile wildlife I saw arrows added to the mix, so I knew she was participating. But really? She was wearing steel plate armor. Why was she hanging back and using a bow? ‘Am I moving too fast for her to keep up?’ I wondered. I slowed down to a speed far closer to normal human, but she still never did more than use her bow.

It took almost four hours to make the climb at that speed. I dropped off the supplies in the huge chest Klimmek had mentioned, then headed up the last set of stairs and opened the doors.

Inside was somber, almost holy. The ceilings were tall and the level of light was fairly low, coming only from braziers and small windows high up. A person dressed in enveloping grey hooded robes approached me.

“So, a Dragonborn appears, at this moment in the turning of the age.”

“You did summon me,” I replied, and I admit my voice was a bit stiff; the underlying rumble of power seemed a bit more pronounced, as well.

“We will see if you truly have the gift. Show us, Dragonborn. Let us taste of your voice.” As he had been speaking, three others dressed in the same robes had gathered.

Though I knew many words, I did not yet have that innate understanding of them as I did Fus, provided by that dragon. I gathered I would have to kill and absorb more to develop further. That being so, I turned to the side slightly and Shouted, “Fus!” Pottery went flying and some of the Greybeards staggered.

“Dragonborn.” He sounded pleased, perhaps relieved. “It is you. Welcome to High Hrothgar. I am Master Arngeir. I speak for the Greybeards. Now tell me, Dragonborn, why have you come here?”

One of my brows went up. I had to assume there was more to that question than letting me know the man suffered from short-term memory issues. “I know that I am hardly the first Dragonborn in history, but also that those before me came here as well. What is it you do here?”

“We are the Greybeards, followers of the Way of the Voice. You stand in High Hrothgar, on the slopes of Kynareth’s sacred mountain. Here we commune with the voice of the sky, and strive to achieve balance between our inner and outer selves. You are correct that you are not the first. There have been many of the Dragon Blood since Akatosh first bestowed that gift upon mortalkind.”

“I am ready to learn,” I stated, without saying exactly what I planned to take from any lessons.

Arngeir nodded. “You have shown that you are Dragonborn. You have the inborn gift. But do you have the discipline and temperament to follow the path laid out for you? That remains to be seen. Without training, you have already taken the first steps toward projecting your Voice into a Thu’um, a Shout. Now let us see if you are willing and able to learn.

“When you Shout, you speak in the language of the dragons. Thus, your Dragon Blood gives you an inborn ability to learn Words of Power. All Shouts are made up of three Words of Power. As you master each Word, your Shout will become progressively stronger. Master Einarth will now teach you ‘Ro’, the second Word in Unrelenting Force. ‘Ro’ means ‘balance’ in the dragon tongue. Combine it with Fus—Force—to focus your Thu’um more sharply.”

One of the monks stepped forward and whispered at the floor. “Ro. . . .” Despite it being so soft it etched the word into the stone floor, in the same writing as found on the word walls.

I stepped closer to examine it, assuming the same thing as always would happen. Indeed, it did. Streams of light emerged and came to me, and with them, the word: Ro—Balance.

“You learn a new word like a master—you truly do have the gift. But learning a Word of Power is only the first step. You must unlock its meaning through constant practice in order to use it in a Shout. Well,” he admitted, “that is how the rest of us learn Shouts. As Dragonborn, you can absorb a slain dragon’s life force and knowledge directly. As part of your initiation, Master Einarth will allow you to tap into his understanding of ‘Ro’.”

Einarth faced me directly and bowed slightly, as if in prayer. From him came more streams of light, imparting to me the meaning just as if I had absorbed another dragon. I found it . . . peculiar . . . that I seemed to receive so little from an entire dragon, actually. I nodded my thanks to Master Einarth.

“Now let us see how quickly you can master your new Thu’um. Use your Unrelenting Force Shout to strike the targets as they appear.”

One of the other two monks straightened up, so I stepped back a little, unsure what he meant to do. “Fiik Lo Sah!” In the center of the room appeared an ethereal copy of the monk.

I eyed it for a moment, then Shouted. “Fus Ro!” The phantom form disappeared. ‘Fiik Lo Sah—Mirror Deceive Phantom. Interesting, but not necessarily incredibly useful.’

“Well done. Again,” Arngeir said.

Einarth Shouted next. “Fiik Lo Sah!

And again I Shouted, “Fus Ro!”

“You learn quickly.” Was that fear I detected in his voice, for all that he reminded me strongly of Tolfdir in some ways? “Once more,” he said encouragingly.

The final monk created his phantom form and I dealt with it just as quickly as the others.

“Impressive. Your Thu’um is precise. You show great promise, Dragonborn. We will perform your next trial in the courtyard. Follow Master Borri.”

Before I did that I turned back to Lydia. “Please wait here.”

“Yes, my Thane.”

‘Oh great, attitude now. Could you have sounded any more sulky?’ I turned back and caught up with Borri and followed him to the courtyard out back.

Once we were all in place Arngeir said, “We will now see how you learn a completely new Shout. Master Borri will—wait. I can sense that you have already learned Wuld. No matter. Master Borri will teach you the next Word of Whirlwind Sprint, Nah, which means Fury.”

Nah. . . .”

As before the word appeared in the stone beneath our feet, and as before I acquired it with no trouble.

“Master Borri will gift you his knowledge of ‘Wuld’.” Half a minute later he continued, “Now we will see how quickly you can master a new Shout. Master Wulfgar will demonstrate Whirlwind Sprint. Then it will be your turn. Master Borri?”

Wulfgar had moved to a spot between two short stone pillars. Well in front of his position was a metal gate between two tall stone supports, and behind the gate was another pillar, that one about three feet high.

Borri had moved to stand next to the gate itself. “Bex!”

The gate swung open. “Wuld Nah Kest!” Wulfgar Shouted, and fairly well flew the distance to the pillar at the back, the gate closing again after he had passed through.

‘Bex—Open. I wonder if that’d work on locks. Somehow I don’t think Arngeir would tell me if I asked.’

“Now it is your turn. Stand next to me,” Arngeir said. “Master Borri will open the gate. Use your Whirlwind Sprint to pass through before it closes.”

I took my place and nodded to Borri, and when he opened the gate, I Shouted, “Wuld!” ‘Now that’s odd,’ I thought from my new position. ‘I went as fast as Wulfgar did, but with only one third of the Shout.’ I turned around and walked back to Arngeir.

“Your quick mastery of a new Thu’um is—astonishing. I’d heard the stories of the abilities of Dragonborn, but to see it for myself. . . .”

I could detect traces of fear, envy, and dismay in his scent and the look in his eyes, despite the actual words he chose. He really did sound so much like Tolfdir, but he lacked the utterly guileless quality the Master-Wizard had. “I don’t know how I do it. It just happens.” What more could I say? I wasn’t about to tell him of all the word walls I’d already encountered and learned from. I just kept stumbling over the damn things. Divine intervention, perhaps? Akatosh giving me nudges?

“You were given this gift by the gods for a reason. It is up to you to figure out how best to use it. You are now ready for your last trial,” he informed me. “Retrieve the Horn of Jurgen Windcaller, our founder, from his tomb in the ancient fane of Ustengrav. Remain true to the Way of the Voice, and you will return.”

‘So I’ll have to use at least one Shout,’ I thought. “I hate to sound conceited, but do you think the dragons returning is related to my emergence as Dragonborn?”

“No doubt. The appearance of a Dragonborn at this time is not an accident. Your destiny is surely bound up with the return of the dragons. You should focus on honing your Voice, and soon your path will be made clear.”

I really did not like mystics.

“Some believe that Dragonborn are sent into the world by the gods, at times of great need. We will speak more of that later, when you are ready.”

‘And you’ll be the one deciding when I’m ready, I suppose.’ “There are just the four of you?”

“Five. Our leader, Paarthurnax, lives alone on the peak of the Throat of the World. When your voice can open the path, you will know you are ready to speak to him.”

‘Also up to you, despite what you say aloud.’ “Will you tell me about the Greybeards?”

“We study the Way of the Voice, according to the teachings of our founder, Jurgen Windcaller. Very few are permitted to study with us here at High Hrothgar. But in your case, Dragonborn, it is a privilege to guide you toward mastery of your Voice.”

“And the Way of the Voice?”

“The Voice was a gift of the goddess Kynareth, at the dawn of time. She gave us mortals the ability to speak as dragons do. Although this gift has often been misused, the only true use of the Voice is for the worship and glory of the gods. True Mastery of the Voice can only be achieved when your inner spirit is in harmony with your outward actions. In the contemplation of the sky, Kynareth’s domain, and the practice of the Voice, we strive to achieve this balance.”

I frowned slightly. “But I am not a follower of that philosophy. Why help me learn the Voice?”

“The Dragonborn is an exception to all the rules—the Dragon Blood itself is a gift from the gods. If we accept one gift, how can we deny the other? As Dragonborn, you have received the ability to Shout directly from Akatosh. We therefore seek to guide you on the proper use of your gift, which transcends the restrictions which bind other mortals.”