It’s a noisy and frigid morning in the market square of Windhelm, the City of Kings. Soft white snowflakes dance lazily through the grey sky, falling gently on the frozen mounds of snow blanketing the city grounds. The many voices of the merchants selling their wares mingle with loud clangs of metal against iron as the blacksmith works his craft, and the endless chatter of the townsfolk as they go to and fro, sharing rumors of dragon attacks in nearby Holds and tales of battles between the honor-driven Stormcloaks and the cruel and spineless soldiers of the Imperial Legion. A young man passes among the merchants stalls, eyeing their wares and lost in thoughts of his upcoming recruitment into the Stormcloak ranks. He’s excited of the thought of battles to come, and many nights drinking mead with his Brothers and Sisters of Skyrim. Suddenly he feels a small prick on the back of his neck. “Ow!” he grumbles as he swats at the spot and feels a drip of blood on his fingertips.
He turns, only to see a flamed-haired woman vanishing into the throngs of people crowding the market. Frowning, he examines the trace of blood on his fingertips and gingerly touches the small wound on the back of his neck. “What?” he begins to say. Suddenly a great pain seizes him and he gives an unearthly cry of anguish as something cold grips his heart. Every fiber of his body screames in pain, and as he feels his knees go numb, his vision blurs and he topples over, knocking into a few startled people behind him. A crowd forms around the fallen man as his body convulses and mouth foams. “By the Nine!” someone exclaims. “Grab a priestess. This man’s been poisoned!” As guards shove their way into the crowd, mass pandemonium sets in and the man dies, confused and in pain, unable to move his arms or legs.
The flame-haired woman pauses as she reaches the city gate and pulls her black cloak over her tangled red tussles, hiding the sharp pointed ears of her people, the Wood Elves of Skyrim. “What happened?” One of the watchmen calls to her as another guard sprints by. “I’m not sure. I think someone collapsed in the market,” she answers, and the guard eyes her somewhat suspiciously. While she’s short in stature, she’s beautiful, with slightly bronzed skin and yellow eyes which shine even under her hood. The watchmen allow her to pass through the gates, chatting amongst themselves and blissfully unaware of the woman’s true nature. As she leaves the city behind, she slips a small vial of poison into the pouch hanging from her belt. Her work here was done. She was to report immediately to Astrid at the Halls of the Dark Brotherhood. A completed contract meant more pay, and the woman was running low on coin. She casts one glance behind her at the lights of the city before she vanishes into the forests. She didn’t feel sorry for the man. He was a contract, nothing more; a death required by the Black Sacrament and by the Sithis, the Dread Lord himself. With nary of thought of the man’s ill-fate, the Poison Widow offers a small quiet prayer to her Master before resuming her journey home.
Skyrim—of Assassins, Vampires, and Dragons
The excerpt above comes from the early adventures of my Skyrim character called the Poison Widow, an alchemy focused assassin who rose through the ranks of the Dark Brotherhood to the coveted position of Listener to the Night Mother; became a vampire and member of the Volkihar Clan; trained in the arts of poison magic at the College of Winterhold; thwarted an ancient prophecy to provent the Vampire Lord Harkon from blotting out the sun forever; claimed the title of Dragonborn and slayed Alduin the World-Eater; fought in the civil war plaguing Skyrim; and journeyed to the Island of Solsteim to face off against Miraak, the First Dragonborn. Her exciting journey plays out in the open-world game of Skyrim, Bethesda’s fifth title in the Elder Scrolls series.
Skyrim is the type of game you can play over and over again, and while the dungeons and bosses might feel redundant after the 200th playthrough, there’s something deeply alluring and inviting about creating your own character and playing your by your own set of rules and moral codes. In one playthrough, you might work as assassin for the Dark Brotherhood who dual-wields daggers dipped in poison. In another, you play as an ice mage arriving at the College of Winterhold to unlock Skyrim’s many magical secrets, while in another, you’re a Khajiit merchant trying to survive the harsh and cold land of the Nords. I wanted to highlight the story and journey of my playthrough as the Poison Widow, a character I created to challenge myself by focusing purely on alchemy (initially). I created an Instagram page and posted screenshots of my adventures in the game, and I soon found a unique community of gamers and content creators who enjoyed following along with the Poison Widow’s journey.
Skyrim Character Build: The Poison Widow
I developed the idea of the Poison Widow from a character build guide I found through the Tamriel Vault, a website where users submit build guides and game discussions. Vargr White-Tree posted the build idea in the character forums. Vargr White-Tree, thank you so much for the idea.
The Poison Widow grew up in the lush and dense forests of Valenwood. Not much is known about her early years with the Bosmer, but she spent most of her life traveling the roads and harvesting plants and other ingredients for her many toxins and poisons. She preferred her past to remain shrouded in mystery, and was a loner who enjoyed her quiet and simple life among the trees and animals of the forest. The other Bosmer feared her because of her obsessions with poisons and believed she was a follower of a dark and dangerous Daedric Lord; perhaps she worshipped Peryite, the Lord of Pestilence and Disease, but whether or not this was true, they drove her from the forests, afraid of what toxic power she might unleash on their villages.
The Poison Widow took to the roads, leaving Valendwood behind as she set off to explore and hone her craft. Her nomadic existence eventually led her to Skyrim, the cold and harsh land of the Nords, where she set up a small shack near the town of Helgen to conduct experiments and unlock all the secrets alchemy had to offer. She journeyed from Riverwood to Riften, harvesting all kinds of flora and exploring every dark cave and tomb she came across. I used the mod Alternate Start to start the game as a camper in the forests near Helgen, which meant I could start the main questline sometime later down the road. First, I wanted increase my skills in Alchemy, sneak, and pickpocketing that would make me the perfect assassin. I used a simple longbow and two steel daggers which I didn’t upgrade. I wanted all the damage I inflicted on my enemies to primarily come for the poisons I created.
Early in the game, I had the Poison Widow stick to the roads of Skyrim, exploring and collecting ingredients where I could find them. Combat was difficult and I had to retreat from many battles (I was also playing the game on Legendary difficulty and used mods that increased the numbers of enemies) until I leveled my Alchemy skills to craft poisons that delivered high amounts of damage. Undead enemies were impossible to face alone, so I hired Faendal—a Bosmer archer in the town of Riverwood— whenever I had to go explore a tomb or cave and might run into Draugr, who, like vampires, were immune to my poisonous potions.
Joining the Dark Brotherhood
Eventually the Poison Widow ended up in Windhelm, where a young boy, mistaking her for an assassin with the Dark Brotherhood, contracted her to kill Grelod the Kind, the cruel matron of a orphanage in Riften who’d suffer the boy’s wrath after his parents died and he was forced into her care. Intrigued by the contract and in desperate need of coin, the Poison Widow traveled to Riften and stole into the orphanage at night, pricking Grelod’s neck with a poisoned dagger which caused almost instantaneous death while the old lady slumbered. The following night, after collecting on the contract’s bounty, the Poison Widow dreamt vividly of darkness, death and blood and soon awoke to find herself a captive of Astrid, the leader of the Dark Brotherhood who was none to pleased that the Poison Widow stole their contract. Nevertheless, Astrid couldn’t deny the Bosmer’s unique approach to death dealing, and she offered her a position with the Dark Brotherhood if the Poison Widow killed one of the three possible contracts in the shack where she was being held, though Astrid refused to reveal which target was the real contract. The Poison Widow obliged, and killed all three captives with three perfectly aimed shots of her poisoned arrows. Impressed, Astrid invited the young woman into the Dark Brotherhood.
The Poison Widow grew through the ranks of the assassins, earning their respect with her skills in killing with poisons. She dispatched her targets with poisoned arrows and daggers, and eventually she studied and perfected the art of crafting poisoned apples. These apples caused the victim to go temporarily insane with pain as they coughed up blood and acidic green bile, before falling paralyzed to the ground and succumbing to a long and brutal death. The mod Purification of Skyrim allows you to craft these apples, and it’s available on both Xbox One and PC. I also focused on harvesting ingredients like imp stool, mora tapinella, and canis root to craft insanely powerful toxins that caused paralysis and lingering poison damage, and I called these potions the Widow’s Kiss.
I followed the questline of the Dark Brotherhood until the end, becoming Listener in the process and rebuilding the Dark Brotherhood organization after Astrid betrayed them to their enemies, the Penitus Occulatus, an order of Imperial law enforcers. As the Poison Widow, I carried out all assassinations and fought in combat situations with poisons, and wielded only simple weapons. Remember, the purpose of the build was pure alchemy. The perk points in the pickpocketing tree proved especially useful because they allowed the Poison Widow to slip her toxins in her enemies’ pockets, and they would die quickly thereafter. There was nothing more rewarding than sneaking through a bandit camp, reverse-pick pocketing poisons into everyone’s pockets and drinking an invisibility potion in case the Poison Widow was caught. Since her sneak and pickpocketing skills were so high, she could carry out this practice of dealing death almost perfectly.
With the Dark Brotherhood questline completed, I knew I wanted to have the Poison Widow become a vampire. What better way than to play the Dawnguard expansion as a member of the Volkihar Clan, and since I couldn’t fight the vampires with my poisons, I figured I would join them instead. To initiate the questline, I traveled to Fort Dawnguard outside of Riften and was stunned to see that Faendal was there, ready and eager to accompany the Poison Widow in her journey.
For this quest, I changed into a set of armor from a Sithis Armor mod which was a retextured and lighter version of the Ebony Armor set. I preferred to keep the Poison Widow in dresses or robes, but the armor looked so damn cool and she needed to be prepared for the likelihood of open combat situations.
Joining the Volkihar Vampires
The Dawnguard instructed the Poison Widow to investigate mysterious vampiric activity near at a Nordic tomb called Dimhollow Crypt. I carried a simple crossbow for this quest, but since vampires are immune to poison, most of the damage came from Faendal’s archery. At the end of the quest, it’s revealed that a female vampire named Serana was locked away and sleeping in the Crypt for centuries, and that she holds within her possession an ancient and much sought after Elder Scroll. The Poison Widow and Faendal agree to accompany Serena to her family castle to reunite with her father, the Vampire Lord Harkon. Upon arrive, Harkon offered to give the Poison Widow the gift of eternal undead life for the safe return of his daughter and Elder Scroll. The Poison Widow accepted his gift, and he assumed his true and terrible form of the Vampire Lord before biting her and making her one of his own kind.
Being a vampire opened the door to all kinds of new possibilities. I had previously restricted myself from any usage of magic, but with the gift of vampirism came the skill of poison magic, which I planned to develop at the College of Winterhold. I wanted to progress the character of the Poison Widow in a more natural way to add immersion into the game. It makes sense that she couldn’t use magic if she had never trained in it before, and I knew that the poison spells available to me (thanks to the mods Apocalypse of Skyrim which adds a huge variety of spells to the game and Ordinator Perk Overhaul which adds a poison spell list that can be unlocked with the Restoration skill tree) would not only be insanely powerful with the Necromage perk but would also work against other vampires and undead creatures. Before progressing in the Dawnguard questline, I had the Poison Widow travel to Winterhold to train at the wizard’s college.
Becoming A Poison-Mage
While at the college, the Poison Widow gets roped into investigating a mysterious but powerful object known as the Eye of Magnus, and must thwart the Thalmor Ambassador, Arcano from taking over the school. By the end of the questline, the Poison Widow’s skill in Restoration allowed her to cast powerful and toxic poison spells few could resist. She also defeated Arcano and saved the College, earning the trust and admiration of its most senior faculty and of the mysterious group of mages in the Psijic Order. The College named the Poison Widow Arch Mage in recognition of her talents and accomplishments. The only school of magic I focused on was Restoration, and had the College known the Poison Widow was corrupting Restoration spells to unlock their poisonous potential, they might have decided against naming her Arch Mage. The College made for an excellent base of operations for the Poison Widow. She could feed on the sleeping faculty and students at night, and during the day, she could stay in her quarters, growing ingredients, training her magical abilities, and brewing poisons.
The Tyranny of the Sun
.At this point, I had the Poison Widow return to Lord Harkon’s service, since she was a stronger vampire now than she’d been before. Harkon asked the Poison Widow to seek out the other Elder Scrolls so he can achieve his goal of establishing vampiric authority over all of Skyrim, and she’s joined in her quest by Serena. The search for the Elder Scrolls took the Poison Widow and Serena from the deepest caverns of Blackreach to the misty fields of the dead in the Soul Cairn.
Dealing with the Falmer was no issue; the Poison Widow kept to the shadows, sniping shots of poisoned arrows with her simple long bow or casting devastating poison spells which would effect entire groups of enemies. In the Soul Cairn, Serena reunited with mother Valerica, who informed the duo that Harkon needed Serena’s blood to complete the prophecy of the Tyranny of the Sun and bring eternal darkness to the land. The Poison Widow and Serana journeyed to Darkfall Cave to retrieve Auriel’s Bow, which the two used to defeat Harkon. The final battle against the vampire Lord took no time at all. I used a limited power granted to me by the Restoration skill tree to make Harkon one hundred percent weak to poison, and I shot him with an arrow dipped in the poison of the jarrin root, which I’d saved from my early adventures with the Dark Brotherhood. I didn’t even let Harkon finish his monologue, and I was half expecting the trick not to work–but as soon as the Poison Widow let her arrow fly, the great and mighty Harkon gave a terrible cry and disinigrated on the spot. With Harkon dead, the Poison Widow journied to the Soul Cairn once again to retrieve Valerica; the mod Amazing Follower Tweaks allowed me to invite Valerica into my services, and I traveled around Skyrim with her and Serena for awhile, raiding bandit camps and harvesting ingredients.
I completed fun quests during this time, including “Boethiah’s Calling” in which you are required to sacrifice one of your followers to the Daedric Prince of deceit, treachery, and sedition. I wanted to add the Ebony Mail—the reward for completing the quest— among the Poison Widow’s arsenal, since it cloaks your character in shadow and deals poison damage to nearby enemies. I decided to sacrifice Faendal, since he was the Poison Widow’s earliest companion and nothing would be treacherous, but after all was said and done, I felt guilty so I had the Poison resurrect Faendal as a vampire, and he quickly forgave me for killing him.
Eventually, The Dawnguard sent vampire hunters after the Poison Widow and her companions, so I decided it was time to utterly destroy their faction. The Poison Widow gathered her closest allies–including Serena, Valerica, Faendal, and Cicero (the crazy but slightly lovable Jester from the Dark Brotherhood) and we launched a full on assault against the Dawnguard at their own headquarters, killing every single one of them within minutes. It was a thrilling battle, and I felt that I was leading Skyrim’s version of the Injustice League.
Having completed the Dark Brotherhood, the College of Winterhold, and the Dawnguard questlines, I figured I was powerful enough to take on the dragons attacking Skyrim. Leaving my followers behind at my modded home Castle Valdmire–which is an enormous and beautiful castle I highly recommend–I set off for Helgen. Upon my arrival, the town was destroyed, and I read a journal left by one of the ill-fated prisoners who documented the dragon Alduin’s devastating attack. I had the Poison Widow follow the main questline as she investigated the mysterious forces behind the dragons’ resurrections and return to Tamriel. After defeating a dragon at the Western Watchtower in Whiterun Hold–I remained hidden in the tower and sniped the dragon with poison arrows–the Poison Widow is named Dragonborn after she absorbs the dragon’s soul. The people of Skyrim saw the Poison Widow as a hero, which I wasn’t too happy with because I did love playing a villain.
Because Skyrim forces you play as a hero for the main quest, I decided to play the game as an anti-hero. I roleplayed that the Poison Widow didn’t want the world to end, because there was still so much more to learn and she wanted to develop her vampiric powers even more. After she’s named Thane of Whiterun for killing the dragon, the Poison Widow–with her new housecarl Lydia in tow–journeyed up the One Thousand Steps to High Hrothgar, where the Greybeards formally recognized her as Dragonborn and trained her in the Way of the Voice. I didn’t use Shouts (a form of magic performed by speaking the language of the dragons) very much, but I did occasionally use the Ice Form Shout to freeze my enemies solid so I could shoot them with a poisoned arrow, but using the power didn’t feel true to the Poison Widow, so I eventually ditched Shouts all-together unless using one was required by a specific quest.
At this point in the game, I still only focused on increasing my Alchemy, Restoration, Sneak and Pickpocketing skills. Fighting dragons was a quick affair, because my spells were powerful enough to kill them within minutes, but since I didn’t perk any armor or combat skills, a blast from a dragon’s Shout could kill me almost instantly, especially if it was a fire dragon. Nevertheless, I enjoyed restricting myself to a specific build that grew organically in the game over time. I was slightly overpowered, but weaknesses to sunlight, fire, and my inability to survive many open combat situations more than offset any bonuses I possessed, and I still needed to play the game strategically.
I also decided it was time for the Poison Widow to travel with companions again to make the game feel more fresh and exciting, and the Amazing Follower Tweaks mod allowed me to recruit anyone in my services. I formed a Skyrim Sirens group with Ysolda, Jenessa, and Saadia, and turned them into vampires. They became the Poison Widow’s closest friends throughout their adventure together. Saadia, a Redguard who you can choose to save in the quest In My Time of Need, was a skilled dual wielder, and I had her fight with two scimitars–one absorbed health and the other caused ice damage. Ysolda was a expert marksman with her elven bow but she was also capable with fighting with daggers. Jenessa was a spellsword who focused on the Shock spell branch of the Destruction skill tree. Combined the Poison Widow’s toxic spells and potions, the Sirens traveled around Skyrim, wiping out bandits, battling dragons and progressing in the main story.
At the end of the main questline, the Poison Widow gathered even more of her followers–Lydia, Faendal, Serena and Valerica–and prepared for the final battle in Sovngarde–the Nordic afterlife–against Alduin the World-Eater, the main antagonist of the game who signified the end of days. In Sovngarde, the Poison Widow and her followers encountered the warrior Tsun, and three Nord heroes who join them for the battle.
As the fog rolled in, Aludin’s terrifying roars filled the battlefield, and the fighting began. The Poison Widow fought bravely, utilizing a combination of poison spells and her trusty bow and arrow. Jenessa, Serena, and Valerica all used magic, while Ysolda and Faendal fired arrows at the dragon and Lydia, Saadia, and the three Nord heroes attacked Alduin head-on. Even on Legendary difficulty, defeating Alduin was relatively easy, and the battle ended with the Poison Widow delivering the killing blow curtesy of a poisoned arrow.
While her companions celebrated back at home in Castle Valdmire, the Poison Widow had one last act to carry out before enjoying the festivities in her honor. As many Skyrim players can agree, Delphine–a Breton and member of a group of dragon hunters called the Blades–is an unpopular character who spends the game bossing you around and demanding you kill Paarthurnax, a redeemed dragon and leader of the Greybeards. No one disrespects the Poison Widow, so I snuck over to the Blades’ headquarters and killed both Delphine and her ally Esbern by slipping my trademark poison–The Widow’s Kiss—into their pockets, killing both of them. Slowly.
And so for now ends the tale of the Poison Widow, Listener of the Dark Brotherhood, Arch Mage of the College of Winterhold, Lady of Castle Volkihar and Scourge of the Dawnguard, Thane of Whiterun and Dragonborn of Tamriel. Find out next week which side of the civil war the Poison Widow fought on, how she battled the First Dragonborn Miraak, and how she gained her iconic long-haired-green-dress look after I made the jump from playing on Xbox One to PC.
I’m looking forward to sharing more of the Poison Widow’s adventures, and the characters she inspired me to create for the Instagram page. Thanks for following along; if you want to see more screenshots of Poison Widow’s adventures, you can find them by clicking on this link. Stay nerdy!
By Mack Veltman