Armies need bodies. Such is the case for the area known as Skyrim and the civil war between the Imperials and the Stormcloaks, the two main groups vying for power in the region. Ether one will gladly take the player on as a part of their fighting force and will even actively recruit people who attack their enemy. However, more than the actual flesh and bones of people, it is the soul within the body that is the most important in ruling the world. It is that inner part of people which is unique and worthy of being used in combat for either group.
All creatures who have breathe have souls in Skyrim. From the dragons that roam the skies to the bandits that lurk in ruins, every living thing has a soul. It is this internal element of people that allows access to magic and, with the right tools, souls can be harvested and used in any number of rituals, spells, and to power ancient devices with the right materials. Instead of using electrical power, the reliance on magic in this world means that rechargeable regents needed to be invented. To that end, the use of soul gems was discovered. These small stones hold the essence of other beings and their power can be leveraged to fuel whatever arcane process needs extra power beyond that which living people can provoke together.
Soul gems are the hidden economy in the game. Gold coins may be used to buy items and granted in return for selling certain materials in public markets, but the essence of creatures is the very source of magic in the world. When souls are captured, they can be sold off or even bought for the player to use. It is this seemingly innocent market that points to a very dark part of the world and lore of Skyrim. Life force is causally enslaved by people in the world and even by the player herself for selfish means. Everything revolves around the taking of life and refocusing it for other means, even nefarious ones.
Nothing is said about this strange cruelty. Many different people sell soul gems to the player and, in turn, the recharging of weapons, armor, and other gear by the applying of their power is used. No guard is worried about anyone being trapped in crystal or someone going missing in the dead of night to fuel a dark purpose. In fact, despite that necromancers and those who delve into the darkest arts regularly have soul gems with them in numerous quantities, general merchants sell them too. They are even found on store shelves and on the floors of buildings in cities. It’s right in front of every single person in the world, yet no one speaks about it.
More than any other strange aspect of the soul gem mystery is the fact that, although they exist in the world, they are not created by any force within the world. When merchants have the items, they do not question where they acquired them, nor do any books speak about how strange it is that tombs are filled with the gems. While deep Dwemer ruins do hold some Geode Veins that will on occasion grant the gems, they show up in no other place in some natural form, nor do any groups attempt to make them even though clearly they can be combined for even greater power.
For as much as the gems are part of the world of Skyrim, they are also a strange gear in its working. They harbor souls, which is clearly a questionable function, yet are also in every shop, often in homes, and throughout the world in ruins. They exist for the very purpose of raising the dead, accessing the greater planes of Oblivion, and in offerings to Daedric princes. All of which are often very bad. Yet, again, they are sold to any who come to buy them. Slavery in the form of crystals is just another part of the engine that runs the world. It’s just part of the culture of all the various societies, races, and even separate religions in Skyrim benefit from too.
The player is a willing participate in all this. Recharging inventory items requires the use of soul gems as regents in the process. Enchanting additional gear uses the power of soul gems. It’s right in front of the player at all times. Collecting them from bodies, finding them in caverns, and purchasing them in markets only makes it seem as if they are a causal part of the world. Since no characters, outside of M’aiq the Liar, even talks about soul gems, they just appear to be another item in the world, not unlike the various books and weapons to be found. They just are.
Yet, the source of the power is always life. Housed in the bodies of the living, it is removed by others in order to be used for their own gain. The gems found in the caves are all from some extinguished creature in a time before it was housed there. The machine life in Dwemer ruins live off some previous organic life. Even the magically enhanced items that are found, or even created by the player, must have come from the souls of another person or creature first. It was merely captured and transmuted into a currency that flows from one battle to another, from past to present and on into the future.
There is a war in Skyrim. More than just brother against brother, it is family against extended family. It is the use of life, enslaved and converted life, that is fuel for more bloodshed. The tools of the past are abused in the present. The soul gems found in ancient areas are once again used in the purchasing of land that is contested in yet another front of an eternal struggle for one region of the map or another. Throughout it all, the economy of souls: from new bodies into gems into weapons. Over and over, the process repeats as new gems are found, filled, and processed into tools that enable more war. The latest conflict might be, on the surface, about which side has the most bodies, but it is the souls that drive it and it will be the souls who decide it.