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Several NPCs in Skyrim are protected at some point during gameplay. This means that when their health depletes (usually down to 10% of its maximum, but this will occur even if the NPC's health would have been reduced to zero), they enter a state called "bleedout", where they fall to their knees and are ignored by all hostile entities until their health regenerates. Unlike the similar essential status, they can still be killed if they are attacked by the player, where they will die as easily as non-protected NPCs.
To be killed, as of the 1.9 Patch, a protected NPC must have his or her health fall to zero from a direct hit by the player. An important keyword in this definition is "direct." This can sometimes lead to your follower or spouse surviving attacks from you when you don't expect them to. Namely ...
- Fall damage from the Unrelenting Force shout will not kill a protected NPC.
- A poison slipped into your spouse's or inactive follower's pocket (Note: Only inactive followers can be pickpocketed) using the Poisoned skill perk will only bring the Protected NPC into bleedout, even if that same poison would kill the protected NPC if it were applied to the Player's weapon.
- A protected NPC may still be killed by other NPCs if they are attacked during bleedout, commonly by area of effect magic, poison or delayed power attacks.
- This bug is fixed by version Beta 188.8.131.52.8 of the Official Skyrim Patch.