Under the Red Mountain, Dagoth Ur sleeps.
Voryn Dagoth begrudged both gold and time to gather a resplendent company of loyal retainers to trail him during his annual visits to Ebonheart where, on Nerevar’s demand, the heads of six ruling Houses met with the leaders of the Dwemer people to demonstrate their continual support of peace and rejoice in the glory of their victories. In that modesty he equated himself to his Hortator who arrived at the palace in the company of his shield-bearer and three guards in traditional Indoril armor. Nobles of the prominent Chimer Houses always brought with them a swarm of attendants and warriors in flowing many-colored garments and ornamental helmets. On such a momentous occasion, it was important for them to outdo one another with a particularly outlandish hairdo, an attire from delicate Elsweyr silk, or a quaint Dwemer trinket. But Voryn grew up in the wilderness at the foot of the Red Mountain, in reverence of severity and simplicity. The undue extravagance of retinue and attire was to him a show of weakness.
From the tall lancet window of the Ebonheart castle, Voryn watched Nerevar’s modest company make its entrance and mingle with the ill-assorted crowd, which anticipated his arrival, until the merry bannerets of the Redoran House Brothers and Councilmen concealed him from view. Across from the castle stood the Hall of Traders – a gloomy reminder of the bygone days when Ebonheart was a free city-state ruled by small royal clans. The Nords sacked Ebonheart, imposed heavy tribute on the miners and traders, and to this day, long after its liberation from the invaders, the city couldn’t reclaim its independence.
Beneath the windows, sprawled a broad, open plaza with a stone fountain in the middle of it whose solid overbearing architecture echoed the castle; the water poured from the reservoir made from brilliant glass into the ornate basin which rested on the stooping backs of fantastic beasts resembling Daedric Hungers. Beyond the fountain the plaza widened, opening into an enormous square surrounded by all manner of buildings: awkward stone houses under tall wooden roofs, elegant mansions with greenish and gray walls under polygonal roofs with steeply pitched slopes, small abodes under roundish roofs of earth-warm colors, and odd-looking worship-houses where the foreign gods of the Nords were once venerated. Ebonheart was the largest city-port in Resdayn, and much of its architecture reflected inspirations from various practices across eastern Tamriel. It was neither uniform nor comprehensible to an outsider. Voryn didn’t understand it, and on account of that superficial impression, he found it distasteful.
After he refreshed himself with a cup of comberry tea, Voryn wandered about the palace for a while, greeting his old acquaintances and shunning the procession of formidable Dwemer warriors which stretched all the way to the outer square. Many Chimer didn’t have too great an affection for the dwellers of the deep, regarding them with mistrust and hostility, in spite of Nerevar’s efforts to remind them of the time when their people fought together against a common enemy and shared their joys, sorrows and triumphs in equal measure. The clamor of voices around them died down. The sweaty stable boys who put to use their fists, elbows and heads in a fray in front of the fountain abandoned their brawl and stared at the Dwemer guard arrayed in full armor with a mixture of fear and awe. An Argonian handmaiden hid by the entrance arch to the garden, trembling all over and muttering prayers to Azura, and no remonstrance of her masters could convince her to calm herself.
When Voryn found them, Nerevar and Dumac unhurriedly strolled about a lush garden behind a high shady wall. Dumac was telling him something, accompanying his words with expressive gestures, and the Hortator was laughing, throwing back his head, as he only laughed when he was merry and well-disposed towards everyone. Nerevar was lean and dashing, and Voryn thought, forgetting his vows and promises, that no description of him did justice to his virile beauty. His pale-golden skin, strong, noble features which combined the vivacity of youth with the soberness of maturity, and a long, thin face in a frame of fair hair scorched in the merciless desert sun set him apart from his kinsmen. There was something both winsome and forbidding in his appearance. If Nerevar rejoiced, his joy came from the heart and he gave way to his indomitable nature – he laughed freely, his eyes lit up fiercely and he gesticulated wildly, drunk on his happiness without a drop of spirits in his mouth. He brimmed with vigor; he exuded charm and dazzled with goodwill – for him it was a kind of conquest. If he grieved, he was tragically solemn and the untold misery on his face could stir a stone to pity; if he was consumed by anger, his unvanishing voice echoed in the halls like peals of thunder, terrifying menials and Councilors alike. Such was Nerevar: as sensible and sober of mind as he was foolhardy and senseless.
In contrast to the Hortator, Dumac was short and broad-shouldered; a thick black beard, on which he prided himself greatly, decorated his rubicund good-humored face, cascading from a wide determined chin onto the richly adorned breastplate of fine Dwemeri metal. He wore an elaborate headwear sprinkled with rubies and a pair of round golden earrings, and the jewelry shimmered and sparkled brightly in the sun. Dumac had few adherents and fewer enemies. He was tolerated by most Dwemer, for he took on an unwanted role – to be their Protector, to meddle in the affairs of the other peoples, to govern – but he wasn’t loved for it.
The bonds of their blasphemous friendship endured all tribulations and there seemed to be no force in the known Nirn which could shatter them. Nerevar pandered to the Dwemer king by inviting him to feasts and celebrations, and Dumac – a true Dwemer who didn’t recognize the need for pompous festivities – gladly accepted his invitation year after year. Nerevar was widely known in the realm as Azura’s chosen Champion who stood high in her favor whereas the Dwemer, in contempt of the Daedric Princes and other ‘barbaric superstitions’, declared rationality their cardinal virtue and extolled gods of airships, scarabs and steam-powered colossi.
Whilst Voryn regarded the idyllic scene with curiosity and uneasiness, Nerevar took notice of him.
“Voryn, old friend, join us,” the Hortator called out to him, and in his voice Voryn fancied he heard a peculiar fondness. The idle atmosphere in the palace garden favored an informal conversation. “I was just telling Dumac a story… Before you came, he told me a tall tale about a Dwemer Tonal Architect and a Chimer alchemist trying to find a solution to an unsolvable riddle. The Dwemer spent many hours staring at his tools and scribbling calculations on the wax tablets. He became so obsessed with it that he couldn’t eat or sleep. And the Chimer… Ha-ha-ha! Well, the Chimer brewed a potion that made him smarter, but the extract was so potent that a single drop of it poisoned him… Dumac never fails to entertain me.”
“My lord,” Voryn said with a stiff bow, “I came because I was summoned. I was under the impression that you wanted to meet with me in secret. I could scarcely imagine it was to discuss tall tales.”
“What’s wrong with stories, Lord High Councilor?” said Dumac.
“Nothing, I imagine. But I… Ah, I didn’t expect the esteemed company. The pity of it!”
“I suppose you’re not worthy of your lord’s trust if he didn’t say you’d be meeting with me. Or you’d recall that during festivities we often spend time together, drinking and remembering the war with the Nords, as you call them. Glorious times, wouldn’t you agree, Nerevar? Chimer and Dwemer were fighting against a common enemy, not wagging their tongues.”
“I invited you to a celebration of peace, and you argue incessantly like children… Now, where was I?” Nerevar stopped for a moment and waved his hand in the general direction of the well-trimmed flowerbeds. “I was telling Dumac a story I read in a book a long time ago. The story says that there lived once an old and wise Dwemer who had studied the Earth’s Bones and sought the truth his entire life. He was satisfied with his discoveries, but there was one answer which eluded him, and he was determined to see the matter resolved before he died. To die in regret about one’s unfinished work is the worst fate for a scholar… Sil said it, not I. I am no scholar… So, the Dwemer went to Holamayan and there he asked the priests to summon Azura. He put a wooden box in front of her and said, ‘Great Azura, I did not come here to mock you! I summoned you to test your omniscience. Is it true that your knowledge is absolute?’ And Azura replied, ‘So it is.’ But the dwarf was not satisfied with an answer, though it was given to him by the Daedric Prince herself. ‘Can you tell me what is in this box?’ he asked stubbornly. He chose a sturdy wooden box and nailed down its lid. But the Prince confidently said: ‘It is empty’. What do you say, Voryn? Do you think the box was empty?”
“Well, naturally. Who would doubt Azura’s words?”
“It is an arbitrary choice,” objected Dumac. “Such simple answer doesn’t require a divine foresight. My Tonal engineers, with their faculty of imagination, would answer similarly.”
“Of course, he’d insult our faith. Is it so unthinkable to believe that a Chimer goddess fooled one Dwemer?”
Nerevar smiled mysteriously. “There are quite a few versions of that tale, and each has a different ending. Azura knew she was being tricked and the Dwemer died that very night, regretting that he ever tried to deceive a Daedric Prince. In a different version, the box contained a red-petaled flower, and Azura cursed the insolent Dwemer for trying to trick her. But all the different versions of the tale agreed on one thing. The main hero was a Dwemer. A Chimer would never ask Azura such question because a Chimer already knows his answer.”
“I do not know whether to laugh or to be angry,” said Dumac. “It would have been a harmless story if I wasn’t the only Dwemer in the present company, but… I do not know what to think, so help me out here, old friend.”
“You don’t mean that, Dumac. In all the years you’ve known me, have I ever said such a thing to offend you?”
“Well, no… You’re right. I’m inventing things.”
“My lord, we can gossip until the sun sets and rises again, but I’d rather get a good night’s rest before the festivities.”
“You’re quite impatient today, Voryn.” Nerevar reached into his pocket, took out a scroll of parchment and gave it to Voryn who glanced at it and passed it over to Dumac. It was a minute sketch of a map. “You wanted to know why I called you here? Before you is the map of Bal Fell, a city-shrine on an island not too far from the city of Suran. The scouts who drew this map vanished without a trace, all but two who delivered it to us. They died shortly afterward from strange wounds… I’m worried it’s an unrest, but I couldn’t call off the festivities owing to an uncertain rumor. So, I made preparations for a short expedition in secret.”
“It should worry you,” said Dumac thoughtfully. “I recognize the names of the cities. Look here! There is a Dwemeri settlement nearby and a trade route between Mzuleft and Ebonheart skirts the island. If these rebels attack the city, you may be blamed, and our alliance may crumble.”
“You’re quite right, Dumac! If these are indeed my subjects… Voryn and I will depart by ship without delay while you will remain in Ebonheart and entertain our guests.”
“Why me? How should I act in your absence? I don’t think it’s a wise choice, seeing how some of your people look at me.”
“Who else can I trust, my friend? Tell our guests I returned to Mournhold and come up with a plausible excuse for me to abandon festivities. And see to it that there is plenty of food and wine on the table.”
“I’ll do as you ask, Nerevar, but you’ll owe me a favor,” muttered Dumac. Even he could not resist the Hortator’s charm.
“But who could that be? Who would brazenly take up arms against you, my lord? The Nords -“
“These aren’t the Nords, Voryn. But who are they? I don’t know… I’ll explain everything to Vivec once he arrives. Until then, don’t discuss it with anyone. After almost half a century of peace, no one will welcome rumors of a rebellion.”
After they said their farewells, Nerevar beckoned Voryn to follow him and they walked towards the tall memorable arch which graced the entrance to the gardens, with a bas-relief depicting a young woman by the bed of her dying husband in the unpleasant company of the daedra, avidly, patiently waiting for the soul of the wretched fool to depart. Their eyes, albeit carved in stone, seemed to glow in darkness.
“I asked the both of you to come to Ebonheart so that you could arrive at an understanding with each other, but you persist in your wrong beliefs,” Nerevar told him in a peremptory tone. “What will you say in your defense?”
“What can I say, my Hortator? I am guilty. Guilty!” Voryn threw up his hands. “I’m guilty of trying to defend your honor and protect your standing in the Council. But I will not start a war because I distrust your friend. You don’t have to fear treason from me.”
“You’re insufferable. I didn’t ask whether you would wage war on Dumac, but your obsolete views hamper my attempts to keep the fragile peace between our people. We’re in a stalemate. We’re not fighting with each other, yet much will have to change before we will truly live in harmony. Your attitude, for once… I won’t lie to you, I was tempted to send you away, but I want to do battle with you by my side. It feels like you’ve forgotten the time when I trusted you with my life… If only you tried to get along with Dumac, I would never reproach you for anything!”
“Then send me away, Nerevar.”
“No, it is an easy solution and an easy solution isn’t always right. It has to be you and not your ungracious brother Gilvoth or Araynys… No, I will allow you to stay, but I will always remind you of your shortcomings until you cease resisting.” Nerevar opened a reinforced wooden door. “We are leaving tomorrow at noon. I want you in my chamber two hours earlier.” And he slammed the door in his face.
Voryn plodded his way through the hallway to his room where his chap’thil already arranged his belongings. He was a young Orc by the name of Gurak gro-Uzuk and Voryn was sympathetic to the Orcs although they were foreigners, for they were in a subservient position to the Chimer without power or voice in matters of state, and such constitution of things he respected. They were courageous and met hardships of war with stoicism, becoming brutish mercenaries or strong, loyal servants to the many noble families in Resdayn. And if Voryn couldn’t trust Gurak wholly, he had insidious ways to ensure his devotion. The young Orc had a terrible secret which cast a shadow over his life and drove him to leave home and wander about the lands of Vvardenfell in quest of a roof over his head. On that long journey which took its toll on his health, their paths crossed and Voryn offered him shelter, work and coin, but in acknowledgment of his services, he demanded honesty from him. Gurak brazenly stole two valuable items from the Telvanni wizards – a gem with the soul of Arkanz, a Dremora Lord in the service of Molag Bal, and a Dagger of Rebuttal made from enchanted glass which granted its bearer magic reflection – and if he were caught, he would be skinned alive and his soul would be sent to Coldharbour. Voryn could have tried to reason with the Telvanni Council, but instead he chose to have a blindly loyal servant by his side who would be blissfully ignorant of his master’s dishonest artifices.
When Voryn returned to his room, he ordered Gurak to clean his clothes and wake him at an early hour so that he wouldn’t miss the ceremony of morning dress in Nerevar’s chambers.
The ceremony of morning dress was an ancient tradition upheld in royal families since the dawn of ages, and Nerevar himself insisted that it should be continued during his reign. He displayed an odd fondness of the custom and he was very particular about how the ceremony should be conducted, giving the nobles a scolding if they dropped his battle garments or clothed him in the wrong order. It began when servants, in a stately manner, brought in the Hortator’s armor and placed it by his feet. A designated noble arrayed him in it and at the end of the ceremony, the Hortator stood clad in armor with moon and star engraved on his breastplate, with a helmet in his left hand and a sword at the hip, presenting an imposing sight which was embedded in the memory of many Chimer who laid eyes on him.
Himself a master of magic arts, Voryn didn’t need fancy frills from metal and leather, but the marvel of blacksmith’s art which was the Hortator’s panoply and the intricacy of the enchantments on it fascinated him. The greaves had to be put on first and afterward a pair of boots, and, lastly, the most impressive of the pieces – the finely wrought cuirass decorated with a motley half-skirt on both sides of the wearer’s thighs. The helmet resembled a white mask with a white plume atop of it and it was always polished to shine. The panoply was surprisingly light yet very durable, and Voryn suspected that the Daedric Princes or the Dwemer were involved in its creation, but Nerevar never affirmed his speculations.
The ceremony that morning was held in a small chapel instead of Nerevar’s spacious chambers because he was in a hurry, but he refused to miss the prayer (the stubbornness of rulers!) and servants hastened to please him, cramming into the small room until Voryn, who was always peevish in the mornings, sent them away. The ceremony continued without interruption until the door was flung open and a youth barged in, not minding them at all, and cheerfully announced his presence. Vivec was tall like most Chimeri, his face was thin like Nerevar’s, but with close-set, slanting eyes and a large disproportional mouth which, however, didn’t mar his youthful blooming beauty. When he smiled – and he smiled often – dimples appeared on his cheeks. While the Hortator looked forbidding and majestic in his armor, Vivec appeared sincere, charming, and lively.
“Lord Nerevar, I arrived as soon as I could after I received your message,” Vivec whiffed a sentence so quickly that it seemed one word. “Sotha Sil is held up with lady Almalexia at the Mourning Hold, and they send us their kindest regards, wishes of swift victory, and so on, and so forth. I was delayed by foul weather on the Bitter Coast, but I am here now, and I brought my best warriors and scouts with me, fifteen in total, just as you asked.”
Nerevar examined his favorite sword, Trueflame, while Voryn added a few finishing touches to the masterpiece of his armor so that it would withstand an attack of a legion of Daedra. “Thank you, Vivec,” he said. “Let’s pray for a quick victory and insignificant casualties. I consulted with the spirits of our ancestors this morning. They were cryptic as usual, but they didn’t sense anything out of the ordinary.”
“That is most excellent news!” joyously exclaimed Vivec. “Maybe we’ll return in time for a feast.”
“I wouldn’t count on it…. Primp yourself up a bit, we are leaving in half an hour. I arranged a place for you and your mer in our vanguard and I will put Telvanni wizards in the rear while Voryn will be at my side.”
“Don’t you think I should be by your side to advise you if there is more danger to this expedition than we suspect?”
“I heard your wish, but I’ve gathered only a hundred and a half or so of my most loyal mer. If you have something to tell me, distance won’t be an obstacle.” Vivec aggrievedly turned aside, just like a child. “If this matter is settled, let’s hurry before the entire Ebonheart knows we’re leaving. Has the harbor master prepared our ships?”
Nerevar did not bring with him more than a half a hundred warriors and Dagoth, Telvanni and Vivec’s guard constituted the rest of their small but formidable force. A splendid procession stretched from the palace to the enormous fountain, bristling with spears and glittering in the morning sun. In spite of all imaginable and unimaginable precautions they took, when the Chimer force prepared to leave for Bal Fell, a no less splendid crowd gathered to bid them farewell. Spectators abandoned their homes and shops, and rushed to the palace, each wearing particolored garments for the celebratory feast later that night, and when Nerevar appeared astride a well-bred guar, a mighty roar spread across the square. The word spread quickly that the Hortator was leaving before the feast, and the citizens of Ebonheart were clamoring, pushing each other and climbing on each other’s shoulders in hopes of catching a glimpse of their beloved hero.
The onlookers of all ages and rank followed them to the dockyards, and the clamor would suddenly vanish only to resume with the same obstinacy and louder than ever until, abruptly, they came upon a scene which left an unpleasant impression on Voryn. On a narrow street which abutted upon the wharf, barring their way, a few dozen women set fire to their garments and on seeing the standard with moon and star, they began dancing wildly: their thin and plump bodies wriggled to the irregular beat of a guarskin drum, bare breasts bobbed and swayed, and their feet kneaded liquid mud. They were bare-headed, and their long hair fluttered in the wind. Their arms were lifted to the sky in an ecstatic self-forgetfulness. They screamed words in a language unfamiliar to Voryn, but when two guards in the armor of House Indoril commanded them to let the procession pass, they fled into the nearby streets, mingling with the crowd of urchins and paupers.
“Who were they?” Voryn asked Nerevar who rode by his side.
“They are mad, divine and mad,” he replied with a faint smile. He didn’t seem to be impressed by the encounter.
“Divine and mad… What do you mean?”
“Did you look into their eyes? We won’t turn back now, but as the month of Evening Star draws near, there will be more of them, dancing in the streets and hurling dirt into the onlookers. It’s their eyes… You’ll understand because their eyes do not lie.”
Ebonheart ushered Nerevar to war.
The boat rocked, tossed about by the waves, and as it fought against adverse winds, Voryn struggled to fall asleep, imagining himself to be a ship which longed to find peace in the rough sea, tormented, as he was, by the illusory promises of blissful calm. In these long hours he distracted himself with alchemy, and it seemed to him that that the familiar ritual of weighing herbs: stoneflower buds with kreshweed, bittersweet petals, chokeweed and coda flowers, mixing them together in precise proportions, crushing them with a pestle, boiling them in a retort, distilling the substance in an alembic and then pouring pristine liquid in light glass bottles, had a salutary effect on him. They were a mighty substance for those who could not defend themselves from elements, and in the morning, he intended to distribute them among the small company of Chimer who offered unreservedly to come to their lord’s help. Voryn had a respectable position on the Council which befitted his title of Lord High Councilor and he wasn’t obliged by an oath or law to answer his lord’s summons during the time of peace. He wasn’t a foolhardy adventurer who chased after gold and glory and he chastised other House nobles for such trifling pursuits, but when Nerevar called for him, he never failed to attend to the needs of his lord.
“Your room smells of rotten meat and muck, a repelling odor. But I must say that Nerevar speaks highly of your abilities, so I’ll pretend that this is the finest aroma in the world.” Vivec announced his presence with a bit of gibe, but the general disdain towards alchemy, the dirty craft as it was called, did not faze Voryn and he got accustomed to the various unpleasant odors long ago. Vivec’s unexpected visit did vex him, but he had to express patience and tolerance towards him.
“To what do I owe the pleasure?” Voryn asked, rising, but the boat suddenly shuddered from the prow to the stern, and he fell back onto his chair. Numerous glass bottles and flasks made a jingle, but not one was in danger of falling or breaking. “Forgive me, but I’m not in the mood for chatter. I sent my servant away because I do not wish to be disturbed. Tell Lord Nerevar that later I will be at his command.”
“Lord Nerevar withdrew to his cabin for an evening prayer. Don’t you know what time it is? Ha-ha-ha!” Vivec flung himself into an empty chair without as little as permission from his host. “I see that you are a bit preoccupied, but this conversation cannot wait… Why do you need the empty bottles?”
“I’m brewing potions that will protect our warriors against all elements and restore their strength and mettle should they tire out in the upcoming battle. And this remedy will heal their wounds… As I said, I’ve got no time for gossip.”
“No, it is imperative that we talk now. I take interest in every single one of you who come to Nerevar’s side and try to advise him while vying for his benevolence. It’s easy to love him on first glance. It’s easy to believe that he’s too impulsive and foolhardy, and he needs you to protect him from the influence of crafty schemers.” Voryn scoffed at his words, but Vivec continued talking aas if he didn’t notice anything. “What I wish to know is: why you? Of all Houses and their champions, he asks you. Did you name Nerevar Hortator in the first war against the Nords? I can’t quite remember after all these years.”
“You are lucky, Vivec. Your questions are baseless and, frankly, boring, but I will indulge you if you, too, answer me honestly.”
“Well, what do you wish to know?” Vivec grinned from ear to ear and leaned forward, regarding him with strained attention but without animosity. “I want to understand you so that in time, I can give Nerevar the best advice. I’ve seen you many times in his company, but I didn’t have a chance to speak with you openly. Did you name Nerevar Hortator? Or was it your father?”
“I remember that day very well. Nerevar and his grandiose entourage showed up at my door, demanding I name him Hortator, and somehow, he had already gained support of six other Councilors who happened to be my brothers. But his arguments appealed to my beliefs, so I agreed to his conditions. Your other question begs for an obvious answer. I am the leader of the Sixth House born into the noble family of Dagoth Navam and I succeeded as its leader with a unanimous vote after my father died. But you could have read it in a Temple library.”
“I am disappointed,” said Vivec. “Everyone who comes to seek a position among Lord Nerevar’s closest servants has a story. One boasted to have slain a Dremora Lord, the other prayed to Sheogorath’s statue, and the Mad God graced him with his presence… Whether they are true or not, matters little, you see. Don’t you have a similar story to tell?”
“I could have said that I have slain a hundred Dremoras and Malacath gave me a gift of great value… But what’s the odds? You offer words, I offer my sword and my knowledge. While you rested in your tent, I was with Lord Nerevar slaying outlanders on the Bitter Beach.” Voryn was referring to a famous and somewhat comedic incident which ended in a tragedy. Vivec overslept an important battle, and rumors were afloat that on the eve of that bloodbath he was with five fair maidens who tired him out so that he couldn’t fight the following morning, and from shame he feigned he was asleep. They almost lost that battle, and some were too unkind to him for it, blaming him for the death of many brave Chimer.
“There is no need to remind me of my failures!” Vivec poignantly blushed. Red tinge flooded his face, and in that moment, he resembled a Boiled Altmer, an antagonist in a rather didactic folktale about a famous smuggler who caught a slaver abusing his slaves and boiled him alive in a deep pot. The tale concluded that no ruffian was alike, and some ruffians had honor.
“I didn’t mean to offend you. I merely intended to prove my point that Nerevar needs all of us to advise him… But it’s my turn to ask questions. On the streets of Ebonheart, we saw nude dancers, but the Hortator did not seem surprised by the sight. I take it he has seen them before.”
“You do not know Nerevar’s story? What ignorance! Let me tell you this. Once he was a captain of a merchant caravan which traveled from east to west, from north to south, from Solstheim island to Mournhold. He learned in his travels that in the southern provinces we hated the Nords and suffered under the yoke of slavery long enough, but the men of six Houses in the north were lax and careless. They did not fear an immediate invasion, and there was great animosity between them. The men of Six Houses were accustomed to luxury, but the Ashlanders lived the lives of hardships and privations. They grew meager crops on the slopes of the Red Mountain, they hunted wild animals, and made baskets from the bitter roots of coarse grass that grew there. They saw no need for the riches of the men from Six Houses. But even if someone united them, the pale horde from Skyrim could not be defeated. It was then that I met Nerevar and I saw what kind of a leader he could become. I gave him counsel, and we headed towards the Mourning Hold where our mother Ayem lived. We saw them there: they were dancing around the fountain, naked as though they have just been born from a mother’s womb. In her wisdom, lady Almalexia told us that they were mad. They drank from the fountains of Coldharbor, and since then their souls are half-way in Oblivion, neither here, nor truly there. No mortal has ever drunk from those fountains and retained his mind.”
“Why not just kill them?”
“No one knows what the Daedric Princes want. Some say they amuse themselves with the suffering of mortals. Others say that they do not understand life as we do. Regardless, these mad dancers are harmless, and we do not punish them… It’s my turn.”
“Do go on if you please,” said Voryn, losing interest in the conversation. He took a handful of frost and void salts, crushed them in his fist, carefully spread them across a piece of paper, one pellet after another, and poured them on the scales. He needed exactly one tenth of an ounce of the mixture, with an equal share of both ingredients. “One third of a half an ounce of bitter roots with the salts,” he whispered to himself, glancing at the paper. “What if I try add a little more void salt? Will that affect anything?”
“Voryn, are you listening to me?” he heard Vivec’s voice, but instead of answering him, he tasted the mixture – it was bitter-sweet and a bit spicy with a strong heady smell from the crushed root – and, unsatisfied, threw it away. This time he’d have to do away with the salts to rid of the spicy tinge if he wanted to avoid giving his chap’thil a strong feeling of nausea and a headache.
“Can you repeat the question? As you see, I was a bit preoccupied with my studies,” Voryn said, wiping his hands on a simple dark robe he wore while brewing potions. When there was no answer, he glanced over his shoulder, but Vivec had already left. “What an impatient young man… not that I consider myself old, just mature,” Voryn whispered to himself and smiled with satisfaction, resuming his alchemy practices.
They arrived at Bal Fell when the firmament was aglow with the first rays of sunlight. Voryn had just fallen asleep, feeling ill after he drank three potions to make sure that he would not distribute unpleasant concoction before battle, when Gurak unmercifully awoke him from this not-a-dream. He dragged himself to a quiet place and vomited into the still waters of the Inner Sea. There was not one living soul near him save for a few mudcrabs on the murky shore, and Voryn pulled off his robe to wipe bitter bile off his face. His head ached, his legs gave out under him, but he had foreseen this outcome and saved a small potion for himself. After he drank it in one gulp, weakness and pain abated, he could breathe again, walk freely, pierce the clouds if such was his foolish desire. There was steadiness and dignity in his gait, clarity in his mind and conviction in his words. Voryn rushed to his room to change his attire and joined Nerevar as he was descending the loading bridge to a small island.
Voryn displayed keen interest in but two schools of magic. Alchemy was full of alluring mysteries; a powerful potion brewed from unique ingredients held the secrets of life itself. It was within the alchemist’s grasp to murder a mer with a droplet of a potent extract, inflict grave wounds and cure them, give a mer strength and courage at the expense of his charisma or, on the contrary, make him more attractive in the eyes of his companions, but such illusions didn’t last. Those little glass bottles contained the world of magic in a miniature form. And then there was Alteration, magic of infinite possibilities: to freeze fire, to turn water into air, to dance with time and reach the heaven itself. After Voryn mastered Alteration, every other school had nothing of interest to offer him and he felt perpetually bored with simple formulas.
Bal Fell was an old ruin of a Daedric temple, and after it fell into decay, a small city-shrine was built around it for the fishermen and saltrice farmers. A tinge of melancholic beauty lay upon the scenery after the sun rose, sprinkling it with light. There was a wharf on the northern edge of the town, and from there a path wound up through the valley dense with scrub chokeweed and mushroom trees to the shrine, skirting a garrulous stream which gushed swiftly down and into the sea. Around it, in a disorderly fashion, stood one and two-storeyed houses built from sturdy wood and stone to survive strong winds and flood, the tallest amongst them the town hall planted at some distance from the shrine. It seemed that when the town was built, Telvanni magisters knew to erect so important a building far away from what they felt was a source of some evil.
Nerevar ordered a halt by the wharf and gave quick orders, separating their entire force into three detachments to quicken their search, but they would have more luck looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack. They searched every corner of the settlement, sifted through what little evidence they had, yet found no dead bodies, no signs of struggle, no proof that a skirmish or a rebellion or some sort of unrest broke out in Bal Fell. It appeared to Voryn that the settlers got up one day and left in a hurry, some during dinner; moldy bread, rotten kwama eggs, herb tea and a variety of stale dishes from nix hound meat and saltrice were on the tables in abundance. The air in the rooms was stuffy, permeated with the stench of squalor and flesh embattled with illness or age – a peculiar stench which lingered in the dwellings which accommodated the old and the dying. To Voryn’s knowledge, two Telvanni masters of magic lived in Bal Fell and he couldn’t believe that they had not put up a good fight and smashed a few bins and statues unless they led the so-called rebellion. It strained his imagination that someone would rebel in a town so remote and of no known strategical importance.
They met up with Nerevar near the town hall which looked like an enormous habitable tree with many branches. The Hortator stood by the winding staircase which led to the round reinforced door, impatiently tapping an empty scabbard on his thigh.
“Ah, there you are! Did you find anything? No? What took you so long? Vivec and I have been waiting for you for half an hour already.”
“We were thorough, my lord, we didn’t miss a single clue,” replied Voryn. “But it’s still unclear to me what happened to the Telvanni mages who resided here.”
“Or the villagers! Where is everyone?”
“That’s what we intend to find out. Voryn,” Nerevar raised his faithful sword which glowed in the dark like a trail of a shooting star and pointed it at him. Silence ensued as even those furthest away from their leader ceased talking and brandishing their weapons so as not to miss a single word he’d say. Nerevar had a seemingly miraculous influence on them; his speech was eloquent and face aglow with passion although he barely raised his voice. “Voryn, we share the same suspicion. If those wizards were not taken prisoner, they are to blame in some way or another for the disappearance of the villagers. So be wary! Be wary of traps hidden in the walls. Be wary of summoned creatures and ranged weapons. Be wary of powerful magic. The lord of House Dagoth supplied us with potions. Take them and use them sparingly… As before, we will split up. This time Vivec will lead a small detachment into the right wing, Alandro Sul will investigate the left wing and I’ll take our full force through the central passage to the inner Shrine with the giant statue of Molag Bal. You can’t miss it.”
“Isn’t a frontal assault a bit careless, serjo?” Gurak, the Orc, whispered into Voryn’s ear. The head of House Dagoth shared his view, but he convinced himself that he would never succeed in dissuading anyone, let alone Nerevar. It was Vivec who came forward with an objection.
“My lord, I can’t agree with your careless plan.” He adopted a proud posture, and everyone stared at him, except Voryn who turned away from him, sincerely wishing him luck in the fruitless endeavor to appeal to Nerevar’s prudence. “What happened here is a mystery to us. The people abandoned Bal Fell or had been driven out, the guards disappeared, and the two Telvanni wizards who studied the shrine defected. We have to be cautious… Send your shield-bearer with me to investigate the shrine. Send scouts to the farthest end of the island to make sure that we won’t be ambushed by bandits.”
“I’ll dispatch the scouts, but I have no intentions to idly sit around for hours!”
“But Nerevar- “
“Vivec, I listened to you as you asked. I also amended my plan a bit because I saw wisdom in your words, but I will delay the attack no further.”
By the time their small force lined the streets in three columns, it was already daylight. By the time they set up a tent, reached the outer shrine and unwove the intricate web of spells on the front door, it was noon. The sun came out through the clouds for a while and shone generously upon the fields aflower with winds and pleasant aromas, but they did not appreciate its benevolence in heavy armor and dark garments, sweating profusely under its scorching rays. It was cooler inside the shrine; no light penetrated into the hall through the dark ceiling and windowless walls, and as soon as they stepped into the gloom, an eerie hush fell over the small Chimer force.
Nerevar lit a torch, and in the lurid reflections of fire his wondrous armor shone brightly. Then more torches lit up along the walls of a serpentine structure, and soon the column resembled a river of fire which carried its blazing waters into the bowels of the shrine. Flickering fiery glances danced on the walls, and sparks soared, sustaining enough light. Darkness retreated a little before their glimmering onslaught, and they saw a room so large that that neither the head of the column nor its tail reached the opposite walls. There were angular stone decorations on the walls, regular and irregular, and above them arched a barrel vault of obscure architecture adorned with the same obsidian triangles and rectangles which could be found on the walls in abundance. Not far from where they stood, in the quivering uneven circle of light, there could be seen a sloppy barricade or, rather, a jumble of crates and wooden chests piled up hastily and without evident purpose. Nerevar gave the makeshift barricade a swift kick, the crates collapsed one atop the other, and thereon he jumped, brandishing his sword, and roared, “Advance!”
The advance of armored Chimer with spears at the ready, the loud clang of shields, heavy boots and swords leaving their scabbards awoke something, and it rushed towards them from the shadows, many bodies as one. Glowing red eyes dotted the thickening darkness, and there Voryn saw dozens of Molag Bal’s faithful servants. Each daedroth had a dark muscular body with a head of a long-nosed crocodile and its powerful jaws. Around its loins, the daedroth wore a simple rag, but otherwise it was not dressed, nor did it carry or summon weapons, instilling fear in its foes with its sharp claws and brutish magics.
A raging battle broke out. The daedra attacked from everywhere, but theirs wasn’t a chaotic assault – they attacked in an orderly fashion and with a sense of purpose. Voryn witnessed how the daedroth in the front row lunged forward and snatched a shield out of the warrior’s hands before collapsing on the floor from grievous wounds. Then the daedroth in the back row dragged its helpless victim into the dark and tore off his head. Spears pierced them, fire burnt through their skin, but the daedra marched onward with remarkable indifference to pain and death.
Nerevar was in the heart of battle, fighting legions of daedra as though it was an everyday practice for him. His distinct sword flashed as lightning, cleaving daedra in its path, and his armor, albeit spattered with dark-green fetid blood, shone for them like a beacon. Suddenly there was an explosion and the maimed bodies of the daedra were scattered every which way, some without limbs and some with deformed skulls.
The Hortator put on a dazzling display of his skill and Voryn, too, hurried to show the full extent of his might. He outstretched his arms and felt a surge of power: fire and storm woven together, air becoming water, heavy, unyielding, rising above them and spreading across the room like a cloud pregnant with rain, till he finished the incantation. There was a bright flash of light as this force swept through the seemingly endless rows of daedra; the shrine shook violently, dust poured down from the ceiling, and everything came to a still. Struck by lightning and burnt alive, lay scattered numerous bodies of Molag Bal’s servants, and Voryn let out a triumphant cry when on the opposite side of the cavern, bright-red dots appeared in multitude. Stepping into the stinking pools of blood of their fallen brothers, the daedra fearlessly rushed towards the uneven line of Nerevar’s warriors and battered it down. Voryn did not see it, but he heard the screams and the crowd drew back in terror, trampling the wounded. The orderly formation broke and those who withdrew in confusion became easy prey for the daedra.
A small island of resistance formed around the Hortator who didn’t lose courage after the daedra replenished their ranks. He showed no intention of retreating until they slew their foe to the last and, emboldened by his example, Voryn, too, rallied his warriors around him; shields closed up, the fiery bands of swords flickered left and right, and he protected them from the devastating overhead attacks. Victory once again seemed nigh.
The attack came out of nowhere. Voryn felt drowsy, as though a mighty burden had been laid on his shoulders, and threads of magic refused to be woven, disobeying him even when he tried to cast a simple spell. When he staggered, Gurak held him under his arms and dragged him towards the exit which loomed far ahead. He tried to protest, but not a word escaped his lips which were as though sewn together. Belatedly he realized that it must have been an enemy’s elaborate curse, but no attempts of his to shake it off were successful – he thrashed about and groaned incoherently, allowing his servant to care for him.
After he abandoned the battlefield, Vivec appeared from somewhere, shouting to Nerevar to signal retreat, but their stubborn leader refused to leave even as another wave of enemies poured out of the cracks and crevices, sweeping over the entire Chimer force. Desperately beating the Daedra back with their swords, thrusting their spears blindly into the triumphing mass of muscular bodies, teeth and claws, the small Chimer force withdrew and tightly sealing the door behind them. They broke away from the suffocating atmosphere of the shrine, and many of them fell on the grass, with their arms splayed out, and enjoyed fresh summer breeze in perfect bliss.
Nerevar stood amongst them, and his face was darker than a storm cloud.
“Why did you retreat? Can anyone tell me how it happened or I swear on the names of all Daedric Princes that I -” His speech was abrupt when his ire was roused; he often could not find the suitable words to end a sentence, either because he belatedly realized that his would be an empty threat or he never knew what he wanted to say at all. “I do not understand! Effort was required of you, courage… discipline… you needed to… you had to prevail! Was I not clear enough with you?”
“There were too many of them, an endless number,” a Telvanni wizard (a tall pure-blood Altmer) dared to speak. “We could not hold them off for too long.”
“Nothing is endless, everything begins and ends! How many daedra were there? Five hundred? Five thousand? It shouldn’t have been an obstacle! Have you not fought with me on the Bitter Beach? Have you not prevailed with me against great odds when none could dare dream of success?”A noble anger was gleaming over his wan face, and so indignant he was that it appeared as though they, with their cowardice and lack of ability, wounded him deeply and he could not forgive them. “Someone explain to me how we lost! Alandro Sul? Voryn?”
“Lord Nerevar,” the head of House Dagoth said cautiously, “whoever opened the Gate summoned a mighty army of daedra. When a daedra dies, its soul returns to the void where it is reborn after some time. They know no fear, no remorse, and they will fight for as long as their temporary master commands them.”
“You suggest that these meek wizards opened a Gate to Oblivion itself? It’s outrageous,” declared the Altmer mage.
“No, it isn’t. He guessed correctly!” Nerevar stormed into the tent and in one sweep threw the goblets off the table whereon a map of the shrine lay. “There is a Gate in the inner shrine because there is no other explanation as to why the daedra’s onslaught didn’t slacken. However absurd it seems to us now, we must assume it to be true. Vivec, what can you tell me about this gate?”
“It’s a small gate,” said Voryn, taking the word instead of the Tribune. “It’s reasonable to surmise that Molag Bal did not open it for no apparent reason. My bet is on his followers, so it won’t be anchored in our realm with a Sigil Stone. We kill the wizards whose magicka holds it in place, sever the ties between Tamriel and Coldharbor, and the Gate will vanish.”
“Lord Nerevar, we have already rushed to victory and it led us to bitter defeat.”
“You are right, Vivec. I could not in my worst nightmares imagine that a treacherous Telvanni wizard could open a stable gate into Coldharbor,” Nerevar was serene again, thoughtful, but something troubled him, and he fixed his gaze on the table, his head bowed. “But I was chosen to be your Hortator and I won’t shirk my responsibilities. They lie heavily on my shoulders. I am the champion, the inciter, the protector… When the large numbers fail, I must do battle alone. If I don’t return before morning, ready yourselves to enter the shrine.”
After the Hortator’s ardent speech, Vivec grimaced, Alandro Sul fell on one knee and Voryn shouted: “My lord, I protest! You shouldn’t expose yourself to dangers so carelessly!”
“What would you do in my place? With such small force, with as many dead and wounded as healthy and capable, we will never break through the legion of daedra. Someone has to sneak into the shrine alone and kill the wizard who opened that Gate. With Azura’s blessing and Dumac’s faithful sword, I will bring down the enemy.” Nerevar picked up his helmet, girt himself with the sword which was given to him by the Dwemer king on the day he wed Almalexia, and looked at them with the placid countenance of the determined and guiltless. “May we meet on the other side.”
“My lord, wait!” exclaimed Alandro Sul, and content murmur arose in the crowd. “I beg you, hear me out! Let us retreat, gather more people. We can’t lose you today! Who will maintain peace if not you, my lord? Who will labor for the good of the Ashlanders and the settled mer? Or send me into the shrine! I will gladly lay down my life -“
“I’ll leave today with a victory and it’s not a matter of discussion… And the longer we quarrel, the easier it will be to ambush us in darkness.”
“I ask permission to take your place.” Voryn stepped out of the crowd and looked the Hortator in the eye. “If we lose you, it will be disastrous for our people, so you should let someone else fight in your stead. In the present company, I’m the only sorcerer skilled in both illusion magic and destruction. Let me win this battle for you. Consider it… a small favor.”
“I cannot ask you to do my duty,” said Nerevar, but there was not a trace of former certainty in his words. “Please, move aside, I’ve made up my mind.”
“I do not want to sound presuming, but he’s right, you know -“
“Of course, you’d say so, Vivec! All things conspire to displease me today, and you’re not an exception!”
Voryn turned his face towards the sky aflame with the last rays of the evening sun and, savoring the fragile stillness, drank the bitter contents of a bottle he kept in his pocket as the last resort.
While the Tribune was arguing with the Hortator, Voryn slipped out of the tent and with a brisk gait, walked uphill where at some distance the shrine could be seen.
Slippery, sticky, warm mud on the floor mixed with blood and bone clung to his bare feet as Voryn splurged through it as quietly as he could – there was still a sound but faint. He discarded his shoes to be as silent and unnoticeable as a shadow on the ground at noon, but there was no avoiding the sea of mud which stretched from one wall to another. In it the bloated bodies lay still, like islands. The daedra hissed, slithered and champed in the darkness beyond the quivering reflections of waning fire, roaming to and fro, and sometimes he nearly walked into one, but it gave him no heed as though it no longer sensed any purpose for its existence. The ties between the daedra and the sorcerers who summoned them were growing weak.
There was anguish and fear in Voryn’s heart and sometimes the sound of his own footsteps terrified him, sending him into tremors, but he clasped his hand to his nose – the stench was unbearable – and moved forward. It was an ill place. The legions of daedra did not frighten him, death, which surrounded him, did not frighten him, but there was something in the inner shrine which would deprive of repose the most courageous man alive, with a sneer offering an eternity of enslavement in exchange for the quintessence of his mortality. Voryn pushed the heavy folds made from obsidian and bound in steel; the temptation to yield to a much larger force overwhelmed him at once and he pressed himself to the door, trembling all over, in an attempt to shake off delirium. A crack gaped in front of him no taller than two mer his height and a bit wider than a cabin on the ship which brought him there, and it was filled with blue fire which shot up now and again, licking at the supports that held the gate in place – four thick, dark chains which seemed to have grown into the walls. Beyond the gate stretched an endless plain under the burning skies, but terrible chill struck through him and the flames were cold. Everywhere: in the glowing stones, in trees twisted into human form, in the sharp contours of metallic structures (each like a broken spine of an enormous beast), in reflections of glittering shrines upon murky waters, and endless mazes of stairs, he felt the presence of a god. It wasn’t a benevolent god.
There was no doubt in Voryn’s mind that he saw Coldharbor. It had the stench of a cemetery about it and terrifying beauty of the world’s perverted reflection. Its monstrosity and allure drew his gaze to its perilous depths, and he could not turn away. Voryn tried banish the vision with a volition, find an anchor in this ever-changing reality with the maddening flow of time and incongruous governing laws, but he was feeble. There was a flash of light at the back of his skull and he saw a glimpse of a creature with webbed wings, a cascade of golden hair and a stern comely face with an expression of gentle reproach on it. Voryn clutched his head in his hands and, groaning, fell on his knees. A swimming came before his eyes, and he felt like a mindless husk with no will, no thoughts of his own, gazing into the depths of Oblivion with an unquenchable thirst to offer his soul to the lord of Coldharbor. He crawled a few paces and fell prone on the cold floor, powerlessly, helplessly watching daedra, their eyes gleaming avariciously, gather round him.
It was a powerful, intricate illusion, but he could slip out of its grip, set his mind clear and free again when he realized that it could not be the doing of Molag Bal. Daedric Princes could not easily manifest themselves in Mundus, so there must have been a curse put in place for careless souls like him to walk into unawares; and it must have been the same curse to which he fell victim a few hours ago but stronger. Voryn still remembered his teacher’s lessons. “Every illusion consists of threads,” he would tell Voryn if he saw him now. “Gently tag at them, play silent music; then rise, command, and send forth the destructive energies!” Shaking off invisible chains, Voryn raised a flaming fist and struck at the ground, scattering fire, stones, and bodies every which way.
A daedroth jumped at him, plunging its claws into his flesh, and hung on his shoulders. They fell to the ground, rolling around and struggling to land the first blow – Molag Bal’s minion twined its legs around his torso while Voryn gripped it by the wrists, trying to break its bones, but his shield wasn’t holding well and blood was gushing from a wound on his shoulder where the daedroth’s claws first left its mark. Voryn was choking under the weight of the enemy’s body, and it was then that a dagger appeared in his hand. The world dimmed before his eyes, yet he contrived to stab the daedroth between its ribs, and stabbed it again, warm, green liquid spilling onto his fingers. The creature grew weaker, but it continued squealing and thrashing about, and to quieten it for good, Voryn thrust the dagger into its neck and pushed the flaccid corpse off him. His robe was soaked in blood, his and the daedroth’s; his face was dripping with sweat and when he pressed a palm to his chest, he felt the flutter of his beating heart. He could not treat his wound, but owing to his cursed luck, he avoided the poisoning if nothing else, and he could walk in spite of the pain. Wincing as he took each step, Voryn dragged himself away from the gate, leaning on the wall with his whole injured, fatigued body.
It seemed to Voryn that he was not at that moment an inseparable entity: there was his crippled body, the mortal shell of Voryn Dagoth, and there was his will, his courage and determination; his body wanted to fall prone to the ground but wouldn’t while his spirit wanted to soar up to the sky but couldn’t; and his surroundings appeared dreamlike as if they existed separately from him. He listlessly stared at the gate which barred his way to freedom, and as suddenly as it came over him, the strange numbness abated.
When at long last Voryn stumbled across a deserted alcove in the wall, it became clear to him that inside he would not find the answers Nerevar sought. There were blood spatters on the floor by the strange device which resembled a stone basin. Behind it hung a long dirty piece of cloth and when he lifted it, he saw the bodies of two wizards and a priest who mumbled incoherent prayers, rocking back and forth, and seemed to be unaware of his surroundings. The Telvanni mages had been dead for a few days at most, but the skin has been removed from their skulls and the empty eye sockets leered at him from under the yellow bone of their noble foreheads. Their teeth were gritted, and their fists were clenched tightly. As they were dying in agony, their bodies had been laid out on the table with macabre neatness. Their sacrifice was voluntary although it would take an imagination move vivid than Voryn’s to guess what prompted them to lie on the table, bleeding, in anticipation of death they didn’t attempt to fight.
The priest did not as much as glance at him when he entered, whimpering in the corner like a mindless beast. As Voryn approached, the whimper grew louder, and he heard separate words. “Your loyal servant… Molag Bal… help me… help me… help me…”
“Who are you? What are you doing here? Why are you praying to Molag Bal?” Voryn asked, observing the scene a safe five steps away from the madman. Who else could this man be, playing with dangerous forces like that?
“M-molag Bal, don’t you see?” the mad priest cackled, trembling all over. “I was faithful to you all along! But if I cease praying, if I stop… giving, they will not come to me!” he shrieked, turning towards him, and in faint lighting, Voryn discerned a pitiful, stooping man of Nordic descent with a deathly pale face and wide, protruding eyes, who was cradling a stump of an arm cut slightly above the elbow. He was bleeding profusely, and his glance had dulled.
“Did you do this to yourself?”
“Don’t come near me! If I stop giving, they will not fight for me!” the priest repeated, raising a rusty knife with an intention to cut off his left foot.
The mad priest kept the gate open, feeding into it the life force of the dying Telvanni wizards, and when it ran dry, he sliced off his own limbs to plead his vile master for mercy not with words but with his immeasurable suffering. Voryn thought it wise to interrupt the ritual, throwing a ball of fire at the priest; he burnt, howling, begging and clutching a knife to his chest (which resembled a butcher’s cleaver). After his charred corpse grew still, Voryn rushed to the device in the shape of a tub and burnt it, too, without looking closely at its contents. Through the door, he saw the crack vanishing; fires were extinguished and with a dull clang, the enormous chains fell out of the sockets in the walls. Voryn put his hand over his eyes, waiting until the room cleared out, and then he just waited, not understanding his own reasons, slowly slipping into a dreamlike state, mute and deaf, and blind.
Voryn was woken out of sleep by a loud argument. From the looks of it Nerevar led their small force into the shrine after the gate had been closed. Voryn realized that he was not asleep but fainted from pain and exhaustion, and while he was in that state, a healer bandaged his wounds. And that healer was arguing with Gurak about something as the both of them were walking away; their displeased voices faded until Voryn could not hear them at all.
“How long was I lying here?” he sat up on the hammock whereto he was evidently carried and, suppressing a moan, asked the first mer he noticed.
“Don’t worry, my friend, I do not hold it against you,” the mer said in a painfully familiar voice. The hammock underneath him sagged as Nerevar took a seat by his side. He was so close now, yet unbearably far away. All Voryn had to do was reach out and touch his hand, and assure him that he didn’t regret a thing – and his injury least of all – but he didn’t have the courage.
“I almost lost. I am afraid it was no feat at all. I think I got lucky.”
“You should never be ashamed of good fortune. It doesn’t diminish your accomplishments or tarnish your bravery… But, unfortunately, our misadventure isn’t over,” Nerevar added sternly. “We discovered a door to a cave underneath the shrine. We examined the body of the dead priest and we… Vivec and I came to believe that it was a ritual of some sort. Self-mutilation, bloodshed, offering of souls… It looks grim. And we still haven’t found any villagers. We have to go down there.”
“You are asking for my assistance.”
Voryn glanced at him out of the corner of his eye, though he wished he hadn’t looked at all. His humbleness and sincerity were irreproachable. Nerevar possessed a remarkable strength of character. To approach Voryn like an equal, to ask his assistance when he could order every one of them to follow him into the depths of Oblivion, was a sign of such character.
“I need to understand the purpose of that ritual and you may possess unique insight into its nature,” explained Nerevar. “Can you walk? I do not expect any more fighting. The wizards are dead, the priest is dead… I meant to ask if you could have saved him so we could question him.”
“I had to close that gate before he summoned more daedra. He was its anchor. I also acted in a spur of a moment… Maybe I could have saved him, but I was confused. Does that constitute a heroic feat? Ha-ha-ha!”
“Well, I don’t intend to reproach you for your decision. I’ve seen much bloodshed, but every battle is not the same. A few times in my life I’ve seen a bloodbath as grim. On the Bitter Beach, in a small town named Sotha… I learned to trust my intuition, that nagging feeling that we might yet come across something unexpected and unpleasant.”
Voryn touched a scab on his shoulder, but strangely it did not ache when he rose from the hammock and slipped into a dark robe with a golden trim around the collar which Gurak left by his side.
“I think you’re right. I saw a vision before the gate vanished and although I cannot trust it to be true, I sensed an intent. The mad priest who cut off his limbs was a ruse. There has to be a purpose to this madness. But the answers elude me because I don’t have an insight into a mind of a Daedric Prince.”
“What did you see?”
“I don’t know.” Voryn pressed a finger to his temple. “I don’t know, but I saw Coldharbor.”
Nerevar looked into his face with genuine worry. “You look pale, Voryn. Maybe I should let you rest… But decide for yourself if you are healthy enough to be walking around.”
Voryn picked up his dagger and drank another potion from his reserves. He didn’t say a word, yet Nerevar understood that he was not going to sit this one out.
In the alcove, underneath the crates and bins, there was a trap door with a stepladder leading into a dark cave. An underground stream purled nearby, meandering between large boulders, and cold gusty wind blew in their faces. The air was fresh, invigorating, and after the oppressive atmosphere of the inner shrine, it had an effect of an undiluted potion – after each breath, Voryn felt every part of his body tingle. Vivec descended first, Alandro Sul and Nerevar followed him, and Voryn was last to set foot on the ladder. At the bottom of the cave, they spread out to look for something that resembled a habitable room or a chest with the priest’s possessions, or footprints of the townspeople. Vivec called for them when he noticed an inconspicuous round door in the wall with a star-like pattern impressed on it. Behind it was another door and another, the hallway stretching endlessly into the unknown.
“It’s an ill place,” said Vivec. “It is concealed with powerful magic, and it can only mean that it contains something of value to that poor priest.”
“It’s foolish to leave your possessions behind a door with a hundred locks. Any thief will look at it and know that something valuable is hidden behind it. And with some effort and a good lockpick, one can pick even a hundred locks.”
“It isn’t a door with a hundred locks, lord Dagoth,” objected Nerevar’s shield-bearer. “It is an illusion… But you do need a lockpick of sorts.” He muttered a few words, beads of sweat formed on his brow from strain, and little by little reality emerged from the mist of deception although Voryn wished that it didn’t.
Blood drained from Nerevar’s face, Vivec gasped, Alandro covered his eyes with his palm, and Voryn was bereft of speech, though there was little he could say otherwise. How would he, in a few words, describe what he saw? There were no doors in this place; a hollow arch served as an entrance and there lay two bodies of Chimer boys, each not older than twelve, with twisted necks and broken wrists. Their eyes were wide, unseeing, and their lips colorless. Not far from them sprawled a corpse of an old Argonian woman covered in deep gashes and behind her a body of a stout mer leaned against a stone protrusion, his hands clutching at his throat, his bare chest spattered with blood. A body of a young girl, dangled from a ceiling and there was in this sight a tinge of ordinariness as though it belonged in this macabre picture. There was an elevation in the middle of the cave; rusty cages hung above it on a spiky chain and a rectangular stone altar was erected in its corner. Two daedra dragged a woman towards that altar and she lost the will to resist when she saw what was in the cage and in front of her. She couldn’t cry from sheer terror when she was lifted to take the place of the previous sacrifice. An old daedroth, with a silvered snout and scars under his eyes, stood by the altar. He was raping and killing men and women who lay on its surface face down, bare and trembling, without emotion of satisfaction or purpose, but with methodical persistence because his lord ordered him to do so – to humiliate, to dominate, to triumph. One girl was already dead – a part of her face was peeled off – but it didn’t seem to bother him, as he moved behind her and violated her limp, unresisting body. Were there words to accurately describe this sight with the grim air of misery and death about it, deeply imbued with blood and permeated with the familiar odor of decay, soaked in unimaginable suffering and enveloped in thick, glutinous, repulsive silence which frightened Voryn more than the cacophony of bloodcurdling screams – could there be found any suitable words to describe it all?
“Nerevar… I do not understand,” he heard Vivec whisper. “It isn’t conquest, it isn’t enslavement, it isn’t pillage… what is it?”
“I don’t understand it any more than you, Vivec,” replied Nerevar. Among them, the Hortator was the one to keep his countenance, but Voryn would not dare guess whether he possessed an outstanding self-command, or he was not in the least amazed by the sight.
But as they watched the daedra from the distance, the daedra noticed them, too. While they were talking with each other, these nimble creatures rushed towards them, climbing over boulders and other obstacles which dotted the cave. Nerevar slew them as they came abreast of him, swinging his sword with remarkable precision; Vivec hurled his spear at the tall daedroth who tried to sneak up to them, and Alandro Sul dealt fatal blows to the creatures that survived the Hortator’s impetuous onslaught. Voryn stood in torpor, staring wide-eyed at his brothers-in arms. His body ached, and the salubrious effect of the many potions he drank had worn off by then.
After they slaughtered a score of repulsive scaly beasts, Vivec and Nerevar approached the altar where all this time an old daedroth waited for them.
“Arhhhh! Weak mortals!” he roared, unsheathing his mace. “I am Amandi and I’ll smash your skulls, rape you and eat your bone marrow!”
Alandro Sul ran forward and the daedroth’s mace powerlessly rebounded from the bright surface of his shield; then Vivec lunged at him with his spear and as Molag Bal’s servant who named himself Amandi dodged, Nerevar struck. His sword left a visible mark on the daedroth’s skin, a thin, fine line dripping with dark blood.
“Are we so weak?!” Nerevar shouted and – no, not in anger, that was too weak a word – in a towering rage, lifted his sword and his wrath – the only sentiment he had shown – drove away Voryn’s irresolution. “Crush my skull? Eat my bone marrow? Do strike me down! What are you waiting for? Are you frightened because I have this piece of metal in my hands unlike these children whom you slaughtered for your master’s whims?!” With each word, he swung his sword wider and wilder, and the daedroth retreated further and further from the altar. “Or you’d fear me even if I had no weapon in my hand because I do not care whether I live or die today and thus I fear you not!”
The combatants encountered each other with utmost fury; daedroth Amandi, seeing that there was no escape from the wrath of a puny mer in front of him, lunged at him with all the strength he could muster up, but Nerevar deflected a heavy strike after a heavy strike with steady confidence. They exchanged a few blows before Amandi awkwardly stepped backwards, barely avoiding Nerevar’s curved blade whose tip was too close to his chest. He found himself in a favorable position, however, and from there he tried to crush the Hortator’s head, and the blow would have hit him if he hadn’t raised his shield in time. Metal struck against metal; a loud thud was heard, and Voryn, watching them struggle for supremacy with bated breath, bit his lip. The Hortator enjoyed fighting his own fights, and any meddling on his part would be unwelcome.
Breathing heavily from anger rather than fatigue, Nerevar raised his blade above his head and brought it down upon his enemy with all his might. Amandi stepped to the side and nearly fell, but in the Hortator’s defense there appeared an opening of which the daedroth availed himself. He conjured a torrent of sharp icicles and threw them at Nerevar with great force. Nerevar hid behind his shield which now shone softly, pressing forward with his frantic attack, and when the rain of ice subsided, they saw he was unharmed, and the tip of his bloodied sword pointed to a bloody lump of flesh which was not long ago Amandi’s arm. And they, with joy in their hearts, knew who had won. Without a sound, the daedroth jumped into the stream behind them and was seen to sink to the bottom. No one pursued him in fear of being dragged under water by the treacherous currents or, as was true of Voryn, they lost their mettle, and so it could be in all fairness said that the battle of Bal Fell was over.
Voryn had a moment of respite to gather his thoughts and somehow make sense of what he had seen, but it wasn’t easy for him to come to terms with it. The Chimer were a long-living people and these townspeople lost their lives senselessly by the hands of an enemy whom they would never fight or bring to justice. The thought of it didn’t sit well with him. He felt a deeply personal desire to see that old daedroth suffer in every imaginable way.
They tried to save the women who still lived, but they slipped into Oblivion, keeping terrifying silence and staring mindlessly into the distance. The nude dancers on the square in Ebonheart had the same mindless expression on their haggard faces as they were performing their elaborate, erratic but aimless dance. Molag Bal received a generous offering on that day. The sole survivor of the ordeal they dragged out of the cage above the altar and she wasn’t born from a mother’s womb, but rather, she appeared to be badly sewn together from parts of many bodies. Her webbed wings the creature borrowed from Azura’s Twilight, her tail and feet from a clannfear, her hands with sharp claws and feet from a daedroth, but her torso and head were somewhat human. She evidently had two heads at one time, but the crooked spines have almost accreted, and only a long scar on her neck and shoulder remained from that melding. She was a fascinating creature from a perspective of a scholar of magic, but Voryn could’t think like a scholar of magic, feeling the overwhelming sadness and bitterness of defeat.
She had handsome features – for a Daedric spawn, of course – and Voryn somehow found them familiar. He had been preoccupied with a thought that he had seen her somewhere when Nerevar approached him and gave his permission to question her.
“What’s your name?” he asked her as he would ask a mer, but she screeched and hissed at him in response. “I see you don’t want to talk about your name. What do you prefer to talk about?”
“S-s-s, ” she whispered, baring her teeth. “Ting-tang… say-something-mean-nothing…”
“What’s the meaning of all this? Tell me!”
“Four souls taken by force, four souls offered willingly,” she said without a lisp. “Seven souls received, one missing… will you give me your soul so that I can be whole again?”
“Why do you need our souls?”
“It’s a waste of time,” said Nerevar. “I sent Vivec to inform everyone of our victory, and we will be leaving for Mournhold in an hour. What are you going to do with this… nameless creature? Kill her? Take her prisoner?”
“Kill me or not… Molag Bal will be angry, he will come for me! Let me go!” She was thrashing about the cage until she broke her wing and reluctantly stilled. “Pain. Pain. Pain!”
“I’d rather take her prisoner. She knows something, my lord. My guess is that all the people were killed in a grisly ritual for which Molag Bal needed our souls… A necromancy of some kind. ” Voryn hung his head in shame of not knowing, of not being able to make sense of the suffering and bloodshed and humiliation. “We should question her until she tells us everything.”
“How should we call her?”
“No name was given to me, I do not deserve a name!” she screamed at them, covering her face with both palms and looking at them through the chinks between her claws with one of her golden eyes. “But call me Unborn Ar.”
Nerevar was exhausted, and his sunken cheeks and hollow eyes betrayed him; he hadn’t slept since they landed in Bal Fell more than a day ago, so it did not come as a surprise to Voryn that he couldn’t be bothered by such trifles. He waved his arm as if saying that Voryn could do whatever he deemed necessary and walked away.
“Unborn Ar?” he said to break the uneasy silence. “This is not a good name, strange and long. I’ll call you Arun from now on.” He took the first syllable from both of her titles and swapped them rather creatively to give the creature a simple alias.
“Arun, Arun. Arun!” she cried out with joy. “I have my own name now! Parts and hollows!” If it wasn’t for the cage, Voryn could have sworn she would perform an elaborate dance like a disfigured bird. She continued to make joyous noises even as they carried her cage onto the ship and locked her in a cabin on the lower deck. And it was well into the day, but she still sang and hummed, and celebrated.
Then Nerevar’s guard carried all the bodies they could find out of the shrine, piled them up in front of the Telvanni mushroom tower, and burnt them.
When the ships cast off, Nerevar gathered them together in his cabin – besides him, Vivec was present and Alandro Sul – and they talked until sun faded on the steep and long shadows fell on the still waters. They were exhausted, but neither expressed a desire to rest, in the small company, under the yellow light of a single candle, hiding from guilt and terrible creatures of night.
…To commemorate their victory (or half defeat) at Bal Fell, Vivec wrote a vague and comedic drinking song for which he received an undeserved title of a Warrior-Poet, but he never spoke of what kept him awake at night.
“The lonely island greets us harshly
The skies are dark with rain,
We band together, strong and hardy,
Against an enemy again.
Between a mountain and a mire,
We march and fear not!
The beasts are hungry, we have fire
And one almighty sot.
“…He Knows the Names and the Naming!
He Knows the Wait and the Waiting!
He Enters into every Star and Moon!
He Shines through their Shadows!”
Beneath the Red Mountain, Dagoth Ur sleeps. At first there is blissful silence, and then they begin to sing in a thousand thunderous voices – why do they sing?
“On rivers of fire he comes forth!
Through storms of dreams he rides!
With slivers of steel he pierces the Heart!”
Why do they sing?