CHAPTER IV: THE RED TOWER

The Temple library surpassed in size the sandy pit of the Arena and, owing to the architecture of the Temple building, it was labyrinthine. The first few rows of shelves skirted the round chamber, but the narrow passageways never connected, and after a while, the Ahrat – the High Priestess of Mournhold – had given up on keeping her prized library in order. The rows of the newest bookcases led straight to the middlemost point, like spokes in a wheel, and the other shelves were attached to them at odd angles. To get from the largest part of the library which, in the absence of respectable arcane establishments, was crammed with all manner of magical treatises and manuscripts, to the tiny corner dedicated to storing sacred books and scanty accounts on Velothi history would sometimes take an hour of aimless wandering between the old wooden bookcases which, if disturbed, could crumble and bury the hapless intruder beneath the avalanche of dusty parchment.  

Azura truly and fairly deserved her title as the patron of all scholarly endeavors.

Voryn had scarcely peeked into the library when it came to him that without the help of the priests, he was doomed to traverse the vast expanse of the room for at least a few years before he would find clues as to the whereabouts of Azura’s mysterious book. But little did he know that his misfortunes had just began. The old Ahrat died the previous winter, leaving a young priestess as her successor, and though she was appropriately devoted to serving the Three Good Daedra and stern of character, her interest in the library couldn’t vie with her ardor to maintain the prestige of the Temple in the Council chambers and among the common folk. Muttering a half-hearted apology, she thrust a crumpled piece of paper into Voryn’s hands and excused herself under a pretext of having a score of diseased villagers to heal. The piece of paper Ahrat gave him turned out to be a map of the library, and Voryn soon found the bookcases he needed, but it took him a good three weeks to skim through the heap of old manuscripts and put together a somewhat coherent story.

In the years following Veloth’s death, his people fell into disarray and despair. The seeds of trees Veloth brought with him from the Summerset Isles had died, rejected by the ashen soil of the promised land; the magic of his towers had waned, and the knowledge of it was lost. Without Veloth’s protection, many evils threatened his disheartened followers: the mysterious ‘Dwarves’ of the north and their formidable machines, the mad cultists of the Bad Daedra, and the growing dissent among the people nearly tore the fragile Chimer city states apart. The dissidents who began calling themselves the Ashlanders to honor the land that birthed them asserted that civilization had led their ancestors to decadence and ruin. They espoused the idea of a simpler way of life in accordance with the most austere of Veloth’s teachings, but the other mer who were used to the comfort of the magical towers, or expressed concerns about being perceived as ‘artless barbarians’ by the other races of Tamriel, or viewed change and growth pragmatically, as means to defend themselves against the Dwemer threat, flatly refused to settle in the wilderness. And while the others argued and brandished their weapons, there emerged among them an order of women – their descendants would be known as the Wise Women among the Ashlanders and Ahrat among the House Chimer – who clad themselves in bast shoes and simple robes and made a great pilgrimage to Mount Kand and to the place which would later be known as Holamayan, and prayed to Azura-Mother and Protector Boethiah, and vowed to build Temples for them in those holy places. There was a woman among them who succeeded in summoning Mephala the Mystic, but no one knew where the shrine to the most elusive of the Three Princes was built. The Good Daedra answered those daring women and they were pleased with their promises. Azura had a favorite priestess with whom she enjoyed holding long conversations, and the priestess diligently wrote them down in a book which became known as “Ten Revelations of Azura”. Azura bestowed upon her the gift of longevity, and it was said that she had lived for a thousand years and after her peaceful passing, she ascended to Moonshadow where she sits by Azura’s side.

After years of learning under the guidance of the Good Daedra, the women returned to the others and shared their knowledge with them and the will of the Good Princes. But centuries had passed, and Azura’s sacred book was lost, too, though the authors of the library manuscripts did not know how such inadvertence came to be.

Voryn went to the other section of the library where an assiduous priest kept records of the early burial grounds, and with some effort, he figured out the most likely location of the tomb whereof Azura spoke to him. Coughing from the ever-present dust, he returned the scrolls to their designated places, thanked the Ahrat, and headed to the palace to share his discoveries with Nerevar.   

It was an early, misty morning in the streets of Mournhold, and the city was reluctantly waking. Voryn didn’t notice that he had spent an entire night at the library without getting a wink of sleep, but, owing to a feverish kind of feeling, he wasn’t tired, and his mind was as sharp as ever. He pledged himself to Azura out of his own volition, but unknowingly, he pledged Nerevar’s life, too, and it became clear to him that he hadn’t considered the consequences of his promise. Voryn had difficulty sleeping after the massacre at Bal Fell, beset by terrible dreams whose meaning he could not grasp, and during his library visits, he often drank a variety of nasty potions to banish any and all thoughts of rest. It was easier to avoid sleep altogether when he had an appropriate justification for his worried chap’thil.

The palace gates were inhospitably closed at such an hour, bristling with the Daedric thorns, but the Lord High Councilor couldn’t be barred from entering the palace even in the dead of night. The few magelights that were lit shone softly in the cozy semi-darkness, and the luminous vines and glossy saffron flowers seemed to wink at each other from the opposite ends of the hall. The nigh-invisible servants tended to the plants and cleaned the floors in anticipation of the dazzling array of nobles who would flood the hall in an hour or so.

Voryn dismissed the tired guard and climbed the stairs into his room – a large and richly furnished sort of room, with an alcove for reading, an enormous canopied bed from red wood, and a scattering of embroidered pillows on the floor where it was fashionable in those days to partake from a ghalyan. The walls were hung with golden and azure tapestries of unvarying design – vertical strings of Daedric letters over a vast and empty field of blue. Gurak was happily snoring in the adjacent servant quarters, and Voryn woke him up to change out of his dusty robe into a comfortable attire and a pair of slippers.

“Did you do as I asked?” Voryn inquired, fastening his blouse at the breast.

“Of course, master. Sotha Sil is waiting for you in his laboratory underneath the palace.”

Sotha Sil waited for Voryn in his laboratory just as Gurak had arranged. He didn’t appear inconvenienced by Voryn’s unusual request, preoccupied as he was with some experiment. Gears and metallic parts – crooked legs, bolts, and plates – were laid out in front of him, and he was polishing them in a viscid oily substance which he had prepared in an alchemical apparatus nearby. The sphere didn’t awake at the sound of Voryn’s light tread, remaining an inanimate pile of metal it would be if the brilliant Dwemer engineers didn’t breathe life into it.

“Do you wish to talk to Arun? Be my guest,” Sotha Sil said, wiping his hands with a piece of cloth. He wore a light-blue robe which was girt with a wide sash with many tiny pockets in it containing glass vials and tiny, elegant tools; he adroitly fished them out with his long fingers at appropriate moments. His face was framed in a metal beard – a popular Dwemer accessory – which considerably protruded outwards, and owing to it, his features seemed thinner and sterner.

Voryn politely inclined his head, muttering something in response, and approached the cage with the strange Daedra. Arun slept, and in her awkward pose Voryn saw harmony, in her body a monstrous perfection. She no longer appeared to have been sewn from incongruous parts – the unfathomable magic which gave her life healed the coarse scars and smoothed out the crude stitches. And even wicked creatures were blessed with wholesome sleep lest their shattered souls be consumed by an inexplicable longing, hunger and profound disdain towards the mortal races. Padomay’s blood birthed them, fires of spite fed them, anger nursed their wounds, yet in their sleep, the Daedra looked peaceful and untroubled by chaotic inclinations. Voryn’s teacher was fond of conjuration, practicing the summoning of lesser Daedra almost every day, and Voryn – then a callow boy of barely fifteen years of age – pestered them with silly questions. He would ask a Winged Twilight why its hair was soft as his mother’s and why an ogrim was as corpulent as the House healer, but the Daedra were bound by a spell to fight for their temporary master, not answer his countless questions.

The Chimer, having received revelations from Azura and Boethiah, shunned Molag Bal, his Daedra servants and cultists. In the spiritual doctrine of prophet Veloth, Molag Bal was known as The Prince of Domination and the second corner of the House of Troubles. He derived enjoyment from testing mortals and seducing them out of the right way. He achieved his grisly fame for his brutish cruelty and for his habits to disguise himself as a mortal man so as to corrupt a virtuous woman and upset the bloodlines of the Great Houses.

Molag Bal’s reputation often set the tongues wagging. If a Chimer child was born blind or deaf, or otherwise odd in some way, with two heads or six fingers on each hand, the village would be astir; the villagers would drag the mother out of her home, beat her, curse her for bearing a spawn of the Father of Torment and drown her in a river with her offspring. The irony of it was that Molag Bal’s children could not be outwardly distinguished from their peers, but to an ignorant villager or priest such signs were an irrefutable proof of the gods’ disfavor.

Whilst Voryn contemplated the nature of Arun’s master, the creature’s wing twitched and she opened her eyes, fixing her unblinking stare on him. She had the eyes of a golden saint, dark, wistful and dour, with thin black slits for pupils.

“Mortals came to torture me,” Arun said slowly but without a lisp. “No, I’m wrong… you are different, you gave me my name! I extend to you my greetings, Name-Giver.”

 “What kind of Daedric honorific is it?”

“The vast numbers of the lesser Daedra such as clannfear, scamps, and spider daedra do not have names,” explained Sotha Sil. “It is a great honor for a Daedra to receive a name. In the Deadlands, only the most distinguished members of the Valkyn are worthy of such honor. Or faithful servants of the Prince like Clavicus’s pet dog, Barbas. You did Arun a favor when you named her.”

“This mortal speaks the truths-s-s.” Arun spread her taut wings menacingly and pressed her face to the cold steel bars of her prison. “I did not deserve a name.”

“Why? Molag Bal went through all this trouble to create you. The least he could do was give you a name.”

“I wasn’t born. Pesky mortals came and interrupted my master. This shell of a body knows no use in its incomplete state, except for one: to serve Him who gave birth to Torment. He forbade me from revealing His precious secrets, and I have no memory of my own.”

“But you called yourself ‘Unborn Ar’. How did you know what you were meant to become?” asked Voryn impatiently. The Daedra spoke in riddles, though she hadn’t perchance intended to confuse him, expressing her thoughts in a language so foreign to her to the best of her ability.

“How did I know? Why wasn’t I hatched? Such careless curiosity you express, mortal… But I will answer you,” said Arun. “There was I which wasn’t I before me. I was not like Grunda, the guardian of the Chasm, or Ozzozachar, the mindless brute, but my master thought of me as His child… Forget filthy mortal children! From the roe of the Giant Fish I was born, spawned across the vast of Nirn. From the Essence of Life, I sprung up in the depth of his sacred laboratory… I served my master faithfully until the day Boethiah’s Champion slew me. Goldbrand extruded my essence from the body. Its evil, stinging flames burnt my skin! It torments me to remember… Why did my master let me keep this recollection?”

“Essence of Life? Giant Fish? These words mean nothing to me.”

“The Essence of Life is a soul, I suppose. Our soul. But the Giant Fish?” Sotha Sil touched his metal beard with a thumb. “Hm, I have no idea.”

“Mortals-s-s are so foolish. They know not a thing. Perhaps I should tear their souls from their bodies and give them to my master as a present in exchange for a vestige – a fitting trinket for them!”

“She’ll taunt you for another hour if you let her. She expresses nothing but defiance and temerity, hoping you’ll kill her in a fit of rage. Nerevar tried to strike her down once, but I stopped him. What is death to a Daedra? A fleeting moment of darkness and respite?”

“You make it sound hopeless, Sil,” said Voryn bitterly. “But I know… I have to believe that it is not impossible to understand its intentions and thwart its ambitions.”

“It’s something Nerevar would say. Did he put you up to this? Was he dissatisfied with my discoveries?”

“No, I came of my own will.”

“Soul shrivens!” Arun shrieked shrilly. “Soul shrivens-s-s!”

“I spent many days asking myself the same questions you are asking now,” Sotha Sil said quietly, paying her no heed. “Why was Mehrunes Dagon summoned in Ald Sotha? Why did I survive the massacre while the rest of my family… my House… The terrible destruction! Was it a mere happenstance? A witch who knew too much, a certain time of year, or a fatal mistake? Did Mehrunes Dagon slaughter my family for no other sensible reason than his penchant for destruction?”

“Lord Sotha, I don’t understand -”

“You look exhausted. You haven’t slept well for many a night. You tell yourself that you have a duty to the Chimer people, to Nerevar, or maybe you think of avenging the dead at Bal Fell. It isn’t even the nightmare that terrifies you, Lord High Councilor.” A warm smile flitted across Sotha Sil’s lips. “You’re scared of the questions that haunt you in your dreams… Wisdom for a mer’s self is a depraved thing. It is the wisdom of rats. But how is it possible not think selfishly?”

“What questions?”

“Can a future be shaped? Can you protect your clan – the unsuspecting bakers, artless miners, devoted husbands and innocent children? Not only for a hundred years, but for all eternity? And at what price?”

***

Voryn came before Nerevar and his Tribunes and, with brevity and eloquence characteristic of him, convinced them that he had found the book. Nerevar was overjoyed at the distraction. Before he made a daring bid to become the Hortator, he often undertook dangerous journeys and went on dangerous quests to retrieve a powerful artifact or to appease a Daedra Prince.

But on the following morning, Nerevar woke up with a dull headache, and at once he was assailed by the unpleasant doubts which worsened his irritable mood.

It seemed to him that there was a hidden meaning in every gesture and glance riveted to him by the menials, and it tormented him that his shrewdness could not dispel the thick murky veil of helpless suspicion. At times, he had to look at a face once to grasp the true nature of thoughts hidden beneath the mask by the many clues carelessly scattered about one’s countenance – downcast eyes, a crease between eyebrows, a twitching of a lip – and at times, he stared dully at the mer he knew for some years, wondering if beneath the fluttering of eyelashes or in a sincere smile, they concealed a nefarious secret. And he imagined so nefarious a secret that an hour after the conversation, he would pace up and down the room, engrossed in futile guesswork which could no more bear fruit than yield before rationality. With some difficulty he would banish from the mind those persistent thoughts till the day they recurred to him and he fancied dreamy secrets in the hushed whispers and traitors at the door.

When Vivec came for breakfast, Nerevar pored over books like one possessed; before him lay untouched manuscripts on conventional warfare, historical tomes, short stories of the Ashlanders, and poetry scrolls while he flipped through the pages of a book on the deep-rooted traditions of the Dwemer, now and again staring vacantly at the ceiling and listening to the footfall outside his chambers. Vivec on a chilly rainy morning wore but a light tunic and although he wasn’t shivering with cold, the Hortator offered him a cup of hot fragrant tea.

“We’ll wait for Voryn,” he told his Tribune, “but you can drink your tea now. I’m sure he won’t be offended… And I’ll refill your cup as many times as you want.”

The Hortator had scarcely bent over the book when Vivec reached across the table and covered the page with his palm.

“Nerevar, I came to reconcile you with Almalexia,” he proclaimed in good set terms. It seemed to the Hortator that his Tribune cherished the thought for a while before voicing it aloud. “It worries me that since the last time the Council convened, you’ve kept aloof. It’s a small-minded conduct on your part. Almalexia told me that she tried to reason with you, but you rejected the compromise flatly. Is that true?”

“What do you want me to say? I refused, stubborn as I am. What can you tell me that I haven’t already heard?”

“Nerevar, please, understand me right. Almalexia takes her duties very seriously. And she tends to brood a lot. It’s not good for her… She loves you, in her own way, and it upsets her when you refuse to see her over and over again.”

“Her expression of love borders on treason, for Azura’s sake.”

“It’s not a simple feeling like Alandro’s blind devotion to you… Sil and I came to an agreement that you have to ask Almalexia’s forgiveness. She’s too proud to come to you, but it’s not out of malice that she refuses to back down. And she’ll forgive you gladly if you ask.”

“I can’t forgive her now. I won’t. And I’d rather not think that you’re on her side, too.”

There was a pitiable expression on Vivec’s face when he stooped over the empty teacup, clutching it anxiously. “Will you do it for my sake? For your people?”

Nerevar bit back a biting remark, and Voryn, who timely walked into his room with a brisk gait, spared him the need to give Vivec a reply.  The maid brought a tray of fresh, warm sweetrolls and Nerevar poured his guest a cup of tea, devoting his attention wholly to him.

Voryn had slim well-groomed hands which weren’t accustomed to hard labor and it was those hands with thin long fingers that attracted Nerevar’s attention when they met in Kogoruhn for the first time. A callosity on the middle finger testified to his predilection to writing, small burns on the thumbs and on the back of the palm to his arduous studies of alchemy, but otherwise his hands befitted his fine upbringing and abundant life. Voryn’s features were delicate, too – a fine nose, narrow eyes and a gentle mouth with a sensual lower lip – although they often lacked expressiveness and vivacity, appearing oddly apathetic instead of earnest.

But on that morning, Voryn’s gaunt sooty face, half-hidden under a veil of long black hair, had an imprint of suffering on it; he was bleary-eyed and exhausted, and glanced about himself anxiously, as if he was troubled by dreary, abrasive thoughts.

Sipping his overly sweet tea, Nerevar gave him a worried look.

“My lord, Gurak had finished all the necessary preparations for your arrival,” said Voryn at long last. “We’ll be leaving for Kogoruhn in the evening.”

“And I’m ready to depart to Holamayan to obtain support from Azura’s priestesses,” added Vivec. “The shrine will be cleansed, and life will continue as usual in Bal Fell. Maybe there will be a large port there someday.”  

“I won’t build anything there until we uproot Molag Bal’s cult from Vvardenfell. Azura wouldn’t send me on an errand if there was nothing to it. The capricious Prince answered your summons and perhaps I think too much of it, but it has to count for something.”

“It was stupid luck with a bit of desperation. I performed the ritual before, but Azura never deigned me with a response. Maybe I was desperate, and she took pity on me.”

“Azura doesn’t pity mortals,” objected Vivec sullenly. “She is the whimsical wrath of the storm and pale moonlight on the unruffled surface of a lake. She answers whenever she desires. Scream for hours at the sunset, and she will remain silent; whisper but a word and she will come. I mean it poetically. She won’t answer if you whisper her name in vain.”

“Vivec disagrees with me, but I am certain you don’t need to pray to elicit a response from Azura. The Daedric Princes don’t require lauds or abundant prayers and rituals – all such nonsense – but we must pronounce those words and slay foes in their name and burn incense to invoke spirits so as to dwell on their wisdom and labor for the crumbs of their knowledge or we, in our selfishness, will put little value upon their gifts.”

“Voryn, don’t allow Nerevar to provoke you into discussing his favorite subject… Ah, I can’t be silent. I think a prayer is our sincere expression of adoration and need. We have to convince the Prince to whom we lift our prayers of the integrity of our motivations. How else would Azura know whom to help and whom to forsake?”

“Vivec is so easily provoked, that’s the truth.” An infectious grin lit up Nerevar’s face, but soon he grew quiet, thoughtful. “Give me a few hours, Voryn, to attend to my own matters, and I’ll join you in the propylon chamber.”

Voryn rose from his chair. “Thank you for the tea, my lord. It was delicious. I hope my accommodations will be just as delightful.”

“You don’t need to worry yourself on my behalf. To tell you the truth, I can sleep on the floor.”

“No, I can’t allow that,” protested the head of House Dagoth, his face ghastly pale. “I cannot bring dishonor to my House. What will others think of me if they learn that I allowed the Hortator to spend a night on a cot?”

“I spoke too hastily,” Nerevar said in an apologetic tone. “I spent fifty years on the battlefield, not knowing where to lay my head at night. And before the war… the owner of the caravan didn’t spoil us with comforts. There comes a time when habit becomes a second nature.”

Voryn smiled softly at him, bowed, and left the bedchambers. Vivec followed him soon after, and the old maid came in to clean the table, dawdling with the cups and muttering a children’s song to herself.

Nerevar knelt by the altar to forget himself in a prayer, but he couldn’t find the right words. He learned to live with the horrors of battle, stowing them away in the deepest recesses of his soul, and it came easy to him. In the base and fascinating world of Chimer politics, he understood that to brazenly rule the tumultuous flow of passions, he had to forget the impossible dreams of youth and follow in the dead of night the only beacon he could trust – his unconditional love for Resdayn. The inhospitable wilderness dotted with the young growth of thorny trama root; the orange disk of the sweltering sun; a gentle stripe of a corkbulb field; the jagged teeth of a proud Dwemer tower protruding from the mossy earth; a seaside village alive with children – the beauty of the land of his ancestors was immutable.

Nerevar didn’t know whom to offer his prayer; his ancestors would not appear before him after they passed quietly into the unknown where the most potent spells could not reach them and the ghosts of the previous rulers of Mournhold kept condescending silence. Azura made her will known to him, and it would be naive to expect a sign from her except for the ever-present feverish visions burnt into his soul.

And so, he prayed to Boethiah – the immortal foe of Molag Bal.

After the prayer, Nerevar rose from his knees with reawakened determination. The hour was late, but he could meet with a few Dres nobles so as to inquire them about the saltrice plantations and bid Almalexia farewell. Vivec wasn’t wrong when he encouraged him to reconcile with her. It would be a hollow peace, but it was of utmost importance to him to keep up appearances. Passions dwindle and love loses its attractiveness, but it was his duty to convince the world outside of his bedchambers that the king and queen of Resdayn doted upon each other.

***

Kogoruhn was an ancient seat of government for House Dagoth and an impregnable fortress the like of which Nerevar had never seen.

After the nomadic Chimer tribes settled in the lands of Resdayn, House Dagoth quickly rose to eminence, becoming one of the largest and most powerful clans under the charismatic leadership of Phisto the Fair. The fearless persistent mer weren’t dismayed by the devastating ash storms or the barren impoverished wasteland which could not give bountiful crops, or the dreary landscape, and their unabated perseverance was rewarded when in the bowels of the earth they found rich ebony and glass lodes. A small fortress sprang up at the foot of the Red Mountain, stern as the far-flung heathland and steadfast as the spirit of its inhabitants. Voryn’s great-grandfather, before he encroached upon the neighboring Dwemer lands, built its fortifications which withstood many a battle till the dragon tongue of the Nords razed them to the ground. The old tower near the propylon chamber proudly bore the signs of a vicious struggle like a warrior wears his scars, boastful to menace; the stones were darkened by fire and the dome-like roof had here and there crumbled away, revealing to the naked eye patches of light-gray masonry. Opposite of the tower was erected a temple under a flat roof and atop it vigilant sentries in colorful bone armor strutted about, gazing into the wilderness, which now rose like a tide, now flattened into gray valleys, now subsided into ravines strewn with rocks, mud ponds and sparse trees and upon which the evening cast a veil of dreamy fog. It was a frozen music of nature, molded by no man or mer.

Such was Nerevar’s indelible impression of Kogoruhn, and as he stepped out of the propylon chamber, he was yet again convinced that the harsh splendor of the fortress was untouched by time. Six years ago he visited Voryn in Kogoruhn and since that day, nothing seemed to have changed; the ever-present patches of green lichen on the roof, the banner of House Dagoth which drooped on a windless day, the empty courtyard and dusty stairs – the fortress appeared as he remembered it, recalcitrant and lonely.

On the outside of the propylon chamber, Nerevar was received by Voryn himself and his chap’thil among whom he saw his younger brother Araynys, an Orc in ceremonial robes with silver and golden trim and three guards in bone armor.

“Welcome, lord Nerevar,” Voryn greeted him cordially. “I’m afraid I bring ill news. There will be an ash storm tonight. I don’t know when the sky will clear up, but the wasteland may be impassable in the morning.”

“You know I dislike procrastination,” he replied.

Voryn tossed his head proudly.

“We are ready to depart as soon as the weather allows us unless my lord can teach me how to alter it with magic.”

Nerevar thought of a witty remark to his Councilor’s bold sarcasm but restrained himself and silently nodded his head. Dagoth Araynys extended his greeting to him and Nerevar walked past Voryn, smiling pleasantly at whoever desired his attention. Araynys was of bland disposition and sickly constitution, and of him Voryn spoke with pity and wistful affection, worrying about his health or his involvement in the intrigues of the court. Voryn’s brother bashfully took his hand and gave him a blessing of the spirits.

“Please, follow me, serjo,” he said.

They entered a dark hallway with a low ceiling. and Araynys led him down a long flight of stairs into a large room festooned with garlands from magelights and coda flowers which gave off a pale soft glow. A magelight was a pellucid glass vessel upon which was cast a charm of permanent illumination and they were often seen in the dwellings of powerful sorcerers whose apprentices saw to it that they were cleaned and lit. A narrow passage connected the room with the Hall of Maki and from its walls Voryn’s ancestors, from Phisto to Navam, gazed at Nerevar in solemn silence. The Hortator had heard little of Navam, but from an occasional slip of the tongue and grim glance, he concluded that Voryn and his father were on distant terms before his death or their relationship was outright inimical. Dust kept its secrets well which to a stranger would be no more noticeable than the crevices and cracks in the walls beneath the ruse of comfort, but Nerevar couldn’t imagine an old Chimer fortress whose stones weren’t soaked in blood and tears.

Araynys showed him a commodious bedroom at the end of the hallway, but Nerevar lingered there only to throw off the heavy Daedric boots and cuirass which were too cumbersome to be worn recklessly. Two bored guards waited for him outside, and Nerevar ordered them to escort him to Voryn’s chamber where, among the luxurious disorder, he didn’t find its owner. Voryn’s propensity to luxury was diffident; he collected expensive retorts and mortars, old books on magecraft and history of Tamriel which deliberately gathered dust on the shelves, ancient wooden furniture with heavy carvings and rare enchanted objects of great and little value, like the ring of Self-Immolation. Savage servants of Mehrunes Dagon would walk into Azura’s temples – hooded figures in crimson cloaks – and in front of the worshipers and priests, they would set themselves on fire, reading the engravings on the ring. Voryn enjoyed amassing such oddities and studying them, regarding satisfaction as its own reward.

Although Voryn wasn’t in his study, a complaisant servant in clothes ornamented with House Dagoth heraldry showed Nerevar the way to the stables behind the temple where his master was last seen. The gate to an old wooden building was ajar and through the chink, the Hortator saw one of Voryn’s brothers in a simple attire, tending to the guars in the light of a lone magelight – a gilded flutter of a butterfly’s wings in the prison of glass. Nerevar observed Vemyn as he tied a long black band four fingers or so in width around the guar’s eyes while stroking its head with fondness.

“The ash storms drive the guars mad,” Vemyn explained, seeing his confusion. “Ash irritates their eyes and they attack us in rage. They become unruly even for the most skilled riders… Voryn asked me to cover their eyes before the storm.”

“And where can I find Voryn?”

“Oh, he’s around. A severe ash storm requires meticulous preparation, my lord. If you forget to protect the guar’s eyes, the beast will run around in a frenzy, attacking other animals and servants. If you don’t cover a wagon with saltrice, the crop will be ruined and our chap’thil will starve. If you don’t lock the barn door, the wind may tear it off its hinges and scatter the dry wickwheat we use to feed our guars.”

Nerevar abandoned his futile search for Voryn and returned to his rooms. After the ash storm struck, Voryn came for him, apologized for the fuss, and they dined in his chambers, conversing eagerly and with ease. Voryn’s pensive countenance had a placidity about it and he would appear listless if it wasn’t for his eyes which shone brightly, dimming not for a moment. Nerevar sat at the table, tasting delicacies from kagouti and alit meat, and they seemed delicious to him although he couldn’t quite describe the flavor, being utterly convinced that it was pleasant. Everything seemed particularly pleasant to him, notwithstanding the foul weather of which only the shrill howls of wind reminded him, and the louder the wind groaned, the more homely the room seemed to him and their discourse all the more intimate.

“I have given thought to your words, Nerevar,” Voryn told him. “I… I meant to say, ‘lord Nerevar’ of course. Forgive me my slip of the tongue.”

“Oh, never mind it!”

“I nevertheless want to apologize for my familiarity. It seems to me I’m overstepping traditional bounds of etiquette, so to speak.”

“Then perhaps you’d like to call me by my full title ‘Lord Nerevar Indoril hai Resdaynia, First Council, lord of Vvardenfell and Deshaan, king of the sacred land of Veloth, defender of Mournhold’ and so on and so forth. I don’t remember it myself… Don’t let the adherents of ceremony and tradition hear me! I was Nerevar before I was king and I’m content with that.”

“I don’t know if I can allow myself to-”

“In other words,” Nerevar narrowed his eyes, “you’re not afraid of offending me. And I’ve just said I would not be offended however you address me. But you don’t want to sully your honor which you believe depends on strict observance of some rules. Am I right?”

“You’re as astute as ever,” replied Voryn. He had an expression on his face which was akin to dread, but he quickly collected himself. “But if you expect me to explain myself, I won’t… It isn’t important. You’ll be more interested in what I have to say about Azura and Dwemer. I find it unsettling that the Dwemer don’t understand love.”

“Love?”

“Why are you surprised? The Dwemer don’t know love – not the selfless, blind and passionate infatuation, or a mother’s love, or a companion’s steadfast loyalty. I’m afraid of an ally who can’t reciprocate my affections… Perhaps you’ve waited for me to admit my fear. But am I wrong? Can you trust someone who regards you as a cog in a mechanism?”

“It is a common misunderstanding,” objected Nerevar genially, “that the Dwemer cannot feel affection. They condemn strong passions and companionship among them is not encouraged. Love is not considered worthwhile if it interferes with duty… A Dwemer must not feel himself beholden to others outside of his clan. A Chimer often says, ‘I am proud of our noble architecture’ although he himself is no architect, but such sentiment is foreign to a Dwemer who takes pride in what he had achieved in a lifetime. It’s all quite fascinating.”

“Fascinating? You often use that word. What’s so fascinating in an idea so foreign to us?”

“We, Chimer, believe ourselves to be superior to others because we received revelations from our gods. I like the word ‘change’. We were changed, but we are hardly superior. And we in our arrogance forgot how to feel fascination.”

Voryn didn’t like his speech, but Nerevar tactfully avoided dwelling on the delicate topic, showing an outstanding patience towards him.

“And how’s your family?” he asked after Voryn fell into silence.

His friend’s face brightened.

“I believe you’ve met Vemyn. Odros attends to the mines and the fishing villages,” he said. “The stale, dusty air of the pits is not wholesome for Araynys’s health, so he chose to be a healer. He is the youngest among us and mother entrusted him to my care… I’ve said it many times, haven’t I? He has a kind heart and weak health and I forbade him to involve himself in politics. My late mother would have never forgiven me if I allowed him to do as he pleased.”

“And Gilvoth?”

Voryn talked about his brothers for an hour or so and Nerevar, having no children or siblings of his own, listened to him curiously. They parted on a cheerful note. The Hortator returned to his bedroom and before long he fell into a dreamful slumber. An unpleasant irrational thought arose in his drowsy mind and he fancied Voryn delayed him in Kogoruhn on purpose, but he quickly rid himself of it, cherishing a feeling of sweet anticipation yet not knowing what it was that he so eagerly awaited.

***

At dawn, a caravan of six guars was seen to leave Kogoruhn in the direction of the Red Mountain.

The storm abated, in spite of Voryn’s sullen predictions, and sparse heavy flakes of ash whirled in the air, carried by the wind. The desert had a gray tinge to it, covered in thick, enduring, triumphal ash. As far as the eye could see, the gray shroud smoothed out the hilly terrain so that it seemed tamed somehow, its harsh clefts and protuberances becoming gentle curves.

All riders but two wore chitin armor and helmets which covered their faces and Nerevar donned a Daedric face of inspiration – a terrifying mask with two horns protruding from its forehead and a red plume. The air was deceptively clear and fresh, but one would be ill advised to breathe it carelessly as those who inhaled it often came down with a dry cough and fever. Voryn clad himself in enchanted robes and slipped a dark mantle with a hood over his shoulders, refusing flatly to ‘be burdened by needless frills’.

For a few hours the caravan unhurriedly moved across the lowlands south-east of Kogoruhn and after a brief respite, the riders turned onto Foyada Bani-Dad: a narrow deep ravine on the slope of the Red Mountain which meandered between the steep cliffs and resembled a ragged scar left by opposing mythopoetic forces that met in battle there in times immemorial. To their right, they saw thin spires and elegant cupolas of the Dwemer towers, to their left stretched a familiar wilderness untouched by civilization, and in front of them, in bluish morning mist, rose an enormous mountain which darkened the horizon, its summit reaching daringly to the sun. The Chimer had many a myth to explain their craving to lay their eyes upon the sacred crown of the Red Mountain, devising many names for it; the Red Giant, the Tower, the Lone Peak they called it, and each name had a cryptic meaning to them. It was the soul of Resdayn bound in mail of granite and ash, and its heart, treacherous and fiery. It was the symbol of the unknowable, a god in its own right. It was a lonely echo of a distant past of which they heard but glorious legends. It was the core of the world, the cosmic axis, the birth cord which tied the Mother-Void to her child, Mundus. Before the Red Tower, Nerevar stood in timid awe which was foreign to his nature and disposition.

Meanwhile, to brighten up their dull journey, Voryn was retelling the Hortator bits and scraps of the myths and legends which constituted the oral history of his House.

“Legends have it that Dagoth Phisto worked in the field with her slaves,” he said with genuine affection. “Others may despise us for it or feel embarrassed by our lifestyle, but we’re used to contempt. Telvanni are profane, Redoran are severe, and Dagoth are sublime yet down-to-earth. We don’t live by laws of magic or combat, or trade, but by the laws of the land. We look for the meaning of our existence, plunging our pickaxes into the barren stone, and strengthen our souls gazing into the empty heathland… There is profundity in the contemplation of death and loftiness in the arduous chipping of the rock. It takes a wondrous sort of perseverance to survive in the lands rich with ore but otherwise utterly inhospitable.”

Nerevar enjoyed listening to Voryn’s stories, and he had a particular kind of fondness in his heart for House Dagoth. Their mystic traditions were far removed from the pompous rituals of Daedra worship commonly observed in Mournhold. The popularity of ancestral faith waned in the capital city save for a few occasions when it was still fashionable to speak to one’s ancestors, but among the Ashlanders and priests of House Dagoth, the ancestors were revered as ardently as ever.  

The caravan halted at the foot of a hill patched with coarse grass and dotted with the ghostly-white tree trunks which clung to the rocky soil with thin weak roots. Their guide – a herder from Kogoruhn – showed them a path uphill which the guars could not mount and offered to guard the animals until they returned. Nerevar ordered the sentries to remain with her and followed Voryn who cast a spell of levitation on them so that they wouldn’t have to clamber up the hill. The Hortator insisted they enter the tombs alone, for he didn’t want anyone else to witness Azura’s secrets.

As they slowly rose above the bald hill, Nerevar glanced down at the mass of stones which were heaped in front of the entrance to the burial grounds. If he didn’t have a map Voryn drew for him, he would never find it, for it was protected from destructive elements and meddlesome travelers by a pile of rocks which didn’t stand out against a cheerless landscape.

Nerevar approached the entrance to the tombs carefully, touched the warm surface of a boulder a few times, thinking of how to make a breach in the natural wall, but Voryn, possessing the quickness of wit which he admired in others because he, too, had it, lifted the largest of the boulders with familiar magic. The undercroft gaped dark and damp in front of them; a flight of stairs, here and there overgrown with moss and lichen, was seen to descend into the musty gloom.

Voryn gave him a magelight because he didn’t want to waste his strength on trivial spells like illumination, and Nerevar, feeling the spirit of adventure awaken within him, dauntlessly stepped over the threshold. 

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