CHAPTER VI: THE SINKING OF MZUANCH

Nerevar awoke from a light touch on the shoulder and, raising his head from the book upon which he had fallen asleep, instinctively groped for his dagger.

“It’s just me,” whispered Almalexia, resting her firm but delicate hand on his forearm. “Come, we’ll miss the summoning hour.”

The queen wore an ornamental loincloth that reached her knees on one side and bared her full thigh on the other, and over her shoulders she slipped a short fur mantle to protect herself from nightly chill. Her hair lay orderly on her shoulders, as if she had not fallen asleep for a moment; still, a few unruly red locks came out from underneath a small ebony diadem and in a carefree way scattered on her brow.

Nerevar calmed down, and his gaze again fell upon the ill-fated book which he was reading until slumber overcame him. The strange woman refused to part with it until death, and her reasoning became clear to him as he peeked inside: into a churning pit of the unknown. The book abounded in stories, parables, vague prophecies and conversations between the priestess, Boethiah and Azura. Nerevar suspected that the priestess deliberately chose to expound her beliefs in so peculiar a way, but both the importance of the colloquial form and the meaning of her words passed his comprehension. One such conversation Nerevar scribbled down on a piece of paper and hid it in his pocket before he was too tired to think straight.

The Priestess: Once I observed the moons from the window of my hut and it occurred to me that I knew little about the founding of the Great Chimer Houses.
Boethiah: Divide like your enemies in Houses, I told them, and lay your laws in set sequence from the center, again like the enemy Corners of the House of Troubles. And let there be more Houses than Corners, but also strive towards unity and do not cause strife meaninglessly.
The Priestess: And did they please you?
Boethiah: Does it please me that you have two legs and two arms? And yet it is splendid and sensible that you have limbs which you’ve put to good use.

Many conversations were less perspicuous, lacking at times coherence, at times structure and a theme to bind together the disjointed words and sentences. It was a fool’s thought that he could memorize any of it.

“Nerevar, hurry!” Almalexia reminded him of his pressing obligations.

Nerevar followed his wife’s sound advice, and both of them went out into the hallway. Almalexia was hectic, urging him on to begin the summoning ritual, yet she said little else and the candle in her hand quivered, as though sharing the queen’s impatience. In the dead of night, the palace transformed: sentries resembled lifeless statues and statues seemed asleep, windows were doors into the abyss, the silence was oppressive and their steps, however light, echoed loudly in the vast hallways with invisible walls of whose presence they were aware owing to a certainty – in which they sometimes wavered! – that during the day they had surely seen them. The room of which Nerevar spoke to Almalexia earlier abutted upon a small windowless chapel and from there they brought a stone altar, a few candles and a prayer mat from willow anther, and they placed the altar in the middle of the room, the mat by the altar and arranged candles around the altar so that, if connected, they formed a sixteen-pointed star. In the center of the blazing figure, Almalexia wrote the incantation in the Daedric language – “Ava ae Tok, Ha’naan ae Sul”. The tall narrow windows – four in total – overlooked the river and the western bazaar, illumined by a great accumulation of torches and magelights. Nerevar put coda flowers on the windowsill and peered into the fiery reflection of torchlight which hung in the sky above the bazaar. The Great Bazaar was littered with seedy taverns, brothels, gambling houses, and skooma dens which abutted upon reputable shops or disguised themselves as rich establishments, rising up to the dimness from the wind-borne smoke and torchlight glow, and whose frequenters engaged in merriment, celebration and revelry and concluded their shady deals under the cover of night, for everything was sold on that bazaar: love which lasted only a night, skooma, fortune-telling, fortune-teller’s virtue, aphrodisiacs from the nectar of a horned lily, potions said to cure impotency, magic scrolls for a scrip which would sooner maim the unfortunate buyer than conjure a fireball, cheap furs, aromatic candles which could cause dullness of the mind – all manner of trinkets and commodities which couldn’t be found anywhere in the realm but in Mournhold. The bazaar never truly slept, and Nerevar was once drawn to that inextinguishable light until he understood that people came there seeking happiness but contented themselves with excess of pleasure which they mistook for happiness, not knowing that they had deceived themselves.

Then the Hortator spent an hour drawing an intricate figure on the floor, now and again asking Almalexia for a piece of charcoal. After he gave the finishing strokes to the geometrical figure, the day broke cloudless and radiant, the darkness scattered before the tremendous conflagration of colors, and on the canopy of heaven alternated light, shade and vibrant hues, heralding the triumphant arrival of Azura. Nerevar knelt by the altar and, having seized Almalexia’s hand, pulled her towards him, but she freed herself from his grasp and looked at him with outrage.

“I will not say the prayer if you do not join me by the altar,” he insisted. 

Almalexia came to her senses and, fiddling about with her fur mantle, knelt by his side with her arm outstretched conciliatory towards him. The Hortator touched her cold fingers and called upon the goddess, uttering familiar words – the same words with which Voryn, unbeknownst to him, addressed her in the summoning ritual. ‘Should I confess to Azura that I read the book?’ Nerevar thought to himself, awaiting the appearance of the goddess in anguish. ‘Or perhaps I should say nothing of it until she asks me – if she asks me!’

Nerevar perceived Azura differently than some of her priests and worshipers, owing his opinion of her to the intimate knowledge she revealed to him. He felt an affinity to her – if a mortal could boast of such an affinity to a Prince – and it frightened him at times to observe in himself Azura’s vanity, her egoistic anger and her conniving cruelty, even if he wasn’t concerned first and foremost with salvation of his soul. It was quite the opposite: if Azura were anything like him, there was no telling what she’d do on a mere whim of hers. Nerevar didn’t fear anyone in the realm more than he feared his capricious goddess and, in her presence, he would abate his pride and forgo his stubbornness so as to please her in every way imaginable.

“Welcome, my Champion!” Azura appeared in a dress woven from mist and her voice was like thunder, and a sweet aroma of roses filled the air in her wake. “You did well. You retrieved the book that was stolen from me, and my unwise priestess died a fitting death. Do not pity her! I sealed her fate when she stole an object of utmost importance from my temple. By your hand or by the hand of another she would have died and let her death be a lesson to you: I am watchful! I will reward my loyal servants generously and cast down my enemies… But tell me, my Champion, did you read a passage or two from that book?”

“I do not wish to incur your wrath, goddess,” Nerevar whispered with a weary hang of the head, but Azura merely smiled and the star on her forehead shone brighter.

“I’m not displeased that you gave in to your curiosity. I did not forbid it. On the contrary, I fostered it in you. Who, holding such a book in his hands, would not be tempted? The mysteries which trouble the hearts of mortals always belonged to the temple of my faithful followers, so read from the book whenever you wish.”

“The priestess who wrote this book… I saw her in that tomb, didn’t I?”

“It was her indeed, withered from age and evil desires, cursed by her god and the world she claimed to love. To her were revealed the secrets of creation, but she disavowed those who taught and nurtured her and hid in an old cave so that the book she wrote would never see the light of day…. A fruitless endeavor! The light always triumphs over darkness.”

Suddenly Almalexia gave Nerevar a nudge and whispered something unintelligible about that godforsaken book, but he scowled at her and she fell silent.

“Goddess, I find myself in dire need of your wisdom,” he addressed Azura hesitantly. “It was my understanding that… Perhaps I am undeserving of it, but I believe you had an agreement with my loyal servant that if I returned your book to the temple, you would advise me how to act in my present circumstances.”

“My loyal Champion, you can arrive at the same conclusions without my help, but it pleases me that you appealed to me nonetheless… Ask yourself: what does Molag Bal strive for, besides enslaving the races of Nirn?”

“To wreak vengeance on Boethiah.”

“That, too, he terribly desires, but there’s something he wants more than upsetting his rival. He wants to walk on Nirn in his true form, to possess Nirn, to proclaim it his kingdom. The evil spirit earned his name, the Prince of Domination, because such is his chief desire. His impulses are mindless, brute, and he amuses himself with enslaving the souls of unfortunate mortals.”

“How does he intend to accomplish it?”

“To learn the answer to that question, you must travel to the ruins of a Dwemer city called Mzuanch and find my corrupted Star. You’ll have your answer when you lay your eyes upon the soul gem which I once gifted to you, now misused and black and dead.”

Nerevar bowed to the goddess and solemnly promised her to complete the quest before he severed all tethers with Moonshadow which compelled Azura to appear to him in the mortal realm; and when the tethers were severed, he saw that his hands trembled and he sat down by the altar in deep agitation. He told Almalexia that he wanted to be alone, but she fell upon him like a cliffracer and, having clutched his shoulders, burst out laughing.

“So, you’ll explain nothing to me? I came with you in vain to meet with the goddess! I was blind. I’m always blind. I expected a decent treatment, but you scorn me again and again.”

“I haven’t forgiven your offense.”

“A fancy way of saying that I must offer you something in return for your candor, something of considerable importance to myself. Isn’t it what it’s all about?”

“Almalexia, I want nothing from you! But there is something I need to show you regardless, as a gesture of my goodwill… Come with me. I’m sure Sil won’t mind if we intrude into his secret cave in his absence.”

At times, in spite of the vast difference in their age and perception of the world around them, they understood each other without words, seeing through the pretense and falsehoods, and meaningless sophistry. Almalexia realized fully the importance of what Nerevar was about to show her and she assured him, without words, that she would not take him lightly. Then she called for a servant girl and ordered her to put the room in good order. Nerevar followed after his wife and overtook her in the enormous dining room which began filling with servants and House nobles who looked at them in wide-eyed astonishment and quietly whispered to one another. They must have been quite the sight that morning: they barely slept, their clothes were wrinkled and dirty, and Nerevar’s hands were dark with charcoal. The captain of the palace guard offered them an escort, but when Nerevar refused it, it caused a stir amongst the nobles and the crowd of spectators in motley garments billowed. A murmur of uneasiness made itself heard, and Nerevar tried with some difficulty to ignore it; the nobles were asking each other why the king and the queen wouldn’t eat a morning meal with them while the servants giggled and coughed meaningfully.

Almalexia took his hand, or rather, squeezed it firmly, as if she was protecting him somehow, and her grand gesture amused Nerevar, for he remembered how she led him in front of many nobles who wished them harm so as to announce to everyone that she would take him as husband and in that ever-changing sea of inimical mer and men, she was his only refuge and he was hers. After the war with the Nords, the House nobles were divided in opinion on who should claim the crown of Resdayn and lead the newly-born First Council; some believed that Almalexia should remain on the throne as the rightful queen of all Chimer instead of Nerevar who was of common birth and others were convinced that the Hortator who won the support of all Houses and tribes, and drove the outlanders from their land, was a better choice of a ruler. And they quarreled bitterly for many months, threatening to declare war on one another. In a desperate attempt to pacify the angry nobles, on the behest of the both of them, a Councilor of House Indoril suggested a marriage between the two worthy candidates who happened to be, ‘as the Three willed it, a man and a woman’. Many sensible minds understood that another war waged so shortly after the campaign against the Nords would cripple Resdayn, and on the tenth day of Hearthfire, they were wed in the presence of many House nobles and priests, in doing so proclaiming not the love for each other but the love for the land of their ancestors – the most sacred sentiments of all.

Almalexia stopped by an unobtrusive stone behind Boethiah’s statue and uttered a few words, running her fingers over its mossy surface until a satisfied smile lit up her face. Whatever the effect of her words was, it was akin to a spell which negated magics. They stepped over the threshold of the familiar cave where Sotha Sil studied his clandestine arts, and at once the Dwemer sphere sensed them, coming to life with a whirr. It rolled towards them with its sword-arm raised to attack, but Almalexia fearlessly walked up to the mechanical guardian and put it back to sleep.

“Sotha Sil gave me keys to his magical wards, but it astonishes me that he didn’t change – not one bit!” she exclaimed, looking round herself. “The illusion spells, the traps, the machines… It’s predictable and he cannot be so artless.”

“Almalexia, rather than berating an imaginary Sotha Sil, look over there,” Nerevar pointed to the cage in the dark, damp corner where Arun sat, cleaning her wings.

“I enjoyed the quiet until fleshlings came,” she muttered, looking at them with the wistful eyes of a golden saint.

“Why did you bring me here, Nerevar?” Almalexia stood with her arms across her chest. The sight of Arun shook her confidence. “Sil told me that you found a creature in Bal Fell, but I didn’t know it was so repulsive. He probably wanted to spare my feelings. Oh, Sil. He’s so well-meaning at times.”

“It’s her, all right… Arun, have you ever heard about Mzuanch? I know it’s a lair of Molag Bal’s cultists.”

“Mzuanch?” The creature laughed airily. “It’s an old city of fleshlings, or so my former memory says. Your cities are frail and temporary. If you ever walked the mazes of Coldharbor, you’d see that my master’s designs are far superior.”

“Mzuanch is a Dwemer city which was destroyed when the Nords first set out to conquer Resdayn. When Jarl Jolgeir brought down the might of his thu’um upon its walls, not much remained of the town and it was many years ago… Nerevar, do you think that Molag Bal’s followers, having failed in Bal Fell, scurried about like rats and hid in another godforsaken hole?”

“I don’t know, but we’ll find out for ourselves soon enough. I won’t make the same mistake twice. I won’t underestimate them. We’ll come in full force and we’ll leave nothing standing of the old ruin. I’ll take the Ashlander scouts with me -”

“And I’ll command the Indoril guard,” the queen added eagerly, but it seemed to Nerevar that she was ashamed of her eagerness. “I’ll send out orders at once. Would you like me to ask Voryn on your behalf?”

“No, don’t ask him, whatever you do. It’s not necessary. If it was necessary, I’d ask him myself.” Nerevar fixed his warm gray eyes on his wife. “I want him to be with his family for as long as possible before he has to come to Mournhold again.”

“Vain efforts of flesh sacks,” declared Arun as they were leaving. “My master is eternal.”

***

On the next day, after a late breakfast, Nerevar received emissaries of the Alessian Empire. After he and Dumac attended the coronation of Emperor Goreius, each Emperor after him made it a habit to visit Resdayn in person or send representatives in his stead to exchange customary pleasantries and assure the Hortator that the Empire remained his loyal ally. In practice their bold assertions were far from true, but it benefited Nerevar to keep up appearances of an alliance between his kingdom and the Empire of men. Fewer audacious nobles would dream of challenging him for the throne, knowing that at the first sign of trouble, many foreign ships would be ready to set sail towards the shores of Resdayn and desecrate the land of their ancestors with their presence. The irony was that the many prejudices which plagued the Chimer people safeguarded Nerevar’s reign as king and Hortator, and he saw to it that even his opponents unwittingly secured him victories.

The Alessians weren’t fond of Chimer whom they called elves – a name they indiscriminately used to describe most mer with a particular set of features such as pointy ears and long, dainty faces. The priests who wielded a lot of influence in the Empire of men didn’t distinguish between their sworn enemies, the Ayleids, and the other elves, and Nerevar didn’t fool himself into believing that the men who were friendly with the Tribunes and well-disposed towards him approved of Daedra worship. His Councilors advised him to be cautious around them so as not to insult them with a careless remark about their ancestors who were enslaved by the Ayleids; they insisted that he shouldn’t allow his guests to get into tiresomely long discussions about faith or dwell on the subject of their war with the Nords. But Nerevar felt at home in Mournhold, and abject prudence was abhorrent to him. The Emperors and the arch-prelates had to understand that in light of their troubles in High Rock and bitter internal strife between kingdoms, they couldn’t afford to come to Resdayn with demands, though the sight of Azura’s and Boethiah’s Temples offended their sensibilities.

The emissaries arrived with great pomp, garbed in heavy silks and velvet, and immediately some sharp-witted servant named them ‘yellow coats’ for the prevalence of that unpleasant color in their ceremonial attire. The robes of priesthood were particularly lavish, with heavy golden embroidery and emblazonry which sparkled brightly in the sun in a vain attempt to eclipse it. The ‘yellow coats’ arrived at the palace on their well-bred horses, boasting about an obvious advantage in speed and endurance a good white mare had over a guar, and Nerevar offered his guests to settle the dispute by letting their animals compete against each other and entertain them with a good and fair contest. The emissaries eagerly agreed to the Hortator’s stipulations: it never occurred to them that he would trick them. Nerevar was well aware that in speed a guar could never contend with a well-fed fast horse, however, on a hot sunny day no horse would outlast an animal native to the ash wasteland.

On the eastern bank of the river which washed the tall walls of Mournhold, a little after noon, the servants lined up a few crude benches along a rutted road, but on Nerevar’s orders they didn’t put up any tents to protect the spectators from the swelter of the autumn sun. From his stables the Hortator chose his favorite guar, and pitted it against a white horse from the outlanders’ retinue. The emissaries, lavishing all manner of praise on the palace and Chimer hospitality, hastened at the appointed hour to the makeshift arena and the Hortator gave the signal to begin the race. It was not as splendid an event as the guar races in Mournhold, but the guar demonstrated once again why since time immemorial, the nomadic Chimer preferred their scaly companion to a horse. The horse led for five laps and on the sixth lap, it began to fall behind no matter how many invectives the emissaries hurled at it, and soon the outlanders were out of breath, becoming more engrossed in wiping their damp foreheads with embroidered handkerchiefs than in watching the race. They were sweating profusely under the bright sun in their heavy garments, but if a guest did not wish to disgrace himself in the eyes of his host, he couldn’t complain about any discomfort he felt through no fault of the host’s. Nerevar was not to blame for their misery, but he was quite willing to make merry at their expense. The Hortator confided in them the secrets of guar breeding and told them which breed suited more for war, which for plowing the land, and which for racing. “Ah, what a magnificent guar!” he would exclaim from time to time. One outlander was tall, fair-haired, and stout, with a fat red neck, and his ruddy face was growing redder with each passing moment, from anger or heat, or both in equal measure. But when it seemed that the outlander couldn’t endure another moment of humiliation, Nerevar rose from his bench and ordered both riders to approach him. He praised them and rewarded them, and with charm and outstanding tact, averted the disaster by inviting his guests to the palace to dine with him.

On the long table, in the enormous dining hall illumined with three dozen magelights, awaited them steaming pies from kagouti meat, dishes from fried alit, baked kwama eggs in spicy sauces, saltrice porridge with mudcrab meat, baked fish and delicacies from exotic fruit, and Nerevar ordered a young boy to beat a guarskin drum, though the crude music was rather inappropriate for the splendid occasion. By the doors to the dining hall, thronged servants and retainers in readiness to fulfill every wish of the distinguished guests. Then came Almalexia with her handmaidens, and her beauty and cheerful demeanor uplifted the spirits of everyone present during dinner. The ‘yellow coats’ at first bunched up to the right of the king’s seat, awaiting another degrading jest, but when the servants brought in Dagoth brandy, they flung away all cautiousness and joined the Chimer nobility in the competition of wit. Both the representatives of Emperor Goreius II and the Chimer nobles harbored no love for their neighbors – the Nords of Skyrim – and owing to their shared contempt for them, they quickly found a common language. 

When the feast was well under way, and the outlanders made merry with the Chimer, and Almalexia was distracted by an exciting conversation with one of the Alessian priestesses who seemed utterly charmed by her, Nerevar summoned his Lord Counsel – an influential noble who went by the name of Othren Indoril. They sat at a separate table, and Nerevar asked a servant to bring a dish from mudcrab and kagouti meat flavored with herbs native to Argonia, which Nerevar knew to be Othren’s favorite owing to the untiring efforts of Alandro Sul.    

“Othren, I wanted to talk to you about the land reform,” he said with disarming frankness, unrolling a piece of parchment he brought with him. “Last time we spoke about it you told me I needed to find proof that the Great Houses didn’t own the land that our ancestors discovered under the guidance of prophet Veloth. If there was an ambiguity in the ancient charters which established borders between the ancestral holdings of the Great Houses, you said that you could help me… Well, I found it. The Great Houses couldn’t own that land. They have been founded long after prophet Veloth set foot on Vvardenfell. Without the right of primacy, the land belonged to our common ancestors, and the Ashlanders can raise a claim for it.”

“I’m aware of your opinions on the matter, but most of us consider them blasphemous,” Othren said in a dignified manner. “I’m not a zealot, my lord, but without the evidence to the contrary, I have to believe in the rightness of our ancestors.”

“You haven’t even looked at my findings. But allow me to pour you a glass of wine. Let’s drink to your son’s health!”

Othren’s expression betrayed both embarrassment and mistrust. “What complicity does my son have in this scheme of yours?”

“None whatsoever, I assure you. But it would be crass of me to suggest a toast for my own health.”

A tense moment passed as quickly as it came about, and Othren, laughing, accepted an encrusted goblet from Nerevar’s hands. They drank the fine wine together, and the Lord Counsel heartily helped himself to the exotic dish.

“In the east, it’s called the Ash-baked kagouti. The young kagouti is slowly baked on a coal bedding, sprinkled with the fresh extract from the fire-red herb called va’xeed and topped with the delicately seasoned meat of a baby mudcrab. How did you know I was such an enthusiast of the Argonian cuisine?”   

“Frankly, it was a mere coincidence,” Nerevar lied, smiling. “I’m somewhat of an enthusiast myself.”

“Well, it’s always a pleasure… Let me take a look at that piece of parchment.”

“I read it in a book I recovered from the tomb of Azura’s priestess. I returned it to the Temple for now.”

“I’ll see if it’s enough to challenge the right to primacy, but it won’t be an easy task even with solid proof. We have no claim to this land other than our belief that we found it first. Challenge it and you may as well invite an n’wah to steal all that’s ours bit by bit.” Othren bowed, the gold, silver and azure of his robes flashing. “May Boethiah be with you, my lord.”  

After the feast, most outlanders could not stand on their feet, having drunk so much brandy that they couldn’t distinguish between the taste of mazte and the noble vintage drink, and Nerevar thought it wise to meet with them in the morning. Yet when he met with them in the morning, they could but make hollow promises on behalf of their Emperor and they didn’t seem to be overjoyed with their duties. Their parley was unexpectedly interrupted by Sotha Sil when he unceremoniously intruded upon them, looking rather comically. He walked into Nerevar’s chamber unannounced, dressed in a long black robe which hung loosely on his slim figure, his long metal beard awry on his chin and his oculi askance on his nose. He carried in his hands a heap of books he presumably borrowed from the Psyjics and he was so awkward in his excitement that he evoked pity.

“I found it, Nerevar! I found it!” he exclaimed, paying no heed to what was happening around him. “Where is Almalexia? I must tell her, too!”

There was nothing stately in his manners usually so reserved, or in his bearing which was usually so dignified; he resembled a child who found a precious toy and in the whole world nothing existed for him and nothing was worth his attention more than his toy. Nerevar excused himself and declared that the negotiations would resume after a morning meal. When his guests made themselves scarce and he was alone with his teacher, the Hortator lowered himself into a chair and looked at Sotha Sil with exasperation.

“What is it, Sil? Can it wait until I conclude our talks?”

Sotha Sil set his oculi straight upon his thin nose and spread out a map of Tamriel on the table. Then he opened one of his books in which was depicted the same map and showed it to Nerevar.

“Don’t you see the difference? On the traditional map, Tamriel is washed by the Padomay ocean. Here is Resdayn, Black Marsh and nothing but ocean beyond that. But look at the same map in this book! There is an unknown landmass to the east of Tamriel, and I think it’s the illusive Akavir – the land so foreign to us that it may as well be Oblivion.”

“Akavir? Most cartographers think it’s a myth.”

“Yes, and I thought so, too, until I found this book in the library of the Psyjic Order. Various accounts of merchants and pirates confirm the existence of a landmass. Some say it’s an island or a cluster of islands like Summerset Isles, but I’m convinced it’s an entire continent. One of the pirates whose ship was washed ashore during a storm, traveled inland for many days and he never saw another ocean again until he turned back, and here… here he describes tall beautiful people, covered in golden scales. Only imagine it… astonishing!”

“And why couldn’t you wait to tell me about this discovery?”

Sotha Sil seemed taken aback and bemused at the same time. “You’re my good friend, Nerevar,” he said, thumbing through one of the many books he brought with him, sagging under their weight.

“You saved me from a boring conversation if nothing else. My talks with the Empire have stalled. But why does this Akavir hold sway over your brilliant mind?”

“Think of the many possibilities – trade, exchange of knowledge, settlements in the new lands. We’ll accept that we are a part of something vast and beautiful, something that exists independently of us… Ah, the possibilities are endless.”

“Well, that’s quite an idyllic picture… In all likelihood, if you ever visit those parts, you’ll catch an awful disease. And these serpent-folk in your book don’t look friendly to me.”

“Why can’t you think of something more exciting than diseases?” Sotha Sil shook a bony finger at him.

“What are the two of you going on about?” asked Almalexia and they turned to her. She must have come in so quietly that neither of them, distracted by a learned conversation, noticed her.

Sotha Sil beamed with joy and with a muffled exclamation “Ayem!” embraced her briefly.

“Ayem, I discovered a continent,” he said, laughing. “Can you believe it? A whole continent!”

“We’ll talk about it later. I came to tell you that the Ashlander scouts have arrived and my guard stands ready to depart. We have to seize Azura’s artifact immediately.”

“And what of the representatives from the Alessian Empire?”

“What of them? We’ll show these outlanders the door in the morning.”

Sotha Sil shifted his gaze from the queen to the king, with the air of a man unaccustomed to being in the dark about the subject of the discourse. “Well, you obviously know something I don’t.”

“We summoned Azura and before you scold me for trusting her, listen to me… Sil, are you listening? She told us that her famed star has been in possession of Molag Bal’s cultists. We can’t be squeamish about any sound advice when our adversary is a Daedric Prince.”

“Do as you please, but don’t expect me to run errands for an arbitrary god. My devotion does not extend beyond occasional charity and then I place a pearl or a ruby on her altar, but to think that I must deflect attention from my studies for the sake of a paltry artifact… It’s ridiculous.”

“Sotha Sil, please-”

“No, Nerevar, you and Ayem are on your own.” Sotha Sil collected his books and maps, and with an expression of deep-rooted aversion, ran out of the bedroom.

“That’s true Sotha Sil for you,” muttered Almalexia, taking a seat on the bed and resting her hands on her knees, self-possessed like a proper queen, but Nerevar’s impression was that she barely took hold of herself. “When you need him, he’ll abandon you and he will find a hundred reasons to convince himself of his own rightness.”

“What has gotten into him? Do you think he was offended by our less than enthusiastic attitude towards his discovery? I have too much on my mind to enjoy his talks about some mythical continent.”

“I’ll talk to him later, but I don’t think he’ll come with us. Don’t worry, I found Mzuanch without him.”

After they mulled over different alternatives to storm Mzuanch or lay siege to the ruined city if necessary, they parted ways and Nerevar resumed talks with the disgruntled dignitaries, but as ill luck would have it, no sooner had they settled comfortably around the table than Alandro Sul came to deliver an urgent message. The Hortator sent everyone away and unrolled a small piece of paper which was folded twice. It read:

LH MP DHRU ZHRKSMOI MKGVFMLP, XTVVDT DIWL IJ VXAU”

The handwriting wasn’t Voryn’s and the short note bore no signature, but the sender had to be one of his most trusted nobles with whom he corresponded during the war in code. Dumac knew of it, too; his Tonal Architects invented it. But Dumac would never send a message with a Chimer. Nerevar tried a key word ‘scamp’ and then ‘star’, and to his satisfaction the latter word revealed the true meaning of the mysterious message.

TO MY LORD HORTATOR URGENTLY, FAVELA DRES IS DEAD”

***

Deep beneath the foundations of Kogoruhn, there was a desolate cave. It was small, and the air in it was hot and stagnant. Its uneven corners were replete with shadows which threatened to swallow the warm glow of a magelight. It was a place where shame and misery have dwelled for so long that the very stone seemed to have become imbued with the untold agony – tears that were shed there, screams and entreaties that no one but the darkness heard have left their ineffaceable imprint. No living thing could make it a home, but Voryn couldn’t shake off an impression that something was stirring within its walls: something with sad eyes and a weak voice, like a ghost born out of the profound despair and shame that have been trapped there. And that ghost reached out for him as if he’d been the only brightness in its illusion of a lonesome existence.

In the middle of the cave, there was a natural elevation made of stone no chisel has ever touched. Atop the elevation rested a smaller repository under a faded cloth which was once bright-red; the shroud was kept in place by a few heavy ritualistic objects – a House Dagoth cup, a plain Daedric shortsword, and an enchanted shield – and it fully concealed an obsidian lid which had not been opened for over two centuries. There were no inscriptions anywhere on the elevation or on the repository which revealed the name of the mer who had been buried in the unmarked grave so deep beneath the fortress that it would be never discovered by chance. In defiance of his father’s orders, Voryn had the name engraved on the bottom of the cup – Dagoth Morin – but he didn’t dare disturb his brother’s remains even after he took up his duties as the Grandmaster. One day Voryn swore he would move Morin’s body to the vault with the rest of the Dagoth nobility, but the thought of opening the repository and looking at his brother’s decaying face, and upsetting his brother’s spirit filled him with terror. 

Dagoth Morin was high-minded, generous and kind as much as his father was ambitious and ruthless, but he was fearless, too, and unwavering in his convictions. He was raised in accordance with the noble Dagoth tradition which equated honor with stubbornness and mistook happiness for indulgence, but in spite of Navam’s persistent efforts, Morin wasn’t as susceptible to his influence as he had wished. Navam didn’t spare gold to find his son the best teachers Vvardenfell could offer, and Morin spent most of his time engrossed in his strenuous studies. He didn’t play with his brothers and he rarely saw his mother. Bereft of their warm affections, Morin shouldn’t have felt the need to give affection in return, but he was kind and loving beyond reason, in contempt of all expectations. At a very young age, Morin had to marry a daughter of a powerful Redoran councilor, but he didn’t resent his duty and treated his wife with tenderness and respect, though Voryn knew that he had never loved her. Morin was Navam’s first-born, and in a way, he was the unluckiest and the unhappiest of his children.    

Meanwhile, Voryn lived as he pleased, learning magic from a Telvanni wizard, traveling to Sadrith Mora every summer, and making love to a handsome Telvanni Mouth after a night spent chasing after stars. He was content to be Morin’s shadow, to rule from behind the Grandmaster’s gilded chair, to advise and temper, and wield Mephala’s power of secrecy and mystery. Voryn didn’t want to be his father or his brother, finding consolation in knowing their faults: his father was too cruel, yet none too clever, and his brother wasn’t subtle enough.

Then the Great War caught up with them, and their wonted life fell to pieces.

Looking back, Voryn was certain that Navam and Morin would have rejected the Hortator’s offer, each for his own reasons. Navam would perceive it as mockery that someone of low standing – an orphan or an outlander – dared swear the sacred oath, united the Houses and the tribes, and led their armies into battle, and Morin would think it dishonorable to abandon the age-old traditions of House Dagoth which dictated that the prosperity of their clan took precedence over every other noble aspiration. Morin believed the notion of honor to be as immutable as the existence of Azura herself, a constant unaffected by the passing of time, but the basis of their existence was in their belief that the Daedra changed them, molded them like clay. A universe without change is barren, like a mother who will never give birth. Voryn, too, defended the honor of his House – not the House of old which his brother lamented but the new House, transformed by an oath he swore to his Hortator so that it would bear magnificent fruit.

Voryn smiled softly, running his fingers along the rough surface of the heavy lid. “Forgive me, Morin, if you can. I’m about to disappoint you again.”

“Have you ever talked to him… to our brother? Afterwards, I mean?” A quiet voice rang behind him. Voryn looked up and saw Araynys timidly standing at the cavern entrance.

“No, I could never bring myself to disturb him. Even when I need his advice, I come down here, thinking that the time has come to face him, but I can’t… I dread that moment more and more with each passing year.”

“I barely remember him, but the servants often told me tales about him. Morin was brave and he tried to do what was best for us. But you got me, brother. I’m weak, I don’t know how to hold a sword or enchant a scroll. I’m spoilt and talentless. That’s what my brothers and their servants say behind my back when they think I can’t hear them. I can’t express how sorry I am that Morin’s dead and I’m -”

“Araynys, that’s enough. Morin would scold you if he could hear you… If you want to blame someone, blame me. I served Mephala, and she was so pleased with me that she made me Grandmaster of our House.”

“No, brother, it’s not true… It’s not true at all! You’ve kept this family together when everyone else would gladly see it torn apart. And I’m useless. I can’t even help you or Gilvoth… Send me to talk to the Ashkhan again. Or maybe I can plead for the Hortator’s mercy. I’ll do anything!”

“If it was a small matter of a lord refusing to pay tribute to the House, I’d allow it. But you can’t help Gilvoth without challenging the Hortator and upsetting the Ashlanders. You don’t understand the intricacies of the Mournhold court politics. Your only reward for your well-meaning but careless meddling will me a Morag Tong writ.”

“You must think it, too,” Araynys said in a voice full of suffering. “I’m good for nothing. I’ll screw up everything, though I’m only trying to keep the peace. Why was I born the youngest of us? Why was I even born?”

Before Voryn could say anything or console him in any way, Araynys’s face turned awry and tears streamed down his cheeks. When was the last time Voryn could weep so freely, so openly? He couldn’t remember.

Voryn wrapped his arms around his brother’s frail shoulders, pressed him to his chest, kissed his glossy black hair over and over again. When Araynys ceased shivering in his arms, Voryn let go of him and smiled at him with brotherly tenderness.

“You have a duty to your House”, he said. “When I tell you that you can’t throw away your life meaninglessly, I don’t expect you to understand it. In time, you’ll solve the riddles of life and figure out who you want to become and what role you’ll play in the history of our House. But you won’t have that time if you go around asking for trouble… Do you want me to hire a healer to teach you Restoration?”

“No, I don’t want to be a healer.” Araynys hung his head.

“Why?”

“You always wanted me to be a healer. But I don’t have the talent for it. I’ve been born under the wrong sign. Father always called the Lady the weakest of all signs.”

“Forget about him. What do you want to learn?”

“Alchemy, maybe. I’ll make Vemyn potions when he leaves for trading expeditions. You don’t need to be born under a special sign to learn alchemy.”

“Then it’s decided. I’ll teach you alchemy myself… Now, let’s check on the others. I’m ready to announce my decision. As ready as I’ll ever be, perhaps.”

They returned from Morin’s grave the way they came, through the underground tunnel, climbed the stairs, and Voryn opened a heavy wooden door into the courtyard. The evening was warm and windless, and banners of House Dagoth hung still. The distance which his eye could embrace was a barren land, untarnished by ash-winds, dust and fog, and the trees, the thorny bushes, the stone protuberances were in full view. Such extraordinary clarity served as a prelude for a severe ash storm, as if nature was resting before opening wide the heavens and letting the winds loose.

Voryn crossed the courtyard and approached the Temple where his brothers were to gather so as to discuss Gilvoth’s punishment. On the outside, it was a squat building under a flat roof, and inside, it was dry and warm, with narrow and dark halways, which together with the ubiquitous smell of burning incense made an oppressive impression on a susceptible mind. Voryn’s brothers, six altogether, waited for him in the shrine conversing quietly among each other. They did not dare raise their voices and disturb the eerie quietude of the temple and no sooner had they seen him enter than they fell silent. Voryn never considered himself particularly imposing, but the circumstances of their meeting and the not so domestic surroundings demanded from them their utmost attention, and in compelling their attention to him he had succeeded. They were very different: self-willed and mild-mannered, loyal to a fault and selfish, peevish and downright offensive, but they were his family and after Morin’s death, Voryn spent many years fostering an understanding between them to overcome the rift which threatened to split them apart. He couldn’t allow Gilvoth to ruin everything with one cruel, senseless act.

‘Don’t hesitate,’ Nerevar told him once. ‘Plunge headlong into the unknown and discover for yourself what awaits on the other side. But you can’t, can you? Too many rules to obverse, too many nuances to consider, and suddenly you are afraid, balancing on the edge of a precipice. You cannot teach yourself not to fear the precipice. It’s not within any mortal’s power. But you can learn not to think, not to hesitate, and fear won’t take root in your soul.’

Recovering his spirits, Voryn addressed his brothers one after another – the youngest of them, Araynys, the twins Uthol and Endus, Odros, Vemyn and Tureynul who had extraordinary talent for healing arts – and the silence was such that when Voryn paused to take a breath and recollect his dissipating thoughts, he could hear the benches creaking.

“Dear brothers,” he said, “I wish we gathered together on a happier occasion and I am sure such an occasion will soon arise, but today I have to do my duty as Grandmaster and decide the fate of my misguided brother. No duty is more painful than this. My heart aches for him, but I must observe the law and I find myself in a predicament. What must I sacrifice, my honor or my love? I pray to Azura that my choice is right… But, my brothers, I cannot shirk this grim responsibility and with authority bestowed upon me, I say this: we are to do nothing. We will wait for the Hortator’s sentence and we will comply with his decision fully, and we will pray that his wisdom is greater than mine.

“You are asking yourselves: where is the honor in surrender? We’ll allow some Hortator, an outsider, a pretender, to be in command of our destiny. Once I, too, thought it inconceivable. But when I met with him face to face, I didn’t see an outsider or a fetcher without honor – no, I saw a mer who loved our land, who was grieved to learn how we suffered under the yoke of the invaders from Skyrim, who dreamed to bring prosperity to his people… We relied on him to win our freedom. We expected him to deliver on those promises. We conferred on him the supreme authority and, following his example, we, too, will fulfill our promises.

“Wisdom for a mer’s self is a depraved thing. It is the wisdom of rats. They who have all their time sacrificed to themselves, become in the end themselves sacrificed to the inconstancy of fortune. We will not become like them, brothers. We will not seek to profit only ourselves. We will not surrender. We make sacrifices, willingly and unreservedly, for the greater things.”

When Voryn concluded his speech, the answer was perfect silence.

***

The mighty bow of a large wooden boat, churning the turbid river, cut into the soft mud which lay thick upon the rocky shore and came to a standstill. A few Chimer in netch leather armor and helmets, with their chitin spears at the ready, jumped into shallow water and clambered uphill, halting their advance only when their leader – a tall mer distinguished from the rest by his ornate earrings and a long worn scarf wrapped around his shoulders – spotted a mudcrab and with adroitness which testified to his skill, skewered it upon his spear. The leader killed a dozen or so mudcrabs, separated the soft meat from the hard shells and piled the shells not too far from where the rest of his scouts had set up camp and struck fire. The evening mist had settled upon the hills, and unrolled itself upon the beach and the river, but the fire which burnt merrily, devouring one bundle of dry reed after another, could be seen at a long distance from the camp. Then more boats pulled in to the rocky strand and a stream of dark bodies poured ashore, with here and there an eddy. A brief but heated argument arose: as the small Chimer host settled by the numerous fires, the Argonian servants led out a guar by the harness and the animal snorted and resisted while the grooms tried to subdue it with a rope, but succeeded only at frightening it into frenzy. The leader of the Ashlander scouts came to their aid; he talked to the guar and waved his hand, as if casting a spell, but though he didn’t resort to magic to quieten the animal, when Almalexia and Nerevar came ashore, the order was restored in the camp. 

Nerevar, preoccupied with uneasy thoughts, made way to the large tent so as to retire for the night, but not before he contemplated the scenery around him and committed it to memory. The rocky strand stretched for no more than a hundred paces before it sloped steeply down towards the swamp overgrown with wild saltrice and marshmerrow, but opposite of the swamp, the hilly terrain evened out and somewhere in thick chilly mist, Ashlander scouts found a semblance of a road meandering among the short-stemmed wild trees, arrayed in autumn colors. A natural but quaint formation of rocks of all shapes and sizes dominated the landscape, not unlike a castle erected by wind and water and earth tremors – those amazing architects of nature – which brought about the collapse of weaker stones and from that foundation emerged enormous immovable boulders shaped like windowless towers. In the morning, they were to march north and, in a few hours, they should see the spires of Mzuanch which faithfully guarded the half-sunken carcass of the abandoned city. In the distance, a bull netch and a betty netch called to one another, bellowing plaintively, and their love-song evoked memories in Nerevar of the fields and the sunburned Chimer women with flowing hair stooping over the baskets with warm ripe fruit and singing a harvest song.

Almalexia sat by the fire, drinking mead with the Nords and laughing with self-forgetful inspiration, as though she was one of them. Nerevar looked away from her and slipped into the tent where a young boy polished a Daedric suit of armor. The Hortator sent him away, mistrustful of him for no reason other than he had no confidence in his shield-bearers except his loyal Alandro Sul whom he chose to leave behind, having burdened him with an onerous duty to keep the gates of Mournhold shut until their return. Whether Favela Dres died of natural causes or one of her children or grandchildren, or siblings decided to take the matter into their own hands, House Dres was without a leader, and many nobles would see it as opportunity to expand their influence. Alandro Sul would die before he would let anyone through the gates, and that outcome of his bold scheme Nerevar feared most.

Without the shield-bearer, a menial task such as cleaning his armor fell on him, and he was overjoyed at the distraction. Daedric metal imbued with the essence of lesser Daedra didn’t rust easily, but from time to time Alandro Sul would clean it with a mixture of sand and muck and coat it in oil from kagouti fat. Nerevar seated himself on a rough-hewn stool and in the light of a single redware lamp which was covered in insects, he began tidying his armor thoroughly and tenderly.

“When did you learn how to clean your armor?” asked Almalexia. She came in with a tankard of mead, smiling as she rarely smiled, from ear to ear, showing her strong white teeth. If it wasn’t for that smile, Nerevar would never guess that she was tipsy.

“Adventuring here and there. We mercenaries either took care of ourselves or death took care of us. You live upon your wits and you die by the sword.”

“It’s poetic in some way… Why didn’t you join me outside?”

The Hortator hoisted the cuirass upon the armor stand. “Excellent, excellent!” he remarked, clicking his tongue. “I needed to think, and I think better when I’m alone, praying or performing an irksome task… It occurred to me all of a sudden how little we know of the world we consider our home. I can’t seem to shake off an impression that the more Azura speaks to us, the less sense I can make of this world… So much for that.”

“And yet you trust Azura implicitly. You cannot even trust your shield-bearer to tend to you, fearing… I don’t know what it is that you fear. But you don’t fear her in the slightest.”

“I fear her all right.”

“Still, you repose absolute trust in her words. You’re willing to venture your life and the lives of your people to satisfy her whims.”

“She never lied to me, Almalexia. I have no rational reason to mistrust her. I lied to myself, seeing in her a quick painless path to salvation for all of us, myself included. I purposefully misunderstood her words, twisting them to my liking, and for my mistakes I’ve been punished cruelly… But she always told me the truth. Maybe I didn’t ask for her guidance often enough.”

“How can you be sure of it? Aren’t you lying to yourself now?”

“How can you be certain that the sun will rise tomorrow and not, say, fall through the fabric of the sky?”

“Nerevar, I’m quite serious.”

“So am I… It’s faith, Almalexia. You get up from bed every morning and you see sunrise through the window; day after day, year after year, the sun never fails to appear in the sky. Until we are given reasons to suspect that it can vanish, even if we allow our imagination to flourish and feed upon absurd theories, we will have our unshakable faith to set us straight.”

“Faith… is a frightening concept,” said Almalexia quietly.

“Yes, frightening and sweet.”

An Ashlander brought in steaming saltrice porridge, bread and mudcrab meat, and as she drew a plate towards her, filling it to the brim with warm wholesome food, Almalexia forgot about their conversation. Afterwards came their leader and explained that it was a gift from him and his people to the Great Ashkhan. The Hortator invited him to dine with them, and as they partook the simple but delicious meal, he and the queen made inquiries into what the scouts found at Mzuanch.

“It’s a godforsaken ruin, if I ever saw one,” replied the Ashlander. Most of the time he addressed the Hortator, paying to Almalexia none of the obeisance with which the Indoril guard addressed her; to him she was known as merely the wife of the Great Ashkhan and the queen of the House nobles who lived in the cities and robbed them of their pastures and harvests. “But someone lives there. I swear on my ancestors. We saw two sentries by the entrance – an Orc and a Breton – and two more guards behind a tall mossy wall. Man-made defenses are sparse, but our biggest obstacle will be nature. The sunken bridge in front of the entrance and the entrance door are knee-deep in water. The door is old and rusty, and I never saw anyone enter or leave through it. As for the broken bridge… at first, it rises steeply, showing itself from under water, but comes abruptly to an end. The rest of it is at the bottom of the river. I suppose that there must be another entrance into the stronghold of these cultists, a breach in the wall or-”

“Then it is decided,” Almalexia eagerly interjected. “We ambush the guards, kill all but one and inquire our captive about the other entrance into the ruin.”

“What if he doesn’t talk? We cannot waste a day to pry the secret out of him by force.”

“We can capture all of them and one of them will surely betray the other three to save his skin.”

“No, it’s too dangerous,” said Nerevar, who was until then content with observing the argument. “They’ll raise a ruckus if we let them live.”

“You don’t suggest we sit and wait-”

“I’ve yet to suggest anything, but if we can create a distraction… But why does it have to be a distraction? No, we sink Mzuanch or at least give them reason to suspect that the ruins are sinking, and as they scamper about every which way, we’ll capture them one by one.”

“It’s clever,” admitted Almalexia, “but I’m doubtful of our success. What if no one makes it out alive? Azura’s star will be buried at the bottom of the river, and all the secrets with it, but more importantly, I don’t dare to imagine what punishment the goddess will choose to inflict upon us if we lose her treasure.”

Nerevar thanked the Ashlander scout for the excellent porridge and sent him away. He didn’t need to hear the rest of the conversation.

“Whatever her punishment, it will pale before the wrath of Molag Bal,” he said when the Ashlander was out of earshot. “I imagine they keep the star well-hidden, but not too far from the entrance. Think about it, Almalexia! They prefer old ruins with dark narrow hallways, a plethora of hidden passages and chambers. It’s a perfect trap. They lure us into these ruins where we can’t use powerful magic out of fear that the ceiling might cave in and they smother our advance, conjuring up legions of daedra… You weren’t with us at Bal Fell. Common tricks are of no use. The cultists never gather in one place in large numbers, the rest are mercenaries and their daedra and-”

“And their prisoners, am I right?”

“Maybe you’re right, but those aren’t men or mer. They’re… they’re something else,” objected Nerevar heatedly. “Abominations, walking corpses, vessels without souls or with souls deformed by ghastly experiments.”

“And how do you know that not even one prisoner survived? A necromancer – Sil described it as some kind of necromancy – requires a living being, a beating heart, a soul other than his own to torment and mold into a form he desires.”

“In Bal Fell no one survived the brutal rituals.”

Almalexia rose from the table, as if to tell him that when she towered above him, her arguments had a particularly great weight to them.

“In other words, you can’t be certain, and you never intended to find out the truth.”

“Now you know why I consider it a wasteful affair to take Mzuanch by force.”

“You’re intolerable, Nerevar!”

“Aren’t I always?” the Hortator took off his boots and stretched on a bed of fur, regarding his wife through half-closed eyes with great curiosity. “Almalexia, if you want to storm Mzuanch with your guard, I won’t interfere, but I advise you against it.”

“You know it too well that with so small a force I cannot storm Mzuanch. I don’t have any other choice but to follow you. And maybe I spoke too hastily and you’re not wrong. I’ll judge for myself.”

“As you wish… And now I would like to rest.” Nerevar tossed and turned for a bit, but before he knew it, he was soundly asleep.

The Chimer host stepped off in good spirits an hour after dawn. The Ashlander scouts in their light armor preceded the Indoril guard which marched stately along the road, and their leader would now and again sneak out of the bushes, exchange a few quiet words with Nerevar and vanish again into the dense shrubbery. Nerevar rode a guar abreast of Almalexia, but they barely spoke to each other, pretending to be all but unaware of each other. Almalexia gave an inspiring and uplifting speech before they set out for Mzuanch, walking along the even lines of Indoril warriors with a spring in her step, arrayed in heavy armor resplendent from afar in colors of the dawn. Nerevar ordered the Ashlanders to scout the land and warn him of any approaching caravans or travelers, but the delightful landscape lay before them desolated and undisturbed. The cold night gave way to a chilly brilliant morning, and the mushroom trees, the puddles of water, the grassy hills, and even the bleak stones were made luminous by the ever-present sunlight. At the beginning, the road wound steadily uphill and a few secluded huts caught Nerevar’s eye, standing lone and dark against the sky. In one of these huts they rested for a bit and refreshed themselves. Then the road led them through a valley bestrewn with pools of boiling mud and they lost one of the Indoril retainers to a spurt of white-hot steam which burst through a tiny fissure in the ground, pouring over him from head to toe. He uttered a bloodcurdling scream, clutching at his helmet, and thrashed about, but all too soon his throes ceased, and screams subsided into loud moans. The rapid escape of steam produced a cacophony of whistling and hissing sounds, and the swirling mist concealed the unfortunate retainer from view. The Hortator didn’t allow anyone to look for the body. ‘A bad way to die,’ said Almalexia, and he whispered a short prayer for his soul. Only the Ashlanders remained indifferent to the fortuitous death of the retainer; they learned how to navigate the inhospitable wastelands of Vvardenfell and elude its many pitfalls since birth.

The sun being in zenith, they continued their way and not long after they left the dead valley, they saw the lopsided spires of Mzuanch rising towards the noonday sky. The Dwemer settlements were famous for their impregnability to adverse weather, they withstood the most vicious sieges and onslaught of time, but something strange occurred in Mzuanch and the stone which hitherto resisted the thu’um and Chimer magic, cracked. According to the Dwemer historians, as the towers crumbled and water inundated the hallways through the breach in the ceiling, all life left the Animunculi, too, and they could be seen till this day, rusting away idly like any other pile of scrap metal.

Nerevar’s eyes swept the decaying city from the sunken bridge and a mossy wall of which the Ashlander told him to the towers topped with rusty steeples, and he ordered the scouts to kill the sentries. Four arrows left their quivers and arched skywards; four bodies fell, bloodying the water, and no one was the wiser. The leader of the scouts dragged the sentries into the clearing, slit their throats and stripped them naked, displaying them in such a humiliating manner to taunt their enemies into frenzy.

“And how will you sink Mzuanch, may I ask?” Almalexia said scornfully, adopting a comfortable posture, with her arms across her chest. They found shelter in a cove which afforded a good view of Mzuanch and let their guars nibble at the bittergreen vine nearby.

Nerevar, in all conscience, didn’t know what to tell her, and he glanced round, mopping the sweat from his brow, in hope that the answer would come to him.

“So, you haven’t the slightest idea… Fortunately, I have some thoughts I’m willing to share with you,” she teased him. “The tower to our left sustained the most damage and with little effort, we can topple it. I cannot imagine the destruction such a fall can cause to the old buildings.”

“I thought yesterday you were vehemently opposed to my plan.”

Instead of bickering with him, Almalexia called for one of the sorcerers and sought counsel from him. The Hortator told his scouts to take position around the ruin at some distance from each other so that none of what was happening would escape their attention and wait for his signal. Meanwhile Almalexia and her sorcerer conjured up a fireball, but the feeble fires spattered over the dome of the spire and died out, disturbing a few ancient stones and raising a cloud of dust.

The cultists noticed their efforts, and on the sunken bridge manifested two storm atronachs, each like a dark cloud pierced by a myriad of lightnings with a semblance of a savage face. “Archers!” resounded across the soon-to-be battlefield, and the Ashlander scouts hailed down arrows upon the atronachs in steady volleys. But however quickly they took out arrows from their quivers and released them and however precise was their aim, a steel weapon could inflict on the storm giants no graver injury than a bug bite. They heard a peal of distant thunder and the dark clouds crossed the river and moved towards them, like smoke moves or mist, drifting barely above ground. Seeing that the spawns of Oblivion advanced forwards, the Ashlanders switched to enchanted arrows and succeeded in killing one of them, but a flame atronach took its place and on its death, a daedroth. Lightning struck from the clear sky, Nerevar heard a muffled scream and smelled rain in the air with a tinge of charred skin.

A storm giant and a daedroth drew near and dispersed in a rapid advance, having less than fifty paces to surmount under the deadly hail of arrows when Almalexia’s guard lent the Ashlanders a helping hand, and Nerevar drew his sword in anticipation of onslaught. He didn’t get the chance to cross swords with the daedra, for there and then the queen and the sorcerer unleashed their devastating magic from which the ground shook underneath their feet. Nerevar saw the tower lean forward and it was suspended like that for a few moments, during which a visible serpentine crack appeared in the old stones, and the entire structure sank to the side, hastening the collapse of another spire. A part of the inner wall fell across the bridge, and the round leafs of the steel door bent under the crushing weight they weren’t designed to withstand, durable as they were. It was an astonishing and tragic sight to behold. The buildings which stood proudly for many years crumbled, and into the many cracks and crevices water gushed forth, burying the ruins in its gentle embrace.

As Nerevar predicted, the cultists desisted forthwith from any and all attempts to attack them and took flight. They weren’t discreet in their escape and even to the naked eye were visible figures in black as they ran to and fro, trying to elude the vigilant Ashlanders and diligent retainers. Almalexia’s trusted guard caught them and brought them, bound and gagged, to the Hortator. He rummaged through their belongings until he found in a small leather bag tied around the neck of one of the cultists a black object in the shape of a star. He wrapped it in a piece of cloth with care, as if it were fragile or broken.

They didn’t find the dead bodies until Almalexia discovered a gap in the wall which was rapidly filling with water and through it they saw many corpses in rags or utterly naked as they slowly sank to the place of their final rest.

***

A mortal’s curiosity is a midwife to enigma, but a god’s inquisitiveness is a flash of lightning.

Dagoth Ur understands everything at once, in an instant of brilliant awakening from the not-a-dream of the gods where he existed, nailed to the Tower with forty-four nails. He sees the Wheel of Aurbis in its furious and soulless revolution – the misty plains of Aetherius, the fretful sea of Oblivion, the soul-flesh of Lorkhan, and the eye of Nirn. The wheel conceals an eternity within its elegant lines, the hub – selfishness and frailty. Dagoth Ur feels the sparks of souls of his unfortunate kin, scattered about the lands of Tamriel; the Song calls for them, but they, too, create the Song: a thousand voices united as one. They roam mindlessly and call for him – WHERE ARE YOU, LORD? I cannot hear you…. SPEAK to me! PLEASE! – and when the time comes (or it has already come and faded away), he will receive them back into the fold.

The lone herder walks among them – a flicker of hungering light so different from the rest of them. He carries upon him an imprint of divinity, the Heart’s blessing. It was a splendid accident, a whim of fierce fate, Dagoth Ur thinks.

His thought is a quiet thrumming of a new life.

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** The cipher used in this chapter to encode the message is Vigenere cipher, same one used to encode the message to Caius Cosades.

***Ava ae Tok, Ha’naan ae Sul – Open your Hand, Pledge your Soul (Velothi); ‘hanin’ in chapter 3 literally means ‘sworn brother/sister’ and decribes a particular close replationship between nobles from different Houses which weren’t bound by marriage

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