CHAPTER VII: ONLY BY FATE

Voryn time and again regretted that his private chambers didn’t have windows, even if all he could lay eyes upon was mesmerizing in its monotony land of ash and stone, even if the light permeated through a narrow chink in the impregnable walls in meager streaks like timid caresses of the mythical father-god. On some days, he abhorred the stuffy air and the ever-present smell of thick-layered book dust, and the blinking of magelights which some apprentice or the other forgot to clean and relight. In his childhood, he rarely returned to his room, preferring, to his father’s chagrin, to sleep on the Temple roof. Under the starlit sky, he would dream of this, that and the other, while his brothers acted their age, getting themselves into trouble for stealing father’s potions, for hunting alit in an ash storm, for reckless brawls in skooma dens and professing infatuation – was it Vemyn? – to a captain of the Nordic garrison stationed at Kogoruhn. He was satisfied to spend his days stealing sweets from the kitchens and sneaking onto the rooftop at night, unenterprising and unimpressive in every way except for his aptitude for magical arts, so much so that his mother said once that no Dagoth noble before him was born with magic running so thick in his veins. His family had high expectations for him, but his father despised all schools of magecraft in equal measure and decried his talents, frequently remarking that he would rather see him grow up a rogue than a sorcerer.

For three months he didn’t hear a word from the Hortator; the silence was tiring, the wait was maddening, and Voryn lost hope to receive Nerevar’s verdict, however favorable or adverse, before the celebration of chil’a. Gurak stood behind his table like a shadow, awaiting his orders, and there were a few trifling disputes demanding his attention, but Voryn dipped his quill into the inkwell with but one concern on his mind: what to say in his next letter to the Hortator that he hadn’t already said. And so, he wrote:

My lord Hortator,

It dismays me to hear nothing from you for months. Did I inadvertently, with some careless deed or offensive word, incur your displeasure? I wrote to you about my brother Gilvoth, about the unfortunate circumstances in which we found ourselves, but I have yet to receive confirmation from you that you know about any of it and intend to declare your verdict soon. I tire to death of waiting. I want to observe the law and demonstrate respect of our traditions, and I want to do right by you, but without your assistance I can hardly hope for a peaceful resolution?

My brothers grow impatient, too. They look at me for answers and the longer I dilly-dally, the less faith I inspire in them. What changed since our last conversation? Please, write back soon.

Always your most loyal servant,
Voryn Dagoth.

When Voryn read the last lines aloud, they sounded awfully a lot like begging or some other kind of self-disparagement unbecoming to a proud ruler of an ancient House and he scratched them out with such force that the sharp tip of the quill tore the thick paper and the ink spilled on the table.

“Gurak, clean it up,” he whispered beside himself with ire.

The Orc wiped the table and brought him a stack of fresh yellowy paper. Voryn rewrote the letter from a piece of paper mangled up in his futile struggle with his passions onto a new crispy sheet, omitting the last few lines, which after he had given them thought, read like this:

What changed since our last conversation? I am awaiting a letter from you in good faith.

Voryn Dagoth.

Voryn signed the letter in vigorous strokes, hurrying to put an end to his unexpected torment, and entrusted it to his servant who folded it twice and impressed his seal on hot dreugh wax. Heaving a sigh of relief, he rose from his seat and explained to Gurak that he wanted the letter delivered on the following day and into the Hortator’s own hands.

“May I say something, sera?” asked Gurak afterwards.

“If you want to ask me about the letter, I’m not certain what’s there to talk about.”

“No, it’s not the letter… You haven’t been quite yourself lately, sera, and it is my duty as a faithful servant to remind you that your odd behavior won’t escape the attention of other nobles who thrive on gossip.”

“I need you in a capacity of a servant, not a confidant,” Voryn cut short his poetic effusions. “Keep your insight into my private life to yourself or I’ll have you whipped.”

“I beg your forgiveness, sera, for my careless words. I didn’t want to anger you.”

Voryn motioned aside and when he heard the door close, he stooped over the table upon which were scattered some pages from volumes on sublimation of void salts and magic geometry, so as not to look at the windowless walls and wring his hands in quiet despair. The uncertainty weighed heavily on him, and his suspicion that Nerevar’s cruel silence was a punishment grew only stronger, gnawing at him with enviable constancy.

‘Three accursed months,’ he thought to himself. ‘Mighty Azura, what have I done to deserve such punishment? Azura-star, merciful mother, the light-that-never-fades…’ He enumerated all titles by which the goddess was known to the Chimer and smiled mockingly, acknowledging to himself the futility of his religious fervor. Then his thoughts took an unexpected turn, as it often happens with thoughts which flash through our minds or linger, disturbing our memory, obtrusive and unwelcome. ‘We of House Dagoth were always outcasts, shunned not because we didn’t believe in our Lady, but because we didn’t obey the implicit laws of the court. We pursued our goals independently from other Houses, taking little interest in their squabbles, ambitions, feuds and our indifference was off-putting to them. They rightly feared us… We are a pillar upon which the throne of Resdayn rests.’ And Voryn concluded the conversation with himself on a more peaceful note. ‘It is easy to dispense love on everyone in utterly favorable circumstances, but how do I on a whim forget about centuries of bloody strife and love them, as he wants me to love them – as though they were my brothers?’

Having spent an entire morning in reflection, Voryn made preparations to visit Odros, but another matter was brought to his attention and he decided, albeit not of his own volition, to postpone the journey. Behind the temple, one of his forefathers built an ossuary under a fancy roof where from that day onward all members of Dagoth family were buried – an eerie despondent place through no fault of the architect’s. In his mind, the tall windows would add charm to the oppressing silence of the sacred place, but he couldn’t imagine that one day there would be more coffins than niches to accommodate them and the old skulls would have to be immured in the walls. When the light shone on the rows of yellow bones, on the empty eye-sockets, the flutter of sunlight spots imparted to them a sinister semblance of life: they seemed to stir and breathe, disturbing the old dust, and rustle, like sand rustles trickling down through an hourglass. When Voryn found himself in the family crypt, the unblinking stare of a few dozens of skulls made him shiver, though he was aware that these mirages were the fruit of his imagination trying to make sense of death in the only way he knew how: to personify it, to array it in familiar words and casuistry.

The family crypt served as the last resting place for the Dagoth nobility for many years, and Voryn’s parents were both buried there. Navam forbade to bury Morin with the rest of their ancestors because he had brought great shame to their House. However, lately the crypt didn’t resemble a peaceful resting place but a wild debauch for ancestral spirits who refused to quiet down, flying about the ossuary and wailing in their frightening hollow voices. One of those fretful spirits was his mother’s, and she refused his summons to the Waiting Door; her behavior bewildered Voryn who knew that the ancestors would not willingly come to the world of the living, describing it on many occasions as cold, bitter and chaotic. Ulvena Dagoth passed away peacefully in her bed, but for a few years before her death she suffered from witbane and in her final hours, she couldn’t remember the names of her sons or their faces. Her spirit remembered them and sometimes she appeared in Voryn’s dreams, luminous, light as the breath of wind on his skin, her eyes a quivering reflection of stars in the bottomless nightly sea.

Ulvena’s spirit returned that morning, and Voryn could not think of any other opportune moment to persuade her to return to Azura’s realm than meet with her face to face there and then. He clothed himself in a warm black robe appropriate for winter season and wrapped himself in a long cloak. Leaning on a long ebony staff out of habit rather than acute need, Voryn made his way to the temple, and he often stopped to marvel at the winter landscape: at the immutable stillness of the shaggy snowdrifts, at the sullen sky and at the sleeping giant of the Red Mountain with a thin wisp of smoke above its crown. The sentries in bonemold armor, so as to warm themselves, lit fires in small braziers and, stomping their feet, sang in their discordant hoarse voices a merry song.

By the stone door to the ossuary, Araynys waited for him, and Voryn assured him that he would talk to their mother, but his words didn’t seem to mollify his brother’s unhappiness. Voryn put a hand on his shoulder, smiled briefly and stepped through the stone door into a dusty room with an arching ceiling and dark walls in which his ancestors were entombed. Withered old mummies, all covered in grime, sat by the walls and in front of them were laid out weapons of ancient design, no less ancient helmets and garments above which hung a shimmering veil of old dust. In the corner, Voryn saw a wraith in a white funereal shroud with her bony little arms lifted to the ceiling in deep lament, and otherworldly chill struck through him when she gazed at him with those inscrutable deep eyes which were more luminous than her ghostly form.

“Voryn, where are you? I can’t see you,” lamented Ulvena’s spirit peevishly.

Voryn came up to her quietly, struggling to keep his presence of mind, though his court tricks were of no use when he communed with the spirits of his ancestors.

“I’m here, mother,” he said emphatically. Ulvena’s spirit heard him, her refulgent form rippled and drew closer, and her fingers touched his cheek, cold, sticky like cobwebs of the Webspinner. “What do you want with me?”

“I demand that you release Navam’s spirit, my dear son. You disgraced him cruelly after his death in a way only someone of your magical talent could disgrace a father who wasn’t all too fatherly in his attitudes towards his sons.”

“Well, say, I refuse, what then?”

“He had suffered enough, don’t you feel it? He is humiliated and mad, more a diseased rat than a dutiful respectable clan spirit, and he suffers every single day of his endless watch. Why can’t he watch over this shrine?” added Ulvena’s wraith with unfeigned sadness.

“He killed you and Morin, and he pursued shameful ambitions. He sullied the honor of our House in a desperate bid to steal crumbs of power for himself.”

“Your brother challenged him and fought honorably, and I died in my bed from a terrible illness. It seems to me that we Velothi, in our hubris of longevity, forget that we are not invincible. We wrench open the gates to Oblivion and summon spirits of our ancestors into the world of the living to pretend that the conquest of death is within our grasp.”

“Even without a weapon he struck you down just the same and Gilvoth, too,” objected Voryn, looking intently at the mummies. “There are events which dispose one to sickness or precipitate the inevitable outcome, and though the culprit cannot be solely blamed for all the incidents and outcomes, his fault is obvious… I should have openly rebelled against him and invaders from Skyrim, I should have thought of unifying all clans and Houses, and I regret deeply that I didn’t have the courage to lead us to victory. Alas, I can but live out my days in admiration and envy of the Hortator’s virtues.”

“Why did you bind your father’s spirit to a shrine in the wilderness?”

“Mother, will you promise me not to haunt the crypt? The ruckus raised by you or by some other spirit frightened my chap’thil. It is expected of the Grandmaster of House Dagoth to set their minds at rest about any troubles in the ancestral tomb.”

“You’ll overjoy me if you answer my question honestly. Then I can leave this world in peace once again.”

“I would never stoop to patricide unless we met on a battlefield or in the Arena and I fairly bested him in combat. I never openly challenged him. I thought it was Morin’s duty to claim the title of the Grandmaster for himself. But I’d never forgive myself if I let him slip away from me in death, if I let him rest from his labors in peace of which he is undeserving. In punishing him harshly, I vindicated my right to be the master of my own fate.” The blood had risen to Voryn’s cheeks, yet his voice was steady, quiet as before.

The wraith pressed her hands against her hollow breast and let out a sorrowful wail; her long ghostly-white hair scattered on her thin shoulders which seemed shaken with soundless sobs, and even though the spirits couldn’t weep – their eyes had long since dried out and their hearts long ago ceased beating – fear crept over Voryn and anguish oppressed his heart.

“I’ll go, my darling. I take no joy in walking this world again and breathing its putrid air,” said Ulvena after a prolonged awkward silence.

With a graceful incline of his head, Voryn said his farewells and, picking up the skirts of his heavy robe, hurried to take leave of his mother.

Araynys, who Mephala only knew why waited outside the temple, looked at him with unspoken reproach, but he didn’t dare ask his older brother about his conversation with the spirit of their mother. In his hands was a tiny bottle with lucid liquid which had a faint glitter, and he insisted Voryn took it.

“Will you see brother Odros soon? I want to give you a little gift for him… a concoction I’ve brewed just now, adhering closely to your lessons.”

“You practiced alchemy alone although I forbade you, explicitly, to touch my tools.” Voryn furrowed his brow. “I didn’t collect expensive ingredients and retorts to have you spoil them with your ignorant fumbling. I’ll take your potion to Odros, but only if you promise me not to trifle with my alchemical apparatus in my absence. Do you give me your word? Well, how can this potion help Odros?”

“My potion alleviates grave fatigue and grants temporarily resistance to serious diseases. You taught me to take two principal ingredients and mix them with two minor ingredients for desired effect. I chose ash yam and pearls -”

“Pearls!” Voryn cried out, making a helpless gesture. “You took my pearls, Malacath damn you!”

“Why, it was you, brother Voryn, who told me that pearls were quite cheap and common.”

“True as it may be, I often find pearls in the abandoned Daedric shrines instead of buying them from those misers who sell them for more than a hundred gold coins. But what if those pearls are cursed? Don’t you know that if you carelessly touch a cursed gem, a dremora lord will spawn and wreak havoc in my private rooms? I’m positively ruined!”

“A dremora lord…” Araynys whispered, stupefied and awestruck.

Voryn’s worst misgivings proved to be right: when Araynys touched one of the cursed pearls, Boethiah’s hungering beast was summoned into the room, but it didn’t attack him outright, displaying insidiousness and intelligence characteristic of most Daedra. It waited until Araynys, overjoyed with his success, ran out of the bedchamber and set about destroying everything within its reach: firstly, stacks of books on the table fell victim to its claws, and the old chairs upholstered in plush; then it ravaged Voryn’s expensive collection of alembics and retorts and fled into the Hall of Phisto where it drew attention of the guards. From the Hall of Phisto into the Hall of Maki, they chased the Hunger and cornered it in the waterway while Voryn stood on the threshold of his devastated bedroom, cursing everyone and the Daedra above all. It seemed to him that a blizzard had not so long ago raged in his room; the bed was littered with white fluff, the heavy chairs and a small table lay overturned, and around them the floor showed white against the dark furniture of expensive wood, strewn with ragged pages from the torn books.

Voryn looked at the devastation with mute horror and soon Araynys joined him, white as sheet, although to him all of it appeared quite incomprehensible.

“Brother, what am I to do?” he asked meekly.

Voryn lifted a wordless prayer of gratitude to Azura for his habit to blow out all candles upon leaving his bedroom and, having entrusted Araynys with mending the retorts and alembics which could still be mended, he glanced over a crowd of servants who thrust themselves in at the doorway. When his wrathful gaze rested on any one of them, they looked away from him and shifted from one foot to another. The Grandmaster had the right and obligation to punish someone, guilty or guiltless, for the injury he suffered with twenty lashes and Araynys, owing to his birthright, couldn’t be flogged or subjected to similar humiliating punishments.

It was an ordinary day in Kogoruhn.

***

A priestess in a worn gray robe knelt on the rime-strewn grass in front of the door to the Daedric shrine and outstretched her arms to the sea which was the same color as the sky – dark blue with white streaks of salt foam. At the first gleam of daylight, a guttural cry escaped her lips and behind her back shadows grew thicker, assuming a form all too familiar to Nerevar: a tall slender woman clothed in mist whose hair were clouds, whose eyes were stars and whose mouth was bliss. Azura’s shadow – it was but a pale image of the goddess invested with none of her overwhelming power, in comparison with which Nerevar felt like a speck of dust on Sotha Sil’s Wheel of Aurbis – touched the obsidian leaf of the door, and the Hortator and to his left a dozen guards from House Indoril, and behind him disorderly ranks of townsfolk prostrated on the ground and cried out ‘Ah-zurah’, calling her by her true name in the hallow language of Veloth. A bright flash of light blinded the Hortator and when the gift of sight returned to him, he could no longer see Azura’s shadow.

The priestess didn’t rise from the ground and seemed to be in a dead faint. The crowd of raggedy townsfolk poured uphill towards the yawning gap of the shrine entrance, but the Indoril guard promptly surrounded the priestess, Vivec and the king, holding off the most zealous of them. Alandro Sul held a Velothi tower shield in front of the Hortator, but Nerevar, recovering from surprise, ordered the guards to sheathe their weapons before blood was spilled, and forced his way through the crowd which tried to part before him but, clamoring, succeeded only in obstructing the road. With some difficulty he squeezed through the multitudes of townspeople who now pressed against him, now backed away, frightful and dumbfounded, and waited until they restored order among themselves. Vivec who rushed to bring the priestess to her senses couldn’t help him.

The silhouettes of the abandoned houses, the coming in of the tide, the first rays of sunlight were so tranquil, so ordinary that it seemed to Nerevar that the placid town would endure into eternity. He endeavored to recede, in his imagination, a few months before the present time and to his astonishment, he remembered little about the battle in Bal Fell, so stark in its monstrosity during its dreadful finale yet so distant now, when he stood on the same spot in front of the shrine and nothing around him reminded him of it. The faces of the dead children haunted him, but he couldn’t say with certainty where he saw them: in Bal Fell, during his desperate attack on Indoranyon, on the Bitter Beach or elsewhere entirely, and some of them he slew with his own hand.

On Vivec’s behest, the priestess of Azura lifted the curse from the shrine in Bal Fell and many villagers from the nearby settlements as well as a few fishermen, who went out into the sea and eluded the grim lot of their kin, flocked to Bal Fell to reclaim the land of their ancestors and their homes. Nerevar sympathized with their sentiment insofar as he could, never having a home until adulthood, and he admired their great tenacity and desire to rebuild, to thrive on ruins if need be. He unexpectedly thought of Voryn, of his home in the inhospitable wilderness, and of the affinity he felt towards the head of House Dagoth who was at times treated as a castaway by other nobles; he wondered why all such reflections were particularly pleasant lately, even in Voryn’s absence, and he fancied how he would win Voryn’s full trust and affection, how he would sway the mind of that intractable mer. Every argument he imagined himself presenting to his old friend was more cogent and appealing than the former, and every new detail of his forthcoming visit to Mournhold all the more exhilarating. The news of Gilvoth’s obscene behavior and the Ashkhan’s refusal to compromise with Voryn was the only dark stain on that idyllic picture, but Nerevar put all such thoughts out of his mind until chil’a.

The Hortator shivered with cold and breathed on his hands, returning his attention to the crowd. The townsfolk huddled together with confused expressions on their faces marked with age, disease, and hard labor, and he didn’t feel that he inspired them with awe or profound reverence towards the royal authority.

“Brave people of Vvardenfell,” Nerevar addressed them, spreading his arms wide, “I am immeasurably grateful for your indomitable spirit which prevailed in these dire times. Azura blessed us, giving us knowledge and tools to ensure that we celebrate another victory today – a victory whose importance I cannot overstate! We demonstrate to the King of Rape time and time again that he frightens us, but he cannot dampen our rebellious spirit, and in this splendid victory you played a significant role. Our land was never hospitable. It met us with droughts, with fire and ash. But we always persevered because we love our land, and today, as you return to the place where you’ve witnessed horrors of slaughter, you act out of great love.”

His speech didn’t earn Nerevar any acclamation. The mer stared at him with incredulity, but such chilly response to his words didn’t faze him. His words were met with a hearty response or clods of dirt, and he grew accustomed to distancing himself from the audience so that he would, in spite of any and all vicissitudes of life, remain in a magnanimous frame of mind. The Hortator called for Alandro Sul, whispered something into his ear, and flashed an unconcerned smile at the mistrustful crowd. “I feel deep sympathy for your eagerness to return to your homes, but I’ll ask you to wait a little longer until we can assure you in good faith that Molag Bal’s servants are dead and that the shrine poses no danger to the settlement. Meanwhile, my faithful guard will provide you with warm clothes and fresh food.”

The elated exclamations were scarce, but Nerevar didn’t linger about to observe their reaction. Drawing his fiery sword, he dove into the darkness which no longer had a sinister aspect to it. Alandro Sul was armed to the teeth with an axe, two daggers and a light Velothi tower shield, and he somehow contrived to carry a torch. In the uneven circle of light from his torch, Nerevar saw the reddish-brown stains of dried blood which had all but faded away, broken rusty weapons and enormous brown rats, hurrying and scurrying about the shrine. They didn’t go through the central passage but chose a shorter way down the steep stairs which seemed to be carved from solid blocks of stone.

“How can you explain rats, Alandro?” Nerevar said, concentrating on the flow of magical energies around him. The tips of his fingers tingled with cold. “How do they fit in the grand design of the et’ada and Lorkhan? Were they weak spirits cursed for their weakness? Did Lorkhan punish these spirits to roam Tamriel for all eterminty in this wretched form?”

“No animal is useless, my lord. My Ashkhan often told me not to underestimate the design of our divine ancestors. If we can’t understand it in its entirety, we shouldn’t judge it hastily.” Alandro Sul stooped over something in the darkness and let out a quiet gasp. There were two skeletons sprawled clumsily on the stairs. The bones, which were wrapped in motley rags, still bore traces of flesh and for the lack of other scavengers in the shrine, it had to be the work of rats. Nerevar approached the nameless remains which were once a tall Chimer and an Argonian, searching his mind for a face or a name of a retainer who had an Argonian shield-bearer.

“All rats surely are useless! Look at these poor sods. Where did they come from?”

“I don’t know, but maybe rats serve as food for the nix hounds and they scavenge what would otherwise rot… I’m sure our ancestors had some use for them.”

“We should have burnt all bodies.” Nerevar opened his palm and, with a flick of wrist, threw a bunch of thin ice needles at a loathsome brown rat which ran by him. It tumbled down and fell dead. “But, say, do you remember anyone with an Argonian shield-bearer?”

“Lizardfolk? I can’t say I remember anyone by that description, my lord.”

They went on to cross the enormous hall, their steps echoing loudly under the barrel vault, and as they drew near the obsidian door where Vivec found Voryn, the Hortator remembered the sobering fear which overcame him on seeing his friend’s blood-spattered body leaning against the wall, his head resting on his shoulder as if he had fallen asleep. On the floor were scattered pieces of thick dark chains which once anchored the Oblivion gate to Mundus. An enormous head from gray stone, baring its teeth in a greedy sneer, lay on the floor lifeless and brooding. During the struggle it broke off from the statue of Molag Bal which now loomed in the faint gleams of torchlight without its head and its right arm, ridiculous rather than terrifying.

Before they returned to the surface, they ransacked the lower caverns where macabre rituals have been performed for many days, but nothing seemed to them amiss, and the altar, the cages on a rusty chain, and the instruments of torture remained undisturbed. Luminous mushrooms grew around the altar, sprinkled with glittering rime. Cold wind howled and shrieked through the crevices of the cave, playing with the feeble pale flame of the torch. That awful blackness which weighed upon them many months ago parted before them willfully, subsided, scattered, and around them stretched an ordinary cave, solemn and silent and besprinkled with snow-dust.

Vivec caught up with them and joined them in their futile search. They didn’t know what they would find in that cave, though it was worth taking another look at it in case they missed something.

“Any news on Favela’s death, Vivec?” Nerevar asked him. “What do your spies say? Was she poisoned?”

“Can’t we talk about anything pleasant? Flowers, breeze, dreugh meff?”

“Dreugh meff is revolting.”

“Sil likes my stories about the dreugh!” Vivec aimlessly threw the snow around himself. “There’s nothing here. I’m feeling cold and hungry… I haven’t heard anything about Favela if you must know, but I suspect it’s not a happy tale. It’s twisted and wrong, but no one’s willing to talk about it.” His head sank down upon his breast. “The priestess thinks Azura cleansed the shrine, but you can’t get rid of the stench of death. It’s a tomb now. It makes me sick.”

“Vivec, will you calm down, please? It’s just a cave. No ghosts -”

“Oh, for Mephala’s sake, Nerevar. Why did you have to say it? I’m sure it’s haunted.”

“Since when is a Chimer afraid of a couple -”

“Wait! I think I found something.” Nerevar stooped over the altar, reaching for an object which attracted his attention, and when he drew himself up, on his palm lay a shimmering soul gem of the same color as the corrupted Star, but when he clenched his fingers around it, the brittle gem shattered into little pieces which crumbled and slipped through his fingers like sand. “How did we miss it before?”

“All soul gems are rather small and easy to pass by, and we didn’t know what to look for,” said Alandro Sul. “It goes against everything we’ve been taught. My Ashkhan said that men and mer may succumb to evil, and they deserve punishment for their crimes. But he considered all soul magic abhorrent, even the use of the souls of wild animals. I don’t think anyone knows what happens to the soul of a mortal which was once trapped inside one of these gems.”

“How vile!” Vivec wrinkled his nose.

The priestess followed them at some distance, muttering unfamiliar incantations, and Nerevar beckoned her to look at the remains of a soul gem.

“Voryn told me that Azura tried to hide some evil secret from prying eyes, and all I find is this black soul gem. What can a mere moral such as I understand by looking at it?”

“Many of us covet power, Champion,” said the priestess. “But the goddess said: the time hasn’t come yet. The world cannot know, until it is fated to know, the secrets of sacred metamorphosis from life to death to un-death.”

“She hasn’t been very forthcoming with me.”

“Is she ever forthcoming, Champion?”

And the priestess resumed weaving the web of her mysterious spell.

***

The art of enchanting a scroll required patience, precision, and a profound understanding of the laws of magic. A piece of parchment was spread out on the table and held in place by four paper weights. The paper weighs reflected the tastes and whims of the sorcerer; they could be made from ebony, brass, pristine glass or clay, molded or cast into many different shapes as simple as cubes or pyramids and as intricate as animals, daedric beasts, or figurines of the Three Good Princes. A special brush and handmade ink were used to painstakingly inscribe the incantation on the parchment in Daedric script. Before the general rules of spellcasting were introduced and accepted by the guilds, enchanters came up with their own wording, and it wasn’t uncommon for the scrolls to be written in florid or downright preposterous styles. The success of the enchantment was determined by the sorcerer’s skill and the size of the soul gem, but the caster had to read the incantation aloud for the scroll to work, and certain ingenious enchanters enjoyed humiliating and tormenting their inexperienced customers by inscribing pompous love poetry or particularly asinine pamphlets about their competitors.

Odros wasn’t one of those enchanters. His incantations were laconic and elegant, and he enjoyed the craft very deeply and sincerely. Though his disposition was naturally calm, stern, and harsh, he endeavored to please others with his magic more often than he partook in petty faultfinding. When Voryn arrived, his brother sat at a low wide table, assiduously working on a levitation scroll, and a few pieces of parchment covered in blots of ink testified to the extent of his concentration and frustration. The walls of his study room were hung with tapestries of fine fabric depicting flowery ornaments and tranquil rural scenery: two huts on a riverbank, a tiny wooden bridge buried in the verdure of saltrice fields, and a small guar caravan accompanied by travelers in overlarge straw hats. The window opened out into the sea which was steely-gray and calm. The heavy fog rolled in from the mountains at dawn, and the seaside village seemed inhabited by shadows.

A little girl sat by Odros’s side – tall for a child of barely nine, light-skinned, blue-eyed, with a mop of unruly bright-red hair which better suited a daughter of a noble family from the south rather than a child of Dagoth blood. Ralla inherited it from her mother who belonged to House Redoran before she married the heir of House Dagoth and left Balmora to live in Kogoruhn as the ancient custom demanded. After Morin’s defeat, Navam intended to poison the widow, but Odros saved her by offering her a hand in marriage, though the wicked tongues gossiped that he had loved her before she was promised to his brother and she had reciprocated his affections.

While her father was inscribing a scroll, Ralla was engrossed in carving a pipe stem from a bamboo reed, now and again putting it to her lips and puffing out her cheeks to imitate the way the adults smoked. Children often mimic the people around them, beset by a marvelous curiosity; everything is a miracle to them, an enigma to be watched with rapt attention. The smallest, silliest things contain the most unfathomable mysteries, and enigmas which puzzle the most forward-looking thinkers are shrugged off with unconcern. A child does not see herself as a tiny part of the vast, unaccountable universe around her, but the universe as distant and immaterial, and important only insofar as it concerned her.

When she saw Voryn, Ralla ran up to him and hugged his leg. “Uncle Voryn, uncle Voryn, did you bring me something?”

“No, sorry, I got nothing for you. I won’t stay long. I’ll have a word with your father and I’ll be on my way.”

 “You’re no fun.” She tried to keep the sullen expression, but in a few moments, she relented and grinned from ear to ear. “You promised to show me how to freeze water with your mind. It’s what gods do with the sea at winter, I think. And you said you’d bring me one of those weird magical crystals or magical stones -”

“They’re called alanits. It’s a mere toy for a powerful wizard, but some students of magic find them useful to attune their minds to the flow of magical energies. They glow brighter in some places where powerful magic was performed and the barriers with Aetherius or Oblivion grew weaker, like ancient Velothi towers and cemeteries.” Voryn grimaced in mock horror.

“They’re creepy. But I want one of those! I really want it!”

“It’s not chil’a yet, Ralla,” said Odros. He put down the brush and fondly watched his daughter pester Voryn for favors and gifts.

“Chil’a is for little girls, and I’m all grown-up now. I get what I want whenever I want.”

“She’s quite a handful,” said Odros after Ralla left the room with the servant girl who took her to her writing lessons. “It took me a while to convince her to stop mangling words. She told me that she didn’t like the word ‘really’. She thought it sounded better as ‘leery’. She’d say: ‘I want to grow up leery tall.’ It was awful.”

Voryn recounted a few rumors from the capital and complained to him about the Hunger which was let loose in his bedroom – it was a polite meaningless brotherly talk until the conversation touched upon Gilvoth.

“Did you speak to Gilvoth lately?” asked Odros.

“Do you want to know the truth? I’m deliberately avoiding him because nothing good ever came out of our conversations. He expects me to release him from prison and ask his forgiveness for wrongfully punishing him – the scamp! A clever scamp.”

“And did you receive any word from the Hortator? Any word at all?”

“I don’t understand why he isn’t answering me. I’m sure Dun-Ilu wrote his letters,” confessed Voryn. “He was very adamant about writing to Nerevar.”

“You must meet with him at once and demand an answer from him. Here’s what I want to tell you. It was wise of you to call us together and duly advise us on the matter of Gilvoth’s fate, but time won’t wait for you and you must act soon. Vemyn and I thought of a neat solution should your Hortator fail to announce his decision… You can disown Dagoth-Gilvoth, strip him of his family name and even exile him if you wish. An exile cannot cast a shadow on the reputation of House Dagoth. And when he serves his sentence, we’ll welcome him back with open arms if he demonstrates genuine repentance.”

“Only if I exhaust all arguments and the Hortator still won’t listen to me… only then I’ll consider your suggestion.”

“If you don’t want to stir up unrest, you’ll have to announce your decision soon.” Odros folded the levitation scroll and tied it with a red ribbon. “You’d be more popular with the nobles if you let Gilvoth go. Is the fate of one Ashlander girl more important to you than the unity of our House? Mind you, I don’t think you shouldn’t punish him, but a clan bond defies all laws.”

“Oh, Odros, how near-sighted you can be!” Voryn was filled with indignation at his brother. “Gilvoth challenged the law of our land. If you side with him, the Ashlanders will declare war on us, and every thrice-damned fetcher who is scheming to weaken us insidiously will join them. It’s not about that poor girl. And Gilvoth… did he think about us? He acts in his own self-interest, and you indulge his vagaries and depravities for some nonsensical reasons. I can’t stand it!”

“I understand, brother Voryn, that it’s a difficult choice. But if you don’t adopt a subtle approach, you’ll suffer, too. The House nobles will decide that after the sentence is passed upon Gilvoth, you’ll seek to punish them for every imaginary instance of misconduct.”

Voryn’s anger dissipated. “I’ll get an answer from the Hortator,” he said, stiffly. “I’ll beg him for an answer if I have to. But my brother’s folly won’t be used to excuse bloodshed.”       

***

Kragenmoor was the sister city to Mournhold and Ebonheart in name only.

When Nerevar and his shield-bearer Alandro Sul emerged from the temple where they have teleported after a few unsuccessful attempts, they saw the familiar abundance of houses, wide more than they were high, under the squat roofs with curved eaves. There were no streets as such in Kragenmoor and the buildings were erected in a disorderly manner – Telvanni towers alternated with a the remaining few wooden and brick houses of the Nords and the three-storeyed abodes of Dres nobility under the curved roofs which overhung the walls – resembling all in all a gigantic labyrinth more than this accumulation of architectural marvels resembled a city; and that labyrinth grew and swelled according to its own laws, becoming more disorderly with each newly built house. Between the houses the ground was paved here and there with stone, yet often the winding roads and alleys were uneven, rutty and muddy. The thin guard towers divided the city into six districts, and large caps of snow on their roofs made them visible from afar. Under the windows of the guard towers, hung particolored heraldic tapestries which were once bright and cheerful, and now appeared faded and torn, subjected frequently to the whims of foul weather.

Kragenmoor was a free city long before Nerevar united the Ashlander tribes and the Chimer nobility, but Almalexia gifted it to the head of House Dres who aided her in overthrowing the Nordic dominion over Mournhold and Nerevar, not wishing to rake over the old ashes, supported the claim of House Dres to annex the city to their lands. Needless to say, his decision upset Galmis Hlaalu who dreamed and schemed to extend his influence onto the mainland. After Favela’s death, Galmis petitioned the Hortator for the fifth time to reconsider giving Kragenmoor to the new head of House Dres, but Nerevar, in an outburst of anger, tore the petition into pieces and burned them. He’d never forswear himself for some wretched promise of support from his old enemy and he made it clear on quite a few occasions that his decision was final.

The edifice dedicated to the worship of Boethiah was impressive yet doomed to appear awkward like any other building which combined elements of Nordic and Telvanni architecture – a ridiculous oddity at best, an inconceivable monstrosity at worst. Over thick walls made of wide logs rose to the colorless sky three twisted towers, like gnarled branches of wild trees, and there was no sense of proportion or orderliness about it, so highly valued in Velothi architecture. The temple garden was overgrown with bright-red mushroom trees which thrived in cold winter, and in the corner of it was a small frozen lake where the priests and priestesses came out to pray. One of Boethiah’s priests rose from his knees to greet the esteemed guests, and Nerevar asked him to show them the way to the castle through the maze in which they would surely lose their bearings. It wasn’t uncommon for a mer who lived in Kragenmoor since birth to lose his bearings in the city, to say nothing of a guest or a traveler. The priest confidently led them between houses, distinguishing between them somehow, through slush and mud, uphill and downhill, past the rare passersby whom the biting frost didn’t scare off the streets, chattering incessantly about the cold weather, about Dres sisters who visited Kragenmoor, about temple life, about some one thing and the other. Priesthood didn’t suit the eager young mer like him, and it seemed to Nerevar that he didn’t choose a life of service to the Daedric Princes but like many children, he was sent to the temple by the poor parents who wished for a better life for their son or by the noble parents who wished to rid themselves of a nuisance.

“What do they call you?” Nerevar asked.

“My name is insignificant, m’lord Hortator.” His question put the priest to the blush.

“No, I insist. Tell me your name.”

“My name is Ovis, Ovis Arobar.”

“Ovis, what happened to Boethiah’s temple?”

“I can’t say, m’lord. I hear it was the old Jarl’s joke. His voice magic was so powerful that he managed to destroy the old Temple with a few Shouts. And when the aggrieved nobles and commoners demanded that he rebuilt their place of worship, he called for a Nord architect and tasked her with designing a Temple that would be regarded as a symbol of a new era. And when she finished the design, he called for a prominent Telvanni enchanter and told him to ‘slap a few mushroom towers on top of it’… That’s what Vess, the oldest priestess, told me.”  

By the gate to the squat castle, they parted company and a guard invited the Hortator and his shield-bearer into the audience chamber while he went to fetch the hostess. The room was well-lit and cozy, with a tall window which afforded a view of the city, a bookshelf, three wooden tables and twice as many cushioned chairs around them. Nerevar glanced out of the window at the overcast firmament and as he turned to speak to his shield-bearer, he became aware that they were not alone. By one of the tables sat none other than Galmis Hlaalu himself.

Galmis was the oldest member of the Council and Nerevar’s staunch enemy, the roots of their enmity going back to the day when Nerevar announced his bold ambition to unite all Houses under one banner. Galmis screamed himself hoarse, protesting the formation of the First Council, and since that day, he often joked that the name itself implied that there would be a second and a third council and ‘who knows what other sort of council or perhaps no council at all’. And he added that he would ally himself with ‘the Nords, the good Daedra and the bad Daerda’ to safeguard their traditions which were passed down through generations from the times when Saint Veloth set foot on Vvardenfell. He was tall, broad-shouldered, and imposing, and he had a booming loud voice becoming of his ruddy vigorous figure. His face was all covered in wrinkles which were particularly pronounced around his small, deep-set, merry eyes and on his forehead. He wore his beard thick and well-trimmed, and he had a habit of pinching it during a heated conversation although outwardly he would appear as imperturbable as ever.

“Greetings, serjo,” he said, bowing his stately silver head. “What brings you to Kragenmoor? Favela’s funeral was two months ago, ancestors bless her soul.”

“I could ask you the same question,” answered Nerevar, shaking off snow from his fur cloak, and seated himself on a chair. “Favela’s death was most unfortunate. She died suddenly, leaving no intelligible will to determine her successor, and before the Dres Council votes, there can remain only two challengers. Both Dinara and Uvoo would like to contest the inheritance of their late mother’s wealth and her standing in the court as the head of House Dres.”

“Uvoo and Dinara… Do you think the fickle support of a young inexperienced girl in the Grandmaster’s seat will benefit you more than my concessions?”

“Why, you’re so far ahead of me, serjo Galmis. I don’t have the gift of foresight to predict the choice of the Dres Council. I only wish to observe our sacred tradition. Boethiah demands blood on chil’a, and blood will be spilled in a combat to the death. And if Boethiah is pleased, she may bless us and give us an edge in the fight against Molag Bal we so desperately need.”

“Everyone makes bets in this game, serjo. But mark my words that I will put an end to your frivolities. Firstly, you shut the gates of Mournhold, interrupting the flow of trade. Then you allow an ordeal by combat, which isn’t in itself unheard of. But the Dres sisters were clearly chosen by you, or maybe Vivec chose them for you so that the next head of House Dres ends up deeply indebted to you. You cannot single-handedly decide who will be the next head of a Great House.”

“My reasons for shutting the gates of Mournhold don’t concern you. Challenge my decision during the Council sitting if you want, but I’m afraid you’ll lose.”

“Do humor me, my lord,” boomed Galmis, pinching his beard. “Why will I lose?”

“Have you heard about an attack on Bal Fell?”

“Only a few ghastly rumors.”

“What we discovered in Mzuanch supports our misgivings. It’s a cult of Molag Bal… We’re in a bit of an awkward predicament. My dear queen and I took up arms at once when we learned of a looming threat of a bloodthirsty Daedric cult, and for those campaigns we paid from our treasury. And they were costly campaigns… Ashlanders responded to my call to arms and lord Voryn Dagoth, but few nobles were as eager to spend their gold and join me in defending our land. What am I to do with them?”

“Of course, it had to be that ill-bred rascal Dagoth! He’s your shadow these days. Forgive me if I don’t show the same zeal for your foolish expeditions. I sleep good at night, knowing that no foul cult threatened my House kin.”

“No, you stayed in your clanstead, guarding your wealth,” Nerevar said scornfully and his face was convulsed with anger. “You always had clever reasons to explain your cowardice and greed. Even the blasphemy of the Dwemer… You’re afraid your profits will suffer if I allow them to set up trade outposts. Honor, tradition mean nothing to you!”

Galmis leapt to his feet, turning red with rage, but at that moment, the old door by the bookshelf opened with a loud creak and Dinara Dres came in, accompanied by an obliging slave girl. She had a full pretty face and strong well-groomed hands, accustomed to wielding maces and crude clubs. Some time ago she was rumored to have in her possession the legendary Mace of Molag Bal which was gifted to her by the Prince of Domination for the slaughter of an Argonian family in the Black Marsh who provoked his wrath. Her cordial greeting interrupted their impassioned argument, and Nerevar took leave of Galmis until the coming Council meeting when they would doubtlessly quarrel again.

***

After the conversation with his brother, Voryn was imbued with a sense of urgency and he headed for Mournhold after he sent a brief message to Vemyn. Hopping between Temples, it took him less than a day to reach the capital city. The mood was celebratory, and people flooded the streets, crowded the bazaar, and nearly besieged the main Temple, coming and going in a hurry.

After an excruciatingly long day of receiving guests, petitioners, and overseeing preparations for the feast, Nerevar was in his bedchamber alone, reclining in his chair with a bottle of wine in his hand, and his handsome profile came into view against the soft colors of the dying winter evening. His eyes were riveted on something in the distance, his face was immovable, and a wine glass stood on the table forgotten. By the glass lay a piece of paper on which, in large intelligible letters, the Hortator wrote a sentence or a poem and forgot about it, too.

“It is only by fate

that any life ends,

and only by chance

that it is mine…

not yours.”

“What is the fate of Chimer civilization?” Nerevar said, addressing no one, and Voryn, standing by the tapestry with prophet Veloth, was afraid to stir. “What do you hear in the whispers of twilight, mighty Azura? I often thought why Boethiah chose us and I can’t understand… Did she choose us because we craved her wisdom, or did she choose us because we were gullible, ready to be deceived by a false Trinimac?” Nerevar fixed his eyes on him, recognizing him and smiling warmly. “Ah, Voryn, old friend, come in. Perhaps you can help me solve this riddle.” And he put his finger on the first line of the odd poem.

“What’s it about?”

“I saw it in a book long ago, or maybe I heard it from Azura in Moonshadow. What does this inscription mean?”

Voryn impatiently waved his hand. “I didn’t seek audience with you to solve your riddles. Chil’a is not far off and I still haven’t heard from you. Not one word! Why I didn’t you respond to my letters?”

“The Dres nobles almost declared war on each other after Favela’s death.” Nerevar drained his glass. “Someone had to prevent them from slaughtering the entire city of Kragenmoor.”

“And what of me? If only that scoundrel Dun-Ilu didn’t take it into his head to write you!”

“Here, have a glass of wine. I insist… It’s all politics, Voryn. Nothing is more true or grievous. The Ahemmusa Ashkhan wants to demonstrate to the House nobles that his influence exceeds yours. He wants to make an unequivocal statement. It’s a difficult task, but not altogether impossible. All he needs is a perfect crime, forgive my expression; a crime a House khan commits in front of everyone and a perfect witness who was sworn not to lie… Have another glass of wine. Chil’a is tomorrow and everything is permitted when the old year dies.”

“What are you saying?”

“Your ungracious brother Gilvoth unwittingly committed a perfect crime in front of a perfect witness and the Ashkhan took this opportunity to advance his interests.”

“Did he write all of this in his letter?”

“No, he didn’t have to write anything. I took a guess, but I am sure my guess was right. When I demanded that the heads of Six Houses named me Hortator, I seized upon every favorable opportunity. Opportunities are worth more than gold… Do you know how I became Hlaalu Hortator?”

“I can’t imagine Galmis agreed to it, nor can I imagine that you begged for his permission.”

“Galmis’s mother had a taste for young mer. And it was all very harmless, mind you. She enjoyed their company and their flattery, and occasionally there were rumors that she took younger lovers. We quickly found a common tongue… We didn’t talk for more than an hour before she saddled me like an ‘untamed guar’ – her words, not mine – and began her wild dance of passion, her mature breasts bobbing up and down, and between her portly thighs I thought to myself: ‘Well, Nerevar, if you don’t die today, victory is as good as yours.’ I tried to tell her in this very thin voice about some ideas of mine… I was very proud of my ideas, you know. But she only squealed in delight and her breasts bobbed more vigorously. She was an admirable woman and I miss her terribly… In the morning, she went in front of the Hlaalu Councilors and proclaimed in good set terms: ‘If you do not name him Hortator, I will disown you, Galmis.’ And without further ado, I was named Hlaalu Hortator.” Nerevar laughed to his heart’s content and, wiping tears from his eyes, added: “Imagine Galmis’s face when hiss mother said she’d disown him… I think he never forgave me for that or perhaps it was for some other offense I caused him. Don’t you have this impression sometimes that there are mer with whom you are not fated to get along, that there is a force in the world superior to any magics which governs our interactions… I’m not sure what I meant to say, but our characters are irreconcilable, so much so that when we are in the same room, our opinions will inevitably clash.”

“Allow me to say, with undue boldness, that some mythical forces are not to blame here. Galmis Hlaalu doesn’t have a bone of ingenuity in his body, nor does he have it in him to appreciate your imagination. To such a mer nothing appears so dangerous as unorthodox thinking.”

“You flatter me, old friend.”

“No, I speak the honest truth,” objected Voryn. “I would never spend the night with someone like Galmis’s mother. The resemblance between her and Galmis was uncanny.”

They both laughed and a comfortable silence settled over them, but Voryn didn’t come to Mournhold to exchange pleasantries or talk about the good old days. He summoned up his courage and said:

“I assume you have made up your mind and you’ll allow the proceedings to take place.”

“I haven’t made up my mind, but I am inclined to appease the Ashlanders. They’ve always been staunch valuable allies.”

“And have I not been loyal to you?”

Nerevar looked at him with his bottomless, rapturous eyes. “You’ve been a friend to me, not merely an ally… Allies are fickle, and you’ll understand… you must understand that I can’t accomplish miracles…” His voice trailed off. 

“Your friendship comes at a great cost to my honor, lord Nerevar,” said Voryn bitterly.

Nerevar impulsively took his hand and drew close to him – he was dead drunk by then although he kept his composure well. Voryn ascribed blame to himself for what happened after that. He should have excused himself, but he waited like a fool, looking into those rapturous eyes and refusing to believe that it was Nerevar on his knees in front of his chair, that Nerevar’s hand was convulsively clutching his hand and his fingers fumbled with the silk laces of his breeches. He fancied he saw Mephala, her nude muscular torso with six arms, her enormous erect phallus – Mephala the Webspinner, dancing, celebrating, jeering at him from the shadows on the wall.

It was madness, and though Voryn wished to be mad on the eve of chil’a when all was allowed, the mere thought of surrendering to his fervent desires terrified him out of his wits. He wanted it for so long that he convinced himself it would never come to pass. Dreams that he held dear became distant, illusions waned. His spirit ached and ailed, and melancholy made his heart grow numb. The love that was meant to soar, to set him free became a gentle, wretched thing shackled to the ground under his feet.

Why didn’t he trample it down? Why did he give it just enough light to keep it from withering?

Voryn raised his trembling hand to Nerevar’s temple, whispered a few words, and between his fingers flashed a tiny bright spark; and when the spark was swallowed by the night, Nerevar’s head fell on his knees. He was in a deep sleep like a newborn child. 

Voryn leaned back in his chair; his eyes fell on an unseemly protrusion in his breeches and he burst out laughing.

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