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Sleeper in the Cave

Chapter Text

I was dreaming.

Most people cannot tell when they are dreaming, and I admit I am usually inexcusably lax when it comes to this matter as well. Why, just a few weeks ago I had dreamt of being Archmage of the Mages' Guild and ordering all my underlings to pick cats from trees when they were ripe because we needed new apprentices... and not realised the impossible nature of it all until after I'd woken up. Shameful! However, this time there were several things that led me to cleverly deduce I was, in fact, asleep and my current situation a product of my subconscious mind.

First of all, I was in the middle of a mountain range, looking at a large volcano. The ground was grey and ashy, the only vegetation twisted trees, black branches grasping at the sky. Lava pools dotted the landscape, giving the whole scene an eerie glow.

Now, although it all looked rather fantastic I was perfectly happy to accept this place might exist somewhere, but my presence in it was another matter. I should not be seeing anything except my own personal cell in the Imperial City prison, and very occasionally my jailer - much though I'd rather forget that sight. Let me just say the sloppy gruel I was served twice a day, with its unidentifiable lumps and disturbing tendency to seem to move every time I looked away, was infinitely more attractive and charismatic. And although I'd told him I'd appreciate a change of decor, I'd more been thinking of wallpaper and maybe a potted plant.

Secondly, the sky was red. And by that I don't mean some poetic exaggeration of a sunset - the entire sky was a bright, vivid, uniform crimson. It looked as if someone had spilled a sea of blood among the stars. Wisps of grey clouds raced across it, forming strange patterns. For a moment, I thought I saw a face, screaming...

Apparently, I'd been so occupied keeping my track of my conscious thoughts that I'd sorely neglected my unconscious. If it was going to throw blood skies and clouds in agony at me, we were definitely going to have to have a talk.

Lastly...

I looked down. Several hundred feet below me, a tree looked as if it was about to rip itself out of the ground and hunt unwary passersby for dinner.

If I could fly, I really thought I would have noticed that earlier.

"You know," I said out loud, "If I'm going to dream, I would like to dream about something pleasant. Something like... Summerset Isle." I'd seen a drawing of it in a book once and been struck by the beauty. "Although I suppose it must be full of snooty Altmer. Or I could dream about managing a daring escape from prison underneath the guards' noses. Or... I know! A secret tunnel built into my cell and a bunch of... Blades, yes, Blades need to use it, and I escape behind them." That seemed the right sort of incredibly improbable fantasy for a dream.

I closed my eyes, focussed on the image of the wall of my cell swinging back and a group of Blades and... why not, if you're going to fantasise you might as well do it properly... the Emperor dashing through it. Opened them again.

Volcano.

I shook my head at it sadly. "This really won't do, you know. You seem to be misunderstanding something here - I'm the one that makes the rules. I'm sure you're a very nice volcano, but I'd like to see daring escapes. This is my dream and I don't hold with rebellion."

"Your dream?"

I shrieked.

The voice was just a sibilant whisper, but it seemed to be coming from everywhere and nowhere at once, seemed to be composed of thousands of voices all layered on top of each other, and even after it had finished speaking the echoes lingered in the air.

"This is not your dream, foolish child. I am the one that has brought you here and you. Will. Listen." The voice kept growing, filling the air like a gong. I clapped my hands over my ears, but to my horror it didn't do anything - it was as if the sound was coming from inside my head.

"I'm listening! I'm listening!" I screamed. My voice sounded tinny and hollow compared to the... other one.

"Good." The voice paused for a moment. My panting breath echoed loudly in the stillness.

"Wake up!" Another voice, this one, as hollow as mine - a pebble compared to an avalanche, impossible to focus on.

"The preparations are complete. You have been taken from the Imperial City, to the east, as it should be. Fear not, for I am watchful." I could barely think, but managed to dimly wonder how exactly that last sentence was supposed to make me feel less afraid. "Soon, you will arrive. Soon, you will fulfil your promise."

That was too much. "What promise?" I shouted, hands dropping from my head to ball into fists at my side. "I haven't promised you anything! I don't make promises as a matter of principle, it can't possibly have been me who, who did whatever you're talking about you have the wrong person-"

"It has already begun." Despite the sheer overpowering alien nature of the voice, I could tell there was a strange note of satisfaction in it.

A soft crackling noise made me glance down - then I stared in horror. My hands were changing. The very bones were shifting, cracking and then rehealing as they grew in ways nature had never meant them to. My skin was writhing, puffing outwards and its colour was slowly, ever-so-slowly growing lighter, yellowish, metallic-

"You're dreaming, wake-"

"Wake. Up."

I came awake with a start, still caught in the dreamworld. That changed when I jerked myself into a sitting position and-

"Ow!"

I let myself fall back onto the floor with a groan and rubbed my head with one hand - although on the whole stars were preferable to volcanoes, I'd prefer not to see either when I closed my eyes. Apparently, my cell had suddenly gained a very low ceiling.

"Typical. Sleeps through the entire voyage, including the storm last night where I thought the ship was about to go under, and then decides to get up the precise instant I'm leaning over her. Just typical." Or maybe it wasn't the ceiling I'd cracked my head against.

Or, for that matter, my cell I was in.

"Sorry about that," I croaked. My throat felt as though I had screamed myself hoarse.

"You almost broke my nose," the voice complained. Dimly, I recognised that it was the second voice from the... dream. "Do you know how long it took me to get it into this shape? Just crooked enough to be mysterious and give me the look of a proper, dashing rogue straight out of the romance novels without being disfiguring. You almost ruined it!"

"Are you saying," I asked weakly, "that you break your nose regularly? For the sake of... attracting ladies?"

"And now you're insinuating I'm crazy enough to break my nose on purpose!" A pause. "I got a friend to do it."

The stars were gone, so I felt quite justified in carefully opening an eye and gauging the appearance of my new, eccentric, roommate. Immediately after, I opened the other one to stare.

The man – no, the mer – was leaning against a wall. His head was bald and covered in tattoos, his nose slightly crooked without being off-putting, giving him – I admit – a rather debonair look, even if the rough clothes detracted from it somewhat. His eyes-

And here came the reason I was staring. His eyes were as red and his skin as grey as my own.

Fragmented images from the nightmare swirled back into my mind and I stopped gawking in order to chance a quick glance down at myself. Yes, my skin was still grey, my hands the same shape they'd always been. Gawking could resume presently.

"Your judgement of the matter, m'lady?" the other dark elf said, and I realised he thought I'd been staring at his nose.

"It suits you," I told him quickly. Considering how fed up I'd always become when people stared at me, I didn't want to do the same to anyone else. Especially considering he was the same race I saw every time I looked in the mirror, even if I didn't often see it outside of one. How embarrassing! "Good look, although the clothes don't exactly scream 'storybook hero'. And if you really got someone to break your nose for it, you're mad."

"Unfortunately, prisoners have never been given the finest selection of clothing. It's always 'sack, sack with holes or sack with more holes – take your pick.' Terrible shame, that," he answered, his face falling mournfully. "And as for the nose, well... I did – in a way. A friend certainly did break my nose, and he informed me later that I had been asking for it. Namely, by saying what I said about his sister, and by being too drunk to dodge."

"What you said about his sister? If it was some slander, I may have to stop speaking to you," I said, raising an eyebrow.

"I was perfectly courteous!" he protested. "Well, perhaps a bit too courteous, if you understand what I mean. My friend has always been a bit... overprotective, and when I expressed interest..."

"Say no more." I could imagine the scene very clearly in my mind's eye, and suddenly had a difficult time suppressing laughter.

"Indeed, I shall stop dwelling on such past flames and give proper attention to the present one." He bowed, a gesture that looked particularly ridiculous given his clothes, my clothes (in no better condition than his) and our surroundings, which, although not my cell, were just as bare of any amenities - I sadly noted the lack of wallpaper and potted plant. I'd really wanted that potted plant. "My name is Jiub. What would yours be, oh fair lady Nosebreaker?"

"Adryn. And I didn't break your nose!" I protested.

"Came very close, if my chin hadn't been in the way... anyway," Jiub sighed, the comedic manner dropping away, making him look much older and more tired. "We should be reaching Morrowind soon. I'm sure they'll let us go."

It was my second big shock in as many minutes. "Excuse me, did you just say Morrowind?"

"Well, obviously, since that's where the ship's bound for – oh wait, you've been asleep since before you boarded, haven't you?"

"There may have been some magic involved," I said defensively.

"Oh, I was sure that there was magic involved. Or possibly that you were on the brink of death. We've been travelling for three days now, you see."

The news that I'd slept for three days – at least – wasn't nearly as disturbing as it should have been; I suppose three shocks in as many minutes were where my mind went on strike.

"Anyway, yes. This ship is headed for Morrowind."

Morrowind. I stared – past Jiub this time. It was a place I knew next to nothing about. I knew it was in the far north-east of the Empire, one of the remotest provinces. And, of course, I knew one other thing, one that had always fascinated me deeply – it was the home of the dark elves.

I hadn't the faintest idea why I was on a ship – and now that Jiub had told me, I realised the shape of the room we were in and the rocking motion should have told me immediately that was where I was; I blamed grogginess from the long sleep – heading to Morrowind of all places.

Heading east.

I shivered as the words from my dream floated to the top of my mind... you have been taken to the east. You will fulfill your promise. then shook my head, trying to drive them out of my thoughts. It wouldn't matter at all where we were heading, I told myself. One Imperial prison was much like another, after all, and as for the dream? I'd probably just reacted badly to the magic they'd used to induce sleep.

It has already begun...

Just my imagination, I told myself firmly.

 


 

We chatted for a while, Jiub dropping the sombre tone with alarming speed. I wasn't sure whether it was me or himself he was trying to cheer up with his exaggerated, foppish manner. If it was me, it worked splendidly. I was actually giggling, the dream almost entirely forgotten when Jiub shushed me, warning that the guard was coming.

The guard came to see us sitting on the floor side-by-side in perfect silence, faces perfectly composed as we stared back at him. He muttered something that sounded like "crazy Dunmer", then barked at me to come with him.

Only me, apparently; I looked helplessly towards Jiub, who just shrugged, the message 'what can you do' clearly evident in his expression. Then I hurried after the guard.

He shooed me through the hold and finally up onto the deck of the ship after saying, "let's keep this as civil as possible." I'm not entirely sure why the warning. What was he expecting me to do – sit down on the floor and refuse to go a step further? Because an Imperial prison ship is such a wonderfully pleasant place to be, after all. They'll start renting them out as cruise ships for the nobility in Imperial City any day now, I'm sure. Or maybe attack him with my bare hands?

Needless to say, the proceedings were perfectly civil on my side of things. Really, if anyone needed the reminder he did – apparently basic politeness was beyond him. Too much for his already overworked little brain, I conjectured.

The guard didn't follow me outside and I took a moment to catch my breath – I was really in terrible shape, and the fact that it was much, much warmer than I was used to didn't help – and look around.

I stared.

The ship was docked at a small village, consisting of some houses built in typical Imperial fashion but mainly shacks that looked as if they were about to sink into the surrounding swamp. The entire coast seemed to be swamp, in fact, turning into low hills further inland. It seemed the land rose even further; in the distance, I thought I could make out a mountain range. The swamp was filled with greenery, all of it entirely unfamiliar to me. The trees were alien, the flowers were alien, even the mushrooms were alien. (Yes, I am sure. They were quite a distance away, it is true, but the mushrooms I was used to don't glow.) The air was filled with strange sounds – no bird-calls, but chittering and clicking and strange hoots.

Oh, and there was a giant flea standing just past the village.

I looked at it for a moment, then decided it was a hallucination brought on by too much sleep.

Someone cleared their throat. I jumped.

Apparently, I couldn't be trusted to walk two feet by myself; here was yet another guard. And down there on the dock was a third. Wonderful.

I endured the rat-race of being escorted from guard to guard and finally made my way through the door of what Guard Number Two had called the "census office". (Guard Number Three had merely wanted to know where I was from. Frankly, if the people supposedly in charge of registering arrivals don't even know where the ships coming in are from, this place is in deep trouble.)

Inside, I was greeted with another guard and – for a change – a bureaucrat. Now, some people might be puzzled that I can recognise bureaucrats on sight. Personally, I find it very easy. There is a certain aura bureaucrats have, one that seems to incite a mixture of suicidal and homicidal impulses in those forced to be around them – I know it well.

The bureaucrat, an elderly Breton, started talking. "Ah yes, we've been expecting you."

Now that was worrisome. Expecting me? Since when was I important enough that anyone should be expecting me? I'd been expecting something more on the lines of "I have no idea who you are or what you did and I don't particularly care. Off to X Imperial prison with you."

"My name is Socucius Ergalla-" correction, an elderly Breton with delusions of being Imperial. Very sad. "-and I am in charge of the Census and Excise office here in Seyda Neen. Now, you'll have to be recorded before you're officially released."

"Wait. Released?" I asked.

Ergalla looked distinctly annoyed at having been interrupted. "Yes. Released. As I was saying, we prefer to record all incoming individuals to this island and-"

"You mean you're just letting me go?"

"I should have thought that would be obvious," he snapped, and unrolled a piece of paper. "I have the orders right here. 'By order of Emperor Uriel Septim VII, prisoner 103841's sentence is to be changed from ten years' imprisonment to exile in the province of Morrowind.' Now if you would let me continue..."

I shut up, not in order to comply with his instructions but because I found myself speechless.

The Empire doesn't just shoo prisoners out the door with a "so sorry for the trouble, here, have fun in your new home." And what was this about 'by order of the Emperor'? I dearly hoped that that was some kind of bureaucratic formality, because although I had no idea why the Emperor himself might take an interest in me, one thing I was sure of – it couldn't possibly be a good thing.

"Anyway. What is your name?"

"Adryn," I said for the second time that day.

Ergalla cocked an inquisitive eyebrow. "Just 'Adryn'? No family name?"

"No," I snapped.

"Hmm. Interesting." He picked scribbled something on a sheet of paper. "Your place of origin?"

"Do you mean the place I grew up in, the place I spent most of my adult life or the place I was living in last?" I asked.

He sighed deeply. "Origin," he repeated, as if that should make everything obvious.

"Try 'birthplace' if that's too complicated for you," the guard threw in.

I glared at him. Having my intelligence insulted by an Imperial guard, how low had I fallen? It was an honest bit of ambiguity, even if I was a little snide about it.

"In that case, Daggerfall." My tone was distinctly frosty.

"Really? I'd have said you have a bit of a Skyrim accent about you. It's in the vowels, you know." Much to my dismay, the guard had apparently decided to be talkative.

"Look, if you ask for birthplace I'll give you my birthplace," I said, utterly exasperated. "And considering I asked for clarification I would expect that any being more intelligent than pond scum would realise-"

Ergalla cleared his throat without looking up from his papers. "This antagonistic attitude is entirely unnecessary, and is causing an unconscionable delay in processing. Cease it immediately." The guard smirked. I fumed. Quietly. "What is your profession?"

My profession? Well... let's see, what had people called me? Oh yes, there'd been thief, pickpocket, crook, good-for-nothing, 'damned demon of a dark elf'... I rather liked the sound of the last, truth be told. Probably not quite the thing to say if I wanted to stay out of prison, however. And there was one other, more respectable one that would be accurate. One I'd been curious about ever since I was a child, one I'd always worked at and wanted to become even when events forced me into other directions.

"Me? I'm an alchemist."

Ergalla gave me a penetrating look, and for a moment, I thought he would dispute that. But in the end, he simply 'hmm'ed and continued scribbling. The sheet would be full in less than a minute if he continued on that way.

"Would you say you specialise more in the arts of magic, those of combat, or those of stealth and speechcraft?"

"Magic." This was not an entirely honest answer, I admit, as my skills really lay more in the third direction - I could hide well, had a quick tongue and was rather deft at picking pockets and locks. However, I did mention trying to stay out of prison, and I figured telling an Imperial official I was best at stealth was just under telling him I was a thief in terms of 'really really stupid ideas' when it came to that goal. Besides, I did have an interest in and knack for magic even if I was a little rusty.

As for combat? If you gave me a weapon, there was only one thing I could be sure of hitting. My foot.

"Ah yes. Now, what is your preferred weapon, your preferred armour, and what schools of magic do you specialise in?"

I gaped at him. "Excuse me, is all this really necessary?"

Ergalla looked wounded. "Of course it is! In order to allow us to gather data on immigration patterns and facilitate your rehabilitation-"

I blinked. The words he was using seemed to sprout more and more syllables. "How about you give me the forms and let me fill them out? Otherwise we'll be here all day."

He looked distinctly unhappy at that idea, but couldn't seem to think of a reason not to. He handed me the papers with a long-suffering sigh.

I handed them back some time later, now covered with writing, and massaged my hand. Although I could understand that the authorities on this island might want to know whether I was a potential axe-murderer, I remain puzzled as to why they need to know, for instance, precisely how high and far I can jump.

Bureaucracy.

Ergalla took the papers back eagerly, looking over them with a jaundiced eye as if afraid I'd cursed them. After reading through them several times while I stood and fidgeted, he put them down onto the desk and faced me again.

"Very well. One more question if you please." I opened my mouth, prepared to protest – what did they want to know now? My shoe size? I'd just about had it with this "processing" – but Ergalla didn't give me a chance to say a thing.

"The letter that preceded you mentioned you were born under a certain sign. And what would that be?"

Letter? Was this the same letter in which the Emperor personally (possibly) ordered my release? And why on earth did the Empire care about my birth-sign, of all possible things? Unfortunately, Ergalla's expression seemed to promise a quick and messy end if I were to make any more trouble, so instead of making a fuss I just said meekly, "The Lover."

And was immediately reminded why I generally lie and claim to be Lady-born as the guard who was really, really far too gregarious for his own good started fighting a smirk. I shot him a glare that should, by rights, have frozen lava.

It seemed to have some effect; the guard composed himself – with visible effort – and mumbled "Sorry, m'lov- er, m'lady-"

He let out a high-pitched giggle and covered his face with one hand. I huffed. Why oh why could I not have been born one month later? The Lord seemed as if it would be a nice sign to have. Safe. True, all the Lord-born I knew complained about being very sensitive to heat... but I was a dark elf, I was sure I'd manage. Besides, I'd be willing to take on even a sun allergy if it meant not having to listen to any more 'jokes' about 'dark elven promiscuity'... jokes, I should note, so lacking in anything resembling actual humour that even the tavern bards so bad their only pay comes in the form of airborne rotten vegetables would refuse to tell them out of professional integrity. In comparison to that, vampirism doesn't seem half so bad.

Ergalla ignored the guard's antics. "Interesting. Now, before I stamp these papers, make sure this is correct," he said to me.

I frowned – of course it was correct, I was the one who had written it in the first place – but scanned the paper anyway. I was about ready to get this "processing" over with, and judging by his expression, Ergalla was too. And it's a good thing I did; the fool had put my race down as Breton! Breton, I ask you. I don't want to know what low standards the Imperial Legion must have here; anyone who can't tell the difference between a Breton and a dark elf should not be in a position of importance.

He blinked at me owlishly when I pointed this out. "Ah, yes. But you are from High Rock?"

I pinched the bridge of my nose. "Didn't we have this discussion already?"

He took the hint, scribbled something on the paper and handed it back to me. I looked over it suspiciously – maybe he was claiming I was Argonian now or something; I wouldn't put it past him – but everything seemed to be in order.

"All right, is that it?" I said, about to slip the paper into my pocket.

"Wait – we need another copy for our records..."

Suicide was looking more and more appealing.

 


 

I slipped through the door and shut it behind me, letting out a deep breath. My mind was devising hellish tortures that would make hardened criminals quake with fear for the person who had invented bureaucracy, generously leaving some for the one who had come up with the triplicate form.

Luckily these particular bureaucrats seemed to have decided that I was harmless and didn't need a guard to go five steps from one office to the other (the guards on the ship could have learned much from them), which left me a bit of time to make my head stop spinning. I walked down the corridor, searching for a chair or a bench in order to get off my feet.

As soon as I looked into the next room, I forgot all about that.

The room was furnished simply, with a table, some rickety-looking chairs I didn't really want to test, a shelf and several baskets in a corner. However, what I was interested in was what was on said table and shelf. Namely the well-polished silverware and expensive-looking liquor – Cyrodiilic brandy, if I judged correctly. Quite practised in such things, I quickly tallied up my estimations of the values of each, adding on a bit as the brandy must have been imported. Then, sure I'd been mistaken, I tallied them up again.

The result was the same: enough money to eat for half a month. And that wasn't even counting the assortment of flasks on the shelf, and the small chest next to them and ye gods, was that a lockpick?

I clenched my fists. Was this some kind of game? A test or something? I grab the things here, they frisk me in the next room and voila, it's prison for you, little thief.

I turned away from the table and stalked towards the door. I hadn't got used to this 'freedom' deal yet (if Ergalla hadn't been lying, but I couldn't imagine it – he seemed stuffy, but not petty and malicious enough for a lie like that), no need to lose it before I'd even started. Better to be poor and free than rich and in prison – or rather, poor and in prison since it wasn't as if they'd let me keep my ill-gotten goods. So leaving everything behind was my best option... turning my back on not just a relatively lucrative but also totally unguarded haul.

I threw open the door and stopped short.

Far from another room with yet another Imperial officer, the door opened into a small, empty courtyard, with another building on one side of it and a tall wall on the other. A tall stone wall with plenty of hand- and footholds for the experienced climber.

In my mind, a plan began to form.

A few minutes later, I was back in the courtyard, now holding a bulging sack. The room behind me was completely bare, even the baskets at the side having been cleaned out. Spying a barrel near the door, I quickly rifled through it and added a greenish, slightly magical-feeling ring to my haul before turning my attention to the wall.

The wall was difficult to climb, especially with my heavy load, but not impossibly so; I silently thanked a childhood spent climbing trees when I reached the top and peered over.

The area just near the base of the wall was deserted, the ground overgrown with thick bushes. I quickly heaved the sack over the top. It disappeared behind a tree with a soft thump. I twisted around to see whether anyone had noticed, lost my balance and fell.

Lying on my back in the courtyard, I decided that a childhood spent climbing trees would probably have been better supplemented by an adulthood also spent climbing trees, or at least sometimes climbing trees. An adulthood spent climbing no trees at all seemed to have left me badly out of practice. I also wished I'd decided to keep the ring on me rather than add it to the sack; in retrospect, I was sure I'd felt healing magic on it and that sounded very good right now.

I got up, wincing, and dusted myself off gingerly. Luckily I seemed to have come away with only bruises.

I wandered out of the courtyard trying not to look innocent. This may sound somewhat counterintuitive, but Imperial guards expect you to look furtive and guilty. To them, an expression of carefree innocence implies that you're hiding something.

Thankfully, the officer in the next room – "Sellus Gravius", Ergalla had called him – seemed decidedly uninterested in my expression, guilty or otherwise. In fact, he didn't register me at all. Instead, he was bent over a pile of paperwork, and the sound of low swearing made me suspect that here was someone who shared my view on bureaucracy and the triplicate form.

It would have made me more charitably inclined towards him, except that he was – as said – an officer of the Imperial legion. I figured the torture was only just.

It was tempting to just leave him to it and slip out the next door, but I suspected that would get me into far more trouble in the long run. So I cleared my throat.

Then coughed.

Then said, "Excuse me."

When I was wondering whether I would have to go over and shake him – always a thing to think twice about with an armed man – he finally looked up and blinked at seeing me standing there.

"Oh, right. You'd be... you'd be... I'm sure I have a letter about you in here. Somewhere." He looked through his pile of documents for a moment, then seemed to give up. "Anyway. Why didn't you say something instead of just standing there?"

Given that I had said something, I thought this accusation was rather unfair, but kept this to myself. Imperial officers can get quite upset when contradicted. Instead, I told him, "Are you Sellus Gravius? If you are, I'm to give you these papers."

"Yes, that's me. Knight Errant of the Imperial Legion – not that that gets me much but paperwork these days." He took the forms I'd painstakingly filled out and glanced over them briefly. I probably could have left them claiming I was Argonian and he wouldn't have noticed. "Yes, this all seems to be in order. Now what was I supposed to do with you again... oh, right!" Apparently, Gravius had found the letter about me. Everyone seemed to have letters regarding me. It was disturbing.

He fished around on his desk and handed me a sealed package. "Take this package to Caius Cosades in Balmora. I don't know where he lives exactly but someone in Balmora should know, so ask around."

"Excuse me, but... Balmora?" I asked, confused.

"Oh, right, you're new. Balmora is a town up north from here, ask in the tradehouse for directions. Or you could take the silt strider. Quite reliable transport for a flea that's as big as a house."

So that hadn't been a hallucination after all. I wasn't sure whether to be happy that my wits weren't entirely addled or terrified that the giant flea did, after all, exist – and was apparently used as transport?

"Oh, and take this as well," Gravius continued, dropping a small pouch into my hands. The way it clinked was very, very familiar. "It's your release fee."

I stared. I seemed to be doing a lot of that today, but this definitely warranted it. Getting money from the Imperial Legion? And – I hefted the pouch – a not inconsiderable amount? From the weight, it was probably at least sixty drakes!

"Ah. T-thank you," I stumbled over the words, feeling completely off balance. It was enough to make a girl almost feel guilty about robbing the place.

Almost being the key word here.

"Yes, yes." Gravius had turned his attention back to his paperwork with a sigh. "I'm afraid I can't talk any longer, I really need to get back to this supply request. So if you'd excuse me..."

"Of course." I turned towards the door, then paused. Before, part two of my grand plan had seemed flawless and brilliant. Now, I wasn't so sure about it. But I ploughed ahead with it anyway.

"By the way... is the room back there supposed to be empty like that?"

Gravius' gaze snapped up. For the first time in the whole conversation, his entire attention was fixed on me. "What did you say?"

I shrank back. "The room. Back there. I thought it was odd that it was empty, and, and the chest on the shelf looked as if someone had broken into..." my voice trailed off as Gravius slowly stood up.

"No. That room is not supposed to be empty. That room is supposed to contain our food for the next several days, and the official Legion silverware, and the weekly... liquor... excuse me. I think I need to check on something." And he was gone.

I almost let out a sigh of relief – Gravius' full attention was a disturbing thing to have fixed upon you, and I was left with the distinct impression that this was a very dangerous man. However, dangerous or not he certainly wasn't telepathic, and what I'd done should muddy the waters a bit. I'd heard the guard with Ergalla mention that no one had been in the room since very early in the morning, so that left them with quite a large time frame in which the theft could have taken place. And I should be their last suspect now – after all, hadn't I reported the theft to the guards? And hadn't I left the place empty-handed save for what Gravius had given me?

I strolled out into the sunlight and had to suppress the urge to whistle.

 


 

Studying my sack of loot in the bushes, I no longer felt quite so cheerful.

It wasn't that it hadn't survived the fall, which I'd worried about earlier. In fact, the fall had done even less damage than I'd expected; only one flask had broken, and that one had been empty anyway. No, my plan had worked perfectly.

Unfortunately, I'd come to the conclusion that the plan had been slightly short-sighted.

I now had my ill-gotten goods, in a bush outside the Census and Excise office, and myself outside the Census and Excise office, and hopefully not fingered as potentially in possession of said ill-gotten goods. However, now came the question – what did I do with the goods?

It was, after all, broad daylight. There were quite a few people wandering around on the street. Worse yet, there were quite a few guards wandering around on the street. The bush was, thankfully, away from the main bit of traffic and shielded behind several trees, so no one had noticed the dark elf rooting through shrubbery.

Yet.

I couldn't very well grab the sack and walk straight through the village, either to the tradehouse on the other side or (since fencing stolen goods at the tradehouse next to the place I'd stolen them from in the first place wasn't the best of ideas) to the road leading out of the village.

Ordinarily, this turn of events would require waiting until dark and sneaking in to recover the items then. However, part two of my brilliant master plan, looking steadily less brilliant by the minute, meant that the guards would probably have finished figuring out that yes, someone had stolen their food, their silverware and (crime of all crimes!) all their alcohol for that week and would be out in force. Chances were, they'd discover the sack well before nightfall.

Really, my best option was high-tailing it away before Gravius added up a newly released dark elf, a sack placed precisely where someone might throw it from the top of a wall and the possibility of a childhood spent climbing trees and came up with the name Adryn.

Most of me rebelled at the idea. Hadn't I managed to get this far, after all? And besides, this was my first taste of freedom and a new life! It should start on a high note, with me leaving the town with everything and sticking out my tongue at Ergalla and Gravius as I went.

"Stealing from the Imperials, eh?"

The voice behind me made me try to jump a foot and freeze in terror simultaneously, which made for some rather odd movements. In the end, I lost my balance and barely managed to keep myself from pitching face-first into the bush.

Once I was steady on my feet again I turned around, horrified at having been caught. My fear was only lightened slightly when I saw the person behind me wasn't, in fact, an Imperial guard but rather a Bosmer.

"Don't worry. I won't say a word. We all hate them here in town." Slowly, my heart-rate returned to its normal speed. "Me especially, they keep beating me up and stealing my things. Just the other day, they took my ring! It's not worth that much, but it's a family heirloom, one of the only things I've got of them so far away from home, so it's really precious to me."

I fished around in the sack. "Would this be it?" I asked, cutting off the stream of words and handing him the green ring I'd found earlier. I was rewarded by seeing the Bosmer's eyes light up.

"Why, that's it exactly! Thank you so much!" He took the ring eagerly and pressed it to his chest.

Now, lest anyone get the wrong impression I should add that I am not, as a rule, all that altruistic. Especially when it comes to rings with healing magic, given my tendency to attract trouble through no fault of my own. However, I've learned that it pays to keep anyone who can call the guards on you as happy as possible.

"I was afraid I'd never see it again. I won't forget this! I'll put in a good word for you with Arrille at the tradehouse, just you see. And..." the Bosmer looked from me to the sack in the bushes and back again. Clearly, the predicament I was in was becoming clear to him. "I think I have an idea."

A few minutes later, I was strolling across the village to the tradehouse, Fargoth – that was the Bosmer's name – by my side. The sack was thrown carelessly over my shoulder, and Fargoth made sure to mention loudly how very grateful he was for my helping him carry some of his old things over to his good friend Arrille's, he couldn't have managed so much himself...

It would have seemed ridiculous that I, skinny little scarecrow of a dark elf – and we're not known for our upper body strength in the best of times – straight of prison would be engaged for heavy lifting. Luckily, Fargoth was a Bosmer. I'm small for a dark elf, but Fargoth was still a head shorter than me.

The tradehouse was well-furnished, with hangings on the walls and various wares spread out on polished wooden tables and a counter. Several people seemed to be browsing, and there was an Altmer standing behind the counter; I surmised this was Arrille. Fargoth had gone ahead of me when we reached the narrow stairs, and he was now whispering intensely with Arrille. When I arrived, they stopped. Arrille came over to me and winked.

"I hear you're helping Fargoth with his things," he said in a drawl that was definitely not a Summerset accent. "Always told him he was a packrat and that one day that shack of his wouldn't be large enough anymore! Good for him I have a storage room free here, hm? If you follow me there, I'll show you where to put them, and give you some advice on Vvardenfell while you're at it."

"Don't listen to a word he says," a Redguard woman who had been looking at a selection of bows interrupted. "Last time he 'gave some advice', the man actually tried to go rob one of the tombs in the swamp. He ended up getting lost, wandering around after dark trying to find his way back, and finally tripped and broke his leg. And I was the one who had to rescue him." She glared at Arrille.

"Elone, I'm insulted!" Arrille gave a mock gasp. I was suddenly reminded of Jiub, and wondered with a pang what had happened to him. It had looked as though I was the only miraculous releasee. "I'll let you know my advice was fine. It's not my fault the fool decided to interpret 'ancestral tombs' as 'excellent way to make money.' And what about that Redguard girl I helped out a while back? Last I heard she was doing perfectly well."

"Only because I caught her afterwards and explained why everything you'd told her was nonsense. It looks as though I'll have to do the same with this one too." Elone looked at me critically. I stared back, shifting my sack of loot. It was heavy and my arms were getting tired. I decided that if the two of them didn't stop acting as if I was a soulless, mindless automaton I'd brain them both with my illicit gains.

Perhaps she read some of my hostile intentions from my face, because she just sighed and said, "Well, off you go. Drop off... Fargoth's belongings." I had the sudden impression that our little charade hadn't fooled her at all. "Arrille, I'll watch the shop for you. Girl, remember to come speak to me afterwards and I'll set you straight. I'm a scout, it's my job."

"Thank you kindly, Elone. Come, it's-"

"Wait a minute!" Fargoth interrupted. He'd been hovering near the doorway and now stepped forward. "I'll come with you. There are fragile things in there, I have to make sure you don't break them."

A nearby Nord let out a loud, braying laugh. "Fussy Fargoth needs to make sure you put every bleedin' thing down just right. Kid, you picked the wrong person to run errands for - you'll be lucky if you get out before nightfall." He did not seem at all abashed by suddenly being the target of three hostile glares - Fargoth's, Arrille's and Elone's. "If you want a real job, with real pay, come to me afterwards. Name's Hrisskar Flatfoot, I'll be up in the bar."

"As if you're ever not in the bar, drunkard." Elone's tone was waspish. "Girl, don't listen to him, that one's no good through and through."

"Okay, that's it." I said loudly. All people arguing stopped and turned their heads to look at me. I found myself in awe at my apparent skills at crowd control - now if only I could do that on purpose... "My name is Adryn. Not girl, kid, child, or anything like that. Ad. Ryn. It's only two syllables, it's not that difficult. And my arms hurt and I am about to drop this sack and if I am forced to drop it I will use my last strength to aim at one of you lot, so could we save the manly posturing - or womanly posturing," I corrected myself, looking at Elone, "for another time?"

"Girl has spirit. I like that." Hrisskar snickered. I recalled my earlier conversation with Jiub and wondered just how hard I would have to punch him in order to break his nose - and not in a dashing storybook rogue way either.

Arrille coughed. "She does have a point, even if she phrased it a little... interestingly. We all have things we need to be getting back to, so best to get this out of the way. Here, the storage is up these stairs."

Stairs. I looked at them sadly, then promised my aching muscles it would be over soon, gritted my teeth and started walking.

At the top there was, in fact, a small storage room, empty and obviously unused for quite some time.

I let my sack fall to the ground with a sigh. Arrille, then Fargoth entered the room as I shook out my arms, which were informing me that they had got used to lazy lounging about in prison and did not hold with this sort of strenuous activity. Fargoth closed the door behind him carefully, then hopped up to sit on a large crate. I covered my nose when I saw the dust billow up, but he didn't seem to mind.

"There, that should do it," he said. "Now you two can bargain and no one will wonder what's taking so long. After all, Fussy Fargoth needs to have things just right." He grinned wryly.

"Doesn't it bother you?" I asked him.

"Oh, Hrisskar is just a big bully. And besides, I do get a little particular about how I want things. But just a little!" he added hastily. Next to him, Arrille started coughing loudly.

"Dear me, Arrille, that sounds like a nasty cold you're coming down with," I said. "Are you sure you're feeling quite well enough to bargain?"

"Oh, don't worry about me. The dust, is all. Should tidy this room more often. Now," he straightened, his demeanour growing serious, "Fargoth tells me you have items you'd like to sell. Items acquired from a nearby Imperial outpost under, shall we say, a loose interpretation of the law." I nodded, wincing. Two people already who knew of my criminal enterprises, this did not bode well for my future career. "Now although I usually don't look well on such activities, I could make an exception for a clearly good-hearted young lass who's been helping my good friend Fargoth, and one who's been a nuisance to the Imperials up at the Census office instead of any of us townsfolk."

By Arrille's scowl, Fargoth hadn't been exaggerating much when he'd said everyone in town hated the local Imperials. I was beginning to think I could run through the town stark naked at noon and paint 'URIEL SEPTIM IS THE BASTARD SON OF A MONKEY AND A SLOAD WHO COMMITS UNSPEAKABLE ACTS WITH SHEEP' on the walls and none of the citizens would report me.

...not that I was planning on doing this, understand. I mean, I like wearing clothes. Clothes are my close, personal friends. And noon? Not a good time. And, you know, if you're going to go the graffiti route it's best to go all the way - none of that 'unspeakable acts' business.

"...so that should settle it." Oops. Arrille was still talking, and it sounded as if he'd just said something important.

"Sorry, I didn't catch that?"

"I said, I'll probably go to the Census and Excise Office sometime tomorrow, if they don't stop by before then," Arrille repeated patiently. "A Nord sold it to me, big, strong-looking fellow. Kept his hood up, but sounded rather like Hrisskar Flat-foot to me. Wouldn't be the first time he's pulled something like this, and I happen to know he was skulking around town today - probably trying to find Fargoth's stash again."

"Stash?" I asked.

"He seems to think I've got some kind of treasure chest hidden away in the swamp somewhere," Fargoth shrugged. "Honestly, as if I have any valuables left to my name in between Flat-foot and the other soldiers. You saw what happened to my ring." I saw Arrille shoot him a sharp look from the corner of my eye, and suspected this might not be quite accurate. Not that I could particularly blame him; after all, I'd only known him for an hour, if that, and he knew I was a thief. "It does mean he'll probably be trying to poke his nose in here, trying to figure out just what 'belongings' you brought over."

"All the better," Arrille said firmly. "It'll make him look more suspicious. With luck, this will get him out of our hair entirely. And if I take it to Sellus Gravius, he'll feel obliged to cover my losses and pay for the items. A good sort, that Gravius. Pity the others aren't like him. Besides," his tone grew thoughtful, "if this does let us get rid of that Flat-foot we'll most certainly owe you something..."

I shook my head. "All right, I'm confused. What exactly does all this mean?"

"It means, young la- Adryn," he amended at my frosty look, "that I hear you have some goods you wish to sell me."

A classical way to open bargaining. I grinned. "As it so happens, I have... acquired... some items." I started taking things out of the sack. "For instance, this fine set of silverware."

Arrille looked distinctly unimpressed. "Fine? Rather an exaggeration, don't you think? But who knows, maybe someone will be near-sighted enough to believe these don't belong in the nearest junkheap... I'll give you seventy drakes for them."

Did I really look that green?

"Seventy? I'm insulted, truly insulted! Look at this craftsmanship, this polish – and feel how smooth it is, not a dent or a scratch. Seventy, I say! A septim and twenty and no less!"

"One septim and twenty? One hundred and twenty drakes for that measly piece of tin? No dents, I'll give you that, but only because they've all been hammered out. But craftsmanship? Hardly! Eighty drakes and no more!"

And we were off. Bargaining, when you do it right, is as much sport as anything else. Fargoth certainly seemed to think so, at any rate - he listened to us with wide eyes and a delighted grin on his face. When one of us pulled off a particularly clever maneuver, he would break into brief applause.

"Whose side are you on?" Arrille asked him in mock outrage after Fargoth congratulated me on managing to talk him up to a round septim for the silverware.

"I am a neutral observer. I am on no one's side," Fargoth said with an attempt at an air of dignity, one which would have worked better if his feet hadn't been dangling. It all reminded me of watching the traders on market day when I was a little girl...

Well, to make a long story short, after a while we settled on three and a half septims for all my illicitly gotten goods. Arrille looked as if he were rather regretting this agreement, so I decided to cheer him up with some purchases.

Arrille frowned when I suggested going downstairs for the next stage of our bargaining. "That could be a mite difficult... did you even have any money apart from what you st- acquired at the Census office?"

I wasn't sure where this was heading, but my usual reflex when I was asked things like this was to lie, lie and lie some more. Still, I did owe Fargoth and Arrille. "Actually, Sellus Gravius gave me ninety drakes-" I clamped my mouth shut, horrified at myself. Telling them I had money, all right, but why tell them where I'd got it from? Now there'd be questions-

"Oh. You're one of those." Arrille's eyes narrowed, and Fargoth stared at me.

"Those?"

"It started, oh, two or three months ago. Every few weeks, the Imperials release a prisoner from the mainland here. Far as we can tell, they're usually in for minor, or at least not violent, crimes - theft, that sort of thing." I blushed - that example had not been chosen randomly, I knew. "They get given a bit of money, then sent up to Balmora." I flinched. Arrille nodded, looking satisfied. "You too, I take it?"

I nodded, deep in thought.

To be entirely truthful, my first reaction was relief. Now, most people's first reaction to being told they are embroiled in what sounded like some sort of byzantine Imperial scheme where poor innocent... mostly innocent... not that guilty people are moved around like, like one of those stones for the board games people play in the High Rock markets which I never had the patience to sit down and learn - well, anyway, their reaction would not be relief, not if they had any sense. And although the sense thing can be argued on my part, mine usually would not be either.

No, the reason I was relieved was that if I was one of a group, it was highly unlikely the Emperor was, in fact, personally interested in me.

After all, even if the Emperor himself was at the heart of said byzantine Imperial scheme he surely put unimportant work like selecting suitable pawns in the hands of subordinates. Right?

Right?

The Nine save me, I was doomed.

"So," Fargoth said. He'd hopped off the crate to stand next to Arrille. I inched back a bit upon seeing the united front. "I take it you don't care to tell us what's going on?"

All right. That was just too much.

I exploded. "Going on? What in the name of Ysgramor and his Five Hundred makes you think I have any idea what's going on? I woke up this morning on a ship hundreds of miles away from where I went to sleep with no idea how I'd got there or why, nobody's told me anything except 'go here, do that, fill out these forms.' I'm tired, I'm hungry, I'm confused, I have no idea what I'm doing here, I've never even set foot on Morrowind before and you ask me what's going on? You, you inbred excuses for cowardly dogs who'd give Alduin indigestion-"

"All right, all right, all right!" Fargoth interrupted me before I could properly get going. "We understand. You don't know what's going on. Er, please calm down. I don't think you're supposed to be able to turn that colour."

...skin bubbling its hue changing it has already begun-

"Or that one, for that matter. Sit down, you've gone all... light grey."

I sat on the proffered crate and tried thinking of... plants. Beautiful, beautiful plants. Flowers. Ferns. Black trees in a volcanic wasteland while- no. "Thank you. Um. What were we talking about?"

There was a moment's collective silence.

"...well," Arrille said, "the issue is that we need to make sure you're not seen buying things with more money than you're meant to have. That sort of thing could lead to inconvenient questions, if you get my meaning. I'll sell you what I can, but best for you to get to Balmora and do your shopping there."

I was beginning to wish I could kidnap Arrille and take him with me. He thought of these things called 'consequences'. I'd always had a little trouble with those.

 


 

Downstairs, both Elone and Flat-Foot were gone. Instead, there was a dark elven girl, maybe eight years old, sitting on Arrille's counter. I looked at her curiously. She was the first other dark elf I'd seen since disembarking, which was rather surprising given that this was meant to be their, our, homeland. She was wearing rough clothing so covered in patches of various colours I could hardly tell what its original shade had been and holding a short wooden sword firmly in one hand. Red eyes peered back at me behind messy black hair that had apparently escaped from a rather bedraggled ponytail.

"Are you going to do something evil?" she asked me solemnly.

My mouth opened and shut wordlessly. Maybe it was because it had been a long and confusing day, maybe because I wasn't often accused of being evil by people half my height, but I found myself speechless.

Luckily, Arrille came to the rescue. "Good day, Llavani. I assure you Adryn is not evil. Does Indrele know you're here?"

"Mother is busy. And Miss Elone said she'd give me two whole copper pieces if I stayed and protected your things from evildoers, Uncle Arrille!" Llavani swung her sword, I presumed at an imaginary foe. Arrille ducked. "I dunno what evildoers look like, though, so to be safe I've just been asking everyone. Did I do good?"

Arrille reached over and ruffled her hair. "You did wonderfully, scrib. Why don't you run over to Elone now and tell her your guard duties are no longer needed, and that I'd like to talk to her when she has time."

"And," I threw in, "tell her I happen to know that in Imperial City little girls get three drakes for guard duty."

She grinned at me. "You're all right, sera." Then she vanished out the door.

"Who was that?" I asked.

"Llavani Rathryon. She's the daughter of one of the commoners around here. Very conscientious lass, but... I'll have to ask Elone just what she was thinking." Arrille shook his head. "Anyway. I think you had some items you wanted to buy?"

"Which is my cue to disappear, I think," Fargoth threw in. "I still have some work to do at home, after all. Arrille, I'll see you tonight. It was nice to meet you, Adryn, and thank you for all your... help. I'm sure you'll do excellently here." He winked at me.

I bade Fargoth farewell and looked around the shop. Honestly, I had to wonder whether there was actually anything there I'd be interested in. I saw a lot of weapons - and not even daggers or anything sensible or easy to use like that, but giant warhammers and blades almost as long as I was tall. I saw heavy metal torture devices, I mean armour, polished so brightly they were almost painful to look at. (As if the possibility of blindness would give me incentive to strap myself into a heat-absorbing death trap heavier than I am.) The only thing that looked remotely useful was a stack of rough woolen clothing in the corner - it looked as if some of it ought to fit reasonably well, and I wasn't in much of a position to be very snobby about clothing. (An understatement. I'd definitely ended up with the 'sack with more holes' of Jiub's explanation of prison garment options.) But apart from that...

Wait. Was that up in the corner of that shelf...

"That's Eldafire's old mortar and pestle, and her vial set," Arrille said, following my line of sight. "Sold it to me a few months back, said her eyesight was getting too bad to keep making potions but it was an excellent set which had served her well all the time she had it. Do you want me to-" he noticed my hungry gaze and amended himself, "I'll just get that down for you, shall I."

Honestly, and despite Arrille now trying to talk it up as the finest alchemical tool which had ever graced Tamriel, it didn't look like much. The mortar was too small to make larger or more complicated potions, battered, some of the surface already worn smooth from repeated use, the vials were milky with age - a far cry from the equipment you see master alchemists or even journeymen use. So it may be difficult to understand exactly why my fingers twitched at the sight.

At least, difficult to understand unless you have ever had the experience of trying to grind wolfsbane petals for an invisibility potion using two smooth rocks because you have nothing else to hand. In the middle of a rainstorm. While the guards the invisibility potion is meant to help you escape from are coming steadily closer. On the other hand, if you have had this experience I believe you will agree (albeit possibly from prison) when I say you never quite view alchemical equipment the same way again.

"So I'd sell it to you for eighty drakes,"Arrille said, finishing up his spiel.

Of course, none of that is reason to act like a fool. Which spending eighty drakes (almost all of the money I was supposed to have at my disposal!) on that would certainly be.

"Eighty? Eighty? You must be joking. You say it's served her well for years - I can certainly see the years part of it! Honestly," I sniffed, "I'm doing you a favour, offering to take this off your hands when you were probably planning to toss it out with the rubbish at the next opportunity since no respectable alchemist would go near it. Half a septim and no more."

"You exaggerate mercilessly - it might be old, but it's still perfectly functionable. How about... one septim, and I'll teach you a Firebite spell as well." That was actually quite a tempting offer. I didn't know one myself, but I knew fire spells could be very useful in a pinch - lighting fires even without flint and tinder, as an emergency replacement for properly cooking, and even for defense. Although to be entirely truthful, I wasn't planning to use it for the last; the first item in my arsenal when it comes to combat is neither spell nor weapon but my legs. Running away at the first sight of trouble has served me well for quite a while now and I wasn't planning on changing that (I personally blame this attitude on an excess of sanity, although some people would dispute that.)

"Ninety drakes for both, and you add in a shirt and a pair of trousers from that stack there," was my counter-offer.

"Done and done." Arrille smiled, satisfied, as I handed over every last drake that Gravius had given me. Usually I'd be a bit more careful about my money, but the weight of my illicitly acquired three hundred fifty more hidden inside my shirt reassured me that I still had enough to be reasonably secure. "Now, the way you construct a Firebite spell is like this..."

It was quite a bit easier to pick up than I was expecting, even though I had relatively little experience with Destruction magic. Arrille shrugged and muttered "Dunmer" when I managed to successfully light a candle on his table on the second try.

I'd just managed to pick a shirt and trousers that looked to fit at least no worse than what I was already wearing (and silently vowed that at the next opportunity, I'd squander some of my hard-earned money on a tailor) when the door creaked open.

"Elone!" Arrille barked. I looked at him in surprise; this was the angriest I'd heard him so far. "Since when does 'I'll keep an eye on things' mean you wander off and leave a little girl to look after things? Llavani's not a lass that goes running off, no, but she's no guard."

Elone raised an eyebrow. "Calm down, will you? I'm sorry for leaving the store unattended - I wouldn't have, but something urgent came up which I had to look into right away. I figured Llavani would look after things for you."

"Look after? The girl is eight."

"Eight and probably more careful about who she lets in than I'd be." I remembered being asked whether I was evil and had to choke back a giggle. Elone continued, "It's not as if you get a lot of thieves here, and if something happened Llavani'd raise enough of a fuss that you'd hear it even from upstairs. And nothing happened, did it?"

Arrille seemed to be calming down despite himself. "Still, Elone, whatever your 'urgent business' was, and no doubt you'll be telling me it's yet another secret of yours..."

"No secret this." Elone's voice was grim. "Processus has gone missing. No one's seen him since yesterday evening and I couldn't find him anywhere in town. Some people are searching the surrounding area, I'll join them in a bit. But first..." her gaze fell on me. I crossed my arms in instinctive defensive reaction. (It was a 'what am I going to do with you?' look. I don't like those looks; as previously mentioned I am not a game piece and the only one who ought to be doing anything with me is me, thank you very much.)

"Processus gone missing? Don't tell me..." Arrille trailed off, brow furrowed in thought, then noticed where Elone was looking. "Oh, I just finished selling Adryn here some items."

"Not, I note, any weapons or armour," Elone said drily. I stared at her in confusion; I thought the general idea was to make me more, not less, likely to survive.

Arrille shrugged. "Lass didn't seem to want any. Doesn't seem to be a warrior type if you look at her, now does she?" They looked at me. I glared back. "I did talk her into a Firebite spell, though, and was about to have a word with her regarding weaponry."

"Of course you will. After lunch."

"What?" Arrille asked.

An arm snaked its way around my shoulders. I tried to jerk away, but it was holding me too tightly. "Lunch. Arrille, you should be ashamed of yourself. While you've been making the girl pay for your cast-offs and telling her all sorts of nonsense, she's faint with hunger." Elone's voice was coming from right next to my ear. I moved my head as far to the other side as I could.

"My name. Is not. Girl," I muttered between clenched teeth.

"I'll take her outside for some fresh air, get some food into her and try to tell her how things really are."

"And you can stop ignoring me anytime, yes. Oh, and let me go. That too."

Elone ignored me. "I've got food at my place. Come on, let's go."

Now, lest anyone get the wrong impression I should note that ordinarily I defend my personal space with all the force and dedication of a rabid war dog. (Some people would tell you that there are other similarities. This is, of course, a barefaced lie.) Anyone trying to so much as tap my shoulder generally ends up with their fist in my face or, failing that, my teeth in their hand. Someone actually putting their arm around me without me doing my best to remove the offending appendage... remove it from their body, that was... was next to unheard of. However, in this case there was an overriding impulse, one of the few things that would make me put up with such manhandling with only grumbling.

Free food.

More to the point, free food that was hopefully not gruel or at least not mobile gruel after far, far, far too long being forced to subsist on that... that... substance. At the moment, I was willing to swear my soul to the Emperor for something that could actually be classified as food without being academically dishonest. Tolerating someone being overly familiar, as long as their hands didn't venture any further down than my shoulders, went only slightly more against my basic nature.

As a result, I only put up a token struggle as I was dragged out of the tradehouse.

 


 

Elone's house turned out to be one of the nice-looking thatched houses clustered to the north of the tradehouse. I was glad of it, as most of the other "buildings" in this place - I use the term loosely - looked as though the instant you set foot in them they would collapse on top of you and drown you in the swamp. (Traps set for newcomers, perhaps?) Inside, it was also furnished much as I expected from a Cyrodiilic home. I'd have spent more time studying the surroundings except that my attention got diverted by a truly amazing gift of the gods exuding a heavenly smell-

Food.

I'm sorry, where was I?

"It's not much, just warmed-up crab chowder from this morning, but I can't afford to spend much more time here and you don't look as if you want to wait much longer," Elone said as she put a steaming bowl of soup and a chunk of bread in front of me.

"Mmfgrmp," I answered. It was meant to be 'thank you', but somehow my mouth had filled itself with soup without my even noticing. Strange how that happens.

Thankfully, Elone didn't take offense at my lack of manners; instead she just grinned and dug into her own portion.

Despite the fact that I ended up taking thirds, Elone and I finished at the same time - her with a somewhat amazed expression on her face. I didn't see what the issue was; time in an Imperial prison teaches you quickly that anything resembling food is to be devoured as quickly as possible before anyone takes it away from you. Or it runs away. (I remembered that gruel.)

"Well, you certainly needed that," Elone said, looking at me critically.

"Thank you very much," I said, comprehensibly this time. "It was delicious." Although honestly, what I was comparing it to was a very, very low bar - I'd almost have called Legionnaire hardtack delicious at that point - but I figured it was more diplomatic not to point that out.

"Almalexia's mercy, she does have manners after all!" I scowled and was about to snap a retort (probably proving her point), but Elone continued with something that made my blood run cold. "Pity she has next to no sense to accompany those, given what I saw from the lighthouse earlier today."

"I have no idea what you're talking about," I said woodenly.

"Oh? How strange. Then it must have been some other newly-released prisoner who stole everything that wasn't nailed down in the Legion's supply room and tossed it over the wall! Don't worry, I won't tell," she continued, correctly interpreting my expression as 'terrified'. "But you do realise the main reason you got away with it is Fargoth opting to help you? By all rights, you ought to be back in prison right now."

"It may have been slightly short-sighted-" I started.

Elone laughed. I glared at her. "Slightly short-sighted? Girl," seriously, two syllables, what is so difficult about this, "that was one of the stupidest things I've ever seen. Now, I can't say the other ones were particularly clever, but at least none of them decided to start their criminal activities when they hadn't even been officially released yet!"

"Look," I retorted, "I fail to see what business it is of yours anyway, but in any case what's done is done so if you're not going to turn me in-"

"What's done is done, yes." Elone didn't seem inclined to let me finish a single sentence. "Except that I can't help but think that now, after you've successfully robbed the Census and Excise office - thanks more to luck than anything else, I should note - you'll decide to continue on in this manner. And next time, or the time after, or the time after, your luck will fail you and you'll end up in prison again. Which would be a right shame, if you ask me."

My shoulders slumped. Elone was right; by all rights my stunt earlier should have landed me straight back in prison. I'd been overconfident and hadn't thought about consequences, yes, but the main problem was that I simply wasn't used to working on my own. I'd always had someone else to go through plans with, be a look-out, cause distractions, bail me out of trouble when worst came to worst - at this rate I'd end up arrested or killed soon simply because I was relying on back-up that wasn't here. But... "It's not as if I can do anything else." I hadn't actually been planning on sharing, but the words just spilled out of me. "Not like anyone'd hire me for a proper job, and I have to eat somehow."

Elone's expression softened. "Of course. For a moment there, I forgot you weren't from Morrowind. Most of the people on that ship looked to be from Cyrodiil... but no. Skyrim, by your accent. Solitude, would be my guess?"

I nodded reluctantly. "Lived there since I was twelve. Just moved to Imperial City recently before... all this happened." Maybe I'd developed mind-control powers in the last five minutes so that the please stop asking about this I was currently thinking at her would induce her to change the subject. Hope sprang eternal.

"Well, no wonder then," Elone said decidedly. "You've got pretty limited career choices in a city where going outside the gates is a near death sentence close to nine months of the year. And Imperial City's no better for all that the climate isn't so extreme. But," she fixed me with a stare, "you've got to remember that you're not in either of those places anymore. You're on Vvardenfell. It was a Temple preserve up until recently, you know?" I didn't - in fact I didn't even know what that meant - but Elone didn't seem inclined to let me get a word in between. "So most of it's still unsettled and a lot of the settlements that do exist are new. Vvardenfell is wild, untamed, dangerous, and in a place like that there's a lot of ways a bright, resourceful girl like you can make a living without resorting to crime."

"Like?" I couldn't help but be dubious, as this did not correspond with my previous experience in the slightest.

"Well, you could follow in my footsteps and become a scout." Elone grinned. "Honestly, I might find myself resorting to crime in Solitude myself - not much call for scouting if you can barely get outside without braving frostbite. Or if you're not so much for the wilderness, there's a lot of organisations and guilds recruiting these days, and they usually offer room, board, and a lot of ways to make money. If you're more of the adventuring sort, I know quite a few people who make a tidy sum of money by hunting smugglers and bandits - although by the look of you I'd guess that's not quite your thing." However could she have guessed? I mean, I'm sure I cut the precise image of an imposing warrior. They'll ask for my portrait to put next to 'adventurer' in the Imperial Dictionary any day now, I'm just waiting for the letter.

Elone continued, "If you can cast a water-breathing spell or get an item enchanted there's pearl-diving, although you need to be wary of the slaughterfish. Or you can gather ingredients in the wild and sell them to apocetharies or merchants, or make potions from them to sell yourself- aha, that caught your interest." She'd noticed my eyes light up. "Should have guessed when I saw you spend most your money on a mortar and pestle. Alchemy's an excellent way to make money here. There's enough call for potions that most merchants will buy home-made potions, and it's easy to get ingredients just by stepping outside and plucking flowers. Most everything growing out there, and some of the things walking, have some alchemical use. Who knows, you might even manage to open a shop if you play your cards right."

Alchemical ingredients just growing outside for anyone to pick up? Which you didn't have to dig out from under several inches of ice? Or have to beat the other dozen poor people with alchemical pretensions to? I hadn't seen anything like it since I was a child. If Elone was right and ingredients were readily at hand and it was easy to sell homemade potions, I might be able to eke out an honest living that way... and getting away from a life of crime had more advantages than she knew.

At that point, Imperial guards couldn't have stopped me from going outside to test this myself.

"Wait!" Elone might succeed, though. "Are you planning to go unarmed and unarmoured?"

I stared down at myself (still clad in dreadful prison clothes and conspicuously devoid of anything resembling armour), at my hands (empty), then back at Elone, raising an eyebrow. Honestly, did I look as though I had anything like that on me? Perhaps she thought I'd mastered the art of storing items in some sort of dimensional pockets, a feat I'd read about in books. If so, I was going to have to reconsider all the advice she'd given me; I prefer to take my guidance from people with at least some resemblance of sense.

"Don't be cheeky," Elone said, fixing me with a look. "And I wasn't joking when I said this land was dangerous, you know. You're not safe even close to town, and going outside without any way to defend yourself is just asking for trouble. In fact..."she sighed heavily, then stood up. "I have an old iron short-sword I was planning to sell to Arrille one of these days. Giving it to you is probably a good investment."

"But... Elone, I don't know how to use a sword," I pointed out.

"Which end would you stick into whatever's trying to kill you?" she called back from where she was rummaging through a chest.

Was this a trick question. "The... pointy one?"

"Wonderful! See, you already know how to use a sword better than some Imperial Legion recruits." Seeing the quality of their officers, I honestly wasn't all that surprised. "And 'the sharp bit goes into the enemy' is just about the most important thing to know when you're looking at a charging nix-hound or alit. Here, how's this?"

She pressed a sword into my arms, which sagged immediately. I pondered who on earth had come up with the idea of calling this thing a 'short-sword', as I had no idea what was meant to be so short about it. I could barely lift the thing.

"Well," Elone said, "I'm sure you'll get used to the weight in time."

I wasn't convinced. "Look, Elone... I owe you a lot, for the food, for the advice, for... er... keeping quiet about certain things which the Imperial authorities really don't need to know." I gave her my best smile. "But honestly, I'm no good with weapons. I'd probably stab myself by accident instead. And I know a Destruction spell now," I held my hand up and let flames play around it. "That'll probably be more useful in a pinch than a weapon I can barely lift. So thank you, but..."

Elone's brow furrowed. "I take your meaning, but... how about this. I'll probably be here for another half an hour, gathering up some things before I go back out to search for Processus. If, during that time, you redecide, just come back here and I'll give the sword to you."

I smiled at Elone. "I'll do that. And honestly, thank you for everything. I don't know why you're spending so much time on me..."

"Let's just say I have a suspicion you might just become a productive citizen if you don't get yourself killed first. Now, off you get." She smirked. "See you in five minutes."

It took ten.

Elone was kind enough not to say "I told you so" out loud when I knocked on her door, but her face more than made up for that courtesy. My face burned. I truly hate to admit being wrong, but... they had rats.

I can already imagine the cat-calls – "Oh, don't tell me you're scared of rats." Well, ordinarily I'm not. But I'm not talking about your average household rat here. I am talking about giant rats. Monster rats. Rats like you've never seen them before. The thing came up past my knees! Its fangs were several inches long! Destruction spells aren't much use if by the time you're close enough to use them you'd have already lost that hand to a monstrous beast cleverly disguised as a rodent. I'm lucky it couldn't climb trees, or else I might not be here today.

I decided I'd stay close to Seyda Neen for the time being. Just in case.

Several hours and an interminable amount of mud, insects, and insect bites later, I'd managed to avoid any further encounters with the Evil Rats of Doom (as I'd dubbed them) but had run into several crabs of similar size - I suspected they were the source of the soup I'd had for lunch. Luckily, they were slow enough that even with a really-not-short-sword at my side I could easily get a good distance away and wait for them to calm down. I was wondering again if taking that had really been such a good idea - after all, "the pointy end goes in the enemy" is all well and good but hard to manage if you can't even hold the point steady. I supposed that I could always use it as bandit-repellent; I'd be much less likely to be attacked if they erronously believed I could lift a sword without being a danger to myself.

At any rate – what was wrong with this country? Rats and crabs are supposed to be around the length of my forearm, tops. Maybe it was something in the water? A kind of magical algae, perhaps, that made all the creatures grow to monstrous sizes? But then again, wouldn't the people be just as big? A mystery indeed.

Crabs weren't the only thing I'd encountered, as it seemed Elone had been telling the truth about more than just the wildlife. I'd found no less than four types of mushroom, one type of fern and one type of flower in the swamps near the town. I didn't recognise any of them and none looked even remotely edible, two downright poisonous. However, some experimenting proved that the glowing purplish mushrooms combined with the buds of the flower, ground to a powder and mixed with water, created a bitter substance that enabled one to walk on water for short periods of time.

I didn't feel like testing just how short; I'd seen some fish in the water and they looked just as overgrown as every other creature on this island. And hungry. Very hungry. And let's not forget their big sharp teeth, shall we?

Returning to Seyda Neen, I noticed a door in a rock nearby and an inscription engraved above it. Nearing it, I could make out that the letters read "Addamasartus" - the name of a cave, perhaps? More importantly, I could make out footprints in the marshy ground. Someone had been here, and not all that long ago.

I had no idea who might live in such a place. Maybe some more inhabitants of Seyda Neen who hadn't found housing in the town itself. Maybe caves passed for expensive housing here (I could almost believe it after the shacks I'd seen in Seyda Neen). But perhaps it was someone far more dangerous. I told myself I'd really done enough on impulse today and, despite curiosity, gave the cave a wide berth as I returned to Arrille's Tradehouse.

Arrille seemed happily surprised to see I was still alive, although the "happy" part didn't change his ruthless style a whit. It took some hard bargaining, but he gave me fifteen drakes apiece for my homemade potions, more than I was expecting; I suspected he'd agreed just to get me out of the place, as I was dripping swamp all over his floor. Not that I was going to complain. Furthermore, the flowers, called 'coda flowers', according to Arrille, were apparently quite valuable, as they had a levitating effect when chewed (I made a mental note: Substances that give levitation are valuable. Exploit this). Even after haggling myself a set of proper vials and a decent pack, my "legal" purse was once again heavy as I left the tradehouse.

I considered staying near Seyda Neen for a bit, learning about the area and earning a bit of gold through alchemy, but I really didn't plan to stick around until Arrille set his plan into motion. From what I'd seen of Hrisskar Flat-foot I suspected that if he found out who had set him up, I wouldn't get away with my head intact. Besides, although it was tempting to disappear into the wilds with the package bound for Balmora with me I knew it would be a very bad idea. Imperials tend to get cranky when their mail gets delayed or mislaid. No, the best thing to do would be to deliver the package without any further side trips and then make myself scarce. I was sure the recipient wouldn't keep me around; after all, I was hardly anyone special. Just your average thief trying to turn over a new leaf; there was really nothing more the Legion could want of me, was there?

I ignored the nagging doubts about this, which were whispering things like "Emperor's personal orders" and "shipped all the way to Morrowind" and, of course, "release fee", hardened my resolve and stepped onto the road headed for Balmora.

Gravius had mentioned a 'silt strider' travel service that could take you to Balmora. I didn't mean to use it – for one, although I had some spare money now, I wanted to make that last for a while; for another, I was distinctly unsure about how safe giant bugs were as travelling devices.

On the other hand, it was getting dark. And...

I heard a squeaking noise from further along the path, and red, beady eyes gleamed at me out of the darkness.

I took the silt strider.

 


 

It was actually much better than I was expecting. Some clever mer had hollowed out the shell on top of the beast and installed seats, meaning that passengers could ride in relative comfort, and it moved with a gentle swaying motion that was vaguely reminiscent of the ship I'd arrived in. Other people might find the gait nauseating, but my stomach remained quiet... at least, as long as I didn't look too closely at exactly how the beast was steered. There are things I never wanted to know about giant flea anatomy.

I was the only passenger but the silt strider operator, Darvame Hleran, was friendly and we whiled the time away chatting – she said she was glad for the company, as she usually transported Legion members newly off the ship from Cyrodiil to Fort Moonmoth in Balmora or, lately, Fort Buckmoth further north, near Gnisis. The moue of distaste she made speaking of the Legion made me like her quite a bit more.

Darvame also gave me what was undoubtedly the single most important piece of advice I received that day, and I'd received many.

I'd mentioned that I had never been to Morrowind before and could probably count the number of other dark elves I'd met on one hand. Surprisingly, a flash of anger crossed her features, then she sighed.

"Don't say dark elf. Say Dunmer," she told me.

I blinked, puzzled. "The old word?"

"The only word," she stressed. "Dark elf is an insult. Not quite as bad a one since you're Dunmer as well, but bad enough. And you're an outlander. No need to make people even more angry with you."

As said, the most important advice I received. Of course, Elone had been immeasurably helpful but all that wouldn't be worth anything if I accidentally gave mortal insult to a local as soon as I got into Balmora and got myself killed.

In retrospect, it should have been obvious – we say Altmer and Bosmer, so why not Dunmer? But I'd spent my life being called a dark elf, with capital letters if people wanted to be polite, it never even ocurred to me that this might qualify as an insult.

Even apart from the conversation, the ride was pleasant. We were up high enough that I had a lovely view of the surrounding countryside – swamps giving way to fields and hills, covered in flora that I was just itching to inspect, an Imperial outpost in the distance I'd make sure to avoid. Then, from one step to another, the green hillsides gave way to the grey, ashy wastes of the Foyada Mamaea, as Darvame called it.

Now, after my complaining about swamps, midges, armour, crabs, E.R.Ds, Imperial outposts and other such annoyances, one might believe I didn't like Vvardenfell, and that my first sight of the barren ashes that apparently covered much of this island would only reinforce that opinion. It was true that up till then I had been getting steadily less fond of Vvardenfell, and was seriously contemplating getting off it as soon as possible; even the fact that Morrowind was undoubtedly my ancestral home (unless anyone finds Dunmer in, say, Akavir) and that I might be able to make money from my alchemy hadn't managed to change my impression of the island. However, at my first sight of the Foyada Mamaea all that changed.

It turned out that I had left at exactly the right time. Usually, Darvame told me, the volcanic regions were an ugly grey, the monotony only broken by the occasional trama shrub, scathecraw or fireflower – none of them particular aesthetically pleasing either. Adding in the dangerous wildlife (remembering the E.R.Ds, I was tempted to ask "more dangerous than the wildlife in the swamps?" but thought better of it) it was hardly the most pleasant region of Vvardenfell. But all that changed for a brief time every day and when the silt-strider's footsteps stirred up the ashes of the Foyada Mamaea, the setting sun turned them into glittering diamond dust floating in the air.

The sight was breathtaking, the grey wastes turning gold in the sunlight. It only lasted a short while, but after it was over my eyes seemed to have changed. Rather than the drab ugliness Darvame had described, I saw austere beauty in the grey slopes, the ash whirling in the air, the few struggling plants-

Suddenly, neither this island nor the idea of spending a long time - possibly the rest of my life - here seemed as dreadful.

Even if I still thought someone should come up with an extermination program to deal with the rats.

We didn't spend long in the ash-wastes, as the Foyada Mamaea was apparently bordered by green lands on both sides (I wasn't quite sure of how this worked geographically and decided to try and find a map at some point). So the grey country quickly gave way to green fields again, although the air had a marshy tang more reminiscent of the swamp-lands I'd explored than the lands we'd travelled through. Nevertheless I saw it with new eyes, ignoring the midges and muck in favour of the lush greens, the blossoms, the smell of growing things overlaying the acrid sting of the swamp.

We reached Balmora just past sunset.

After bidding farewell to Darvame and getting off the silt strider, I stopped and stared for a while. Unlike the village of Seyda Neen, Balmora was a proper-sized town, and one built in what seemed to be the local style at that. Rather than the tall granite buildings with steeply slanted shingled roofs I was accustomed to from Solitude or the wood and daub houses with thatched roofs I remembered from my childhood, the buildings here were made out of beige bricks that put me in mind of clay. They were oddly rounded, looking almost slightly organic, and with flat roofs easily accessible by stairs – a clever idea in the balmy climate. It was dark, but the city was well-lit by torches, lanterns, candles and mage-lights, by which I could see that the city was still alive despite the hour – people strolled down the streets or reclined on the roofs, chatting. Most of the shops still seemed to be open, their services announced by flapping banners with symbols and Daedric wordings. A similar banner stood at the gate of the town, saying simply "Balmora". I touched it as I went by.

There were a number of traders near the town gate, but I ignored them; time enough for all that tomorrow, after I'd dropped off the package. Instead, I accosted a Nord passerby for directions to the nearest inn.

She looked at me disdainfully and I winced, uncomfortably aware of the sight I must cut – rough, ill-fitting prison clothing, torn and stained with swamp-muck and ash, red, greasy hair in complete disarray, my face smudged with dirt, a worn iron sword awkwardly sheathed at my side...

"Try the Eight Plates, straight ahead past the Mages' Guild. Or better the South Wall Cornerclub on the other side of the river, they cater to your kind."

Although I was loath to spend more money than I needed to on accomodations – already I was richer than I'd been in a long time and found that I quite liked that state of affairs – the sniff that accompanied the comment of "your kind" decided me. I thanked the Nord politely and set off towards the Eight Plates. (Let no one say that I am not contrary to the point of absolute idiocy.)

The Eight Plates turned out to be an upper-class establishment on the far side of town; the looks its patrons gave me as I entered almost enough to make me forget my bravado and flee back outside again. In the end, it was sheer exhaustion that compelled me forward: I didn't think I'd be able to make it to the bridge, let alone the other side of the river, without collapsing.

The proprietess looked aghast as I approached her. "Now look here, this is a good establishment and we don't serve- ah." She quieted as I hefted my full purse and turned positively friendly once I slid her a few coins.

"My pardon," I murmured, trying to sound like a useless dimwit with more money than- I mean, a noble. "I have been travelling for some days now and seek accomodation for the night."

Either my attempt at an upper-class accent was not a complete failure or the promise of money had mellowed her more than I had hoped; not only did the woman agree to rent me one of her better rooms, but also offered to run me a bath and give me supper despite the late hour. Needless to say, I accepted gladly.

The bath was just the right temperature, deep, long enough to lie down in... in short, perfect after a long day of digging up mushrooms, running from E.R.D.s and dealing with bureaucrats (I think it is obvious which of those three was most exhausting). Too perfect, actually; after scrubbing myself repeatedly and lathering my hair, I dozed off and only woke up when I tried to breathe water. Bathing when tired is a perilous business, one best attempted with either cold water, iron self-control or a ring of water-breathing.

After a great deal of choking and spluttering, some sad looks at my change of clothes (although protected from the ravages of the journey in my pack, they were just as rough and ill-fitting as the others) and a vain attempt to tame my hair, I descended into the common room.

I was informed that supper was a soup of marshmerrow, saltrice and roobrush, followed with fried nix-hound meat and kwama eggs, and decided it was probably better not to ask what any of these things were. When the meal came, the only thing I recognised was the bread on the side – but it didn't matter anyway, as I was so focused on not falling asleep in my soup I didn't even register the taste. I finished quickly, as the noise from the other patrons was making my head hurt, bade goodnight to the landlady and stumbled up the stairs again.

My room was situated on the second floor, with a lovely view over the river, a night-stand and desk and – most importantly – a large, soft-looking bed. I let myself fall on that last and was out before my head even hit the pillow.

Chapter Text

I woke when it was barely dawn, and groaned when I tried to sit up. Every muscle in my body seemed to be screaming – and no wonder, I thought ruefully, when one considered yesterday's exertion in light of the time in prison. I was sore, bruised and terribly exhausted, and simply going back to sleep seemed very, very inviting.

Except, of course, for the dream.

Even so soon after waking my memory of it was confused and broken, but I remembered enough. It had been... not quite the same dream as yesterday. The voice was gone, for which I was deeply thankful. But the changes – those had been the same. No, not the same-

Stronger.

I shuddered, remembering the feel of my body shifting in ways it had never been meant to, the sound of bones creaking under the immense strain, the sight of grey-golden skin...

This time I ignored my muscles and forced myself up and out of bed. There was a mirror hanging on the opposite wall. It reflected a dark el- a Dunmer (thinking of myself that way would take some getting used to), thin from prison, with bleary red eyes and hair the same shade going every which way. In short, just as always, and I let out a sigh of relief. It wasn't that I'd been expecting to see... someone else... but the dream had seemed so real...

"That's enough of that," I told my reflection, and busied myself with trying to bring my hair into some kind of order. Given that I didn't have a brush or comb it was a futile endeavour, but it did get my mind off the odd recurrent nightmare.

When I was satisfied I'd done all I could, I sat back down on the bed. It was very early and I was still bone-tired, but sleep was out of the question. Perhaps I'd go down and see if anyone else was up yet. I decided to leave my pack in my room, but take my purse with me. I didn't want to look as if I were sneaking out without paying, but I didn't trust the security in this place enough to leave my money unguarded. (Frankly, if any thief wanted to take Elone's short-sword they were welcome to it. And I wouldn't grieve over-much for the Imperial package, either.)

To my surprise, the proprietress was not just up but was already making breakfast. She exclaimed when she saw me and bustled me to a chair. Thinking back to the mirror upstairs, I had to agree that I looked dreadful.

"Bad night," I told her weakly when she asked why I wasn't still in bed, I certainly looked as if I needed the rest, poor dear. (I wasn't quite sure how I'd made it from "poverty-stricken scum that shouldn't set foot in my guest-house" to "poor dear" in one night, but decided not to ask.)

"Dreams?" she asked, sounding unsurprised.

Off-balance, I nodded. "Well... yes. How did you guess?"

She clucked. "It's been going around. More and more people have been having strange dreams. The soul-sickness, they call it. Feldrelo Sadri, our main priest at the Temple, is at her wits' end – or so I hear."

"This is common?" I found myself startled. Of all the things I'd expected to hear, that hadn't been it. How could nightmares be 'going around'? 'Soul-sickness' indeed, it wasn't as if they were a common illness! Or contagious!

And besides, the dreams had seemed so oddly... special, personal, tailored to me and me only. Dozens of strangers having ones like it, the voice speaking to them just as it had to me, just felt... wrong. And wasn't that a nice bit of arrogance or more probably stupidity right there, given that I didn't want the dreams to begin with?

The other woman was talking. "Not common, precisely. But growing, growing. And what's worse, the people affected, some of them start acting... strange. Not themselves. Saying odd things. And sometimes, sometimes-" her voice was now barely above a whisper, "the ones it takes very badly, sometimes they just get up and walk away. And no one ever sees them again."

Something clattered outside. I jumped, the spell broken.

"I hope you'll excuse me if that doesn't exactly make me feel any better," I said weakly.

Her mouth opened in horror. I suspected she'd been so caught up in her tale that she forgot she wasn't telling ghost-stories to passersby, but rather speaking to someone who was having the dreams herself. "Oh no, dear! I'm sure you're perfectly safe. It never takes outlanders as badly as the natives. In fact," she grew thoughtful, "I think you're the first I've ever heard of..."

"Mm," I muttered noncommittally. I didn't bother to point out that if I was the first outlander she knew of who'd ever had this 'soul-sickness', she wouldn't very well know whether they had more or less problems than the natives. For all she knew, the reason no outlanders ever reported odd dreams was because they succumbed to... whatever it was... almost immediately.

All this was unimportant, of course, as I certainly wasn't going to succumb to anything. Especially not dreams! I mean, I decided a long time ago that when I die it had better involve the gates of Oblivion themselves opening or something else appropriately dramatic. Nightmares simply do not measure up.

Suddenly, a mug of steaming dark liquid was placed before my nose. "Drink this, dear," the woman said kindly. "It'll wake you up while I finish breakfast."

I blame the lack of sleep; I didn't study the drink at all, didn't note its precise colour or viscosity, didn't so much as sniff it before taking a sip. Me, who calls herself an alchemist. The shame will follow me to my dying day.

The liquid was very hot, and very bitter. I, of course, did not mind – regarding the first, it takes a lot more than hot tea to burn any Dunmer's tongue; as for the second, I am, as mentioned, an alchemist. You would not believe the things I have voluntarily ingested. 'Bitter' is harmless.

More to the point, I could already feel the liquid clearing up the fog in my mind. It was more a restorative than a stimulant, I judged, meaning that the effect would be lasting instead of sending me crashing down once it wore off.

"This is excellent," I said. "What's in it?"

The other woman didn't turn around from the hearth, but I could almost hear the smirk in her voice. "Secret recipe."

I, of course, took this as a challenge.

I took another sip and tried to sort through the flavour. Bitter, of course. But there was a subtle, smoky undertone. Hmm. Bitter with a smoky undertone, a restorative but not a stimulant, what kind of ingredient would produce that effect?

Then I realised that of all the growing things in this country, I could recognise all of five by taste. And two of them were poisonous mushrooms..

...Perhaps it would be better to answer this challenge at a later date.

"Food's done!"

On cue, my stomach gave a loud growl, and I decided to focus on more mundane things for the next while.

 


 

I lingered over the breakfast of kwama eggs – apparently a staple of Morrowind diet, although this time they were boiled rather than fried – and bread with scrib jelly, chatting with Dulnea Ralaal (as it turned out the publican was called.) She was able to tell me a lot of things about the city. Most of it was left as undigested lumps of information in my head – I simply didn't know enough about this land to know, for instance, what being "the main Hlaalu city in Vvardenfell, although none of the Councilors make their home here" entailed – but some of it was very helpful. I now knew, for instance, that there were both a Mages' and a Fighters' Guild in town, that outside of the guilds there were numerous traders and pawnbrokers, an armourer, a bookseller as well as an alchemist (my ears perked) and a clothier offering services on this side of the river. Apparently, the other side was the slums. Well, she didn't say "slums" but as her description was much longer and much less flattering, I try to summarise.

Unfortunately, she wasn't able to tell me where to find Caius Cosades. "But if I haven't heard of him," she said thoughtfully, "he can't live westside. You might try asking at the South Wall Cornerclub, I've heard that's where those people spend their time."

The South Wall Cornerclub – that was where that Nord had wanted to send me yesterday. I sighed inwardly; so much for stiff-necked pride. If I'd gone there yesterday, I might have found Cosades right away.

Dulnea wondered why I was looking for what was undoubtedly a "dull-witted layabout, too lazy to do an honest day's work. And probably addicted to some horrible substance on top of it all." I told her I was running an errand, delivering a package from Seyda Neen, although I did my best to make her believe this was more of an ordinary mail run. "He must be an Imperial by the name," I said, "maybe he has family back in Cyrodiil or something who want to stay in contact. I wouldn't have taken the job but, well, I've fallen on hard times recently..."

All true, of course, but rather misleading – I wanted to keep the full story for myself until I knew either exactly what was going on or that it had absolutely nothing to do with me (the latter, preferably). Luckily, Dulnea didn't seem to catch the deception.

Instead, she clucked over said hard times, how skinny I was, how it was terrible that someone such as me was running errands for a person like this Cosades and, of course, how I absolutely had to stop by her friend Millie and get better clothes as soon as I could. I nodded in the appropriate places and wondered again how I'd managed to rise in Dulnea's estimation. If I could only figure out why the change, I might be able to pick up a new trick for my Making People Not Hate Adryn arsenal. It needed all the help it could get, after all.

At that point, the first other overnight guests started making their way downstairs, yawning hugely. Dulnea quickly had her hands full and since I didn't want to make a bother of myself, I paid as soon as I could and made myself scarce.

By now, the city of Balmora was waking up. Some of the shops were already open, and I spied several people waiting impatiently beside ones that weren't. A group of children – mostly Dunmer, but I saw several from the human races as well as one Orc and one Khajiit – were playing tag in the street, occasionally tripping up a passing guard in the process. Their laughter mixed with the sound of clangs and thuds coming from the lower doorway of the Fighters' Guild; clearly someone was already training. The Mages' Guild, on the other hand, was entirely silent and the door was still closed. Apparently they liked to sleep in.

On the east side of the river, things looked very different. The buildings were smaller and more run-down and the streets dirtier - I had to pick my path carefully if I didn't want to step straight into something that I never wanted that close to my skin. The people wore simple, ragged clothes, and I could spot several who looked to be homeless. What I couldn't spot, however, were guards.

Now, this would be the part where some rich person would probably run away or act as if they were surrounded by hungry wolves. I, however, relaxed. This sort of area was more familiar to me and somewhere I fitted in much better than the nice clean guard-ridden streets with fancy shops and manor houses of the west side - and honestly, I'd take pickpockets and beggars over guards every day! After all - and this is something we all work to keep away from the rich - the easiest way to get through this sort of area without a fuss is to look as though you know what you're doing and not look as though you have anything worth stealing. With my rough clothes and purse tucked out of sight inside my shirt, I fulfilled both conditions beautifully. Guards, on the other hand, are a plague on Nirn.

So I made it to the South Wall Cornerclub unmolested, with most people not giving me a second glance. It was quite noticeable that near the South Wall, the people looked more... purposeful. It wasn't anything overt, they looked just as poor as any other person living this side of the river, but there was something about them and the way they moved, something familiar...

Warning bells were going off in my head, but I couldn't quite pin down what it was.

Inside the South Wall, it was surprisingly busy; there were a few people coming and going and I could hear a great deal of conversation and activity downstairs. I blinked in surprise. I'd actually expected that no one would be up yet and I'd have to come back later. This bustle was... odd. Odder was that apparently – judging by the snippets of conversation I caught here and there – most of the people here were just 'finishing up business' before heading home and to bed.

Very nocturnal business, apparently.

The warning bells were very loud now. In just a moment, I'd-

"'Scuse me, are you Guild?"

I stared at the Nord girl who'd spoken, mind whirling. Of course. Of course, it had been so obvious, all the signs had been there, how could I have been so unbelievably stupid.

Thieves' Guild!

Clearly, my mouth was smarter than my brain; even as the latter was busy with self-recrimination, the former was working at getting me out of this situation.

"Guild? But this isn't a guild, I mean the Mages' and Fighters' Guilds are on the other side of town." I affected an expression of honest confusion. "I'm not a member of anything, I'm just looking for a person – have a package to deliver-" I hefted my pack. Harmless errand-runner, that's me. "Someone told me I should ask here."

Apparently my act of ignorance had worked. "No, of course we're not a guild of anything, we just, uh, have special discounts for, um, Mages' Guild members sometimes! Um, who are you looking for?"

"Caius Cosades," I told her, heart rate finally slowing down. Clumsy fool, that girl. First she just asked like that. After all, there were signs. Codes. Ways to make delicate inquiries such as that one without immediately arousing the suspicion of any innocent passerby. And the way she tried to backtrack... well, the less said of that the better! Why, if I were her-

Don't go down that line of thought, Adryn. You know where it leads.

"Never heard of him. You could ask Bacola Closcius, he owns this place. He knows a lot of people."

I could ask him, yes. Of course, what I really wanted to do was start running now, never come near here again, and figure out something else (such as knocking on every door in Balmora, or throwing the damn package in the river and being done with it.) Unfortunately I couldn't think of a good excuse for leaving now, and appearing suspicious was a very bad idea. So asking him it was - and sending up a prayer to Stendarr that I wouldn't be noticed by anyone else. "That sounds like a good idea," I lied. "So where can I find him?"

"Oh, right." She blushed. "His office is upstairs."

I thanked her and made my way upstairs, trying not to look as if I was running. Apparently, some small measure of luck was with me after all; judging by where all the noise was coming from, Guild business seemed to be downstairs rather than upstairs. This made avoiding them easy and meant that Closcius was probably a front for the Guild rather than an active member or – Stendarr forbid – the Mastermind of this town.

I was in even more luck – Closcius was engrossed in what looked like an account book and didn't seem to be very interested in me. He reminded me of Sellus Gravius, in a way – elderly Imperial, probably very smart and very dangerous but with his mind someplace else. (I wasn't complaining about that last part.) He didn't even ask me why I was looking for Cosades, just absently gave me directions to the man's house and then ignored me entirely. I think he'd forgotten my existence before I even left the room.

I nodded to the Nord girl as I left the building, turned a corner and collapsed against the wall.

That had been close. That had been much too close, and I silently cursed Gravius for suggesting I "ask around" in town, and Dulnea for telling me to ask here of all places. And I hadn't got away with it yet – if the Nord girl told the Mastermind about the odd messenger who'd wandered in, if they were in contact with the Skyrim guilds... I hadn't given my name, but it wasn't as if I were particularly inconspicuous...

Then it hit me, and I almost laughed out loud.

I was inconspicuous. For once in my life, I blended in with the crowd perfectly. I was a Dunmer in a land full of Dunmer. The only thing about me that was even remotely unusual was my hair colour, a coppery orange-red, and even there I'd seen another person with the exact same shade on the street.

I was safe.

"Oi, this is my spot! You can't sleep here!" A foot prodded my side, none too gently.

...well, safe in a general sense.

I apologised to the surly-looking local, dodged a second kick and got out of there. I'd run this gauntlet; now it was time to find Cosades.

 


 

To my surprise, in her speculations about Cosades' habits and nature Dulnea had been right about one thing.

Judging by, oh, the empty vials with that suspicious smell rising from them and the set of full ones sitting on the shelf and let's not forget the pipe, no, how could we even think of forgetting the pipe- well, at any rate the Imperial was definitely a skooma addict.

In the rest, however, she'd been entirely wrong. Especially when it came to the "dull-witted" part, unfortunately. The instant I opened the door, I silently cursed fate for leading me to the third smart and dangerous Imperial in two days. Sadly, this one was not busy with something else. On the contrary, he seemed far too interested in me for comfort.

It was surprising, and very disturbing. Despite my doubts, I'd expected to be shooed off once I delivered my package. Instead, Cosades told me to stay right where I was and proceeded to intersperse studying the documents that had been inside with ever longer and more thoughtful looks at me. Finally, he'd just put the stack of paper down – he hadn't even finished reading it yet! - and proceeded to stare at me openly.

Now, if I were one of those big, hulking brainless lummoxes that seem to populate every tavern in this world (I'm sure there's a machine that turns them out somewhere, some Dwemer invention gone horribly, horribly wrong; I don't know how they'd reproduce otherwise) I would've reacted to that appraising look with... well, definitely badly. Glaring back and saying something like "what do you think you're looking at, skooma-head?" came to mind. I am, however, not big, not hulking, not brainless or a lummox – at least I like to think so – and definitely, definitely not suicidal. So instead, I shifted nervously from foot to foot, folded my arms over my breasts – it didn't seem like that kind of appraising look, but I'm paranoid – tried to look everywhere except at the man while still keeping a wary eye on him (which is just as physically impossible as it sounds like, for the record) and dearly wished for my daggers.

Not that I would have used them. I mentioned not being suicidal, right? But in a way, a pair of daggers in spring-loaded wrist-sheaves can be the well-trained adult's teddy bear replacement. Not particularly cuddly unless you buy the right sheath, and I wouldn't recommend sleeping with them, but there is a certain measure of comfort that comes from knowing you have two instruments of sharp and pointy death at your fingertips and no one knows. A shortsword just isn't the same, even without considering the fact that I was probably more of a danger to myself than to anyone else with the thing.

I realised I was babbling, albeit mentally, and forced myself to concentrate on the situation at hand.

Cosades was still studying me, brows furrowed. I really wondered why he was taking so long; it normally takes people all of half a second to jump to conclusions about me. Perhaps the extra time would show itself in even more spectacularly absurd judgements than usual? Considering the current record lay at accusing me of cannibalism (honestly, I am not a Bosmer – and even they only eat their dead!) I was intrigued to know what he'd come up with.

The Imperial was muttering something to himself. "...don't know who is in charge of picking these people, probably get sent a Sload next at this point..." I managed to catch. Then he sighed, loudly, and pinched the bridge of his nose.

"Well, I suppose I have to make do with what I've got. Adryn, right?"

I nodded warily.

"Now, if anyone asks? I'm an amateur historian, and you delivered some rare books I'd had shipped in from Cyrodiil. A few volumes of the 2920 series, I think. As to why you're actually here..." Cosades smiled. It was entirely humourless. "Welcome to the Blades."

...wait.

What?

The cannibalism had easily been surpassed. Thinking I was in any way, shape or form suitable to be an Imperial spy definitely took the record for the most bizarre thing anyone had thought of me yet. The Imperial had to be on a skooma high. I started to back away slowly.

"Stay right there." The voice was like a whip, and it seemed to go straight to my legs – which locked up dutifully – without asking permission of my brain in between.

"I know what you're thinking," he continued, voice softer. "You're thinking, 'this man has lost his mind. Too much sugar.' Well, I may have something of a sugar problem – but I'm also the head of the Blades here on Vvardenfell."

I choked. It was insane, it was impossible, it was the delusions dreamed up between some man and his skooma pipe and I should get out of here and leave him to his madness.

But...

I'd seen some skooma-addicts in my time, and none of them had acted like Cosades. Skooma causes all sorts of issues, but not generally delusions. And that voice... it was, I slowly realised, the voice of a man long used to command, to being obeyed without question.

And, of course, if Cosades was mad – why had Gravius sent me to him?

"Right, so you're an Imperial spymaster," I told him. I'd meant for it to sound sarcastic, but somehow it didn't come out that way. "But what do you want with me?"

Cosades raised an eyebrow. "I just told you. You're to be inducted into the Blades, Emperor's own orders. Rank of Novice."

I sputtered. "But- wait- this is absolutely ridiculous! You're saying that you dragged me all the way to Morrowind, released me from prison, all so I could join the Emperor's own personal spy ring?"

"Yes."

I sputtered some more. Cosades waited patiently until I'd calmed down enough to manage a "but why me?"

"I'm afraid you're not high enough in rank to be told that yet. Need-to-know, you understand."

I was about to explain to Cosades at length that if anyone needed to know, it was me, but he held up a hand, his presence filled the room as if he'd suddenly doubled in size and my mouth snapped shut. (Disturbing trick, that. Much like a Command spell without the magic, and that was a thought that made the hair rise on the back of my neck.)

"Now, Novice Adryn..." he looked me over (really, hadn't he seen enough by now?) and his expression grew pained. Apparently, although I'd never realised this before, I had the ability to cause headaches on sight. I was sure it would come in handy.

"Normally," Cosades continued, "I'd now determine your level of experience-"

"But I don't want to be in the Blades!" I blurted out.

"What you want isn't the issue, Novice." I shivered; it seemed as if the temperature of the room had suddenly dropped to freezing. "The Emperor himself wants you to be in the Blades. It is not healthy to contradict the Emperor. Not for me, and especially not for you. Therefore, you are now a member of the Blades. Do you understand?"

I nodded, cowed.

"Now, as I was saying, I'd ordinarily judge your level of experience, strengths, weaknesses, areas to focus on. Probably suggest some guilds for you to join, trainers to seek out, consider whether you were ready to go on missions already or needed more time first. But as for you-"

I quirked an eyebrow.

"-Dibella's tits! I don't even know where to begin. You're like a feral cat." Breton, Bosmer and now Khajiit – was it really so hard to figure out that I was Dunmer? Red eyes, grey skin, one wouldn't think it was that difficult. I was waiting for someone to tell me I was an Orc now, just to finish things off. "Claws out and ready to attack the first person who tries to come near you." And really, that was an exaggeration. I didn't have my daggers anymore, after all. "Look, just take this money and come back when you're ready to deal with civilisation."

I blinked at the proferred pouch. By the bulge, I'd guess it was probably twice as much as what Gravius had given me. With this, I could make a good start here. But-

"I don't want it," I told him. Part of me was mentally kicking myself already; I was turning down money! Free money! Had I lost my mind?

Except, of course, that the money wasn't free. Just like with the money from Gravius, although there I hadn't seen it yet... there were strings attached, strings I had no intention of getting anywhere near. Taking that money meant accepting the position that was being forced on me, acquiescing to becoming a member of the Blades, bought and sold like a slave-

No, I had no intention of touching that money.

"Who said you had a choice?" Cosades snapped. "Take it. Get out of here. Talk to people. Start looking like a sentient being instead of a cornered animal. That's an order, Novice Adryn."

In some situations, intentions matter little.

I took the money and fled.

Outside, I found myself a quiet, abandoned corner and counted how much it was, twice.

Two hundred drakes. Two hundred drakes exactly. That was how much my life was worth.

I hugged my knees to my chest and cried.

 


 

Some time later, I stood in front of the Mages Guild.

Something Cosades – I shuddered at the name – had said stuck with me. Probably suggest some guilds for you to join...

I vaguely recalled Elone had said something similar – and it made perfect sense, of course. When I was young I wanted to join the Mages Guild, but... well... by the time I was old enough things weren't working out that way. Also, I'd heard the stories of the entrance requirements. Not just entrance requirements regarding magical skills, oh no, a decent background and money were far more important prerequisites. After all, never mind the magical skill, it would be absolutely appalling if a common or poor person got in!

But I was in Morrowind now, and even in the barely-a-day I'd been on the island I'd learned enough to doubt that the guild here was anything like the bloated organisation made up of emigrant Altmer and nobles' sons I'd encountered. Moreover, I was trying to make a fresh start. As I'd told the bureaucrat in Seyda Neen, magic was probably my best skill after certain things he didn't need to know about and I was trying to avoid using. Why not try to join the Mages Guild?

And besides, the worst they could do was laugh at me.

Actually, a pessimistic corner of my mind pointed out, there were a lot of things worse than that they could do. A lot of them involved guards or prisons, the more inventive ones paralysis spells and summoned Daedra. It just wasn't very likely they'd do anything worse than laugh at me, provided I refrained from mortally insulting any high-ranking mages, ruining any experiments, destroying priceless magical artifacts-

All right, I was doomed.

I almost turned tail and ran right then, but I'd already reached the door to the Guild and my own stubborn pride wouldn't let me quit so close to my goal. That pride would be the death of me one day, I predicted gloomily. I just hoped it wasn't this day.

I reached forward to open the door, smiling as I felt the soft wool of my new robe against my arm. Before coming to the guild I'd stopped by the clothier in town, run by Dulnea's friend Millie. I'd spent rather more of my money than planned – I refused to count Cosades' into that amount – but it had been well worth it just for the feeling of being able to throw away the old prison clothes. The new clothes weren't very fine, but they were well-made, durable and, best of all, actually tailored for someone my general size and shape instead of an Altmer-sized humanoid octopus (or so I'd guessed, given the general size and placement of holes.) Adding in a long session with the comb Millie had thrown in, and I almost felt like a whole new person.

The door creaked open, and I peered in cautiously.

Inside, I found a stone corridor with a flight of stairs going up to the right. Hardly any light filtered through the windows, but there were paper lanterns hanging from the walls so I could see quite well.

The place was obviously rich, with expensive tapestries hanging from the walls and a fine carpet underfoot, but I found myself disappointed. Where were the magic lights? The summoned servants? The magical items? The strange and exotic magical instruments? I'd been expecting an enchanted carpet at the very least, possibly one that was woven from, oh, Tsaesci hair, and screamed loudly whenever an intruder set foot on it.

Really, the most magical thing in the place so far looked like the robes of the Dunmer woman standing in front of me.

Wait.

Dunmer?

"Um, hello!" I greeted the woman I'd been ignoring sheepishly.

She raised an eyebrow and looked me up and down without answering. Ordinarily, I would have reacted angrily to her rudeness, but since I was here in order to ask a favour (or rather, beg to be allowed to join the Guild) I endured it silently.

"Are you here to join the Guild?"

I jerked in surprise. "How did you know?" I mean, even with the new robe I hardly looked like someone who would be joining the Guild, did I? Not rich enough, not noble enough, not Altmer enough, and far too much thief. The only way she could have known was via... telepathy.

I thought back on what had been going through my mind earlier.

I was doomed. The paralysis spell would hit me any moment now. The only thing I could hope for was Mehrunes Dagon's mercy – a quick death.

So far, however, the woman didn't seem to be casting any spells, paralysis or otherwise. Instead, she had a rather smug look on her face. "Quite elementary. You're clearly an outlander, for one, meaning that you are undoubtedly more likely to join the Guild than the natives. You are wearing a robe, and you don't look as though you have enough money for the services here. And you're new to Balmora, probably new to Vvardenfell entirely. Added to the apparent lack of money, it implies that you are in need of support, of the kind the Guild offers. Am I correct?"

"Completely," I responded, dazed. No telepathy then. A narrow escape indeed.

Quickly, I turned my mind from my apparently not imminent after all doom to the matter at hand. Time to plead my case. "I'm a good alchemist, and I have some skills in almost all the magical schools. Mysticism is probably my best, I know two Detection spells and-"

"Can you write?" the woman interrupted.

I blinked, thrown off track. If literacy had to be explicitly stated as a requirement, the standards for entry here were indeed a lot lower than in Cyrodiil. I had a chance of getting in.

"Well, yes. Quite well-"

"Good." Apparently, I wasn't to be allowed to finish a sentence. Thankfully, I was still not suicidal and therefore not inclined to get angry about it. "It makes the registration much easier. Here, just write your name down here and sign there."

I blinked at the book being held beneath my nose. It had three columns – 'Date', 'Name' and 'Signature'. Looking at the previous entries, I noted that for many of them the date and name had been written in the same elegant hand while "signature" was a single scrawled letter X.

Apparently, literacy wasn't a requirement for the Morrowind Mages' Guild.

"Are you going to join or not?"

I apologised, took the proferred book and quill pen and neatly noted my name, then paused.

"Well?" I really wasn't sure why she was so impatient. After all, she'd just been standing there when I'd arrived, it didn't seem as if she had anything else to do.

I expected saying this would not get me much in the way of good-will, guild-joining or anything at all except possibly for that paralysis spell. And besides, given that she was a high-ranking mage, she'd probably been engaged in important matters that only required standing there and staring that I couldn't possibly understand. Trying to come up with a telepathy spell, no doubt. So instead, I simply said, "Could you tell me today's date? I'm afraid I've lost track of time."

"The twentieth of Hearthfire." The look she gave me with her answer let me know that she would never do something as ridiculous and unmagelike as forgetting what date it was. I resisted the impulse to tell her that if she'd been under a sleep spell for at least three days she'd be a little muddled too, instead quickly noted it down and signed my name with a flourish.

As I handed the book back, I noted that I felt just the same as before. Strange, that. I would have thought being member of the Mages' Guild would make me feel... different, somehow. Apparently the arrogance wasn't inherent to being in the Guild - who could have guessed?

"All right. Welcome to the Mages' Guild, Associate-" she looked at the book, "-Adryn. No family name?"

Once I had duly confirmed that yes, I really had no family name (it happens! I fail to understand why people get so odd about it!) she continued. "Associate Adryn, right. I am Ranis Athrys, a Wizard in the Guild and Guild Steward for the Balmora Mages' Guild. Would you like to hear the Mages' Oath?"

"Wait a minute, shouldn't you have asked me that before I joined?" I asked, surprised.

Ranis waved her hand dismissively. "Oh, that kind of thing is hardly very important, now is it? Time enough once you've joined."

I was getting the vague impression that the Mages' Guild was eager for new members. I have no idea what could have made me think so. Honestly.

"Well, I would like to hear the Mages' Oath," I told Ranis firmly.

Ranis rattled it off with the ease of long habit – there couldn't be that few new recruits if she was this familiar with it, I thought. It was pretty much what I'd been expecting, all about the pursuit of knowledge and the like. I took it fully sincerely and honestly, although the sidelong glances Ranis gave me made me suspect that she didn't think so.

"Well, that's that," Ranis said once I was done. "The other members are downstairs, in our common area – there are temporary beds for those of us who don't yet have a place of their own." A rather pointed hint, but I was grateful for it. If I stayed at the Eight Plates every day, my funds would be gone very quickly – even if I used the Blades' money, which I had absolutely no intention of doing. (I had very fond dreams of returning that money to Cosades one day. Preferably from a distance, with a slingshot and good aim.)

"Advancement in the guild is achieved if you have the necessary skill and have shown your loyalty to the guild by doing the appropriate duties. I don't have anything suitable for an Associate at the moment, so if you want any duties, speak to Ajira downstairs. Is there anything else you would like to know? Because I would rather like to get back to my work."

Given that Ranis was looking rather impatient and I was already close to completely overwhelmed with the things I'd learned in the past few days, I told her that no, that was everything, thanked her and headed downstairs.

 


 

 

Downstairs, the air was pleasantly cool and dry, and I paused for a moment to gather my wits and look into the large room that was apparently the centre of the guild.

We were below ground, so there were no windows, but the room was well-lit with yet more lanterns. There were several comfortable-looking blue bunk beds in a corner, a number of shelves filled with books and what looked like an alchemy lab at the far end. There were also a number of people, who I assumed from the location and robes they were wearing to be mages - an Orc who only looked up from her book to glare at whatever had interrupted her concentration, an elderly Altmer and a fellow dar- Dunmer deep in conversation, and in the corner with the alchemical devices a Khajiit and a Bosmer who were also deep in conversation, except that theirs seemed rather less friendly. Now, I admit I was judging on first sight so maybe I was entirely wrong and they were in fact the best of friends, but the scowls, extended claws and swishing tail (Khajiit) and pestle being held in a threatening manner (Bosmer) all contributed to leave a certain... impression.

Oh, and the shouting. The shouting added a certain something to the scene.

"-telling me to get out? My desk is upstairs, true, but I'm hardly barred from the main area of the guild. I have just as much right to be here as you do, you-"

"Well, if Galbedir insists on coming down here and disturbing Ajira while they are both supposed to be working, maybe she can explain why Ajira's request for violet corprinus and luminous russula from the Vivec guild disappeared-"

The Bosmer tried to look outraged, but with that level of acting she'd have been laughed out of any tavern in Skyrim. Yes, even the ones where the patrons are so drunk they have a bucket next to each table and handholds on the bar. I could spot the smug look she was trying to hide from the entrance. "As if you have any evidence for such an accusation! But I suppose lying is just to be expected from someone who is so lazy as to request easy-to-find local ingredients from the main guild instead of going and getting them herself-"

The Khajiit - I assumed she was Ajira - bristled. And let me tell you, that word takes on an entirely new meaning with Khajiit. "Why you-"

"Would the both of you shut up?" a new voice interrupted. A Breton woman, standing near the arguing pair, who I'd somehow missed earlier. "I'm trying to concentrate, you know. If the guild guide network collapses and half Vvardenfell comes knocking on our door complaining about it I'll send them to you, then you'll be sorry!"

"Ajira would be happy to shut up if Galbedir left, stopped trying to sabotage her work and get your filthy hands off my equipment-" Ajira had apparently just noticed that Galbedir had appropriated a pestle as a makeshift weapon.

"Girls." Total silence fell, only interrupted by the thud of Galbedir dropping the pestle. I goggled at the Altmer who'd interrupted in amazement. She hadn't even raised her voice!

"I am ashamed of both of you," she continued. "Carrying on like this, and when we have a customer, to boot!"

Five pairs of eyes snapped to me, prompting me to try to hide (it's a reflex! I can't help it!). The effort was sadly futile, given that I was standing in full torchlight - I may be good, but I'm not the Grey Fox. It didn't stop me from trying to become one with the bare stone wall behind me all the same.

"Oh, don't be shy," the Altmer continued. "What are you here for? Are you looking for spells? Potions? Enchanted items? Transport?"

"Actually, I just joined the guild. Ranis Athrys said I should speak to Ajira for assignments?" I inched away from the wall, mourning our too-brief friendship. I was starting to regret joining, as so far the guild members weren't exactly giving off an overwhelming impression of mental stability - of the six in the room, one had her nose in a book and was ignoring everyone, three seemed to spend their time shouting at one another, and I was wary of the Altmer. There had to be more to the mer who could stop the Ajira and Galbedir show with a word.

"Ah, a new Associate! Welcome, we're all pleased to have you. I'm Estirdalin, and these are Marayn Dren, Ajira, Galbedir, Masalinie Merian and Sharn gra-Muzgob," she pointed to each of the mages in turn, and I decided not to commend that I'd managed to work out two of those for myself. And it was relatively easy to work out who each of the remaining names must belong to, given the races of the people in question...

I noticed Estirdalin looking at me expectantly and quickly reviewed the conversation in my head- oh. She was probably waiting for me to introduce myself. "I'm Adryn," I said. Really, this made how many times in two days? I ought to invest in a name tag. And possibly add on "the next person who asks 'no family name?' will get to experience my brand-new Firebite spell free of charge. Really, nobody wonders about it with Bosmer or Altmer, but if a d- Dunmer shows up with only a first name suddenly everyone has to make inane comments." Well, a bit more briefly than that.

Thankfully for my relations with my new guildmates, Estirdalin's only reaction to my name was a quirk of an eyebrow. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Adryn. Now, if I may be so bold as to ask-" Altmer. Always have to play more-manners-than-thou. "-did you join the guild primarily to take advantage of the services, or out of a genuine interest in the art of magic?"

I wrinkled my nose. "Interest, of course. I've always wanted to learn more about magic, but never properly had the chance." Really, as if any sane person would tell a room full of dedicated mages that the only reason they'd joined was to take advantage of the services!

...come to think of it, given Ranis' attitude earlier I doubted it was all that unusual.

"I do know quite a bit about alchemy, and some magic," I concluded.

Suddenly, I saw Ajira making shushing signs from the corner of my eye. But it was too late.

Estirdalin's eyes gleamed. "Really. I hope you don't mind if I ask you a few questions about that?"

What followed was the most exhausting grilling I had ever undergone in my life. I had no idea what that old Altmer was doing at the Mages' Guild; she should be in some Imperial dungeon, teaching professional interrogators how to really get answers. At the end, it felt as if every single fact I knew about any aspect of magic and a few I didn't had been dredged out of my brain. Estirdalin looked happy; I mainly wanted to crawl over to the soft, inviting-looking bed and sleep for a day.

"That's all very interesting! I'll have to think of a training schedule for you." Okay, forget sleep. Sleep could only bring temporary relief. Sleep meant waking up, meant facing Estirdalin again at some point. Death, on the other hand...

"Excuse me, but Ajira thinks she heard Adryn say that the Dunmer was to take duties from her," a voice interrupted from behind us. Ajira, apparently. Only Khajiit and Argonians are that cruel to grammar. "And she said she is most interested in alchemy, which is Ajira's specialty, no?"

"She is – I mean, I am," I agreed hastily. At that moment, I was completely prepared to forgive and forget Ajira's earlier vicious attack on my eardrums and her massive abuse of the third person. No, Ajira was saving me from Estirdalin. For that, I'd declare her my new best friend.

"Well!" Estirdalin seemed skeptical, but then sighed. "I suppose you're right. But if you ever want any proper nurture of your magical skills, girl-"

"I'll come to you, of course, Estirdalin Thank you very much. It's... too great of an honour for me," I invented rapidly. "I don't think I could... profit from it properly at the moment. I don't have the proper... mindset."

"Hmph. I see. Well, come to me if you ever change your mind." Estirdalin still did not seem convinced, but was apparently not inclined to argue. Silently, I thanked each of the Nine Divines, and then the Daedra Lords for good measure. I'm not a Daedra worshipper, but some situations are specia. Besides, I suspect that if Ajira hadn't saved me from Estirdalin, I would have quickly become a devotee of Sheogorath, if you know what I mean.

"Come," Ajira was whispering and tugging at my robe. "Before she changes her mind."

I noted with satisfaction that prison had not reduced my ability to move very, very quickly in life-or-death situations.

We fled to behind the alchemy desk (I eyed it, wondering if it might be possible to fortify it somehow) and, after a minute, Estirdalin sighed and walked away. Once I was sure the danger had passed, I found myself collapsing in helpless giggles.

"It is not funny," Ajira said reprovingly. "The honoured Estirdalin is very, very... dedicated." Her whiskers twitched. "Ajira spent two days working with her when she arrived."

"Goodness. How did you survive?" I managed between giggles, then clapped my hands over my mouth. I hadn't meant to say that aloud.

Ajira looked as if she were about to take offense, but then her mouth quirked in what I recognised as a rueful smile. "With difficulty." And that set me off again.

I eventually managed to calm down, rather embarrassed – I wasn't usually given to hysterical laughter. I decided to blame it on stress; I hadn't exactly had an easy few days of it, after all.

The Breton in the other corner (I didn't know how she could stand it, not having some kind of barrier between her and Estirdalin) was staring at me as if she thought I were mad. I didn't take it badly; I wouldn't be at all surprised to find I was mad. Yes, that must be it – I'd lost my mind in prison and everything that had happened had been one long hallucination. It was so obvious, I couldn't imagine why I hadn't figured it out earlier. I mean, giant fleas as transportation? Being forcibly inducted into the most infamous and elusive spy network in existence? The Empire actually giving people money? That last at the very least should have clued me in on something not being right.

Of course, even now that I'd deduced this, I figured I might as well go with the flow anyway seeing as it was being quite pleasant as hallucinations went.

Not that I have much in the way of experience with hallucinations. Hardly any, in fact. Really, you could call it none at all. And if anyone ever mentions an incident involving me, intercepted smuggling goods, an unfortunate failure of my skill at identifying alchemical substances and two pounds of highly refined moon sugar, they are lying through their teeth.

Just saying.

Ajira was not looking at me as if I was mad, I noticed. Instead, she looked as if she knew exactly how I was feeling. Which she probably did. Two days? I have no idea how she managed to escape sane.

"It was said to aid in your escape, but Ajira would like to speak about alchemy," she said.

I flinched. Expecting me to participate in another interrogation? Voluntarily? Clearly I'd been mistaken. Ajira had not escaped sane, she just faked it very well.

Clearly, my thoughts must have been written clearly on my face because Ajira hurriedly added, "not like that!" She took a breath. "I have no wish to test your knowledge. Nor the knowledge needed to do so," she added self-deprecatingly. "Ajira is very, very interested in alchemy, in the making of potions, yes? But she is not very skilled, just a beginner in the art. And there are no others here with the knowledge and inclination to help her learn."

"Oh. Of course." I said. Then it sank in. "Wait, you want to learn from me, of all people? Are you mad? I'm barely an amateur myself!"

"You did not sound one when Estirdalin questioned you," Ajira argued. "The Dunmer spoke about using repeated distillation as a technique for reducing the length of draining effects. That is not something Ajira has ever come across before."

I took a moment, then realised that 'the Dunmer' was probably supposed to be me. "Oh, that's just a trick I picked up somewhere."

"You mentioned quite a few such... tricks." Now Ajira sounded petulant.

"But they're really nothing special," I tried to argue. "Just shortcuts and cheats to make up for the lack of real knowledge."

Ajira didn't say anything. She just stared at me soulfully.

I looked into her green eyes and felt myself wilt. Ajira was still quite young as Khajiit went, and the way she made her eyes go wide and fur puff out made her look like a sad kitten. I've been accused of being heartless before, but even I can't possibly say no to that.

"Fine," I groused, "I'll try to teach you what I can. But!" I added sternly when I saw Ajira's eyes light up, "in return you teach me about the local ingredients, where to find them, their properties and all that."

"Easily done," Ajira purred. "Ajira does not know much herself, but Ranis has assigned to her a report about the local plants. This way, she can kill two cliff-racers with one fireball."

I blinked. That was a variation on the old proverb I hadn't come across yet. "What are cliff-racers and why would you need to kill them?"

"If you haven't come across them yet, treasure your innocence," the Breton (who had been eavesdropping on our conversation so obviously I'd had to fight the urge to go over and explain to her how to listen in properly) tossed in from the other side of the room. "They're terrible, terrible pests and all over the place these days. So much for the much-vaunted Ghostfence if it can't even keep simple animals in the Ashlands where they're supposed to be."

"Oh, and you think the Ghostfence was made to keep in cliff-racers, do you, Masalinie?" a gravelly voice interrupted. Apparently Marayn had also been listening in (and much better than Massilein, at that. I silently congratulated him.) "You think the Tribunal is so worried about us having to deal with flying reptiles, of all things, that they created the Ghostfence just so no one had to worry about them?"

Misanalie tossed her head. "And I suppose you believe all the stories about some ancient evil sitting under Red Mountain?"

Marayn frowned. "I'm no member of the Temple. But there's something there, that's for sure. Or where do you think the Blight comes from? Or how about... corprus?" His voice was oddly hushed on that last word. "I tell you, the creatures inside the Ghostfence are beyond description. Not that you would know. When was the last time you visited Ghostgate, Masalinie? This year? Last year? Oh, right – never. That was it."

"I have important duties here," Masa- Masi- the Breton (I mentally gave up on her name) snapped. "And besides-"

I would have liked to continue listening to the discussion; I didn't have a single clue as to what they were talking about (what was this "Ghostfence", anyway?) but seeing people yelling at someone not me is something of a novel experience and I like to partake of it whenever I have the opportunity. However, at this point Ajira tugged on my sleeve.

"What are you- oh, right," I sighed when I saw her expectant eyes. "Alchemy."

 


 

I had been highly dubious about the arrangement – really, after Estirdalin, it was a wonder I hadn't run screaming for the hills the moment Ajira had suggested it, especially since my first impression of her was more along the lines of "clawed incarnation of fury" than "good working partner" – but it actually seemed to be working well. I'd been keeping an escape route in mind in case this turned into yet another interrogation, seeing as I figured I'd fulfilled my quota for the next three lives at least, but it turned out to be unneccessary - and once away from Galbedir Ajira actually turned out to be friendly and quite easy to get along with, leading me to suspect that the blame for the obvious feud was mostly the Bosmer's. And although we started with Ajira asking me probing questions about the various tricks I'd picked up to get the most out of shoddy equipment, I soon figured out that Ajira had a few things hidden up her sleeve as well, and from there the whole thing quickly devolved into shop talk.

I surprised myself with how intensely I enjoyed the conversation, which ranged from a debate about whether skooma pipes could be used as reasonable substitutes for alembics (that one ended with me deciding to get hold of one and show her that you can make perfectly acceptable potions with them, although I figured I should probably wait until the other guild members weren't around lest they get the wrong impression) to methods of determining the effect of some unknown plant other than the classic of slipping it into your rival's food and watching closely to see what happened. Even the short break we took to arrange lunch made me impatient. Clearly, it had been far too long since I'd had any form of intellectual stimulation.

An immense surprise, I'm sure. After all, everyone knows that prison is the perfect place to have conversations about the minutiae of obscure branches of alchemy and-

Actually, it probably is. Except that poisons have never quite managed to capture my interest – not the proper thing for my career plans, you understand, and I think it might give the wrong impression – and I don't think the potential conversation partners are all too interested in sharing their knowledge.

At any rate, I was veritably starved for intelligent conversation on a subject in my area of interest, and from what she'd said about the other guild members' interest in alchemy I suspect Ajira was likewise. We didn't just continue the conversation over lunch, no, we started the practical experiments over lunch. For a while, anyway. Nine out of ten alchemy instructors will tell you that mixing food and alchemy is a bad idea. Now, I would generally merrily ignore this kind of advice, as nine out of ten alchemy instructors are stodgy boring old men who've probably never worked with an untested ingredient in their lives. However, on rare occasion they are actually right – and this was definitely one of them, I had to admit as I poured the third antidote down Ajira's throat. (It took two more until her face finally regained its normal colour.)

I apologised profusely to Ajira, because I suspected it was me who'd splashed the bittergreen-gravedust mix onto her scrib jerky. Luckily, she didn't seem inclined to hold a grudge. "It could have happened to me just as easily, friend Adryn," she said once she could talk again. "Ajira should watch what she eats."

I noted that I had been upgraded from "the Dunmer" to "friend Adryn" post-poisoning. So poisoning people made them like you more? This did not line up with my usual experience of the world.

We both decided it was probably wiser to leave all practical experiments until after lunch. As we were both very eager to test whether the bittergreen-gravedust mixture had any other effects than making Khajiit change colour, this had the unintended side-effect of turning lunch into something that looked more like an eating contest. (I won.) We were back at the alembic before we'd even swallowed the last bite.

It turned out the bittergreen-gravedust mixture was pretty much worthless, but then I mentioned that I wondered how that poisoning effect compared to the way the mushrooms worked (I swear I was telling the truth about not wanting to be an assassin – this was purely intellectual curiosity!) as I'd done some tests but had focused more on the water-walking effect...

Ajira's tail went ramrod-straight. Apparently I'd captured her interest. "You have experimented with the mushrooms?" she asked.

"Well, yes," I answered, slightly puzzled. "Just yesterday. I wasn't able to do much with them, so I still have-"

"You have samples?" Ajira interrupted me, excited. "Ajira has been looking for those mushrooms for days now!"

I found this statement rather puzzling, seeing as the swamp was filled with the things. All Ajira would have had to do was to take the silt strider to Seyda Neen and walk off the platform in order to have more mushrooms than anyone could ever need within reach. And I was sure there was swampland near Balmora too. What on earth was wrong with Ajira that she had to wait for me to bring her mushrooms and not collect her own?

Luckily, this was one of the few occasions that my brain was faster than my mouth, meaning I did not ask or point out any of that out loud. Being "friend Adryn" was very nice and all, but I didn't really want to test how far that title went.

Instead, I got my pack from the corner I'd tossed it in and rummaged through it. Mortar and pestle... water skin... the shirt I'd bought at Arrille's... I wondered if Ajira would stop staring at me if I asked. Possibly, possibly not, possibly she would do something quite violent to me for asking. Mentioning the mushrooms seemed to have unbalanced her – were they hallucinogenic? Addictive? Had I accidentally got myself involved in the drug trade?

I firmly banished such wild flights of the imagination (Ajira as a drug dealer? Really, now), shoved a change of underthings to the bottom of the pack before the Khajiit spotted them and found myself very, very grateful that I had decided to drop off the Imperial package before stopping by the Mages' Guild. I doubted Ajira would have asked any questions, but her seeing it might have caused problems.

Finally, I rose from my crouch clutching my ingredient vials triumphantly. I really had no idea how they'd managed to work themselves to the bottom of my pack, upside-down. Then again, it's always the case that what you need is at the very bottom, no matter where you put it to begin. My theory is that invisible Daedra rearrange your belongings in order to keep whatever you need most at any given moment as far away from you as possible. Miniature scamps, maybe. Judging by what I've read, it seems the kind of thing they would do.

Ajira almost snatched the vials out of my hands, staring at them avidly. The gleam in her eyes made me start giving more and more credence to my drug theory. (Dealer, no. Addict, on the other hand? I mean, she was a Khajiit.)

"Um, Ajira," I asked cautiously. "What do you need these for, exactly?"

Ajira blinked. "Ranis Athrys has asked Ajira to study the local mushrooms. Ranis asked a week ago, and she has been getting rather impatient. But Ajira could not find the mushrooms, none of her suppliers stocked them."

At this point, my brain decided to prove that its recent victory over my mouth had been a fluke. "But why don't you just go out into the swamp and get some?" I blurted out. "They're everywhere!"

The dark look Ajira gave me almost made me take a step back. "Go out? Into the wilds? Impossible. It is far too dangerous."

Remembering the E.R.D.s, I had to agree that the place wasn't exactly harmless. Still, considering how ubiquitous the mushrooms were, the relative number of trees and the climbing abilities of rats, I felt Ajira was exaggerating.

"It's really not that bad. I mean, sure the wildlife is pretty dangerous, but-" Ajira scowled more and more as I went on, and I knew shutting up right now would be the smart thing to do. Unfortunately, I couldn't make myself stop talking. "-you can always run, or climb trees, or-"

"There are dangers here other than the wildlife," Ajira snapped. "Not that the Dunmer would know about that."

I blinked, both at the odd stress put on my race and at the fact that I'd apparently been demoted. It hurt more than I'd expected, considering I'd only known Ajira for a few hours and had spent most of that time trying to get over... unfortunate first impressions. "Of course I wouldn't. I've only been here for a day," I responded, unable to keep an injured tone from creeping into my voice.

Ajira blinked, and her expression lightened again. I had the odd impression that she was looking at me rather than through me for the first time since we started talking about mushroom collection expeditions. "Ajira is sorry, friend Adryn. I had forgotten you are not native Dunmer."

Meaning that if I had been native Dunmer, her getting angry at me would have been entirely justified? Mysteries within mysteries. Still, I was happy enough that Ajira had got over her snit that I didn't really want to get her angry again by trying to figure out what it had been about.

"Complete newcomer, that's me," I said cheerfully instead. "Entirely ignorant of anything that goes on on this island – it is an island, right? I mean, for all I know it could be an oddly-shaped peninsula. Or land-locked, and the coast is just an optical illusion perpetrated by bored wizards. Really, the main thing I know about this country is what its mushrooms look like."

Ajira laughed. It sounded oddly forced. "Then let us consider the mushrooms, friend Adryn."

 


 

We spent the rest of the day considering mushrooms. First we replicated my water-walking potions, using an orangeish waxy substance Ajira called "kwama cuttle" as we didn't have any scales to hand. When one of the greenish ones ("luminous russula", according to Ajira) accidentally made its way into the mix, we discovered that these mushrooms had not a water-walking but a water-breathing effect. It'd be handy for any underwater explorations, I supposed, if it weren't for those dratted fish.

Of course, we also discovered that the two types of mushrooms combined created a poison that wasn't destroyed in the boiling process, unlike when they were used separately. Luckily, after Ajira's previous misadventure we'd kept the antidote potions close to hand.

It was already quite late when we turned our minds to the other two types of mushrooms, the distinctly similar-looking brown ones I'd found growing on tree trunks. It seemed that no matter how you sliced, ground, beat to a pulp, stewed, boiled, or – well, no matter which way you prepared them, the only effect they had was of draining some attribute of yours. And a different one each time, to boot. By the time we found the fifth one, I was wondering whether some capricious Daedric Lord had placed these on the island as a trap for the unwary traveller. "Oh no, these mushrooms aren't poisonous!" I can already hear people say. "Of course, they will make you slow, tired, clumsy, weak, frail, and probably result in your collapsing defenseless and getting eaten alive by E.R.D.s But no, they're not poisonous at all!" Come to think of it, that sounds rather like Sheogorath's brand of humour.

Still, pretty much anything you can find has some beneficial use, however hard to discover. I argued about this with Ajira over dinner; she had come to the conclusion that Ranis Athrys was making fun of her and the mushrooms were entirely useless for any practical purposes.

"Well, I wouldn't call them useless exactly," I said thoughtfully. "That sort of thing can be pretty handy. I mean, say you ever have someone you don't want to make ill, but do want to... hmm... teach the error of their ways, say. You have a whole range of options! You could make the person clumsy, easily manipulated, or-"

Ajira's eyes lit up with interest. "-stupid. Yes. A very interesting proposal, friend Adryn. I shall have to think about it. Gal- well, Ajira might possibly be able to come up with a use." I hid a smile. "But," and Ajira's whiskers drooped, "this is not something Ranis shou- er, wishes to hear about, I am sure."

I wasn't so sure myself, but kept this to myself. Ajira seemed convinced the guildmistress was an honourable, upstanding member of the community, which is the sort of ludicrously unlikely claim I will only consider when supported by a great deal of evidence. On the other hand, if Galbedir's fried ash yams were indeed going to meet with an alchemical accident in the near future it was probably best Ajira didn't let her intentions slip to the guildmistress.

"Still, even aside from that... I'm sure there must be something we're missing," I said for the fourth time. It was – I admit it – a highly uncharacteristic show of patience. Ordinarily, I didn't even bother to repeat myself at all; maybe it was something in the water.

If it was, however, it certainly hadn't affected Ajira. "You have said that already!" Her claws scraped against the wood of the table and I winced. "I do not think we are missing anything, I think there is nothing to find!" She took a deep breath and then continued, slightly calmer. "I have no wish to waste any more of my time, friend Adryn. You may continue with the experiments if you wish, but I have other duties I must attend to."

"Suit yourself," I told her. "I'll tell you what they do in the morning."

"Ajira shall look forward to hearing you agree with me that they are entirely useless," she retorted.

And with that, the challenge was on.

I was going to find a beneficial effect in those damned mushrooms if I had to put it there myself.

...although I rather hoped I wouldn't have to put it there myself. Although I was relatively sure I could pull it off, academic dishonesty was not quite how I hoped to begin this section of my life, and if Ajira found out she would probably never forgive me.

Once dinner was over, Ajira wandered off, presumably to attend to those "other duties" she had mentioned. I didn't pay her any mind, as I was busy slavering over the equipment. Of course, I'd been using it earlier, but now I had it all to myself. So it was really entirely different. And Ajira had left me the rare ingredients, too!

I sternly reminded myself that using up Ajira's entire supply of ground gemstones and Daedra skin would definitely not go over well, no matter how tempting it was, and got to work.

In the beginning, it was immensely frustrating, as I checked for effect after effect and failed to find any of them. I would probably have given up, except that this was no longer an intellectual puzzle but a challenge and my innate stubbornness refused to let me admit defeat. I could only hope that this time it wouldn't get me in trouble.

Finally, long after the other mages had left for their respective homes - I was apparently the only homeless guild member - my efforts were rewarded. A soft glow from a test tube heralded an active effect.

"Detect Enchantment!" I exclaimed, taking full advantage of the empty guild hall in order to indulge in self-conversation. (Call it eccentric, but I rather like talking to myself when nobody is around to comment on it. I figure it is understandable, given that I so rarely get the chance to speak to someone intelligent.) "No wonder we couldn't find anything earlier, who would have expected a Mysticism effect in a mushroom, of all things?"

I was about to turn back to the sample when something occured to me.

"...I wonder if it's the same for the other one?"

It was almost anticlimatic after so much work – the first thing I tried, a Dispel effect, worked. Mystic mushrooms, now I'd really seen it all.

I triumphantly left a scribbled note on Ajira's desk describing the two effects, squashing the urge to add a "Told you so!", "So there!" or "Nyah nyah" at the end. I left it prominently displayed on her desk where she couldn't possibly miss it, then turned my attention to cleaning up.

Ordinarily, the prospect of tidying up that mess would have seemed rather daunting. But I was in extremely high spirits and tackled the task with gusto. I even whistled to myself as I worked. Or rather, blew air through my lips and occasionally managed to produce sound by accident, but I figured it was close enough. I'd been able to properly immerse myself in alchemy for the first time in far too long, won the little challenge Ajira had set for me and even had a credible reason for having used up half her supply of ground pearl. Life was good.

Still, I found myself yawning more and more often. My body was informing me, more and more insistently, that it did not particularly care about alchemy, challenges or the general positive slant of life – no, it was more concerned with the fact that I had slept very badly the night before and it was now already long past the time where good little Dunmer should be in bed. Spoiled things, bodies are – you would think that after having slept for three days before, it would be able to handle a little sleep deficit more graciously. But no; it was all I could do to keep my eyes open as I set the last flask to dry. I stumbled into the sleeping area and managed to get changed into my nightclothes more by feel than by design. In fact, I rather suspected I'd accidentally put on my nightgown backwards and inside-out, but couldn't really bring myself to care. Clothes did not matter. Sleep was what mattered.

For the second night in a row, I collapsed into bed and fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow.

Chapter Text

The next day, my nose woke before the rest of me.

Now, before anyone gets any odd ideas I should make it clear that I do not, generally, hold with the independence of body parts. Call me old-fashioned in that regard if you will, but I believe in the Daedric worship argument. After all, everyone knows that saying the odd prayer to Sheogorath will eventually lead to your spending your days in a Daedric shrine, mad and gibbering with your underpants on your head and sacrificing children's toys to the Prince of Madness. Oh, and voluntarily living with Orcs. If that's not a sure sign of madness, I don't know what is.

Anyway, it's just like that with body parts. One day it's your nose waking up ahead of you, the next your ears decide they're really bored spending all their time attached to your head and would really rather do a bit of travelling, and next thing you know your arms are off climbing mountains, your eyes are getting themselves thoroughly drunk in a tavern somewhere, your mouth is off doing something that shouldn't be mentioned in polite company and you're left with only your feet for company. No, you have to be firm about these things.

Regardless, that day my control was rather lax and my nose did, in fact, wake before the rest of me (it won't happen again, I swear). One moment I was deeply asleep, the next the most amazing scent filled my nostrils.

"Hmgrmpf?" I mumbled. As you can see, my nose was really being quite bold – even my tongue hadn't woken up yet, and most people I know tell me they doubt it ever sleeps in the first place.

It was really an absolutely delicious smell, and slowly the rest of me started to awaken as well. I cracked my eyes open and looked around blearily. There were several blurs in varying shades of blue and brown, as well as a brownish blob.

I closed my eyes, rubbed them, blinked fiercely and then gave it a second try.

This time, the interior of the Mages' Guild sleeping alcove filled my vision. The blue blurs had coalesced into my bed, a tapestry on the wall, a carpet and a curtain, separating the alcove from the main room. The brown blurs were the walls and the floor. The blob was Ajira.

I blinked at her. "Morning," I croaked.

"Good morning, friend Adryn." Ajira looked far too cheerful for the early hour. I bet her organs hadn't made a desperate bid for freedom. That would ruin anyone's day. "I saw your notes. Mysticism!"

I remembered last night and a smile crept onto my face. I tried desperately to keep it from being too smug. "Yes. I know. Of course, it would take a very good alchemist with an enormous intuitive understanding of the ingredients to reach that conclusion." I paused. Probably better not to gloat too much. "Or alternatively, a lot of effort," I admitted. "I think I tried half of your ingredients before I found one that worked."

Ajira nodded. "Yes. Ajira noticed the depletion of her stores."

I felt my cheeks heat up. "Um, I promise I tried to be careful and not waste anything." Well, somewhat tried. A little. I'd thought about it - that counted, right? "Will this get you into trouble with Ranis?"

"Oh no, oh no. After all, it was the honoured Ranis Athrys who gave Ajira the task to begin." She smiled; always a terrifying sight with a Khajiit. "And since I am not, after all, a great alchemist with an excellent intuitive understanding of the ingredients..."

We shared a conspirational nod.

Throughout the conversation, I had been trying to trace the scent that had woken me up. Now, I finally managed to make the connection between it and the small brown bag Ajira was holding. "Say, what is that?" I asked, trying to sound off-hand.

It might even have succeeded; unfortunately, my stomach chose that moment to give a loud rumble.

Ajira chuckled. "Breakfast, as friend Adryn may have guessed."

"Ajira," I proclaimed, "you are a pearl - no, a diamond, a shining diamond among Khajiit. Stendarr himself could learn from your thoughtfulness. I love you." I paused. "Um, how much do I owe you?"

Ajira waved it off. I suspected she was blushing somewhere under all that fur. "Nothing, nothing. Some of the Mages' Guild take their breakfast at the Eight Plates each morning - the honoured Estirdalin has an arrangement with the proprietress. Ajira asked to have some extra for her good friend Adryn, as no one had informed her of this." Her whiskers twitched. "She got very much, very fine food, much less trouble than she was expecting - have you spoken with Dulnea Ralaal before?"

I nodded. "I stayed there yesterday night - I appear to have made a good impression." I eyed the bag. "So. Breakfast?"

 


 

Breakfast was fresh rolls with scrib jelly. The scrib jelly tasted the same as it had the day before; the rolls, on the other hand, were delicious. They were still warm from the oven and spiced with something I couldn't identify (I was beginning to get rather sick of that). Whatever it was, it tasted amazing.

Ajira kept me company while I stuffed myself, chatting all the while. It was from her that I learned these were rolls Dulnea made especially for the Mages' Guild each morning - which explained why I hadn't had any yesterday - and that they were flavoured with dried fire fern. Dulnea also always made a goodly-sized pot of her special tea each morning, as the mages all loved it; Marayn swore his spells worked half again as well that day if he'd had a cup. Unfortunately, Ajira hadn't been able to think of a way to keep it hot on the way and thus hadn't been able to bring me any.

"Fire spell?" I said brightly after swallowing down the last mouthful.

Ajira glared.

"Joking! Joking!" I held up my arms, palms outward, in the universal sign of surrender. "What's in that drink, anyway?" The addition was partially to distract Ajira, but mostly because I was genuinely curious.

"She says it is a secret recipe."

"And you didn't try to figure it out?" I was scandalised. And she calls herself an alchemist?

"Of course." Ajira sounded affronted. "But it is a difficult one, very blended, many reactions between the ingredients. Ajira believes, though, that one of the ingredients is the leaf of scathecraw - it is a plant from the Ashlands, and restores willpower. It also has a smoky taste, though much stronger and more acrid than Dulnea's drink."

"If she's managed to mitigate the taste of a potion without lessening the effect, I want to know how," I said immediately.

"So would I," Ajira agreed, just as promptly. "I would not need to work and work to make Journeyman, I would be able to write a text on taste-improving measures in alchemy and make Magician right away!"

"Not if I got there first."

"A joint work then, friend Adryn?"

"That sounds acceptable, friend Ajira."

At that point, we both collapsed in giggles. As if alchemists hadn't been searching for these things for as long as the subject has existed! After all, we don't enjoy brewing concoctions that taste so vile you have to hold your nose to choke them down...

Well.

Maybe sometimes.

It all depends on who's drinking the potion in question, after all.

That line of thought made me think of the conversation I'd had with Ajira about the uses of draining potions, which made me think of Galbedir. Was she one of the Mages' Guild members that had their morning meal at the Eight Plates each day? With Ajira? I'd only seen the two together once, but I couldn't possibly imagine that would go well.

"Who is it that eats at the Eight Plates?"

"Ajira, Masalinie, Estirdalin and Marayn, almost always. Galbedir, rarely." Ajira's whiskers twitched in precisely the manner of an affronted cat. You could practically read 'not rarely enough' over her head; I had to hide a smile. "Sharn gra-Muzgrob and Ranis Athrys, never. Sometimes visitors from other halls, if they are here at this time - friend Edwinna from Ald'ruhn comes often, as do Sirilonwe and Craetia from Vivec. Eraamion from Caldera is less often, but almost all of the Sadrith Mora guild stop by regularly..."

I nodded, letting the unfamiliar names flow past me. Many guildhalls on this island, apparently - and me without a map, to boot.

"...those are most of the people," Ajira was finishing up.

From what she'd said, it sounded as if a veritable battalion ate at the Eight Plates each morning. I wondered how on earth I'd missed them the previous day. "Is this the major guildhall on the island, then?" I asked. "It sounds as if everyone comes here to do business."

Ajira shook her head, then shrugged. "No. But then again yes. It is a difficult thing."

"How so?"

"On the Aedra's side, no. The main guildhall is in Vivec, under the governance of the greatly honoured Archmage Trebonius. Vivec is also the largest city, with the most trade, the most people, the most governance, and the palace of one of the gods of the Tribunal," my skepticism probably showed clearly on my face at that point, but Ajira didn't notice, "so it is where everyone should go for the important things. But on the Daedra's side, the Vivec guildhall is a bit... odd."

"What do you mean by odd?" I asked, fascinated, but Ajira hemmed and hawed a bit and shuffled her feet until I was afraid her claws would tear holes in the carpet. Apparently she wasn't quite ready to discuss gossip that bordered on treasonous with a guild member who'd only been in the guild for a day. Again, I couldn't really blame her.

"Is there anything else friend Adryn needs?" she was asking now, looking a bit guilty at not answering my question.

"No. Wait, actually, yes," I contradicted myself. "Could you leave for a moment?" I gestured down at myself, sitting on the bed with crumbs on my lap, still in my sleeping clothes. "I need to get changed."

 


 

Getting changed wound up taking longer than I thought - first I noticed a curtained alcove containing a bucket filled with water as well as a wash-cloth and some soap and decided to take the opportunity to clean up a bit, then I couldn't find my skirt, then I couldn't find my left shoe... losing track of your belongings in that short a time period and that small a room takes skill, but apparently I had it in spades.

Holding my shoe aloft triumphantly after retrieving it from under the closet, I spared a moment to be profoundly grateful that Ajira hadn't come bursting in to see what was taking so long. She'd reacted with complete incomprehension when I'd tried to explain why, exactly, I'd prefer not to have her watching me while I got changed, leading me to suspect that Khajiit didn't have a nudity taboo. As a result, I'd been half-expecting her to yank open the curtains while I was in the middle of my morning ablutions. Something best avoided, especially given that I'd heard the rest of the guild return by now.

Finally, I'd managed to put on the new clothes I'd bought from the clothier the day before - the feeling of soft linen against my skin and the sight of my reflection in a lovely embroidered robe immediately banishing all the doubts I'd had about spending so much of my money on clothes - and got my hair as tidy as I possibly could. (In my case, this means I look as if I got hit by a Spark spell half an hour ago instead of two minutes. Relative improvement is the key.) I poked my head outside the alcove, already preparing apologies for having taken so long.

I admit it - I was half-expecting Ajira to be impatiently shifting from foot to foot in that way only Khajiit can quite manage. (The twitching tail and the vibrating whiskers add a certain something that man and mer can't quite match.) I was therefore half-disappointed when I realised that she wasn't waiting for me at all. As far as I could tell, she'd retreated behind the alchemy desk, but she was hard to make out because the alchemy desk was surrounded by a veritable throng of people.

"...three standard-grade potions of rising force, ninety drakes..." I overheard, and was quite tempted to smack my forehead for being such a fool.

What had I been thinking? Of course Ajira would have other duties than to experiment with a newcomer to the guild. Balmora was quite large, she was the only alchemist in the only mages' guild, obviously a lot of her time would be eaten up with selling potions to the townsfolk.

Which left me at somewhat loose ends.

I looked around the room, hoping that I could ask one of the other members whether they had something for me to do. Marayn was engrossed in showing a Dunmer girl how to form a fireball. Sharn gra-Muzgrob was taking notes on a book, with a scowl on her face that promised dire retribution on anyone who interrupted her. Merrylice, I mean, the Breton was busy... I stared into her corner, trying to figure out what was going on.

There was a queue of people leading up to her. One by one, they would step onto the raised stone platform, coins exchanged hands, she would close her eyes in deep concentration and cast a spell, then they'd vanish. I'd heard people talk about a Mages Guild teleportation service before - apparently they had one here. Well, either that or she had a good racket running with a local suicide cult. But I couldn't believe this place was so dreadful to make that many people want to end their lives - if only because I was living here now myself and I had to keep myself upbeat somehow.

Anyway, although I was highly curious as to how this teleportation thing worked exactly - judging by the hand gestures it was a Mysticism-based spell, and that was the area of magic I was most interested in - several minutes of watching Lassimine did not give me any grand insights. In fact, since it's not possible to work out the structure of a spell from the casting, the only insight I gained was that even such an extraordinary sight as people disappearing into and appearing from the aether gets remarkably boring after a while.

That left Estirdalin.

I decided I'd wait until Ajira had a spare moment. Maybe grab one of the books on the nearby table to read...

"Friend Adryn!"

Or maybe I didn't have to wait that long.

I walked over to Ajira, who seemed to have hit a lull in her stream of customers. "I see you're busy today." I tried very hard to keep an injured tone from creeping into my voice.

"Ajira is very sorry," the Khajiit said, whiskers drooping. "But she closed the shop most of yesterday to do experiments with friend Adryn, so today she must be very busy, sell many potions, to make up for it." Now she was making me feel guilty. "And when she is done, she must write the report on the mushrooms, which is a very bori- very simple task, too simple to trifle friend Adryn with." I hid a smile. "So Ajira cannot do any experiments today, even though she very much wishes to."

"Don't worry, I completely understand," I assured her, then added plaintively, "...do you have any ideas what I can do today, then?"

Ajira's eyes brightened. "Actually, it is good that you ask. The honoured Ranis Athrys came by earlier, said that Ajira needs to write two reports instead of just one to be considered for journeyman as she is working with a partner."

"I'm really sorry about that," I said, wincing.

She waved it off. "It is much more interesting and much faster progress with a partner, so I do not mind so much. However, second report is to be on four types of flowers, and Ajira needs samples of those flowers. They are called gold kanet, stoneflower, heather and willow, and they grow in many places. Closest to here is on shores of Lake Amaya, to the east."

I gulped as what Ajira was asking me to do became apparent. "Uh, are you sure about this? There isn't anything I could do within town?" I sighed as Ajira cast a pleading look at me. "It's not that I want your project to fail, it's just that I don't want to be eaten by the wildlife-"

"Oh, but the regions are quite safe!" Ajira protested. "There is an Imperial fort along the path," she wasn't really selling this, "and a shrine on Lake Amaya, so Temple makes certain that roads are safe for pilgrims. And it is not far from Balmora, so there should be people. And when friend Adryn returns with the flowers, we can experiment with them to-"

"All right, all right!" I interrupted her. (No, I do not lose any vestige of common sense upon hearing the word "experiment". Why do you ask?) "I'll do it! What do these flowers look like, and how do I get to Lake Amaya?"

As Ajira wrote down some directions on a sheet of paper for me, I had to suppress a groan - after all that time hunting down lost shoes, I'd have to get changed yet again. Embroidered robes were, after all, not quite the thing in which to be wandering around the wilderness.

 


 

And so a short time later I found myself at the gate to Balmora, in the same scratchy, ill-fitting clothes I'd been so glad to get out of yesterday, Elone's shortsword at my side. I groaned quietly to myself when I realised that it hadn't even been two days since I entered the place. I'd really hoped to be able to stay in town for longer; adventuring is not my idea of a good time. I claim the problem is too much sanity, although some people would disagree with that, and a distinct lack of appreciation for pain, gaping wounds, and near-death experiences.

As I made my way through the gate, I eyed the silt strider cautiously; Darvame had assured me that they weren't dangerous on the trip from Seyda Neen, but I was skeptical. What, exactly, is a flea that size meant to eat? Trees? Swamp muck? Given that fleas the usual size generally live off blood, people seemed the number one possibility to me, all protestations of their handlers to the contrary. Undoubtedly they were trying to avoid bad publicity; after all, who would ever be mad enough to pay to ride on one if it might see you as a portable snack?

I looked at the road rising sharply into the mountains, remembered the gentle, swaying movement I'd experienced the day before last - had it really only been two days ago? - and admitted that they had at least one person. My legs, still weakened from prison, were stubbornly informing me that they'd happily run the risk of being flea food if it meant they'd get to rest a bit longer.

See, this is what comes of leaving your body parts independence. Popular vote.

My apparent lack of any instinct for self-preservation (for instance, "not hitching a ride on something that may think you are their lunch") wasn't going to be put to the test anytime soon, though. Before heading onto the road I'd asked Selvil Sareloth, the silt strider operator in Balmora, about his destinations - it pays to familiarise yourself with the quickest ways of leaving a place. Apparently he wasn't leaving for over an hour and then going north to some place called "Ald'ruhn", which apparently didn't sport the kind of flora I was looking for. (Well, Selvil didn't say "no" when I asked. But then again, he didn't say "yes" either. In fact, he didn't say anything at all as he was laughing too hard to talk; I cleverly deduced that Ajira's flowers did not grow in Ald'ruhn.) If I wanted to go anywhere near Lake Amaya, I'd have to wait until Darvame's noon trip back to Seyda Neen. Oh, and somehow get from a twenty-foot-tall moving insect to the ground without breaking all the bones in my body as she didn't stop until Seyda Neen either. Minor considerations like that.

I sighed, ignored the complaints from my legs and started walking. The silt strider was kind enough not to eat me; I nodded gratefully to it as I passed.

A few hours later, I'd got into my stride, my legs had given up complaining in favour of a grumble every now and then, and things didn't seem nearly that bad. After all, I was well-rested, well-fed, heading into the wilds with a sack full of empty reagent vials to find new, wild, untested ingredients - this last bit might not have been strictly true, but they were untested by me and that was the important part.

True, the trip had been somewhat unpleasant for a while as my device for fooling people into thinking I was actually dangerous, also known as a shortsword, kept working its way between my legs and tripped me several times. Finally, I decided to take it off my belt and strap it to my back instead and the trip immediately became much more comfortable. Of course, I suspected it wasn't anatomically possible for me to draw it from that angle, but it looked reasonably intimidating (reminding me vaguely of a drawing of Tiber Septim I'd once seen in a history book) and since I'd never actually use it for fear of slicing off my own limbs, who cared?

The road was just emerging into green lands from the foyada, I could see aforementioned untested ingredients winking at me - the sun was even shining! Why, I was almost enjoying myself!

"You there!"

Here is a helpful tip for anyone exploring the wilds: never, ever start enjoying yourself. It invites trouble.

In this case, trouble came in the form of an old Dunmer woman standing a distance along the path, glaring at me.

"You! Outlander! Come here!"

Outlander?! I was thirty feet away from her and hadn't even opened my mouth! Did I have a sign saying "Not a native, please torment at will" hanging over my head or something?

I looked up. No sign.

"Are you deaf?"

Given that the woman didn't seem as if she was going to stop haranguing me anytime soon, I sighed and made my way towards her.

"Well, finally," the woman snapped. Up close, I realised that she wasn't actually that old, but her glare and pinched expression easily added several centuries to her apparent age. Also, she was wearing rough, homespun clothes - an odd contrast to her manner, which seemed better suited to a noble.

"I demand you take me to the fields of Kummu at once!"

As I was saying.

...wait, what did she just say?

"Fields of what?" I asked, puzzled.

The woman sniffed loudly. "I do not repeat myself, outlander."

"Well, how on earth am I supposed to know where the fields of Konni are?" I asked, exasperated.

"Kummu." I wondered whether to be helpful and point out that she had, in fact, just repeated herself, but decided against it. It would probably be best to prevent the situation from deteriorating. Even more, that was. "Even someone such as you should have heard of the shrine at Kummu, where the great god Vivec helped a poor farmer who had lost his guar-"

"Look, I only landed two days ago!" I snapped. "How do you expect me to know all this? I thought Vivec was a city." Although come to think of it, as the name of a person it did seem vaguely familiar; I'd probably run across the guy in a book somewhere and then forgotten.

She looked at me as though I had turned into a bug- correction. She looked at me as if I had turned into a bug that was even more loathsome than the bug I had been previously. "N'wah." It was clearly some kind of insult. "The holy city of Vivec is, of course, named after the great god Vivec who is a member of the divine Almsivi, the-"

And she was off on a lecture about religion. As you can probably imagine, it wasn't exactly in accord with the Imperial Standards for Teaching, the ratio of information to ranting not quite being what it should. Still, the few scraps of information among the insults made me curious about this whole Temple business - for instance, apparently the city of Vivec was named after the god Vivec because he actually lived there. And not "lived there" like the Cult will tell you the Aedra live in their temples - actually had a body, wandered around, slept, ate and breathed, could be spoken to lived there. (Well, theoretically spoken to - I don't doubt that if I showed up at the door to his house the guards would remove me rather quickly.) At any rate, the whole business sounded far more interesting than the Nine Divines.

I decided that when I was back in Balmora I'd try to find a book or something to learn about this local religion, as this would undoubtedly be more informative and with a lesser chance of getting your nose bitten off than listening to the madwoman here.

"...outlanders who haven't even heard of Vivec!" said madwoman was winding down. "Now how am I supposed to get to the shrine?" She gave me a look as if I was now a loathsome bug who was entirely to blame for the situation she was in, which I found rather unfair.

"How were you planning to get to the shrine before you started accosting innocent passerby?" I demanded.

"I have a map," she responded loftily, drawing out a piece of parchment from her pouch. "However, it is entirely useless. The worthless trader that sold it to me should be taken out and beaten."

I peered at the map she was unfolding curiously, then blinked.

"Um. You're holding it upside-down."

"Nonsense!" she spat. "I'll let you know that my best friend is a renowned cartographer!"

"Look, I don't care who your friends are, you're still holding it upside-down! See," my finger stabbed at the parchment, "this says 'Balmora', at least it does from my perspective, but the way you're looking at it-"

"You are an illiterate barbarian; that is Tel Vos, in the Telvanni district in the far northeast."

I looked at the map again. "Nooo, I am quite sure I can read and that says 'Balmora'. See? B-A-L-M-O-R-A. Tel Vos-" my eyes searched the opposite corner of the map, "is over here." The madwoman started to splutter. I ignored her. "Also, if this is Balmora, and this is Lake Amaya, then we are currently here-" I pointed at a spot on the map just south of where the path left the foyada, "and since the Fields of Kummu are there, all you need to do is follow the path around the lake for a while to get there."

I'd say I was being kind, generous and helpful because I was simply a much better person than she was, but to be honest I really just wanted to rub her nose in her utter incompetence.

"Excellent. Then you will guide me there."

Note to self: Revenge never pays.

"Excuse me? When did I ever agree to this?"

I didn't realise bug-me could get more loathsome, but apparently I could. "A true Dunmer would be honoured to assist. Since you are an outlander, however..." she grimaced. "I suppose I must reward you."

My ears perked up when I heard the word "reward". (Not literally, mind. They may be large and pointed, but I am still not a Khajiit.) My purse had become much lighter yesterday, and I was uncomfortably aware that I would probably be expected to move out of the Guildhall at some point, never to mention pay for my food. I needed to find income somehow.

Besides, the shrine was only a short distance away. Surely it couldn't be that bad.

"Well, in that case..." I turned around and set off down the path.

 


 

It was that bad.

She was slow. She complained about how slow I was while she lagged behind, and berated me for laziness when I stopped to let her catch up. And when I spotted some of the flowers Ajira had asked me to bring back and tried to pick some, she almost bit my head off.

"Outlander girls! Sitting and plucking flowers when a poor old woman is relying on them to complete her pilgrimage! No doubt you're planning to seduce some innocent young man-"

"I'm an alchemist!" I exclaimed, outraged. "I'm collecting ingredients for research!"

"A likely story," the horrible old woman hmphed. "I've heard the tales, you know - a bouquet of gold kanet flowers to the poor boy's parents once you've convinced him to run off with you. No, there will be no, no flower-picking on this journey."

"You know, I agreed to be your guide, not your slave, so if you would stop ordering me around-"

"Pity, that. If you were my slave, I could beat some manners into you as you deserve. The ones on the plantation are very courteous."

Wait.

Wait, I couldn't possibly have heard that correctly.

"What do you mean, slaves on the plantation?" I asked weakly.

"Oh, did you think I simply sat about doing nothing all day, as if I were some worthless frill like you? No, I work for my living - I am a housekeeper at the Dren plantation," she said proudly.

"Look, I don't care where you work - do you mean that slavery is legal here?"

"Of course it is. Even the Empire could not touch our ancient ways-"

And she was prattling on again while I stared weakly at the gold kanet flowers at the wayside and swallowed to keep myself from being sick.

Slavery. Legal.

Somehow, this made me realise like nothing before - not the giant fleas, or the strange flora (were those actually giant mushrooms in place of trees?), or the apparent insanity of the Empire's officials which ranged from giving me money to inducting me into the Blades - that I was now in an alien country very, very far from anything and anyone I'd ever known before.

Given the route my thoughts were taking, it was probably a good thing that I spotted a triangular stone that looked vaguely shrine-like (it was gold and had something engraved on it) along the path at that point. I only have a small monthly allotment for melodrama, you see, and the way my thoughts were going I'd spend all of it on agonising about laws I couldn't change - very foolish, given that the universe hates me (I have ample evidence of this) and therefore I was bound to need it urgently later.

"Is that the shrine?" I asked, pointing.

"Of course it's not, you foolish girl!" the woman I was rapidly growing ashamed of sharing a species with snapped. Without, I would like to point out, bothering to turn around to look. "The shrine is a triangular golden stone surrounded by flowers-"

"-like the one in front of us?" I said through gritted teeth. "Could you at least look at what I'm pointing at before you start hounding me?"

Wonder of wonders, she actually did. "Why, it is the shrine! It must have been Almalexia's hand that led me here despite my guide's... shortcomings. I am certain you would have walked right past otherwise." Ignoring the outraged noises I was letting out, she walked over to the shrine, took something that looked rather like mud out of her pouch, then laid it in front of the shrine as she knelt and started to pray.

"Thank you for your humility, Lord Vivec. I-"

I couldn't help it. I started laughing.

Well, I said laughing. Truth be told, it started with a choked giggle that made its way out of my mouth despite all my efforts to frantically suppress it, then grew to the kind of hysterical cackle where you start to turn purplish grey from lack of air and need to hold onto solid objects in your vicinity (I chose a tree) lest you fall over.

She whirled around. If people could cast shockball with their eyes, I would have been a sparking pile of dust that moment. "What is the meaning of this outrageous behaviour?!"

"Humility." I managed to choke out. "Been berating me... the whole way... making yourself out... so much better... and you pray for... humility?" Then I collapsed back into laughter.

"Your services are no longer required," she snapped icily. "You may go."

"Wait a minute," I said, slowly getting back into control of myself. "What about my reward?"

"Reward? Oh, yes, your...reward." She threw something at me; I caught it instinctively, looked at it, then felt every impulse I'd had to laugh die a sudden death.

It was the map.

The map that she'd probably got off a street vendor for two drakes.

"You found it so helpful, after all." She smiled at me. It was a horrible sight.

I gaped at her, mouth opening and shutting wordlessly.

Her smile grew wider. "Run along now, outlander."

What could I do? My moral compass may be a bit... awry... as some fetcher once put it, but I still draw the line at robbing old women. Even if they're clearly the spawn of Molag Bal.

I turned around and stalked off. Even the sound of the horrible fiend from Oblivion saying "I shall neither strut nor preen in vanity..." was no longer the slightest bit amusing.

Once I'd got myself well out of sight, I found a handy rock overlooking the shore, sat down on it and indulged in some well-deserved fuming. All right, I admit it, there may have been some sulking involved in between. And some rocks thrown into the lake, although I did manage to keep myself from throwing the map in too. I'd like to say it was because reason prevailed, but truthfully it was because one of my rocks hit a mudcrab, forcing me to relocate until it had calmed down, and after that I decided that I had best leave the scenery alone.

After all the wildlife had gone back to its business, I had finished fuming and Adryn's First Law of Adventuring (ask about the reward before you accept the task) had been formulated, I considered doing what I had actually come here for, namely pick flowers; it was already well into the afternoon and my reagent vials were still yawningly empty.

Of course, as always the universe took me thinking "maybe I should actually do what I set out to do" as a signal to interrupt. In this case, the interruption took the form of a panicking Bosmer.

The Bosmer are Wood Elves, meaning that however tiny and unprepossessing they seem their abilities in the wilderness are unmatched by any of the other races. This explains why the first I noticed of him was when he burst out from a copse of trees nearby. It was obviously nothing to do with my not paying attention; the very suggestion is preposterous.

Anyway, due to said Bosmer's phenomenal ability at moving through woods undetected, he startled me rather badly. If I were a great warrior, I might have leapt up and instinctively slain him. Luckily for him, but unluckily for me, I am not a great warrior; I leapt up, discovered my shortsword had somehow come loose and worked its way through my legs again contrary to all the laws of nature that I knew of, and fell flat on my face.

Ow.

The Bosmer stopped panicking for a moment to ask "Are you all right?"

He interpreted the pained sounds I made as "no, I am perfectly fine, don't offer to help me up or anything like that," and started running around in circles babbling hysterically.

"-only suggested we come out here for a walk, but then he heard these noises in the underbrush and he's always been far too curious for his own good, I told him I told him to leave it alone but he just had to investigate and now he's gone-"

"Wha-?" I mumbled as I sat up and carefully probed my nose.

"-this is what comes of becoming a mage, not enough common sense to fill a spoon in the whole guild-"

"Whu?" My nose was still in one piece. Good; I didn't think the Jiub look would suit me.

"-what am I going to do without him-"

My imagination chose that moment to helpfully illustrate 'me with the Jiub look'. "Ack! Horrible mental images!" I yelped. The result looked more like our twisted lovechild - and the mental image that idea invoked made me seriously consider applying my Firebite spell to my own eyeballs.

The Bosmer stopped abruptly. "What?"

"What?" I responded.

"What did you mean by 'horrible mental images?'" I'm just going to point out here that it's a good thing I'm well aware that telepathy spells do not exist (or rather, if they do they're in the hands of great mages and not hysterical Bosmer) and therefore I knew he could not possibly have known what I'd just been thinking. It saved him from a horrible messy fate.

"Nothing," I said. "What were you talking about? Who went missing?" Seeing him look ready to start running around again, I reached out and grabbed his shoulder. "Please stand still while talking, and don't use more than two commas in one sentence."

"It's horrible!" he wailed. "My friend Edras and I were out exploring. I'm from Pelagiad, but he's from Almalexia on the mainland so he doesn't really appreciate the hazards the way I do. When we heard strange noises in the underbrush, he wanted to investigate. I told him and told him, don't do it it's too dangerous, but he insisted and-" he correctly interpreted my stare as 'I can tell there is another comma coming up in that sentence' and paused. "He went off on his own anyway. And didn't come back! He's gone!"

The mer burst into tears. For one horrible moment I thought he was going to fling himself into my arms - as prevention, I gingerly propped him up against a nearby tree and stepped back to a safe distance.

Luckily, he seemed to compose himself reasonably quickly, sobs trailing off into just a few sniffles as he wiped at his eyes.

"I want to look for him, but it's- it's- I don't know what kind of creatures could be out there!" he sniffled. "Would you please help me find him?"

Staring at his tear-streaked face, I considered both Adryn's First Law of Adventuring and Adryn's First Law of Self-Preservation (do not do things like this). His height, soulful eyes and the way the snot was leaking out of his nose made him look rather like an upset little kid.

I sighed and mentally discarded both laws. "Okay, where was the last place you saw him?"

I'd say the way his face lit up was reward enough, but that would be a flat-out lie. You may find snot-covered Bosmer appealing, but if you do, I don't want to know.

Oh well. I was sure it wouldn't be that dangerous.

 


 

I nervously picked my way through the underbrush, and wondered what on earth had possessed me. (Possibly literally.) Since when did I do things out of the goodness of my heart? Since when did I not even ask for a reward? And since when did I think things like "it won't be that dangerous", when past experience should have told me that the universe takes things like that as an invitation?

Thoronor, as the Bosmer had introduced himself, had led me to the spot he'd left his friend and then mysteriously disappeared himself - "help me find him," my foot. "Do all the work for me while I take a nap somewhere," more likely. Which left me to look for strange noises and vanished mer alone, helpless and undefended-

I lost my train of thought when I stumbled over something on the ground, only just managing to catch myself against a tree. Luckily so, or else I would have fallen flat on my nose yet again, and I didn't feel like chancing the Jiub look don'tthinkaboutit-

I looked down to see what I'd tripped over, then blinked in surprise. It was a book, looking undamaged enough that I knew it couldn't have lain there long.

Thoronor had said something about his friend being a scholar, hadn't he? I admit I hadn't expected him to leave a trail of books behind, but it was certainly better than trying to use my (nonexistent) tracking skills. Never to mention that a scholar surely wouldn't miss one or two, and I was sorely in need of bedtime reading...

I picked the book up and looked at the front page.

"Mating habits of the wild kagouti?" I read out, puzzled.

"Oh yes, it's my thesis topic," a voice rang out from above me. I jumped about a foot, feeling as if someone had just hit me with a Spark spell. "For the Mages' Guild back home, don't you know. Um, I'm up here by the way."

I looked up and saw... a Dunmer in a tree. Which is, frankly, not a sight you see every day - Dunmer being somewhat conservative when it comes to precarious perches an unhealthy height above the ground as a rule. Definitely moreso than Bosmer... maybe his friend was rubbing off on him?

"Of course, when my friend Thoronor extended an invitation to visit him here in Morrowind, how could I possibly pass up the opportunity to see them in the wild!" the nesting mer - Edras, apparently - gushed.

At that moment, a horrible suspicion entered my mind. It was spurred by my brain helpfully choosing to remind me that I'd been tree-bound just a few days ago, after I'd climbed one to escape an E.R.D. near Seyda Neen.

"What exactly are kagouti?" I asked slowly.

"They're one of the species of animal native to Morrowind, particularly valued for their hide. They're predators, and apparently one of the most dangerous indigenous creatures here, although I admit I'd underestimated just how ferocious they are - that's why I'm up here." Edras cast down his eyes in embarrassment.

"You're hiding from dangerous wildlife and you didn't tell me earlier?!" my voice rose into a screech.

He looked puzzled. "But I'm just a simple scholar - you can clearly defend yourself."

It occurred to me that my "wear weapons to look dangerous and not be attacked by bandits" plan had just a few drawbacks I hadn't considered.

I was just about to angrily inform him that actually, the weapons were just for show, I was only armed with a lousy Firebite spell I'd never even used before and he shouldn't assume people he'd just met had no problems defending themselves from rampaging carnivores - preferably after finding a tree to hide in myself. Unfortunately, he rudely decided to spoil all my plans by saying, "Look! There's one now!"

Have you ever had one of those moments where you can almost hear the gods laughing at you?

Slowly and carefully, I lowered my gaze from the mer in the tree back down to the ground (which I was starting to realise it never should have left.) And swallowed. Hard.

And I'd thought the E.R.D.s were bad - it looked as if they might be among the most harmless creatures this island had to offer. Certainly the smallest! Apparently a "kagouti" was a two-legged creature, with some sort of bone frill. And tusks. And teeth. Sharp teeth. Oh, and did I mention that it was almost as big as I was? Because it was almost as big as I was. This one was looking at me in a very disturbing way, and by "very disturbing" I mean "seems to be wondering how I taste". It was also between me and the nearest tree.

"Um. Nice... horned monster thing, very nice horned monster thing. You don't want to eat me, do you? I don't taste very good." Staring into its beady black eyes, I added, "Tell me how to get this thing to back down. Now."

"Well," came from the tree, "kagouti are very territorial, and will attack anyone who ventures near them." Okay. That was bad. "They also become far more aggressive when mating." Okay, that was very bad. "And kagouti interpret eye contact as a challenge." Okay, that was- wait a moment.

"You couldn't have told me that earlier?!" I yelped, tearing my gaze away from the kagouti's eyes.

It chose that moment to charge.

Cursing loudly, I leapt out of the way barely in time; the kagouti barrelled past me and slammed into the tree, which shook and then disgorged a shrieking scholar. I mentally winced when he hit the ground, but it wasn't that far and judging by the way he tried to sit up almost immediately after he clearly hadn't hurt anything important. Probably just his brain.

The kagouti backed away from the tree and looked back and forth between the two of us, puzzled - apparently two enemies were too much for its tiny brain to deal with. However, despite all my mental urging it seemed it considered me the greater threat; it turned towards me, let out a roaring sound and charged.

At this point, I have to admit something. Contrary to the way I grumble about my birth-sign, I am actually quite happy to be Lover-born rather than Lady. True, I do tend to get a lot of snide remarks and comments on "elven promiscuity" if I let it slip, not to forget the crass propositions, how could I forget the crass propositions. However, our birth-signs have more influence over our lives than just how people react to them, and there is one gift of the Lover that is, frankly, a lot more useful than anything the Lady has to offer in a tight spot.

It was that gift I remembered at that moment. As the kagouti barrelled towards me, I concentrated and reached deep inside me for that power. Closer - I extended one hand - closer-

Just before the beast touched me, I willed it out. Green light spilled out from my hand, over the kagouti, which froze instantly.

Paralysis is such a handy effect.

I breathed a sigh of relief as the threat of horribly painful death was postponed, then suddenly remembered that the Lover's gift is a two-edged sword.

It felt as if all my energy had decided to run into the kagouti as well. My knees grew weak, my vision dark around the edges, I started to waver on my feet-

As if from a far distance, I heard Edras shout, "you did it! You killed it!" Then, more subdued, "...my observations..."

I hazily wondered whether the mer had honestly been so sheltered that he had never seen a dead creature before.

"No," I managed to say, struggling against the fog that was engulfing me. "Not dead... you fool... kill it!"

The mer stared at me in confusion as my knees gave way.

"Kill... it..."

I could see when the fact that no, the kagouti was perfectly fine, just temporarily inconvenienced, sunk in. His skin turned greyish-green, and his mouth opened in a round O.

And then he turned around and ran away.

This was going to be such a humiliating way to die, I realised as I felt myself dragged into unconsciousness. I just hoped that once the kagouti was done with me, it would continue its murderous rampage and kill the cowardly mer, the damnable Bosmer who'd got me into this, that horrible old woman, and anyone else near the lake for good measure...

Darkness.

Chapter Text

When I came to, I quickly wished I hadn't. My body felt as if I had just run twenty miles without stopping. Up a mountain. With lead weights strapped to my limbs. While being chased by angry Imperial guards, who were possibly riding kagouti. (Could you ride kagouti? It might explain why I hadn't seen any horses here yet; either the native mounts all ate them or the native people connected 'riding' with 'being eaten', which would give even the most enthusiastic horsemer caution.)

Anyway, apparently I wasn't dead. I didn't think dead people were supposed to feel so tired.

I groaned and slowly, with a superhuman amount of effort, cracked open my eyelids.

Scratch that. Apparently I was dead.

Giant humanoid insects weren't part of life as I knew it, at any rate.

I was too tired to sit up let alone run for my - life? Unlife? Being dead was becoming metaphysically quite complicated - despite the fact that every instinct of self-preservation I had and a few I didn't were screaming at me to get out of there now! Instead, I just twitched feebly and tried to scream. It came out as more of a croak.

"Oh, you're awake!" the probable Daedra said. Bizarrely enough, it had a perfectly ordinary-sounding female voice in what I was coming to think of as a Morrowind accent.

"Don't kill me!" I wheezed, deciding to postpone further metaphysical ruminations until I was no longer in danger of being...

I stared at the Daedra and really wished I didn't have such a good imagination. Or vivid, for that matter.

"Kill you?" the Daedra repeated, sounding bemused.

"Or-" Really, really wished. "Or whatever it is giant man-shaped insect Daedra do."

"I- ah. Um." It sounded as if it was trying to suppress laughter. "I guess you've never seen chitin armour before?" It reached up to its head and pulled-

Oh.

Apparently the native inhabitants thought armour made of giant insect shell complete with closed-face helmet that would not have been out of place on Mad Pelagius, or possibly in Oblivion, was an absolutely wonderful idea.

I took stock of my situation.

I wasn't dead after all. This was probably a good thing, but right at this moment I really didn't think so.

"Kill me now," I mumbled.

"Well, you've changed your tune, haven't you?" the Dunmer that had surfaced said with a grin. She looked slightly older than me and was quite pretty, with long black hair gathered in two braids. Or, to summarise: she did not look like a Daedra or a giant insect in any way, shape or form. "Don't worry, I'll blame it on the exhaustion. Speaking of which-"

A potion was held under my nose. "Here, drink this."

I sniffed at it.

"It's a fatigue restoring potion, completely harmless. Really, make up your mind, will you? Just a second ago you were begging me to kill you. Although if I'd wanted to kill you I had ample opportunity when you were asleep." She sounded affronted.

"I realised that." I hadn't, actually, and quickly drank the potion before she could question me about it. The rush of energy was very, very welcome.

"I didn't think you were going to poison me," I added once I'd regained my breath. "I'm an alchemist, and if I were to drink a potion without even trying to figure out what was in it I would have to turn in my mortar and pestle. It's a matter of professional pride."

"No need to explain. Most of my family are alchemists, I'm familiar with the mindset." She looked me up and down. "Are you feeling all right now? I can give you a second potion if you need it."

"No, I'm fine." My body still felt a little trembly and weak, but I knew from experience that that would have to pass on its own. (I briefly mourned the fact that I had had to use that often enough that I had experience in the stages of recovery.)

I sat up and looked around. The threat of immediate death by insect Daedra, and then mortification at having mistaken someone for an insect Daedra and told them so, had completely distracted me from my surroundings.

Dusk had fallen in the time I was out. I was sitting on the ground with a blanket wrapped around me. It looked as though I was still in the clearing where I had faced the kagouti, except that the clearing was minus a paralysed kagouti and plus a non-Daedra Dunmer and a campfire with several pieces of meat roasting over it.

...actually, I thought I could guess what had happened to the kagouti.

Which still didn't explain who the not-an-insect-at-all Dunmer was or why I wasn't dead.

"Who are you?" When in doubt, ask, has always been my motto in life. Certain unkind people would have you believe this should be followed by 'and ask as bluntly as possible. Tact is for other people'. They would of course be lying through their teeth. After all, I only very rarely have to run for my life after using this, which should tell you how well it works.

"My name is Ervesa Romandas, and I'm a Buoyant Armiger." By the proud and slightly self-important look on her face, I knew she thought that should mean something to me.

"You're a... weapon that floats?" I hazarded.

Ervesa stared at me, then threw back her head and started laughing.

"I take it that means no," I said as I waited for her laughter to subside. I had to admit, I felt rather injured. It was a perfectly logical conclusion to come to, given the meaning of those words.

"N-no, I'm not a- weapon that floats," she managed between giggles. "The Buoyant Armigers are the elite warriors of the lord Vivec. We try to emulate his virtues of chivalry, combat and poetic mastery. Most of us are stationed at Ghostgate these days, but we also have a hall in Molag Mar, primarily for training and guarding the pilgrims at Mount Kand."

Half of those words hadn't meant anything to me, but the other half made them sound as if they were a cross between Imperial Knights without the Imperial part, religious warriors and bards. Since all three were on my 'avoid at all costs, it might be contagious' list, the combination could not possibly mean anything good.

"Well, in that case you should call yourselves 'Elite Temple warriors who also compose poetry' or something. 'Buoyant' makes you sound like you're, I don't know, some sort of boats," I pointed out while trying to inch away unobtrusively.

This made her start laughing again. I bristled - I'd only been pointing out a fact, after all. "It isn't that funny!" Maybe this was one of the signs of the mental instability inherent in the religious bardic knight combination. Although considering I'd been expecting something more along the lines of attempted stabbing while singing hymns, I could live with uncontrollable laughter.

Ervesa grinned. "It is, actually. I'll have to tell the others when I get to Ghostgate. But just so you know, the name was given to us by the lord Vivec. He founded our order from a group who gave him unexpected aid in battle, one where he was impressed by their courage and cheer."

I considered saying that this Vivec couldn't be that good a poet if he thought 'Buoyant Armigers' was a good name for anything other than bathtub toys, let alone an elite force of warriors. A small voice in my head pointed out that insulting the god of a dedicated religious knight would probably not go over very well, easygoing though she'd been so far. For once, I listened to it - bluntness is all well and good, but it's best to avoid mortally offending people in possession of sharp objects and the knowledge of how to use them. My track record in this regard wasn't the best, admittedly, but this was a fresh start. I had resolutions.

Ervesa moved over to the fire and took out the chunks of meat. "I think these are about done. Are you-"

My stomach chose that moment to proclaim that actually, I'd neglected to take lunch with me and hadn't eaten since breakfast and that it did not hold with these sorts of shenanigans, thank you very much. Loudly. I glared at it. I'd had enough bodily rebellion for one day, thank you very much.

"Here, have two." Ervesa seemed to be suppressing a grin. I was tempted to scowl at her, but found my attention irresistably drawn to the sizzling haunches of meat she held out to me. My stomach's, as well. I silently thanked Dunmer heat resistance as I reached out to take them.

The meat tasted... not bad, I decided, except that it would taste much better if it were actually possible to chew it. The stuff had roughly the consistency of old boot. (And no, I don't care to explain how I know that.)

Ervesa must have read my thoughts - which were along the lines of of 'you call this food?' - off my face because she started chattering. "Roast kagouti isn't exactly the best food, I'm afraid. Too tough. Crab, guar or rat meat is what you usually get, or sometimes nix-hound - but since we happened to have dead kagouti lying around, well. Just be thankful it isn't alit. That's something you don't want to have to eat twice."

I noted with a sinking feeling that apparently this island had even more wildlife. Crabs, E.R.D.s and kagouti had seemed quite enough to put any travellers in fear of their lives. Once I got back to Balmora, I was not leaving that city again and I didn't care about anything Ajira said regarding wonderful fascinating untested flora... alchemy... experiments...

Where was I?

Oh, right, kagouti 'meat'. "Don't worry, this can be my revenge on it for trying to eat me," I said once I'd managed to choke down the first bite. "After all, revenge is so much sweeter when it's slow and painful. I mean, I take it this is the same kagouti as the one..." I tried to think of a way to say 'I fainted in front of' that didn't sound completely pathetic.

Ervesa nodded. "It's lucky for you I came along, really. A Bosmer had sent me this way, said he was looking for his friend and that he didn't think the girl he'd sent was quite up to the job." My cheeks flushed in humiliation. The fact that it was so undeniably accurate made it worse - after all, I quite enjoy deluding myself about my capabilities. "Then his friend ran past me screaming, so I thought I'd better see what was going on. Found a paralysed kagouti and you unconscious on the ground in front of it." She raised an eyebrow.

"Um. Well." I usually try not to talk about my birth-sign ability. Not that it's exactly a secret that the Lover-born can paralyse you (at the cost of any and all of your energy, but somehow that being a bad thing only really sinks in on your third day of bed-rest) but it's both something people tend to forget about and something that can be very handy in a tight spot.

And, of course, I try not to let on I'm Lover-born at all. You see, once people find out I'm Lover-born the lewd comments about dark elven promiscuity start, and then I have to tell them I'd rather kiss a dead kagouti (well, the Imperial equivalent) and although they did look very similar to one the kagouti smelled so much better I could never get them confused, and... well. It usually ends in tears, and sometimes in fireballs.

Whoever gives names to these things doesn't help, I should add - the paralysation ability is called the 'Lover's Kiss.' I ask you!

Of course, it was a bit difficult to pretend to be Lady-born after someone saw you in the aftermath. Even the fake birthdate I'd picked couldn't save me.

"Born under the Lover, I take it?" Ervesa asked. It was clearly meant to be rhetorical, but I nodded reluctantly anyway. "I thought I recognised the signs. One of my comrades in training was as well. She once used it on me in a practice duel."

I winced. "I take it you won, then."

"Actually, our instructor decided that we both lost. He wasn't very impressed. He said that before she woke up or I could move again we'd have both been killed by our surroundings."

Somehow, given what I'd experienced of the wildlife here so far, that really didn't surprise me.

"Anyway," Ervesa continued, "I killed the kagouti before the paralysis worse off, then its mate when it attacked as well." Wait, there had been a second one of those things out there? And it hadn't killed any of the people that I'd encountered earlier? Life really wasn't fair. "Nothing particularly unusual, really. I'm more curious as to how an outlander with no combat skills whatsoever ended up trying to fend off wild kagouti near Lake Amaya."

The words were cutting but the tone wasn't, and faced with the first sympathetic listener I'd encountered that whole cursed day I found myself blinking back tears. "All I wanted to do was pick flowers." My voice most emphatically did not sound like a wail, I told myself.

"Flowers?"

I nodded. "I'm a member of the Mages Guild in Balmora." I paused for a moment - it was the first time I'd said those words out loud. I liked the way it made me sound practically important, and decided not to add 'as of yesterday'. "One of the other guild members asked me to gather flowers near the lake for experimentation - alchemy, you know. And then..."

The whole story came pouring out, from the horrible tyrant old woman where I wouldn't have been in the slightest surprised to find out she was a giant insect Daedra in disguise, to the Bosmer and my taking temporary leave of my senses when agreeing to find his friend, to the kagouti stand-off in which I heroically gave everything I had to incapitate the kagouti only to have the person I was trying to save run away and leave me to certain death, the traitor.

Ervesa frowned. "Scholar or no scholar, anyone should be able to kill a kagouti if it's not going to be moving for a full minute. That was a very cowardly thing to do." She sounded coldly disapproving, and I suddenly remembered that my rescuer was actually a knight - well, vaguely knight-like being that possibly floated - and therefore probably put a lot of stock into the whole honour and chivalry and so on and so forth nonsense. Knights do that sort of thing. I'd always theorised that the steel in their helmets alchemically reacts with their hair to form an intelligence-reducing potion, but now that giant insect armour had entered the picture I would probably need to adjust that a little. Maybe the different material accounted for the songs and poetry?

I found this a fascinating train of thought and would have pursued it for a while, but I noticed Ervesa was still talking and resumed listening sheepishly.

"-better spells and weapons if you want to do any more exploring." Apparently I hadn't missed much, since by the words and scolding tone I guessed she was telling me off for wandering about totally defenseless and my brain had been doing more than enough of that already, thank you, random outsiders need not weigh in. Even if they had just saved my life.

Besides...

"To be honest, I think I've done all the exploring I can handle. I'm looking forward to getting back to Balmora and never leaving again." Dreamily, I thought about what awaited me in Balmora. An alchemy apparatus... a bed... food that was actually edible... a distinct lack of wildlife...

"Really? But you haven't picked your flowers yet."

That brought me back to earth quite forcefully. "Oh no." I thought for a moment while licking the last of the roast kagouti off my fingers. It really wasn't that bad once you got used to the texture. "You know, I think these flowers really don't want me to pick them. I mean, look at what's happened every time I tried. The next time they'll probably send Imperial guards after me or something similarly dreadful."

I was talking more to myself than to Ervesa, trying to convince myself that alchemical properties or no the flowers were best left alone for now, and only belatedly realised that perhaps I should make sure she shared my thoughts about Imperial guards before making disparaging remarks. Luckily, she didn't take offence but just nodded sagely. "The way your luck is going, I'd expect a whole nest of cliff racers next. Or possibly dreugh who have mysteriously learned to walk on land."

"See? It's a matter of self-preservation. Ajira will have to do without." I imagined Ajira's sad face - in particular, I imagined Ajira's 'best impression of a kicked kitten' sad face - and winced.

"I'm sure she'll understand. At any rate, you can hardly pick them now, it's completely dark and you still look exhausted. You can always try again another day. And in the meantime, I have a suggestion."

I raised an inquiring eyebrow. (I was quite proud of this feat. It had taken me ages of practice in front of a mirror to manage properly.)

"I've only got one bed-roll with me, and although I saw a farmhouse further along the path I don't know how hospitable the owner will be. However, I do know a spell that will teleport you to the closest Temple. It's not that difficult, even if you don't have much knowledge of Mysticism you should be able to manage it after a few tries," Ervesa said, talking over my protestations that my knowledge of Mysticism was excellent, thank you very much. "That should get us to Balmora and let you get back to your Guild to rest. If you feel too tired to manage learning a new spell, I'll have to go take look at the farmhouse-"

"I'll do the spell," I said hastily. The idea of making it back to my bed in the Mages' Guild and waking up in the morning to Dulnea's spiced rolls and special tea was very appealing. And besides, even exhausted I was always willing to extend my magical repertoire - especially when it came to Mysticism, which had always sparked my interest.

"Wonderful!" Ervesa said. The enthusiasm in her voice made me suspect that she was also keen on the idea of a real bed in town. "The spell is called. 'Almsivi Intervention.' The way you form the magicka construct for it is..."

 


 

It wasn't a very complicated spell, which is why it was so embarrassing it took me such a long time to grasp it. By the time I actually felt sure enough of the structure to try casting it, the sun had sunk fully underneath the horizon, my cheeks were red and Ervesa was looking increasingly skeptical. It was humiliating - I was good at Mysticism, honestly (it made up for being completely inept at every combat-related skill bar running away). I'd been praised more than once about the ease and efficiency with which I cast my Detection spells. It must be the exhaustion, I told myself; not only had I had a long day, but I knew from experience that potions or no potions, the only magic that could rid me of the last, bone-deep weariness from using the Lover's gift was a good night's sleep. In short, not the best of situations to be studying in.

Thankfully, it really wasn't a very complicated spell. Apparently, every Temple in Morrowind had a... beacon, for lack of a better word, in the realm of Mysticism, and that did most of the work for you. The only part of the spell I had to do was throwing out a sort of mystic rope to connect to the nearest one, and even in my exhausted state I managed to figure that out eventually.

"So, are you sure you understand it?" Ervesa said for the third time. Really, there was being cautious and there was outright paranoia.

"Yes, I'm sure," I answered for the third time. I suspected it sounded three times as annoyed, as well. "Really, it's not that difficult a spell. What are you worried about happening?"

As always, my mouth was faster than my brain - the instant after I asked that, I realised I really didn't want to know the answer.

"Well, I've never reliably heard of anything going wrong myself but... there are stories."

"Stories," I said flatly. "These stories wouldn't entail, oh, accidentally teleporting yourself into solid rock, or vanishing into thin air and never being seen again, or appearing on the other side with your organs inside-out, or-"

"Well. Yes. But!" she hastened to add when she saw my expression, "it's always fourth hand or more. A friend will have heard it from a drunk he met at a tavern once whose second cousin's wife's aunt twice removed lost a friend this way. As I said, I've never reliably heard of anything going wrong myself, nor have I ever seen someone arrive injured due to a teleportation spell. And I've lived near or at Temples for years."

I had another worry. "And, er, the gods don't punish you if you cast this despite not worshipping them?"

Ervesa shook her head. "I know a lot of people use it to get around quickly, no matter what they believe. At the Temple in Vivec, there are always all sorts of people popping in from Ebonheart - the centre of Imperial government on Vvardenfell, there aren't too many faithful there," she explained at my confused look. "And since you say you have some skill at Mysticism, it really shouldn't be a problem."

"All right, all right, I'll do it!"

Now, anyone listening would probably have assumed I'd been convinced this was harmless - by her relieved smile, Ervesa certainly did. In fact, I still had my doubts... but as I'd realised earlier that day contemplating silt striders, if a method of travel was convenient I was perfectly willing to take advantage of it even if it might eat you, rearrange your insides, transport you into the middle of a mountain or just make you vanish forever.

I would like to point out at this stage that I'm an alchemist. I spend a great deal of my time tasting ingredients that might kill me, making potions that might kill me and using equipment that might explode and, you guessed it, kill me. I regularly poison myself and consider this completely normal and unavoidable. Recklessness comes with the territory.

I closed my eyes and envisioned the way I wanted the magicka to form in my mind. Hold the construct, don't think about what would happen to you if you screwed this up and switched your heart and your stomach around, channel it and cast it out...

The power swirled up around me, through me, and latched onto something-

For a brief moment I felt as if either the world or I had vanished except that I couldn't tell which one. Then the energy was gone and I was staggering, trying to adjust to standing on cobblestones when just a moment earlier I'd been standing on grass.

My eyes popped open. I was facing a door leading into a round, domed building made out of the same type of stone the other buildings in Balmora used. This must be the Temple.

"It worked!" I exclaimed.

I jumped in surprise as Ervesa suddenly popped into existence next to me. She seemed hardly fazed at all by the transition. "See, I told you it wasn't- um."

"What?" I asked, grinning broadly. The rush of successfully casting a new spell - a teleportation spell at that - hadn't worn off yet. Nothing could bring my spirits down now!

"Oops."

"What do you mean, oops?" Maybe 'nothing' was a bit too optimistic.

Ervesa had turned around and was staring behind me. I turned to see what she was looking at.

We were apparently in some sort of walled forecourt, with an open archway just behind us. Beyond, you could see the city lit with lanterns and torches, the light glimmering off the water of the river to my left. I could just make out trees and grass on its other bank.

I had the nagging feeling that there was something wrong with this sight, but I couldn't quite pin it down...

Wait a minute.

"The river in Balmora," I said slowly, "flows through the middle of the town, with buildings on both sides. Why are all the houses on one bank?"

"I'm really sorry about this." Even in the faint light, I could tell her cheeks had darkened. "We must have been further to the east than I thought."

"Further to the-" Pieces were falling into place in my mind. "You said that spell takes you to the nearest Temple."

Ervesa nodded sheepishly, and said, "We're in Suran." I felt all hope of waking up in the morning to Dulnea's rolls and tea die.

"Is there a Mages Guild here?" As a guild member I should at least be able to sleep there- but Ervesa was shaking her head.

"However," she continued before I could properly express my anger, "I will find us somewhere to stay for tonight and then tomorrow morning you can take the silt strider back to Balmora. I'll pay for the room and the fare, since this whole situation is, um, my fault." Ervesa looked at me as though she expected me to argue that. When I just stared at her silently, her blush deepened. "I'll try the Temple, they have beds and since I'm a member it oughtn't be a problem. Otherwise, there's a tradehouse in town."

"At this point anything is fine with me, provided I get to sleep somewhere," I said, fighting a yawn as Ervesa opened the door to the temple. I hadn't fully recovered from using That and exhaustion was settling in.

Exhaustion or no, after I entered I stared in surprise at the inside of the temple. Where was the altar? The stained-glass windows with emblems of the Nine, or at least the Aedra worshipped in that particular Temple? What kind of temple was this, anyway?

Then my mind decided to catch up to my circumstances and helpfully point out that being as this was a native Dunmer temple, and native Dunmer worshipped some sort of living gods, it would be rather odd to see the Nine represented. Although I still couldn't quite imagine how the actual worshipping would work without an altar...

See, this is what comes of being brought up in the Cult - narrow-mindedness.

I closed my eyes, took a deep breath and tried to bury all my prejudices and ideas of what a proper temple should look like, then opened them again.

Although it was fully dark outside, the temple was lit with many blue candles. In the flickering light, I could see it had a low, domed ceiling and was decorated with carpets and tapestries. The carpets were simple patterns, whereas the tapestries showed rich, detailed scenes - the one closest to me depicted what looked like some sort of grand battle, centred on three figures clustered around one lying on the ground - but all were muted and earthen in colour, a far cry from the extravagant and eye-catching decorations I was used to. I could see a sort of carved mural in the corner, lit by yet more blue candles; apart from that the temple was bare stone.

In the centre of the room, surrounded by candles and kneeling-cushions, was a large, shallow pit. A woman wearing simple robes who I guessed was the priest was standing next to it, engaged in intense discussion with Ervesa. Given that from the few words that drifted my way they seemed to be talking about statuary of some sort and interior decoration has never exactly been an interest of mine, I found myself more interested in the pit. It was filled with what looked like ashes although I could see... I blinked. Were those bones in there? And wasn't that a skull? ...a rather mer-like skull, at that.

I swallowed hard as I realised I had no idea about Dunmer funeral customs whatsoever. True, so far they were preferable to the Bosmer ones (understatement!), but putting remains on display seemed rather... distasteful.

Of course, maybe I had it all wrong and this was actually the site for animal sacrifices. When I was a child the priests had told me the more primitive religions, especially those that did not worship any aspect of the Nine, often made such things a centre of their-

Bury your prejudices, Adryn.

And after all-

Some words from the priest caught my attention. In particular, the words "so you can't stay tonight."

Strangely enough, I found myself suddenly disinterested in the differences between Dunmer religion and worship of the Nine.

"I'm very sorry," the priest was saying. "I would at least offer to let you sleep on the floor, but-"

"I understand completely," Ervesa said. Her face was grim. "I apologise; I would help you now but it has been a long day and I still have duties to attend to." From her side-long glance, I gathered that 'duties' was me. "If you lock up tonight, I can help you cleanse it tomorrow."

Tension went out of the priest's body so quickly she actually stumbled. "Thank you. I was going to contact the main Temple in Vivec for help, but I really didn't want to leave it that long. I'll stay with a friend tonight, if you..."

"We'll find something." Ervesa heaved a sigh. "I'll meet you here at first light."

And then I was following her back outside.

"What was that all about?" I asked. I'd been too distracted by the temple to catch the pertinent parts of the conversation, but judging by Ervesa's and the priest's attitude something was very wrong - and what was this 'cleansing' business, anyway? It sounded as if something potentially dangerous was going on, and when it comes to things like that I like to know exactly what they are so I can stay as far away as possible.

Of course, it might just be some sort of heathen superstitio-

I silently cursed all priests of Kynareth. Perhaps 'all' was a bit much, perhaps I should restrict myself to the ones who look at little orphan children and see them as empty vessels to be filled with religious propaganda, but I was tired and not inclined to be generous.

"Hmm? Oh," Ervesa looked as if she'd just realised I'd been with her the whole time. "I'm really sorry, it's Temple business. I shouldn't have let you listen to as much as you did." Well, luckily for her, I'd been too distracted by cultural wall-hanging practises and theology to eavesdrop on the apparently confidential and important conversation. I fought the urge to slap my forehead in frustration. "I'd appreciate it if you didn't repeat what you heard to anyone." Well, that wouldn't be hard, given that the only thing I could repeat was something about sculpture, of all things.

I was tempted to pretend I was about to run around telling everyone about this mysterious thing the Temple apparently wanted kept quiet just to annoy Ervesa, but she looked genuinely apologetic and at the moment I had bigger worries. "Sure," I said, shrugging, "I didn't hear much anyway. Only," I had bigger worries such as... "where are we going to sleep tonight, then?"

Ervesa beamed at me when I told her I'd keep quiet. She was surprisingly pretty when she smiled, I noticed. "Oh, there's a tradehouse with beds available in town. I was planning to stay at the Temple because it'd be free, but it's a good place. I've stayed there before, during pilgrimage season."

I heaved a sigh of relief that we apparently weren't going to end up sleeping on the street and followed Ervesa into Suran.

 


 

"What do you mean, you're full?"

"Exactly what I said, girl," the proprietress of the tradehouse grinned at me. Ordinarily, I'd be more curious about the intricate tattoo decorating her forehead - I'm only used to Nords deciding to get themselves stabbed with inked needles for fun, but I dimly remembered hearing that some Dunmer have tribal markings of some sort - but at the moment my attention was firmly caught by two things. First, that this was yet another person who thought "girl" was a suitable thing to call someone (what ever happened to basic politeness, I ask you) and second, that it looked as if we were going to be sleeping outside after all.

None of this made me any more inclined to be polite, so it was probably a good thing for our chances of not starting a brawl, getting into a fight with the owner or otherwise getting arrested that Ervesa intervened at that point. (Although then again, jails have beds. Maybe if it was just a little brawl?)

"I'm sorry," she said. "We're just tired and- full, really? I didn't think you'd be very busy this time of year."

The Dunmer shrugged. "Wouldn't usually be, but there are rumours about some sort of mad Orc berserker up in the hills that's made a lot of travellers stop here until they know it's safe to continue. I've got an entire trading group- all the beds are full, in fact, all the floors are full. Yesterday I actually had people sleeping in the hallway- I'm sorry, but there's just no way."

"Orc berserker? I should probably look into that tomorrow..." Ervesa's voice, which had taken on a speculative tone, trailed off and her shoulders slumped. "But do you know anywhere else where we might stay?"

"Well..." the owner trailed off. "Mine's the only inn in Suran, but there's one other place you could try. Although I don't think you'll like it."

 


 

"You are joking."

"Um."

Ervesa shuffled her feet. My gaze drifted from her boots (also insectoid - seriously, I do not understand local fashion choices, insect is never 'in') to the door of the place we'd been told we might be able to stay for the night.

Now, I have to admit I was a stranger to this country, totally unfamiliar with their customs and norms to do with everything ranging from food to fashion to exterior decorating. But honestly?

Red lights mean only one thing.

And any attempt at convincing me that actually, in Morrowind those red lanterns meant free housing for people named 'Adryn' or anything like that was doomed to failure by the sign that hung over the front door. The sign saying 'Desele's House of Earthly Delights.'

Nobody is that enthusiastic about mattresses.

"You can't possibly be serious," I tried again.

"Er. Well." Ervesa was studying her feet. Maybe she was reconsidering her choice in footwear - hope springs eternal - but I suspected she was just trying to avoid looking me in the eye. "They'll have free beds?"

"Free? Try pre-occupied," I snapped.

"Look, I don't like this any more than you do," Ervesa said, lifting her eyes to look at me for the first time since I'd spotted the lights. "But we need somewhere to sleep, and unless we want to hike out of town and sleep on the bare ground... in the rain..." she lifted her head in the direction of the clouds gathering overhead. "We can just try to get rooms for the night without any... extras."

I looked at the clouds. Looked at the entrance. Pondered whether sleeping outside in freezing rain was really worse than this, then decided sadly that yes, my chances of dying out here were probably higher than dying in there (even if the death would be decidedly more dignified) and gave a grim nod. "All right. Lead on. But I'm not happy about this."

 


 

I tried very hard not to look around the inside of the brothel, tried to ignore the stares of the patrons and the curious looks of the women wearing...

Weren't they cold?

Ignore it, Adryn! I firmly fixed my attention on a picture hanging on the opposite wall. It was a nice picture! With pretty colours! Showing...

...I had no idea it was possible to fit a grape in there.

Thwarted in my attempts to pretend we were somewhere (anywhere) other than where we were, I looked over to where Ervesa was trying to explain the situation to the owner.

"...pretty unusual, is all I'm saying. Lost travellers are one thing, but Armigers generally stay at the temple unless they're looking for companionship. Are you sure you only want-" the owner was saying. She was a Breton, still quite good-looking but with faint wrinkles at the corner of her eyes showing that she wasn't as young as her... employees. Her dark brown hair fell in waves over her shoulders and down to her...

Seriously, wasn't she cold?

I stared at Ervesa's hair, which seemed to be the only safe thing in the room to look at. It was very nice hair - black, twisted together at the back near the top of her head and then plaited so that it hung free in two thin braids to about the middle of her back. Honestly, it looked like a hairstyle that should take hours, a professional and possibly alteration magic to obtain, but I couldn't imagine Ervesa going to that much effort. She was a warrior... bard... thing after all, and at least the first half of that was something that didn't usually go hand-in-hand with creative fashion choices.

Well, unless we count wearing the same clothes for two weeks, rips, patches, bloodstains, dented rusty armour, perfume in the "dead people" flavour or - here - pretending to be a giant insect as fashion choices. Which I for one don't.

Indeed, the only concession to her appearance Ervesa seemed to have made were two earrings of some sparkling amber gemstone which she must have slipped on at some point after we got into town because I couldn't remember seeing them earlier. They were pretty, but small and easy to overlook, swinging from the tips of her ears as she turned around to face me-

Wait a moment.

"-Adryn?"

I started guiltily and pretended I had not just spent some time staring at Ervesa's ears. "Yes?"

There was a clinking sound as she shook a set of keys in front of my face.

"We've got a room."

 


 

I stared at the bed.

It was definitely a bed. Four posters, fluffy pillows, a pile of blankets high enough I started to suspect the owner had a hoarding problem, or maybe was preparing for a sudden glacier attack. (Sneaky things, glaciers are, you never know when they'll pop up.) Its aura of general bedness filled the whole room.

Moreover, its singularity filled the whole room, because there was definitely, emphatically only one of it. It was a bed on its own, a bed asserting its independence. It screamed, insofar as furniture can scream, "Look upon me, I am the greatest, softest, most comfortable, most bed-like bed that ever existed, and I tolerate no rivals!"

"I'll take the floor," Ervesa said.

I remembered with a guilty start that this person had saved my life only a few hours ago, and I probably ought to be more grateful. "No, no, I'll take the floor. You've had a long day. Fighting tusky things. Saving poor innocent travellers from them. That sort of thing."

Ervesa shook her head. "Taking the bed would be profoundly unchivalrous. Besides, you still need to recover from your shock. You take it."

Shock?

Oh, right, almost getting gored by the aforementioned tusky thing. Funny how I'd almost managed to forget that in light of new, brothel-related trauma.

"No, no, I..." My voice trailed off as something dreadful occurred to me. "Wait a moment."

Ervesa tilted her head inquisitively.

"This is- this is- I have read these books, all right, I know how this goes. Any moment now one of us will say, well we could just share, the bed is big enough, and then later- in fact, this whole set-up is..." I closed my eyes in the futile hope that it would somehow diminish the horror of the upcoming sentence. "I am feeling more like the heroine of a romance novel every minute."

There was a noise that could, possibly, have been a suppressed giggle.

I cracked one eye open and looked at Ervesa with suspicion.

Her face was perfectly impassive, but her eyes were dancing in a highly questionable manner. "I have to say... and I do take your point about this being a very, ah, stereotypical situation... you'd make an unlikely romance novel heroine." While I was trying to work out whether I ought to be insulted, she continued, "So, what's your suggestion then?"

"Well." I presented my solution. "We could both take the floor."

Ervesa gave me a thoroughly unimpressed look. I was surprised; usually, the sorts of looks my suggestions are met with run along the lines of "please repeat that, because I think a butterfly flapping its wings on the other side of the world caused passing turbulence which changed the sound of the words before they reached my ear - this being more likely than you actually saying what I just heard" or "Since I cannot convince myself some auditory illusion caused this I am led to the inescapable conclusion that you were raised by maladjusted wolves, possibly in the Shivering Isles". (Believe me, I am heartily familiar with both of these looks as well as their variations.)

In short, unimpressed was a much milder reaction than I was expecting. Still, I felt obliged to defend my suggestion. "Besides, we don't know- we don't want to know where that bed has been."

 


In the end, it was surprisingly comfortable. The Bed (it deserved the capital letters) was furnished with enough fluffy pillows to occupy an entire orphanage of children in a fight for hours, as well as more blankets that would have been necessary in Solitude during Morning Star. I had to wonder why they went to so much effort, given that what was meant to take place on the Bed was - and I am admittedly no expert - not something that particularly involved those things.

I just hoped they washed them afterwards, or else...

...you know, Adryn, let's not continue down that line of thought.

At any rate, there were enough accessories of various sorts to make each of us a comfortable nest, and in the dim candlelight the whole thing seemed almost like an adventure. Brave explorer Adryn - now complete with sidekick - venturing into the hidden depths of prostitution...

"Well, good night, I guess," Ervesa interrupted my daydreams.

"Good night and... I'm sorry for complaining so much about this," I said, pricked by my guilty conscience. "You did save my life earlier, after all. I don't mean to be ungrateful."

What? Even I can be polite sometimes!

"Don't worry about it. Saving people is part of the job description, and you'd done most of the work in paralysing the kagouti. Dragging people miles out of their way and forcing them to stay in..." she paused, "profoundly unsuitable, shall we say, circumstances isn't."

"Still. Sorry." I relaxed back into the purloined blankets, trying to ignore the stripped Bed looming above me. It was soft and warm and I was very tired...

It was at that point the noise started.

I won't describe it in detail, as I wish I didn't remember it in detail. Suffice it to say that it was completely impossible to ignore and left no doubts whatsoever about what sort of establishment this was.

I looked at Ervesa.

She looked at me.

"I'll see if Helviane has any playing cards," she said.

 


 

It said something about the way things were going that I was entirely unsurprised when the cards Ervesa came back with some minutes later had very... creative illustrations. By which I mean that I had certainly never seen the figures depicted in quite that way before; I didn't think some of those positions were even anatomically possible.

But I did my best to ignore that (something I was sadly getting a lot of practice in) and instead studied the cards themselves. They weren't quite the ones I was used to even apart from the... interesting... drawings. The suits were slightly different; "cups" seemed to have become "shields" in Morrowind (not that I could quite blame them given the wildlife), I didn't see any Emperors, Knights or Legionnaires but spotted a King and Queen of swords, and finally the trumps looked different as well. At least, I certainly didn't recall a Pilgrim in the decks I was used to, but then again I really wasn't inclined to study the cards too closely so I might be misreading them.

"Hmmm." Ervesa also seemed to be trying to ignore the illustrations. "Pity we don't have a third, we could have a round of sedrathi."

"We could always invite one of our neighbours over for a round, since they seem so... active," I responded. Ervesa choked. "I don't suppose you know any good two-player card games?" Most of the ones I knew were meant for groups. Besides, something I'd learned in my travels was that games can be completely different between different provinces, and it would probably behoove me to pick up the local ones (of which I assumed 'sedrathi' was one) sooner rather than later.

"I know a few, although I wouldn't necessarily call them good. But..." she shrugged. "I'm sure we'll make do somehow."

"Mmm." I nodded.

Honestly, even learning a new game as I was, I wasn't expecting the play to be all that interesting, or Ervesa to be much competition. I'd spent years playing cards with some of the greatest rogues in Skyrim, after all, and Ervesa was a knight (ish) which meant honesty, integrity and a natural disadvantage.

As a result, I was rather surprised when our game quickly turned into a friendly competition as to who could cheat most outrageously.

"I have the king of rings and the aces of staves, shields and swords," I said, laying down my hand triumphantly. Beat that.

"Hmm. Very good, very good indeed." Ervesa looked at her hand. "I have the ace of rings, ace of shields, and... two aces of staves."

"Quite miraculous," I said drily. "I don't think the rules work for this event, given that there's only meant to be one of each card in the game."

"Well." Her voice was mild. "It would help if you didn't use illusions."

I tried to jerk my hand away but she was faster. "Sheogorath take it," I muttered as the dispelling magicka washed over me - in particular, as it washed over the cards I was holding and shifted the aces of staves and shields into a seven and nine of swords respectively. It wasn't something you could use in a serious game where everyone was on the look-out for that sort of magic, but I'd managed to fool quite a few people who weren't expecting it with that little trick all the same.

"I think that means I win." Ervesa sounded satisfied.

"Wait just a moment. I know I saw you slip the aces of shields and staves up your sleeve when you dealt, but where did the other two come from?"

"Well, you're one to talk given that that was how you got the ace of swords," she'd spotted that? I thought for sure I'd got away with it, "and- wait!-"

This time I was faster and managed to grab the offending cards out of her hand. "Wait a moment, these aren't those cards at all! This is Masser and that's... I'm not actually sure, but definitely a trump card." I raised an eyebrow. "How exactly were you planning on sneaking those past me?"

"Well." Ervesa was coolly unrepentant. She'd have made an excellent thief with that attitude towards her crimes. "I thought that since those two superficially resemble the cards in question and if you looked closer you'd be distracted by the illustrations, seeing as they are among the ones where the artist took the most... creative license... don't look!"

Alas, my eyes were a little faster than either my ears or my brain in this case, something I had never regretted quite so much as in that moment.

"I- what- how-" I'd never been a drinker but suddenly, faced with the prospect of having that burned into my memory, strong liquor gained an entirely new appeal. "How is that even anatomically possible and why in the name of the Nine would anyone do it for fun?"

"As far as the first goes, I'm quite certain it's not. Years of combat training tell me that his legs would have broken long ago at that angle, and I don't think you could do that with a slaughterfish anyway. As for the second..." Ervesa shrugged philosophically. "There is a story of Saint Delyn that goes like this: once, when he was young, he came across two philosophers arguing next to a mudcrab colony. When he asked them what they were doing, one of them said: 'I am trying to explain to my imbecilic colleague that the movement of the mudcrabs symbolically expresses the movement of Nirn and the alignment of the stars!' The other retorted: 'No, you fool, the mudcrabs are demonstrating the creation of the world and the death of Lorkhan! See, if you take the one to the right there to be-'

"Saint Delyn shrugged and continued on his way. A few weeks later, he passed by the spot again. Both scholars had starved, having been so involved in their argument they forgot to eat, and the mudcrabs were making a meal of them. 'Sometimes,' thought Saint Delyn, 'it is best to let mudcrabs be mudcrabs.' In other words," Ervesa said, dropping out of her story-telling cadence, "it is best not to try too hard to understand some things, because doing so can only lead to madness, obsession, and having your corpse eaten by mudcrabs."

"That seems a little complicated." And a bit more grotesque than I was used to parables being, for that matter. "I prefer to say that everyone else has been brainwashed, or possibly possessed by Sheogorath, in order to find such an unhygienic, ridiculous activity appealing. Even if you take out the fruit. I mean, this entire place," I gestured around me. "An entire industry devoted to, to sticking body parts into other people's orifices or vice versa. I just don't understand how so many people would decide it's so important without Daedra and their sense of humour being involved somewhere."

I peered at Ervesa, curious about how she would react to this. Although I consider this very sound and logical reasoning, it gets me more "raised by maladjusted wolves" looks and even otherwise rare "I think you ought to be marooned on a deserted island on the off-chance that this is contagious" looks than anything else - something which I think goes to show how sadly widespread Daedric brainwashing is these days. Even Ingerte a-

Well, Ervesa had been surprisingly tolerant so far, so I wondered how the statement that usually made even otherwise tolerant people wonder out loud exactly how I'd survived to my current age without accidentally inciting someone to murder would work on her.

She was quiet for a long moment, staring into the candleflame. "Honestly, I don't understand it either. As I said: mudcrabs. You may not understand why they're doing what they're doing but it's best just to leave them to it. I do have to say that you're the first person I've ever met who shares that opinion." She met my eyes with a wry grin. "All of my fellow trainees thought I was crazy. It's good to know I'm not the only one."

"Brainwashing," I said sagely, but I felt my cheeks stretch into a smile in spite of myself. "Us paltry few who haven't fallen victim to it have to stick together."

We shared a moment of connection, a moment of being the only two people with sense in a world that considered the greatest possible pleasure to involve bodily fluids. It was broken by loud... noises coming from the next room, which goes to show that whichever Daedric Prince is at fault for this has a fine-tuned sense of irony.

I looked back down at the cards. "So... who won?"

Ervesa shrugged. "I think we can call it a tie."

"Fair enough." I wasn't going to argue. "Who taught you how to cheat, anyway? I mean, you're good. I barely noticed you slipping those aces up your sleeve."

"Not good enough, or else you wouldn't have." Ervesa grinned wryly. "As for who taught me - Tidros Indaram, one of my training masters at Molag Mar."

I blinked. This made two floating religious knight-bards that cheated at cards. "Look, I don't know much about your order, but... isn't that a bit unusual? After all," I continued when Ervesa just looked confused, "you were talking earlier about emulating your god..."

"Exactly," Ervesa interrupted, and it was my turn to look confused. "That's why we do it."

Wait.

Wait, I couldn't possibly have heard that correctly.

"Your god cheats at cards?"

"Well, I suppose-"

"Your god cheats at cards?"

I tried to imagine any of the gods I'd grown up hearing about, the Nine or the Nordic pantheon, cheating at cards. This resulted in the mental image of Alduin the great dragon who destroyed the world before time, Kynareth the Goddess of Air, and Talos who was Tiber Septim who conquered all of Tamriel and ascended to godhood... sitting around a table in a tavern playing cards, with Alduin trying to hide an ace between his scales because he didn't have any sleeves (being a giant, world-eating dragon), Kynareth using her powers over wind to blow the cards into the order she wanted when dealing, and Talos simply telling the others that his seven of staves was actually an ace and daring them to object. This in turn resulted in me pondering whether I might have accidentally had any skooma at any point that day without realising, because I had no idea how to explain what was going through my head without drugs coming into the picture somewhere.

"Well, it's a little more complicated than that," Ervesa said. "Do you want to hear the story?"

"Wild kagouti couldn't keep me from finding out the story behind this," I responded.

"All right then. Once, Vivec encountered a group of Dwemer near Falasmaryon..."

What followed was a story involving Vivec, an annoying braggart of a Dwemer who claimed his machine could predict anything that would ever happen, and Vivec talking him into a card game with high stakes. "The other Dwemer told him to be careful, for they knew Vivec was filled with trickery and bore them no love," Ervesa said, showing more pride at the description of her god as 'filled with trickery' than I would have expected. If you closed your eyes and ignored the accent, you could almost imagine she was a Nord talking about Shor. "But Vivec said, 'why, do you not trust your machine? If it truly does what you say, you would be able to tell how the cards will fall even now, and there is no risk,' and he agreed to the game.

"Then as they were playing, Vivec changed the cards so they fell to his favour. The Dwemer realised this and became furious. Yet, Vivec said, if the machine were truly able to predict anything, he would have known this would happen. So the fact that Vivec was winning demonstrated his lie."

"And then what happened?" I asked when she paused.

"The other Dwemer, being a folk that did not prize loyalty, agreed with Vivec's assessment. Thus Vivec's opponent was cast out for his failure and his machine melted down as useless, and thus the land around Falasmaryon came to belong to the Dunmer. Some people say one can still hear the spirit of the bested Dwemer there on dark nights, railing against Vivec's cunning, but," Ervesa shrugged, "Falasmaryon lies deep in the Ashlands and the wind howling through the foyada can lead even the bravest of mer to imagine things."

"That was a good story," I said once it was clear Ervesa had finished. "Do you know any more?" It was a good distraction from our environment - and over the course of the day I'd found myself honestly curious. Ervesa had made a generally good impression on me so far, making me wonder about the god that she was so dedicated to.

"What, weren't you listening to me earlier?" She frowned at me until I wondered whether I ought to be apologising for forgetting something (but what?), then her face broke into a grin. "One of the things we Armigers are dedicated to is poetry and prose. In other words," she winked, "I know very many such stories! I can think of several which I think you might like. But first..."

"First?"

"How much do you know about the Tribunal Temple?" Ervesa asked.

"Very little," I admitted. Then, struck by the intensity of her gaze, I added, "look, if this is some attempt at conversion..."

"No, no! Well..." Ervesa looked a little sheepish, "not really? It just seems to me as if you might be interested in learning more about us. We're not a very missionary sort of people!" she added hastily. "Not like the Cult. But a lot of outlanders, you know, they come to Morrowind and," she spread her hands, "they know nothing about us. Just rumours about savage rituals and heathen worship and," a dark look spread on her face and she almost spat the next word, "necromancy, of all the dreadful blasphemies. And they never bother to learn more. I hear outlanders who've lived in Morrowind decades repeating the same old lies about our beliefs and customs."

"So..." I asked warily, "you're just encouraging me to learn about your religion?" True, I'd been contemplating this myself, but I find it pays to be careful appearing too religiously interested when it comes to clergy and other zealots. You may think you're just passing the time while taking advantage of the healing services but then they get their claws in you and suddenly you find yourself swearing eternal loyalty to Mehrunes Dagon via human sacrifice - I've heard the stories, you know! A measure of reluctance and skepticism is essential when it comes to these things.

She nodded. "Exactly. If you decide to join the Temple afterwards, excellent, but even if you don't at least you'll know what we're about. And I don't mean you should go straight on a pilgrimage or anything. A good friend of mine is at the Balmora Temple - Llarara Omayn, is her name - and she sells books and tracts. I know there's one common one that's aimed at outsiders like you but I don't recall the name... other than that, Saryoni's Sermons is a very popular collection, Cantatas of Vivec is a favourite of mine, Doors of the Spirit is one I recommend to anyone who's heard those slanderous rumours that we engage in necromancy..."

My shoulders relaxed. Books, I could deal with books. I could deal with books very well indeed, considering that I'd been contemplating doing bedtime reading about kagouti mating habits earlier and as far as I was concerned, everything you needed to know about those could be summed up in two words: Stay. Away. "All right-" I paused to yawn, "I'll keep those in mind."

Ervesa smiled at me. My cheeks grew hot, which was definitely, absolutely, emphatically just because of the room being quite warm by now. "Wonderful! Now, I think I've remembered a story you'll enjoy."

"Go on," I said.

As she started talking, I let myself fall backwards into my mountain of pillows. The noise from next door was still audible, but my limbs felt like lead and I had to fight to keep my eyes open. Small wonder; I had used that today after all, and one rejuvenating potion was definitely not enough to get rid of the effects.

The last thing I remembered was Ervesa's face lit by flickering candlelight and her voice rising and falling rhythmically, lulling me to sleep.


Chapter Text

This time, when I woke from my nightmare (skin writhing as though there are a thousand worms just beneath it, the creaking as the bones are stretched to their utmost limit-) I didn't bolt upright. Instead, I just scowled at the ceiling - it was the third Oblivion-damned night in a row, if these were really location-induced somehow I'd end up trying to swim to the mainland before the week was out - then rolled over and waited for sleep to come again. The blankets were warm, by the dim twilight outside it was very, very early morning, the sounds of... activity... from next door had abated, I could hear even breathing from Ervesa's side of the room and I was so very tired...

There is fire everywhere. To the right a city is burning, to the left a forest is alight, ahead two armies are battling, their fireballs almost invisible against the glare of the setting sun, behind -

Don't look back. In the name of every single god ever worshipped, don't look back.

Someone's larger hand is clutching my small one, meant to be protective but holding me fast. "Come on!" I shout, pulling at it. The sound almost goes under in the screaming and roar of flames and- other noises. "It's not safe here! We have to keep moving!"

Now the scenery has shifted - the sun at my left, to my right the sea and a battle of two armadas. And-

The ground begins to tremble.

It is coming.

"We have to run
now!" My companion still isn't moving. Despite myself, I turn back to look at her.

The stench hits me first - rot mixed with burning flesh, so strong it makes me gag. Maggots crawl over her forehead, the skin of her cheeks already peeling off to expose decaying muscle. There is a crunching noise as the bare bones I am holding snap, the tendons holding the skeletal hand together ripping under the pressure of my fingers. They say corpses stare but hers does not; her eyes are two pits of charcoal, burned clear out of her face, and-

Behind her-


It seemed that my old nightmares weren't just going to lie down and take this intrusion into their territory quietly, that they were in fact launching a counter-campaign. I lay in bed and tried to aim the thought if you don't stop this I am going to bash my head in with a rock just so I can sleep at my subconscious.

Perhaps it worked, perhaps my various nightmares had just exhausted themselves with infighting - this time, when I fell back asleep it was dreamless. When I woke next, it was daylight outside, there was rain spattering the window and Ervesa was gone.

I yawned, sat up and stretched. My back was sore - all the fluffy blankets in the world don't quite make up for lacking a mattress - but it wasn't too bad and I'd certainly slept in worse circumstances.

I'd had to sleep in my clothes as I hadn't taken my new nightclothes with me, but smoothing them down got out the worst of the wrinkles and I could change when I got to the Mages' Guild. (If I ever got to the Mages' Guild. After yesterday, I wouldn't be surprised if some god was trying to keep me away from the place. If there was an attack of massed kagouti or bandits or Daedra on the path back, I would be totally unsurprised - I vowed to myself to have my Firebite spell ready just in case.) Reflexively, I looked around for my cloak, then had to remind myself that I didn't actually own one at the moment and that this land had a very balmy climate. What can I say, old habits die hard.

The main room looked entirely different when I got downstairs. Gone were the patrons, the dancers, the lurid lighting. The only person in the place was the owner - Helviane, Ervesa had called her - who was wiping down the counter with a rag. I noted with relief that she was a bit... more warmly dressed, shall we say, than she'd been the day before.

"Up, are you?" she asked me, then continued without waiting for an answer (although really, what was she expecting me to say, "no"?). "Your Buoyant Armiger friend left at first light. Paid for the room and left you this." She pushed a ten-drake coin my way. "Said it was for the strider back to Balmora, and that she was sorry for just leaving but that she had urgent business and didn't want to wake you." By her smirk, I knew exactly how Helviane had taken 'didn't want to wake you', and wished silently that Ervesa had spent a little more thought on her word choice. "I'm Helviane Desele, by the way, didn't catch your name yesterday. And don't look like that, I don't bite." She paused and then winked. "Unless you're paying me, that is."

"Um." It felt as if my tongue had knotted itself overnight. "Adryn. And not biting me is perfectly fine, really, no need to change that, I, I like being unbitten-" I flushed deep purple as Helviane laughed.

"Ah, kids," she said, shaking her head. "Well, Adryn, you're in luck - Folsi should be back from her morning trip to Vivec in a bit, and the next destination is Balmora. If you'd missed that, you'd have had to wait until the afternoon."

"In that case, I'd better get going," I said quickly. At the moment, I really just wanted to get back to Balmora as quickly as possible and forget most of the last day had ever happened. "Wouldn't want to miss it. Er-" some long-forgotten part of my mind that had once learned this strange thing called manners prodded me, "thank you for letting us stay last night."

Helviane shrugged. "Well, you looked miserable enough I couldn't in good conscience send you back onto the streets. Although I do hope those merchants get over whatever terrifying shadows and stories are keeping them in town this time. Good business it may be for me, but bad for trade. Besides, they're getting antsy. Ashumanu's been talking about having to break up fistfights, and I've had to ban one from the premises already for trying to take out his frustrations on one of my girls."

"Er-"

Helviane continued without even looking at me - not that I minded that part so much, given the way she was scowling at the table as if it had insulted her, ah, professional assets. (Well, for all I knew it had - after the Bed I wouldn't be too surprised at anything the furniture here got up to.) "In the meantime, rumour has it there's a murderer loose in Vivec but is anyone afraid of travelling there? Hardly! And now I have those damn Fighter thugs on my back again. 'Debt money' - what debt do they think I owe them, pray tell? Protection rackets, I tell you - I thought the whole point of an Imperial guild was supposed to be that it wasn't a crime syndicate-"

It sounded as if the woman had forgotten that I had any existence bar being a listening ear - in particular, that I was trying to make the strider. It also sounded as if now that she'd got going she wasn't going to be stopping for a while. So I just waved at her and made my way to the door.

When I reached it, I stared outside in resignation. Up until today the weather had been good enough - cloudy, true, but dry and warm enough to be comfortable - but from the amount and type of vegetation and the swamps near the coast I'd deduced that this must be a relatively wet climate. As a result, the pouring rain didn't come as much of a surprise.

I still didn't want to go out in it, though.

Then again, I reminded myself, I was currently standing in a brothel. In comparison, a little water doesn't seem nearly as bad anymore. Refreshing. One might even say cleansing. And maybe, in a sense, lucky, because with the weather the way it was there would be fewer people around to see me leaving said brothel who might get the wrong impression.

I dashed out into the rain.

 


 

Some perfect, amazing, wonderful person who I was prepared to compose love letters to had come up with the idea of extending an oiled awning on one side of the silt strider platform to allow waiting passengers to wait dry. I ducked under it, shaking drops of water from my hair. The platform hadn't been far away from Desele's and shouldn't have taken much time to reach... unless, that is, the person trying to reach it was a total stranger to the city with the approximate sense of direction of a drugged chicken. Let's just say that I was quite damp by the time I found the place.

"Oh, hello there! Going to Balmora too?"

"Hello," I sheepishly greeted the Breton woman I'd been ignoring completely in order to revel in dryness. She was about my age and small for a Breton, with dancing eyes, short brown hair and wearing some sort of leather armour. She was also munching on something that made my stomach remind me that the only thing it had had all of yesterday was breakfast and some kagouti 'meat'. (I use the term loosely.)

I suddenly remembered I hadn't answered her question yet. "Yes, I'm going back to Balmora - I just joined the Mages' Guild there," I explained. I was absolutely not showing off, I told myself. It was relevant information.

"Really? I just joined the Fighter's Guild." At least there were two of us bragging now. "I'm a scout, you see. My name's Fasile."

"I'm Adryn," I responded. I was going to continue, but was interrupted by my stomach deciding to make its general state of emptiness and displeasure at that audible. I blushed.

"Here, take some." Fasile gestured at an open pouch at her side, out of which drifted a lovely smell.

"Oh no, I couldn't possibly..." my protest was very weak.

Fasile shook her head, grinning. "I got breakfast to take with me at the tradehouse, and Ashumanu, the owner, gave me far too much - I could never eat all this myself."

"Well, in that case..."

The pouch contained rolls with scrib jelly, which I was very proud at myself for being able to identify. They didn't taste quite as good as the ones I'd had yesterday - the cook here wasn't as dab a hand with the spices as Dulnea - but were fresh out of the oven, and offset nicely by the sweetness of the scrib jelly.

"A scout?" I asked as we chewed. "What does a scout do for the Fighter's Guild?" I'd thought Fighter's Guild members ran more along the lines of big brawny hulking fighters who were confused by words more than two syllables long. Scouts didn't fit into the picture.

"Well, the guild takes a lot of escort and protection quests - travellers hire us to protect them from bandits or the wildlife, people exploring ruins and caves hire us as back-up, that sort of thing. Other times we're asked to hunt down criminals who are trying to hide in the wilderness. Having someone who knows the area and can set up camp and hunt for food in the wild can be very important."

I nodded. "That makes a lot of sense. So what brings you to Suran?"

"Well, Eydis Fire-Eye, she's head of the Balmora guild, she asked me to drop off a message. But it was a good opportunity because I'd be a bad scout if I didn't know a lot about different regions, and I've never been to this area before," Fasile explained. "I mean, imagine what would happen if someone asked to escort them to Suran, or to Marandus, or to the Vandus tomb, and I got them lost? I wouldn't dare call myself a scout after that." She shuddered. "Oh, but, I also picked up something amazing at the shops here! One of the traders had a glass dagger for sale, see?"

I squinted at the weapon she held out to me. There is a euphemism for when something is in particularly bad shape, saying that it 'has seen better days'. This dagger, now, had probably seen better centuries. The hilt seemed to be in the process of dissolving, contrary to the laws of physics, and even from a distance I could tell that with that edge the weapon probably ought to be classified as a blunt instrument, as it wouldn't make a difference whether you hit an enemy with the flat side or the "sharp". I could still tell that somewhere underneath all the chips, scratches, and what looked like old blood that hadn't been cleaned off in so long it might actually have become one with the weapon, the blade was made of some reflective greenish material - wait, had she called it glass? Who in their right mind would make weapons out of glass?

Fasile stared at me for a moment after I voiced this opinion, then laughed. "Oh right, you must be new to Morrowind. This isn't ordinary glass. Volcanic glass is one of the hardest materials known to man and mer, and durable enough that it makes excellent weapons. If you want better, you'd be looking into ebony or Daedric... which is why a glass dagger usually costs around forty septims." Four thousand drakes? I whistled and stared at the weapon with new eyes. "But because it's in such bad shape," understatement of the year, "and because it's really hard to repair glass weapons the trader let me have it for much less!" The girl bounced. And I do literally mean bounced. I paused in the process of reaching for a new roll to blink at her - this was the first time I'd ever seen that outside of literature.

I spotted a flaw in her plan. "But... if it's so hard to repair, will you be able to?"

"Oh, I'll take it to old Wayn. He's the smith at the guild - bit of a stick-in-the-mud but very good at what he does. I'm sure he'll be able to fix it for me." Fasile smiled dreamily - I could almost read the words 'and then I'll have a glass dagger of my very own!' above her head - then blinked as though something had just occurred to her. "But what about you? What brought you to Suran?"

"I was looking for ingredients," I said, ruefully thinking of my vials which currently all contained that precious, rare, difficult to harvest ingredient known as air. "I'm an alchemist, one of two at the guild, and our guild mistress asked us to study some of the flowers that grow near Lake Amaya. I had a few... misadventures, and ended up staying the night here."

"That's funny, I don't remember seeing you at the tradehouse last night..."

I decided to take this as an opportunity to practice my poker face. "We must have just missed each other, I'm sure."

"I suppose. Did you at least manage to get the flowers?"

"No," I moaned. "All I got from yesterday were near-death experiences and this map here." I wiped my hands on my trousers and fished the damnable thing out of my pack. "I suppose it's useful to have one, but when you were expecting a reward that's a little, shall we say, shinier and more metallic..."

"Oh, yes," Fasile clucked sympathetically. "Wayn told me it's why the guild insists on a proprely negotiated contract before accepting any missions, to avoid this kind of thing." Yes, thank you for telling me now. "Although... wait, can I see that map for a moment?"

I handed it over, puzzled. Fasile took it, stared at it, then spoke a word I didn't quite understand. To my amazement, a glowing dot appeared on the map - I leaned over and saw that it was just at Suran.

"Is that..." I was stunned.

"It's enchanted with a location spell. Some Telvanni worked it out, I hear. They're really expensive - I've seen them selling for almost five septims! I've been thinking of saving up for one." She eyed the map hungrily while I tried to incorporate this new fact into my worldview.

"So when I thought about throwing it away..."

"...it would have been very, very stupid, yes. Whoever gave this to you must have really liked you."

I giggled. It may have sounded slightly hysterical. "No, I... doubt that. I really, really doubt that. I think it's more likely she just didn't know and thought it was a cheap copy off the streets. I mean," I paused for dramatic effect, "when I met her she was holding it upside-down."

We looked at each other and burst into laughter.

"Ahoy the strider!" A new voice, this one, and - to my surprise - unmistakeably tinged with the accent of Wayrest.

I was even more surprised when the owner of the new voice turned out to be a dark- a Dunmer. Given the accent, I'd been expecting a Breton... and wasn't that hypocritical of me, given the amount of people who, upon hearing me open my mouth, probably expected some fur-clad axe-wielding Nord!

But my ruminations on accents and their owners, who are not always quite what you expect, were interrupted when I noticed that the newcomer was surrounded by a glowing purple bubble of energy - one that the raindrops hit and then bounced off.

I may have drooled. If so, it was obviously to do with being a Mages' Guild member confronted with a type of magic I didn't know (a shield spell, something hidden in the dim mists of memory nudged me), about the passionate search for magic-related knowledge of all kinds, and nothing whatsoever to do with a way to stay dry.

"Oh, hi Eddie!" Fasile greeted as she handed the map back (with noticeable reluctance.) Apparently she knew him. "That's a neat trick. So did you get back without getting lost again?"

I hid a grin as 'Eddie', who'd strolled under the awning puffed up with his own cleverness, deflated. "Ah, of course not, I would never..."

"I met him yesterday," Fasile explained to me over his protests. "Said he was looking for Sulipund, but he was going the wrong way, was about to enter an ancestral tomb," a dark expression crossed her face, "and had already managed to fall into Lake Nabia twice. I ended up escorting him there, but I couldn't take him back to Suran and I was worried he'd manage to end up at the Ghostfence or eaten by Daedra at Bal Ur."

It's funny how sometimes, you can read "please let the earth swallow me right now" on people's faces clearer than if they'd spoken out loud.

As I was still smarting from my various misadventures yesterday, I was more sympathetic than I might have been otherwise. So he fell into the lake twice? At least he hadn’t almost been killed in a very embarrassing way by a rampaging kagouti. "Well, these things happen, especially when you’re not an experienced scout." I smiled encouragingly. "My name’s Adryn, by the way."

"Ah! Your sympathy is a salve to my poor wounded soul, o fair flower of beauteousness." He bowed with a flourish. "Edd Theman is your humble servant."

My sympathy vanished like a puff of hot air in a Solitude blizzard.

"I think you must be confused. The bushes are over there, you see. At least, I assume that since you were talking to a 'fair flower of beauteousness' you were trying to address the local plant life, given that I told you my name just now."

"Ah, but such a masculine name hardly suits a gorgeous orchid in this arid wasteland such as yourself-"

"Excuse me?"

His shield spell chose that moment to wink out of existence.

Fasile, probably sensing that there would be violence done in a few moments, interrupted. "Look! There’s the strider."

 


 

The journey back to Balmora was something of a trial, thanks to Edd "call me Fast Eddie" Theman and his idea of what counted as suitable conversation.

Now, don't get me wrong. I don't always mind flirting, provided it's in the right time and place and - most importantly - everyone involved knows that it's just for fun and nothing is actually going to happen. If that last condition isn't fulfilled I get to wrack my brains as to how to get it through to the person in question that the only way what they have in mind would be less likely to occur would be if one or both of us were dead. In my experience, this is something that is surprisingly difficult to get through men's heads. A few will back off gracefully, but many of them will react as though you're speaking Aldmeris, and some of them will take you pouring the boiling hot potion of feebleness you were working on over their heads while screaming at them to get out as a sign that "she must really like me!". Eddie was definitely, definitely of the last sort, even though I sadly didn't have any feebleness potions at hand.

Furthermore, he was also of the sort that thinks your eyeballs are located on your chest - particularly egregious as I have been reliably informed that it takes several minutes' concerted study to even tell that I possess one - and as far as his poetry went, it would be undeservedly flattering to call it merely 'dreadful'. I swear that at one point I heard the silt strider moaning in pain, which goes to show that even giant fleas have a greater sense of artistry than ser Theman.

Thankfully for me and my hypothetical life sentence in Imperial prison for murder via pushing someone off a giant flea, Fasile was there and we quickly allied against this threat. One remark of hers, relating his nickname to his stamina when it came to certain activities he was evidently interested in, left him sputtering and us in blessed silence for at least five minutes. As a result, although I was sorely tested I was able to hold out until Balmora without resorting to attempted murder.

I may have set a new speed record for strider disembarking; the people waiting at the strider port in Balmora certainly stared as though I had. Even so, I wasn't quite quick enough to escape Eddie's parting remark of "Look me up at the Lucky Lockup some time, my beautiful pearl!"

"Look up a portal to Oblivion!" I retorted, while resolving never to set foot into the Lucky Lockup. He ignored me.

I was still fuming a little when I stepped into the Mages' Guild after having bid a quick farewell to Fasile, enough that I had to hold back a nasty comment when I saw Marayn crouching in front of the supply chest.

"What are you doing there?" It came out a little more curt than it might have otherwise, but I managed to keep most of my temper out of my voice.

"A new shipment for the supply chest came in this morning, and I'm checking to see if that useless bureaucrat at the mainland has finally got it through his thick head that we need soul gems, not- no, it's all potions to strengthen willpower again. " Marayn slammed the chest shut with a little more force than necessary. At least I wasn't the only one in a bad mood. "As if Ajira can't whip up more than we'd ever need with wickwheat and bloat, especially now that she's got Adryn to- wait a moment." He blinked at me as if he'd only just realised I was present. "Adryn!"

Bad mood or no, I felt a flood of affection towards Marayn in that instant. At least one person on this island had managed to remember my name! "Yes?"

"Where on Nirn have you been?" He frowned. "Ajira's been out of her mind with worry since yesterday evening."

"Well, it's a long story-"

"In that case, tell me later. For now, go downstairs and tell Ajira you're still alive and in one piece so she'll stop turning the guild upside-down. She already almost poisoned someone this morning."

I squirmed guiltily. It wasn't as though I could have done anything about it, but I'd not thought at all about how Ajira might take me vanishing after she sent me on an errand. Especially when the reason she didn't go herself was because she thought it was too dangerous; she'd probably spent all day thinking something horrible had befallen me.

Well, something lethally horrible - given that I thought spending a several-hour silt strider journey in close quarters with a man who had a decidedly overinflated perception of his appeal, wit, and poetic ability certainly qualified as 'something horrible', not to mention the brothel, how could I possibly forget the brothel. And the evil fiend disguised as a pilgrim whose only purpose on Nirn was evidently to torture me. Oh, right, and I supposed almost dying probably counted as well.

Downstairs, things were quiet - it looked as if I'd arrived during the lunch break, because the only person I saw in the room were the Breton, who I'd mentally dubbed 'teleportation girl', and Ajira. The Khajiit was mixing something in a bowl, but I didn't think her mind was exactly on the task given her twitching tail and ears.

Or what she was mixing.

"You know," I said from behind her, "I'm relatively certain you don't actually want to add gravedust mixed in water to minced scamp skin. For one, I'm not sure why you'd want to make a potion that drains your magicka, but more importantly you don't want to add something mainly consisting of water to a hot liquid containing anything that ever touched a Daedra. Trust me on this." I still had the scars. Literally.

Ajira whirled around. "Friend Adryn!" Then I found myself with an armful of relieved Khajiit.

"Um. I'm sorry I worried you. There, there?" I patted her back awkwardly. What were you supposed to do in a situation like this anyway? And what was that sticky feeling on my... oh. "Could you take the stirrer out of my hair, please? I don't know what you were trying to make exactly but I'm relatively sure I don't want it on my scalp."

Ajira disentangled herself, then disentangled the spoon (which was a bit more complicated.) "Ajira was so worried! You are all right! ...you are all right, yes?" Before I could reassure Ajira that yes, I was totally fine bar mental trauma, I found myself with a potion pushed into my hands. "Drink this!"

I checked the label. Healing. "Ajira, I'm fine-"

"Drink."

I shrugged and unstoppered it - even though it wasn't necessary, I was happy to let Ajira fuss about me a little to make up for how she'd obviously worried about me.

The potion tingled going down, washing away the aches and pains I still had from yesterday. It tasted surprisingly good compared to the ones I was used to, apart from a bitter aftertaste and a dryness in my mouth.

"Mm, that was good. What was in it?"

"Saltrice and wickwheat," Ajira said. "Not only good ingredients for healing potions but also common foodstuffs, perhaps Adryn has had saltrice porridge already? But more importantly..." her expression shifted to something like I'd always imagined a scolding mother must look like. "Where have you been?"

"Um. It's a long story?"

"Then I shall finish this," Ajira cast a glance at her looming explosion in potion form, "and we shall discuss it over lunch."

 


 

The weather had cleared up, so we got "rat-inna-bun" - a kind of meat wrapped in dough roasted over a fire where I could only hope the name wasn't meant literally - from a street vendor, then I followed Ajira to her favourite spot outside. It turned out to be sitting on the northern wall where it passed over the river.

Although the wall was quite low at that point it still wasn't somewhere I'd take my hypothetical old grandmother, since we had to clamber to get onto it and it was narrow enough that even sitting on it required some dexterity and sense of balance. Thankfully, neither of those things had ever been a problem for me - another thing I could thank my birth-sign for - and I could tell why Ajira liked the spot. The view made all the acrobatics worthwhile.

To the northeast, we could see the river winding its way through a valley that broadened beyond the town. I could spot a small boat in the middle of the river - fishing, perhaps? - and another banked on the lush green shore. Further inland, there were tall, surprisingly normal-looking trees and pinpricks of brilliant colour that must have been flowers. The entire scene looked (deceptively, I knew after yesterday) peaceful.

The sunlight flashing off the river made me squint and let my gaze drift beyond it - then up, and up, and further up, my eyes widening. Although I'd only been rained on once, the weather had tended to sullen grey clouds since I'd arrived, and this was my first opportunity to see the incredible mountain they'd apparently been hiding. In fact, the peak was still shrouded, but enough of the rising landscape was visible to make the awe-imposing heights it must reach clear. Why, that one mountain must be visible from every corner of the island! I've never seen the like.

"This place is beautiful," I said to break the silence.

"Ajira is pleased you think so. She found it when she was very small and has been visiting ever since. She is very glad that now she is big enough people do not try to fetch her back down!" Ajira gave a fanged grin. "Silly tailless folk, thinking we fall as easily as you do."

I gave the appendage a glance - it must make balancing a lot easier. I found myself seized by a sudden moment of tail envy, and groped for another topic to distract myself. "So did you grow up in Balmora?"

"Yes," Ajira answered. "Ajira's mother worked here, once." I was still looking at her tail, and so noticed when it started shifting restlessly. It didn't seem as if this was a topic of conversation she was particularly comfortable with.

Rather than probe further, I took a bite of my rat-inna-bun and decided that even if it was made of E.R.Ds I didn't care as it was delicious. In fact, if it really did contain actual rat that had its advantages after all. I hadn't forgot my first day on the island - as with the kagouti yesterday, eating them would be poetic revenge given what they'd planned to do to me.

"So what happened yesterday?" The small talk was over.

"Well, I got to Lake Amaya all right, but then..." and again I began to recount the sorry tale.

Ajira made an excellent sympathetic audience. She oohed, aahed and winced in all the right places. She shared my disgust for the horrible pilgrim, nodded understandingly when I related how I ended up looking for the Bosmer's missing friend despite myself, and when I got to the kagouti she could barely sit still from the suspense. "Kagouti! They are dangerous, very dangerous, very aggressive - oh, Ajira will never forgive herself for sending you out," Ajira moaned. "How did friend Adryn survive?"

"Well." I bit my lip. "I managed to paralyse it-"

Ajira's eyes went wide. "You know a paralysis spell? But they are so difficult and - can you teach Ajira?" I had to smile at the imploring look she sent me.

"Sorry, I would if I could but it's not really a spell." I distracted myself with crumbling some of the rat-inna-bun bun and scattering it onto the water. I could see a few tiny fish gathering underneath it - the largest barely as long as my thumb, the smallest only visible due to their bright colour. Why couldn't more of the animals here be like that - reasonably sized, preferring fresh pastry to fresh person? "...I was born under the Lover, you see."

"Ohhhh. Ajira sees. She has never witnessed it herself, but she has read that the Lover-born can paralyse with a touch. It sounds very useful! Ajira is a little jealous - she has no such birthsign abilities, you see."

I looked up, distracted from watching the fish. "Why, what sign were you born under?"

"The Apprentice. Which is why she is only a little jealous." Ajira grinned at me.

I whistled; I was definitely not just a little jealous at that moment. The Apprentice is often considered the single best sign for mages, as those born under it have nothing short of prodigious magicka reserves - almost as much as those born under the Atronach but, unlike those unfortunates, still able to regenerate their own magicka. (Not that I have anything against the Atronach-born. Quite to the contrary, an Atronach-born can be an alchemist's best friend - or more specifically, an Atronach-born's unending need for restore magicka potions.)

"If you want birthsign abilities, I'll gladly trade you!" The Lover, being in the domain of the Thief, is not a birthsign I have ever heard anyone suggest when it comes to the "best sign for mages" competition. Needless to say, my magicka reserves were really nothing to write home about.

"Ajira is sorry, friend Adryn, but she does not think it works that way. Besides, her life would have gone very differently if she had not been born under the Apprentice, and Ajira likes her life the way it is." I cocked my head inquisitively, but Ajira didn't seem inclined to elaborate. Instead, she continued, "At least you can rest assured that there are advantages to being Lover-born. If Ajira were attacked by a wild kagouti she would undoubtedly end her life in its stomach, whereas you defeated the beast-"

"Well, 'defeated' would be putting it a little strongly," I said in a small voice.

Ajira's whiskers twitched inquisitively.

"The Lover's ability costs a lot of energy. I, um. Fainted. Right afterwards."

"Oh, yes! Ajira remembers reading about that as well. Next time," seriously, Ajira was probably younger than I was, she should not be able to manage such an excellent elderly matriarch impression, "you should drink an energising potion immediately beforehand or afterwards."

That was actually a very good idea, except. "Well, I didn't have one with me..."

Ajira looked at me. I sensed that if she had anything to say about it, the next time I left the city walls I would be laden down with so many potions for any possible eventuality that I wouldn't be able to walk.

"So, did the man you rescued kill the beast?" she asked now.

I grimaced at the memory. "No. The last thing I saw before I blacked out was him running away."

My ears perked as I was treated to a long list of what must be genuine Morrowind curses. I made mental note of some of the more colourful - my repertoire could always be bigger.

"-that scamp-spawned cowardly fetcher who Chemua would refuse and Vaermina would be ashamed to count as her own... if friend Adryn ever wishes someone to teach him a lesson about bravery and loyalty to those who put themselves in danger for him, she need only ask Ajira."

She seemed deadly serious, but I had to bite back a laugh imagining Ajira menacing anyone. "Ah, that'll be all right - after all, nobody got hurt in the end. Someone rescued me, a... floating armoire?"

Ajira's tail - previously swishing back and forth angrily - stopped dead. "Buoyant Armiger?"

"Yes, that. Honestly, that name..."

Ajira leaned closer and lowered her voice. "Ajira would be very grateful if friend Adryn did her a favour and didn't mention this to Galbedir or Masalinie."

"What? Why?" Were the Armigers disliked for some reason? But why Galbedir and teleportation girl specifically?

"Because if you tell them, they will not be able to stop talking about it for weeks," Ajira moaned. "It is bad enough with them reading those books all the time. 'The fair maiden and the valiant Armiger', or 'Fadresi Varyes at Molag Mar' or 'hello, the person who drew the cover thought big breasts and muscles were more important than adhering to basic anatomy' - nothing sensible like Saryoni's Sermons or texts about flora or magicka! And then they sigh about how they dream of being rescued by a brave, strong, handsome Buoyant Armiger - friend Adryn, I beg of you, if you tell them they will get carried away and Ajira's desk is directly next to Masalinie, do you understand?"

It sounded as if Buoyant Armigers had more in common with knights than I'd thought - in particular, that they had the same role as popular romance novel stars. And that I'd been more accurate than I'd thought with thinking yesterday evening had been a very cliched set-up. But... "The Armiger who rescued me was a woman. Does that make any difference?"

Ajra fingered her whiskers thoughtfully. "They will be a little less enthusiastic, Ajira believes, but only a little. Male or female it is an Armiger, Adryn understands?"

"So... such relationships are accepted here?" I'd found myself assuming so, given everything I'd grown up hearing about dark elven attitudes towards sex and that Ervesa hadn't reacted badly to the mention yesterday, but it's best to be sure of these things. "I know they're tolerated in Cyrodiil, but a lot of the people in Skyrim frowned on them and in High Rock I heard they were even illegal some places."

Ajira shrugged. "Here, nobody cares, unless the people involved are of a high rank. The daughter of a Redoran noble or of Duke Vedam Dren, she is expected to get married and have children, yes? And if she does not she is called selfish and betraying her family. But such things are rarely the case for the people Ajira knows... unless they have been keeping something from her, she supposes."

We looked at one another, each - I suspected - trying to envision the other as a high-ranking noble swathed in silk and surrounded by servants. At any rate, we both burst into laughter a second later.

Once we'd calmed down, Ajira shot a guilty look at the sun - now noticeably lower in the sky than it had been when we'd left. "Ajira really ought to go back to work. Soon customers will be coming and will be angry that she is not there to sell them potions! If she is not careful, some of her customers will decide it is better to go to Nalcarya 'oooh I am a master alchemist who is much better at everything than a mere Mages' Guild Apprentice, and also my neck has a crick so I cannot lower my nose' of White Haven - er, please do not repeat that," Ajira added anxiously as I started laughing. "But Ajira still has not heard everything that happened to friend Adryn!"

"Well, not much happened," I lied, "I can tell you quickly as we walk back." I tossed the remaining scrap of bun to the fishes and carefully started moving back towards the shore. "It was just, it was quite late by the time I-" woke up, "recovered from the attack. So Ervesa, she's the Armiger, she taught me this spell, to teleport you to the nearest Temple-"

"Ah, Almsivi Intervention," Ajira nodded. "Ajira has heard of it, but does not know it."

"It's not that hard, really. She thought that way I could get back to Balmora that evening. But we ended up landing in this place called Suran..."

"Ah. This is why Ajira does not know that spell! She has heard of enough misadventures like that."

"I don't blame you." I let myself fall to the ground and paused to catch my breath "We ended up having to stay the night." And where, I wasn't going to say.

"Ah, the tradehouse? Ajira has been there before. Ashumanu Eraishah is very nice, don't you think?"

I remembered the smiling face telling us she was very sorry, there were no beds free. "I... didn't really get to know her. I'm sure you're right, though. Anyway," I continued, changing the subject hastily while Ajira was distracted getting back off the wall, "I took the silt strider back in the morning and, well, here I am."

"So not as bad as Ajira feared... still, she will not send friend Adryn out alone again," Ajira said dolefully. "She did not realise it would be so dangerous."

I nodded emphatically. "Honestly, I don't blame you for not wanting to collect the ingredients yourself now."

"Well..." Ajira stopped walking and scuffed at a cobblestone with her foot. "Animals are not entirely what Ajira is worried about."

"What do you mean?" I was confused.

"Ajira supposes friend Adryn deserves to know, since she put herself in danger looking for ingredients Ajira was too afraid to go out for. It is... you are aware that slavery is legal in Morrowind?"

I shivered, remembering the horrible woman from yesterday and her talk of the 'slaves at the plantation'. "I am now."

"The preferred races for slaves, you see, are Khajiit and Argonian." Ajira was staring out over the river, her voice distant. "Other races, Ajira hears they are taken sometimes as well - especially in the east, among the Telvanni - but everywhere, mainly Khajiit and Argonian. The Hlaalu here have great plantations, saltrice and corkbulb and marshmerrow, all tilled by slaves. The Dres on the mainland, even more."

I swallowed convulsively. "That's - that's horrible."

"And of course, all those slaves have to come from somewhere, yes? The Dunmer send expeditions to Black Marsh and Elsweyr, but that is far away - Elsweyr especially - and may make people angry. May make the Empire go 'no, if you don't stop enslaving people from other provinces you may not have slaves any more.' May even start a war. So much easier if they can just catch them right here. They see a Khajiit walking alone in the wilderness and-"

Ajira made a quick motion with her right hand that reminded me of a trap springing shut. "No battles, no diplomatic incident, the leaders in Black Marsh and Elsweyr are happy the Dunmer are not stealing their people, the Dunmer are happy they do not have to fight angry warriors in those places, the Empire is happy they do not have a second Arnesian War threatening to break out. Everyone is happy. Except for the Khajiit."

"I- Ajira, I'm so sorry. I had no idea." Although... "I don't remember seeing anyone who could have been a slaver yesterday, though. Even that horrible pilgrim - she was old and unarmed, if you don't count her tongue. Is it really that dangerous?"

"Ah yes, a lot of people ask Ajira that." She still wasn't meeting my eyes. As usual, the nagging little voice that told me I probably shouldn't have said that popped up after the fact. "Say that it cannot possibly be so dangerous so close to town. That there are no slavers near Balmora. Except." Her voice was growing quieter and quieter, to the point where I had to lean in close to make sure I understood her. "That is what Ajira's sister thought."

Her sister thou-?

Oh.

I suddenly felt as though I'd just had a big meal consisting not of rat-inna-bun but of Adryn's foot, garnished with offensiveness and with a side dish of being a oblivious donkey who should learn to think before she speaks. It's a meal I find myself having relatively regularly, but not usually in this sort of size and it doesn't usually lie quite so heavily in my stomach.

"I- Nine, Ajira, I'm sorry- I didn't know. I shouldn't have said that. That's awful. I... I'm sorry about your sister." What did you do in this sort of situation? Someone should publish a book: 'The guide to properly apologising and sympathising once you have yet again managed to unintentionally deeply offend someone and remind them of various horrible past experiences.' I'd buy it.

Ajira sighed gustily and turned her head to look at me. "It is all right. Friend Adryn did not know, and it happened some years ago. Just... Ajira is very, very careful now. And she does not go out of town without escort."

"I understand. Really, I'm sorry," I repeated in a small voice.

"It is really all right, but..." Ajira gave a small smile. "If she wants to make it up to me, friend Adryn can read through Ajira's reports and tell her if they are all right or if anything needs to be changed. After all, they are on the experiments we did together."

I seized the change of topic like a drowning mer. "I can definitely do that. How did you describe the poison effects in the end?"

"Well, Ajira thought it best to make clear from the start that they were two entirely different types of poison, with the violet corprinus's being closer in type to bittergreen in the way it causes palpitations of the heart as opposed to the stomach cramps induced by the luminous russula, but she did put aside a section to speaking of their combination..."

 


 

I stared at the reports and tried very, very hard to control my expression. Because at the moment I was dangerously close to bursting out into laughter, and with an anxiously shifting Ajira standing next to me I suspected both would be the end of our friendly working relationship.

"Well? What do you think?"

I took another moment to impress it on my facial muscles that they were going to do what I wanted them to do, thank you very much, this was not up for vote. "It's. Ah. You've definitely written down everything we've discussed." Written it down, in fact, in exactly the way we'd discussed. Complete with, for instance, remarks about how Galbedir was most undeserving of being raised to Journeyman status, totally theoretical digressions about what effects a potion that drained intelligence would have slipped into her morning tea, and complaints about how lazy and unreliable the local apothecaries were. I had to admit, if this style were widely adopted in academic writing scholarship would become a lot more amusing. And blood feuds between alchemists much more common, admittedly, but I would consider that an acceptable side effect.

"That is good, no? Ajira made sure not to leave anything out in case it was important!"

Yes. She'd certainly done that.

I pondered how to break it to her. "Ajira... how much experience do you have with formal academic writing?"

"Um." Ajira looked away. "This is the first time Ajira has ever written a report like this."

Somehow, I wasn't surprised.

"And what about reading it? Have you read many textbooks, papers by researching alchemists, that sort of thing?"

Ajira was shaking her head. "Only very little. Those which are here in the guild, they are mostly about such alchemy as uses the ingredients available in Cyrodiil, yes? Much writing about the uses of arrowroot or lotus seeds, very little about gold kanet or trama root or the mushrooms. It is one reason the honoured Ranis Athrys has asked Ajira to investigate such things. And before she joined the guild..." Ajira seemed suddenly fascinated by the stained counter. "Ajira did not have access to such things at all. She learned on her own."

"Ah, don't worry about it. I'm mostly self-taught myself," and was equally familiar with the derision one experienced as an alchemist without a proper training pedigree. Even taking my general cynicism into account, it's surprising how many people care nothing about whether or not you can actually brew a potion in favour of whether or not your family was able to pay your way into the Arcane University. I keep hoping for the day where they all end up poisoned by the sorts of incompetents with more book learning than sense they call "real alchemists".

Judging by Ajira's downtrodden expression, it was the same here. I patted her shoulder gingerly. "It doesn't mean we're worse alchemists - in fact, I think we're better for having had to work everything out on our own. But it makes it hard to pick up things like the style of academic writing, and Ranis probably expects you to use that."

Ajira stared at me hopefully. "Can you teach Ajira, then?"

I'd walked straight into that one, hadn't I.

 


 

I stood behind the alchemy desk musing over the strange turns that life takes.

I'd spent some time giving Ajira pointers (mostly along the lines of "no, you should not explain exactly why Nalcarya is an awful person and horrible alchemist who doesn't deserve the customers she has, even if her refusal to sell you any ingredients did mean you couldn't do half the experiments you wanted"). Thankfully, this had gone relatively well - Ajira had honestly wanted to know how to make her writing formal enough to pass muster and hadn't taken offense at any of the things I'd pointed out, which was something I'd been worried about. I'd tried to be tactful, but... well. Tact and I have never been the best of friends. In fact, our relationship could probably be more closely described as somewhere in between chilly hostility and open warfare, given what generally happened when I tried to get tact on my side. Most likely I'd dreadfully offended it at one point without meaning to. That happens more than I'd like.

At any rate, after a detailed and thankfully friendly discussion about the do's and don't's of report writing, at least as far as I understood them, Ajira had decided to retreat and rewrite her report. However, given that it was Fredas afternoon, business had picked up and Ajira couldn't just leave the alchemy desk unattended. But since fortune had it that there happened to be another alchemist standing around with nothing to do now that she'd finished her imparting of wisdom...

All of which, together with Ajira's best sad kitten impression and use of "friend Adryn" (a combination that was so devastatingly effective it ought to be banned) led to me selling Guild potions to the townsfolk. Being a merchant. Being, in other words - I shuddered inwardly - positively respectable. Or as respectable as it's possible to be when you still feel as if you ought to be stealing the potions instead of selling them. Which was still far more respectable than I found entirely comfortable; I couldn't help the feeling that some fundamental law of nature had been violated and as soon as nature realised it disaster would follow.

Unless it already had and "disaster" was taking the form of "customers". I wouldn't be surprised.

The walking disaster I was dealing with right now still hadn't finished his appraisal of a simple energising potion, despite my lengthy mental digression. At the beginning, I'd thought the old Imperial must be a master alchemist himself, given how carefully he was studying the list of ingredients on the label. Now, my thoughts were going along decidedly more uncharitable lines, including but not limited to speculation about how well the pair of spectacles on his nose actually worked.

"You. Girl." I fought down the sudden burst of rage by mentally repeating a merchant does not start screaming at her customers until I was sure I could stay in control of myself. It had been my mantra for the afternoon, and I felt my close adherence to it made me a veritable candidate for the Psijic Order. "What's in this potion?"

A merchant does not start screaming at her customers.

"Excuse me," I said through gritted teeth. "Could you hand me the bottle so I can read the label?" The one you've been staring at for the last however many minutes, apparently without picking up a single word of it-

He stared at me for a long moment until I was already preparing myself for him to tell me how it was an utter disgrace that I didn't know the ingredients of every single potion in the place by memory (something he would not, sadly, have been the first person to attempt). Thankfully for my temper, he handed it over quietly in the end.

"Well, if you just read this label here," I was proud of myself for managing to keep that sentence only moderately sarcastic, "you'll see that it contains water, kresh weed pulp, minced kwama egg hide-"

"Kwama egg!" the man spat. "You use that filthy stuff in your potions?"

I stared at him. "Er... is there a problem with kwama eggs?"

"You expect me to drink something that came out of an insect? Vaermina's filthy creatures, they are. Bad enough you dark elves eat them, but trying to hide`the vile stuff in potions so good honest folk like me get fooled into-"

I squeezed my eyes shut. A merchant does not scream at her customers. Even if they are insistent on explaining to you how your race's diet makes you barbarians. Weren't Bosmer the usual suspects for that kind of thing-

Wait, hadn't Ajira pointed out the cupboard with alternate potion formulations to me? She'd said it was for customers with allergies, but I was willing to make an exception for this man if it would make him stop shouting at me about the evils of kwama eggs.

"Just a moment, I may have something." I opened the cupboard door - yes, there it was, energising potion, thankfully without anything kwama-related. I drew the bottle out. "This one doesn't contain kwama egg," I explained. "The ingredients are water, chokeweed, hackle-lo, some alcohol-"

"Alcohol? Alcohol?"

Oh no.

The man's expression said I could expect spittle flying any minute now, so I ducked in precaution as he raged on. "I walk into the guild expecting to find reputable alchemists, not - not - harlots pretending to respectability in order to cater to drunkards!"

Harl... excuse me?

All right, that was it. Merchants not screaming at their customers was all very well and good but I wasn't even one anyway, just a very out-of-place substitute.

"Actually," I snapped, cutting across the man's invective about how he would make sure I got kicked out the guild to starve, "the alcohol is a byproduct, used because some ingredients are easier to store and more effective after fermentation. Morever, so much of it is boiled off during preparation that in order to actually get drunk off it you'd need to take so many that you wouldn't sleep for days. If you're worried about potion abuse, you should be worrying about that, not two drops of alcohol."

And really, that was where I was used to the moral outrage starting. Alcohol content was definitely a new one for me, but the abuses of rejuvenating and energy-fortifying potions among students at the Arcane University so that they can study for three days straight are talked about throughout the Empire, and there'd been talk about banning or restricting speed-boosting potions in Skyrim for as long as I'd lived there. Ludicrously so, I'd thought, since they're really harmless. Even I, with my general dislike of altering my state of mind, had tried them the first time I got my hands on the ingredients several years ago and spent a very pleasant evening bouncing around with-

The man who had a moral objection to kwama egg, alcohol, and - I suspected - at least one ingredient of every potion we stocked, had apparently ignored my interjection entirely and was still talking. Ordinarily, I'd have felt guilty about tuning him out, but for some reason I had the impression I wasn't going to have missed much.

"-trying to ply their dreadful homebrew to innocent customers, this would never happen in the Imperial Cult-"

See?

"Well," a new voice interrupted, "if you're so upset this place isn't like the Cult, why don't you go there to buy your potions? Fort Moonmoth isn't that far away, after all."

Both I and the plague on the life of innocent attempting-to-be-merchants turned to look at the newcomer.

A Redguard woman had apparently been waiting behind the outraged Imperial until she couldn't keep herself from intervening. Since she was apparently on my side, I found myself not minding in the slightest.

Backed up by my unexpected ally, I added, "Yes, it's only half an hour's walk or so." I'd passed the fort on both silt strider journeys and my ill-fated flower-gathering journey already, so I was becoming familiar with the area. "Or-" maybe I shouldn't be so eager to lose Ajira a customer, "if you tell me the ingredients you do not have any moral objections to, I can see if we have any potions that meet your specifications."

I thought this was an eminently reasonable suggestion, but the man just huffed wordlessly, turned, and strode towards the exit. I had to admit that, customer or not, I really wasn't sorry to see him go.

I turned to the Redguard. "Thank you, and I'm sorry you had to see that. Do you want any potions?" Dealing with a customer who didn't treat me as either some sort of potion-dispensing Dwemer automaton or a verbal punching bag would be a nice change - but she was shaking her head.

"No, no, I'm not here to buy anything. Er- is Ajira here? Because earlier she asked me to get her this bowl." She hefted a ceramic bowl which I hadn't noticed her holding before. Probably for the best, as I'd only have been tempted to use it to attempt to whack sense into a certain someone's head.

"Yes, she's in the back."

I pulled back the curtain that led to the alchemy lab. Even having only been here for a few days, I knew that ordinarily I'd have been met by the comforting, homey sounds of potions on the verge of bubbling over and melting the countertop along with panicked shouts as the alchemist inhabitant tried to salvage the mess. However, today all was quiet - well, quiet except for the frustrated groans of someone attempting to write up a report. It was positively alien; only the chemical fumes (all the ventilation shafts in the world can only do so much) made it seem familiar again.

Ajira looked up when she saw me. "Friend Adryn! Would it be better to write 'the outcome' or 'the result' of an experiment?"

Apparently my instructions had given her the mistaken impression that I was some kind of expert here, someone who submitted reports to the Skyrim Mages Guild Journal of Alchemy or even the Arcane University's Alchemy Monthly to have them read by other alchemists all over the Empire. "I'm not sure," I told Ajira, dashing all those beliefs. "Both sound reasonable. Also, there's this woman saying you asked her to bring her a ceramic bowl?"

"Oh, Jamexa, yes - she is a new member, does Adryn know? She was asking around for duties, and Ajira needed a new bowl." Wait. So I was sent on dangerous trips into the wilderness involving angry kagouti, misjudged teleportation spells and brothels, but she got to go shopping? How was this remotely fair? "But now Ajira has to finish this report, Ranis Athrys is asking for it and Galbedir has already finished hers! Could friend Adryn give Jamexa this potion as a reward and tell her Ajira is very sorry, she does not have the time to give her new duties right now?"

Ajira barely waited until I nodded - grudgingly (reward? What was this reward business?) - before she started to bend over her parchment again. I had to hide a smile when I noticed how she stole a longing glance at the alembic in the corner before gripping her quill.

Outside, Jamexa accepted the potion (healing) with a smile and information that no new duties would be forthcoming with a shrug. "I was expecting it, to be honest," was her comment. "Ajira really didn't know what to do with me. She was already reaching with the last one. I'm Jamexa, by the way, but everyone just calls me Jamie. Except for Ajira, that is - I'm not sure Khajiit really understand the idea of nicknames."

"Oh, right. I'm Adryn."

I eyed Jamie suspiciously. She had a sword sheathed at her side; the callouses I'd spotted on her hands giving her the potion and the way she hadn't tripped over it yet (a feat I certainly could not have managed) spoke that she was well-practiced in its use. She wore the quilted jacket I knew many people wore under armour, and I had some suspicions that the bulging pack at her side contained exactly that. In other words, she looked an even more unlikely Mages' Guild member than me - but more importantly, she looked like the perfect person to send into the wild on dangerous ingredient-hunting expeditions.

I told her so.

"Well." Jamie shifted uncomfortably. "She did try sending me out to collect mushrooms at the start."

Suppressed giggles told me Teleportation Girl was again listening in on our conversation. Jamie scowled in her general direction. "Look, I'm from Kvatch, all right? Second biggest city in Cyrodiil? I've barely ever been outside city walls, my family aren't alchemists or mages or anything like that, how do you expect me to know these things? I tell you, anyone could have mistaken the dried rat droppings for mushrooms-"

All right, I suddenly understood why Ajira had sent me out instead.

"Sorry," I said once I'd managed to stop laughing. "Just- you actually- er. I guess you really must not be an alchemist, then, I can't imagine even an apprentice making that mistake."

For a moment, Jamie looked as though she were going to take offense - violent offense - to what I'd just said (my amazing powers of tactlessness, striking again), then she sighed.

"Honestly, I'm not much of a mage. I know enough Alteration magic and healing spells to get by, but I mainly joined for the services. I figured that since I had joined, I might as well help out." She shrugged. "I'm more of a warrior anyway," oh really? I would never have guessed, "but I'm new to Morrowind and looking for an organisation where I can fit in."

"She was even in the Imperial Legion for a while!" Teleportation Girl chirped. After a few seconds - which felt like an eternity of sheer horror on my part - she added, "For about ten minutes, that is."

Jamie groaned. "Masalinie, do you have to tell that story to anyone who stands still long enough?"

"But it's a great story! And besides," Teleportation Girl smirked, "we may have the shortest-serving Legion soldier in history. No other guild can say that!"

"Wait," I said, startled out of my automatic reaction to the Imperial Legion (which runs along the lines of excessive screaming, sometimes mental and sometimes not, generally followed by running). "Ten minutes? How does that work?" Surely even being thrown out for gross incompetence - and considering the Legion, it must be very gross incompetence indeed - took longer than that.

"Well, this is a bit of a long story. Do you want to hear it?"

Somehow, despite Jamie's affected reluctance, I got the impression that she loved telling this. I looked around - the afternoon customer rush seemed to have died down, and the only non-Guild member still in the building was an elderly woman who was asking Estirdalin for a spell to dry laundry. My skepticism was clearly mirrored on Estirdalin's face.

"Sure. Go grab a seat," I nodded at one of the stools near the desk, "I'll make us some tea."

I would have gone ahead and made the tea in an alembic and served it in beakers, but Teleportation Girl pointed me towards a cupboard in the corner. I fished out the battered kettle, raised an eyebrow at the collection of clay mugs and leather tankards the guild had apparently amassed and raised the other eyebrow at the inscriptions they'd picked up along the way.

"Someone figured out that you could use a controlled Fire spell to etch designs on tankards, then one of Ajira's failed potions turned out to work very well as paint and then, well, we may have gone slightly overboard," the Breton explained as I pondered the cup with "Battlemages do it with great balls of fire!" written on it in wobbly red letters. "Just take some- no, not the plain one, that's Sharn gra-Muzgrob's-"

I carefully selected three mugs, making sure to leave Sharn's, the one labelled "Guild Mistress", and (after some consideration of both the Bosmer's reaction and what a certain intrepid Khajiit alchemist might have already added to it) the one with "Galbedir's! DO NOT TOUCH" written on it in glowing blue script in the cupboard, then turned to making tea.

And oh, I forgave Ajira all her oddities - ranging from Khajiit grammar over being hilariously incapable of writing a proper report to sending me out on suicidal ingredient-finding missions - for tipping me off about hackle-lo tea with honey before she'd withdrawn to wage her quill-wielding battles. The tea wasn't as good as Dulnea's brew, but that didn't really say much, and it was absolutely ideal for early evening lethargia. Refreshing and effective in restoring your energy, without the jitters and insomnia my previous tactic of sipping energising potions gave you, and with a lovely sweet, slightly minty taste. What more could an alchemist ask for?

Judging by her expression Jamie seemed to agree, which made my culinary heart swell with pride. She closed her eyes and inhaled the steam for a moment, then launched into her story.

"I only arrived in Vvardenfell a few weeks ago," Jamie began. "And when I came here, I didn't have much more than the clothes on my back. So when I heard about the Imperial Legion recruiting up in Gnisis, I thought, why not give it a try? I'd never really considered joining the Legion before, but they supply recruits with armour. That really clinched it - I can't fight effectively without it, but I couldn't afford to buy any of my own."

So far, this all made sense. I had a sudden, unexpected burst of sympathy for all the people who must get snared and then brainwashed by the Legion this way.

Jamie took another long drink of tea and continued. "When I got to Gnisis, I went to speak to Darius, this commander of theirs. Lazy honoured user, that man - spends all his time sitting in the local tradehouse drinking ale instead of actually checking on his officers, and vain enough he got them to name the fort after him." She scowled. "Anyway, he said he'd be happy to have me, and in fact that he needed a newcomer he could use as a sort of independent agent. That suited me pretty well - I didn't think I'd make a good rank and file soldier, you know? I ask too many questions. So he sent me off to get my armour from the quartermaster-"

"Which took about ten minutes," the Breton threw in, grinning broadly.

Jamie frowned at her. "Who's telling this story, you or me?"

"Sorry," she said, not sounding particularly repentant.

"Anyway," Jamie turned back to me, "she's right, I don't think it took more than ten minutes. Apparently having armour that actually fits is a privilege of rank," she quoted acidly. "So quite soon I was standing in front of Darius again in a chainmail shirt that would have been big on an Orc."

"And then what happened?" I asked, fascinated.

"He looked at me and told me had a mission for me. Namely, apparently a widow in town owned a farm on land the Legion wanted to expand on. He wanted me to get the land deed off her." A dramatic pause. "He said he didn't particularly care as to how."

Judging by the glances Teleportation Girl and Jamie were shooting at me, they expected me to be outraged.

They weren't disappointed.

"Really?" I sputtered, appalled. "He- he just- I mean, I always knew the Legion was corrupt, but to just-"

Jamie nodded earnestly. "Really. I had about the same reaction."

"What did you do?"

"Really the only thing I could do," Jamie said. "I threw the armour they'd given me into his face - good thing it was so big, I could get it off easily - and told him that I was resigning immediately because he was a rotten fetcher who was probably here because no legion in Cyrodiil would accept him even as a boot-cleaner and I wouldn't be part of the sort of filth he was wallowing in for a thousand septims. Then I marched out while everyone was still too busy gaping to do anything."

The smile that spread across my face was so broad it made my cheeks hurt. "That's amazing," I said with feeling. Imagining that scene made it hard to keep from bursting into applause, or laughter, or both, then and there.

"Thank you! And - do you know what the worst part was?"

"What?" I asked, agog.

"After that, I went to this woman - Vabdas, he'd told me her name - to warn her about what the Legion was planning. I figured it was only a matter of time before Darius found someone else to do his dirty business, you know? It turned out that her husband had only died very recently, under mysterious circumstances." She paused meaningfully. "Suspiciously mysterious circumstances."

"You don't mean..."

"I investigated it," Jamie said. "It wasn't as if I had anything else to do, and Tareyni - the widow - she was nice, you know, and still grieving for her husband and she didn't even know how he'd died. Snuck into the mine at night - it's a long story, but it turned out he was killed by a Legionnaire.

"That's right," she nodded at my shocked gasp. "I found some evidence - the murderer had left his axe still in the body, even. Took that to the village hetman. I hear he's going on trial next Sundas. Should be a short one, since he confessed - good riddance, I say." She pursed her lips-

"Please don't spit on our floors," I said hastily.

"Oh, right. Sorry."

"But, really," I said after the danger of saliva on our flooring, and possibly me as the low-ranking new guild member who didn't argue with Imperial Legion generals for fun told to clean it up, had passed. "This guy wants the land, and the poor woman's husband just so happens to get killed by one of his subordinates..."

"I know," Jamie said. "After Darius heard about it, he acted all outraged, apologised to the widow and everything - but of course he could hardly do anything differently now that the whole town had heard about it, could he?" She shrugged. "At least now he's not going to try getting at her land again if he has the slightest bit of sense. He'd have a rebellion on his hands."

"I'll drink to that." Teleportation Girl toasted Darius's frustration with her mug, then looked into it. "Or I would, if I had any tea left."

"I can make another-" I began.

"Uh, excuse me?"

We all turned.

"Sorry to bother you," the Breton standing behind us continued, "it's just, I'm looking for a potion to cure... um..." He looked at Jamie and Teleportation Girl. "Is there any chance of a little privacy?"

Jamie set the empty mug on the desk and stood. "I need to go see someone at the Fighter's Guild anyway," she commented. And even Teleportation Girl seemed to suddenly realise that travellers could be coming through any moment now. I mourned my tea break.

"So, um, the problem is..."

As the customer shuffled his feet, I mentally weighed the odds on this being chronic indigestion, a very intimate disease, or problems with a rather specific sort of stamina. At least he looked embarrassed enough that I didn't think it was a pretext to attempt (badly) to flirt with me... unlike the Imperial earlier. I can only thank the Nine for other races' fire resistance, or rather the lack thereof - a handful of flickering flames would never have sent a Dunmer scurrying that quickly.

Ah... business as usual.

Chapter Text

The next morning found me wandering towards the Eight Plates with a spring in my step and a broad smile on my face. Now, let me hasten to make clear that this is not a typical state of events; overall I find being a grumpy curmudgeon quite enjoyable, thank you very much. However, last night marked the first of what I hoped would be many occasions known as "Adryn sleeps through the night and does not have a nightmare". Correspondingly, this was the first morning since I'd arrived that I actually felt well-rested. I had dreamt, true, but the few fragments I could remember now were surreal but harmless and the worst it had caused me was a momentary disorientation waking. A far cry from my restless nights before, and reason enough for a good mood.

Perhaps my threats yesterday morning had had an effect? If so, I found myself rather underwhelmed by this "soul-sickness" and pitying the poor fools who didn't have the strength of will to stand up to it. Or maybe my dreams had really only been difficulty adjusting to Vvardenfell after all.

"Ah- Adryn, wasn't it?" Dulnea bustled up to me after I stepped into the inn. "I thought I might be seeing you again, after Estirdalin told me you'd joined the Mages Guild." Her eyes roved over my form in a way that would have made me much more uncomfortable if I hadn't suspected she was mainly interested in the embroidered robe I was wearing. "So you did visit Millie - that's a much better look for you." She clucked. "It's good to see you didn't come to any harm visiting that- that-"

I had to agree with her distaste at the thought of Caius, although I suspected my reasons for it were rather different from hers. All the same, best to head her off... what had that cover story been again...

Had I just actually thought the words "cover story"? When had my life turned into a bad spy novel?

I swallowed hard to keep myself from throwing up and launched into my explanation. "Oh, Cosades? Apparently he's an amateur historian or something, got a shipment of books he needed. If I were him, I'd spend less money on building up my library and more on moving into a nicer place, but..." I attempted a nonchalant shrug. "At least he paid me," paid for me, more like, and if I didn't stop this line of thought right not I was not going to be able to stomach breakfast, "and now I'm in the Guild."

"Hmm." Dulnea narrowed her eyes at me. "As long as you're away from that sort of thing now."

Desperately wishing I were, I nodded, not trusting myself to open my mouth.

"And how have you..." Dulnea's voice dropped, "your dreams been?"

I'd really meant to scold her for frightening me so, but all my anger faded away when I realised she was genuinely worried about me. "Oh, they're gone," I said airily. "Probably just trouble settling in. Nothing serious."

"That'- that's excellent." Dulnea looked almost more relieved than I'd been. "I'm glad things are going so well for you, dear. Now, I'd best be getting back to work - the mages' breakfast is through here, there are already quite a few people here."

I thanked Dulnea and slipped through the door she indicated into another room, this one dominated by a long wooden table set with various breakfast items - I could see spiced rolls, a jar of scrib jelly, a big bowl of what looked like some sort of porridge, a large teapot with- could it be?

Tea.

"Over here, Adryn."

I blinked, and realised that in my focus on food and divine nectar of the gods I'd totally ignored the people sitting around the table. One of them had just pulled out the chair next to him.

"Thanks, Marayn," I said as I sat down. "Er, can someone pass-"

"Tea coming right up," the Dunmer woman across from me said with a grin as she reached for the pot. "You're not the first person to come here with that expression on your face."

A few moments later I had a hot cup of liquid joy in my hand, and a few moments after that I was in alchemical heaven.

There was the smoky taste - scathecraw, Ajira had said - but it wasn't overpowering. It was balanced by something spicy and a sweetness that wasn't honey or sugar, but the thing that truly offset the acridity was a subtle undertone of something refreshing, the tiniest bit minty and... familiar?

Was that hackle-lo?

I opened my eyes in triumph. Another ingredient down! True, I still had no idea of amount or preparation, but given how unfamiliar I was with local ingredients any progress was something to be proud of.

The other woman giggled, something I might have taken offense to if I hadn't still been kindly disposed towards her for procuring the tea. "I don't think I've ever seen someone drink even Dulnea's tea with such concentration before," she said when I looked at her.

"I'm trying to work out the recipe," I explained. "My pride as an alchemist is at stake."

A scoff from the other end of the table interrupted me.

"Is there a problem?" I asked the Altmer who'd decided to prove he had no manners.

"As if you could," he drawled. "All the best alchemists in the guild - all the best alchemists on this benighted island, in other words - have been trying to work out the mixture to no avail. Anarenen, Ernand, and of course myself have spent hours bending our minds to the task. I can hardly believe some arrogant slip of a girl expects to make progress where we have failed."

Groans and eye-rolls around the table told me this attitude was common and not supported by the other people present, but I still wasn't going to take that lying down. "Well, I can hardly believe the guild employs giant peacocks, I thought it restricted itself to people. Moreover, I thought all of the members had to have something of substance in their heads. Apparently hot air is enough to qualify you."

The giant peacock's head grew red and he subsided as numerous people laughed.

"Nice one! I'll have to remember that," the woman across from me said. "I'm sorry for the idiot, who I happen to have the great misfortune of sharing a guild with. Our Guildmaster says he'll grow out of it one day, but I'm doubtful. I'm Uleni, by the way, Uleni Heleran - conjurer from the Sadrith Mora guild. The idiot is Tusamircil, but we're training him to respond to 'the idiot' so you don't have to bother remembering his name."

"Adryn," I introduced myself, ignoring the sputtering coming from the idiot's general direction. "I, in turn, seem to have the misfortune of sharing a profession with the idiot. I'm an alchemist - well, I guess that's a little obvious."

I grabbed a roll from a nearby basket and looked around. Although there were quite a few people I didn't recognise, there were also some from the Balmora guild there - Marayn next to me, Teleportation Girl scarfing down porridge over there, Galbedir steadily ignoring everyone, Estirdalin (thankfully a few seats away) in deep conversation with an Argonian next to her-

I blinked as I became consciously aware of an absence that had been nagging at me since I came in.

"Where's Ajira?" Hadn't she said she always ate here?

"Oh, she's never here on weekends," Marayn said. "She always goes into the guild straight away on Loredas so she can leave before noon."

Galbedir sniffed. "Some dedication. And she thinks she's ready to become a Journeyman."

I sent as threatening a glare as I could manage in her direction, which she ignored completely. It stung, but I had to admit that I was at a natural disadvantage as far as threatening went - of the two of us she was the one who probably fought Daedra and studied deadly Ayleid artifacts for her living. The Hirtus Figulus, the Enchanter's Apprentice series I'd loved as a child (I could still remember parts of Hirtus Figulus and the Brotherhood of the Bone Hawk by heart) had left me with a healthy respect for enchanters. It persisted despite Galbedir's best attempts.

"Now that's not fair," Marayn said, frowning. "Ajira earns it with how hard she works the rest of the week. Besides, most of us take part of the weekend off."

"Yeah," Teleportation Girl muttered into her porridge, "most of us."

"Still," Galbedir wasn't willing to let it rest, "that, and all the times she 'had to' leave early during the week... don't you wonder what's so important? For all we know-"

"Maybe she has a boyfriend!" Teleportation Girl threw in, a thought that apparently cheered her up immensely. "Oooh, I wonder who it is? I've seen her talking with that handsome young Khajiit who owns the shop next door."

"Well-"

"Seriously, is that all you ever think about?" I asked Teleportation Girl, cutting off whatever poisonous remark Galbedir had been about to make.

"What? It's exciting!"

I was about to make a comment about her dedication to her art if she had let romance novels rot her mind this far when Marayn jabbed me in the side with an elbow.

"Still," Galbedir doggedly refused to let the topic go, "you don't seriously think that's what's keeping her. I mean, don't you know what her mother-"

A new voice joined the fray. "Apprentice Galbedir, if there is a problem with Apprentice Ajira, it is the duty of your guild mistress to address it. Not yours. And all should note it is impolite to gossip about our fellow members' private lives." The Argonian's voice was serene, but with a quiet undercurrent of authority that made everyone subside.

I was a little disappointed the gossip session had been curtailed (Ajira's mother? What about Ajira's mother?) but squashed that feeling down. If Ajira wanted me to know, she'd tell me, same as she'd done about her sister - and it wasn't as if I'd appreciate her digging into my past. Not to mention that whatever it was, I somehow doubted she'd want it laid out before the entire breakfast group by Galbedir of all people.

My side twinged; Marayn had exceptionally sharp elbows. I rubbed it pointedly and stared at him. "What was that all about?"

He looked around. Galbedir was again studiously ignoring us - I hoped she'd keep up with it this time - and Teleportation Girl had gone back to her porridge. "I can't deny that Masalinie is a little silly sometimes," he said quietly. "But it gives her something to do when she has to stand there all day. Being a guild guide is a very important job, but it's also a very boring job, and one that comes with sacrifices. Don't be so hard on her."

"I know I wouldn't be one for love or money," Uleni chimed in. "I see what Iniel has to deal with."

I shrugged. I still thought she could fill her time with more useful things, but it wasn't really something I cared to argue about. I also noted that Marayn hadn't bothered trying to defend Galbedir. "All right, all right. Pass the scrib jelly, would you?"

"You like scrib jelly?" Uleni asked as I slathered some on a roll.

I squashed my impulse to point out that if I didn't, I wouldn't very well be eating it, and just nodded instead. It helped that my mouth was full.

"Do you realise where it comes from?" There was a mischievous sparkle in Uleni's eyes.

I swallowed. "I don't have the faintest idea. My first guess would have been a sort of honey, but the texture is all wrong. Maybe some kind of fruit jam? But it doesn't really taste like fruit..."

"Ooh, no, you're quite far off. Scrib jelly is made from scribs, a kind of kwama." Uleni paused dramatically. "In other words, insects."

I blinked at her.

"You know, insects?" Uleni seemed disappointed by my lack of reaction. "Wriggly animals with lots of legs?" She wiggled her fingers at me in what I decided must be either a dreadful attempt at pantomime or a very strange muscle tic.

"Yes," I said slowly. "I know what insects are, thank you very much. And it's good to know where scrib jelly is from, thank you," I added, wondering if she was looking for acknowledgement. "It explains why it tastes so different. What part of the scrib do you use, and why is it so sweet? Do scribs gather nectar?"

Uleni was still staring at me with a betrayed look on her face - really, what was it she was looking for? Then Marayn started laughing.

"Really, Uleni," he managed, "didn't you realise that playing "disgust the outlander" wouldn't work very well on an alchemist?"

"Aw," Uleni pouted. "People usually have such funny reactions! An Altmer from one of the Cyrodiil guilds actually ran outside to throw up when I did the fingers." She giggled.

"Wait," I said, blinking. "You expected me to be upset by eating something made from insects? But it's not even poisonous, or explosive, or acidic, or still alive-"

At that point I had to stop because I could barely hear myself over Marayn's laughter.

"Point well taken. I'll keep it in mind: you can't shock an alchemist with edibles. Something of a challenge, hmm?" Uleni smiled at me. For some reason, a cold shiver went down my spine at the sight. "Well, I'd best get back. One of the Fighter's Guild members commissioned a custom night eye spell, he said he was going to pick it up this morning. Masalinie, would you?"

Suddenly there was a great hubbub as most of the table seemed to rise to their feet, similar explanations on their lips. "-can't possibly be away from my workstation this long," the idiot was saying pompously, and I caught a Breton talking about how it had been wonderful to catch up but she had a shipment of filled soul gems coming in, so sorry, must rush.

Teleportation Girl scowled for a moment as she gulped down the last of her tea, then she got up and walked to a corner. "All right, all right, one at a time. Anyone going to Ald'ruhn? No? Caldera? Oh, Medila. You know the drill, just step over here-"

In no time at all, most of the breakfast group had vanished into the ether. The only ones left were Balmorans - no, the Argonian was still here. "Thank you for the offer, Masalinie," he was saying, "but I have some business in Balmora this morning. I shall travel back from the guild later."

"I didn't realise you could do that outside the guild building," I told Teleportation Girl. Now that I had a teleportation spell under my belt, I found myself curious about how the guild guide system worked. From everything I'd gathered yesterday, I'd thought the departure and arrival point had to be the stone platform.

"The spell is anchored to a spot, yes, but there's a bit of flexibility," Teleportation Girl explained. "This is about as far as I can get and still connect to the spell matrix. My range is good, too - Iniel can barely get out of the room." She sounded proud. "Erranil, in Ald'ruhn, is best. She says she can get almost to Skar before she loses the magicka flow."

"I had no idea - I thought you could only work from the platform."

"Actually, we'd appreciate it if you didn't let on." She rubbed the back of her neck. "Otherwise half our customers would start demanding special treatment so they don't have to queue at the guild with everyone else. None of us want to get dragged to some Hlaalu House Cousin's bedchamber so his mistress can visit without his wife knowing."

"I should probably take offence at that comment," Marayn mused. "If only it weren't accurate."

"You're my very favourite Hlaalu, don't worry." Teleportation Girl beamed at him. "I believe, I truly believe," she put a hand over her heart as though affirming her honesty, "that you'd make your mistress walk to the guild with everyone else."

Marayn snorted, then turned to me. "More to the point, Adryn, if the flexibility of the system was widely known we might have to shut down the Sadrith Mora point. We only have that under guarantee that it's fixed. It effectively is - like Masalinie said, Iniel doesn't have the sort of flexibility she or Erranil do, and none of them could get out of Wolverine Hall - but the Telvanni would undoubtedly let their paranoia stretch beyond their common sense if they knew. All in all, it's for the best to keep that information in the guild."

I swallowed the last of my scrib jelly roll and nodded. "No problem, I'll keep quiet." I did think that if they were really so keen on keeping this secret, using it every day just so the breakfast group didn't have to walk down the street to the guild wasn't exactly the best of ideas, nor was showing off to random new guild members. I decided not to point this out - Marayn was friendly, but I still didn't think he'd take particularly well to said random new guild member criticising the way things worked.

"Well, it's about time we started heading back," Marayn said. I blinked and looked around. The three of us were the only people in the room. Everyone else had apparently left while we were debating teleportation spells.

Marayn continued, "Dulnea will want to tidy the room soon, and there's undoubtedly already people beating down the doors to get to Vivec. Shall we?"

 


 

When we reached the guild common room, I stopped and stared for a few moments.

Occupying the table usually set aside for Marayn's book collection was the biggest bouquet I'd ever seen. Stranger yet was the fact that the flowers were native to Vvardenfell yet I recognised all of them. I recognised them because - I flushed with embarrassment at the thought - two days ago I'd spent all day trying to pick some only to be thwarted by what I was certain had to have been divine interference. Yes, those blue bells were stoneflower - I remembered trying to sneak some when I thought the evil pilgrim hadn't been looking only to discover that, like all good fiends, she had eyes in the back in her head - and the bright yellow petals were unmistakeably gold kanet, and...

Teleportation Girl had bent to inspect the bouquet and discovered a roll of parchment tied to it. Her eyes widened in surprise. "It says it's for you, Adryn!"

"It's - what?" Who on Nirn was sending me flowers? The idea of having a secret admirer was outlandish enough, but I'd been here less than a week! Surely there must have been a mistake somewhere? Or - I swallowed as a truly horrifying idea occurred to me. What if it was Eddie? If anything was worse than the idea of having picked up some stranger as a stalker along the way...

"Give me that," I told the Breton shortly.

Dear Adryn,

I hope you got back to Balmora all right. I'm sorry I couldn't see you back, but duty called. An Armiger's work is never done.

 

I gave a fervent sigh of relief. "Oh, it's just Ervesa."

"Who?"

I eyed Teleportation Girl with suspicion. Her eyes were shining in a manner I found entirely inappropriate, and I remembered Ajira's warning - not to mention the scene at breakfast.

"Oh, just someone I met on the road." No need to give someone who'd had their brain infected by romance novels ammunition.

"So," Estirdalin this time, and sounding quite a bit less enthusiastic than her younger guildmate, "why is someone you 'just met' sending you flowers?"

I looked back down at the letter.

I hope the flowers arrive in good condition. I ended up walking to Seyda Neen, you see, and saw them by the wayside and remembered you. It's not as if it's much effort for me to pick some if I'm travelling anyway, and after what happened it's probably safest if you don't try to look for them yourself!

 

"Well, they're the alchemical ingredients I was looking for. I mentioned that I'd had no luck gathering any, and since she was travelling where they grow anyway she decided to pick some on the way as a favour to me - I guess making them into a bouquet was her idea of a joke? I'll have to see if there's anything I can do for her in return, but it's not as if she's..."

"Sending you enchanted jewellery?" Galbedir this time, sounding almost offended.

"Yes, exactly! I-" Looking at Galbedir, I found my gaze arrested by the expensive amulet glimmering with magicka in her hands. "Wait, what?"

"No, really. Why, exactly, is she sending you enchanted jewellery?" Galbedir threw the amulet in my direction with more force than I felt was truly necessary - it was only thanks to my birth-sign I was able to catch it before it hit my head. Attempted murder (or at least concussion) attempts aside, I had to admit that that was a truly excellent question.

"Well..."

There's meant to be an amulet as well, so in case it didn't arrive go complain to the Couriers Guild. That Bosmer gave it to me as a reward for rescuing his friend from the kagouti, but I think it's yours by rights. After all, you were the one who risked your life for him! And Buoyant Armigers don't accept rewards like this anyway.

I meant to give it to you right after you recovered, but with everything else that happened I'm afraid it slipped my mind completely. I hope it comes in handy - it's enchanted with a Slowfall effect, those can be very useful exploring! Although I guess you've had enough of that for a while... otherwise, you can always just sell it.

 

"It's nothing like you're thinking! It was a reward for rescuing someone from wild kagouti-"

"Rescuing someone? You?" I was impressed at how much scorn Galbedir managed to pack into one syllable. Had she ever considered a career in acting?

"So," Estirdalin interjected again, "if it was a reward for you rescuing someone else, as you say, how did this.... Ervesa... get her hands on it?"

I bristled. I could hear the doubt in everyone's voices and I was growing exasperated by this interrogation. "Look, it's quite simple. Someone asked me to find his friend and I agreed because I didn't know kagouti were involved," or what a kagouti was, and how I wished I could return to such innocent times. "When I found him, we were attacked, and the spell I used to temporarily neutralise the kagouti had some... adverse side-effects. Ervesa, who was passing by, killed it. Apparently they gave her the reward for the rescue, but she sent it on to me because she thought I ought to have it, and because Buoyant Amor- Armigers," I was starting to get the hang of that name, even if it still sounded ridiculous, "have some silly vow of poverty going on or something like that. Now is everyone happy? Can I have my privacy back now?"

The silence following this was broken by a quiet groan from the alchemy corner. I looked over at Ajira and suddenly remembered that she'd warned me about-

"You were rescued by a Buoyant Armiger?!" Oh, no. "That's so-" please don't say it, please don't say it, "romantic!" Teleportation Girl's voice reached a pitch that made me wince.

"Nonononono," I frantically waved my hands as if to blow away all the misunderstandings, "it wasn't like that at all, she was just being kind to a misplaced traveller, the only reason we ended up sharing a room at Desele's was because there wasn't any space in the-"

Oops.

Too late, I clamped my mouth shut.

"Girls these days," Marayn tutted, which I found rather excessive as he was only a few years older than me.

"I can't believe this." The way Galbedir clenched her fists was rather alarming, especially given she'd tried to brain me with an amulet just a minute ago. "Her? What's so special about her?"

"You're all misunderstanding the situation," I moaned. "Seriously, if you'd just listen to me-"

A hand fell on my shoulder. I scowled in the general direction of the perpetrator, finding I had to adjust my glare upwards when it turned out to be Estirdalin.

"My dear," her tone of voice was probably meant to be soothing. It wasn't working. "I know you grew up outside the province, and that this must be hard for you. But Morrowind is a civilised place, you see. You will not face any prejudice here, so there is no need to hide your proclivities - or your relationships - from us. Although," her voice grew stern, "you should learn that there are better places for such... activities than that-"

Desperate, I looked from face to face and decided that the only person who was going to listen to me was Ajira - and judging by the way she was covering her mouth with one paw and how her whiskers were twitching with suppressed laughter there wasn't much hope for sympathy from that quarter either.

All right. That was it. I needed to get away from these people or I'd try to kill something.

"I... need some fresh air," I mumbled, and fled up the stairs.

Upstairs, Ranis Athrys and the Argonian from breakfast were standing near the supply chest, deep in conversation. The impression I'd had of him earlier as someone with authority was borne out - she was listening to him intently, nodding once in a while. I'd never seen her treat any of us with that kind of respect.

Upset though I was, I had no wish to interrupt two high-ranking guild members - even ones who were blocking the corridor - nor to look as though I was eavesdropping. All the same, I really didn't want to go back downstairs.

Wait, didn't this building have another floor?

Indeed, there was another flight of stairs just around the corner. At the top of them I found a small, unoccupied room. Perfect, in other words, to sit for a moment and recover my temper. Why, here was a comfortable-looking chair in front of a desk... a desk with, I noted, Galbedir's mug sitting on it.

Come to think of it, I didn't see Galbedir downstairs all that often. This must be her workspace. Yes, there were a few soul gems scattered around, and here was a sheaf of paper in the same looping script as that on the mug. I peered at them more closely, but they just seemed to be her work notes. No sign of blackmail material. Luckily so - if there had been, Ajira might have been tempted, and that kind of thing never goes well.

I let myself fall into the chair with a groan, hoping Galbedir would stay downstairs for a while longer. Long enough for me to figure out how to handle this situation.

Well, first I could finish reading Ervesa's letter.

I might pass through Balmora sometime in the next few weeks. If so, I'll have to see if I can find you so we can catch up - I enjoyed our conversation, and I think you could do with someone to help you settle into Vvardenfell. If you need to ask me anything, you can reach me by sending messages to the Armigers' Stronghold in Molag Mar - I stop by there regularly.

Your favourite giant insect,

Ervesa

Her name was followed by a doodle of Ervesa in full insect regalia, along with a stylised smiling face.

I let out a sigh.

I wanted to be angry at Ervesa, but I couldn't really. It had been a very thoughtful thing to do, and she could hardly be expected to realise everyone would go all... all... all romance novel fanatic over a few alchemical ingredients and a reward. Besides - I winced - letting the thing about Desele's slip had been entirely my fault. Maybe if she visited she'd be able to explain to Teleportation Girl and the rest that there was really, truly, nothing of that sort going on between us at all, thank you very much - even if they refused to listen to me, they must surely believe my purported partner. Until then...

Despite calming down a little, I still really didn't want to go downstairs and spend the day fending off everyone's misconceptions. Even the prospect of experimenting with the flowers didn't look pleasant with that taken into consideration. Sadly, the alternatives didn't look much better. I didn't like the idea of wandering around Balmora with nothing to do, I certainly wasn't about to venture into the wilderness again, and it wasn't as if I could just pop over to another city on a day tri-

I slapped my forehead.

Of course I could pop over to another city on a day trip. Hadn't I only just now been feeling irritated by Teleportation Girl's romance obsession? Teleportation Girl, who had that nickname because she happened to offer instantaneous transportation to numerous cities on this island? One of them was Vivec, which I vaguely remembered was meant to be the largest city on the island and boast a living god. That sounded like a good destination for a day of sight-seeing for me.

Besides, if it was that big it would surely have an enchanter's shop - somewhere I could sell that amulet. That would do something to stall the rumours, and would bring some coin to my pocket while I was at it. It looked to be worth almost two septims at a fence, meaning I might be able to talk an enchanter up to three or so since I'd acquired it legally - more than doubling my available funds and thereby staving off financial worries for a while.

And maybe I'd be able to meet the Vivec guild alchemist while I was there...

Plan made, I slipped Ervesa's letter into the pocket of my robe, thought for a moment and then fastened the amulet around my neck - it was invisible tucked under my shirt, and with the sturdy silver chain it was probably safer there than it would be in my pouch.

I stood to move back from the desk, but accidentally jolted it. The stack of Galbedir's notes spilled to the floor.

"Scamp drek," I swore. I didn't think Galbedir would take my upsetting her workspace very well and I hardly needed more hostility on that front. I hoped I could manage to put everything back the way it had been. Thankfully, burglaries are good practice on that front.

As I bent to pick up the pages littering the floor, something on the desk caught my eye. Something that must have been underneath the stack of paper. Something glowing-

All the air left my lungs in a whoosh. I felt as if someone had just punched me in the stomach.

It was a grand soul gem. A filled grand soul gem, judging by the glow. And it wasn't the flickering, barely-there light of a lesser soul, either. No, this was a rich golden light that I had never seen before, not even in Svarti's Magicka, Solitude's biggest and most expensive enchanter's shop (Svarti being the one I could thank for most of my practical knowledge of magical items and soul gems, or more precisely Svarti's bad memory when it came to locking his shop's upstairs window). It must be a Daedric soul, and no scamp's either. Atronach at the very least. Perhaps even the soul of a Golden Saint.

Automatically, my mind brought up the worth of such a soul gem, then reeled at the number. It was such an astronomical sum of money that I couldn't properly imagine it. Well, I'd have plenty of time and reason to try if I just slipped the gem into my pocket - the glow would be a problem, true, but that would be easily mitigated if I wrapped it in-

Wait, stealing something of this value on impulse was a bad idea. Hadn't that been how I'd almost got caught in Seyda Neen? I should prepare, make sure I wouldn't get fingered for it - set up an alibi, make it look like a burglary, find a safe hiding place for it and a buyer. Obviously selling it here was out of the question, but head out to another city- finding a fence for such a valuable object wouldn't be the easiest thing but with my experience-

What was I thinking?

"No," I whispered to myself. "No, no, no." With each repetition I backed away from the desk, staring at the soul gem as if it was a wild sabre cat.

That wasn't me anymore. I was- I was retired. I was a mage now. It wasn't as if I'd ever really wanted to be a thief, I'd just fallen into it out of lack of other options. This was a fresh start with real chances and opportunities, and I was slowly coming to realise just how much I'd needed that. People tolerated me - no, people actually liked me! And Ajira was - time to admit it to myself - becoming a close friend. Was I going to throw that away, steal from my own guild, for the sake of-

Who was I trying to kid? A mage? Me? It'd only be a matter of time until they tossed me out on my ear. So sorry, you don't meet our standards after all. What, you actually thought you could be a proper mage? You're just a jumped-up street rat who's deluded herself into thinking she's an alchemist, useful for a while running errands but not fit to dirty our guild once that's run out.

It would happen sooner or later, what was wrong with making sure I had some insurance-

"No, no, no-"

But- but- but if I started stealing again the Guild would find me, he'd find me, where was I supposed to run from here, what if he- what if all of it happened agai-

"No no nonono-"

Wood, behind me. I'd backed into the wall. No, not the wall- there was something digging into my back-

A doorknob.

I fled.

 


 

 

A brief time later found me sitting on the flat roof of the guild. I wasn't sure how I'd gotten up here exactly; I remembered bursting through the door into sunlight and cool air, but the next few minutes were a bit of a blur.

I took deep, slow breaths. In. Out. In.

Out.

It felt rather as if something had dropped chopped scamp skin into the potion of my mind, and I had to fight to keep the whole frothy mess from exploding on me.

Thankfully, I had practice. It had been a while and hadn't happened like this before, but I'd been having attacks like that all the time after-

No.

I cast about for something safer to think about. What had been going through my mind before I'd gone to pieces like that, anyway?

Right - my sightseeing plans.

"So," I said to the air. My voice was thin. "Vivec."

"Ajira thinks that sounds like a very good idea."

I jerked, and would probably have fallen off the roof if I hadn't remembered exactly where I was at the last moment. I really was in a bad state if people could sneak up on me like that.

"Ajira apologises. She did not mean to startle friend Adryn."

"It's all right," I said. It wasn't Ajira's fault I'd been... distracted.

"It is to be understood that friend Adryn would be upset after... that." Ajira's face set into an expression of distaste, making her whiskers twitch. "It is very rude of the others to demand to know about her personal life that way. Very, very rude to jump to conclusions and ignore her telling them they are wrong. They should learn a sense of propriety." Despite myself, I almost smiled - for a moment, my friend sounded like some scandalised old aunt.

"But," Ajira continued, "that is not the only reason she is upset, is it?" Her green gaze was calm, clear and penetrating; I had to drop my own after a second. "That is all right. It is private, yes? I do not dig into people's private affairs against their wishes. If friend Adryn wishes to tell Ajira, she will. If not, that is fine too."

I felt a rush of affection towards Ajira. If I weren't still feeling shaky, I'd probably have hugged her.

"You know," I said slowly, "someone should really tell Galbedir to store her belongings more securely. I mean, anyone could just- just walk in and grab things off her desk. If there was a thief around-" I couldn't continue. I swallowed, then tried again. "Some of those soul gems are-" My throat closed up. Ajira was still watching me steadily. It felt as if she could see right through me.

"Ajira agrees entirely. Galbedir is very careless about such things, and will not listen to Ajira when she says so." Ajira shook her head in disapproval. "Perhaps she will have a word with the honoured Ranis Athrys later. It will be difficult for the whole guild if something valuable is stolen. But that is not important at the moment, no? Because nothing was. There is no thief here, after all."

"Thank you." The words that escaped me were almost inaudible; I wasn't sure if Ajira could hear them.

"In any case, Ajira thinks going to Vivec is an excellent idea. Friend Adryn has been working very hard the past few days, has been a great help to the guild, even though she is only an Associate. But it is the weekend, everyone takes the time off. Ajira herself is only here to finish up some few things before going home. Friend Adryn should see more of the island, and Vivec is a grand and beautiful city. People come from afar to visit it. And," Ajira winked, "it has many, many shops, selling all sorts of things. Many other alchemists, many apocatheries, and the best bookshop in all of Tamriel."

I perked up. "Bookshop?"

Ajira grinned. "It is in the Foreign Quarter. Jobasha, the owner, if he does not have a book - this does not happen often - he will find it. Jobasha is a good friend of Ajira's, she has known him since she was very small. If friend Adryn mentions she is also a friend of Ajira's, he might not barter quite so hard."

"Ajira, have I mentioned I love you recently?" Getting me an in with the owner of a major bookshop? This was the sort of thing that called for sonnets. Sadly, my own poetic ability was at around the same level's as a giant flea's; under the circumstances, the kindest, most loving thing I could do was to refrain.

If Khajiit could blush, Ajira would undoubtedly be cherry-red by now. "Oh, no. This is only a small thing, a very small thing. And..." Ajira looked down. "Ajira must confess something."

I raised an eyebrow.

"When Ajira sends associates out on errands, she is meant to give them a reward for doing so. Friend Adryn saw, yesterday, with Jamie." I nodded; I had been wondering about that. "Usually, Ajira gives potions. But friend Adryn can make her own, so Ajira could not do that, she had to think of something else. And then friend Adryn ran the alchemy shop yesterday so Ajira could finish her report, which entitles her to a share of the profits. So-"

I stared at the five silver ten-drake coins Ajira was pressing into my hands.

"Ajira, I-"

"Ajira apologises for making friend Adryn wait," Ajira waved off my gratitude. "Although if she really wants to demonstrate her thanks, she could buy the Ascadian Isles volume of Dilavesa Seloth's Guide to the Flora of Morrowind with her new money at Jobasha's. He said he would have it in stock now, and it would be useful to study the flowers on Morndas."

Of course, the flowers. With all the bustle about the amulet and then my- moment earlier, I had entirely forgotten the fact that Ajira and I now had access to yet more genuine native Vvardenfell ingredients. Quite shameful for someone who called herself an alchemist! At least Ervesa's slightly unorthodox storage method meant that they would definitely keep until then.

"I'll do that," I told Ajira. It wasn't as if it buying alchemy books was a great hardship on my part, and I figured it was the least I could do for her.

"Thank you, friend Adryn." Ajira stretched with a yawn that showed off her fangs, then glanced towards the ladder at the edge of the roof. "Although this is a very pleasant break and Ajira is enjoying it very much, she still has much work to do and needs to be getting back to it. And if friend Adryn plans to visit Vivec, she had best leave as soon as possible. Vivec is a big city, she will want much time to explore."

Ajira always gave such sensible advice. It would be positively rude not to follow it.

Chapter Text


I lurched a little when I came out of the teleport, but managed to keep my feet. It helped that the platform I'd landed on was nearly identical to the one in Balmora, and so the transition was easier than the one to Suran had been.

"Welcome to Vivec, the Guild of Mages hopes you did not find the trip uncomfortable and that you will enjoy your stay, please move off the platform so we can assist further travellers."

I blinked at the Imperial woman - Imperial girl, rather, she couldn't be any older than me - who'd just rattled that off in what seemed like one breath. She looked distinctly bored. I couldn't blame her.

"Thank you," I told her as I hopped off the platform as directed.

"It's what we're here for. Um... do you mind if I ask you something?"

I decided to be kind and not play the 'you just did' game. "Yes... provided it's in within reason," I added quickly. I was still feeling rather scarred by the ridiculous misunderstanding that had taken place earlier, and now that Teleportation Girl, Second Edition had ventured off-script she seemed much less like someone who'd been hit by an incompetent Calm spell and more like a person with a possible streak of mischief or, worse, love of romance novels.

"Don't worry, it's not personal. Although it is pretty strange." She sighed. "I just need to know if you're carrying any pots or pans right now."

"Pots or... " I eyed the girl with an apparent unhealthy obsession with kitchenware warily. "No. No, I am not hiding any crockery in my pockets, I promise. Er... do I even want to know why you're asking?"

"Our glorious leader, Archmage Trebonius, decided in his might and wisdom that he needed to know how many are on the island. I, being only a lowly Apprentice, am of course incapable of understanding why. Maybe there is a danger they will grow legs and start flinging fireballs at us." Her voice was dripping with sarcasm to the extent where I felt as if I could have almost held a vial under her mouth and collected some for alchemical use.

But...

"I'm a new member of the Guild and was thinking of asking for tasks here. I guess you wouldn't recommend that?"

"No. No, I wouldn't. But- wait-" she brightened. "You're a new guild member? I didn't know! What's your name, which guild are you attached to, what do you specialise in?"

"Adryn, I stay in Balmora and I work on alchemy."

"Oh, you might want to talk to Craetia, then. She's our alchemist. I'm the guild guide - well, obviously. I'm Flacassia Fauseius."

I struggled to keep my face straight.

Judging by the look Flacassia gave me, my struggle wasn't quite as successful as I might have hoped. Luckily, she just sighed. "Yes, I know, it's ridiculous. I think my father had built up so much anger because of being called Flaucius Fauseius that he took it out on his children. I even got off lightly, my younger sister's called Flasoniacria. Just call me Cassia, rea-"

In the middle of the word, she just- stopped. Her hands froze in the middle of a sweeping gesture, her eyes stared straight through me, her mouth hung slightly open. It was as if someone had instantly replaced her with a very lifelike wax replica.

"Cassia?" I tried cautiously. "Er, Cassia? Are you all right?" Maybe it had been a defective Calm spell earlier after all?

Then she blinked, awareness and life flooding back into her features. The whole thing reminded me of someone turning off and then turning back on some Dwemer automaton, or possibly an extremely absent-minded necromancer attempting to raise a zombie. I took a step back despite myself.

"Sorry," Cassia said, "it looks as if we'll have to cut this short because I've got four passengers coming through from Ald'ruhn-"

"Right, right, of course. I don't mean to keep you from your job."

As I wandered off, I heard the by now familiar crackle-and-pop of released magicka and displaced air, followed by Cassia's voice going "Welcome to Vivec, the Guild of Mages hopes..."

Turning the corner, I stopped and frowned. The Vivec guild was much grander than the one in Balmora. Sweeping staircases looked down on a large, vaulted, richly decorated hall. There were lush patterned carpets that looked like Elsweyr imports to me, polished marble Cyrodiilic statues, beautifully flowering plants in intricately painted pots which I happened to know were both non-native and alchemically useless... In short, the usual hallmarks of people struggling with the burden of having too much money and positively crying out to be liberated from it. I also couldn't spot any of the detritus of mages studying together in an enclosed area the Balmora guild had managed to accumulate (involving such things as precarious towers of books on the tables and floors, chalk writing on the walls from when inspiration struck and the writing-slate was simply too far away, and the occasional mug of tea or kava that had been abandoned so long ago it tried to hide behind things if you looked at it for long enough). Somehow, that lack made the hall seem empty and unwelcoming despite the lavish decoration.

No, wait - I'd just reached the bottom of the staircase, and from here I could make out the traces of scorch marks on the walls. And that bust of the Emperor had definitely had a close encounter with some sort of Destruction spell. Odd; Marayn and Estirdalin, our Destruction trainers, were always very careful not to cause any damage to the guild when teaching. Maybe the trainer here wasn't so conscientious?

I stumbled. Someone had just bumped into me from behind.

"Oh, and who might you be?"

Now, I admit I had far more experience being on the guilty end of accidental collisions, but this didn't seem entirely right. Shouldn't there be an apology in there somewhere?

I turned around ready to point that out out loud, then stopped.

The man who'd jostled me was an Imperial as big and broad-shouldered as any Nord. Now, I feel the need to point out that my sense of self-preservation has never kept me from my mouthing off to people three times my size. It's usually relatively easy to lose big people by weaving through a crowd or other obstacles, and if all else fails their groins are handily in reach. The robes the man was wearing were another matter entirely. The tightly-woven cloth was a deep, uniform purple. Alinorean purple, I suspected. The dye was notoriously expensive - in Solitude I'd seen it priced at eight septims an ounce. And then there were the gold buckles inlaid with gems-

I swallowed the accusation sitting on my tongue. I'd been having such a good run of luck in not making any higher-ups angry at me. It would be nice if that could continue.

"Well?" The man frowned at me. What-

Oh, right, he'd asked me a question.

"Er, Adryn. Sir," I added, suspecting some degree of buttering-up was appropriate. "I'm a new guild member. Joined in Balmora."

The man's expression cleared. "Ah, that explains it. Should have known - Ranis is so good at recruiting. Ten new members last month alone! Keep meaning to write her a commendation for that. I'm Trebonius. Archmage. Head of the guild."

Head of the guild? All right, it was definitely a good thing I'd managed to keep myself from snapping at him.

"Nice to meet you. Um, sir," I added quickly. This would be a good time to suppress my natural rebellious instincts.

"It is, isn't it? Now, no worries. I'm sure I'll be able to think of something for you to do."

All the warnings I'd had about the Vivec guild suddenly came together in my mind. The picture they formed was not pretty. Cassia's pots and pans featured prominently.

I really, really had better things to do than keeping a registry of kitchenware.

"Er, no, that's perfectly all right, I'm- I'm really very busy already and-" I stammered.

Trebonius didn't look like he was going for it. "Busy? Ridiculous. Apprentices always think they're too busy, and they never are. Never do anything sensible if you leave them to it, either. Need guidance. Glad to say I'm good at providing it. Now, let me think..."

Please let me get out of this, I prayed. Let him not be able to think of anything. Be interrupted by someone who needs something urgent. Suddenly succumb to narcolepsy. Get sidetracked when the guild is invaded by rampaging kagouti. Anything.

"I have the perfect task for you!"

Apparently the universe was not in an obliging frame of mind.

I squared my shoulders, preparing to become Adryn, second-in-command of the Great Crockery Census.

"Yes, yes, just the sort of small thing to keep an apprentice occupied but too trivial for anyone of higher rank." Trebonius beamed at me. My suspiciously pot-shaped forebodings grew. "Find out what happened to the Dwemer!"

Wait.

What?

There's a children's game in Daggerfall, the sort of clapping game that is so universal Tang Mo and Sload children probably play one but where the exact words used can vary from one street to another. In the orphanage attached to the Temple of Kynareth in the capital, the first verse was:

Tell me where the Dwemer went,
or the last of Falmer fell.
Tell me who the Elder Scrolls penned,
or where dragons now dwell.

We called it the 'game of impossible questions.'

Is it clear what I'm getting at?

"Capital!" Trebonius had apparently taken my expression of 'I wish to know who supplied you with skooma so I can make sure they never do so again' as enthusiastic agreement. "Now that we've sorted that..."

"But, but, but," I spluttered, "no one knows what happened to the Dwemer!"

"Of course," Trebonius frowned at me. "If they did, why would I bother giving you the assignment?"

"But you just said it was trivial-"

The frown started to morph into a scowl. I inched back. Trebonius was surprisingly frightening like this. "Well, obviously if someone like myself actually sat down and thought about the problem in detail, it would be easy to solve. However, it's just not interesting enough for anyone of that intellectual calibre to have done so already."

I feel the need to point out that over the years I spent some time in the Solitude public library. Not an excessive amount, I hasten to add - certain people's comments about how one day my limbs would fall off to complete my transformation into a bookworm were a cruel and merciless exaggeration - but enough that I am still reasonably familiar with its contents. One of the things I remember quite clearly is that they had an entire bookshelf dedicated to various leading historians, archaeologists, mages, philosophers, and other scholars over the millennia trying to explain the vanishing of the Dwemer.

Trebonius apparently took my stupefied silence to be agreement, because he said, "There, you see? And now I have much more important things to do than to be chatting with apprentices. Ask Malven if you have any more questions. Making excellent progress on that tunnel to the mainland, Malven. Other guild members could learn from her." He turned around and bellowed, "Tiram! Tiram, where have you got to?"

The Archmage wandered away. I stayed standing there, too stunned to move.

"Ah," came a dry voice from my left. "I think I know that posture."

I whirled around to see an elderly Dunmer woman slowly making her way down the outside stairs.

"Tell me," I begged her, "the disappearance of the Dwemer is one of Tamriel's greatest mysteries, right? I'm not imagining things? I'm not losing my mind? Zurin Arctus himself tried to explain it, right? Right?!"

Most people would probably have been rather taken aback by this. She just looked resigned. "And that frame of mind. I assume you have just spoken to Archmage Trebonius."

"Yes. He gave me a task. Is it that obvious?"

"One learns to recognise the signs." The woman pinched the bridge of her nose. Whatever the Morrowind version of chopped blue mountain flower petals boiled together with crushed dragonfly wings - my favourite headache remedy - was, she looked like she needed it. "My name is Malven Romori, a Wizard in the Mages' Guild here. I strongly urge guild members to come to me if they have any problems, as Archmage Trebonius... prefers not to be disturbed with minutiae."

That had to be the most discreet rewording of "we don't know what in Oblivion we did to deserve getting saddled with this man, but we try to keep him away from innocent bystanders" I'd ever come across.

"He does like to assign duties to junior members, however. And," she fixed me with her gaze, "I would like to remind you that Archmage Trebonius is in fact the leader of this guild and is owed respect and obedience. Now if you would follow me, I can... assist you with the details of them."

I would have protested at this point - she couldn't possibly expect me to actually solve the mystery of the Dwemer - but something about her tone made me follow her quietly. Oh, and the fact that a mage with a headache was a mage more likely to start throwing around Destruction spells out of frustration. I'd learned this one from experience.

Malven led me into a room with a large table, then closed the door. "Right. Pull up a chair." She did the same herself. "Now," and her voice took on a despairing tone, "what did he ask you to do?"

"Solve the disappearance of the Dwemer," I said helpfully as I settled into a chair.

"Solve the disappearance of the Dwemer. Of course." The expression on Malven's face said that even a dose of the extra-concentrated, heavy-duty version of my headache remedy I'd made for Ingerte's migraines would not be enough right now. "Perfect job to assign to someone, that. It's not as if it's one of the greatest mysteries of our time." At least I wasn't the only one who could see how ridiculous this was. "Although it could be worse."

I blinked at her incredulously. "Worse? How?"

"Well - as I said earlier, Archmage Trebonius is the Head of Guild and hence owed obedience."

"Wait, don't tell me you actually expect me to-" Nine, please don't let Trebonius be contagious.

"What, solve the mystery of the Dwemer?" Malven snorted. "Of course, and right after that you'll find proof of the Underking's real identity. Or figure out a way to make those blasted interfering Telvanni leave us alone, I'm sure." Her tone indicated the latter was as impossible as the former. "No, what I mean is that although the task is impossible you should at least give the appearance of working on it." Her tone grew stern. "I won't have people ignoring the Archmage. It's bad for morale and undermines the dignity of the guild."

I managed to bite back the question 'even more than Trebonius does by himself?'

"And when it comes to that, the disappearance of the Dwemer isn't such a bad task. Dwemer scholarship is a thriving field, you know, so it's a good area for a new member to get involved in. Our own Edwinna in Ald'ruhn is one of the foremost experts, and always looking for interested apprentices. If you do some introductory reading - try Jobasha for books - and then ask her if you can study with her, I'm sure she'll be delighted to have you. Which means that if Archmage Trebonius asks, you can honestly tell him you are looking into it."

Put that way, solving the Dwemer question was a sight better than Cassia's pots. But... "I'm an alchemist, not a Dwemer scholar," I protested.

Malven raised an eyebrow. "Are you? Well, secondary interests are a good thing to acquire - you can't advance far in the Guild if you don't branch out - and our alchemists aren't of the academic standard Edwinna is."

I wanted to protest on Ajira's behalf, but had to remember her attempt at a formal report.

"Consider that you might instead have been asked to chain dreugh to the canton and make them tow it to a 'more reasonable climate'." Malven's long-suffering expression made me suspect that that example wasn't hypothetical. "No, a background in the Dwemer will serve you well in the future, Apprentice..."

"Adryn," I introducted myself. "And it's Associate, actually. Not Apprentice."

"Associate?" Malven blinked. "But you are involved in tasks for the guild, correct?"

"Well, I've been helping Ajira - the alchemist at the Balmora guild - with her work. Collecting and studying ingredients, selling when she was busy writing reports..."

"And you're still only an Associate? I'll have to ask Ranis what she's thinking." Malven frowned.

I shrugged. Membership in the Mages Guild was still new enough to me that I wasn't all too worried about rank. "Well-"

I was interrupted by what sounded like a small explosion from the main hall, shortly followed by Trebonius' booming voice. "Ah, not that one either! No matter, I'm certain I'll get it this time - and surely we didn't need that statue anyway!" All of a sudden, the scorch marks in the hall made a great deal of sense.

Malven's brows drew together in a scowl. I suspected fantasies of murdering a certain Archmage were going through her head.

"It looks as though I've left the others alone too long. Associate Adryn, I hope I will soon be hearing about your developing interest in Dwemer scholarship. Now, if you'll excuse me..."

After Malven had left to go repair more of Trebonius' disasters, I edged out of the room. Originally, I'd been planning to seek out the Vivec alchemist - Craetia, wasn't it? However, my experiences in the last half an hour or so had led to me formulating a new plan. This one being to get out of this guild hall as quickly as possible before I could get blown up or roped into more impossible tasks turned extracurricular activities by a certain monkey with robes and an unfortunate skill at Destruction, I mean Archmage.

I immediately set about putting it into action.


Thankfully for my temper and continued health (in the form of refraining from screaming insults at my head of guild), I managed to make it out of the guild hall without further incident - unless you counted pausing for a moment on the threshold.

The Vivec guild building bordered on a plaza, maybe a little larger than the square in front of the guild in Balmora. That wasn't in itself shocking, but what had given me pause was that we were still indoors. The plaza was inside a cavernous hall lit by torches and magelights. The ceiling was formed by an enormous dome, its apex so high it was hidden in darkness. I'd never seen anything like it before - whatever building we were in must be gigantic.

A brief look around turned up a building belonging to the Fighter's Guild and two armorers, but nothing that looked like a bookshop, so I followed the steady flow of people heading towards a set of massive double doors and the daylight streaming through them.

When I stepped through, I stopped and stared.

Ahead of me was a covered archway, leading onto a parapet with a low wall at its edge. A very wet parapet; the weather had apparently taken a turn for the worse since that morning. However, even through the rain I could make out a building further ahead - no, building was the wrong word. Building gave one entirely the wrong impression of the scope of the thing. I'd seen smaller castles. And - I squinted through the falling rain - there was a second to its left. Third, really, since I was quite certain I was standing in another right now. And that blurry outline back there might be a fourth-

"Stop standing in the entranceway like a slug, n'wah. People are trying to get by," a strangely muffled voice said from behind me.

I turned around-

Really, what was it with this country and armour that doubled as carnival gear?

The man was wearing a full set of armour that was elaborately detailed and decorated, made of some dark metal but with ornate designs worked on it in gold leaf. Like Ervesa's giant insect costume, someone had taken the concept of a 'helmet' and run with it to the point of insanity - albeit this time in a different direction. Ervesa's bug eyes and mandibles had been replaced by a stylised mask depicting a golden-skinned, rather severe-looking mer, bald save for a gigantic plume - or was that a mohawk? The mask covered the entire head, with only two small holes for the eyes. By all rights, it should have looked utterly ridiculous, yet somehow I didn't feel like laughing at all; the sight of red eyes glaring out of that immovable painted face was surprisingly intimidating.

"Deaf, too. They get worse and worse every day. Move it, outlander, or I'll move you."

Or maybe it was just the attitude.

"I'm moving, I'm moving," I said hastily. Really, he was being unreasonable - I'd been standing to the side, not directly in the doorway, and it wasn't particularly busy right now anyway. I decided to keep that idea private - even I could tell that that wasn't something one should not say to a man with a mace and a bad mood.

Instead, I took a leaf from Ajira's book: I decided to try my hand at being cute.

"I'm really sorry if I was in the way," I made my tone as sweet as possible. "I just got here from the Mages' Guild. I've never been to Vivec before and was just admiring the view. Say, I don't suppose you could help me?" I widened my eyes, remembering the sad kitten look. "I'm looking for-"

"Do I look like a tout?" the mer, who I was coming to think of as Master Grumpy, snapped. "A gondolier? A Hlaalu, maybe? Someone willing to run after n'wah and scrabble in the dirt for the coppers they throw? No? Then why in the name of the holy Almsivi do you expect I'd be willing to-"

I blinked in the face of such naked hostility. All right, apparently cuteness only worked if you had fur. For dark elve- er, Dunmer (I had the sneaking suspicion that if I said the words "dark elf" around Master Grumpy, it would end in tears - mine), it seemed to be counterproductive if anything. Or maybe it was the helmet? Another one for Adryn's alchemical reaction theory of helmets: where steel caused rigid belief in honour and chivalry alongside general stupidity and giant insect armour managed to preserve intelligence but led to giggling, poetry, and sending poor unsuspecting people flowers, carnival masks caused uncontrollable rage.

"Right. Er. Sorry. Didn't mean to offend you," I managed to interject into his rant, inching backwards all the while. "I'll just be going now."

Out of lack of better options, I headed back the way I'd come.

Back in the plaza, I stopped and thought for a bit. Well, I made my way to an out-of-the-way corner first; I could still feel Master Grumpy's eyes on me, and I didn't want to do anything that could be viewed as blocking traffic.

Actually, heading back to the Mages' Guild wasn't such a bad idea, provided I managed to avoid its head. Almost everyone I'd met in the guild thus far was friendly, and therefore hopefully not as inclined to bite my head off if I asked for directions. Moreover, maybe someone could teach me that spell I'd seen Eddie using to keep himself dry. I wasn't particularly looking forward to heading out into that downpour unprotected.

Thankfully, Trebonius was nowhere near when I stuck my head around the door. Instead, an Altmer with her nose in a book was manning (merring?) the desk at the entrance. Sirilonwe, as it turned out she was called, was quite friendly despite my interrupting her reading, and very understanding of my desire to keep both eyes out for a certain Archmage. She even showed me a space behind a large, overgrown potted plant in the corner that she said was easy to flee to at a moment's notice and meant you were effectively invisible to, say, a certain senior mage who might poke their head in from the main hall. Testing this, I noted the cushion on the ground and the well-thumbed book, presumably for those occasions where Trebonius decided to stick around for a little longer.

After considering what life as a native guild member here must be like, I found myself suddenly, inordinately glad that I'd attached myself to the Balmora guild.

Once I was satisfied with the safety measures Sirilonwe taught me the "Rainshield" spell for fifteen drakes, which was less than I'd been expecting. According to her, it was such a popular spell that it had been made as simple as possible. It was definitely very easy to learn - after my experience trying to understand Almsivi Intervention I'd been worried I'd humiliate myself again, but I got the spell on my second try. Maybe I should look into Alteration spells? The only other one I knew was a water walking spell, and I thought I was quite good with it.

When I asked, she gave me directions to Jobasha's - or rather, she tried. Despite my best attempts at listening my concentration failed after she reached the sixth corner, and judging by the length of time she continued talking after that I'd probably be better served looking for it on my own. She also gave me a warning, one which would have been very useful to have heard ten minutes ago. "Be careful with the Ordinators - the guards here, the one wearing masklike helms. They don't like outlanders and they make that very obvious indeed. It's best just to keep your head down and steer clear." Master Grumpy was a guard? Who in their right minds would hire him as law enforcement? More to the point, his attitude was typical? Time to be on my very best behaviour.

I stopped myself from telling Sirilonwe I'd managed to figure the bit about Ordinators out on my own, thanked her and made my way back outside before my luck in the realm of Trebonius-avoiding ran out.

This time, I left the plaza through the other set of double doors, giving all of Master Grumpy's friends a wide berth along the way. I made my way to the end of the overhanging roof, where I closed my eyes and focused on drawing a thin stream of my magicka out of my body... out... into a shell around me... and make it stay-

The magicka I was holding twisted, then cut itself off from my grasp as the spell snapped into place. I opened my eyes to look at the faintly glowing purple bubble surrounding me, then took a few careful steps out from under the roof.

Water hissed against my shield, each drop launching a ferocious attack with all its power only to beat fruitlessly against the spell and finally drip to the ground in ignominous defeat. I grinned. I was Adryn, vanquisher of rain! No mere jumped-up mist could defeat me! No spell was too difficult to learn! No weather, no carnival escapee guards, nothing could keep me from Jobasha's now!

I set off into the rain.


Some time later found me leaning against a wall in one of the so-called "Waistworks" with sore feet, mostly depleted magicka reserves, and decidedly lower spirits. Apparently, although no spell nor weather nor guards could defeat me, my own sense of direction (or rather, the lack thereof) was more than up to the task - especially combined with what I could only refer to as architectural sadism on the part of whoever had designed this place.

The building, or rather 'canton', we were in had several floors. The topmost was the plaza I'd already been in, all the others were a warren of narrow corridors and arched wooden doors hiding shops and housing. Everything was kept scrupulously clean, which also meant all of it looked exactly alike. Well, they could probably afford to pay an army of cleaners - they must save a fortune on vermin extermination. I imagined any rat that found its way here would immediately turn tail and run, squeaking the rodent equivalent of "too confusing! I'm going home!" all the while. The fact that people voluntarily lived here just goes to show that we can be remarkably stupid sometimes.

To make matters worse (why? They were bad enough already!), the floors were connected via a bewildering maze of stairs, ramps and the occasional ladder, half of which went outside for - as far as I could tell - the sole purpose of making certain the unfortunate newcomer spent as much time either getting drenched or expending their magicka to keep from getting drenched as possible. If people in Solitude built this way, half the city would freeze to death in the winter!

I'd spent the last few hours repeatedly casting my rainshield spell as I wandered in circles, somehow finding myself more rather than less lost every time I ended up somewhere I'd already been. The only break I'd had came when I spotted a sign for an apocethary and promptly wandered in.

I'd ended up having a nice chat with Aurane Frernis, the owner. Although she was a Breton, she'd been born on Vvardenfell and didn't know much about ingredients from elsewhere other than the few that were imported. We worked out something of an information trade on that basis (one where I thought I'd come off better, since I doubted Aurane would have occasion to use Nordic barnacles anytime soon). Her shop seemed to be having a slow day, so I managed to pick up quite a few useful tidbits without interruption.

Alas, all good things must come to an end. In this case, the end had come while Aurane was talking about golden kanet. Thinking of the bouquet awaiting me back in the guild, I'd asked her to refrain from telling me about its alchemical uses - Ajira and I were looking forward to finding those out on our own, after all - but she knew a lot about where to find it.

"...grows widely in the Ascadian Isles and parts of Azura's Coast, but I prefer to get mine from the Sheogorad islands - they make for slightly stronger potions. That said, the varieties of gold kanet in the Ascadian Isles are quite heterogenous, and it's quite possible some of them are just as potent. There's one that grows near Bal Ur, called 'Roland's Tear', which I've been meaning to test for absolutely ages... come to think of it!" She brightened. I didn't. I had a horrible suspicion as to where this was going. "You could go collect some for me. It's really not very far from Vivec, I'd go if I could leave the shop alone that long. I'd reward you well."

For once, even the word "reward" didn't make me even remotely inclined to agree. Any possible daydreams of fat purses were ruthlessly strangled out of existence by the horrible memories of exactly what had happened the last time I'd gone on a harmless, easy trip to collect some gold kanet.

"No!" I yelped.

Noticing Aurane's unimpressed stare, I quickly followed that up with, "I mean, I would, but it's really far too dangerous and-"

"Oh, pish," Aurane waved her hand dismissively. I scowled at the gesture. Clearly, this was someone who had no idea of the horrors flower-picking entailed. "It's harmless. The flowers grow well away from the Daedric ruin, and people say the Dremora hardly ever stray from that-"

Daedric ruin?

Dremora?

Needless to say, at that point I'd quickly manufactured an urgent appointment I had to get to - so sorry, entirely forgot, absolutely no time to go battle Dremora for the sake of alchemical research today, perhaps you should inquire at the Fighter's Guild instead? And a few minutes later - and ever since - I'd been back in the corridors, the endless maze, the quite possibly a plane of Oblivion I'd accidentally wandered into (it would explain the Dremora.)

"-I feel sorry for him, but Shor knows it was impossible to make a decision in that environment-" That accent was decidedly familiar. I looked up.

Two Nord women were moving along the corridor at a brisk pace. A few hours ago, back when I was still young and innocent, I might have tried to follow them in the hopes of them going somewhere useful. Now, however, I knew better. Apparently all the natives could walk through walls. At least, this was the only explanation I had for the amount of times I'd tried to tag along with someone only to be standing alone in an empty corridor. Or there'd been the time outside where the mer had headed straight for the parapet and then levitated up to the next level, leaving me gaping behind.

(Technically, I supposed, I could do the same for getting to the lower levels with my amulet. However, I hadn't reached the point of throwing myself off high places with only an untested magical artifact of dubious provenance between me and certain death. Not yet, at any rate.)

"Well, don't worry," the taller one was saying. "There are other enchanters. One wouldn't want to go to the Telvanni canton, true, but the Temple or the-"

Wait, there was an enchanter around here? Speaking of untested magical artifacts of dubious provenance, in particular the turning of such into shiny coins...

"Excuse me, did you say there's an enchanter's shop nearby?" I asked.

The one who'd just been speaking stopped, eyebrows raised in surprise. "Why, yes. It's-" I braced myself for a long list of bewildering directions culminating in 'walk through the nearest wall'- "just down this corridor. Go past this corner and then head straight, you can't miss it."

"Really? Thanks so much!" I beamed at the first comprehensible directions I'd heard all day.

"But wait, there's-" I was too busy rushing down the corridor to make out the rest.

Indeed, a bit further along there was the same sort of sign made out of cloth I'd seen outside all the shops here hanging against a wall, with a symbol denoting what it sold along with the same spelled out in Daedric letters. I couldn't see what was on it, however, as a Breton had decided this was the perfect spot to lean against and take a break.

Well, he wasn't an Ordinator, and the Nords had been friendly enough...

"Excuse me, is this the enchanter's?"

The Breton leapt away from the wall with alacrity. "Fair lady! Flower of Morrowind!" He swept into an extravagant bow that put me dreadfully in mind of Eddie. On the bright side, it meant I could finally see what was on the sign - yes, written below a symbol I didn't recognise was 'Miun-Gei, accredited enchanter. Will buy and sell enchanted items and scrolls, custom work available'. Someone had pinned a piece of parchment next to that. It read, 'Soul gems not supplied. Customers must bring filled soul gem for commissions. No exceptions.'

"Can you find it in your generous heart to spare a coin for a struggling actor?" The Breton finally came out of his bow, cap in hand. I groaned at the sight. It must have been on the ground in front of him - if I'd spotted it, I would have tried to sneak past.

"No," I answered him flatly.

He gasped dramatically, clutching the front of his shirt. "Ai! You wound me, fair maiden! Those harsh words - like a dagger through my heart! Yet I am sure that buried beneath such a stern countenance lies a gentle soul-"

Yes, this was definitely Eddie the Second. Except this time I found myself sadly devoid of allies, scout and silt-strider alike.

"-as fair and kind as Inzoliah, and I her most devoted servant Malvasian-"

Wait a minute.

"Inzoliah and Malvasian? Didn't they try to kill each other over money?"

The man's eyes lit up. "Ah! A connoisseur! A patron of the fine arts!"

Did he just say patron of the fine arts? If knowing basic character and plot details of one of Tamriel's most popular plays counted as such, the state of theatre must be much worse than I'd thought.

"No, I just haven't been living under a rock," I snapped.

Not-Eddie ignored me. "Surely one so cultured, so sophisticated as you will be able to understand my artistic vision! Theatre troupes throughout Tamriel perform A Hypothetical Treachery as a black comedy. Pah, I say to that! That idea is bland as barley soup, outdated as the plays of Baloth-Kul. What if one were to perform it as a tragic romance - Inzoliah and Malvasian the star-crossed lovers, kept apart by cruel fate! I am sure it would receive great acclaim..." His shoulders slumped. "If only I could find a troupe willing to attempt it..."

He appeared quite distracted with his misfortuntes. I approved. It gave me the chance to make an unnoticed escape into the enchanter's shop.


I shut the door behind me with a sigh of relief at having a barrier of solid wood between me and Eddie the Younger, then looked around.

The small room was crammed. Next to stacked crates were shelves which were laden with all sorts of objects, from a long spear to a child's tunic to a stack of scrolls in one corner. The one thing they had in common was that they all gleamed with magic. The light combined with that of the numerous magical lamps of all shapes and colours to make me squint and wonder whether migraines were an occupational hazard for enchanters.

If they were, it might explain this enchanter's appearance. Behind a wooden desk stood an Argonian who looked distinctly frazzled. I should admit at this point that I didn't know many Argonians and their body language was notoriously different from that of the warm-blooded races, so that estimation should probably be taken with a grain of salt. All the same, I'd never seen one with such a drooping head-frill before, and I guessed the fact that his scales were pearly blue on most of his body meant that the ones on his face should not be that unhealthy-looking pale grey colour. To say nothing of the way his beard-tendrils kept curling and uncurling.

"Er, hello?" I tried.

He jumped and stared at me for a moment, then collected himself. "A customer! My apologies, my apologies. I am Miun-Gei, enchanter. My specialisation lies in magical lighting," well, that explained the headache-inducing surroundings, "but I have a large variety of items available in other areas as well. What brings you to my shop?"

"I'd like to sell this amulet," I said, undoing the clasp at the back of my neck and handing it to him.

"Ah! Give it here- yes, yes-" Miun-Gei lifted the amulet up and inspected it closely. "A Slowfall enchantment, yes? Nicely done, anchored tightly into the stone - emerald, a good choice for such work. Now, as for the faceting-" He hummed slightly, reaching for a magnifying lens on the desk. I had to smile when I realised that his frill was perking up as he talked - talked to himself, really; he seemed to have entirely forgotten I was there in his enthusiasm.

"O noble sir! Spare a coin for a struggling actor?"

Eddie II's voice barreled through the door and shattered the companionable atmosphere like an angry kagouti. Miun-Gei dropped the lens, which fell back onto the desk with a loud clunk.

"Oh, curse that buffoon," he muttered, one hand reaching up to tug repeatedly at one of his head-spikes as if for comfort. Then he shot a glance at me and let the hand fall. "Many apologies, honoured customer. Please do not mind these- minor interruptions-"

"Don't worry, I tangled with that man on the way in," I said sympathetically. "Take your time."

"Take your time, yes..." Miun-Gei repeated absently, attention once more fixed on the necklace. "A Slowfall enchantment. Quite strong, with a very large reservoir of magicka - no rat's or nix-hound's soul went into the making of this. Dreugh, perhaps? Or a scamp? Let us see..."

He muttered several arcane-sounding syllables, causing sparkling white light to grow around his free hand as I watched in fascination. I'd known that there was a spell which enchanters used to discern the exact details of an enchanted item, but this was the first time I'd ever seen it in action.

"They say/ the Iliac Bay/ is the place to barrel around/ without a bit of apparel on-"

Sweet Stendarr's mercy, now the man was singing.

The spell fizzled with a pop. For a moment, the spines of Miun-Gei's frill shifted forward into what I recognised as a threat position, his lips peeling back to reveal a row of very sharp teeth as he hissed. Then he relaxed with what looked like a major effort of will.

"No matter, no matter! Miun-Gei shall try again!"

Miun-Gei closed his eyes in concentration, cupping the amulet in one hand-

I cringed, instinctively raising my hands to cover my ears, as the unmistakeable sound of a shawm penetrated the door. A badly-played shawm, at that. I hadn't spotted the instrument among the actor's possessions on my way in. I'd have to see if I could when I left, because I was relatively certain that using my Firebite spell on it would qualify as a civic duty.

Miun-Gei stood still as a statue for a moment as his second spell fizzled. Then he let the amulet fall onto the desk and dropped his head in his hands. I'd heard that Argonians lacked tear ducts and couldn't cry, but judging by the sounds he was making they could at least manage a very good impression.

"Um," I said hesitantly. "Are you all right?" I'd known people who could work through the sound of a Nord wedding, but I'd always been the opposite - noise my friends could happily ignore left me flinching and covering my ears. It looked as though Miun-Gei was the same.

"No," Miun-Gei said, voice muffled. "Miun-Gei is not all right. Miun-Gei has not been able to make a single sale since yesterday because of that, that buffoon. It decided in front of Miun-Gei's shop is the perfect place to set up and 'show off' her 'acting skills'. And now Miun-Gei cannot focus long enough to inspect new items, to give customers an overview of its wares, to barter."

I took a moment to parse that speech. Apparently Miun-Gei had the ever-so-slightly idiosyncratic approach to gendered pronouns that you sometimes heard among his race, the one that made me seriously wonder about the Argonian life-cycle.

"Have you tried talking to law enforcement?" I suggested, trying to take my mind off certain possibilities involving egg-laying which I really didn't want to think about in too much detail.

"The Ordinators? They came and said it was a 'permissible' level of noise." Miun-Gei sounded gloomy. "I am not certain whether they allowed it because Miun-Gei is an outlander and they do not care about outlanders, or because the noise is really not that bad. Miun-Gei is... it overreacts, sometimes." That last was said in a sing-song tone that made me think the Argonian was repeating something he'd been told. I felt a sudden burst of sympathy.

Miun-Gei raised his head, although he didn't meet my eyes. "Many apologies, honoured customer. One way or the other Miun-Gei will not be able to trade today, she fears."

"I understand," I said. "It really sounds as if you need to take a break - somewhere quiet - for a bit. Is there anything I can do to help?"

I snapped my mouth shut, but the traitorous words had already escaped. See, this is what happens when you indulge in sympathy for other people - outbreaks of altruism. Worse, Miun-Gei was visibly brightening. Apparently he had something in mind and hadn't noticed my recoil.

"The buffoon is looking for work in theatre, he says. He believes besieging my shop will find it a troupe. Thus, if an employer is found, it will leave and Miun-Gei will be able to do business again. Miun-Gei would be very, very grateful if the honoured customer looked for someone who wishes to hire an actor. If this succeeds and the buffoon leaves, there would be a reward."

Well, that wasn't as bad as I'd been expecting. The magical word "reward" had been spoken - although I really did plan not to let that override my common sense again - and it wasn't as if asking around would be difficult. Except... "I'd love to help, really," I said, exaggerating somewhat, "but I'm getting lost every time I turn around. I can't find anything, let alone someone hiring actors, in this maze you call a city."

"Oh, of course, you are new here." Miun-Gei winced as the shawm struck a particularly flat note, then continued gamely. "Miun-Gei has not lived here that long either, but he learned an easy trick for getting around. It is this: when you need to go up or down a level, use the ramps on the outside of the cantons. Only go inside to search once you are on the right level. It is much less confusing that way."

I blinked. With the rain, I'd tried to stay inside as much as possible. I hadn't considered that this might be adding to my difficulties.

"Thank you! I'll-"

A particularly loud blast of 'music' from outside had both of us cringing. Miun-Gei gave the door a desperate look. I decided that curtailing the usual farewell pleasantries was allowable in certain situations and this was definitely one of them.

A short time later, I'd managed to shake off Eddie's long-lost twin again and stood outside. Although the clouds still hung thick and grey overhead, the rain had finally stopped - luckily so, as I wasn't feeling up to casting the rainshield spell many more times. My magicka reserves were feeling rather low, and the last few hours had been so full of stress, more stress, and running around that the rate at which I was recovering magicka could be more accurately summed up as 'not'.

Ingerte's face swam into my mind. She'd always said that she really didn't care if I hated my birthsign, trying to make myself into an Atronach-born by stunting my magicka regeneration through stress wasn't the answer-

My stomach growled, providing a very useful distraction. I looked down at it ruefully. Apparently I needed to find a nice quiet place to take a break for more reasons than refilling my magicka pool.

I just hoped that Miun-Gei's advice worked, or else I'd probably end up starving to death in the maze of corridors and having my corpse spat upon by Ordinators.


Miun-Gei's advice worked.

The outside of the canton was far, far less confusing than the inside. The main issue was that the ramps to get from level to level were well-hidden indeed - it took quite a bit of me circling around in confusion before a stray draft caught my attention. But after that, navigating the canton became much easier and in what felt like no time at all I'd reached the bottom level.

In front of me was a broad marble bridge, leading to the next canton - one that looked very, very similar to the one I'd just exited, with perhaps one less level and more decoration in the form of hanging red flags depicting some sort of stylised insect. To the side, there was a rickety wooden platform with stairs leading down to the water. Wandering over, I saw a small dock and a ladder leading down to a maze of wobbly rope bridges and rickety boardwalks which connected the cantons with wooden platforms and anchored boats of all shapes and sizes.

I looked down at the web of pathways spanning across the water, then looked up at the other canton.

There really was no decision to make. At least in one of the labyrinths, I'd be able to see the rest of it.

A while later found me glad for the choice, because I was making actual progress for once. Although I had to admit that the upkeep of the paths was not always what it should be. My birthsign and its gift of agility came in handy more than once when I had to bridge gaps or climb up to a platform, and on occasion I even found myself having to reach into the last remnants of my magicka pool for my water-walking spell - one I try to avoid using if I can. Standing on waves makes me queasy, and Alteration spells like that have a tendency to suddenly wear off when you're not expecting it.

(Not, I feel the need to point out, that I'd know from experience. There was never an incident where I was showing off my new knowledge and forgot to keep track of the spell, and it definitely did not end with me falling straight into the river and Fjaldir needing to fish me out. And he most certainly was not laughing the entire time.)

Even with the poor maintenance, I was by far not the only one who'd decided to brave the water rather than the cantons. And overall the others seemed more... well, my sort. Less people wearing fancy robes, more in plain clothes suitable for an honest (or dishonest) day's work. The snatches of conversation I overheard had less to do with the price of enchanted items and more with the price of bread or the day's fishing... along with rumours of some sort of serial killer having struck in the Arena canton, a place I immediately decided to avoid. At one point I even snagged the wrist of a young Dunmer girl, the hand it belonged to being on my purse at the time. I let her go with an admonition and a few tips on pickpocketing technique, which I told her to go try out on people who weren't me.

(To paraphrase a well-known saying: give a street kid a drake and she'll be hungry again in... actually, she'll never stop being hungry. Teach a street kid to steal and she can get her own drakes - and get them from purses fat enough that their owners really ought to be donating to soup kitchens anyway, for that matter. Everyone wins!)

There were a lot of Dunmer around, a fact that first surprised me, then followed that up by surprising me through having surprised me (an underhanded move I felt should be made illegal in the art of cogitation). After all, I was in Morrowind. I was even beginning to get used to that fact. Seeing a crowd mainly of my race shouldn't be so shocking. But...

Thinking back, so far almost everywhere I'd been had been dominated by other races. I still remembered realising that little Llavani was the first Dunmer I'd seen after having spent several hours in Seyda Neen. In fact, the only other I'd met in my whole time there had been Darvame. Less than half of the Balmora mages were Dunmer, even if you counted me - and if what I'd seen at breakfast and at the Vivec guild was any sample, then that proportion was if anything even smaller in other guilds. From what I remembered, the crowds in Balmora had been similarly diverse... the ones in the canton I'd exited earlier definitely had been. Yet here, at least four people in five were Dunmer.

As if to emphasise my discovery, I heard a language I didn't recognise showing up in conversations around me. It must be Dunmeris, which I'd read was still widely spoken in Morrowind. But if it was so widely spoken, why was this my first time hearing it?

I really should get around to reading up on local politics. I had the sneaking suspicion that they were important.

My stomach growled again.

All right, there were a few things that were more important.

When I reached a Redguard street vendor, I immediately spent a few drakes on roast slaughterfish and greens wrapped in flatbread and garnished with a spiced lemon sauce. It was delicious - the sauce was flavourful without being overwhelming, the fish was tender and juicy and the greens gave a very satisfying crunch when I bit into them. Never to mention that the taste of someone attempting to approximate northern Hammerfell cuisine with totally unsuitable ingredients was quite nostalgic, although I had to admit this man was doing a rather better job than Charon (whose many attempts at a barley-based couscous substitute are not among my happiest culinary memories).

I asked the vendor about his recipes and spent most of my lunch being regaled with talk about the Sentinel-Morrowind trade lines and how a good friend of his outside Almalexia on the mainland was having some success growing citrus trees. When I was finishing, the conversation had just turned to his disgust for a local tavern's kitchen practices ("they'll keep slaughterfish magically frozen for months before they finally serve it! Me, I have a deal with some of the local fisherfolk down near St. Olms', I swear to Zenithar everything I sell is fresh out of the sea-"). After I gulped down the last of the food, I managed to interrupt with another question.

"A theatre troupe?" he asked, frowning. "You an actor?"

I shook my head. "I'm looking for... someone else, as a favour." I decided not to go into detail. It wasn't really important, and poor Miun-Gei didn't need his misfortune trumpeted around the city.

"Well, in that case - I've heard Crassius Curio is looking for actors to perform one of his new plays. He's up in Curio Manor, in Hlaalu canton."

I found myself torn. On the one hand - that was a lot easier than I'd expected. On the other... in Hlaalu canton. I'd just escaped the hell that was trying to navigate a canton, I was not at all eager to go back.

"How hard is it to find?" I asked warily.

"How h- oh, of course, you're a newcomer. Not hard. Curio Manor is on the plaza at the very top, the open part. You can almost see it from here, actually."

I craned my neck and stared in the direction he indicated. Indeed, unlike the canton I'd spent my morning in, the one he was pointing at had no dome at its top - it might very well be open to the sky, I couldn't tell from my perspective. It looked very similar to the first canton in all other respects, so Miun-Gei's advice should still work...

Although really, it couldn't be much past noon. There was plenty of time to go sight-seeing first, surely?

I was still trying to gather the willpower I needed to voluntarily set foot in a canton again when a raindrop hit my nose. Next to me, the Redguard groaned and retreated underneath an awning. Apparently the weather's compassion had grown thin.

Curio Manor it was, then.


The guards stationed at the manor door snickered as I left. I tried to glare them into submission. It would probably have worked better if my face hadn't been burning.

One last wave of chuckles came when I stumbled over the doorsill and almost fell. Poor showing for someone with my birthsign, but it's hard to watch where you're going when you're busy fleeing a place as if the hordes of Oblivion are on your heels.

At this point most people would say that comparing a relatively short, chubby Imperial to a Daedric army might be unfair. And indeed, it probably was - to the Daedra. I'd heard Ogrim, for instance, were supposed to be quite straightforward creatures. They wanted to crush you to goo, and they went about that in a clear, honest way (by attempting to crush you to goo). They did not pinch you (except as it pertained to crushing you to goo) and definitely did not pinch a body part where the only thing I wanted to touch it was the seat of a chair.

And, of course, no Daedra had ever called me...

"Dumpling. Dumpling. I'll dumpling him! He'll wish he'd never even heard of dough when I'm through with him. He'll be petrified by pots. Cry when he sees a cook. Hide under the settee at the swing of a spatula-"

I noticed people were giving me wary looks and a wide berth, a fact that might have to do with the way I was muttering angrily to myself while clenching my fists. Moreover, several Ordinators were standing off to one side watching me. The sight of so many of those blank masks turned in my direction served to cool the worst of my rage.

I leaned against a wall and took stock of my situation.

On the Aedra's side, I'd accomplished what I came for. Crassius Curio had apparently spent some time and effort trying to put a theatre troupe together. When I'd told him about an actor looking for work and given him the leaflet, he'd sent someone out to collect the man straight away. Quite frankly, I wasn't sure if I should be happy because they deserved each other or afraid that they'd end up making each other even worse, but in any case Eddie's magically-created offspring (what woman would go near him?) was now out of Miun-Gei's spikes.

On the Daedra's, after Curio had sent his servant out, there had been... remarks. Suggestions. Gestures. Nicknames. Pinches. All of which I was going to erase from my mind as contaminants right around... now.

So really, this had been a roaring success, bar certain incidents I seemed to have come down with a strange case of amnesia about. I should head back to Miun-Gei's and collect my reward. The rest of it, really, since Curio had already given me a thin book during the course of a conversation I'd mysteriously forgotten the details of. I'd been starved for reading material of late, I wasn't going to turn down...

What sort of a title was The Lusty Argonian Maid?

I cracked it open for a skim-

Oh.

Horrible memories of That Night In Suran danced, cackling, in my mind.

You know, there were people who would appreciate this... work of art far more than I would. Places, too. The sea outside came to mind. Or possibly the sewers. It would be positively selfish of me to keep it from them. Of course, it was a hard decision - there were also numerous possibilities involving privies...

First, though, Miun-Gei's.

A thought went through my mind, one where I was sure I hadn't the slightest idea what spurred it:

The reward for this one had better be good.


I blinked at the sign in front of me, pondering the universe. In particular, its sense of irony in the way you only find what you're looking for once you've stopped actually looking.

In between being told to solve one of the greatest mysteries of Tamriel, raising the art of getting lost to towering new heights, hunting for theatre troupes, and finally getting accosted by pinching nobles with a penchant for pastry-based namecalling, I'd entirely forgotten the reason I'd originally come to Vivec. After finishing up with Miun-Gei, I'd planned to head back to Balmora straight away.

Alas, his tips for navigating cantons didn't help much with the interior. I hadn't managed to find his shop again. Instead, I'd wound up here.

I looked at the sign again. There it was: Jobasha's Rare Books.

I shrugged. If the universe wanted to help me out for once, I wasn't going to complain.

Down a flight of stairs, I found myself confronted by bookshelves. Jobasha was likely behind them, I should go and ask him-

He had a complete set of The Real Barenziah! The Solitude library had been missing the fifth volume, and I'd been very bitter about never finding out how the story ended. And - was that a biography of Pelagius the Mad? It would be interesting to know more about the emperor who gave rise to the holiday I'd loved when I was living in Daggerfall. And over there, a book on Akavir!

"Jobasha wonders if the Dunmer is interested in buying anything?"

I straightened guiltily from where I was perusing the books. "I'm sorry, I got sidetracked. Yes, I'm looking for..." I fished the scrap of paper I'd used as a list out of my pocket. "The Ascadian Isles volume of Dilavesa Seloth's Guide to the Flora of Morrowind, Saryoni's Sermons, Cantatas of Vivec, Doors of the Spirit, and..." I remembered the incident in the Mages' Guild this morning. "Do you have any introductory texts on the Dwemer?"

"Yes, yes," Jobasha said from behind a bookshelf. He'd started running around fetching books when I listed the first title. "Two suitable for a beginning student, Jobasha thinks. Antecedents of Dwemer Law, it is about the Dwemer legal system and how one can trace it to the Aldmer. Very accessibly written, with a lot of remarks about general Dwemer culture. Ruins of Kemel-Ze, that is different - it is a report by an archaeologist, on the excavation of a Dwemer ruin. Not a scholarly text by any means, but the descriptions are very detailed, good to get an overview, and of some... historical interest. Jobasha thinks it could be quite... illuminating." Jobasha seemed on the verge of saying something else, then changed the subject. "You are studying the Dwemer?"

"What? Oh - yes, I'm a new member of the Mages' Guild. An alchemist, really, but some of the higher-ups thought it would be a good idea for me to, ah, learn about the Dwemer as well. My name is Adryn," I introduced myself.

"So you are Adryn. I see. I see." Jobasha's whiskers twitched.

My hackles rose. "You've heard of me?" How and why could he have heard of me? I had trouble thinking of any reason that would end well-

"It is quite simple. Jobasha had a very good friend, one who was so close she could have been his sister. When she died some years ago, Jobasha grieved very much and promised her spirit he would look after the daughters she left behind." Jobasha sighed. "He has not always done so well at that as he would like, but he does try to look in on Ajira when he can. The last time he did so was Turdas, when he had some business with Dorisa Darvel in Balmora. Ajira was full of news of her new friend Adryn, who had helped her with her experiments the day before and was gathering ingredients for her just then."

All right. That worked.

I relaxed. "I forgot - Ajira mentioned you. Yes, she's a good friend of mine."

"Jobasha is pleased to hear that," Jobasha said. "He is of the opinion that Ajira could use more friends. She disagrees, but - kits. They always think they're already grown and don't need anyone's help."

If Ajira wasn't my age, she couldn't be more than a year or two younger - hardly what I would call a 'kit'. I suspected trying to argue the point would only get me put into that category with her, though, and forced myself to remain diplomatically silent with an effort of will.

After a moment, Jobasha turned back to the books. "Will that be all, or are you interested in anything else?"

I looked at the stack on the table. After a brief but vicious internal struggle (I lost), I added the fifth volume of The Real Barenziah to it. The resulting pile looked slightly higher than I could really afford. Following some perusal and hard thought, I removed Cantatas of Vivec - it seemed interesting, but epic poetry was not entirely to my taste and the other two books Ervesa had recommended looked more useful as introductions to the local religion.

"And the book under your arm?" Jobasha inquired.

I blushed. I'd entirely forgotten that I was still lugging Curio's magnum opus around with me.

"It's not yours - it's, er, I encountered Crassius Curio earlier today and he gave it to me-" I found myself eager to disavow responsibility.

"May I see?"

"Quite frankly," I said, passing it to him, "you can have it. Although I'm not sure you'd want to."

Jobasha leafed through it. His face betrayed nothing, a fact that already made him a better actor than Eddie's cousin. "Yes, yes - definitely Curio's work. The man is well-known as an amateur writer, quite an... enthusiastic one. Well, there are some interested."

"Seriously?" I asked, then bit my lip. Although I think of it as a perfectly sensible question, asking things like this often nets me any number of unpleasant reactions, from disbelief to ridicule and outright mockery. Worst, I think, are the ones who dismiss me by telling me I'll understand eventually - as though I, a grown adult, am a child to be patted on the head and told 'when you're older, sweetie'!

Luckily, Jobasha took it in stride. "Quite. Jobasha has a section set aside specifically for such works." He nodded to a bookshelf in the corner, set somewhat apart from the others. "In fact, I have the uncensored version of The Real Barenziah available there, if you- no? Very well. In any case, I will happily take the script to make up a portion of the price."

His eyes roved over the stack of books on the counter, then over me. I straightened and tried to look like an tough, hard-bitten bartering veteran, someone who would haggle a highwayman down to 'a quarter of your money or a nonlethal wound in a limb of your choice!'

"That will be one septim and eighty drakes in total."

I gulped.

In the end, I argued him down to a septim and a half. I felt more than a twinge of reluctance when I passed him all the money Ajira had given me along with one large gold septim coin from my pouch. Silently, I cursed my literary addiction, in particular how it had led to me spending almost half the money I had on books. I needed to find some sort of regular income - maybe I could strike a deal with Ajira? I hadn't exactly enjoyed selling potions (understatement), but it was better than ending up destitute.

This made it even more important to find Miun-Gei's. Even if the reward ended up only being copious thanks, if I sold that amulet I should still be able to end the day with more money than I'd started it with.

Wait, Jobasha was getting something from one of the bookshelves behind his desk.

"And of course, there is this. A chronicle of events at a Dwemer settlement in the First Age - this edition was translated from Aldmeris into Tamrielic in the early years of the Third Era."

I looked at the thick book Jobasha laid on the desk. In particular, I looked at the aged, cracked leather of the cover and the flaking gold-leaf letters inlaid in it which spelled out "Chronicles of Nchuleft". It reminded me of some of the books I'd seen in the Solitude library - seen, not read, because those were the books the senior librarian refused to let you within a ten-foot distance of without a letter from someone like the Archmage of the Skyrim Mages' Guild attesting that you were both desperately in need of consulting them and would treat them like they were made of glass (and not the volcanic kind). Alas, she'd been very good at spotting forgeries.

"That looks a little out of my price range," I admitted. I suspected it would've been so even if I hadn't spent a drake since arriving on Vvardenfell.

"Oh, Jobasha is expecting it is," Jobasha said while carefully wrapping it in an oiled cloth. "Even you could afford it, he would not sell it. Edwinna Elbert of Ald'ruhn asked him to find it for her, has already paid him handsomely for it. The shipment just came in yesterday, and now Jobasha needs someone to deliver it to the Ald'ruhn Mages' Guild for him. You are a member of the guild, you know how to treat books - you would not believe the clumsy oafs Jobasha has had the misfortune to hire for such work in the past-" Jobasha shuddered, I assumed at a dreadful memory involving book destruction. "Edwinna should give you a few drakes for the delivery. And if you are careful with it and the book gets to Edwinna by Tirdas at the latest, Jobasha will not object if you do some reading of your own."

That was a generous offer. Too generous. How did Jobasha trust me not to run off with it? Ajira's assessment could only go so far. Especially because much as we'd been instant friends, at the time she'd told Jobasha about me we'd known each other for less than a day.

"You'd trust me with a book that valuable?" I blurted, then mentally kicked myself. When would I learn that certain thoughts were best kept to oneself?

Jobasha looked at me without answering, green eyes distant. The silence stretched until I started to shift uncomfortably beneath his gaze.

"Jobasha was not entirely honest with you at the beginning," he finally said. "He has heard of you from Ajira, yes. But he has also heard of you elsewhere. Jobasha has friends in many places, you see, and one of them is in the Thieves' Guild."

My blood turned to ice.

"And those friends, they tell him things. They tell him things like this: the one who calls himself the Thief-King of Skyrim, he is looking for someone. He is looking for a young Dunmer, a red-haired girl named Adryn."

The door was behind me, and I'd have to weave past bookshelves and run up stairs to get to it. The desk was between us, which was a point in my favour, but Jobasha looked fit for all his greying fur and Khajiit were notoriously acrobatic... and then there was me, still out of shape from prison. If I bolted, I didn't think I'd make it outside before he caught me.

Not that it mattered either way, because he had friends in the Thieves' Guild and he knew who I was-

"He wants her alive, it is said... but from the way he is asking, once he has her this girl will not remain so for very long. From the way he is asking, she will wish it was not even that long."

Despite the warmth of the day, I felt very cold.

Jobasha regarded me for a long moment, claws drumming on the table, then heaved a sigh. "Breathe. The things Jobasha has heard about the Thief-King are... not good. He is not inclined to do that man a favour. And," his tone hardened, "I disapprove of torturing children."

Apparently I'd ended up in the 'kit' category after all. This was probably not the time to protest that my nineteen years made me an adult.

"I- thank you-" I felt light-headed and stopped to take a deep breath. I hadn't even noticed I'd been hyperventilating.

Jobasha continued as though he hadn't even noticed my interruption. "All the same, Jobasha hopes you understand he cannot help but worry, when he learns Ajira's new friend is such a person. From her stories, you are... harmless. Whatever stories Jobasha may have heard about why that man wants you," I felt the blood drain from my face, "they do not fit, he thinks. Especially because from the things Jobasha has heard, it would not be the first time he spread lies for his own gain. Still. Jobasha does not know for certain this is so. And although Jobasha may not approve of torturing children... hurting Ajira, that he approves of even less."

I straightened indignantly. "I wouldn't-"

Jobasha held up a hand to silence me. "So it behooves Jobasha, does it not, to keep an eye on you? To see whether this fugitive is really serious about making a new life here, becoming a productive member of her new guild, being friends with his little Ajira. Thus, the errand - to start. And as to why Jobasha trusts you to fulfill it... well."

He paused. I wiped sweaty hands on my robes.

"From what Ajira has said, the one thing you are definitely not is stupid. And making Jobasha angry? This would be a very, very stupid thing for you to do. Do you understand?"

I croaked my confirmation.

Jobasha gave me a smile that showed all his teeth. "I am very glad we had this talk. Please get the book to Edwinna no later than Tirdas."

I barely remembered to take it before I fled.


Once out of the shop, I stopped and stared at the corridor wall.

In my mind's eye, two faces floated in front of me. I drank in the imagined sight of Charon's wiry black curls, once again escaping from under his cap, the nose that still bore a bump from the time he'd broken it when we were eleven, the dark brown eyes twinkling with humour. Of Ingerte's scattering of freckles, the long ash-blond hair she'd braided into a coronet around her head, her face beautiful as a china doll's which had distracted many a person from the sharp gleam of intelligence in her blue eyes-

"I miss you," I whispered. Their features grew blurry. "I miss you, I miss you, I'm sorry-"

I squeezed my eyes shut to hold back tears, feeling the memories hovering at the edge of my mind. If I let them, they'd overwhelm me. Instead, I reached forward and let my fingers trail along the wall, let my thoughts become absorbed by the tingle of rough stone against my fingertips, the soothing pattern of the circling motion...

Once I had myself firmly back in the present, I let my hand drop and opened my eyes. Forget Miun-Gei, I should head back to Balmora as soon as possible. Correction: to Balmora by way of Ald'ruhn. Jobasha had given me a full three days to deliver the book, but it would really, really be better not to risk-

"So. I was right."

I winced when I realised that I'd been so absorbed I hadn't noticed someone else enter the corridor. I really needed to stop being so sloppy about that.

Wait, why did that angry voice sound vaguely familiar?

I turned around and bit back a groan at the sight of an Ordinator's mask. I'd so hoped never to run into Master Grumpy again.

"Innocent tourist? Pah. I knew better from the moment I saw you. Rebel. Abolitionist, that's what you are."

It was really quite impressive how Master Grumpy's air of barely controlled fury made the painted, immobile blank expression of his mask seem like an angry scowl- wait, what?

"Buying books is rebellious now?" I asked, incredulous.

"Oh yes, I've been watching Jobasha. A more obvious seditionist I've never seen in my life, even if Commander Andas insists we don't have the evidence to bring him in and I should leave him be-"

I gulped. Apparently Master Grumpy was even more paranoid than the norm for an Ordinator. I wasn't sure whether I should find that relieving or worrying.

"So, outlander." I had the distinct impression that Master Grumpy was smiling under his mask. For some reason, it made me even more uneasy than his normal demeanour. "You are wanted for questioning regarding subversive activity. And once you confess, I'll finally have enough to arrest that fetcher Jobasha."

"Now- hey- wait a minute!" I yelped, dodging as he tried to grab me. "I haven't even done anything!" Which is something I really wished mattered more with law enforcement. I glanced at Master Grumpy to see if I could make a break for it-

My eyes widened. "Behind you!"

I winced as my upper arm was captured in a hard, armoured grip. "How stupid do you think I am? That's the oldest trick in the book. You..."

His voice trailed off, he began to sway on his feet. The pressure on my arm vanished as his hand grew limp and fell away. I managed to jump back just in time to avoid being crushed when Master Grumpy collapsed with a clatter.

The Dunmer woman I'd seen come up behind him bent down to retrieve her dagger from the gap in the armour between his pauldrons and his gauntlets. Only the tip was wet, she'd barely nicked him... but the angry red glitter of a destructive enchantment along its blade, not to forget the heap of unconscious or dead Ordinator on the floor, made it clear that in this case a nick was enough.

Instead of straightening, the woman reached for Master Grumpy's mask to wrench his head back. My mind must have been working slowly, because I only realised what she was doing when blood sprayed.

"Outlander." I tore my eyes away from the now definitely, unmistakeably dead Ordinator on the floor to find the woman's fixed on me.

"You- you know," I said, voice shaking, "I think all of you could, could really do with some lessons in peaceful conflict negotiation. You know. Learning how to talk your problems over instead of resorting to vi-" I gulped and tried not to look at the bloody heap that had been Master Grumpy, "to violence. I'd love to give you some tips on the matter but I seem to have forgotten an urgent appointment, I'll just be going now-"

"Dagoth Ur does not want you here, outlander."

My heart fell to my stomach, kept going, and ended up somewhere near what felt like my ankles as the woman began to walk towards me. Now don't get me wrong, I very much disapprove of murder. My preferred method of conflict resolution happens to be talking, with running away a close second. Lethal violence appears nowhere on the list, and the casual way this woman had slit Master Grumpy's throat made nausea rise in my stomach. I would just have liked to disapprove from a nice, safe, thoroughly uninvolved distance, never to mention I much preferred disapproving of murder that wasn't my own.

My perception of the world sharpened in the way extreme unadulterated terror sometimes does to you. Suddenly, every brick on the wall came into sharp relief. Every scar on the woman's face, the sway of her blood-red hair, the blank, glazed look in her eyes engraved itself in my memory, and the woman's already dragging, listing approach slowed to a crawl... really, I almost thought she was sleep-walking. (Sleep-murdering?)

Well. She didn't seem amenable to talking. Running looked like an increasingly good option, except-

I bit back a curse when I felt stone at my back. I'd backed into a corner, Ysmir damn it. I could still try to rush past her, sluggish as she was, but with that knife all she had to do was scratch me and I'd be done for.

Really, this was ridiculous - my second life-threatening experience in three days. Only this time I had to doubt a floating Armiger would be by with a timely rescue.

Wait, what was it about Ervesa...

The spell! Running away was still an option.

Okay. Focus. Focus on something not the approaching spectre of death. Reach into your magicka pool, draw out a rope, throw it out and latch onto the beacon-

I gritted my teeth as my first attempt went straight into the void. Considering this city was supposedly the home of a living god there had to be a Temple here. Try again.

This time my rope hit something close by- wavered- slid off-

My approaching death in sleep-murderess form was getting uncomfortably close.

Finally! A solid hit. Now use the connection to pull yourself from here to there-

With no warning, the link I'd created stretched almost to breaking as the beacon I'd latched onto suddenly went from a nice stable fixed point to an arrow shooting off into the distance. I threw myself towards it, desperate-

The world dissolved.

Chapter Text

This time, the teleportation was a lot more violent. Instead of the smooth shift of before, it felt rather as if some giant had picked me up and tossed me through the realms of Mysticism in what must be the direction of the nearest Temple. I staggered and almost lost my balance on the 'landing' and made a mental note never to teleport under stress again. Well, at least now I was away from the serial killer and safe at a Temple...

I opened my eyes.

Oh, Ysmir's balls.

Judging by the style of interior decorating, the large hall I'd landed in was no Temple, especially since the one I'd seen had tended to the sparsely furnished. Here, on the other hand, the rich decorations - ranging from the very expensive magicka-lit chandelier over gleaming swords with gem-inlaid hilts hanging on the wall to exquisite paintings, all of scowling armour-clad Dunmer - made all of my thieves' instincts spring into high alert.

Rich person's home. Rich person who would probably not be too happy to come home and find an ex-thief in the middle of their manor. I seriously doubted "oh, so sorry, teleportation accident" would fly - I barely believed that story myself and it had actually happened to me. At least there was no one around right now-

"Who in Oblivion are you?"

I turned around, swearing to myself that one day, one day I would learn not to think things that provoked the universe to immediately prove me wrong. "I'm really sorry, this was an accident, I-" I blinked when the angry nobleman I was expecting to face turned out to be a Nord in simple dark clothes. Holding a lockpick.

"I've waited weeks for the perfect opportunity to do this - finally the family's all out at some dinner party, I manage to bribe the maid to put sleeping potion into the guards' food, everything's going according to plan and then some witch decides to pop out of nowhere. Damn it all to the Deadlands, the Sarethis weren't nearly this much trouble."

The man had swapped his lockpick for a dagger - it seemed to be made out of the glittering green material Fasile had called 'glass', which under other circumstances I'd have been curious about. In this case, however, I found my attention much more caught by the fact that it looked sharp and was pointing at me. Why did everyone I met today want to stab me? Had I accidentally left the Mages' Guild with an 'Adryn: now doubling as a pincushion' sign stuck to my back?

"Now," the Nord continued, "tell me what you're doing here or else-"

"Teleportation gone wrong. Would you mind not waving that in my face? Besides," some sense of professional pride reared its head, "you don't look that green, surely you know not to kill someone on a burglary. You know - thieves' honour, not to making the profession look bad, avoiding guardsmen coming after everyone with sharp objects, the usual. And what are you even planning on doing with the bod-"

"Did I ask you how to do my job?" the man snapped. "No! I didn't! And- teleportation gone wrong, you expect me to believe that? Everyone knows that doesn't actually happen." Oh, thank you so much for telling me. I bow to your superior skills and experience. Clearly this is in fact a Temple and I'm just hallucinating. Happens all the time. "What's to stop you from running out and getting the guards right now?"

Well, for one the fact that I had no idea where 'out' was. There were several doors I could see and I hadn't the slightest idea which one was the exit. But he didn't need to know that. Instead... "If I were going to do that I would have already, surely? Honestly, I don't want any trouble. I'll just leave now and you can pretend I was never here-"

The Nord scowled. "Not a chance, witch. I don't want to risk that you'll call the authorities, either on purpose or by blundering into them." My back stiffened in indignation - this greenhorn insulting my stealth skills? - but he continued. "No, you can just stay right here with me while I finish my business, and I'll figure out what to do with you when we're both out of here."

That, like a lot of the things the man had said so far, sounded remarkably short-sighted - and believe me, when I'm the one saying this, it really means something. "What, you're planning on dragging me with you while you search for the jewellery box? Seriously, just let me go and I'll-"

A meaty hand grabbed my forearm. "No, you're coming with me. It won't be long. I heard Venim bragging about some priceless treasure he had locked up in his home, and dear Vendrela from the kitchen was so helpful in telling me that there's two guards always loitering about here." Indeed, he was steering me towards a suspicious-looking tapestry flanked by two collapsed figures. Sleeping potion, hadn't he said? I couldn't fault his planning for this heist, even if I did have to fault his attitude. "And then the whole world will know of Allding, who broke into two Councilor mansions! A feat the Grey Fox or the Gentleman would have been hard-put to manage!" And his discretion. Really, I pondered as Allhotair pushed aside the tapestry to uncover a (badly) hidden door, if I were his guildmaster I'd have kicked him out long ago just for excessive boasting. "Then Aengoth will promote me for sure." Or for being utterly pathetic.

He had to let me go to pick the lock on the door, which would have been the opportune moment to make a run for it. I didn't, because I still didn't know where "out" was or, for that matter, what "out" was. (Was I even in Vivec anymore?) Besides, I knew that make of lock and it wouldn't take him-

Good grief.

I winced as one of his picks snapped in the lock and he fumbled for another one. Scratch the boasting, who on Nirn had hired the man? With that dexterity he ought to be a juggler - you know, the kind that makes the audience laugh because of their sheer incompetence, whose ultimate trick is knocking themselves out by accident.

"Oh for- let me, or else we'll be here all night." I reached over and grabbed the picks out of his hands. "I refuse to let myself get arrested because you're too incompetent to manage a simple lock."

By the time he closed his mouth I already had the first pick in the lock. Pretty lousy quality, and the lock was a bit more difficult than I'd guessed, but-

"Hey, what do you think you're doi-"

Snick.

I felt a smug smile spread across my face as his mouth dropped open again. "Opening the door. Since you were having such trouble with it. By the way," I was feeling magnanimous - definitely magnanimous, it most certainly wasn't gloating, "don't jerk the picks suddenly in a Vicici style lock. The tumblers are positioned in a way that makes them snap easily. Increase the pressure gently, you don't need much."

"I'll do that. Thanks." The look Allboasts graced me with was quite a bit less hostile and more thoughtful than his previous. Perhaps he could be trained! Not too much of a surprise - I hear you can train monkeys, after all, and he seemed only a little less intelligent than one. "Say, you're not half bad." Why, thank you for noticing. Better than you, anyway. "Who are you, anyway? You Guild too?"

"I'm A-" giving my real name to a Guild thief who was curious about my skill was a very bad idea Adryn what are you doi- "-Arvese," I invented quickly, silently apologising to Ervesa. "And no, I'm... retired. Except when someone decides to drag me along against my will." I shot him a glare.

He shrugged, totally unapologetic. "I want you where I can see you. Now, let's see what beauties old Venim has hidden behind here - and don't you think you'll get a share..." he eased the door open.

The sight that met our eyes was definitely not one I was expecting.

"Well, about time. With all due respect, surely an essential part of kidnapping involves not letting your victim starve to- wait a minute. You're not the guards."

Allding and I stared at each other, then at the bare cell behind the door. Bare, that was, apart from the Dunmer occupying it.

He looked about my age, with dark hair in a spiky half-shaved haircut that meant he was probably trying to give his parents a heart attack. His clothes were rich velvets (the kind that act much like a sign saying "my purse is crushing me under its weight, I would be ever so grateful if you relieved me of it" for thieves) although they were ripped and rumpled - I guessed from his captivity, although the heavy chains couldn't have helped either.

"Are you here to rescue me?" It was almost painful to watch his eyes light up with hope. "My name is Varvur Sarethi, my father is Athyn Sarethi, the Councilor." I heard a small moan from Allincompetent. "He'll reward you. Please- no!"

I grabbed Allding's arm before he could close the door again. "What do you think you're doing?" I hissed.

He glared at me. "Women. Bleeding hearts. Don't see what business it is of yours, but I have no damn intention of getting involved in politics." He spat. "That's the kind of thing that gets people like us killed."

He was right, but. "It's my business because you made it my business, and guess what, we're involved now whether we want it or not!" I whispered furiously. "You think whoever lives here is just going to leave us alone now that we've found him? You think he's going to keep quiet about the two intruders who stumbled upon him? Or his father will be happy about this if he does get rescued?" The set of Varvur's face made it clear that if we left him here, he would make sure we regretted it if it was the last thing he did. "At least if we grab him someone in this mess will be on our side!"

I moved towards him. The lockpicks were still in my hand...

"No, I'm going to stay well out of this." Allcoward turned his back to the prisoner, clearly preparing to storm off. "If you're so insistent on playing with the nobility, you can-" He broke off abruptly.

"Well, well, what have we here."

I turned around.

There should really be an upper limit on the amount of misfortune someone can experience in a day.

The Dunmer now standing at the other end of the room looked a lot like the angry nobleman I'd been worried about earlier. Worse yet, he didn't even look like an angry nobleman of the pampered, helpless without his guards variety where you can at least try to intimidate them into letting you run for it. No, this looked like an angry nobleman who ate the former type for breakfast and followed them off with a rampaging snow bear for lunch. The full suit of - was that actually ebony armour? - left that impression. Of course, he also had two guards with him. The effect was rather like that of a tiger flanked by kittens.

Maybe it was my lucky day and he wasn't actually the owner. Maybe he was just - just passing through, and would be shocked to find a kidnap victim and I could pretend to have been on a benevolent rescue mission-

"A spy. In my home."

My last shred of hope fizzled and died.

Wait a moment, why the singular?

My eyes darted to the side. Fumble-fingered he might be, but apparently Alltraitor could move quickly when push came to shove. He'd managed to make it to the side of the cell, out of view from the main room, and was fumbling with a potion. He looked at me, clearly pleading for me not to say anything. I scowled at him.

That said, there were times for taking revenge on treacherous snakes and there were times to prioritise one's own hide, in particular the saving thereof. This was definitely one of the latter.

I opened my mouth to defend myself, then closed it when I realised I was currently bereft of any plausible explanation. Well, if the mer could just give a moment - sheer desperation had always led to my greatest bouts of what I called 'creative planning' and Charon called 'utter insanity' in the past, I was sure it wouldn't let me down now-

Alas, the nobleman didn't seem inclined to wait for me to come up with something. His eyes narrowed, then he snapped something in what I supposed was Dunmeris. I didn't understand him, but judging by the way the guards started moving forwards I thought I could guess at the gist.

Said guards were noticeably slower and more wobbly than I am used to guards being. The potion was clearly still in their system. Now, if I were even remotely skilled at combat, this might have made a difference. Sadly, even a Bosmer who's just smoked a full pipe of skooma and is actually trying to attack the glowing rainbow unicorn behind me is capable of physically overwhelming me. (No, I'd rather not explain how I know that.) And, as if to prove that things could still get worse, the two guards knocked out at the entrance to the cell started stirring. The commotion had probably managed to penetrate their drug-induced haze.

My eyes darted from side to side. Allcoward was gone - an invisibility potion, I guessed, and he hadn't brought enough to share. Well, I was sure there'd be plenty of opportunity to revenge myself on him for landing me in this situation once I got out of it. As I was going to figure out a cunning plan to do exactly that in a moment.

Any second now.

A hand on my wrist. Varvur. "Don't you have any Intervention scrolls or something?" he whispered.

Oh. Of course.

All things considered, it looked as if staying here would be much more detrimental to my health than casting that spell again.

When the nobleman saw me raise my hands into a casting position, he shouted something and started forward himself. The speed at which he advanced made it obvious he hadn't so much as sniffed the sleeping potion the guards had been given-

To Oblivion with carefully locating the nearest beacon. I just tossed a rope out and yanked.

This teleport was even rougher than the previous one. My stomach lurched when I rematerialised with a jerk, stone floor shifting to-

To-

To...

Why was someone screaming?

I looked down.

It looked as if I'd been a bit hasty in deciding that teleporting would be a safer option than staying where I was. In fact, I found myself wishing desperately I'd decided to stick around. I'd probably have ended up in the cell with Varvur, but cells are nice, safe places. In particular, they have floors. Floors, I thought, were a decidedly undervalued commodity. Ground in general, in fact. True, the ground here seemed eager to reunite with us, was in fact approaching with remarkable speed, but we were far enough away that we were going to be bereft of it for some time all the same. I for one wasn't looking forward to the reunion.

Pain. Fingers digging into my wrist. I'd taken Varvur with me, and he'd finally managed to stop screaming.

"Do something!" He didn't sound very happy about this turn of events. I couldn't blame him.

"Like what?" I yelled. Ooh, those tiny dots down below were trees.

"You're a mage! Cast a spell!"

I pondered my repertoire. Illusion, detection, waterwalking, firebite... no, not exactly useful in this situation. The teleport - even aside from the fact that the way things were going we'd probably end up three miles under ground next, I wasn't sure if teleports reduced velocity. Ending up flat as a pancake at a Temple was if anything an even worse option, since at least this way our afterlife wouldn't be haunted by gods angry at us for getting bits of ourselves all over their holy place. Shield spell? Doubtful. I didn't think a spell made for keeping off the rain would help us survive a fall from this height, unless the weather here was a lot stranger than anyone had told me.

"I don't know any that would help!"

Varvur stared at me. "Seriously? I thought all you mages could levitate!"

"Well, I'm not a ma-" Levitation... wait a minute, what did that remind me of...

Those trees were looking bigger and bigger.

Levitation, of the Alteration school, closely related to the Slowfall effe-

The amulet!

I reached under my shirt with my free hand, ignored Varvur's eyes bugging out, grabbed the amulet and concentrated-

Our fall slowed to a gentle descent, as though the two of us weighed as much as a feather.

"What was that?" Varvur asked. Now that I wasn't distracted by our imminent death via being scattered across the landscape, I noticed there was sweat trickling down his face and his breath was coming in fast pants. All things considered, I doubted I looked much better.

"Slowfall enchantment," I answered him, carefully drawing the amulet out of my shirt. My eyes were drawn back down again, and I winced as I realised that the ground was still a rather disquietening distance away. I must admit, shameful as it is, that ground is one thing where I am extremely conservative and not inclined to new experiences. Not for me aerial explorations, I am one of the ground-loving people who wants firm earth under her feet as much as possible. Although at the moment I didn't feel inclined to be fussy - I'd be ecstatic with a tree branch, a net, a circus highwire, anything oh Nine anything-

"That's. Handy." From the looks of it - in particular the looks he was shooting in a general downwards direction - Varvur was just as attached to the idea of ground, for the standing upon, as I was.

"Lucky. I only got it today and was planning to sell it." Past tense. Now, I was ready to swear by Zenithar never to let this amulet out of my sight. I wouldn't have traded it for Azura's Star. People might laugh at me but, I ask you, what use is Azura's Star when you're several rapidly-decreasing miles in midair?

"That's the kind of luck I think we could both use more of. Um..." Varvur paused and licked his lips. "I don't suppose you know how long the enchantment lasts?"

We stared at each other.

Of course, most likely due to the universe wanting to prove yet again that it really did have a sense of irony, that was when we started falling again.

A few seconds later, I managed to get enough of my mind off of our once again rapidly approaching horrible death that I could muster the concentration necessary for the amulet, leaving us drifting once more.

"Right," I said once my teeth had stopped chattering. "So I just have to call up the enchantment as soon as it wears off until we reach the ground... or. Wait." I didn't exactly have much in the way of experience with enchanted objects, but one of the few things I did remember was jumping up and down screaming for attention.

And Varvur was shaking his head too. "How many charges does that thing have?"

I focused on the amulet for a moment, in particular the energy emanating from it. Energy which was definitely reduced compared to earlier. "Maybe... three more? Or four?" I hazarded.

"Not enough to get us all the way down. So you're just going to have to let us fall most of the way," Varvur said.

I stared down at the trees far below. "Right. I'll... get right on that."

As if on cue, the enchantment wore off.


 

The sight that would have greeted any passing bird or levitating mage that evening was unique, and quite possibly amusing if observed from a secure vantage point. Two Dunmer - one in plain robes clutching an expensive amulet, one in velvets and heavy chains - hovering among the treetops, clinging to each other and arguing loudly.

"Too early! Again!"

I glared at Varvur. "This isn't easy, you know! Would you rather it be too late? Besides, we're almost all the way down and I've still got a charge left. Maybe two."

"Don't you think 'maybe' is a bad word to be using in this context?"

"Look, if you're so intent on criticising me, you can take the amulet and give it a try!"

"You may have not considered this, but I don't think fooling around with the only thing holding us up right now is a good ide- watch out for that tree!"

At that point things happened very quickly.

The enchantment wore off. I was staring downwards, readying myself to call on it again, when my arm exploded in pain and the amulet fell out of my nerveless fingers.

Oh crap-

Ow, ow, ow, ow, ow!

A few moments later found me lying on the ground - and oh, I would never take that for granted again - staring up into the trees. One tree in particular, one whose branches bore the marks of our rather violent passing.

"I am never taking ground for granted again," I said out loud. It bore repeating.

"Agreed," came a voice from next to me. Apparently Varvur had survived our fall. Now I only needed to work out whether I had. "Honestly, I'm not sure whether to thank you for rescuing me or strangle you for almost getting me killed."

And just when I'd figured out - with relief - that I was still alive I found myself in mortal danger. Again. This was becoming strangely routine. "Now, I know this may sound very unexpected but I vote for the option without grievous bodily harm?" True, I thought he was being hyperbolic, but after the day I'd had I figured one couldn't be too careful. "And besides, if it weren't for you I wouldn't be in this situation myself so if anyone ought to be pondering murder here..."

"Well, I suppose I did come away with only minor injuries in the end, so I can't hold too much of a grudge." Out of the corner of my eye, I saw that Varvur had managed to sit up, although it had involved quite a bit of wincing and even more complicated maneuvering to make up for the fact that he was still in chains. "Are you all right?"

"I think so- wait." I noticed something in my first attempt to sit up. "Ooh, that's funny, I didn't know arms could bend that way."

"I think that's because they're not meant to." Varvur waddled closer. I'd say the reason I didn't laugh was out of courtesy, but since that was when the pain hit I suddenly had other things to worry about. "Yes, definitely broken. At least it wasn't your leg, since we need to walk out of here." He gave a rueful glance downwards. "Or hop."

I glanced at his chains, then realised that I still had Allding's lockpicks in my other, still useable hand. I'd been holding them before we teleported, and was now clutching them so tightly the indentations would probably still be visible two weeks from now. "I think I can do something about that..."

Thankfully for both of us, the tree had been so kind as to only break my right arm - that's courteous plant life for you. Picking a lock one-handed was something I'd spent some time practicing, but doing so with inferior, unfamiliar tools while trying to ignore a broken arm was difficult enough; if I'd had to do it without my dominant hand we might have been stuck there until we both starved to death.

Varvur watched me with bemusement. "Interesting. I didn't think mages went in for that sort of thing. But I suppose you were burgling the Archmaster's manor." He sounded disapproving.

"Look," I snapped, "I'm not a mage. Or a thief. Well, I was one once - a thief, that is, not a mage, but I'm retired now in any case, and I suppose you could say I'm sort of a mage but still -" Varvur was looking confused. I decided to simplify things. "I wasn't burgling anything, all right? I was an innocent bystander in all of this!"

"Really." The voice was dry enough to turn a swamp to desert. "Then what were you doing in the Archmaster's manor, muthsera not-a-thief?"

"First of all, my name is Adryn, so you can stop with the nickname." The chains on Varvur's ankles fell to the ground with a thud. "And - give me your wrists - it was a teleportation accident."

"You know," Varvur said reflectively as I started on his manacles, "if you'd asked me recently I would have told you that wasn't possible. Very recently, in fact. Up until... oh... ten minutes ago."

"That's me." I accidentally jostled my right arm and had to pause, gritting my teeth against a wave of pain. "Stretching the bounds of mortal achievement in ways we could definitely have done without." Click. There, that was the manacles. Now the only thing left was the bracer on his left forearm. It wasn't hindering him, true, but I recognised it - and more importantly, I could feel the tugging at my magicka just by holding my hand near it. It was a magicka-draining device, and if Varvur happened to know any useful spells (like, oh, to pick one entirely at random - healing spells) I wanted him free to cast them.

"By the way," I said as I wiggled the first pick, "who was that, anyway? You said something about the 'Archmaster'?" Ordinarily, I'd prefer to work without distractions, but Varvur was still looking disapproving about my less-than-legal past and I suspected that if I didn't find another topic of conversation we'd end up arguing about my career choices.

"Who was..." A pause. "You were burgling the manor of Bolvyn Venim, the Archmaster of House Redoran himself, without even knowing who it belonged to?"

"For the last time, I wasn't burgling-!" I cut myself off. I could see that this wasn't going to get me anywhere, and besides, the other part of that sounded rather ominous. "Um. I take it he's important, then?"

"'Take it he's important'?" I could actually hear Varvur's jaw drop. I looked up from my work to shoot him a glare, one which he rudely ignored. "He's the head of House Redoran on Vvardenfell! Lord of Ald'ruhn! Probably the most powerful man on the island after Archcanon Saryoni and Duke Dren!"

My heart sank with the approximate force and velocity of a Dunmer, bereft of Slowfall spells, dropping from three miles in midair (a comparison I had to say I felt uniquely able to make). "Thanks. That's, that's perfect. That's just what I was hoping to hear." I poked angrily at the lock. Not only were the pain and pulling sensation at my magicka making it hard to concentrate, but it was being recalcitrant. I dimly remembered that prisoners' bracers are said to be very difficult to pick, but I'd be damned if I got bested by a piece of metal. "I mean, I definitely wanted to make an enemy of one of the most powerful men here less than a week after I arrived. And I certainly wanted to do it in a way that left him able to identify me. My life didn't have enough excitement in it, you see."

Varvur, who'd been watching my actions with a steadily growing scowl - I wasn't sure whether it was my rubbing my criminal past in his face or the trouble I was having with the lock, but was readying a cutting retort for either case - snorted. "Don't you think you're being a bit paranoid?"

My jerk handily undid everything I'd managed so far and almost broke both picks as an encore. "Paranoid? Are you serious?" Wait, hadn't he said something about his father being... "Is this one of those nobility out-of-touch-with-reality things? I have no idea what you're used to but I assure you, for normal people like me, being worried about the reaction a man like that has to being crossed is-"

Varvur looked as if he were about to take offense to the 'normal people' comment but let it go in the end. "No, I mean that he seems to be under the impression that you're some sort of Telvanni mercenary." I looked blank. He heaved a long-suffering sigh. "Didn't you hear him? He said something like... 'I didn't think even Athyn would stoop so low as to consort with the Telvanni, but of course he insists on surprising me.'"

I thought back to the encounter. Come to think of it, some of those Dunmeris phrases had been a bit long for the equivalent of "Guards, arrest her". I'd just thought he was getting creative with his orders - perhaps something along the lines of "Guards, arrest this filthy spy and take her to the dungeons with the thumbscrews and pot of hot oil", although I had to admit I'd been holding out for the rather unlikely "Guards, take this completely innocent bystander and escort her to the exit, where you should let her go with a polite farewell and a few drakes for her trouble." In any case, I hadn't expected it to be anything like Varvur's translation.

It might be a good idea to look into learning the language. Were there classes?

From the corner of my eye, I noticed Varvur was now peering at me. "You do look rather Telvanni, come to think of it. The hair, and then you wearing mage robes... I mean, it's obvious that you're an outlander, but the Archmaster only saw you from a distance and didn't hear you speak. I guess I can see how he might make that mistake."

"Right. Lovely." I nudged one pick to the side slightly. Almost there... "I'm sure knowing he thinks I'm Telvanni will be useful, especially if I figure out what one is."

"Oh, of course, you're an outlander. Telvanni are another House, based on the east coast, mostly mages. They... well, they're Telvanni. I mean..."

Varvur trailed off, clearly stumped as to how to explain in what way exactly Telvanni were Telvanni. I didn't mind much, because I'd learned the most important thing - namely, that with the confusion about my identity I was unlikely to end up with an angry Venim chasing me down to be a change from his usual diet of noblemen and snow bears. Also, Varvur's silence gave me a moment to focus on-

There! A last tumbler hiding at the back - twist the pick like so-

The bracer fell to the ground. Varvur sighed in relief, and I could see his face starting to regain some colour. I couldn't blame him. Just a few minutes in contact with that thing had been unpleasant, and I hadn't even worn it.

"Thank you," he said.

About time, if you asked me. Rescue someone at great personal risk, and they only bother to thank you after you've put off treating your own injuries to free them from their chains. Hostages these days, honestly.

I'd been expecting Varvur to want a few moments to catch his breath and recover, but he was already struggling to his feet. "Things aren't going to get any better if we sit around here," he said in response to my quizzical look. "We need to find our way to the nearest town, and I'd prefer to spend as little time as possible tramping around in the dark."

I glanced to the west, where the sun was dipping dangerously low, and had to admit he had a point.


 

A brief time later found us making our way through the wilderness. Apparently, while we'd been floating in midair and I'd been desperately trying to keep us from dying, Varvur had decided this was the perfect time to do some leisurely sightseeing. I couldn't be too bitter about it because it meant he'd spotted a road to the east. As a result, we had a better plan of action than my suggestion of picking a direction at random.

I ducked under a branch Varvur was holding up for me. Given that it was hardly his fault I'd blundered into where he'd been being held hostage, I'd been forcing myself not to be angry with him. It was rather difficult - pain makes me short-tempered at the best of times, and this was certainly not the best of times - but I persevered. It helped that I knew he'd probably been having about as bad a day as me.

Varvur was also helping through being surprisingly congenial. Not only had he taken my pack (which I had been extremely relieved to find had survived totally unscathed - I suspected a broken arm would be the least of my worries if Chronicles of Nchuleft got damaged), but he'd even turned out to have a little knowledge of healing: he'd set my arm, fashioned a makeshift splint and sling for my arm using branches and strips torn from his shirt, and tried his best with a healing spell he knew once his magicka had recovered. It was only a minor one meant for bruises, but it did take the edge of the pain off.

Sadly, this meant most of the pain was entirely untouched.

"-where we are," the three words coming from in front of me managed to penetrate my mental haze.

Oh. Varvur was talking. Talking meant distraction, meant not thinking about the agony emanating from my arm. Talking was good. "Sorry, what did you say?"

"I said, I wish I knew where we are," Varvur repeated. "Not wet enough for the Bitter Coast and I don't smell the sea, I'd guess somewhere in the West Gash or maybe inland of the Ascadian Isles, near Lake Amaya-"

I'd been sufficiently distracted from my surroundings that the only thing I'd registered was "it's green and there are arm-breaking trees that hate me." I looked around.

We were walking among craggy hills dotted with low, scrubby bushes and the occasional copse of broad-leafed trees. The landscape was rocky and the vegetation generally sparse - I thought we might be in the rain shadow of the mountain, although I supposed the cause could also be poor soil. Still, there were a few plants I thought might be alchemically interesting. That bush over there, for one, or that tall plant with the big yellow-orange trumpet-shaped blossom and sharp-edged leaves.

"Not near Lake Amaya," I said. I'd only been there once but I had picked up something of the area. "The flora's all wrong and there aren't any giant mushrooms masquerading as trees. It looks more like the landscape near Balmora."

Varvur looked as if he were going to argue that, then paused for a moment and just nodded. Maybe I wasn't the only one keeping a tight rein on their temper. "West Gash, then. Sadly, that means we could be anywhere between Khuul and the Odai Plateau. And most likely nowhere near Ald'ruhn."

For a moment I thought longingly of the enchanted map that had come into my possession, the map that could tell us exactly where we were for just a trickle of magicka. The map I'd left at the guild that morning, thinking I wouldn't need it for a quick sight-seeing jaunt to another city...

Wait a minute. What had Varvur just said?

"We were in Ald'ruhn?" I didn't exactly know this island very well, but I did remember talking with Selvil about the Balmora silt strider schedule and destinations. "Isn't that north of Balmora?"

Varvur stared at me as if I'd grown a second head. "Yes, we were. And it is. Where on Nirn did you think we were?"

"Well... I was shopping in Vivec when I cast the spell. I managed to figure out I hadn't made it to their Temple or in fact any Temple, but..."

Now Varvur stared at me as if I'd grown a third head and my mutant self was arguing with herself and blundering into trees. "You got to Venim's manor with an Almsivi Intervention spell from Vivec?"

I couldn't help but feel defensive. Yes, I'd managed to figure out that I'd screwed up this spell in a spectacular and unprecedented way, and twice in a row to boot. No need to rub it in. "In my defense, I was being attacked by a murderer at the time, so I didn't exactly have time to concentrate!"

"But even if you weren't concentrating, it's not meant to-" Varvur paused. "Murderer?"

I shuddered at the memory. The woman, the dagger gleaming with malicious magicka, her blank eyes... I wasn't used to people trying to kill me just because I was there. I prefer my murder attempts more personal, thank you very much. If someone chases you through half the city screaming about how they'll wring your filthy dark elven neck for stealing their- for accidentally having their purse fall into your pocket in a mishap that could really happen to anyone, then at least you know that they're objecting to your continued existence on an individual basis.

Oh. Varvur was waiting for an explanation.

"Yes, murderer. I was having a... polite discussion about hospitality with an Ordinator when this woman with an enchanted dagger stabbed him from behind, cut his throat and then tried to get me." I firmly shoved the remembered panic down. I could have a nervous breakdown about all of this once I was somewhere safe and - oh yes - no longer had a broken arm.

Ow.

"Right, I remember hearing about this from a trader. They say there's been a rash of murders in Vivec - mainly outlanders. I don't remember them saying anything about surviving witnesses, though." Varvur sounded thoughtful.

"You mean... you mean I might be the only person who can identify her?" The thought made me cringe.

Of course, it would be good to help end her sleepmurdering serial killer ways. All arguments about altruism and service to the community aside (really, please set them aside), I'd rather like to be able to visit Vivec again one day without fearing for my life, something that wasn't going to happen as long as she was running around. However, I was worried that being the sole witness to a murder would require me to spend far longer with law enforcement than I liked. And that was without factoring in that Vivec law enforcement apparently consisted of Master Grumpy's colleagues.

"Say, have you ever considered getting yourself checked at a Temple?"

I was jerked out of nightmare scenarios in which Ordinators featured prominently by Varvur's voice. Varvur's voice asking an exceptionally stupid question, at that, and at the moment my tolerance for stupidity was a lot lower than usual (which is, I admit, saying something.)

"Why, no," I said acidly. "I was thinking I'd just keep wandering around with a broken arm, I'm sure it'll magically heal itself overnight-"

"No, no - although speaking of which," Varvur stopped walking and turned to face me, "I have enough magicka to use that spell again."

A few minutes, a cast spell and some blessed pain relief later, Varvur continued. "What I meant was getting yourself checked for curses."

"Curses?" Maybe it was the day I'd had, but I wasn't quite following.

Varvur nodded, then started walking again. In usual circumstances, I'd probably be swearing at my aching legs at this point, but this is one of the dubious upsides to broken bones - it makes all the usual aches and pains next to unnoticeable in comparison! "It happened to Unc- um, House Father Arobar, one of the other Redoran Councilors. He told me about it when I was younger. Apparently there are curses that give you bad luck, you see. He had a week where everything seemed to go wrong. Finally he ended up attacked by a flock of cliff racers during an ash storm on the way to Maar Gan, and when he was in the Temple being healed the priest told him he'd been cursed."

I had to admit that was a very appealing thought. Appealing in the sense that if it was a curse, I could go to the Temple, get it removed and rest assured that these things would stop happening to me. Sadly, I suspected that this was actually a case of some gods (definitely several, one couldn't explain all this) with a grudge. Or possibly ones with an inventive and highly sadistic sense of humour. And-

A thought struck me and I groaned.

"What? It's not impossible, and-" Varvur seemed affronted to think I was casting doubt on his idea.

"No, no, it's just - I cannot believe that someone who's just been kidnapped and held hostage is saying they find my bad luck remarkable," I moaned. To distract myself from how unbelievable my misfortune had clearly become, I tried to think of a change of topic.

The universe, possibly feeling apologetic for what it had been putting me through, decided to take care of that for me.

"Hail and well met, travellers!"

My head whipped around and I stared in the direction of the strange voice. A split second later, I had my eyes firmly shut.

We'd been so engrossed in talking that neither of us had realised we were nearing the edge of the road Varvur had spotted. However, the Nord standing on the road had clearly noticed us. I might be a bit more detailed in my description of him, except that where I might usually notice hair colour or age I'd found my attention firmly drawn by the fact that he was utterly, unrepentantly, positively ostentatiously naked.

"Uh. Er." Judging by his incoherency, I suspected Varvur was equally bowled over by the sudden appearance of a Nord with nudist tendencies.

"Fine evening today, isn't it?" the Nord continued, apparently undeterred by our gaping.

"Ah. Yes. I. I. Suppose." And Varvur sounded as if he was going to keep up his best impression of a concussed cow for a while.

I opened my eyes into a squint in case the shocks of the day had caused us both to hallucinate (or perhaps another word would be more appropriate, since this wouldn't be "seeing things that aren't there" so much as the opposite...) Alas, the pale pinkish blob that greeted me before I shut my eyes again made clear I was hoping in vain.

"A mite chilly, maybe."

Okay, that was it.

"Have you ever considered," I said between clenched teeth, "that the reason you are finding it 'a mite chilly' might be because you are naked."

"Why, of course!" The man had the gall to sound surprised. "Forgive me - I nearly forgot, you see."

"Forgot. That you were naked." I had the strangest sensation of the universe spinning out of control around me. "Why. Are you. Naked."

"Well, friends, that is a story indeed-"

"Excuse me." Varvur seemed to have regained control of his tongue. "Good... good sir." Good garment-challenged sir, I corrected silently. "Before we continue this discussion, I would like to lend you my shirt."

"That's very kind of you, but-"

"Really. I insist." Varvur seemed to be surprisingly good at this diplomacy thing once he overcame shock; I suspected that if I hadn't just spent several hours defying death in new and creative ways with him I wouldn't even have noticed the edge of desperation to his voice.

"Ah, very well then-"

Rustling noises followed.

"Is it safe to look yet?" I hissed at Varvur.

"How do you expect me to know?" he hissed back.

I cracked one eye open suspiciously, then, relieved, opened the other. Now, this may appear slightly unusual - I must admit that ordinarily, the sight of a Nord in a red velvet loincloth would not be something I welcomed with anything other than screams of horror. This just goes to show one of those maxims of the universe -

Context really is everything.

"Thank you, friends!" the Nord boomed. "You have Hlormar Wine-Sot's gratitude."

"Don't mention it," I muttered. "Really."

"Indeed, tis good to know that all travellers are not as dishonourable and treacherous as that evil witch Sosia!" Hlormar continued.

"Witch?"

Hlormar's face fell into a frightful scowl. "Indeed. With her foul magics she stole my father's axe Cloudcleaver! Oh, and my other possessions," Hlormar added as if as an afterthought.

"Including your clothes, I assume."

Hlormar continued as though he hadn't heard me. "A precious heirloom for my family is Cloudcleaver! To have lost it to such treachery shames me and all my ancestors. I must retrieve it." At this point he paused, as if struck by a sudden thought. "Say, travellers, would you aid me? The witch cannot have gone far, and if we pursue her together she will surely quail in front of our superior forces."

I stared at the Nord, trying to work out how to diplomatically phrase my reaction to that suggestion (which could be summed up in words if one tried, but I really felt desperate screaming got the meaning across better). "Ah, that is of course a very... I mean, we would definitely help you but I'm afraid we're a bit-"

Varvur cleared his throat.


 

"Explain to me again," I said, glaring at Varvur, "exactly why we're doing this?"

"It's a matter of honour," was his rather unhelpful response.

Oh, wonderful. And I'd been hoping he was at least somewhat sensible. Maybe the sight of a naked or almost-naked Nord had similarly negative effects on the unprepared mind as helmets in all their varieties? (It would explain a great deal about Skyrim culture...). If so, I was luckily immune; even the sight of a loinclothed Nord walking some distance in front of me hadn't made me any more inclined towards getting violently involved in the business of strangers on account of 'honour'.

"Honour? We're stuck Hermaeus-Mora-knows-where with hardly more than the clothes on our back - less than that for some of us, in fact - it's going to be getting dark soon and we have no shelter in sight, my thrice-damned arm is broken, you just signed us up to go hunting a witch with our bare hands and a bare Nord and you're talking about honour?"

Varvur flushed. "I forgot about your arm."

"Lovely. How nice for you. I didn't." As a matter of fact my arm was throbbing, I imagined in protest at this entire absurd plan of action.

For the several dozenth time, I considered leaving the two fools to it and looking for civilisation on my own. Just as before, I decided that I was doomed and at least the witch would hopefully kill me quickly.

"Maybe if you just... stay back..." Varvur's voice trailed off.

"Brilliant idea, that. I'm certain you'll easily subdue her with your amazing unarmed prowess before she has the chance to turn us all into dust with lightning bolts. Or maybe you could just shock her into submission by asking Hlormar to whip off his loincloth again. Since you're bosom buddies now and all."

Varvur's shoulders fell. He looked so pathetically dejected that I might, possibly, have felt sorry for him if he hadn't been marching us towards certain mage-induced death. "Adryn, I asked him earlier and - we're north of Caldera. That's Redoran country, it's not so far from Ald'ruhn. I have a duty to the people here, you know? If there's some witch going around stealing people's- people's belongings-"

"You can say 'clothes'," I threw in. "It won't kill you."

"-well, I have to do something about that. Just letting her go on would be cowardly. Any Redoran would agree."

I had to give a moment of silent thanks that I wasn't a Redoran, because not going to attack a mage while unarmed and half-naked seemed to me to belong more in the realm of possessing a brain.

And speaking of possessing brains...

"Look, doesn't this seem a little... dubious to you?" I asked.

Varvur looked at me incomprehendingly. "Going to rid the countryside of a dangerous, magic-using bandit?"

I sighed. Sometimes you get tired of being the only person in your surroundings with the slightest drop of sense. "What I'm saying is, we've only got Hlormar's word for it that that's what happened. Does he honestly strike you as the kind of person whose word you ought to take without any further questions?"

We looked at Hlormar.

As if on cue, we heard a bellow of "Cursed witch! This is what I will do to your head when I catch you!" from up ahead, followed by a loud thunk and a groan of pain. "...I did not think the tree trunk would be quite so hard..."

"Point taken," Varvur said, then blinked. "Wait a moment, are you defending the witch where just a moment ago you were talking about how she'd certainly kill us?"

I gritted my teeth. "Unlike what sometimes feels like the majority of the population, I am capable of keeping several possibilities in my head at the same time. If the witch is dangerous, we're dead, so why on Nirn are we going along with this? If the witch isn't dangerous, Hlormar was lying to us and there's no reason to hurt her but he'll probably kill us if we side with her, so why on Nirn are we going along with this? The inescapable conclusion, you might realise at this point-"

"Of course, I hadn't thought of that." I perked up in hope, hope which was mercilessly crushed with Varvur's next sentence. (Brute.) "If the witch isn't dangerous, honour demands that we follow Hlormar to keep him from harming her."

I stared at him. "Excuse me. Are we actually speaking the same language? Because I say things, then you say things, but the logical connection between the two seems to have gone for a holida-"

"Oh, hello!" A feminine voice echoed from my left.

I turned my head to stare at the (supposedly) dreadfully dangerous witch we'd been hunting and had apparently managed to walk straight past.

I had to admit she didn't look very dangerous. She was an Imperial or Breton - her pale skin and dark brown hair meant she must be one of the two, but which was hard to tell from the distance - and I guessed her to be around thirty years old. She was wearing simple robes with patches and stains that were visible even from here and was just straightening from a crouch in front of a bush some distance from the path, holding a small knife in one hand and a bundle of leaves in the other. Now, appearances and the kinship for a fellow alchemist can be deceiving , so she obviously could still be lethal and about to kill us all... but I had to doubt it. The way she grinned at us and waved as she approached made me doubt it even more (along with her sense).

"I haven't seen anyone around for hours! My name is Sosia, I'm a healer trying to get to Ald'ruhn- are you sure you want to be running around half-naked like that?" That was directed at the shirtless Varvur. "You might catch something! Folvys at the Temple says that chills lower your resistance to diseases and- oh! Your arm!" She'd noticed my makeshift splint.

The next few seconds confirmed my earlier assertions that if the witch we were looking for was in any way dangerous we were dead, because both of us were too busy staring like stunned trout trying to keep up with the babble to stop Sosia as she marched into my personal space and splayed her fingers in a spell. Thankfully for both of us, she also confirmed my suspicions that she wasn't actually hostile in the slightest, as any dangerous witch who starts her fiendish attacks by healing her enemies is clearly too incompetent to deserve the title.

"Mara, thank you," I moaned as a blessed coolness settled over my arm and the everpresent stabbing pain died away.

"Now, there's only so much I can do right now, so make sure to keep that arm in a sling for a while longer," Sosia admonished. "Breaks heal best when you use small spells several times a day - I'd say morning, noon and evening for at least three days for that break. Trying to heal it all at once with a major spell can result in weaknesses in the bone that lead to quicker and worse fractures later on, so it's best avoided."

I blinked at the stream of information, but one thing jumped out at me. "Will potions do as well for the frequent healing?"

Sosia frowned. "In a pinch, I guess, but it's really best to use spells. They can be localized more easily, and-"

"WITCH!"

Apparently Hlormar had noticed Sosia, who squeaked at the sight of an enraged Nord in a red velvet loincloth storming towards her. I groaned. I'd hoped he'd just continue charging ahead ignoring everything behind him until he safely was out of sight.

"Foul deceiver and filthy thief! I shall crush your skull like a-"

"Wait, stop, I mean, can't we talk about this?" Sosia was backing away rapidly.

"I will not negotiate with evil witches!" Hlormar bellowed from a by now uncomfortably close distance. I pondered whether he was trying to burst our eardrums in lieu of proper weaponry.

"Stop this madness!" If he was, Varvur had decided to join him in it. "This woman is clearly not deserving of death, fiend, and if you continue to try to murder her I will stand against you!" He acted on his suicidally-chivalrous speech, one I suspected he'd stolen from a play, by stepping in front of Sosia and me - straight into Hlormar's path.

Hlormar stopped in apparent confusion for a moment, during which I hoped that this turn of events was too much for his walnut-sized brain to cope with and he'd freeze in confusion. Alas, he started moving forward again. "Traitor! I'll crush you with her!"

I shifted nervously from foot to foot as Hlormar squared off with Varvur. True, the way Varvur moved and the way he effortlessly dodged Hlormar's first punch spoke of a trained warrior, but he still looked like a starved child in front of Hlormar's broad frame. If one hit connected, he'd be finished. I was worried I was about to see murder done - in particular, Varvur's, then Sosia's, and finally my own, and with all due respect to altruism that last was one I particularly wanted to prevent - but there was nothing I could do.

Wait.

There was something I could do.

After all, it had been several days now since my encounter with the kagouti, and a certain core of power I'd exhausted then was once again burning brightly within me.

I almost groaned out loud. Falling unconscious is not my idea of a good time, and neither is the fatigue clinging to you afterwards. Well, let no one say I wasn't willing to sacrifice myself for the safety of all.

Varvur and Hlormar were circling now, eyes fixed on each other. Neither of them was paying me the slightest bit of attention. I should probably feel insulted at having been so thoroughly discounted as a threat, but had to admit they'd usually be right in their estimation. Besides, it made it laughably easy to make my way behind Hlormar without him noticing and breaking my neck (I feel the need to point out that I was willing to sacrifice myself in a figurative sense only!)

I focused and tapped Hlormar on the shoulder. He froze obligingly.

Then everything went black.


 

"I could have taken him," was the first thing I heard when I woke.

"Varvur, leave her be." Another voice, this. A woman's. "Are you awake now? This is the first time I've ever seen the Mooncalf's Collapse - my teacher, he said it was basically a severe case of magicka-induced exhaustion, but it's not as if you see many of those either and I'm not sure the energising spell I used was strong enough- er, can you hear me?"

I tried to say 'yes, unfortunately', but the only thing that came out of my throat was a groan. Apparently my vocal cords were on tea break. I didn't bother trying to open my eyes. Something about the way each eyelid felt like a Nord was sitting on it made me doubt any attempt would be successful.

I was lying on the ground, I noted fuzzily. Ground. A truly wonderful thing to be lying on - today was giving me a whole new appreciation for it. After our earlier separation, I thought it would be positively ungrateful of me to reduce this joyful reunion in any way. By, for instance, attempting to sit up.

"I'll take that as a 'not strong enough' on the energising spell," the voice said. "Just a moment."

Magicka washed over me in a refreshing flood.

I cracked open one eyelid. Two faces stared down at me. Varvur's face was set in a scowl, while Sosia was beaming. I wasn't entirely certain which I found more threatening.

"Any better?"

"Much." My vocal cords had apparently been spurred back to work by the spell, although judging by the creakiness of my voice there had been a fair bit of grumbling involved.

I grabbed the hand Sosia held down to me with my uninjured arm and used it to gingerly lever myself upright, silently promising the ground that we would be meeting again, at length, as soon as I could manage it. I did have to admit I might renege on that promise if someone offered me a bed.

A quick glance around showed that we seemed to have lost one angry Nord - something I wasn't planning to shed any tears over - and gained one large battleaxe that glimmered with enchantment. Varvur had it tucked into his belt, and the scowl on his face looked just as deep from a vertical position.

"I could have taken him!" he repeated.

"Eh?" My brain was still getting back up to speed.

"The Nord. He had no training in hand-to-hand at all, he was used to winning by being bigger than everyone else. He was slow, obvious, and really wasn't paying attention to his footwork. I was about to-"

I blinked as he continued. I wasn't sure if the things Varvur was saying were actually Tamrielic; I'd certainly never heard of things like an 'outer leg reap' or 'Baranat's wheel' before.

Eventually, Varvur noticed Sosia and me staring blankly and cut off his speech mid-sentence. His scowl deepened. I considered telling him that his face might stick like that, but decided it was unlikely to improve the situation. "I had him! You didn't need to interfere!"

Wait a minute. I couldn't possibly be understanding this correctly.

"You're angry with me for saving all our lives?" I asked blankly.

Judging by his expression, I'd just poured oil on the fire. "I'm not angry with you for saving your lives - our lives were never in danger, because I had him! I'm furious with some, some coward who interferes in an honourable duel, using magic, from behind-"

That-

I-

I'd had a really terrible day, and a not insignificant portion of that could be laid directly at this fool's feet, and now he-

All right. That was it.

"Honour? You mean I should have just sat there and waited to see which one of you won in order to satisfy your honour? No thank you. I happen to have this strange thing called 'sense', you see, and I find that vastly preferable to being a muscle-bound idiot with lichen growing where their brain should be who thinks they can solve all their problems by punching them - oh, I'm sorry, to being honourable." I tried to pile as much disdain into that last word as I could so Varvur would catch it, seeing as thinking obviously wasn't one of his strong points.

Varvur swelled in a manner vaguely reminiscent of a bullfrog - I wondered if there was some relation. His mouth opened and shut, but the only sound he made was a strange, wordless croaking noise (more evidence for a possible amphibian heritage!) By his side, his hands clenched into fists, lifted-

"What, now you want to attack me?" I asked, incredulous. A tiny voice in the back of my mind mentioned that this was where I should probably back down. It was smothered by rage. "All that spouting off about honour, and now you're going to hit a girl who's unarmed, untrained, recovering from severe exhaustion, and has a broken arm? What are you planning to do next, beat up a nine-year-old?"

Varvur lowered his fists, face going an unhealthy-looking shade of purple. The spotted violet Glenumbran marsh toad, perhaps? "Well- well-" he sputtered, "well, if you hadn't bungled that Intervention spell we wouldn't even be in this situation!"

I could hardly believe my ears. "Are you actually complaining? You? The kidnap victim? Please note that however we got here, you are now outside," I gestured at our surroundings, "on the ground, no longer in chains, free to go where you like. If it weren't for me you'd still be in that cell! If anything you should be thanking me on bended-"

"Er, excuse me? Varvur? Adryn?"

I realised with a twinge of guilt that I'd completely forgotten about Sosia. Judging by Varvur's expression, so had he.

"I'm sure you're both enjoying yourselves, but shouldn't we start moving before it gets dark? You can keep arguing once we're walking," she added, in the same tone I suspected she might promise a child some sweets.

Varvur and I glared at each other.

"Fine," we chorused.


 

Contrary to Sosia's expectations, Varvur and I didn't continue arguing once we were on the road. Instead, the silence between us was so thick you could have cut it with a knife, and I wouldn't have been at all surprised to see a miniature thundercloud pop into existence over one of our heads.

I suspected he was waiting for me to apologise for impugning his honour or something similarly ridiculous. Well, fine. I'd apologise to him right after he apologised to me for being an ungrateful lichen-brained thug with the manners of a donkey. And not just any donkey - a donkey who'd been brought up by wolves (or the donkey equivalent), one who made all the civilised donkeys bray in horror at his lack of manners. As this would most likely be a long wait, I talked to Sosia instead.

Apparently Varvur had struck some sort of deal with Hlormar after I had heroically sacrificed myself to incapitate him. By 'struck', of course, I mean 'told him how it was going to be without letting him get a word in edgewise', because Nine forbid Varvur attempt diplomacy - that would require listening to other people, we couldn't have that. And by 'deal', I mean some sort of absurd arrangement that only someone who'd through some bizarre twist of fate managed to get himself addicted to intelligence-draining potions- ahem, I mean a truly honourable person could have thought of. According to Sosia, it involved Varvur taking Cloudcleaver, then meeting Hlormar in Ald'ruhn in a week or so to see whether he'd 'changed his ways' and 'deserved' to have his family heirloom of sharp-edged death to witches returned (where witch meant woman who refused to share his bedroll, according to Sosia's version of that story). This instead of just knocking the man unconscious and stealing the cursed axe already like anyone in possession of even the tiniest amount of sense would do.

Furthermore, it seemed that while I was recovering from my heroic sacrifice, Varvur and Sosia had decided that it would be safest to stick together until we got back to Ald'ruhn. They then got carried away with their newfound power and also agreed that instead of making for Ald'ruhn and arriving in the middle of the night we should make for a nearby farmhouse down in the valley and ask for shelter. I, apparently, was an item on roughly the same level as Cloudcleaver or my books who did not need to be consulted. Why bother asking all of the people you're travelling with what they think, after all.

It was at around this point in time that Sosia's conversation deteriorated remarkably due to her having fits of giggles every time I spoke. I decided to leave her with Varvur as punishment and sped up my pace. I wanted to indulge in my sulk (I'd realised it was a sulk, but at this point I figured I'd earned one) with no mocking bystanders.

As a result, I was well ahead of the other two when I encountered the next Nord.

If you have ever been in King Thian's art collection (for instance, by passing through on an errand that had nothing whatsoever to do with the custom-designed magelights bracketed in solid gold a certain steward with a higher budget than was good for him had bought), you might have spotted a few pieces by Tilenu Neloren, an artist famous for her study of illusions both magical and otherwise. One of her works there is particularly striking - a painting of abstract shapes where you will find your eyes inexorably drawn to one particular point in the upper left corner. It really stuck in my memory, something that might be thanks to intellectual fascination, might be thanks to the fact that I'd been on lookout duty when I spotted it and the resulting narrow escape had been very narrow indeed.

Now, picture this: a hilly, rocky landscape at dusk, all subdued greens, greys and browns. Against this backdrop, pale pink stands out in front of you like a sore thumb. Your eyes automatically snap to focus on it. Then, involuntarily and with growing horror, they travel along a bare, muscular arm, over a hairy chest. From there (no) they find themselves drawn downwards (no!) despite your best efforts (noo!). Finally they stop, trapped like a fly in syrup by the sight of a glittering metal cap with furry earflaps held against- held in what I will simply refer to as a highly strategic place.

"Thank Kyne!" the Nord called out. "I've been waiting for hours for someone to pass by, almost lost hope. The name's Hisin Deep-Raed, as you can see I'm in need of a little assistance. Would you maybe have a- lass? Are you all right?"

I'd been mostly functioning on definitely-absolutely-no-doubt-about-it righteous anger since Sosia had woken me up from my collapse, and it had just run out. My legs folded underneath me. I sat down on the ground with a heavy thump.

"This isn't happening," I said blankly.

The Nord sounded concerned. He might look concerned, as well, but I still found my gaze transfixed by his... helmet. "Lass? I swear, all I was going to ask was if you might have a pair of trousers to lend me. And, er. Um. Er." A pause. "Perhaps a potion to cure diseases, if you have one. There was this, er, this witch, you see-"

"This isn't happening. I'm hallucinating. Or dreaming. Yes! Why didn't I figure it out earlier? All of this has been a bad dream. I'm going to wake up any moment now."

"Lass?" The fingers on the helm twitched, as though he was thinking of removing them and then thought better of it. "Are you travelling with anyone? I'm afraid I'm a bit... tied up right now..."

"Adryn? What are you- Oh. Er. Hello."

It seemed the figments of my imagination that were Sosia and Varvur had caught up with me. It also seemed my imagination and I needed to have a long, long talk.

"Ah, travellers! Well met, name's Hisin Deep-Raed - er, I think your companion is in need of some-"

"Good gods, man, what happened to your clothes?"

Of course this was a dream. Why hadn't I figured it out earlier? Who doesn't dream of falling?

"Well, y'see, that's a bit of a long story. It started with this witch..."

And the nudity! Why hadn't I clued in then?

"Is he your doing, Sosia?"

"What? No! I'm not the only female mage in the West Gash, you know."

To be fair, that had been a little atypical as nightmares go. Usually, those dreams involve me being naked - in particular, suddenly realising I was in front of a large crowd of people.

"Well, you're the only one I know with a penchant for stripping."

Me fully clothed but everyone around me naked, that was definitely a new one.

"-your enemies! I meant stripping your enemies!"

"...Nord, if you don't stop looking at me that way I may forget my healer's oaths."

Well, my nightmares had branched out. Apparently the dreams involving abject humiliation had decided to follow suit.

"Oh, you're a healer? Thank Kyne! I'd be forever grateful if you helped me out - you see, the witch gave me this, ah, disease-"

"...well, I suppose it's my duty. I'll need to see the primary afflicted area."

There was a long, pregnant pause.

"Ah. I. Are you sure you can't manage without?"

Up until that point, I'd been blocking out the others like the buzzing of some particularly annoying insects. However, the last snatches of conversation managed to penetrate my wall of denial. My eyes - still fixed on a certain area just beneath Hisin's stomach - widened in horrified realisation, then (finally!) squeezed firmly shut.

The darkness was immensely comforting, and made it so much easier to shut away the sound of the other three's raised voices and focus on mentally gibbering. Really, I thought, it would be so nice to just stay like this until I woke up.

As I was going to do any second.

Any moment now.

I felt the increasingly-familiar rush of an energising spell settle around me, and cracked my eyes open.

Sosia's worried face peered back at me. "Adryn? Are you all right?"

"I'm having a nightmare," I informed her.

"Hmm. Hysterics. Perhaps not entirely surprising. A Calm spell, maybe-"

The suggestion cut through my mental fog like Cloudcleaver being wielded by an angry Nord. I bolted upright. "No! No, I- I'm fine! I'm perfectly fine!"

Sosia eyed me dubiously. With a deep breath and mournful acceptance of the fact that this was actually happening, I got myself under control.

"No, really. It was just a momentary lapse. I'm all better now. See?" I gave her a trembling smile. "You should save your magicka, you never know when you'll need it."

Sosia gave me another long, critical look, then shrugged. "Well, if you're sure..."

I opted to take myself out of the danger zone by wandering over to where Varvur and Hisin were conversing. Hisin's posture was far more relaxed than before. A brief glance told me that his helmet was still (again?) serving as a makeshift codpiece, at which point I forced myself to avert my gaze.

"So." Varvur sounded wary. "You say there was a witch involved. Are you going to ask us to hunt her down for you? To recover a family heirloom, perhaps?"

"What? No, I'm well shot of her. And I've still got my heirloom, 's the only thing she left me, see? Although honestly, I'll gladly trade it to you for a pair of trousers-"

"No! Er, that won't be necessary. I wouldn't... I wouldn't dream of depriving a man of his family heirloom," Varvur said, shifting as though to try and hide the enormous battleaxe he was carrying behind his back. "I'd give you some trousers anyway, but I'm afraid I only have this pair and, er..."

We all duly pondered Varvur's suggestion.

"I don't think that would improve the situation," Sosia said delicately from behind me.

"Well, I wouldn't object if one of the ladies were to lend me their shirt instead," Hisin said with a leer in her direction. He wilted under the combined power of all three of our glares.

Then Varvur brightened. He looked as if he'd had an idea. I wondered whether I should be worried. "Adryn? Are you wearing anything under that robe?"

I started upright, fury rekindled. "Excuse me! What kind of a question is that!"

Varvur's eyes widened, apparently only now realising what that had sounded like. "I didn't mean- I only meant- if you could lend him your robe without, er-"

"You just accused me of being a flasher!"

"No, I only-"

"Look, just because I don't buy into your ridiculous notions of honour doesn't mean you get to assume-"

Varvur looked as if he was about to try apologising again. Then his eyes narrowed. "What do you mean, ridiculous notions of-"

"Two drakes on the lass!"

Apparently our glares weren't as potent without Sosia, as Hisin weathered them undaunted. "What? You're expecting me to bet against a redhead in an argument? Oh - I'm not planning to stiff anyone, promise, I keep some emergency money in my-"

"Don't you all think we should be moving on?" Sosia interrupted hastily. I shot her a look of deep gratitude. I for one had not wanted to hear the end of that sentence.

After some negotiation, poisonous glances shot between Varvur and myself, and careful maneuverings involving my splinted arm which culminated in a disappointed look from Hisin when I proved to everyone that I was, in fact, perfectly decently attired under my robe, Sosia got her wish. Our - well, the addition of Hisin probably qualified it as a party - trudged along towards the farmhouse. This time, I stuck to the rear... although I did hope we'd make it with no further interruptions.

I mean, really. How many naked Nords can one island even hold?


 

The owner of the farmhouse, it turned out, was also a Nord. He managed to avoid the fate of being naked, however, by means of that marvelous invention known as clothes. He wore long trousers tucked into calf-high boots. A thigh-length tunic over a long-sleeved shirt. Even a kerchief around his neck! The only skin you could see was his hands and face!

Sjorvar - as he introduced himself - was only briefly taken aback by the troop of mostly underdressed people turning up on his doorstep asking for shelter. He also asked remarkably few questions about how we'd gotten there. Of course, given his glance at Hisin (who'd turned my poor, innocent robe into something that bore an unfortunate resemblance to a diaper), maybe he just didn't want to know. I couldn't blame him.

The house was really more of a shack, with only one room. To mine and Sosia's eternal gratitude, Sjorvar rigged some extra blankets into a separate sleeping alcove for the two of us. To everyone's, he lent the men some of his spare clothing. By the time he brought out two fat loaves of bread and a large bowl of a greasy reddish cheeselike substance that he called 'scuttle', I was ready to swear myself into his service. He professed himself flattered but unable to take me up on my offer, did however accept the drakes Sosia pressed into his hand.

After dinner, Sjorvar took out a bottle of something which he called 'sujamma'. The others accepted his offer of a round of drinks happily. I declined on grounds not drinking alcohol (quite frankly, I accidentally poison myself enough in the course of alchemical investigation that I fail to see the appeal of doing so on purpose) and being relatively certain that if I had to spend much more time in Varvur's direct company somebody would end up maimed and chances were it would be me.

Instead, I withdrew to the bundle of blankets we'd decided were going to be mine. I was tired enough to sleep, but the throbbing of my arm and noise of the others would make that difficult... and frankly, the last thing I wanted to do was lie awake with nothing to do but think back on the events of the day. I was quite looking forward to never thinking about certain of those events again. For instance-

Yes, a little bedtime reading for purpose of distraction was definitely called for. Besides, if I was going to lug half a dozen books through the wilderness, I should at least get some benefit from it. I rummaged through my pack...

My fingers closed on the oiled leather wrapped around Chronicles of Nchuleft.

Well, Jobasha had said that I was welcome to read it before I brought it to Edwinna, provided I was careful. I hadn't been planning to take him up on that, but... here in Sjorvar's hut, far away from Vivec, the threat hanging over me seemed very distant and was eclipsed by the lure of a rare book I'd only have access to for a few days.

I settled into my makeshift bed and opened it to the first page.

It happened in Second Planting that Lord Ihlendam, on a journey in the Western Uplands, came to Nchuleft...

Chapter Text

The mer's face creased into a smile when he saw me at the door.

"My friend! It's good to see you - come in, come in!"

"You're unusually happy I'm here," I observed as I entered. "Let me guess, Anchard asked you to look over his records again?"

"I should probably be worried you know me so well," he said ruefully. "Then again, perhaps it's that you know Anchard and his minutely detailed reports with five times as many pages as anyone else would deem necessary, hm? I'm sure you remember - the ones he always insists are highly urgent, of vital importance, and too sensitive to be read by anyone other than you?"

"Strangely enough, I don't think I remember anything of the sort." I stripped off my left gauntlet. "Of course, this may be related to the fact that I seem to have blocked five years' worth of Council proceedings from my memory. The five years in which Anchard was responsible for records, in fact. I'm sure it's merely a coincidence."

My friend barked a laugh, pushing aside a stack of parchment covered in horribly, horribly familiar handwriting and rising in order to help me divest myself of the rest of my armour. Once I'd been freed of the final piece, he gave the pile of chitin we'd made a long look.

He frowned. "I don't see a weapon in there. You're not here unarmed, are you? We may not have seen any of Hoaga's raiding parties in the past seven years, but that's no reason to be careless. Besides, there are nix-hound packs about."

"No, no," I replied as I dragged up a chair. "Your new doorman insisted on taking my spear. He seemed to think I might try to stab you." I shrugged. "He also seemed surprised I wasn't ten feet tall and my diet didn't consist primarily of misbehaving Dwemer children. One more shock might have been lethal - I thought I'd better do what he said."

The other mer sighed. "I'll have a word with him. He's from one of the outlying outposts, you know, and the stories there are really getting out of hand. But first!" He reached for a bottle on a shelf. "Sujamma?"

"Dumac-"

"You know," Dumac's voice was airy, "if anyone ever tried to impersonate you with an illusion spell, I could find him out in a heartbeat by offering him alcohol. True, at this point there are undoubtedly a few... actually, numerous... let's be honest, a veritable multitude of people who could repeat your lecture on poisons, long-term effects and your general and total incomprehension of why anyone would willingly blunt their mental capacities word-for-word. But the face you pull, that's unmistakeable. I've never seen anyone reproduce it. I'm not entirely sure it's anatomically possible."

I'd really have liked to defend myself. Honestly. Alas, certain comments of Sul's I might have overheard indicated that in this particular argument, the truth had unfairly thrown its support behind Dumac. It did so quite frequently, in fact - I should take it to task for bias one of these days. However, until Truth and its cousin Facts decided to side with me a prudent retreat was probably in order. In lieu of answering, I busied myself getting two goblets from the sideboard.

"I take it you haven't changed your mind on the matter?" Dumac asked, already reaching for a second bottle. "Comberry juice it is. Pity, though, because if the news I've heard is correct a drink in celebration is called for - or perhaps a drink for the purpose of getting very, very drunk?"

"News?" I asked, before realising there was really only one thing he could be referring to. Still - messages travelled much faster now that we'd finally gotten the propylon chamber at Marandus set up, but I hadn't expected him to have heard already-

"Your upcoming nuptials? You know my assistants will be very disappointed if it turns out that's just rumour. Half of them have already laid bets on how long it will take her to kill you."

"Her to kill me?" I asked, plaintive. "Doesn't it usually go both ways? You'd think being a legendary hero would at least grant me equal probability."

"My friend," Dumac said, leaning forward, "when a legendary hero who is famous for looking for diplomatic solutions, who has been known to say that resorting to violence is the first step on the road to failure, marries Almalexia - Almalexia of the Erabenimsun, Almalexia the war-leader... no. No, it will definitely be her killing you."

"Well, I'm glad to know what I have to look forward to. I'd hate for something like that to be a surprise."

"Forewarned is forearmed - perhaps literally, in this case. I'll have to think of an appropriate wedding gift." Dumac paused, then raised his goblet. "But first, a toast! To Almalexia and -"



My eyes opened to darkness.

Although I was barely awake, the details of the dream were already fleeing my mind. There'd been a... a mer, I couldn't remember of which race. He'd been... pleased to see me. We'd talked about... what had we talked about?

It was no use, like trying to hold smoke - the harder I tried to grasp it, the more it slipped away between my fingers.

However. I'd had a dream. And although the details were gone, the feelings lingered. The mer - I'd been pleased to see him as well. I'd been relaxed, joking, happy. My lips were still curved in a smile.

I'd had a dream that had actually been good. My previous dreams had left me increasingly unsure as to whether that was even possible.

It was early, and without the jolt of waking up from a nightmare I'd be asleep again within minutes. However, before that happened, there was something I needed to tell my subconscious.

"Much better, thank you," I mumbled. "More like it please..."

 


 

"So this is Ald'ruhn? Somehow I was imagining it'd be more impressive."

This was, of course, an abject lie. I remembered how I'd thought the rounded buildings of Balmora looked organic when I first entered the city... oh, how ignorant I'd been. Architectural style aside, Balmorans used perfectly conventional building materials such as stone or wattle and daub. This was something I now realised showed a distinct lack of imagination in comparison to the people of Ald'ruhn, who'd apparently decided lack of wood meant they should make their buildings out of the discarded shells of some sort of crustaceans I guessed were some long-extinct ancestor of the silt strider. At least I hoped they were long-extinct, because it was obvious the species had shrunk quite a bit in the intervening years. The smallest shell I saw was the size of a small house (an easy comparison, since it happened to be one), the largest a jaw-dropping monstrosity that was probably as wide as one of the cantons of Vivec. The idea of stumbling across one of those in the wild... Suffice it to say that from a certain perspective, kagouti bore a remarkable resemblance to fluffy baby bunnies.

Overall, it meant that from a distance Ald'ruhn looked far more like some ancient graveyard of monsters in the middle of the ash wastes than a city, and I'd been hard-put not to goggle as we drew nearer and the scale of everything became more obvious. However, admitting I was impressed would make Varvur smug, and that was the last thing I wanted to do. The look on his face right now was ample revenge for his dig earlier about the habits of thieves - a dig he might claim had been entirely justified by my request earlier as to whether I might be able to take some samples of the lichen growing where his brain should be to see if it had any interesting alchemical properties, but that was a perfidious lie. After all, I had been solely defending myself after his malicious comment about-

It had been a long morning.

Quite frankly, the only part of said morning I thought worth remembering was the healing spell Sosia had taught me for my arm. (She'd called it "amply paid for in entertainment". I was certain I had no idea what she could possibly mean.)

Varvur shot me a glare and marched towards the gate. Apparently I wasn't the only one who'd rather forget the last five hours or so - and unlike me, Varvur hadn't even learned a new spell during the course of it. I fought the urge to inform him of this, possibly while sticking my tongue out at his back and going 'nyah nyah'. No, I told myself, I should be dignified and mature. Prove that I was the better mer here. Besides, in just a few minutes I'd never have to see Varvur again - surely I could manage that long.

Wait. Something was wrong.

The guards at the gate had stopped Varvur and taken him aside. Now the three of them seemed to be having an agitated discussion in Dunmeris, complete with animated gesturing on the part of the guards. Varvur, on the other hand, was shrinking in on himself, arms coming up to wrap around his chest as though to ward something off.

I looked at my companions to see whether either of them understood what was going on. Hisin looked about as confused as I felt, but Sosia was frowning.

Finally, Varvur broke away from the guards and made his way back to us, shoulders slumped.

"It's fine. You can go in," he said quietly, not meeting our eyes. He sounded defeated.

"Wait, what about you?" I was certain I'd heard the slighest of stresses on that 'you'.

"More to the point, what was that about you being a murderer?" Sosia's voice was as cold as Midwinter in Solitude. I looked at her askance - she'd been nothing but friendly and upbeat ever since we'd met. The scowl on her face now looked out of place enough I briefly pondered the possibility of impostors (if it can happen to the Emperor...).

Then what she'd said sunk in.

"Murderer?" I stared at Varvur with new eyes. Next to me, Hisin let out a growl.

"I'm not! I swear! It's..." Varvur sighed. "All right. I'll explain. Just," he glanced around. "Not here, all right? It's a long story."

We moved away from the gate until we were behind one of the towers, out of sight of the guards. Varvur leaned against the wall, looking hunted, while Sosia scowled at him with Hisin looming at her shoulder.

"So, wait," I was still trying to process this. "That cell I broke you out of-"

"Cell?"

I ignored Hisin. "You weren't a kidnapping victim at all, were you?"

"No, I was. Sorry, this gets complicated." Varvur ran a hand through his hair. "When I came- under suspicion, the Archmaster's guards grabbed me. For 'security', he called it. But it was obvious I was meant to be a hostage. My father is... an enemy, I guess you could say, of his. If he had me locked away, he could use me to force my father to stop opposing him in Council, introduce the legislation he wants, do his dirty work for him - all kinds of things, really. By dressing it up as guarding a dangerous murder suspect, he'd stay within the law so none of the guards would lift a finger... and with his political clout, it'd be easy to get a trial delayed indefinitely."

Varvur's shoulders slumped. "Nilos and Volene at the gate, they told me that they had orders to apprehend me and bring me back to Venim," he said quietly. "They're friends of mine and can see this isn't right, so they said they'd let me leave - but if I tried to enter the city they'd have no choice."

"That's all well and good," Sosia said. If Varvur's tale had softened her towards him at all, she didn't show it. "However, I have to admit I'm more interested in the murder suspect part of that story."

"They claim I- I murdered Bralen Carvaren. I wouldn't, I swear!" Varvur added hastily. "Bralen, he's my -" He swallowed. "Was my best friend. Our mothers are friends, we've- we knew each other from the cradle. We were going to join the forces at Marandus together in a few months-" He stopped and turned his head away, but not before I saw the glimmer of tears in his eyes. He was either really upset or a very good actor.

Again, Sosia didn't seem moved by his distress. "What is it you're not telling us?"

Varvur looked taken aback by the question. What he didn't look was confused.

All right, maybe he was a very good actor.

"A few days before Bralen d-" Varvur's voice grew unsteady and he broke off for a moment. "Before he- before, I'd started having these... blackouts. I'd lose track of time, I'd suddenly be somewhere and I couldn't remember where I'd got there or what I'd been doing. When they didn't stop... I was going to go see a healer for help. But then... then Bralen... and I, I wouldn't have killed him, I'd never have killed him! But," Varvur's voice fell to a whisper, "I can't remember what I was doing when he was..."

I gulped. That story was just a little too-

No, Adryn, wait and see what Sosia says. It was still possible Varvur was a very, very good actor, and she'd been much better at spotting dissembling than me so far.

Sosia sighed, the cold look fleeing her face to be replaced by weariness. "All right. I believe you."

"What, you do?" That was Hisin. "That story is so full of holes-"

Sosia's smile was dry and humourless. "I help out at the Temple, did I mention? And something we've been seeing more and more lately is something we've been calling the 'soul sickness'."

Wait, wasn't that...

"The strange dreams?" I asked. Varvur jerked as if someone had struck him.

Sosia shot me a surprised look. "Yes, that's how it starts off. Sometimes, it develops further into black-outs exactly like Varvur described. Witnesses to these often report the people affected acting strangely and doing things that are out of character. This would be the first case of outright murder I've heard of, but-"

No.

"Wait." You could see the blood drain from Varvur's face. "You mean I actually-"

No.

"You shouldn't blame yourself," Sosia advised kindly. "From what we've been able to tell, the effect is much like a Command spell."

Much like a Command spell-

The first thing I notice is a sharp metallic taste in my mouth, so intense it almost makes me retch. It seems to take forever until I recognise it as blood.

The sticky warmth I feel soaking into my shirt must be more blood, as well as the patches staining my trousers. Blood coats my fingers, blood drips from the dagger I'm clutching-

Dagger? Where did that come from?

Forget the dagger, where did all this
blood come from? What's going on?

What happened?

I think ba-

I can feel something terrible hidden in my memory of the last few hours, lurking in this room to ambush me, like a kraken laying in wait beneath the smooth surface of the sea. If I just stay right here and don't move, don't look, don't remember, I'll be safe. If I do anything else it'll get me, and if it does-

Don't think. Stand still. And, may any god that would take you have mercy - don't look.

Shouts, coming from outside. Someone pounding on the door. Glancing over is reflex, beyond the realm of conscious decision.

Halfway to the door, my eyes stop, transfixed. I-

I see-

Lying on the floor-


No!

Wrenching myself away from the past was difficult. It didn't want to let me go, clung to me with iron force and tried to drag me down. But I persevered, beating the memories back down again and again with grim determination until they finally stopped trying to claw their way into my mind.

When everything was safely pent up for the moment, I looked around to see what had been going on while I was - distracted.

The other three seemed not to have noticed anything amiss. Good. I had absolutely no intentions of explaining.

"Sorry there's not more I can do, lad," Hisin was saying. He sounded glum. "I won't mention you to the guards, promise."

"I'll ask at the Temple if there's anything we can do to help," Sosia said. "And- if you want me to get a message to your father?"

For a moment, Varvur's face lit up with hope. Then it faded again. "It's... it's probably best for me to avoid contacting him. I expect the Archmaster's spies are going to be watching him - knowing him, he'd take any message as proof that Father is aiding and abetting a fugitive. I couldn't bear it if I got him into trouble."

"What are you going to do now?"

"I-" It was clear from Varvur's expression that he had no idea.

"You could come to Balmora with me." I really hoped the way my voice shook wasn't as obvious to everyone else as it was to me. "I. I have this sudden, strange desire to walk there, you see."

Three pairs of eyes goggled at me.

"I mean," I ploughed on, "I don't think anyone's going to be looking for you there. Especially if this Venim really thinks I'm a Telvanni, or whatever that was. And I've got... some friends." Well, I had Ajira, but I figured she was worth several. "I'm sure we can figure out some way to prove that you were-" I swallowed hard. "Were, um. Controlled."

My audience looked as if they'd been hit by a paralysis spell. I was just wondering whether I'd somehow used my birthsign ability on them without noticing I was doing it or (for that matter) falling unconscious when Sosia moved... sadly, in a direction I could have done without.

I tried to dodge her, but Sosia managed to catch me in a hug despite my best efforts. "Why, Adryn!" She sounded delighted. "Such a generous offer to make, I knew you had it in you!"

Wait, was she accusing me of - I flinched at the word - altruism?

"No, I-"

Both my protest and my struggle to escape went unheeded, Sosia's arms tightening around me as she went on.

"I do commend you! Such selflessness and compassion - you might think about becoming a healer one day! I'm sure you and Varvur will do very well if you keep those things in mind."

"You've misun-" I tried to yank out of her hold.

Was this a Breton or a clinging octopus? It was getting hard to tell.

"Now, remember the spell I taught you. Like I told you, you can leave your arm out of the sling if you're careful but you absolutely must cast it morning and evening for at least two days, don't forget. But I really must be off - Varvur-"

Then I was released as the whirlwind that was Sosia accosted Varvur. I backed away, taking some amount of pleasure in the horrified expression on his face.

"Lass!"

I glared at Hisin. (Two syllables!)

Again, he was sadly undaunted. "A bit of advice as a farewell. Now, I know you're a redhead and all and these things are a mite tricky for you. All the same, maybe you'll get something useful out of the way Hisin here keeps his temper, hmm?"

I raised an eyebrow at the insinuation that I had a temper problem, something I felt was obviously untrue. Well, I supposed I could humour the delusional man for a little. "Oh?"

"See, anytime when I think I'm going to say something..." he coughed, "something that's maybe not entirely diplomatic, heat of the moment and all, I make myself count to ten in Aldmeris first."

I blinked. "But I don't know any Aldmeris."

"Excellent! Neither do I. That's why it works, see?" Hisin clapped me on the shoulder. By the time I recovered my balance enough to retaliate, he'd already retreated out of range.

And then they were gone.

There was a long moment of silence in which Varvur looked at me dubiously.

"Look, if you're counting on the bounty for turning me in-" he started.

Wait. This was his response to my very generous offer to help him out, purely out of the goodness of my heart?

I took several steps forward until I was standing right in front of him, wishing for once in my life that I was taller. Don't get me wrong, being on the short side has all sorts of advantages - ranging from far greater blanket coverage on cold nights to a much reduced chance of concussions from low doorframes. However, right now I couldn't help but think I'd be more intimidating if I came up higher than Varvur's chin.

I planted my hand on my hip, partially to help the intimidation factor but mostly to make sure it wouldn't end up in his face. I like to think that I'm not a violent person, but not slapping him was taking a lot of my willpower. "Tell me. When we were young, did I kick your dog? Break your favourite toy? Kidnap your teddy bear and hold it for ransom? All of these seem a little unlikely given that I grew up on the other side of Tamriel, but maybe I had some sort of freak teleportation accident in my sleep. I certainly don't know how else to explain why you're acting like this!"

"But..." Varvur seemed puzzled. "You laugh at the notion of honour, so if you're not hoping for a reward, then why... or is it that you're hoping for one from my father?"

Forget lichen, was there anything in his head? If I looked into his ear, would I see sunlight? "For your information," I said, biting off each word, "I just-"

The taste of blood in my mouth-

I licked my lips and tried again. "I think-"

Don't look-

"Nobody should ever be forced to kill their best friends." Each word felt as if it had actual weight when it fell from my lips, and when I'd finished speaking I felt dizzy and strangely adrift.

Don't remember-

Yes. Not remembering was definitely the way to go here.

"I'm sorry."

"Huh?" I stared at Varvur. I'd been a little- absorbed in my thoughts, so surely I hadn't heard that right. Had he just-

"I'm sorry," he repeated. Yes, he'd apologised. I cast a quick glance skywards to check for airborne farm animals.

"I- misjudged you, I think." Varvur seemed to find his shoes suddenly fascinating. "It- in my defense, it hasn't been the best few days, and the way we- Anyway. I... may have jumped to conclusions."

Well, there were no flying pigs in evidence, although I'd be interested to know the current temperature in the Deadlands. "Apology accepted," I said, then paused. Well, I could afford to be gracious. "I might not have been the most - um. Congenial person, either. Sorry about that."

"Yes, you really-" Varvur coughed. "I mean, right. Apology, um, accepted."

I could almost get used to Varvur like this. Besides, if I was really going to help him out it'd be best if we weren't at each other's throats constantly.

"Truce?" I asked, holding out my hand.

Varvur took it. "Truce," he agreed.

(It lasted ten minutes.)


The caravan master studied both of us critically.

"Travellers, you say? To Balmora? Hm. Hmm." He rubbed one of his tusks.

"We'd really appreciate it if we could travel with you that far." I smiled to underscore our image of harmless wanderers.

The whole thing was Varvur's fault.

First, he'd nixed my suggestion of heading to Caldera and taking the guild guide from there, explaining that it was more likely guards in an Imperial town were on the look-out for him than Hlaalu ones. Since he was a noble who'd lapped up politics with his mother's milk (in the fleeting moments of spare time he had when he wasn't busy being dropped on his head, no doubt) and I'd been in Morrowind for all of a week, I'd given way to his greater experience on the subject. Grudgingly.

Then he'd suggested banding together with any other travellers we found. I'd argued that this was not precisely a clever way for a wanted fugitive to behave. I'd been quite proud of that argument, thank you. It had been painstakingly assembled, custom-made for exactly this situation and no other, every word of it crafted with care. Alas, it had met utter, merciless defeat at the hands of Varvur's counter-argument - which, to add insult to injury, was crude, hastily thrown together with no craftsmanship or artistic feeling at all. It consisted of only two words: the wildlife.

Frankly, I could have done without the demonstration. We'd spent what felt like hours hiding in the mouth of a cave waiting for the reptilian flying things that seemed to consist entirely of sharp beak and ear-piercing screech to give up and leave. Varvur had called them 'cliff racers', a name I quite understood seeing as I'd rather race off a cliff than face them again. Varvur had also explained that they were usually harmless scavengers (I found this statement rather hard to believe), but sometimes banded together in flocks to take down live prey if times were lean. Apparently they weren't particularly discerning when it came to the size of said prey.

At any rate, the whole thing meant that when we crested a saddle between two hills to see a train of wagons drawn by funny-looking two-legged reptiles, I only put up token resistance when Varvur insisted on going down to see if they'd let us tag along.

"I'm... Tadril Saren," Varvur was saying now.

I tried not to react with obvious surprise and mentally vowed that the next chance I got, I would have a long discussion with Varvur about letting your compatriots in on your false name ahead of time. "Adryn," I offered.

The caravan master gave us a skeptical look. I hoped it was just the usual 'what, a Dunmer without a family name?' look instead of having noticed something off about 'Tadril''s introduction. "Greetings," he finally offered. "Shazgob gro-Luzgan. Out of Ebonheart."

"Well met," I responded. Gro-Luzgan didn't respond, but his expression made me suspect he wasn't ready to commit to the well part of that just yet. "Would you be willing to take us on? We can work to help the caravan." I probably also had enough money to buy passage, but would rather keep that as a last resort - I was getting quite worried about my lack of income. "I can-"

I was about to say something like 'lift boxes... small ones', except that Varvur decided this was the perfect time for a little revenge.

"Oh," he interrupted, "she's quite the mage. You wouldn't believe what she can do with a Mysticism spell."

His innocent expression was ruined by the smirk tugging at the corner of his mouth. I bit the inside of my cheek and considered my options for retribution.

"Well," I said, keeping my tone sweet, "he'll tell you himself he's capable of taking down a rampaging barbarian, unarmed. And that axe there is a family heirloom." Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Varvur shoot me a glare. I ignored it.

Gro-Luzgan was not looking much more confident in us, but we must have convinced him of something because he gave a nod. "All right. If that's so, you can come along. Now. I don't know or care about whatever it is you might be running from," I tried not to cringe too obviously, "but if you cause any trouble for anyone here, you're out. And just so you know..."

His voice grew cold. "If you're here thinking you can lure us into an ambush... I'd think again, I really would. We've tangled with bandits before. Since I'm the one standing here I think you can guess who won."

"I'd never!" Varvur protested, shocked. "Such a dishonourable betrayal would be unworthy of-"

I stepped on his foot. I suspected the end of that sentence ran along the lines of a true son of House Redoran, which would draw exactly the attention we were trying to avoid. "What he means is, we're honest folk," I said. My fixed smile was starting to make my cheeks hurt. "Wouldn't dream of betraying you like that."

Gro-Luzgan eyed us dubiously. "I guess we'll see about that. Now, our schedule has us in Balmora tomorrow evening. We'll be camping near Caldera tonight. I can lend you a bedroll and a tent if you'd like to share-"

Wait, did he think we-

Varvur and I stared at each other. Judging by the abject horror in his gaze, we were in perfect agreement for the first time since we'd met.

"No!"

"...right." Gro-Luzgan's eyebrows seemed to be making a bid for freedom. "In that case, I can lend you two bedrolls, and the lady can bunk down with Gelduin - one of our scouts. If you're so slick with Mysticism," I heaped a thousand curses on Varvur, "you can help her out during the day. We could use someone who knows their way around a detection spell, can keep an eye out for cliff racer flocks, nix-hound packs, kagouti in heat - the usual. And bandits, of course." The glance he gave us made me think he wasn't quite convinced we weren't part of that last group.

My knees grew weak with relief. I happened to be quite proud of my detection spells, thank you. "I can do that," I told him, and ignored Varvur's dubious glance with the grace and aplomb of someone perfectly secure in her skills, thank you very much.

"We'll see," was gro-Luzgan's only comment. "Gelduin's over there," he nodded in the direction of a leather-clad Bosmer sitting on the back of a wagon inspecting arrows. "Go tell her I sent you, she'll put you to work."

As I left, I heard him mutter, "I guess if worst comes to worst, they can provide for evening entertainment."


 

Gelduin was decidedly unimpressed to be saddled with me if her grumbling about 'rank amateurs' was anything to go by. Other bits of grumbling made me suspect that this little excursion was less about how to best utilise my magical abilities and more about keeping me firmly under the nose of someone gro-Luzgan trusted. I wasn't offended - I'd probably have been careful in his position, too.

She did thaw visibly when I demonstrated that I did, in fact, know how to move silently and take cover, even if I wasn't used to doing so in wilderness. It reached the point where she didn't even yell at me after having to yank me away to keep me from standing upwind of a kagouti.

"Sorry," I apologised after Gelduin used her native Bosmer magic to lure it away. "I'm not used to trying to avoid animals that can pick up on your scent."

Gelduin looked at me for a moment, then nodded, as though I'd just confirmed a suspicion of hers. "I see. My guess is you do a bit more avoiding animals that are clad in armour and call themselves 'guards'?"

"Um-" I kicked myself for being obvious.

"No worries," Gelduin said. "I've done a bit of that myself, back in the day. Left it all behind when I came to Vvardenfell, oh... is it already thirty years ago? Enough opportunities to earn my money in other ways here. But I grew up in Imperial City, the Waterfront. Only a few ways of making your living there, and I never did care for lying on my back and letting men paw at me."

I relaxed. Not only was she not outraged by my criminal past, but it sounded as if she was unlikely to have any current Guild contacts.

"That sounds familiar," I said. "I'm not from Imperial City, but I had... similar experiences. I joined the Mages' Guild in Balmora, never seemed to be an option before."

"Not a bad choice, I suppose - if you like guilds. I'm more of a loner myself, work as a scout and hunter. I actually spend most of my time in the east, sometimes around Azura's Coast but mostly in the Grazelands. Now that's the region to be!" Gelduin's eyes lit up. "Rolling hills of wickwheat shining gold in the sun, no settlements as far as the eye can see, Red Mountain towering over it all in the distance... I've never seen the famed forests of Valenwood, but I can't imagine how they'd compare. You do have to mind the Daedra, but that just makes it a interesting challenge."

"Mind the Daedra?" My voice came out as a squeak.

Gelduin shrugged, as if she didn't see anything wrong with the sentence she'd just uttered. "You run into one wandering there on occasion. Mostly scamps and the occasional Ogrim, but one time I saw a Golden Saint. Ended up hiding in an ancestral tomb until I was sure it had gone, because I'd much rather tangle with any number of ghosts and skeletons than one of those. Er, no offense intended," she added hastily.

I wondered what exactly she'd thought I'd take offense at. Did I look like a Golden Saint? Well, perhaps a little irrationality was to be expected from someone who thought dodging one was an 'interesting challenge'.

"I think I'll stick to the west coast," I commented. "That sounds like the kind of excitement I'd rather avoid."

Gelduin frowned at me.

"See, that's what you think," she said. "But you know what's on the west coast? Daedric ruins. There are a few in the east, but the terrain's flat enough that you can see 'em and avoid 'em. The west coast is infested with the things - and then the West Gash is so hilly, and the Bitter Coast has all those trees blocking clear view and the swamps mean buildings sink - you're wandering around thinking a kagouti's the most dangerous thing you can run into and next thing you know you're standing at the entrance to a shrine and have two Dremora, a clannfear and a fireball bearing on you." Gelduin rubbed her side, apparently remembering some old injury. "Give me the Grazelands any day. At least there you see them coming, and you'd have to be really unlucky to face more than one at a time."

"All right, I amend my previous statement," I announced. "I'm sticking to cities. You know, those mysterious places where you run into no rampaging Daedra at all."

I realised that I'd just left the perfect opening for her to ask what, exactly, I was doing in the middle of the wilderness in that case, and cast about hurriedly for a change of subject. "Why do you have Daedra roaming the Grazelands, anyway?" I'd heard of land-owners being tolerant of tenants of all races and backgrounds before, but allowing colonists from Oblivion seemed to be taking that a little too far to me.

Gelduin shrugged. "No one really knows, but the usual story is that it's some Telvanni experiment gone horribly wrong. Seems pretty likely - it definitely wouldn't be the strangest thing I've seen come out of one of those."

"...I see," I said. Varvur had been unable to quantify Telvanni beyond mages, east coast and the extremely helpful 'they're... they're Telvanni', but this was more informative.

Apparently Telvanni were those sorts of mages, the reason the Mages' Guild has strict rules every guild member is to follow hanging at every guild hall. I'd spent some time reading through them Fredas evening, and they were quite frankly enough to make you despair. It began with

1. All experimental spells are to be first tested on inanimate objects, then on summons or animals. Tests on people are only to proceed once these two have been successful. This includes self-tests!


The next few rules appeared to have been added to cover loopholes:

2. No spells are to be cast on others without informing them of the details and risks involved and getting their permission (in that order).

3. Creatures used for testing must be either owned/summoned by the mage in question or used with the owner/summoner's informed permission (see 2.)

 

My favourite example had been

10. Destruction spells are only to be practiced in the designated practice chamber on the dummies provided. In particular, under no circumstances should you use any of the following as a practice target: customers, fellow guild members, summoned Daedra, any potentially explosive material including but not limited to all potions, load-bearing pillars.


Trying to imagine what had prompted some of those details had left me boggling.

"Speaking of mages," Gelduin said, "You said you know some detection spells? If so, it'd be useful if you could keep watch for creatures. Atronach-born," she added as if to forestall any questions. "I can't throw my magicka around willy-nilly like you people."

I'd have liked to dispute 'willy-nilly', since it wasn't like I could just burn magicka in the way of an Altmer or even a Mage-born. Then again, it was probably true that I could afford to be more cavalier with it than someone who had to either drink potions or fling themselves in the way of hostile spells, praying all the while, to recover their reserves. I couldn't even imagine what that must be like, but even trying made me shudder - I'd take the Lover over that any day. In any case, a detection spell wasn't much of a drain.

I closed my eyes and stretched out with my awareness. When I'd reached a good range, I began the process of 'tuning' it. This always felt a little like sinking into some pool, trying to find the right depth to sense whatever I was searching for.

A beacon like a lighthouse to the north, more various distances away to the south and southeast - the teleportation points for the Temples, was my guess. Definitely not what I was looking for. Deeper.

A blaze of power on my chest, two more from Gelduin's bow and left hand along with pinpricks from her quiver, an impression of more in the distance which must be the caravan - all of them humming with magicka. Nothing else. Well, it was a relief to know we didn't have bandits with enchanted weapons hiding in ambush, but still not right. Deeper.

There!

Like surfacing from the depths into a starry night, I felt the whole world awash in life. Grass grew towards the sun, bushes stretched their roots into the earth, sap moved through the veins of gnarled trees. Beneath my feet earthworms dug tiny tunnels through the soil, just ahead a bee flew from flower to flower, three feet behind me a line of ants trundled back to their nest bearing scraps of leaves. Against this backdrop, Gelduin and I stood out like torches, the caravan a distant bonfire. And there- up ahead-

I opened my eyes, still holding the spell. That was always a strange sensation, integrating the information from both magical impressions and ordinary sight - like double vision without actually seeing anything differently. I blinked and shook my head a few times until I was used to it.

"There's something over there," I said, pointing. "Around, oh, two hundred feet away, behind the top of that hill. Not a person, an animal of some sort - I'm not sure what kind. But..."

I frowned. That was odd.

"It feels... strange."

The life force I sensed was pulsating strangely. It also felt oddly... obscured, the bright flame of life half-hidden by a strange shadow hanging around it like a dark haze. I'd never sensed anything like it before, but I thought the closest I'd come was a tree being slowly strangled by mistletoe.

Also, focusing on whatever it was was making me feel sick to my stomach. That was definitely a first.

"I think there's something wrong with it," I decided.

"Something wrong with it?" Gelduin repeated, puzzled. "How do you... well, I suppose it doesn't matter. Let's go have a look."

She vanished into the bushes. With a sigh, I followed her.

I relaxed and let the spell go when the creature came into view. It was one of the two-legged reptilian creatures I'd first seen pulling the caravan earlier. Gelduin had said they were 'guar', herbivores that were commonly domesticated as work animals as well as for their hide and meat. Numerous wild ones roamed Vvardenfell, and although they'd attack if they felt they needed to defend their herd they much preferred fleeing to fighting. We'd driven off a few earlier, undoubtedly Gelduin would do the same here-

There was a loud twang.

The arrow flew straight, slamming into the beast's left eye with the light and crackle of released magicka. The guar thrashed and let out a horrible high-pitched squeal that had me wincing and covering my ears - a sound cut short by the second arrow lodging in its throat. The guar reared up one last time, then collapsed with a gurgle.

I gulped. That noise- "Why did you kill it?"

Gelduin moved ahead carefully, a third arrow nocked. She stopped when she was still a good distance away from the beast. "Look," she said.

I moved forward to join her. For a moment, I didn't understand what she meant, then I saw it.

Unlike the other guar we'd seen, the skin of this one was an unhealthy-looking grey. The colour wasn't as obvious from a distance, however, because the skin was covered in weeping pustules and blisters - had even flaked off entirely in places. The exposed patches looked red and inflamed, and a few of them oozed yellow pus. There was pink foam around the corner of its mouth, reminding me of a rabid bear I'd had the misfortune to see once. A sickly sweet rotting smell filled the air.

I think there's something wrong with it, I'd said. I'd had no idea how right I was.

I swallowed back bile. "That's... what happened to it?"

Gelduin gave me an odd look. "You must be very new to Vvardenfell indeed. That's the Blight."

"Blight?" I repeated.

"It's a new kind of disease, only started showing up in the last five years or so. Affects animals and people, and it's terrible, absolutely terrible. Animals always become very aggressive, basically rabid... and surprisingly tenacious. I've seen a rat with Black-Heart still attacking with its spine almost severed and guts spilling out - if I hadn't used enchanted arrows, we might have had a fight on our hands with this one." She nodded at the dead guar. "People... well. The exact symptoms vary depending on which type it is, but they're always nasty. Worse, it's infectious and the usual Restoration magic for treating diseases doesn't work on it at all. When it first started showing up, people were worried we'd have another Thrassian plague on our hands. Honestly, I'm not entirely convinced yet we don't."

"You're serious." I stepped back, staring at the beast with entirely new eyes.

"Dead serious. Yakin Bael, the priest at the Temple in Vos - when the outbreaks started, he worked night and day to try to get them under control. In the end he finally managed to develop spells that work on the Blight - better for some varieties than others, mind you. But he hasn't managed to find a cure yet, and..." she lowered her voice. "I heard, recently he was asking Divayth Fyr for help. Because he thought it might be related to corprus."

Judging by the significant look Gelduin shot me, that was supposed to mean something to me, and most likely said something was bad. But before I could decide whether I really wanted to know what 'corprus' was, she went on.

"So now if you catch a Blight disease... if you're lucky, it'll be no worse than greenspore or rockjoint."

If you're lucky? I'd had rockjoint a few years ago and hadn't managed to reach a healer before it set in. The resulting two weeks of lying in bed with all my joints in agony, needing to be fed because I couldn't hold even a spoon with my fingers so swollen, were prominent on my list of experiences never to be repeated.

"If you're not, well... you might still survive." Gelduin shrugged, as if to say that all bets were off. I took a step back. "So when you run across a blighted animal," she jerked her head towards the guar, "best thing you can really do is put it out of its misery from a safe distance and then burn the body. Speaking of, I don't suppose you know a fire spell?"

"Only a touch-based one," I said. "But if I understand you correctly, I really don't want to get that close to it."

Gelduin shook her head. "No. You really, really don't. Oh well, time for me to sacrifice some of my magicka for a good cause."

When we left the clearing, the dead guar was a bonfire spewing oily smoke. I covered my mouth against the stench of burning, diseased flesh as I mulled over what I'd learned. It could really be boiled down to the following:

As soon as I got back to Balmora, I was never voluntarily setting foot outside of a city again for as long as I lived.

"I don't suppose you can teach me that Detection spell?" Gelduin said abruptly.

I shot her a look. "I thought you couldn't, what was it again... throw your magicka about willy-nilly?"

"I can't," Gelduin agreed, apparently unfazed by my throwing her words back into her face. "But - look, kid." I bristled. She didn't pay me any mind. "You just sensed that guar was blighted with your spell. I've never seen anyone do that before. The closest would be the diagnosis spells some healers use, and they actually have to be touching you for those to work. What you did- believe me, I could use a trick like that. And I'm not the only one."

Now that was strange. It wasn't as if I'd developed the spell myself, or even really tried to refine it. I'd taught it to myself from one of the standard Mysticism textbooks. It had taken me weeks to get it down, and when it finally clicked I was so happy to have managed to learn it I didn't try to get creative. Surely it was just the bog-standard variety that everyone used?

Of course, maybe everyone else was just really incompetent. I've learned through long, hard experience never to underestimate the likelihood of this.

"Tell you what," Gelduin offered, apparently thinking my silence meant refusal, "if you teach me how to do that, I'll teach you some things about moving unseen in the wilderness and how it's different from the city, and I'll also hook you up with some people who would pay good drakes for that trick of yours."

All right. That was an offer I wasn't going to turn down.


 

Sadly for both my sneaking skills and my purse, it didn't pan out. Apparently my teaching ability went past 'bad' and left 'terrible' in the dust to become some indescribable monstrosity the likes of which the world had never seen before, because the more I attempted to explain exactly what I did to cast my spell the more Gelduin just stared at me as though I were speaking Aldmeris. By the time afternoon had given way to evening, her expression indicated I'd managed to go from Aldmeris - which, although incomprehensible, at least had a few common elements with Tamrielic - to Yoku, Daedric, or possibly Sload. Finally, Gelduin sighed and said we'd better head back to the caravan. I apologised, blaming my inexperience - I'd never tried to teach anyone a spell before, after all. Gelduin just shrugged.

"If you work it out, the offer remains open," she said.

At least I seemed to have made a good impression on her all the same. After speaking to Gelduin, gro-Luzgan looked almost approving (a remarkably disconcerting sight) when he told me I'd done well that day and wasn't needed for night watch. A fact I was thankful for for two reasons: first, between scouting and my miserable failure at teaching, I'd drained my magicka reserves entirely and was looking forward to a good night's sleep to replenish them. Second, it seemed Varvur hadn't been lucky enough to get exempted and so I had something to hold over his head.

Dinner - a large bowl of unidentifiable-chunks-of-meat stew which was one of the best things I had ever tasted (my empty stomach might have played a role in this assessment) - provided a good opportunity to start on both annoying Varvur and recharging my magicka. All the same, the stress of the day made itself known and so it wasn't much later that I settled onto my borrowed bedroll in Gelduin's tent. She was still out, conferring with gro-Luzgan - I'd caught the word blighted as I passed them, so I guessed the guar we'd found had bothered her even more than she'd let on - and I had the tent to myself for now. I'd taken the opportunity to change and perform my evening ablutions in blessed privacy, and now there was only one last thing to do before bed.

I studied my arm. I'd been very careful with it that day and it was feeling much better, with only the occasional dull ache. Still, Sosia had been quite firm: I was to use my new healing spell twice a day for a while longer so it would be fully healed.

"The key of any self-directed healing spell," Sosia said, "is that you need to have a really firm image in your mind of what the affected area is meant to look like, what shape your body is meant to be in - and then use magicka to impose that image on reality."

She paused and looked at me as though waiting for something. She was far more serious when teaching, but right now there was a mischievous look in her eyes which made me remember she was someone who'd thought divesting Hlormar Wine-Sot of all his clothes qualified as appropriate revenge.

"Well, aren't you going to say something like 'that's all'?" Sosia asked when I stayed silent. I had the feeling she'd been looking forward to that particular ignorant comment, and found myself grateful I'd noticed the conversational trap.

"I figured it can't be that easy, considering how much training healers have to undergo," I responded.

Sosia pouted. Apparently I'd ruined her fun. "You're right, of course. For all people say they know something 'as well as the back of their own hand', could you describe the back of your hand perfectly without looking? Sketch it just from memory? Building up a really strong and detailed self-image is hard work."

"Wait a minute," I said warily. My teleportation misadventures were fresh in my mind. "Can healing spells go wrong? If you screw up on your... self-image?" My imagination was coming up with horrible images of me daydreaming in the middle of the healing spell and ending up with a second hand instead of a less broken bone. I silently cursed it for being quite so vivid.

"Oh, not the minor spells - which are all you'd be capable of right now. They just fizzle."

That was reassuring, but I noticed a glaring omission there. "And major spells?"

Sosia paused. "...That's why people have to practice and get the minor spells down perfectly before they try anything bigger. And if worst comes to worst, the body does reject mistakes over time."

Right.

"Visualise in detail what the affected area is meant to look like," I muttered and closed my eyes to focus. I emphatically shut out the image of me with a third hand, then did the same for that of the extra hand atrophying and falling off as my body 'rejected' it (although I was sure it had been meant as a reassuring statement, I felt this did not constitute an improvement of my mental landscape). After all, Sosia had said that was only an issue for major spells and minor spells could only fizzle, so I had nothing to worry about.

I steadfastly ignored the small voice in the back of my mind pointing out that I'd also been told the most teleportation spells could do was fizzle.

So. Focus on what your arm is meant to look like...

After a moment, I cracked my eyes open and rolled up one of my sleeves to take a close look at my uninjured left arm. You might call it cheating, I called it being smart about things.

I'd never exactly had much weight to spare, but once upon a time I'd at least been able to lay claim to 'wiry' without too much laughter. Alas, the last year had put that firmly into the past - I'd definitely lost weight, both muscle and otherwise. At the moment you could get a far better look at my skeletal structure than I thought entirely within the bounds of propriety. I should probably start taking second helpings at dinner. For now, it at least made it obvious that on this side of my body, my bones were wonderfully, gloriously whole.

My arm was covered in fine, pale hairs that were effectively invisible unless you were close enough to either be me or be about to get my fist in your face (I take my personal space quite seriously). My skin was grey, of course...

Detail. 'Grey' covered a lot of ground. Here in Morrowind I'd seen Dunmer of all sorts of colourings, ranging from a pale pearly cast that made them look almost like an extremely unwell Nord to a grey so dark it was close to black. Some had a blue or purple tint to their skin, some the slightest cast of green, a few even shading into brownish - although I suspected that last might imply another race on the father's side.

So. My arm was a dusky grey located firmly in the middle range of the spectrum - perhaps as dark as some of the darker-skinned Nibeneans, paler now than it had been when I was a child due to lack of sun. Although it looked slightly reddish right now, that was just the lighting. Really it was a plain, pure grey with no hint of any other colour.

I closed my eyes and focused on the image of my arm... flipped it, added a mole here and removed one there, remembered the five pinprick scars on my upper arm... there, that looked right. Now draw on your magicka...

Even through my eyelids, I could tell when light blossomed around me and grew. I opened my eyes just in time to see it gather around my arm and then sink into it.

No extra hands appeared, nor did any other horrible mutations I'd been carefully not thinking about materialise. What did happen was that the dull ache faded even further. I bit back a cheer at the success. Then I had to fight off a surge of dizziness as the pool of magicka I'd regenerated over the course of the evening informed me it had opted not to exist after all. Sosia hadn't been kidding when she'd said healing spells really took it out of you.

I lay down on the bedroll and wriggled around until I was comfortable. Then I paused.

"Good dreams, please," I said sternly.


The tavern was dimly lit and filled with smoke. I found myself grateful for the scarf I'd wrapped around my mouth. I'd used it to fool the Nord guards outside, who were only able to distinguish between Chimer and Dwemer on the basis of 'does it have a beard?' - I hadn't realised it could also save me from suffocation.

"Hey, what are you doing here?"

Of course, Dwemer themselves were perfectly capable of telling a Chimer. Never to mention that to anyone capable of counting higher than two without taking off their shoes (I suspected fingers were too advanced a concept for some of these Nords), my chitin armour and spear made my race obvious. No Dwemer I've ever seen appreciates chitin - they seem to think there's nothing that can't be improved by making it out of metal instead. I keep waiting for them to build a giant statue out of the stuff and start worshipping it.

"Sorry to intrude," I said, finding that I was, in fact, deeply sorry to intrude. The glitter of at least a dozen pairs of alien black eyes, all fixed on me, made me want to forget my plan and flee back to my tribe. But I ploughed on. "I'm looking for the Brothers of Resdayn?"

Silence spread out from me like ripples in a pond, broken only by clanking noises as some of the mer who'd been watching me got to their feet (you see what I mean about the metal?). I swallowed when I saw hands drift to hilts.

Perhaps that had been too blunt? Our Wise Woman had always said that my complete and utter inability to use this strange thing called 'tact' would be the end of me one day. I had to admit I'd hoped that day wouldn't come quite this soon.

"Well, boys," one of the Dwemer around me said. "Looks like we need to move. Our security must be dismal if one of the Daedric bootlickers managed to find us."

"Yeah, we definitely need a new place if they're letting chimps in," another Dwemer agreed, one who looked... disturbingly like all the others around him, actually. I briefly considered the possibility that I'd just entered the home of identical quindecaplets - the poor mother! - then discarded it. I lingered longer over the idea of there being some truth in those Solstice tales about Dwemer children being grown in vats (some sort of chemical contamination might explain the lack of intelligence in this group - really, 'chimp'? That's just embarrassing coming from anyone over the age of five), but decided in the end that my ability to tell Dwemer apart could probably use some work.

"Good idea, but we should beat him up a little first. Make him tell us who let things slip." All right, maybe there were more important things to worry about than Dwemer reproduction.

"Wait. I want to talk to him." The voice from the back of the room made the Dwemer who'd been circling me like cliff racers who'd just spotted something shiny (an unfair comparison really, cliff racers being so much more intelligent) back off. The crowd around them parted to let me through. Someone with authority, then. Maybe my plan wasn't a total loss.

At the back of the room sat a Dwemer, one who looked much like all the other Dwemer except that his vat had apparently been running on a bigger scale. It was enough to make me wish for once in my life that I was taller. I was usually perfectly all right with being wiry rather than muscular and a little short (all manly posturing aside, the easier time I had hiding wasn't to be sneezed at), but it was hard not to wish for a few more inches and a little more biceps when faced with a mer who looked as though he could snap me in half.

Given the lack of other distinguishing features, I mentally dubbed him 'Dwarf-Orc'. I immediately warned my tongue not to let that moniker slip.

Dwarf-Orc peered at me. "I'd like to ask you some questions, Chimer. But I want to see who I'm talking to. Otherwise, I'll let Cuolec and Mzend continue what I interrupted."

What-

Oh, the scarf.

I bid a sad farewell to breathable air and pushed the cloth covering my mouth down. I inhaled very carefully, giving my lungs time to adjust. I didn't think hacking and coughing would help my standing here.

Murmurs started up around the two of us.

"...you know I'm not good with these beardless faces, but..."

"...shouldn't he be with his mother sacrificing guar to Daedra or whatever it is these barbarians do?"

"...a kid?"

Kid? I'd completed the ritual of adulthood over two years ago, thank you very much. I'd like to see any of these brutes manage the same. It'd be a good laugh, watching them trying to survive in the wilderness on their own for a full month, especially when with all that clank they'd scare away all the creatures in miles by just standing up-

I swallowed down my protests, firmly telling myself that 'kid' was better than 'chimp' any day. If they'd managed to see past the chitin to my age, that was progress already.

Dwarf-Orc didn't react beyond a nod. "All right, then. Why are you here?"

"I'm interested in working with you." I was pleased that the words came out steady.

I was less pleased when the Dwemer erupted in laughter.

"Working with us?" Dwarf-Orc drawled once the noise had died down. He hadn't laughed, but something about the set of his mouth told me it had been a struggle. "Aren't there any Chimer resistance groups you could join?"

"Oh, there are. In fact, I lead one," only because we'd lost everyone more suited in the last raid, but that fell into the category of 'need-to-know' information. To be precise, into the category of information they really, really didn't need to know. "Sorry, I should have been clearer - I'm not interested in joining you, I'm interested in allying with you."

This time nobody laughed. Somehow, I suspected this didn't constitute an improvement.

"Why, exactly, do you think I'd be interested in making alliance with a group of Chimer?" There was something dangerous in Dwarf-Orc's tone. All right, definitely not an improvement.

"Well, for one I'm hoping you're not stupid." The words escaped before I could stop them, and I winced when I saw Dwarf-Orc's eyes narrow. The Wise Woman had also said that the only way I'd cut it as a diplomat would be with divine assistance. I'd so hoped this little jaunt wouldn't prove her right.

"Explain." The voice was cold, but Dwarf-Orc hadn't reached for his axe yet. That was probably the best I could hope for.

"Look-" I spread my hands. "The only way those Nords were able to conquer us was by playing us against each other. Everyone knows Chimer and Dwemer get along about as well as alit and nix-hounds. Even now, with those round-ears driving us off our land, taking our goods... walking through our halls," I added for my Dwemer audience, "we're at each other's throats. And that means we can't shake them off."

I took a deep breath, wishing for some water to wet my throat. But I couldn't stop now - I had them listening, I had to make the most of it. "Us Chimer, we're good at guerilla tactics. Hit-and-run, fading away, sabotage, using the terrain to our advantage. But we don't have the staying power, and don't have the sort of arms and armour we'd need to survive a head-on clash... or to be really dangerous to them. Without that, all we can be is a nuisance. And as for you Dwemer-" I paused. Judging by the looks I was getting, I had the impression that continuing that sentence wouldn't be good for my health.

Dwarf-Orc, however, looked thoughtful. "We've got the weapons, the armour, the staying power," he offered. "But we're bad at scouting, hiding, moving quickly. The elders say that when the Nords invaded, they kept luring our troops into ambushes. And now it turns out the old tactics don't work well for a rebellion."

A low murmur of discontent was rising from the Dwemer around us - I wasn't sure if they were objecting to what Dwarf-Orc was saying, or just objecting to him telling me.

"You see," I seized the opportunity to continue before things could degenerate, "neither of us can drive out the Nords out on our own. We definitely can't do it while trying to fight each other at the same time, or with them playing us off against each other. There's a saying about the enemy of one's enemy which I think all of us could do to heed. And if everyone is really so keen on killing each other because of theological differences, we can always get back to that after we've driven the northmen out of our home."

I bit the inside of my cheek. I hadn't meant to say that last part out loud-

But Dwarf-Orc was laughing. "Well said, well said! I agree in every instance, particularly the last-"

"You can't be serious?" The interruption came from one of the other Dwemer, who looked aghast. Provided I was reading his expression correctly through the growth on his face. "The Chimer are just as bad-"

Dwarf-Orc fixed him with a cold look. "When I want your opinion, Rourken, I'll ask for it. Until then, if you have any objections to my leadership? The door is that way." The mer subsided, grumbling.

Dwarf-Orc turned back to me. "I'm Dumac - I'm the leader of this band."

Just Dumac? What a pity, he'd seemed reasonably intelligent up until now (a sadly rare occurrence), but if he was really stupid enough to think I'd believe he was of no clan, that I'd just roll over and take such an insult-

Wait. Dwemer.

Cultural differences, I told myself sternly. Remember cultural differences!

"And who would you be, ally?" Dwa- Dumac asked, extending his hand.

Ally. Praise Azura. I hadn't expected this to actually work.

I reached out and clasped the offered hand to seal the agreement, hoping he wouldn't notice the way my own was shaking. "My name is-"


 

We reached Balmora in the early evening of the next day. The guards waved us through without a closer look - I wasn't sure if it was because of the hubbub of the caravan arriving or because Varvur had been right regarding local politics and the likelihood of the Balmoran guards being on the look-out for criminals from Ald'ruhn.

Our good-byes to gro-Luzgan were quite perfunctory, as he was busy arranging camping grounds outside the city for the night. He did give me a grunt that sounded approving, which I figured qualified as high praise for my efforts and abilities. My farewell to Gelduin took longer, and she left saying not just that I was welcome to travel with the caravan again anytime I liked, but also that she'd drop in to catch up when she was next in Balmora. I liked to think her interest in continuing our acquaintance was due to my charming personality, but suspected she still held hopes I'd manage to teach her my detection spell.

At any rate, the sun had nearly set by the time Varvur and I were finally walking away from the caravan. Only the very tops of the hills around the city were still bathed in light, and to the east Masser - almost full - was already visible.

I grabbed Varvur by the arm and dragged him towards the Mages' Guild. He resisted. "Oi! What's the hurry?"

Did he really just ask what the hurry was? "We have to get back before-"

-the sun sets, I almost said, but caught myself just in time.

Balmora. I was in Balmora, not Daggerfall. I hadn't lived in Daggerfall for almost a decade, you'd think I'd be over this by now.

Besides, last I heard the curfew there was no longer as... strictly imposed, shall we say, with extremely harsh penalties for violation, as it used to be.

It's odd how some things stay with you. The career I'd pursued in Skyrim had forced me to deal with my aversion to staying out after dark, and I was perfectly able to wander about city streets at night without any unwelcome memories rearing their heads. Yet still, the sight of the last of the day's sunlight on the roofs as the day faded to dusk made my heart beat quicker, my eyes dart from shadow to shadow in case one started moving and my ears prick for ghostly cries.

"Before... oh, is the guild about to close?"

I shook my head and let go of his upper arm in favour of reaching over to rub my own. I hardly even noticed the scars I'd gained from my first and only violation of Daggerfall curfew these days, but right now they felt like a brand. "Never mind."

Once we reached the guild, we found that most members had already gone home. The only person I saw downstairs was Teleportation Girl. She nodded at me, then her eyes widened when she saw Varvur.

For a moment, the only thought in my brain was Shor's blood, please don't let her get romance novel fantasies about Varvur too. "Have you seen Ajira?" I said hurriedly, hoping to sidetrack her.

"She's in the storeroom - something about Galbedir stealing her report." Teleportation Girl wrinkled her nose. "I really don't understand why those two can't just leave each other alone. But- hey, wait!"

"Thanks!" I tossed over my shoulder, making a beeline for the storeroom. Varvur trailed along behind me.

Indeed, the door to the storeroom was ajar. I stuck my head inside. "Ajira?"

The room was a tiny cramped thing piled high with sacks and barrels, the only light coming from a magelight on the wall near the entrance. Ajira was poking through items on a shelf, ears flat against her head. They perked up when she heard me.

"Friend Adryn? Friend Adryn! Where have you been?" Her voice took on a scolding note.

"Er... that's a long story. A really long story. A really, really long story. Can I maybe talk to you in pri-"

"Hey, Ajira, I think I found it!" A brown hand holding a scroll popped up from behind a bunch of sacks. It was quickly followed by a head, one belonging to someone I'd last seen telling stories about the Imperial Legion during tea break on Fredas. "Here, this says Report on the Mushrooms of the..."

Jamie trailed off, eyes narrowing and gaze caught by something behind me. Or... no. Someone.

I looked around with a sinking feeling. Yes, Varvur had come up behind me.

"Wait a moment. I was just reading the bounty notices from Ald'ruhn - you're that guy wanted alive under suspicion of murder." Jamie snapped her fingers. "Varvur Sarethi, that's it. What are you doing here?" Her hand went to her belt and scrabbled futilely there - apparently Jamie had decided she didn't need her sword to hunt rogue reports.

Varvur backed away a step, his hand going to Cloudcleaver. "Look, I can explain! I didn't- I don't remember- there were dreams-"

I could tell when Jamie spotted Cloudcleaver because she slid into a defensive stance, eyes growing cold. I fought the urge to bury my head in my hands. Instead, I shot Ajira a desperate look, trying to convey I swear there is a good explanation for this and I'd really appreciate it if both of you listened to me through my eyebrows alone.

Apparently something managed to get through, because Ajira nodded to me before turning to the other two.

"All right," she said briskly. "Ajira thinks this sounds like the sort of story best told at length, somewhere comfortable and private. Certainly not with weapons in hand, and certainly not shouted across the Mages' Guild storeroom."

Wonder of wonders, both Varvur and Jamie subsided under her disapproving look. I looked at her jealously - after the last two days I would happily give every last drake in my possession and more for a reliable way to make Varvur shut up.

"As it so happens," Ajira continued, "Ajira was going to go home for dinner once her report was found." She plucked the scroll out of Jamie's hands and gave it a glance, then tucked it protectively into her satchel. "She invites the others to come along and discuss this matter calmly, over comberry cakes and hackle-lo tea. Ajira's home is small but private. There is only one other there and Ajira does not think he will be a problem."



Ajira lived in a tiny apartment on the upper floor of a building just across the river, near the city wall. Judging from the dimensions of the thing, it couldn't be any bigger than the alchemy lab back in the guild. It certainly seemed lack of space had forced her to move her cooking and storage facilities to the roof just across from her door, considering the small firepit and the sacks and urns piled to one side - the latter glimmering with magicka that I suspected not only kept off the rain but also contained a surprise for any prospective thief.

"The honoured guests are welcome to enter." Ajira had unlocked the door to her home while I was looking around. "Ajira will join them in a moment - she just needs to fetch something."

Not far inside, I stopped.

I'd spent a large part of the walk here wondering about the mysterious he Ajira had mentioned. Had Teleportation Girl been right - did Ajira really have a boyfriend? If so, why hadn't she mentioned him? ...had I been infected by spending too much time with romance novel enthusiasts? Surely the more obvious answer was a friend she shared with to save money.

In all my speculations, I hadn't expected the small bundle of fur currently looking at me suspiciously.

"I'm Ma'Zajirr. Who are you?" he demanded.

"Er. Hello to you, too," I told the Khajiit kit, trying not to let my voice betray my shock. "We're friends of Ajira's."

Did Ajira have a son? No... she couldn't possibly be older than me, and my tentative guess was that Ma'Zajirr was around eight or nine. Even if I was a year or two off, the ages just didn't match up.

Ma'Zajirr looked at me with narrowed eyes, wooden sword held in a threatening position. "I don't know you. Does-"

"What is this Ajira hears?" Ajira appeared behind us, carrying a small bundle wrapped in oilcloth and exuding a most appetizing scent. My mouth watered as I remembered the promise of cake. "I, I, I, Ajira hears. You, you, you. Does Ma'Zajirr think he is a noble? A great hero? Vivec himself? Perhaps soon he will start calling himself Ra'Zajirr-Do. It would give Ajira something to laugh about, at least."

Ma'Zajirr wilted, ears drooping. "But Aunt Ajira, talking like that makes me sound stupid," he sulked.

"No, it makes Ma'Zajirr sound like a polite kit who has been brought up properly. Who has been saying such things to him?" Ajira demanded. "His friends at school? Men and mer - what would they know of what it means to be a Khajiit."

She turned to the three of us, who'd been staring at the exchange in bewilderment. "This is Ajira's nephew, Ma'Zajirr. Ajira apologises for his lack of manners. Ma'Zajirr, these are Adryn, Jamie and..." she trailed off with an inquiring glance at Varvur.

"Varvur Sarethi," Varvur introduced himself, a slow grin spreading over his features. "A pleasure to meet you, Ma'Zajirr."

Ajira gave the youngster a pointed look. "Ma'Zajirr is pleased to meet y- pleased to meet the honoured guests," he mumbled, scratching at the floor with his footclaws and determinedly not looking at any of us.

"I didn't know you had a nephew," I blurted, still rather dumbfounded by this turn of events but starting to feel bad about the times I'd monopolised Ajira's attention into the night.

"Ma'Zajirr is Ajira's sister's son," Ajira explained. "She is... no longer able to take care of him, so Ma'Zajirr lives with Ajira now."

Oh. No wonder he was staying with her. The fate of Ajira's sister, which I'd heard about only a few days ago, came back to me. I felt a sudden stab of sympathy for Ma'Zajirr who'd lost his mother in such a way and fought to squelch it. Sympathy may seem like a minor thing but it's a slippery slope from there to altruism, so it's really best not to even get started.

"He goes to school at the Imperial Cult in Fort Moonmoth and stays there during the week," Ajira was saying now. "So he is only in Balmora on weekends, or during school holidays such as this week."

"Stays there?" Jamie cut in. "Why? It's - what - half an hour's walk to Fort Moonmoth, surely he could travel there and back every day."

"See?" The way Ma'Zajirr leapt triumphantly on Jamie's statement made me feel this was a long-standing argument in the small family. "Aunt Ajira, everyone from Balmora goes home every day! Sodril's been saying I'm a coward-"

Ajira bristled in the way only Khajiit can. "Out of the question! It is far too dangerous."

Ma'Zajirr looked mutinous, but made no further reply. Jamie, clearly bewildered by Ajira's vehemence, opened her mouth - it seemed she was going to argue further. I took stock of my options and decided the best course of action available to me was jabbing Jamie in the side with my elbow.

"Hey!" Jamie looked at me angrily. Whatever she saw on my face made her shut up.

Ajira glared at the room for another moment, then slowly relaxed, her fur lying flat again. "Ma'Zajirr wished to play kickball tonight with his friend M'Aksayn, correct? Ajira has thought about it and decided that is all right with her. Here." Copper glinted only briefly before Ma'Zajirr made the coins in Ajira's outstretched paw vanish. "He can buy himself supper before they play."

"Great! Thanks, Aunt Ajira!" Then Ma'Zajirr paused as if arrested by a sudden thought. "But I- Ma'Zajirr thought Aunt Ajira didn't want him to stay out so long?"

"People are allowed to change their minds, are they not?"

But Ajira's attempts at deflection clearly weren't working. "Are you trying to keep something from me?" Ma'Zajirr's tone was affronted.

"Manners, Ma'Zajirr," Ajira scolded. "And... well, it does so happen that Ajira's friend Adryn has something very important to talk about, so Ajira was hoping to have a private, confidential discussion with her guests."

"I- Ma'Zajirr can keep secrets!"

"Ajira knows he can. But... it will require a great deal of talking, does he understand? Ajira expects a great many things must be explained and then discussed. Hours, it might be, sitting and talking."

Oh, that was crafty. Even with the little I'd seen of Ma'Zajirr, I felt quite confident in saying that sitting still was almost certainly not a strength of his. The slow horror dawning on his face only served to reinforce that assessment.

"There will be tea," Ajira continued ruthlessly. "Much tea. As otherwise our throats will get dry from all the talking we will do. Ajira thought that Ma'Zajirr would rather run around and kick balls around with his friends than sit and listen for all that time, and so out of the goodness of her heart she decided to relax his curfew tonight so he could go to the game. But if he truly wishes to remain, Ajira supposes-"

I wasn't quite clear how Ma'Zajirr had made it to the doorway, but suddenly he was standing outside. "That's - that's perfectly all right, Aunt Ajira! Thank you! I'll be going now!" A long pause. "You're probably only going to talk about really boring things, anyway." And then he'd disappeared.

"Right," Ajira said after a moment. "He will be gone a while. In fact, Ajira may have to go out and find him in a few hours, as it is quite possible he will interpret relaxed curfew as no curfew. But that is for later. Now, Ajira believes friend Adryn had a long story to tell?"

It really did end up being quite a long story, especially once Varvur started deciding (based on no evidence at all) that we were interested in his version of events. It was so incredibly biased and dimwitted that I had to wonder if he'd sleepwalked through the past three days - I could hardly be blamed if I found myself forced to set the record straight.

"Would the two of you stop arguing?" Jamie groaned.

At any rate, by the time I'd finished we'd finished not only the promised comberry cakes - easily as as delicious as they'd smelled - and an entire pot of hackle-lo tea but also half a pot of guar and ash yam soup, leftovers from the night before according to Ajira. I wasn't entirely certain how much she and Jamie had understood of my story what with all the inaccuracies Varvur had introduced, but at least Jamie no longer looked like she was planning to drag him to the guards.

"Right." Jamie pinched the bridge of her nose. "I suppose I really can't take you to the guards."

It's always nice to have that sort of thing confirmed.

"I'd appreciate it if you wouldn't." Varvur was definitely being more polite to Jamie than he'd ever been to me, I noticed. It made me feel rather indignant; I'd have to come up with a suitable revenge when I had some spare time.

"It certainly sounds as though you've been treated unjustly," Jamie continued, distracting me from the thoughts of what, exactly, one could slip into Varvur's hackle-lo tea for minimum harm and maximum humiliation (certainly not an intelligence-draining potion - no one would ever notice the difference). "I'm not entirely sure I believe your story, but given what Adryn has said it seems plausible enough… and it's clear local law enforcement won't be investigating this anytime soon. Again."

She heaved a heavy sigh, then turned to me. "So. What's the plan?"

"Plan?" I asked.

"Plan for what to do next."

I knew I'd forgotten something.

Jamie pinched the bridge of her nose. I guessed she'd correctly interpreted the blank look on my face. "Right, in that case I'll see if I can think of something. It seems our best bet is to find proof that Varvur was controlled by magic and not responsible for his actions in order to clear his name. And - with all due respect, Adryn - I think I might have the most experience with this sort of investigation."

"Wait a minute, you have experience with-"

"Solving the murder in Gnisis, remember?" Jamie pointed out. "I had to do some digging there."

That was a good point.

"Anyway, I'd like to ask you some questions, Varvur. The first sign of something wrong was nightmares, right?"

"Yes," Varvur answered, once again far more obediently than he'd ever responded to me. I bristled. "They started a few weeks before the- before."

"Was there anything that changed in your life just before then? Anything unusual that happened, perhaps?"

I had to admire Jamie's cool approach and the surprisingly intelligent questions she was asking. She sounded almost like Mistress Mauripelle in Acatta Caristia's novels (also childhood favourites of mine, particularly her A Summerset Mystery).

"Just before the dreams started- actually, now that you mention it..."

Varvur frowned as though thinking hard - a task undoubtedly made difficult through lack of both talent and practice. "I got this statue from a friend of mine... well, more an acquaintance really. I drink with him sometimes in the Rat in the Pot, that's a tavern in Ald'ruhn."

It seemed Varvur had the mind (or, more accurately, lack thereof) of a Nord - one drink and someone was his friend for life. I considered telling him that, then decided to leave it for when we weren't trying to get information from him and I could properly enjoy the ensuing eruption.

"A friend?" Jamie probed.

"He's a pawnbroker, always has a lot of cheap wares he's trying to get rid of quickly," Varvur waved a hand. "I buy things off him sometimes, since he needs the business and it's not like the money is a worry for me."

I bit down several of the things that immediately came to mind following that comment, proving, I believe, that I do very much have the ability to control myself in the face of provocation and all statements to the contrary are perfidious lies. Then another thought reared its head.

"In a tavern? He doesn't have a shop or anything?" I asked.

"No - he says he can't afford the taxes. Why?" Varvur was looking puzzled.

I considered enlightening him that his friend was probably a fence and Varvur had bought stolen goods off him, but decided that, much like telling him his lack of brains meant he'd make an excellent Nord, the resulting explosion would just end up distracting us both. Besides, Jamie was glaring at me. I put it on the long, long list of things Varvur did not need to know and waved the question off.

"The statue?" Jamie resumed her role as chief interrogator.

"Right - he said... actually, now that I think about it," Varvur sounded surprised, "he said that if I put it next to my bed while I slept it would give me good dreams. I didn't think it would!" he protested when I shot him a how naive can you even be look. "It's just, it was cheap and he needed the money and I thought, what harm could it possibly do... anyway, the nightmares started that night."

"Are you kidding me?" I asked, incredulous. "Someone sells you a statue that's meant to give you good dreams, you start having horrible nightmares, and you don't think hey, maybe something isn't right about that thing? You don't even put it away? How on earth did you even survive to adulthood?"

Varvur glared at me. "Will you shut up? The reason I didn't put it away was..." He blinked. "Was..."

"What's that? You have no explanation beyond 'I'm sorry, Adryn, I'm too stupid to live? What a surprise.'"

"No." Varvur didn't react at all to my jibe, didn't even look at me. I shivered. That was positively unnatural. "I, I think I forgot about it completely. I don't think I thought about it even once until just now, and it was right next to my bed the entire time."

"And I take it you don't usually experience amnesia about your belongings? I mean, it would never happen to me but given your limited intelligence, I don't want to jump to conclusions-" I stopped when Varvur glared at me and hid a smile. Varvur was getting angry with me, all was right in the world again.

"Ahem." Jamie cleared her throat. I shot her a guilty look.

"We've identified both a possible method and a possible culprit. It seems like the best thing to do at this juncture would be to investigate this Galtis Guvron, which..." Jamie's shoulders slumped, "would be much, much easier if any of us had any sort of official standing with law enforcement. This is almost making me wish I stayed with the Legion."

I shuddered at the idea of Jamie reconsidering her association with the Legion, a truly horrifying thought we had to distract her from at once. I cast around desperately for inspiration on the matter.

It obliged.

"Actually," I said, "I might have an idea..."

Chapter Text


 

"The city is looking good," Sul said.

I followed his gaze as we walked.

Kogoruhn was bustling. The great doors that led to the inner keep were propped open, letting a steady stream of people travel through. Below the walls, a settlement had sprung up, a small city of tents and yurts and even the occasional small shell-house. Those last must have been brought here by strider, for those who wanted a slightly more permanent residence and yet couldn't face the dark, winding corridors and claustrophobic rooms in the depths of the fortress proper.

I couldn't blame them.

"You don't approve?" Sul, my oldest friend and shield-brother, must have read my thoughts off my face.

I shrugged. "It's hardly my place to approve or disapprove of what clan Dagoth does. And Voryn knows what he's doing, in any case."

"That's not an answer, you know." Sul was looking at me steadily. Well, I supposed he deserved better than the sort of non-answer I'd give a Councillor.

"Every time I come back here, I wonder if I'm going to find Kogoruhn has been mysteriously transformed into a Dwemer citadel," I admitted. "I'm beginning to feel I should be inspecting the walls for incursions of metal or an infection of clanking."

Sul stopped. "That's a surprise, coming from the driving force behind our alliance with the Dwemer. I know how much time you spend with Dumac, I'd have thought you-"

"I like them, yes," I interrupted. "More importantly, I think we're stronger together than apart - that fighting each other is pointless and just opens us up to another invasion. The Nords haven't given up on regaining Resdayn." I could feel the truth of that echoing in my bones. "But that doesn't mean we have to become them."

Sul was right: I did spend much time among the Dwemer. Sometimes it was for diplomacy, renewing our alliance, smoothing over conflict and strife. Sometimes it was for knowledge, some of the Dwemer's theories tying neatly into my own interests. Often, of course, for friendship, with Dumac so rarely able to travel these days and me unwilling to resign myself to our only correspondence being through letters. I almost felt as if I spent half my time wandering their underground halls these days...

...none of which meant I belonged there.

"You almost sound like an Urshilaku or Zainsubani sometimes, you know," said Sul. "Warning us of the evils of the settled lifestyle."

"Well, maybe they have a point! I'm not saying I agree with everything they say, but this-" I cast my hands out, indicating Kogoruhn, "nobody dreamed of such settlements before we allied with the Dwemer. And now there are at least five other such citadels being built. Everything is changing so rapidly and I don't believe we've properly considered what such changes might entail-"

Sul held up his hands. "Save it for the council later this afternoon, will you?"

I stopped, rueful. Long years of friendship meant both of us could tell when a friendly argument began to get too serious, when our opinions were too different to be bridged in casual conversation, but I still sometimes got carried away.

"Sorry," I apologised. "It's a subject I feel strongly about."

"I noticed." Sul's voice was dry. "I still don't agree, but we can discuss it properly later. For now, I want to greet Voryn. Are you coming?"

I looked at the dark entrance to Kogoruhn, thought of the cramped, dim corridors to Voryn's chambers, and shuddered at the idea of inflicting them on me any earlier than I had to.

"No. I'll make sure to meet him and pay my respects before the start of council, but I want to investigate a little first."

"Investigate?"

"As you so enjoy reminding me, Sul, I have very strong opinions on the move to citadels for someone who's barely spent time around one. I want to look into how the people who have come here live." I gestured at the settlement around us.

"Gathering ammunition to support your pet arguments, you mean. Well. I'll give Voryn your apologies."

Sul turned away towards the entrance to the citadel. I turned in the opposite direction, letting my feet take me through the maze of tents, yurts and shell-houses that had sprung up around Kogoruhn.

This, too, was far more crowded than anything I'd grown up with, a tightly-packed mess of residences, stalls, eateries, smithies, merchants, and any other shop one might imagine. Far more diverse, as well. The main part of the crowd were Chimer, but there were scattered Dwemer, and even a group of Nedic men I suspected to be Alessians. It might be unfair, but given our history with the Nords I couldn't summon much trust for their kin. I eyed the men warily as I passed; they kindly refrained from answering my suspicion by attacking me or announcing their intention to subjugate Resdayn.

Even among the Chimer, I saw a far greater variety than I once did. Here Aran, Kaushtarari and Verelnim brushed shoulders, their clan-markings far subtler than I'd expect and often sharing space with those of clan Dagoth. In lesser numbers, I saw other combinations – Seloth and Telvanni, Omayn and Redoran, Ihinipalit and Redoran, Dunsamsi and Hlaalu... Sotha and my own Indoril.

All buying into this business about Great Houses, then. True, clans had always been made up of more than just the core family – Sul never failed to remind me of his own Alandro if I skipped over this detail, part of Indoril since long before either of us were born – but of late it was on a whole new level. I had as many misgivings about this development as about the movement towards life settled in one place rather than wandering the land.

These misgivings were, I suspected, shared by the few among the crowd making it clear they declared no such allegiance to one of the new "Houses". Those Zainsubani and Urshilaku I saw wore their clan's symbols so clearly and blatantly it was almost ostentatious, with not a scrap of cloth signifying any other.

I'd slowed near an eatery where the smells drifting from it made my mouth water, wondering whether I should stop to fill my belly with food and ears with gossip before the meeting, when I felt a tug at my purse.

My hand snapped out, capturing the miscreant's wrist. "You-"

"Let me go!"

My severe reprimand died on my lips as I turned to see, not the criminal I'd expected, but a skinny boy who couldn't be more than nine years old.

"Let me go, I didn't do anything!" he repeated, tugging at the wrist I still held fast.

I frowned.

I had never had any sympathy for thieves. In the world I'd grown up in, all was shared out according to need, no clan member abandoned. Stealing broke that accord, the thieves enriching themselves at the expense of their clanmates, deciding their wants were more important than the needs of the clan's children, of the hunters, the Wise Woman. Such selfishness and dishonesty could not be tolerated and was rightly punished with exile.

Once again, I was reminded this was not the world I'd grown up in. Judging by his skinny frame, this boy was certainly not being taken care of by his clan.

"What's your name?" I asked him.

"What's it to you?" the boy demanded, but after a moment of my silence – and another fruitless attempt to free himself from my grasp – he gave in. "Vivec, I'm called."

No clan name? My frown deepened.

Abandoned children were not unknown even in my childhood. However, when Indoril ran across one, we either took them in or – if times were too lean for another mouth – gave them the mercy of a quick death. How was it that this child had been left clanless, left – clearly – to scrape and scavenge and steal in order to make a living, in the middle of the abundance I saw around me?

"I didn't do nothing to you and you've got no call to be keeping me-"

"Hey! Nerevar!"

(-distant surprise, something unexpected, jarring. For a moment the scene dims, wavers, like a dream on the edge of waking-

The moment passes.)

I turned my head. Mannanalit Yan-Ilu was standing in the entrance to the eatery, hand on her dagger.

My captive stopped struggling in my grasp.

"What's going on over there?"

"I seem to have caught myself a pickpocket," I called back to my old friend.

"That scrap?" Her eyes swept over Vivec. She frowned, apparently not liking the results of her inspection. "Hey, kid-"

"Nerevar?" burst from the kid in question. "You mean- you don't mean Indoril Nerevar?"

"That's right, kid," Yan-Ilu answered before I could. "You just tried to steal from the Hortator himself, the greatest hero of our people."

"Stop it," I said with some asperity. It was bad enough being faced with hero-worship from children like Vivec, I didn't need it from Yan-Ilu, especially considering- "You were right there with me through half of it, you should know better than to be impressed by wild tales."

"Who said anything about wild tales?" Yan-Ilu shot back. Then she relented. "Ah, whatever. Don't look so shocked, kid. He's a soft touch, really. For example, kid or no kid – if you'd tried to steal my purse, you'd be shorter a hand by now. Nerevar here, on the other hand, is – if I don't miss my guess – thinking of buying you lunch."

I shot Yan-Ilu a look. "Is that so wrong? As you so kindly reminded me, I've been named protector of our people. All our people. In a case like this, it's my duty to step in."

"And that's why you're a hero, you idiot." Yan-Ilu sighed and shook her head. "Apparently it's catching, too. I can afford two freeloaders – lunch is on me today. What do you want, kid? Your options at the Alit's Maw today are ash yam and guar stew or roast nix-hound haunch, with sujam-" Yan-Ilu looked Vivec up and down and clearly thought the better of what she'd been about to say, "-wick water or comberry juice. The stew turned out quite nicely, if I do say so myself."

I blinked. I hadn't realised Yan-Ilu had abandoned the netch herds her husband had left her to open an eatery in Kogoruhn. But now that I looked, I saw it – the scarab of Dagoth sewn on her breast, embroidered larger than the fishing-spear of Mannanalit.

My old friend who'd fought side-by-side with me was among the many who were giving up their old lifestyle to move to the citadels... giving up their independence to declare allegiance to a larger clan. I wished I could ask her about it, why she'd made such a choice, but right now was definitely not the time.

"...stew? You catch- claim I'm stealing, and you give me food?" Young Vivec sounded deeply suspicious, and I felt my anger rise at whatever had taught the boy distrust at such an age.

Losing my temper wouldn't help in this situation, I reminded myself firmly. It'd only serve to frighten the boy off, when we'd only just reached the point where I felt I could let go of his wrist without fear that he'd bolt. No, this was a time to be the calm, reasonable Hortator. It wasn't a role that came easily to me, but I'd spent a lot of time practicing recently.

...although if I ever met the clan who'd abandoned Vivec so cruelly, I doubted "calm" or "reasonable" would be on the horizon.

"You hard of hearing, kid? Got hit on the head too many times?" I knew Yan-Ilu well enough to know the suspicion in Vivec's voice must be hitting her as hard as me, but her voice was as cheerful as ever. Well, she'd always been a better actor than me. (This was admittedly not very difficult, at least according to Sul, who'd claimed since we were children that those who were better actors than me included the vast majority of both Chimer and Dwemer populations, most northmen, a significant portion of local wildlife and the odd rock.)

"No!" Vivec protested. "I just-"

"You look like you're worried I've poisoned the stew. Let me tell you, kid," Yan-Ilu propped her hands on her hips, "if I wanted to get rid of a scrap like you, I wouldn't go to near that much effort. And I'm insulted that you could think I'd use poison. Stab you in the back, sure, or use magic, but poison? I have a reputation as a cook to defend, you know!"

A smile flickered across Vivec's face. For a brief moment, he looked as innocent and care-free as any of my young cousins in Indoril.

"But if you're really worried, I'm sure Nerevar would be willing to taste-test."

"Absolutely," I said. "The stew sounds excellent, my friend. I'll have that and a wick water. Vivec?"

It took a little more coaxing, but eventually we had Vivec seated at one of the tables outside the eatery, a large bowl of stew in front of him which he devoured industriously. I sat back, sipping my wick water, and watched Yan-Ilu engage him. The boy looked as if he'd momentarily forgotten the idea of getting up and fleeing, which was a definite improvement. Probably best I keep out of it – my friend seemed to have things well in hand, and the odd awed glance Vivec shot me made it clear he hadn't got past Indoril Nerevar, Hortator of the Council, the hero who drove the Nords from Resdayn yet.

One thing was for sure: I'd certainly found some "ammunition for my pet cause", as Sul had put it, on this trip. I planned on informing the council of the details. At length.


 The Breton woman's blue robes were dusty and spotted with inkstains. Her hair was coming loose from its braid and falling into her face, while smudges of ink on her cheeks showed previous, ineffectual attempts to keep it out of the way. In short, she was the classic image of an absent-minded scholar to such a degree where I briefly wondered whether she was faking it.

"Excuse me, are you Edwinna Elbert?" I asked, then winced guiltily as the woman started upright. Apparently she'd been so absorbed in her perusal of - I craned my head - Fire and Faith by someone called Nchunak that she hadn't heard my approach.

"Yes, that's me. And who would you be?"

"I'm Adryn," I introduced myself. "I joined the guild at Balmora last week," Nine, had it really been less than a week? "I'm an alchemist."

"Ah! So you're working with Ajira, then." Edwinna gave me what I suspected was, for her, a look that was unusually focused for being directed at a person rather than a book. Ajira really seemed to have a lot of people looking out for her. I didn't begrudge her, I just really hoped this conversation wouldn't go the same way as the last. "I haven't had the time to visit Balmora in absolute ages. Tell me, how is she doing?"

I pondered the honest answer of Perfectly fine, except for the wanted fugitive hiding out at her place playing cards with her eight-year-old nephew and the fact that I think he's trying to infect the boy with his lichen-brained notions of 'honour', then discarded it. "She's doing well. Making good progress on her research - she finished one report on alchemical properties of the mushrooms of the Bitter Coast just a few days ago and is working on another about the flora of the Ascadian Isles."

Since my plan, such as it was, could only be put into motion during the afternoon, we'd had some time to catch up and experiment with the flowers Ervesa had sent me that morning. We'd been quite successful on both fronts - I'd found myself reassured that Varvur staying at Ajira's, an idea we'd hit upon late enough last night I hadn't had the energy to argue it, seemed to be working out better than I'd feared, and Ajira had been busy writing up our results when I'd left.

"Excellent!" Edwinna's smile lit up her face. "I'm glad to hear she's well. I'd have liked to train her myself, but she didn't want to move to Ald'ruhn and I don't work in alchemy at all." I tucked that piece of information away. "Now, why were you looking for me?"

"I have a delivery for you. From Jobasha - here."

The instant the oilcloth-wrapped bundle was in her hands, I felt myself relax as though a huge weight had fallen from my shoulders. Considering events it was hardly a surprise that I'd been more focused on other things over the last few days, but all the same I hadn't realised how much the book Jobasha had given me to deliver - and its accompanying threat - had been dragging at me. There, I told an imaginary Jobasha silently, see? Tirdas, just as promised, when professional couriers would break down in tears at the obstacles I encountered on the way. Imaginary Jobasha nodded gravely, I hoped in approval.

Edwinna's eyes lit up when she unwrapped the book. "Chronicles of Nchuleft! I've been looking for that for months! Jobasha is truly a pearl among booksellers. Here, for your trouble." She pressed a ten-drake coin into my hand. "Was there anything else?"

Technically, there was - Trebonius' idea of a suitable task for a junior member, and Malven's resulting order that I attach myself to Edwinna as a Dwemer scholar. However, judging by the way Edwinna was regarding her new acquisition (in much the way I might regard a new kind of flower, or a prisoner in Imperial City food that was actually fit for consumption) this was probably not the best of times. It's really better to ask people things like that when they aren't clearly trying to develop telepathic abilities in order to force you to go away.

And, of course, I had other things to do in Ald'ruhn.

"No, that's all."

Edwinna nodded absently, eyes focused on her new book, as I made myself scarce.

The buildings of Ald'ruhn were even more striking up close, and I found myself glad that Varvur wasn't with me because I would have been hard-put to affect nonchalance. Shell-houses loomed all around me, dominated by the giant emperor of a crab I'd spotted the day before. Up close it was even more eye-wideningly large, looking big enough to encompass the entirety of Seyda Neen with room to spare.

"It's Skar, outlander," a passing Dunmer said. She must have noticed me staring. "It's even larger inside - most of it is buried. Impressive, no?" She sounded proud.

"I'll say." My hand went to the scarf wrapped around my head to make sure it was secure.

When I'd mentioned being worried that Venim might be watching for me, Varvur had informed me (with what I felt was more relish than strictly necessary) that among Dunmer, my appearance was really quite nondescript apart from my hair. He'd suggested this method of disguising it, claiming it was a common fashion in Ald'ruhn. I'd been dubious - in my experience, nobility are frequently somewhat, shall we say, out of touch when it comes to normal people - but the woman who'd spoken to me was similarly attired, as were enough people around us to show that Varvur had been right. I immediately resolved never to let him know.

At any rate, once I'd managed to stop gawking at Ald'ruhn I realised that my goal was almost next door to the Mages' Guild. Luckily so, because I'd noticed dark grey clouds gathering above the city. They didn't look quite like rain-clouds, but their size and colour - along with the wary looks other passersby shot at them - made me want to hurry all the same.

Once inside the Rat in the Pot, I shook the ash that had gathered even over such a short distance from my shoes. The traces of more ash in the entranceway along with neat piles of the stuff to the side showed that my current activity was one that occurred frequently in this area, but that someone armed with a broom had declared war against its effects.

Further inside, the Rat in the Pot was surprisingly comfortable, especially for being in a place that us small fleshy creatures would once only have encountered during dinner - as in, during a giant crab making us into its dinner. A central stalk that descended from the ceiling had been turned into a hearth in which a fire crackled merrily. Carpets lay over the floor, making it far easier to ignore exactly what you were walking on, and there were stairs and tables scattered about, as well as a bar with barstools against the opposite wall. I made my way towards it.

Despite the early hour, I noticed, there were a surprising number of customers. A whole group at that nearby table, involved in conversation-

"-see, I told you it'd be easy!"

...why was that voice familiar?

With a sinking heart, I identified the speaker as Allding, holding forth to an Argonian and an Orc. The Orc was smaller than most of his kind and clad in simple dark clothing, as was the Argonian, as were... suspiciously many people in this building, as a matter of fact, especially considering they were exactly the sort of thing I'd use as 'working clothes': mottled dark greys that blended into the shadows, soft and fitted to minimize unfortunate rustle...

Oh, Alduin devour it all.

Had I actually just wandered into another Thieves' Guild headquarters? What had I done in a previous life to deserve for this to keep happening to me?

While I was trying to force my frozen legs to move, Allding's eyes flicked over to me... and past, with no sign of recognition.

I relaxed.

Nondescript, was it? I could work with that.

"Are you planning to order anything?"

I blinked, torn out of my thoughts by the frowning publican, and said the first thing that came to mind. "A wick water, please."

Wick water? Where had that come from?

But the woman was nodding and reaching behind the bar. I shrugged - I must have heard it somewhere, maybe in the Eight Plates that first night. It's amazing what bubbles up from the depths of your mind when you're under stress.

Wick water turned out to be something similar to the roasted barley tea I was familiar with from Skyrim, only made from a grain I didn't recognise, served cold instead of hot and sweetened with something I took a moment to recognise as scrib jelly. All in all, I decided my subconscious had chosen well.

The plan – which probably didn't deserve the name, but had at least been enough to stop Jamie's talk about returning to the Legion – was for me to settle down with a book and wait for Galtis Guvron to show; Varvur had assured me he always turned up during the course of the afternoon. I stuck with it, but my fingers trembled on the pages and I kept my head firmly averted from Allding. Luckily, he didn't seem inclined to pay me much attention, instead holding court among what must be his guildmates.

"-blundered into my operation." he was saying right now. "And then insisted on coming along – as if it's a sight-seeing trip!"

Wait a minute. This was sounding horribly familiar... except that if he was really referring to what I thought he was, this was a distorted version of events to say the least.

"Nine preserve us from amateurs," the Orc said. "Did you at least get a good haul?"

Allbraggart shook his head. "Sadly, no. That – girl – was so incompetent she alerted not only the guards, but Venim himself! It was only due to quick thinking and skill that I managed to get away."

I reminded myself firmly that walking over there and telling Allliar exactly what I thought of him would not be keeping a low profile, and was therefore highly inadvisable.

Really.

"Probably someone who couldn't cut it in the guild proper," said a nearby Altmer. "And thinks butting into the business of real thieves and trying to show off will get her an in."

Allhotair nodded, stroking the pathetic tufts on his chin that did not qualify as a beard. If only I could go over there and tell him that it made him look like an idiot, but that that was all to the good since "an idiot" was in fact the sum total of what he was, the underlying truth of his existence reflected in every single thing he thought and did. It was only fair to warn those unfortunate enough to find themselves in his vicinity about this fact-

Keep control of yourself, Adryn.

I gritted my teeth and took out the two Dwemer texts I'd purchased at Jobasha's. Keep a low profile. Do not draw attention to yourself in the middle of the local thieves' guildhall by, for instance, wandering over to a certain Nord-shaped mass of stupidity's table and yelling at him at length. You are a simple scholar, here only to wet her throat and get out of the Mages Guild for a bit. You had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with certain events at Bolvyn Venim's manor two days ago.

The first book, Antecedents of Dwemer Law, proved rather a rather dry discourse on similarities between the Dwemer and Altmer legal systems. Ordinarily I'd have tried to slog through it, but given the level of... distractions and temptations... in my surroundings, I figured that might prove a bad idea. Luckily, Ruins of Kemel-Ze not only proved far more engaging, its very bigoted author also gave me a safe target for my rage. I was firmly engrossed and muttering imprecations against Nordssen's attitude towards Dunmer when the publican's voice broke my concentration.

"Ah, Galtis! Good to see you, how's business?"

I glanced up from my book just in time to see a somewhat plump Dunmer with thinning black hair make a beeline for the bar.

Wait, was he-

I kept my eyes firmly fixed on my book, barely able to believe my luck, as he sat down some two barstools away.

"Excellent, my dear Lirielle! The wares my new partner's been supplying me with sell like scrib pies at New Year's."

My ears perked as Guvron shucked his cloak and set his pack on the stool between us.

"I'm glad to know someone's doing well, at least." The publican - Lirielle, I supposed - sounded a little disgruntled. "I don't suppose you'd let me in on your secret? You're very mysterious about these new wares of yours, and I've got Hard-Heart's boot-lickers circling like vultures."

"Ah, my partner's very... particular. I don't think you'd like her. And I don't think our wares would suit you, either. I've got something right here which I think would suit you much better, mind..."

Guvron opened up his pack and withdrew an amulet, which he presented to Lirielle. He left the pack open.

All right, fate was clearly trying to make up for some of the things it had been heaping on me lately.

"Trying to woo me while my brother's not here, is that it?" Well, both Lirielle and Guvron seemed distracted. I turned my head slightly to see what he had with him.

I couldn't see anything like the statue Varvur had described. Mostly his pack seemed to contain cheap jewellery - similar to the amulet Guvron was trying to clasp around Lirielle's neck while she, laughing, fended him off - along with what looked like several folded linen shirts. There were also a few slim books, with some loose parchment protruding from between the pages of one of them. A letter, maybe? I could see a few lines of handwriting. I chanced a closer look-

If that wasn't in code, I'd eat my headscarf.

(Which was something I'd really prefer to avoid, given that it was probably the only thing keeping me safely unrecognised right now.)

"Eh? What's this?"

I quickly looked up, afraid Lirielle had caught me being nosy. My luck was in, however – Lirielle's eyes weren't on me, but on a Redguard woman approaching the bar.

A very familiar Redguard woman.

What in Kynareth's name was Jamie doing here? I thought I'd been explicitly clear that I did not need any help here, that in fact other people would most likely only get in the way. I'd taken Jamie for reasonably intelligent – surprisingly so, in fact, given her profession – and even Varvur had claimed to understand the idea after I'd been through with it yesterday.

"Lirielle Stoine?" Jamie asked. She was ignoring me entirely, I noticed with grudging approval.

"That's my name, yes." Lirielle sounded wary. The friendly woman who'd served me my wick water and had been joking with Guvron had vanished, leaving a stone-faced stranger.

"Lobrumol gro-Aglakh sent me, from the Fighter's Guild. It's about a debt-"

"What. Did you. Say?"

The growl sounded like it should come from a bear, not a small Breton woman. Around us, conversation ground to a halt. I was impressed despite myself when Jamie didn't step back.

"A debt," she repeated, frowning. "He says the deadline for payment is overdue. I might be able to talk him into an extension, but you'd need to make an initial payment-"

"Make an initial payment?" Lirielle's voice rose. "As if I'd give a shaved copper to that s'wit! It's not even my debt and now his lackeys are coming after me-"

Tearing myself away from the unfolding drama, I let an unobtrusive glance drift around the tavern. Every eye was fixed on Jamie and Lirielle. This included Guvron next to me, who was watching the scene with a dark scowl. He looked as though he was tempted to jump in and start defending Lirielle with his fists; I reminded myself firmly that Jamie could take care of herself.

My gaze was drawn back to the letter in Guvron's pack. I found myself torn. The plan had been for me to use certain of my... less than legitimately acquired skills to spy on Guvron, both by eavesdropping and by following him inconspicuously if I didn't find out anything interesting. This would be something of a departure-

But Guvron didn't seem as if he'd let anything more slip to Lirielle, and what were the chances that letter didn't have something to do with Varvur's situation? Why else would a poor pawnbroker who made his living off cheap rings and amulets be receiving encrypted messages?

Besides, that pack, so wonderfully positioned, with the witnesses so beautifully distracted... it was calling to me. Everything had transpired so perfectly, it was as though the universe was begging me to take it off its hands. Who was I to turn down the universe?

When I started packing up, Lirielle shot me a brief glance. I murmured a thank-you, making sure to keep my movements smooth and unhurried and Ruins of Kemel-Ze covering the book - with its suspicious letter - I'd plucked from Guvron's pack. She gave me a distracted nod, then turned back to Jamie.

"You cursed Camonna Tong thugs drove him to-"

By the time I had all my things together and was getting up to leave, she and Jamie had become sufficiently loud and attention-grabbing that I suspected I'd be able to just grab Guvron's pack in full view of everyone with no effort to hide what I was doing and still get away with it. (Not, I told myself sternly, that that was a good idea.) In fact, several of the other patrons were getting up and moving in their direction. One of them was Allding.

I stared at the Nord "thief", remembered the way the events at Venim manor had actually gone in full, agonising detail, and gave in to impulse.

Allbraggart scowled at me when I bumped into him. I mumbled a low apology, making sure to keep my head and face turned away and to keep walking - the very image of a mer in a hurry. After a moment, I heard Allunobservant mutter a curse about people who didn't watch where they were going, followed by his receding footsteps.

Outside, I patted the hard lump under my robes. Forty septims for a glass dagger, hadn't Fasile said? If I could find somewhere to fence it, that would mean no worries about money for a long, long time. I figured it was fair enough revenge for the trouble Allding had caused me.

Besides, I thought virtuously, maybe depriving him of the weapon would teach him not to wave it at innocent passersby. I really had no idea why the Mastermind hadn't tossed him out yet. Or maybe the entire Morrowind guild didn't know how a proper thief behaved.

Back in the Mages' Guild, I found a desk in a quiet corner and looked over my new acquisitions. The book had Poison Song written on the cover - a glance inside showed that it seemed to be the first in a series of novels of some sort. Not particularly relevant, was my guess, although I wasn't going to turn down free bedtime reading.

The letter was an entirely different matter.

ZHPLTWMIWVAMCEKMOSMRLCDYIXLERVXYAAELXWIJWROXZBZAAWPRDXIQIXYKTMXWCEPAZVJIWLSLQYEA
IHDRKDEYTHHYXMYMXNXFDAFIKHTILSMRVXFDOVHGOLVKLVIILZOHOEVUFXSVMRVXYASYRAGASUFWXDHP
DENSWLUSLDIIBMEPEBIKMLHAYEWZMECQEIKMPSFDMAXPCXEKASRVRGFVPDVUOBEWAGLWKFRXXPEAXDQA
WKEKVIIETCWCSRYLAELFIWPVFQNNEDWYYZYERSTCWCOXZXTUMTGOACRJDGMKXSCJPQIBFVNTYOWXWEDZ
ATGSWELOXZBZXAXIECHDWKOWMKLXZPCGPREKTLILKHGWOFEROKKYYYKAVYDOEPAICOEPEAEKSFZXPTXP
KUBWWEMFWNETIYIADKPAOLHGYSXSMJWPZSAGAQWLKEXRUASDVGRALADRSIIYWNKVSB

It seemed I wouldn't have to eat my headscarf after all. Probably for the best - cloth doesn't agree with my stomach.

"Let's see what you're hiding, hmm?"



I was well into my work by the time Jamie tapped me on the shoulder. I glared at her for making me jerk and leave an ink-splotch on my current sheet of scrap parchment, then remembered I should be glaring at her for something else.

"What was all that about? Showing up in there like that? I thought we agreed you'd let me handle this!" I hissed.

Jamie raised an eyebrow. "Calm down, will you? I was letting you handle it - I thought I'd ask in the Fighters Guild for another job while I was waiting. And it so happened that job was to ask Lirielle Stoine, owner of the Rat in the Pot, for some money she owed. Perfect opportunity to check on how you were doing without looking suspicious, I thought, and maybe you'd be able to use the distraction." She scowled. "Turned out to be more of one than I'd like. Lirielle got really upset, said her brother owed the money and people from the guild put so much pressure on him he went to see if he could make it hunting bandits in a cave - with no real training, mind. She hasn't heard from him since, says she's getting really worried. I'm starting to think the Fighter's Guild is as corrupt as the Legion."

Something about that tugged at my memory. Thought the point of an Imperial guild was supposed to be that it wasn't a crime syndicate... who had said that?

"Helviane Desele!"

"Huh?" Jamie stared at me.

"Oh, right, sorry- Helviane Desele, in Suran, I remember her saying something about the Fighter's Guild running protection rackets."

"Great. Just great." Jamie buried her head in her hands. "I swear, trying to collect mushrooms for Ajira is the most honest job I've been asked to do since I arrived on this benighted island. If only I didn't need the money-" She straightened. "Well, enough of that. What did you find out?"

"Guvron had a letter in his bag, tucked into this book." I hefted Poison Song.

Jamie frowned. For a moment I thought she was going to object to my methods, but in the end she remained silent. Stendarr be praised - I didn't think I could deal with two Varvurs. One was more than bad enough already.

She frowned even more when she looked over the letter. "Encrypted? Curse it. Maybe if we take it to the guard or something, tell them we think it contains important information, they might be able to..."

I gave her a puzzled look. "Take it to the guard, whatever for? I'm making progress, I swear. See," I explained, "it's definitely not a simple substitution, not even scrambled - after my first guesses only gave gibberish I counted the frequency of the different letters and they're far too evenly distributed for that. However, I think it might be polyalphabetic, maybe Vigenerus? That one's always popular. If so, I need to figure out the keyword - but there's a few repeated groups of letters, so I can guess at the length using common divisors-"

"If I admit that you seem to know what you're doing, will you please start speaking Tamrielic again?"

Of course, I'd forgotten that this wasn't exactly a common skill.

But code-breaking can be quite a handy talent for a thief. Intercepted messages can give the location of lucrative goods or the details of their protection, and decoded stolen documents can be sensitive enough that the owner is willing to pay a high price to get them back (mind you, this should be done as a one-time deal - blackmail is really something to avoid unless absolutely necessary). And if the sensitive information you find is sufficiently disgusting, no guard commander has ever refused an anonymous tip... especially not one accompanied by solid proof.

Never say the Thieves' Guild does nothing for you.

"Sorry," I apologised. "What I mean is - I think I can crack this, although it might take me a while. I'll probably take it back to Balmora with me and work on it there."

"Good, good." Jamie hesitated. "Say, Adryn... do you think you'll be all right on your own for a day or two?"

"Wait, you're leaving?" I was sure that yesterday evening Jamie had said she didn't have anything else she was working on right now.

"It's Lirielle's brother." Jamie rubbed the back of her head. "She's really worried about him. Apparently he heard about some rich bandits holed up in a cave near Gnaar Mok and decided to see if he couldn't raise the debt money that way - as I said, he's not a trained fighter or anything, and there's been no word since. I said I could go check on him. I wasn't planning to actually go on any jobs until we had this- business all sorted out, but... if he died because I delayed, I'd never be able to forgive myself."

It seemed Jamie was infected by that dangerous disease known as altruism. Well, I might as well take pity on such an unfortunate.

"Hey, I'm a grown adult - and so's Ajira, for that matter. The only one of us who needs a babysitter is Varvur, and Ma'Zajirr seems to have that spot covered. We'll be fine."

I did have to admit it had been comforting to have a trained fighter standing by for back-up, but I'd gone for years without such luxuries. Besides, I'd most likely need several days at least to crack the code - chances were she'd have made it back by the time I did.

"Right. I should be back in two days or thereabouts - Lirielle said the cave is around half a day's walk from Ald'ruhn, but I might stop by a friend's place on the way." Jamie hesitated. "Don't do anything reckless, all right? I'm not sure what that," she nodded at the encrypted letter, "is all about, but if they've used magic to murder before-"

"Me? Reckless? I think you're confusing me for Varvur, here. Trust me, the last thing I plan on doing is heading into danger. That's what you fighter types are for, after all." I gave Jamie a winning smile. She looked strangely unconvinced. "Really! I promise I'll be careful."

"Just... remember, it'll only be a few days until I'm back."


Some time later, I leaned back in my chair in satisfaction.

It had been Vigenerus after all, and I'd had a very lucky break - after working out that the key they were using was most likely fifteen letters long, I'd decided to test if the letter started with Galtis on a hunch. It had, and breaking the whole code was a quick matter after that. Apparently, no one had bothered telling these people that you shouldn't use addresses in encrypted texts. Amateurs.

I made a mental note of the key phrase in case I ran into more people using this system. I wondered whether there was any special meaning behind 'the sleeper wakes' or whether they'd just chosen it because it was memorable? Well, no matter.

I read over the decrypted message.

Galtis,

It seems as though your blunder with the Sarethis will not ruin us after all. Venim has jumped on the opportunity to have something to hold over Sarethi's head by taking the son into custody. He does not seem interested in asking questions.

I will be away on our Lord's business until next Middas. Keep placing statues around Ald'ruhn, and place them quickly and wisely. Remember to keep a low profile this time and make sure they cannot be traced back to you. Should all else fail, do not let yourself be captured alive. Do not disappoint me again.

Destroy this note.

Hanarai

Hanarai. A name. And she was gone right now, assuming the note wasn't more than a week old.

Don't do anything reckless, Jamie had said. Well, a little burglary hardly counted, surely? I'd scope out the terrain first, but I couldn't think it would be difficult - not if the place was empty.

Besides, I told myself, this might be my only chance. Hanarai was coming back tomorrow, and Guvron would notice the theft sooner or later.

Around me the guild was winding towards closing time, various members heading off to their homes for supper. The guild guide, a young Altmer I'd heard called 'Erranil', wasn't one of them. A quick inquiry yielded that the guild guide service would be open until late, that she had food with her in her bag, and numerous complaints about guild regulations regarding maximum working hours - in particular, the exceptions they made for guild guides. I nodded and murmured sympathetically at all the right moments, then steered the conversation over to another topic.

"A census? Hmm..." Erranil tapped her chin. "We don't have one, but I think there are records in the public library. It'll be closed by now, mind you."

Well, so much for my plans - I couldn't very well investigate Hanarai's home if I didn't know where it was. Unless I broke into the public library as well, but-

"Why do you ask?" Apparently I'd made Erranil curious.

"I..." I fell back on the excuse I'd used regarding Caius, "I'm running some deliveries right now, one of them is a Hanarai. But they didn't know exactly where she lives," I improvised. "I was hoping there might be a census I could consult..."

"Hanarai?" Erranil frowned. "That name sounds familiar... oh, do you mean Hanarai Assutlanipal?" Her face cleared. "I send her to Balmora every now and then, and I've seen her attending Vala's history lessons. Where she lives... let me think."

Well, that was a stroke of luck right there. True, as a guild guide Erranil no doubt met a great many people, but Ald'ruhn was still a large city - I hadn't expected her to actually know Hanarai.

"She's a maid at Morvayn manor, but I don't think she lives there. She said something once..." Inwardly, I heaved a sigh of relief - breaking into a manor would make things far more complicated than I'd like. "Oh yes! She lives in the first house on the left on Veloth's Street, the one that goes to the Temple - her house is just at the corner with the stairs that go up to Skar. I remember because she complained about the noise once, living at that intersection. But if you want to drop something off, you might need to wait a few days. I transported her to Balmora Loredas afternoon, I don't think she's come back yet."

Confirmation! See there, I told myself, I had two sources telling me this Hanarai wasn't in Ald'ruhn right now. Having a quiet look around her house was definitely not reckless.

"Oh, that's all right," I said. "It's just a letter, I'll slip it under her door."


I stepped outside the Mages' Guild and into a plane of Oblivion. At least, it was the best explanation I could come up with for why the streets of Ald'ruhn had been replaced by a maelstrom of howling winds and whirling flakes of ash so thick you couldn't even breathe, let alone see.

Oh. That was what those clouds had been about. Suddenly the mention of 'ash storms' I'd overheard earlier made much more sense.

I held one hand in front of my face, trying to shield my eyes from the blowing ash; with the other, I grabbed the end of my scarf and held it over my nose and mouth. This way I could breathe at least a little, even though I suspected I'd be coughing ash for days. Then, teeth gritted, I set out into the storm.

The walk seemed to take forever as I struggled against the wind and ash, the map of Ald'ruhn fixed in my mind. I wished I'd done a little more exploration of the city earlier instead of heading straight to the Rat - right now, it would really be good to know more landmarks. The last thing I wanted was to come bursting in on Hanarai's neighbours.

There! That dark shape ahead had to be the great crab I'd been told earlier was called "Skar", and when I gingerly moved forwards I hit stairs. And – I squinted into the storm – yes, there was a road going off to my right, although I had to admit I didn't much feel like checking whether there was a Temple at its end.

So this house right here must be...

I didn't bother looking around to see if I was being watched before grabbing Allding's lockpicks. Anyone who was stupid enough to be outside right now would be busy trying not to suffocate, and besides, in this weather they'd have to be standing on top of me in order to see what I was doing.

I blew into the house with a cloud of ash and quickly shut the door behind me. For a few moments, I hacked and coughed, then my breathing settled. I spent a few moments indulging in pure joy at the presence of air again. Finally, when I'd recovered somewhat, I took a look around.

Darkness.

I dug into my pack. One of the things I'd taken with me had been... there it was!

I pulled out the candle, then dug further, looking for a firesteel. I was just on the verge of dumping everything I had with me on the floor and sorting through it by feel when I remembered that I hadn't actually taken one with me, the reason for that a certain spell I'd learned my first day on the island. Shaking my head at my forgetfulness, I pinched the wick of the candle into flame, then looked around.

The house looked like a smaller version of the Rat in the Pot, with the same central hearth but only a small sleeping alcove behind it. For a moment I wondered if this was all there was to the house – even smaller than Ajira's home in Balmora – but then I spotted the stairs heading down.

Ash had blown all over the entryway with my hasty entrance. I frowned at the mess – a good targeted burglary leaves everything as it was before, and this would be hard to undo. I'd try to clean up before I left, but if Hanarai kept the front area of her home even remotely tidy it would be easy for her to realise someone had been here when she got back.

Oh well, there was nothing I could do about it now. And since I was here, it was time to see if I couldn't find anything incriminating. Another letter, easy to crack now that I knew the key, or perhaps some of those statues - if I could find one like Varvur described, we could take it to be investigated by a magical expert. Combined with the clear evidence of a conspiracy I'd found, if they found any traces of malignant magic on the thing Varvur would surely be declared innocent and out of my hair for good.

A while later, I'd finished rummaging through most of Hanarai's house and come up blank. All that remained was a locked door on the lower floor which I guessed led to a cellar.

The lock on the outside door had been easy. This one was a great deal harder, and I had no lockpicks other than Allding's - if they broke, I'd be in trouble. This called for generous investments of focus, skill and time, all of which I thankfully had in ample supply. Finally the lock snicked open. I was about to ease the door open when my instincts screamed warning.

A thread, dark enough it was nearly invisible, running across the gap between door and frame-

Ah. A trap.

I smiled grimly. What sort of simple maid sends messages in code and has not just locked but trapped the door to her cellar?

Disarming the trap was easily as tricky as picking the look, with the added complication that I didn't have the right tools with me. I ended up heading upstairs and appropriating some of the contents of Hanarai's sewing kit to serve as my makeshift replacement. By the time I finally managed to disarm the thing, the howling of the storm outside had eased off, my candle was burning dangerously low and my stomach was starting to make grumbling noises indicating that if I didn't give it something to digest in the near future, it would be forced to find something on its own and my stomach lining was right there...

"Patience," I informed it and eased the door open.

The first thing I noticed was that I didn't need my candle. The small room at the bottom of a flight of stairs was lit with a deep, pulsating crimson light, one which promised quite the headache but was enough to see by. Oddly, I couldn't work out where it was coming from.

The second thing I noticed was a sickly sweet rotting smell wafting towards me, reminiscent of the stench of the Blighted guar. Looking down into the room, I suspected the origin might be what looked like a chunk of raw meat, lying on a metal plate as though inviting me to dinner.

I gulped. My hunger had turned tail and fled entirely, and every fibre of my body screamed I should be doing the same. Well - every fibre except for those in my legs. They had taken the first step down the stairs without bothering to consult me. Now they took another, leaving me feeling a little like a mouse hypnotised by a serpent.

As my feet dragged me down the stairs, more details caught my attention:

The tapestry covering the far wall, black and crimson, covered in abstract patterns that were strangely hard to make out... especially because I could almost swear they shifted and writhed like some hill of centipedes on the edge of my vision, even though whenever I looked straight at them they were still.

The feeling of soft, penetrating whispers in the air, perfectly balanced on the edge between too-vivid imagination and actual sound.

The odd metal stand, with more of those chunks of meat hanging from it like some sort of obscene decoration. Up closer, I could see that the meat was covered in great bulging tumors which leaked yellowish pus. Perhaps whatever creature it belonged to had been Blighted-

Whatever creature?

I swallowed hard. Some of the chunks had patches of abraded skin still attached... patches of Dunmer-grey skin.

And... the meat on the plate had what looked like a bite taken out of it.

My stomach decided to take a moment to inform me that it had sat down and seriously contemplated its life and choices up to this point. It regretted how bossy it had been in the past and would like to assure me that it had changed its ways and would never, ever ask for nourishment ever again. In fact, it was strongly considering demonstrating its newfound dedication to fasting by expelling everything it currently contained.

All right. All right. Focus.

I'd found clear and unmistakeable evidence of Hanarai being involved in something, and I highly doubted it was the local knitting circle. If you'd asked me yesterday, I'd have said I wouldn't put much past some of the old grannies I'd seen who'd ruled such gatherings with an iron fist, but I was quite sure that cannibalism was on that short list. At least cannibalism without a knife and fork.

I should really be happy to have discovered something, I told myself. I was sure I'd start being so as soon as I stopped feeling as though I'd wandered into the open maw of a sleeping beast and any moment now it was going to wake up hungry.

A glint of eyes in the corner-

I whirled, heart thumping fit to burst. I only relaxed slightly when I saw the culprit wasn't any person or... creature, but a foot-high red statue on a shelf in the corner, depicting what I thought was some sort of horned demon.

One that looked just like Varvur described, in short.

Shadows shifted and twisted at the base of the statue. The diffuse crimson light reflected strangely off its eyes, making it almost look as if they were glowing.

I did not want to touch that thing.

Wait, why was I moving?

As if in a trance, I found myself stepping forward, reaching out and - mental shrieks of protest in vain - picking up the statue.

It looked and felt like it was made of some sort of reddish stone, albeit one I couldn't identify, but if so it was far too light to be solid. It was also strangely warm, and I almost thought I could feel the slightest slow throb like a faint heartbeat.

The whispers I'd been hearing-imagining this whole time grew steadily louder and more penetrating. I began to make out words...

outlander intruder defiler join us and be forgiven join us and be cleansed join us in the flesh

come to us come to us come to Him beneath Red Mountain

He calls

He calls

THE SLEEPER WAKES-

My mind fought the rising chorus with a single word:

Run.

After an endless frozen moment, that managed to get through to my unresponsive limbs. I wheeled around and ran like I'd never run in my life.

Once I reached the top of the stairs and Hanarai's living area, the voices died away. I didn't halt there, however. I bolted up the next flight of stairs and outside. I only stopped when I was struggling for breath and Hanarai's house was well out of sight.

A quick look around showed that although the storm had stopped, the streets were still almost deserted. Nobody seemed to have noticed my abrupt retreat.

Far more importantly... nothing had followed me.

Good, I thought.

Then I bent over and threw up what felt like everything I'd ever eaten.


"So, you see," I tried. "The good news is, I think we found out what affected Varvur."

Three pairs of eyes stared at the statue where it sat innocuously on Ajira's table.

"That is all very well and good, friend Adryn." Ajira sounded somewhat less than impressed by my heroic effort to find a bright side to the current situation. "However, it strikes Ajira that we have gone from the fire into the lava pool. What," she stabbed a claw towards the statue, taking care not to touch the thing, "are we to do with it now? This item is clearly very dangerous."

"You can say that again," Varvur said, fingers clenched around his mug of tea. He'd gone pasty-white from my first description of Hanarai's cellar and hadn't recovered since. It was a sign of how bad things had gotten that I couldn't even take pleasure in his obvious distress. "I can't believe- I had no idea-" He shuddered so hard tea slopped over the sides of the mug. "I was sleeping with that next to me every night!"

"Do we know anyone who could handle this safely and, preferably, also testify that it would be capable of controlling Varvur to the authorities?" I asked. "One of the high-level guild members, perhaps? They must work with dangerous magical items."

Come to think of it, maybe I should have thought about that before I set out to steal a statue from Hanarai's home...

Ajira was frowning. "Perhaps... Ajira's friend Edwinna, who is mistress of the Ald'ruhn guildhall... but Ajira has never heard Edwinna speak of anything such as this. She works with the Dwemer, mainly, and this is nothing like a Dwemer item."

How had she ever noticed? It wasn't as if not being made of metal was a dead give-away or anything.

"Or Folms Mirel, master of Caldera, who specialises in enchanting... but he can be," Ajira's whiskers twitched, "difficult to work with."

I was relatively certain that was an Ajira-euphemism for something, and equally certain I would rather not find out exactly what it was a euphemism for first-hand. "None of the other masters? Ranis Athrys?" I tried to imagine approaching our remote, superior head of guild for help and swallowed. "Right, no. There's Treb- no. Who's head of the Sadrith Mora guild?"

"I think we should go to the Temple with this," Varvur interrupted before Ajira could answer. "If those- if you really heard the things you said you did, Adryn-" I shot him a narrow-eyed glare at such slander against my honesty, which he rudely ignored- "then this would fall under their remit."

Ajira flinched. "Ah. The mention of Red Mountain, yes? And awakening?"

"I hope it's just coincidence," Varvur said, "or something playing on common fears, but if not..."

I looked back and forth between the two of them. "I'm missing something, aren't I."

Varvur raised an eyebrow. "Of course, you're an outlander, you wouldn't know." He sounded reproving, as though my ignorance of whatever piece of Morrowind-specific knowledge this was were my fault. "Well, it'd take too long to get into now-"

I sat bolt upright, the insult stiffening my spine. "Maybe for someone of your level of intelligence, yes. I hardly imagine it would take me nearly as long to grasp whatever you're talking about. And since I'm the one who actually went into that-" my mind sought and failed to find an appropriate descriptor, so I resorted to, "that- cellar, I think I have a right to know what you're talking about."

Varvur's eyebrows bunched together. He opened his mouth, no doubt about to launch some feeble offensive I would take great delight in tearing to shreds. However, Ajira got there first.

"I call for Saint Meris's peace! Surely we have enough to worry about without arguing?"

Both of us wilted under her stare. She must have learned it from dealing with Ma'Zajirr, because despite the fact that she was the youngest person in the room there was something indefinably parental about that look.

"Friend Adryn," Ajira continued, "the Temple holds there is a great evil sleeping beneath Red Mountain, an ancient foe of the Tribunal themselves, currently contained by the Ghostfence. Not everyone believes this-"

"-although the doubters have generally never actually been within the Ghostfence-"

"-if Ajira may continue? Thank you. The details as well as alternate theories put forth by organizations such as the Imperial Cult are not important right now and truly would take too long to get into." Ajira sounded faintly apologetic. "The important thing is that it is certain there is something at Red Mountain, something which is the source of both corprus and Blight, and it is a thing the Temple is very concerned about."

Source of Blight... Despite the fact that there was really nothing left in my stomach at this point, I still had to swallow back nausea as I remembered the guar the day before, along with the... objects... inside Hanarai's cellar.

"So you think this is connected. Right. Makes sense. I guess in that case," my lips twisted with distaste at the sentence I felt myself forced to utter, "Varvur has a point. About the Temple being the best place to go, I mean."

"Besides, they'd be far more likely to convince the Ald'ruhn judiciary than anyone from the Mages' Guild." Varvur was clearly unable to resist rubbing it in. Well, I supposed he had to make the most of those rare occasions when the stars and moons aligned such that he was right about something. I could be generous.

"This is also a point. The guild is not as... accepted here as we might want, friend Adryn." Before I could ask her what she meant by that, Ajira went on. "So Ajira supposes the question becomes: does anyone have contacts among the Temple one could bring this to?"

Silence.

"I suppose... we could try my cousin," Varvur said after a moment. He sounded rather hesitant. "Salyn Sarethi, he's a Buoyant Armiger. An Armiger would probably be the best person to contact about this – they're respected enough people will listen to them, initiated into enough of the Temple mysteries that they'll know if this thing is a known danger, but have enough independence that they can form their own judgement and investigate on their own. And Salyn is held in high honour even for an Armiger. Recently Lord Vivec himself rewarded him for his service by giving him Enamor, a glass dagger."

Wait a minute. Enamor?

Hadn't I seen something along those lines inscribed on the weapon I'd liberated from Allding earlier today? The weapon that so happened to be a glass dagger, in fact...

Surely it had to be coincidence. Where would that bumbling idiot have come by the thing?

Ajira frowned. "Ajira thinks he does not sound very keen on this plan."

Varvur sighed. "If I contact Salyn, I'm not sure whether he won't consider himself honour-bound to turn me in. And whether he'll just view all this as my trying to wriggle out of trouble. He... we don't get on very well. I just don't know who else to ask."

Suddenly, things slotted together in my head.

"I have an idea," I said. "Let's contact Ervesa. A Buoyant Armiger I know," I added for Varvur's benefit. "I don't know if she's as well-respected as your cousin, but she's an Armiger, and I think she'll listen to me. Besides..."

I paused, dredging up the memory. It had been only a brief snatch of conversation and I'd been distracted, but it had also only been a few days ago and close to events that were branded in my memory.

"I think she might have seen these before," I said slowly. "When I was in Suran with her, she spent a long time talking to the priestess at the Temple there. I remember that there was something wrong there, something that worried both of them and meant we couldn't stay the night. They talked about 'cleansing', and I think I heard them mention statues as well."

Varvur's mouth had fallen open, making him look like a particularly stupid goldfish. Ajira nodded. "That sounds like a very good plan, friend Adryn. Ajira forgot that you too have contacts in the Temple hierarchy."

"Right, I'll send a letter," I said. "She said I could reach her through the hall at Molag Mar." The candle on Ajira's table was definitely shorter than it had been when I arrived – we'd been at this for quite a while, and I'd already gotten back late. "I'm guessing the Courier's Guild won't still be open?"

Ajira shook her head. "They will reopen tomorrow at dawn. To Molag Mar... if we send the letter then and pay for express delivery, it should get there by midday."

"That's quick!" Trying to get a letter from one city to another in Skyrim could take weeks. "Do they use-"

Varvur's mouth finally closed. "You're friends with a Buoyant Armiger?"

I raised an eyebrow. "Well, yes. I just said so. Do keep up, will you?"

"But- but- you! A Buoyant Armiger!"

I turned to Ajira. "He's even less coherent than usual – did he get hit in the head at any point today? Get into your potions cupboard? Strain himself by attempting to count past ten without using his toes?"

At this point, I knew Ajira well enough to tell she was hiding a smile. "Ah – friend Adryn, I believe he is simply a little surprised."

Varvur let himself fall back in his chair, head dropping back. "The world is a strange and mysterious place," he told the ceiling.

"Are we decided on what to do, then?" I asked, ignoring Varvur. It was honestly a relief to have a solid course of action.

"It all sounds like a good plan, friend Adryn. There is only one thing Ajira can think of."

"Oh?" I tried to ignore my sinking feeling.

"What are we to do with the statue for now?"

There was a long pause. Varvur looked puzzled, which fit with my general estimation of his intelligence. Unlike him, I'd realised what Ajira was getting at and was filled with slowly dawning horror.

"It is the biggest piece of evidence we have to prove the honoured Varvur Sarethi's innocence," Ajira went on. "So we must be careful not to lose it. And it sounds as if it would be far too dangerous to leave unwatched in any case, especially as neither Ajira nor friend Adryn have any places to safely store such an item. So someone must stay near it. And..."

"...and as far as we're aware, sleeping near this thing makes you kill people," I finished for Ajira. "Point taken. Point very much taken."

The next pause was even longer, and this time everyone involved looked equally horrified.

"Someone's going to have to keep watch on it overnight. Aren't they." I wished fiercely that Jamie had decided to stick around instead of swanning off to be a hero and rescue people from what sounded like their own folly. I was sure I'd have been able to make a solid case that guarding dangerous magical artifacts was right up her alley.

Varvur paled as he looked at the statue. "I... er. I suppose." He swallowed. "If it's necessary, I can... it would be the honourable thing to do..."

"Is that supposed to be an offer to take the thing?" I stared at him, incredulous. "Has Sheogorath touched your mind? You're the one who's succumbed to it. You're the last person who should be near it."

"No, friend Adryn." I looked at Ajira in surprise. Her ears were flattened to her head and I could see her tail bristling. "He is not quite the last person - that would be Ma'Zajirr. Ajira refuses to have that, that thing anywhere near him."

"Right. Well, the three of you are all staying here, so..." I groaned. "...I'm going to have to be the one to take it now, aren't I."

"Ajira- er. If it is necessary, Ajira could stay somewhere else tonight-" The reluctance in every syllable was palpable.

"No," I said, then swallowed. "No, it's all right. I... it's for the best I take it. Ma'Zajirr might need you, and- and I'm the only one who stays in the Guild overnight, after all. I can put it in a corner somewhere... hopefully if it's far enough away it won't affect me at all. And if, if worst comes to worst, I do fall asleep and it affects me, you said you had your statue for weeks before the black-outs started, right?" I asked Varvur.

He nodded. "The nightmares started right after I got it, but the first blackouts were at least two weeks later... I don't remember exactly, though."

"Right! So even if I do fall asleep - which I'm not going to! - I should be fine."

True, I wasn't looking forward to a sleepless night after a few blissful nights of good dreams (or at least dreams I could barely remember, which I figured amounted to the same thing at this point), but if worst came to worst, considering the level of experience I had in the area I considered myself well-equipped to fend off a few nightmares for a while.

But, said a nagging voice, what if I-

What if it Comma-

We wouldn't let it get that far in the first place, I told myself firmly. Not only was I well-practiced in staying up all night - had been on a mostly nocturnal schedule up until I'd arrived in Morrowind, in fact - but Varvur had lasted for weeks before the statue got the better of him. I'd pit my willpower against his any day.

"If friend Adryn is certain..." Ajira looked torn.

My nod was far more confident than I felt. "I am," I said. "I'll keep an eye on it overnight, and then-"

What then? It was unlikely Ervesa would get my message and come rushing over the very next day, and I had to sleep at some point.

"Ajira will come by the Mages' Guild early," Ajira took over. "She will keep watch on it during the day, while friend Adryn brings her letter to the Courier's Guild and returns to Ajira's home to sleep. She does not have Guild duties, after all, no one will insist she remains."

"Yes. That works. And Jamie will be back in a few days, which will make it easier to take shifts. And if- anything happens," my voice did not just shake, "or after a week we haven't heard back from Ervesa yet, we can think of something else."

I shifted, ready to stand up to leave, and felt something hard press into my waist. The hilt of the dagger I'd liberated from Allding.

The dagger which, much as I'd been trying to remember it otherwise, had Enamor engraved along the blade.

I had a fierce argument with myself in my head. It went along the lines of:

A gift from a god? Stealing one of those has never ended well for the thief across the entirety of mythology. I didn't think "but I didn't steal it directly!" was going to pass muster.

...but forty septims.

And since it was a gift from a god, Varvur's cousin was certain to have missed it already. I didn't want to bet on him not being able to track it to me, especially since there was no saying what kind of magic was on the thing.

...but forty septims.

In the end, it was the realisation that there was no way I could safely fence the thing more than anything else that decided me.

"Is there anything wrong, friend Adryn?"

"Not exactly. But..."

With a deep sigh for the sake of my lost fortune, I withdrew the dagger from where I'd tucked it into my shirt.

"...Varvur, does this look familiar?"


Late that night found me curled up in one of the chairs in the Mages' Guild main room with Antecedents of Dwemer Law. If I was going to stay up the entire night, I wanted something to occupy my thoughts.

My eyes flicked over to the other side of the room.

We'd wrapped the statue in a sack before I left, and I'd deposited it in the far corner of the sleeping alcove. Despite the book in my hands, I found I kept glancing over to the dark, flickering shadow it made in the candlelight.

This time as always, it was unchanged, and I scoffed at myself. What was I afraid of? Target for a Co- for a malignant spell, perhaps, but it was hardly going to get up and wander about.

In fact, from what Varvur had said he'd slept directly next to the thing. I couldn't imagine that a spell as complex as that had to be had a particularly great range. Most likely I was being over-cautious and it couldn't affect me all the way over here.

Not that I was planning to test that.

So far as concerns the influence of the Altmeri law upon our own, especially the Altmeri law of master and servant, the evidence of it is to be found in every judgment which has been recorded for the last five hundred years.

I yawned.

Maybe this book, dry as it was, had been a bad choice. I should've continued reading Ruins of Kemel-Ze instead, or picked up an alchemy book from Ajira, or one of the books on the local religion I'd bought from Jobasha on Ervesa's recommendation. I really didn't know why I hadn't thought of the last earlier, considering the mess we were in was apparently all tied up in religious matters. I supposed I could get up to get one now, but I was feeling so comfortable right here...

Concentrate, Adryn!

In the laws of Karndar Watch (P.D. 1180) it is said, "If one who is owned by another slays one who owns himself, the owner must pay the associates three fine instruments and the body of the one who his owned." There are many other similar citations. And the same principle is extended even to...

The words swam before my eyes. I blinked, trying to force them back into focus.

It was a little odd, come to think of it. I'd slept unusually well the previous two nights, and then the earlier revelation of Enamor had resulted in a furious argument (one that would probably still be occurring if Ma'Zajirr hadn't returned, prompting Ajira to threaten to toss both of us out on our ear). I'd stalked my way back to the Mages' Guild brimming with righteous fury - sleep had been the furthest thing from my mind. Why was I so tired?

Then again, I'd had a very stressful day of it. The last few hours in particular I'd mainly spent running off nervous energy. No wonder that, given a chance to sit down and relax, everything was catching up with me.

My eyelids felt so heavy...

Something brushed my chin. I jerked upright, realising my head had fallen forward.

Reading clearly wasn't working. I needed to get up, walk around, wake myself up a little. I could maybe make myself a cup of hackle-lo tea in the kitchen...

Or a potion! An energising potion should keep me awake well enough. I didn't know why I hadn't thought of it earlier. I could get up and go over to the alchemy lab to fetch one.

I remembered thinking this chair was uncomfortable when I sat down earlier. Why? Now that I was settled it was perfectly cozy, soft (I must not have noticed the cushions), supporting me in just the right way.

Despite the fact that it wasn't even close to used up yet, the candle was guttering. Its flame shrunk and shrunk until all that was left was a tiny, flickering blue core, a mere spark in the gloom around me.

I needed to get up. I needed an energising potion, I needed to find a new candle, a more interesting book, I needed to stay awake-

The candle went out.

My limbs felt like lead. I'd get up in a minute, I promised myself. I was just going to rest my eyes for a moment...

The last thing I saw before falling asleep was a dull red glow from the far corner.

Chapter Text

"Thank you for agreeing to see me," Sotha Sil said, lowering himself into the chair.

"It was no problem. Anything to drink?"

Knowing Sil's habits as I did, I didn't wait for an answer before making my way towards the bottles on the nearby shelf, which featured a wide selection of beverages for all sorts of visitors. I was already reaching towards the bottle of greef (a substance I personally considered more suited for scouring metal than ingestion, but proper hospitality does require some sacrifices) when, to my surprise, Sil shook his head.

"I need to rush off after this, I'm afraid," he said. "Although in all honesty, I don't think you'll feel much like chatting after this discussion."

Sil was never exactly what I'd call cheery, but even for him the expression on his face was more suited to a funeral than a visit to an erstwhile pupil and current friend. My spirits fell.

"All right. What is it?"

For a long moment, Sil said nothing, eyes boring into me.

Despite myself and despite the general gravity of the situation, I had to fight the urge to squirm. No mer on Nirn was quite so good at reducing me to feeling like an errant child as Sil, which was really quite a feat considering we only met when I was twenty. One expects that sort of thing from tribe elders, but coming from a mer who'd only ever known me as an adult it felt distinctly unfair. I wondered if I could lodge a complaint.

(Something was wrong.)

"I think," Sil finally said, "the Dwemer are up to something."

My first reaction was to scoff.

"Oh, the Dwemer are up to something. Believe me, I can't wait to hear what. Is it human sacrifice again? Another sneak attack to desecrate our tombs?" Centuries, I'd spent, trying to bring our peoples to friendship and having the Chimer fight me at every turn. By now, I could rattle off the litany of supposed Dwemer crimes in my sleep. "Are they kidnapping children? Plotting to corrupt our holy relics? Murdering-"

"Nerevar."

Sil's voice cut through mine, silencing me as immediately and thoroughly as though he'd used a spell.

"I would appreciate it if you'd remember who you are talking to."

Sil's tone was acidic, and I could feel heat rise in my cheeks.

It was true - I'd let my impatience with the topic get the better of me. I knew better than to believe Sotha Sil, the one who'd taught me to see a problem from all sides instead of letting myself be blinded by my prejudices, the master wizard who frequently collaborated with Kagrenac, would bring me those tales.

I inhaled to speak, then broke off. All of a sudden the air was filled with a sickly sweet rotten stench, choking-

The smell was gone as if it had never been there, and Sil was still looking at me witheringly. I frowned, trying to bring my focus back on the current discussion. It was important, and Sil would have no patience for my distraction.

"I apologise, Sil," I said. "I've spent too much time talking to Hlaalu Tovas and Omayn Lleranu lately."

Sil accepted my apology with a stately nod and a sharp glance saying don't do it again. "As I was saying," he continued after a moment, "I believe the Dwemer are up to something. I've been treated unusually badly on all my visits of late, not by new guardsmen or children but by mer I've known for years - mer who should know better. And they're being extremely secretive about whatever it is they're working on. Nothing," Sil emphasised, "they'll tell me nothing, after centuries of collaboration. It bodes ill, Nerevar."

Foreboding grew within me, quite distracting me from my overactive imagination. I tried to squash it, tried to tell myself this surely had an innocent explanation, but I could not quite force down the thought: is this the end?

Dumac was the closest friend I'd ever had, closer than Alandro Sul who was as good as my brother, closer than Voryn or Vivec or Sil, closer even than my own wife Almalexia. One of the cornerstones of that friendship was the knowledge that we might be forced to kill each other one day. We were both leaders of our peoples, our duty to them took precedence over our personal desires, and despite our best efforts the Chimer and Dwemer were not friends. If they went to war one day, Dumac and I would meet on opposite sides of a battlefield. For so long we had managed to placate the many factions who wanted to do away with our uneasy coexistence, four hundred years of peace, and now-

movement, out of the corner of my eye-

I jerked my head upwards, but when I fixed my gaze on the spot nothing was there. I blinked. I could have sworn I'd seen...

Apparently my mind had decided today was the best day to play tricks on me. At least Sil, still patiently waiting for me to pick up my part of the conversation, didn't seem to have noticed I was behaving strangely.

"How certain are you that it is serious?" I asked him, forcing my attention back on the current situation. "As opposed to something like - some theoretical debate about the nature of the gods which they keep from you because they think it will deeply offend the Chimer, or some young experimentalist with a disregard for his own safety who is worried your disapproval will sink his entire project and has gone on preemptive attack?"

The latter was hardly unheard of. After the incident during Hearthfire ten years ago, Sil would have to be senile to have forgotten young Yagrum Bagarn.

Sil grimaced. "I wish I could say it could be such a thing, but when the Dwemer stonewalled me I may have engaged in some... surreptitious investigation."

He glanced at me as though expecting my disapproval. Any I felt, I kept to myself. Four hundred years had taught me some of the necessities of politics, even if I still didn't like them.

"What I've found," he continued, "indicates they are on the verge of some major breakthrough - the work is attributed to Kagrenac himself - and the orders that the Chimer should not know come from the highest ranks. And I'm not the only one who's noticed the Dwemer behaving strangely, either. Voryn's mentioned similar things."

"He has?" Another blow to my hope that this would prove unfounded. Like Sil and me, Voryn was one of the few Chimer who worked closely with the Dwemer. Unlike us, his main contacts were among warriors and merchants. If both Sil and Voryn had noticed something odd... "What did he say, exactly?"

Sil opened his mouth in reply and said:

(join us in the flesh join us beneath Red Mountain-
the sleeper wakes-
Dagoth Ur does not want you here! )


I blinked. Had I drifted off for a moment?

"I'm sorry, Sil, I didn't catch that."

"I was saying, I decided this is serious enough that we shouldn't risk its being distorted through second-hand tales. I asked Voryn to meet me here in order to tell you directly. In fact, I think that's him now," he said, glancing over my shoulder...

Something was wrong.

Sil's mouth continued moving, but his voice faded away until all I could hear was a roaring in my ears. Our surroundings wavered like a mirage, as though everything, from the walls and furnishings to the report bearing Vivec's signature on my desk, were an illusion on the verge of collapse. I shot up from my chair-

Except there was no chair, there was no room, it was only bloody fog surrounding Sotha Sil as he stood before me, my teacher as he'd looked all the long years I'd known him-

-a mer with golden skin but eyes and hair too dark to be an Altmer, looking at me sadly, looking at me with recognition as his skin darkened and his eyes became flame and shadows began to grasp at us, a mer who looked so very familiar except I'd never seen him before in my life-

What colour were my hands?

The question burst into my mind, nonsensical as it was - obviously my hands were just as they'd always been, which meant-

(gold-

grey-)

Claws dug into my shoulder from behind.

"Found you."

I woke screaming.


 

Once I'd managed to stop screaming, I decided it was in truth rather embarrassing. At this point, the amount of experience I had with nightmares was actually quite depressing if you chose to think about it (I generally didn't). You could even call me something of a connoisseur. And I'd endeavoured to train myself out of the more unsightly reactions to them - screaming being at the very top of that list, and one I'd had made quite a satisfying amount of progress with. I hadn't reacted to a dream like that in years. And all it took for me to break that pattern was a dream of someone touching my shoulder and saying found you?

That voice.

The rest of the dream was already gone, vanishing the moment I was fully awake like all the dreams I'd had recently, but the end remained dreadfully clear. That voice like a knife stabbing straight into my brain, terrifying and inhuman and, worst of all, triumphant. Triumphant like someone who'd achieved his heart's desire, like a scholar who'd destroyed his bittermost rival or a general who'd just won his war... triumphant like someone who had spent a very, very long time indeed looking for me.

And that hand- it had come from out of nowhere, gripping my shoulder like a vise. I swore I could still feel it there, claw-tipped fingers digging into my skin, feel scalding breath blowing into my ear-

I forced myself to take slow, deep breaths, let my own hands relax from where they'd clenched on the chair's armrests. Then I reached for the candle on the table.

It took me two tries to get the fire spell to work, then two more until my hand stopped shaking long enough for me to pinch the wick of the candle. Finally, it flared into life and cast soft, reassuring light onto my surroundings.

Yes, this was definitely the Mages' Guild common area. I'd fallen asleep in my chair despite everything, but I was awake now. Awake, alone, everything was as it had been when I went to-

My blood froze in my veins.

The statue was sitting on the table next to me.

But- but I'd put it away. I'd wrapped it in a sack, left that on the opposite side of the room-

A quick glance to that area showed the sack right where I'd left it. I ascertained that it now looked crumpled and empty before I realised with a jolt that it probably wasn't a good idea to take my eyes off the statue.

It was still on the table, where it would have been only feet away from my head while I slept. I could swear it was smiling at me-

Wait.

The hair on the back on my neck stood up.

It... it was smiling at me. The lips of that demonic face were unmistakeably curved upwards.

But surely - surely it hadn't looked like that earlier? I'd studied it, I knew I had, wanting to memorise how it looked. I remembered how my skin had crawled at its empty stare, its emotionless visage. Were my eyes playing tricks on me?

The chair fell back with a clatter as I shot up and back, eyes fixed on the statue as if it were a striking cobra. Frankly, I'd rather have had the striking cobra.

The statue didn't move.

Plastered against the wall, I didn't either.

I might have nodded off despite myself earlier, but one thing was for sure - I was definitely not getting any more sleep this night. And I suspected it would be a very, very long one.

 


MORROWIND COURIERS GUILD

RECEIVED AT: Balmora GH, VF
HOUR: 1st 
DATE: 26 HF 427
SENDER: Adryn              
ORIGIN: Mages Guild, Balmora, VF 
RECIPIENT: Ervesa Romandas
DESTINATION: Armiger Stronghold, Molag Mar, VF
DELIVERY: EX (g.g. S.M., A.I.)
PAYMENT: 0S 30D
(X) received
( ) pending

[written in a steady, neat hand]

Dear Ervesa,

First, thank you so much for the flowers! My friend Ajira and I made much of them. In particular, we made Feather and Frost Shield potions, along with some draughts to cure disease and to restore strength - so the thanks I convey are not just on my own behalf, but also on Ajira's and the Balmora Mages' Guild alchemy shop. As for the amulet, you're correct that I am not much of an adventurer (how did you ever guess?). However, it has come in unexpectedly handy, and I owe you a great deal of thanks for that as well.

With how much how you've already helped me, I feel awkward asking you for more. However, I don't know who else to turn to.

I've recently come into possession of a strange statue. It's around a foot tall, made out of an odd red material I can't identify and depicts some sort of horned demon. We believe this statue may be linked to [several words are crossed out] involuntary behaviour, perhaps a sort of focus for a Command spell? In any case the thing seems... unholy, and as for the place I found it - well, I'd rather not describe that in a letter, but suffice it to say 'unholy' is a mild description.

If you have any ideas regarding this or a suggestion for what to do about it, I would very much appreciate it if you could get in touch with me. I'm a little worried about keeping this thing with me.

Adryn

[added later. The same handwriting as before, this time hurried and uneven]

P.S. Please come as soon as possible it is urgent!!


"More tea?"

"No, but thank you." I waved the worried Ajira away. She meant well, but the amount of tea she'd already gotten me to consume had left me trembling from the stimulants.

Well, I thought ruefully, at least the trembling was partially due to the stimulants.

"Something to eat, then? Ajira could run over to the baker's and get more rolls... or perhaps friend Adryn could use a potion! Rejuvenating? Magicka restoring? Healing? Fortifying willpower or perhaps fatigue? Friend Adryn need only say what she would like, and Ajira will-"

"Ajira!" I broke in. "I appreciate it, really, but I don't need anything. I promise." I tried to smile at her. Judging by her expression, it didn't work very well. "I just want to sit down for a bit. You should get back to the alchemy desk. I'm sure you've got customers waiting."

"Ajira thinks learning a little patience will do them good."

This smile came easier. "I agree, but I don't think our guildmistress does."

Teleportation Girl had wandered off for about half an hour while we were working yesterday morning, the result being that not only I but probably everyone within two hundred feet of the guild hall when she came back overheard Ranis Athrys' opinions regarding 'abandoning one's post'.

Ajira huffed a sigh - as another witness to said explosion she was clearly unable to argue that point. "Very well. But," she fixed me with a gimlet eye, "if friend Adryn should need anything - anything at all - she need only say, and Ajira will do whatever she can to help."

"I know. And I do appreciate it, I just don't need anything right now and I don't want you to get in trouble with Ranis Athrys because you were hovering."

"Ajira supposes that makes sense. Very well." After two steps back toward her workstation, Ajira stopped and turned back. "Ajira will be just over here, at the desk or in the alchemy lab-"

"Are you a Khajiit or a mother hen? Go on, shoo!"

Finally, Ajira shooed.

Reluctantly.

I shook my head once she'd left, leaning back in the seat I'd claimed at the little table in the guildhall kitchen. I couldn't blame Ajira for being worried about me considering the scene she'd walked in on earlier, but she'd really gone overboard on the fussing.

Still, she'd been a lifesaver that morning. Not only had she managed to calm me down from the state of intense panic I'd spent most of the night in, she'd volunteered to keep an eye on the statue during the day... a process that included fending off Teleportation Girl's questions about why, exactly, we'd wrapped a sack in rope and tied it to a table in the alchemy lab using the toughest knots both of us knew.

The statue had given no sign of movement or engaged in any other un-statue-like behaviour during the whole process. My opinion was that it was trying to lull us into a false sense of security.

I looked at my hands. Still shaking, but much less than earlier. Despite our original plan, I couldn't possibly imagine trying to sleep this morning, but perhaps in a bit of time my hands would be steady enough that I could go work in the lab. Ajira would be much happier to have me under her eye, I'd be happier to have that statue under my own, and brewing potions always calmed me down-

"Ah, there you are you, Adryn. I was just looking for you."

The sentiment echoed that from my nightmare. I jerked upright, found you echoing in my ears.

Ranis Athrys frowned at me from the entrance to the kitchen area.

"Oh. Guildmistress. I'm sorry, you... you startled me." I sank back into my chair.

"Clearly." Ranis' voice was dry.

"What- I- what can I do for you?" My heart, which had been doing its level best to thump its way free from my ribcage, started to slow down again.

"Well, I was hoping we could have a word." Ranis sat down across from me. After a brief pause during which she looked at me meaningfully, I realised she was expecting me to serve her tea and got up to fetch her mug.

"I've spoken to Ajira, and she's been very pleased with your work," she said, watching me nearly drop the mug. "Said you've been extremely helpful to her in her research. And I've also had word from Malven Romori in Vivec commending your willingness. All things told, it is clear you are ready to devote your time to guild duties. As a result, it is my pleasure to inform you that as of today, you are now an Apprentice of the Mages' Guild."

"...Thank you?" I honestly didn't care much about my rank in the guild. Still, I could tell that Ranis was expecting something more. "I'm, er, honoured, considering that it's been such a short time- sorry!" I'd just managed to pour tea all over the table. "Let me get that-"

Ranis sniffed and waved her hand over the spill. Red magicka followed it; the tea vanished in a puff of steam.

"Being promoted to Apprentice isn't a matter of skill, you must understand," she said, watching with clear skepticism as I gave the whole 'serving tea' thing a second try. I clenched my teeth and willed my hands to still. "Rather, it is one of... mm... dedication. Associates are those who may be willing to fetch an item here or guard an expedition there, but who are not willing to commit any further. Their number includes those - and there are many - who join the guild for the services only and have no appreciation for true scholarship.

"It is clear that you are not one such, and so you are an Apprentice. Journeyman, now," Ranis eyed me sternly, "that promotion will require skill, scholarship, and history with the guild. Do not expect it anytime soon."

"Yes!" I grinned in triumph as my second attempt at pouring tea succeeded with not a drop going to the wrong place. "Er, I mean - I don't mind, really. I'm just happy to be a member of the guild- ma'am." The honourific was hastily tacked on to butter up Ranis.

Judging by her deep frown, it didn't work. Well, perhaps she was one of those people for whom rank and hierarchy is of utmost importance and who simply don't understand it if you don't care. I'd met those before and it had always been a case of deep, mutual incomprehension.

"In any case, as an Apprentice you are expected to be more heavily involved with the guild." Ranis took a sip of her tea, grimaced, and lifted her other hand to the mug as well. Once again magicka sparked, followed by steam rising from the cup. I watched with interest and some level of envy. Apprentice, Associate, Journeyman, who cared - I wanted to learn how to reheat tea like that. "You will be granted a stipend as well as permission to stay in guild hall accommodation indefinitely - for Associates, there is a time limit of ten days - but you should be spending most of your time on guild duties."

Was that a so why are you sitting around here drinking - or not drinking - tea? Just in case, I said, "I was about to go help Ajira, brew some potions or-" I shuddered at the thought, "man the alchemy desk-"

"No, no, that won't do at all." Ranis was smiling as she dismissed my greatest skill and passion. It was not a comforting expression. "We really don't have need of an additional person working on alchemy in any of the guilds. Here in Balmora, the work is such that Ajira should be perfectly capable of it alone."

I blinked.

Seriously?

Even in the few days I'd actually managed to spend at the guild, I'd seen Ajira caught in the conundrum that her duties included selling potions to customers and replenishing the supply and doing research and writing reports on her findings, which meant that she was generally supposed to be doing three things at once. Hardly a wonder she'd been deeply grateful for my help - and now Ranis was saying that it wasn't necessary?

"But-" I began to protest.

"Are you interrupting me, apprentice?" Ranis' words were soft and deadly. I realised with a jolt I didn't know what other Destruction magic she was capable of.

"...No, ma'am." My voice was tiny.

"Keep it that way. Now, as I was saying, I really cannot justify your presence at the alchemy desk. However, the amount of work Galbedir is faced with is frequently too much for one person - I've been thinking about finding another enchanter. I'd like you to work as her assistant from now on."

Apparently taking my expression of sheer, dumbstruck horror as agreement, Ranis nodded. "Wonderful. I'm glad we had this discussion. Now, I have some duties to perform. I expect to see you working with Galbedir by the time I'm finished. Understood?"

I really wished I hadn't.


Galbedir was, if anything, even less happy about this new arrangement than I was.

"Are you kidding me? Unlike our so-called alchemist, I'm perfectly able to do my job. I don't need an assistant - let alone you." Scorn dripped from her voice.

Not reacting to the slight against Ajira took a concerted effort of will. "Well, I suggest you take that up with our guildmistress," I pointed out instead. A quick glance down the stairwell showed that Ranis wasn't in her office, so I felt it was safe to add, "I don't particularly want to be here either."

Especially since that statue was still downstairs. Unfortunate indeed that Ranis hadn't been willing to listen to objections, even if I had been able to figure out how to phrase we're aiding someone wanted for murder and so we brought some sort of demonic possibly-alive statue into the guild without telling anyone and it gives people nightmares and Controls them and is apparently able to move and I'd rather like to keep it within sight without getting thrown out of the guild, possibly bodily. I reminded myself firmly that Ajira was on top of the situation and I had other problems that demanded my focus right now.

"Ask her to let you keep messing around with that Khajiit? Not going to work," Galbedir predicted with an long-suffering air. After shooting a similar glance at the open door at the foot of the stairwell, she went on. "Ranis has done this before - I think she likes testing people. Weeding out the ones who won't follow her orders, even when those orders make no sense."

"What, has she been taking tips from Trebonius?"

A laugh escaped Galbedir - I wasn't sure which of us was more surprised. "Trebonius? Let me guess - what did he ask you to do?"

"Solve the mystery of the Dwemer." I shrugged.

"Solve the- he's surpassing himself, I see. All he asked me to do was recreate Azura's Star. Ludicrous, of course, and he still asks me how I'm progressing anytime I'm in Vivec! I suppose I can be grateful it was at least related to my actual area of research." Galbedir shook her head, sending blonde braids flying.

"Malven Romori wants me to start studying the Dwemer," I said carefully. "Something about at least appearing to respect the head of the guild. Do you think I could get Ranis to relent that way?"

"Hmm... not very likely," Galbedir judged. "She doesn't like Malven, claims she's taking on responsibilities and privileges beyond her station. I think Malven deserves every privilege and more for stepping up to try to keep order in Vivec, but Ranis can get very particular when it comes to rank. So telling her wouldn't help you. Probably better to keep your head down and tough it out until Ranis decides she's made whatever point she's trying to make with this nonsense." Galbedir grimaced.

So it sounded as if I was stuck with this duty for now. At least Galbedir was now looking at me with slightly less contempt, which I hoped would make our temporary (please be temporary) partnership somewhat more bearable.

"Well, let's get to it. Here, watch." Galbedir hefted a silver dagger lying on the table, "I have a contract from Wayn over at the Fighters Guild to give this a medium-strength fire damage enchantment. Pretty straightforward. I'm going to use this soul gem here, a common gem containing a betty netch's soul-"

I gulped. "Do you actually enchant using souls?"

It was a question I'd always wondered about and never gotten a clear answer to, something which had never seemed quite so pressing. Ranis or no Ranis, I wasn't sure I could bring myself to bind some poor animal's soul to a weapon to eternally serve as some kind of reservoir for magicka.

Galbedir took a deep breath before answering. "Well- the answer is yes and no. Yes, in that this," she tapped the glimmering gem, "does contain a netch's soul. No, in that the soul is released to Aetherius when we use the gem to enchant something. What we're really after and what will go into the blade is the creature's life energy and magicka. The soul being trapped is more of a... temporary byproduct of storing it until the actual process of enchanting, and I know people have tried and are trying to find a way to capture only the life energy and magicka from the start. No results yet, though."

That explanation cleared up some of the more muddled things I'd read about enchanting. One thing definitely stood out to me, waking my curiosity even through all the other worries on my mind. "Really? I'd have thought it'd be more difficult to capture a creature's soul than its life energy. Do you know why it's easier to capture the soul? Is it something to do with the Dreamsleeve, maybe?"

Galbedir blinked at me, clearly taken aback. "You'd have to ask Folms Mirel, over in Caldera - he's interested in the theory. Honestly, I don't know that much about this myself. I'm more into the practical side of things."

I nodded, making a mental note of the name. "I suppose at least you don't bind the souls into the enchanted object." That had been my main worry, after all.

"We don't," Galbedir agreed. "There are ways of using a soul gem to fix a soul in the world - the classic example is necromancy, using one to create undead - but outside of Temple ceremonies that's a serious crime and nothing I deal with. Especially when it comes to the souls of people."

"What do you mean by Temple ceremonies?" Every answer seemed to throw up more questions.

Galbedir groaned. "To understand that, you'd have to talk to a priest. Balmora Temple has some quite friendly ones, I'm told. It's certainly nothing to do with what I do." She took a deep breath. "Look, if you want to look into the theory and that sort of thing, I suggest you do it in your own time. For now, I'd like to get this dagger enchanted, because Ranis may have assigned you to work with me but she certainly hasn't reduced my workload any to accommodate teaching. So if you just watch - quietly - I'll tell you what I do."

"All right," I said, feeling slightly sheepish. I supposed I had been asking rather a lot of questions.

Galbedir relaxed. "Good. Now, in order to enchant this dagger..."


Once we left the topic of the theory of enchanting, Galbedir turned out to be quite a good teacher (judging by my attempts with Gelduin a few days ago, certainly far better than me). Not only was her explanation of the different steps involved in the process of enchantment very clear, she also went into detail about the spells the Mages' Guild had developed to keep a soul gem from being destroyed if the enchantment failed.

"See, most of the time people will simply teach you how to transfer the energy over from the soul gem to the object you're trying to enchant. But if you do it that way, if you screw up forming the spell in the object - and you will, especially when it comes to more powerful spells or ones with multiple effects - the energy goes into the ether, the soul heads into Aetherius and you're left with nothing. A few hundred years ago, someone in the guild figured out a way of anchoring the soul to the gem while you work, so that if something goes awry everything just gets sucked back into the soul gem. I hear in Cyrodiil they've got fancy altars to do that for them," Galbedir's lip curled, "but out in the provinces we've got to do it ourselves. Makes the whole thing more complicated, but means you can try again after you fail. See, I need to spread magicka across the surface of the crystal, starting at the vertex closest to the spell's entry point and then following an Ealarian circuit-"

Galbedir's exact explanation for how one was supposed to form one's magicka was rather more difficult to follow, not helped by the fact that I was really too exhausted for all this right now. Thankfully, I hit on the idea of using my Detection spell. Tuned to magicka rather than to living beings and set to a very short range, it allowed me to "see" the magical net Galbedir wove through the soul gem, then the way she formed what I could only think of as instructions for a fire spell within the silver dagger-

"-you have to write your spell schematic inside the object's magical matrix. More powerful or more complicated spells need a longer schematic, so for those you need objects with a denser matrix and many simplices to inscribe the schematic. Gemstones will do well for rings or amulets. For weapons, silver is best - well, Daedric really, followed by ebony and glass, but since you're not likely to ever clap your eyes on any of those-"

-and finally, how she created a magical channel between soul gem and dagger. Power leapt along it like lightning, roaring into the weapon. There it was drawn into the spell Galbedir set as though the lightning were following metal rods. Finally, when all the power had left the soul gem and the dagger fairly blazed with magicka, the magical net around the gem dissolved. I almost thought I could feel something break free-

Then my spell ended. With my regular eyes, I watched as the soul gem abruptly shattered.

"I wish we could reuse them," Galbedir muttered. Sweat stood out on her forehead, but her fingers were sure and untrembling as she swept the dust that was all that remained into a wastebasket. "At least this one did what it was supposed to."

Indeed, the dagger glimmered with enchantment. I watched as Galbedir dropped a scrap of parchment on the blade, unsurprised when it burst into flame. Galbedir nodded in satisfaction, then set the dagger aside.

"Well, that's that order. Now, I need to make some scrolls, and those are finicky - you'd need to be journeyman-level in enchanting at least to have a chance." Galbedir paused for a moment. "Tell you what, I have a few petty souls lying around, as well as some cheap jewellery. Things I'd usually use for a charm for the commoners, not worth more than a few drakes." She sniffed, evidently at the thought of commoners. "Not particularly important if you ruin them, in any case. Why don't you give it a try?"

Not exactly a ringing endorsement. But Galbedir's contemptuous attitude towards 'commoners' had caused my old antipathy to resurge, and I was worried I was going to say something I'd regret if I was around her much longer. So I just nodded.

I went through quite a few of the soul gems until I worked out how to create Galbedir's net. It was an eerie sensation, laying my magicka across the crystal and feeling something flutter against it, like butterfly wings beating against a veil. I ended up silently repeating what Galbedir had told me about souls and enchanting - in particular, that the soul was released on a successful enchantment - to myself several times before I could convince myself to continue.

And once I'd gathered my determination, I faced the most difficult part of the task Galbedir had set me: the actual enchanting.

Several hours later, I'd nearly drained my magicka again, my stomach was growling, and there was quite a pile of newly-enchanted scrolls in front of Galbedir. I'd nearly given in to the temptation to ask her for help once or twice, but my dislike of her, along with her look of utter concentration, had given me pause.

Well, in the end I'd managed perfectly well on my own, hadn't I?

I looked at the bracelet I held with pride. The cheap gilt now glimmered with magicka, and it only took a touch of power to read the Rainshield spell I'd embedded into the object.

In truth, I'd wanted to enchant the bracelet with my Detection spell. I most certainly hadn't forgotten what Gelduin had told me - "people will pay large amounts of money for your knowledge" is the kind of thing that tends to stay with you - and as I worked, I'd hit on the idea that enchanting an object might be a good way to circumvent my teaching abilities, or rather the lack thereof. However, I hadn't been able to get the magic to hold in the bracelet at all. My guess had been that it was too complicated for me, or perhaps that the cheap bracelet didn't have enough "simplices" – whatever those were – to hold the spell. In the end I'd opted for the far simpler and, I'd argue, at least as useful spell I'd learned in Vivec.

"Hmm." Galbedir had come up behind me and was looking at the bracelet. "Not bad," she said, sounding grudging. "Really, not bad. You may have a knack for this."

I blinked. "Seriously? But I destroyed, what, six of the soul gems before I caught on-"

"-and a lot of people never manage that spell. Six is... good. As is getting off a successful enchantment only hours in." Galbedir shook her head. "If that wasn't a fluke, Ranis may have had a good idea here after all."

That sounded worrying. "I thought we were just going to go with this until she reconsidered and let me work with Ajira again?" I pointed out.

"That was the plan, but... enchantment's a rare talent, you know. Far rarer and far more lucrative than alchemy." The contempt in Galbedir's voice was palpable.

I had to admit that that was almost certainly true. Nine knew that in my former career I'd often found myself frequenting enchanter's shops and homes in the interest of... ensuring a fair and equal distribution of wealth in modern society, shall we say. Enchanters were relatively likely to own rich robes, extravagantly expensive jewellery, safeboxes full of septims, and similar items that positively called out for a visit from concerned citizens like myself.

In comparison, alchemists only rarely demanded such a balancing of the scales. The few alchemists one did find rubbing shoulders with enchanters, generally by providing potions to the rich, were almost always in possession of proof they have more money than brains – more commonly known as an accreditation in alchemy from the Arcane University. Needless to say, I wasn't going to be boasting one anytime soon.

No, Galbedir was right – all in all, enchanting was a far more profitable business.

And yet...

"But I want to do alchemy." My voice was tiny.

Alchemy had drawn me as long as I could remember. There was something awe-inspiring about the fact that you could create powerful potions from simple, everyday things like flowers and mushrooms and even common foodstuffs. And it was so fascinating, experimenting with the ingredients to try and unlock their secrets, learning the skills you needed to adjust a potion's duration, strengthen one effect or weaken another, balance out toxins to make sure it was safe to consume - all the many tricks any good alchemist had to develop.

True, enchantment might well have such secrets of its own. Enchanting might be a lucrative undertaking, an enchanter might well be more respected than the common alchemist. All the same...

I remembered the whisper of a creature's soul held between my hands, the feel of its futile struggle against the gem that trapped it...

The gem, and my magicka, wrapped around it like strangling vines.

I'd rather brew the most noxious, volatile potion, one with fumes that nearly knocked you out and a tendency to explode if you stirred it just a moment too long or in the wrong direction, than work with that on a regular basis.

"I'm trying to help you, you know," Galbedir snapped. "Y'ffre only knows why, considering how you've been joined at the hip with that Khajiit since arriving. But when Ranis gave you the assignment, I thought that maybe you'd turn out to be some use once away from that little coward's influence-"

So we were going to have the argument we'd been so carefully avoiding after all.

"Ajira is my friend," I retorted. "She's been nothing but good to me and done nothing but help me, even when doing so put her in danger." The thought of Ajira right now, hiding a fugitive just because I'd asked her to, stoked the flames of my anger. "I don't see where you get off calling her a coward!"

Galbedir's laugh was scornful and disbelieving. "Seriously? You should know better than anyone else. Wasn't it you she sent out to collect flowers for her? I heard you got attacked by a kagouti because your precious Ajira was too afraid to perform her own duties."

My fists clenched. It was true that I'd once found Ajira's insistence on sending someone else to gather her ingredients strange myself, but now that I knew the reason behind it that only made me angrier. "What do you know about it? Besides," a flash of memory, "collecting ingredients is the duty of an apothecary, not an alchemist. Ordinarily, Ajira wouldn't be expected to go out and gather them herself... except that you stopped her suppliers, didn't you?"

The smug grin spreading across Galbedir's features made it clear I'd guessed right. For a brief moment, I found myself wishing I'd given in to impulse when I discovered the grand soul gem last week. The loss of some valuable items would take Galbedir down some much-needed pegs.

"I thought she should be taught a lesson about the world. It's cowardly and childish, sitting safely at home and expecting others to go into danger to get what you need. I collect all my own souls, you know."

Even the grand soul? I gulped, suddenly glad I hadn't given in to my larcenous impulses. Anyone who could take down a Daedra on that order was not someone I wanted to tangle with, thank you very much.

"Although..." Galbedir looked as if she'd had a spark of inspiration. I didn't like that expression at all. "Since you're so insistent that it's absolutely fine for Ajira to sit back on her lazy tail and send you or that Jamie to do her work for her, I'm sure you won't mind if I do the same." She gestured towards the pile of powder that had resulted from my earlier efforts. "You've rather depleted my supply of petty souls. Why don't you go out and replenish it? Since you're fine with running those sorts of errands."

"...replenish?" Surely, she didn't mean...

"Go out with some empty gems and trap some souls. Rats, scribs, mudcrabs and kwama foragers all fit into the petty gems. There's an egg mine just south of Balmora, you should be able to find some scribs and foragers near there, or you could take the guild guide to Vivec and hunt some crabs on the shore-"

The idea of returning to Vivec after what had happened last time was worth heavy protest in its own right, but astonishingly, that wasn't my main problem with this suggestion. "You mean... you want me to kill them?" I was almost certain that was what she meant, but found myself desperately hoping I'd got it wrong anyway.

Galbedir gave me an are you sure you weren't dropped on your head as a child? look. I recognised it because I'd spent quite a bit of time over the last few days giving Varvur the same. Having it directed against me smarted. "Of course, kill them! What, do you honestly think you can trap the soul of a creature that's still alive?"

"No," I said weakly. "It's just that..."

That I didn't particulary want to kill some animal that hadn't done anything to me, for one thing, but there was more glaring problem with Galbedir's course of action.

Galbedir apparently followed my meaning, because her eyes narrowed. "Now you're the one being a coward. None of these creatures are even remotely dangerous - mudcrabs are so slow a sleepwalker could outrun them, and scribs are almost tame. The measliest fire spell will put paid to them."

Not even remotely dangerous? Perhaps it was only to be expected that a Daedra slayer would have a rather skewed viewpoint of these things - needless to say, this did not at all fit with my experience of rats on this island. And true, mudcrabs were easy to outdistance, but their pincers looked strong enough I'd still rather not put myself into a position where I had to.

And that didn't even take into account even less harmless wildlife that might be around, such as cliff-racers, wild guar or kagouti, other hazards like naked Nords and their witches, never to mention, oh, the Blight.

"Are you sure you're feeling quite all right?" I asked. "Because I understand that experiences differ, but what you're describing is nowhere near any semblance of reality as I know it. Do you have a fever, maybe? Any hallucinations?"

"Fine," Galbedir said. She was still smiling despite my rejoinder. I had an awful sinking feeling. "I understand completely. It's not an appropriate task at all, is it? It seems you agree with me that this sort of thing is inappropriate to delegate to other guild members. I've been thinking of making a complaint to the guildmistress about Ajira's abuse of her position - I'm sure you'll sign off on it, then?"

I swallowed hard.

Galbedir had trapped me between a rock and a hard place. Either I agreed to go out hunting souls for her (I wasn't sure whether the hunting or the souls was the more distasteful part of that sentence), or she used my unwillingness to do so against Ajira. There was no way I could let that last happen. And I also couldn't explain why I was far more understanding of Ajira's reluctance to go into the wilds since doing so would mean disclosing some very personal information about her past and her family to her worst enemy and then most likely the guildmistress - something my friend was unlikely to thank me for.

Perhaps if I hadn't been so tired, I'd have been able to wriggle out of this somehow - I'd always been good at arguing people into submission. But in my current state, the only option I could see was...

"All right. I'll do it."

"Oh, really?" Galbedir sounded surprised. That smarted. Had she really thought I'd abandon Ajira so easily? "Well then. Do you know a Soultrap spell? No? In that case, I'll just teach it to you now - it's a simple spell, it shouldn't take long to learn. After that, you can get going. Now watch closely."

As Galbedir began to trace symbols in the air, I prayed I'd find a way to get out of this.

 

 "-intentional obstruction!" Galbedir snapped, rage in her eyes.

My eyebrows drew together. "Have you considered you might just be a completely incompetent teacher?"

"Oh?" Galbedir managed to infuse the single syllable with enough contemptuous disbelief for an entire conversation. There was a theatre somewhere in Tamriel missing its star player because she'd chosen to pursue a career in enchanting, I was sure. "In that case, pray explain how exactly you managed to learn the basics of enchanting from me earlier today, something far more complicated than a simple, straightforward Soultrap spell?"

I sputtered. "Simple? Straightforward? If you're a professional enchanter, maybe! For normal people like yours truly-"

"Children learn this spell! Children! I've seen a seven-year-old pick it up in less time than you've spent claiming not to understand the first form-"

"You've taught this to a seven-year-old?" I asked, sidetracked. "A spell whose single intended purpose is to cast it on some poor animal right before killing it in order to capture its soul, and you teach it to children? That doesn't seem just a little inappropriate to you?"

"Stop trying to change the subject!"

"What on earth is going on here?"

I spun around, Galbedir a heartbeat behind. Apparently, we'd both been so engrossed in our argument that neither of us had heard Estirdalin come up the stairs.

The Altmer was frowning heavily. "I hope you realise that we are a professional institution. Our customers and visitors should come away impressed by our expertise, skill, competence and - I reiterate - professionalism. Shouted arguments audible through the entire building do not in any way whatsoever contribute to the sort of ambience we strive for, and this one has gone on for long enough I think Ranis is considering knocking you both back down to Associate."

I shrugged at the threat. If being an Associate meant I could work with Ajira again, I'd happily take it. Galbedir, however, blanched. Rank-obsessed, then. Not a surprise.

"It's her fault!" she hissed, far quieter than before. "She's trying to weasel out of her guild duties!"

"Oh?"

"She used up some petty soul gems earlier, so I asked her to fill replacements. A perfectly reasonable request when you consider the sort of duties certain other people are assigning to Associates! But she," Galbedir jabbed a finger at me, as if Estirdalin could possibly be confused as to who she was referring to, "is pretending not to understand-"

"Pretending? I-"

"If you would let Galbedir finish, Adryn? Thank you."

I subsided. Grudgingly.

"As I was saying, before I was so rudely interrupted," Galbedir shot me an evil look, "she's pretending not to understand a simple Soultrap spell. We've been at this for nearly an hour, and she's still asking me to repeat the basic structure, every single one of her attempts fizzles out straight away! And that when she managed a successful enchantment with hardly any instruction this morning! It's obvious she's not even trying to learn. She just wants to get out of her assignment so she can keep playing with flowers instead of doing real work."

Without even looking at me, Estirdalin held up her hand. My mouth, which had been in the process of forming itself around an angry retort without any input from my brain, snapped shut.

"Thank you, Galbedir, for that... cogent summary. Adryn, if I may have your perspective?"

I took a deep breath to calm myself down. I couldn't let Galbedir's accusations stand, but somehow I didn't think her angry yelling had impressed Estirdalin much. Time to make a better impression and drive it home just how wrong the Bosmer was.

"I know Galbedir claims it's a simple spell, but I swear, it just don't make sense." Despite my attempt at keeping calm, I could feel my frustration seep into my voice. "I've been trying my hardest to learn it. Yes, I admit I don't want to go out hunting souls, but if this is what the guild requires of me I'll of course do my best." A muffled snort from Galbedir's direction meant that was probably laying it on too thick. "It honestly didn't occur to me to pretend," I added, more honestly.

To tell the truth, I wished it had occurred to me. As Galbedir had pointed out, it was an excellent way of getting out of going back into the wilds and attempting to kill dangerous things for their souls...

...never to mention that if I'd been faking, it would make her repeated forceful explanations of how simple this spell was a lot easier on my pride.

But no. Resigned to my fate, I'd given the spell my all, with no success. My new trick with my Detection spell hadn't worked either - even 'seeing' the spell hadn't made the concept make any more sense in my head. I hated failure, and the last hour had contained a little too much of it for my liking. The fact that Galbedir found this spell so simple she clearly considered it inconceivable I didn't understand it just rubbed salt in the wound.

Estirdalin was frowning. I gulped. Was that a 'thinking hard' frown or an 'I don't believe you, let's tell Ranis Athrys you were slacking off?' frown?

"So you say you're genuinely unable to cast it?"

I recognised that tone. It was intellectual curiosity. Thinking hard, then. I wasn't doomed yet.

"Exactly," I answered. "I don't know, maybe Galbedir isn't a very good teacher." Estirdalin's frown deepened, and I hastily added, "Or maybe this morning was just a fluke, or- or something!"

"Oh, I don't think so," Estirdalin waved my explanations away. I stiffened. "But I also believe you're struggling with the spell."

"Really? It's so simple-" Galbedir had perked up when it looked as though Estirdalin was agreeing with her and was obviously not ready to give up so quickly.

"Simple for you, my dear. But different people have different skills and inclinations. And although it's true Soultrap is considered one of the easier spells generally... Adryn, may I ask you some questions?"

I winced. Submit to a second interrogation the likes of the one I'd experienced right after joining? Only this morning I'd have said I'd never voluntarily do such a thing. But when the alternative was Galbedir's slander...

"Sure, go ahead."

Estirdalin nodded her thanks. "I believe that when we spoke before, you said you were quite good at Mysticism." We both ignored the scoff from Galbedir. "Can you tell me more about your experiences learning spells from the school?"

"Well, I actually only knew the one detection spell at the time, but it's one of the ones I use most often and people have always said I'm unusually good with it. It doesn't take much magicka, and," I remembered Gelduin and the Blighted guar, "I'm able to get information from it other people can't. I learned it from a book a few years ago. It took me ages to get it down, I always blamed it on the author..."

After a few minutes, Galbedir turned back to her work with a disparaging sound. Estirdalin, however, kept listening to me intently, occasionally prompting me with another question.

With her help, a disquieting picture began to emerge.

I'd never had an easy time learning any Mysticism spell. The complete block I seemed to have around the Soultrap spell was new, but I remembered how close I'd been to quitting by the time I'd managed to pick up my detection spell... and I'd struggled to learn that teleportation spell from Ervesa. I still remembered the dubious expression on her face, suspected she'd also contemplated declaring me unteachable.

The contrast to other schools was stark. The Firebite spell I'd learned from Arrille just after arriving, the rain shield I'd bought at the Vivec guildhall, the various illusions Ingerte had taught me not long after we met, Sosia's healing spell, today's introduction to enchanting... I'd been very quick to learn all, quick enough that people remarked on it. Even my water walking spell hadn't given me anywhere near as much trouble as the Mysticism spells, and I'd only been a child at the time.

Add to that my failure at teaching Gelduin my detection spell a few days ago. I'd blamed it on my own shortcomings as a teacher, but I'd explained quite a few alchemical concepts to Ingerte over the years and she'd followed well enough.

After I finished, Estirdalin was silent for a long time.

"Well?" I prompted.

"I have an idea as to what might be happening here. However, I'd like to confirm it before I say anything. I'll need to take you through some practical exercises, Adryn-"

"Could you do that somewhere else?" Galbedir interrupted. "Some of us have work to do, you know."

Estirdalin gave Galbedir a long look. "I think you forget your place, Apprentice." Her voice was mild, but Galbedir flinched and ducked her head. "That said... it is true that there is more space downstairs. And I may need to consult with Marayn or Masalinie, or certain books. Come along, Adryn."

Downstairs...

Something nagged at me. There'd been a reason I'd wanted to stay downstairs earlier, hadn't there? A reason beyond dislike of Galbedir and wanting to keep working with Ajira. Something I'd felt I needed to keep an eye on, something to do with... last night?

Yes, last night, something had happened last night. It was oddly hard to bring up my memory of yesterday now, but as I concentrated the memory came closer-

"Now if you please, Adryn."

My focus shattered under Estirdalin's frosty tone. I gave a sheepish apology and hurried down the stairs.


 

"A learning disability." Estirdalin delivered her verdict.

For a moment, my mind was completely blank. "A... what?"

The afternoon thus far had been frustrating, but all the same I thought we'd been making progress. True, we'd managed to expand the litany of spells I was apparently incapable of with Spell Absorption. Apparently it was meant to mimic the ability of the Atronach-born - I'd had to take Estirdalin at her word for that, because it had made just as little sense as Soultrap. And my flat refusal (in my opinion, justified) to learn Recall had been met by a deeply humiliating interrogation by Estirdalin into precisely how my previous attempts at teleportation spells had gone wrong. She'd been far more interested in that than the fact that I could apparently do more in a single Detection spell than most people in three, which I found distinctly unfair.

And, lest one forget - how could one forget? - all this was occurring in the middle of the Mages' Guild common room, where every other guild member or passing visitor could stop to gawk at my failure.

But I'd learned the last spell we'd tried, hadn't I? True, it had taken a while - an unusually long one, judging by Teleportation Girl's expression - until I got the hang of Telekinesis, but I'd managed it in the end. I figured that meant Estirdalin was close to isolating the problem. Some fundamental misconception I had about how the school worked, perhaps, which she could now point out. Some basic lesson I'd missed, whose lack had formed a hole in the foundation of every Mysticism spell I'd ever cast.

Something that could be fixed.

"Think of it this way," Estirdalin was saying now. "People can be crippled in different ways physically, yes? Ranging from the complete paralysis of a broken back to a weak knee that gives out under stress, from a bad case of rockjoint leaving the fingers forever unable to nock an arrow to someone struck with palsy from birth. Sometimes it has major effects, sometimes only as slight, as isolated a thing as a halting tongue or a weak grasp. So it is with the mind. There are the idiots, but there are also those who simply lack one thing - the brilliant thinker who still struggles to distinguish ayem and geth, the incisive scholar who cannot be trusted with the simplest of calculations... the mages who are perfectly competent in every other area but will never be able to cast anything but the simplest spell in one school, no matter how much effort they put in."

The look she shot me was sympathetic, but not nearly sympathetic enough for the fireball she'd dropped on me.

"But-"

I'm smart, I almost protested, but managed to reword it into something a little less embarrassing just in time.

"But everyone's been saying that I cast those spells I do know really well," I argued. "I've had several offers to learn my detection spell, and she," I jerked my head towards the curiously watching Teleportation Girl, "said earlier that I was quite deft and efficient with telekinesis for someone who'd only just learned it. How is that possible?"

"Actually," Estirdalin said, cruelly crushing my hopes, "this makes it more likely, not less. In general, learning in a magical school progresses along a set path - some students may be quicker, some may be slower, the milestones may be reached in a slightly different order, but overall the stages are very uniform and there are few exceptions. But it's well-documented that when it comes to magical disabilities, unusual effects not usually seen at that stage and uncontrolled flares of power are common. I sometimes correspond with Irlav Jarol on guild business - he's a lecturer at the Arcane University and from what he's said there's a student there who is a clear example-"

"Wait, is this student a Khajiit?" Teleportation Girl interrupted. "One of my cousins is a student at the university, he mentioned her in a letter. Apparently in one of her Destruction lessons half the class ended up at the healers'-"

"Her? I've got a friend who's a guard in that area, she said after the first time that girl tried summoning Daedra half her unit went on strike demanding hazard pay!"

How lovely that a random customer felt the need to weigh in here, I thought, teeth gritted. And that Estirdalin hadn't felt the need to death-glare either him or Teleportation Girl into submission.

"Actually, that rings a bell - Mazi-something, wasn't it? Mazila or Mazoga or something like that, would be in her third year right now? My brother-in-law is an architect in Imperial City, and apparently ever since she started classes their business has almost doubled due to all the repairs. Collatinus says he almost feels he should be paying her-"

Correction: random customers, plural, weighing in. A parade of clowns indeed - it was almost like the circus.

"Oh," Marayn sounded startled, "that sounds familiar, in one of the university dispatches Archmage Traven mentioned-"

"All right, all right," I said loudly, "you've all made your point! You can stop now!"

"You see," Estirdalin, apparently selectively hard of hearing, decided to hammer it in, "such fluctuations and... unpredictable effects are quite common in cases such as yours."

I heard that plural and I resented it. After all, unlike this unfortunate Khajiit in Imperial City, it was only teleportation spells that blew up on me to quite that extent. A fact I was sure I'd find myself grateful for once the humiliation wore off. That should only take another thousand years or so, after all - hardly any time at all.

Actually, come to think of it...

"From what you're saying, it sounds like this Mazi-whatever has difficulties with all her spellcasting," I said, proving that I am capable of being distracted by intellectual curiosity in the most extreme situations. (Ingerte would have said no further proof was needed after the incident involving the rooftop entrance to Proudspire Manor and the impromptu experiments in gravity, but thankfully no witnesses to that occasion were present right now.) "But for me it's only Mysticism. Is that common?"

"No, in fact," Estirdalin sounded thoughtful - I clearly wasn't the only one easily distracted. "In general it affects multiple schools. However, I did some research on the matter earlier..."

She picked up a large book from the table and began leafing through it. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Master Friend The Guard and Mistress Brother-in-law The Architect moving away hurriedly. I sniffed. Anyone who fled at the sight of books did not, in my opinion, deserve to have any input. On anything, really, but certainly on my ability to learn Mysticism or the lack thereof.

About halfway through the book, Estirdalin found what she was looking for.

"Ledd's Syndrome. A known phenomenon, it turns out, but very rare. The last recorded case was almost a hundred years ago, and the one before that not long after the start of the Third Era. Both Dunmer, as well - it may be unique to your race. And the description fits exactly: unpredictable destinations in Teleportation spells, unusual effects in all of the detection sub-school, inability to learn Soultrap or any absorption spells... unusual effects in telekinesis spells as well," she read out, "which along with the detection spells use far too little magicka, showing that the disorder must involve an inability to form crucial parts of the Mystic spell matrix." She looked up. "That's why I taught you Telekinesis in the end. I wanted to be certain of my suspicion."

Well, there went any last hope Estirdalin might be mistaken.

"Can I borrow that book?" I asked. Who knew, there might be something about how to compensate...

But Estirdalin was shaking her head. "I'm afraid it's from the restricted library - I couldn't in good conscience let you access it before you reach Conjurer status. Besides, there's very little beyond what I've already told you."

After that statement, she closed the book with a little more haste than I felt truly appropriate, hiding the cover as she did so. Probably worried I'd try to break into this 'restricted library' and abscond with the thing if I knew the title. I'd be offended, but then again exactly that had been going through my head.

It did smart. A private library for higher-ranking guild members which us common rabble didn't have access to was bad enough, but surely an exception could be considered in this case? True, Estirdalin had said there was nothing else of use in the book, but perhaps she'd missed something. Considering more information might mean the difference between a successful career in the Mages' Guild and failure, or - for that matter - between teleporting to the place I wanted and teleporting five miles above the place I wanted...

I suspected Ranis Athrys would be happy with the outcome of this afternoon. After all, I now had a reason to try to make Conjurer as soon as I could.


 

Even later, I was still reeling from the whole thing. My pride was wounded, of course, but more than that...

Being smart was how I survived, was who I was. Back in Solitude, I'd been the one who'd come up with the ideas, I'd been the one who'd see a back door in a seemingly inescapable situation. I'd always known that although I'd never be able to fight my way out of trouble, I could think my way out, and that was so much better.

And being smart had always translated to being able to pick up magic quickly, both theory and practice. I remembered Ingerte's admiration of how quickly I'd learned those illusions she knew, her envy of my water-walking, even - bitterly - her impressed whistle when I'd showed off my Detection spell, how she'd claimed it quite beyond her abilities. (Her ignorance, a small voice said now, was probably the only reason she didn't realise it took me far, far too long to learn.) It was a fact of life like my height, my temper, my hair colour, my tendency to jump into things without quite thinking them through - I was good at magic.

And suddenly, that had been taken away.

What else was I taking for granted, what else was I relying on, that wasn't true? Was I really as good of an alchemist as I believed? Ajira thought so, but Ajira was self-taught herself, and I hadn't known her nearly as long as it felt. Maybe I'd fooled her into believing I was skilled, through a combination of flukes and unfamiliar techniques. What if-

A flicker out of the corner of my eye, coupled with a sudden sense of awareness-

I let my magicka snap out to engulf the leather ball speeding towards me. As it stopped to hang in midair, I was very glad I'd kept my telekinesis spell going.

"Hey!" I protested, letting the ball drop to the ground. "I wasn't paying attention!"

"But you still caught the ball," Teleportation Girl, who I was tempted to mentally rename Bombarder-of-innocent-Adryns, responded. "Without paying attention, or looking at it, when you've known that spell for, what. Two hours?"

My eyes narrowed. "You don't have to pretend I'm good at this to make me feel better, you know. " I could hear the self-pity in my voice and was briefly thankful it was late enough the guildhall was - finally - nearly deserted. "Estirdalin was perfectly clear earlier."

Teleportation Girl sighed, putting the ball on a side table. "So it takes you a little longer to learn spells. So what? It's what you do with the spell that's important, and your telekinesis spell is really good already, your detection-"

She was giving voice to the same justifications that had been spinning around my head all afternoon - but I was good at detection spells, I was apparently also good at telekinesis spells, a little difficulty in learning them surely meant nothing...

Somehow, hearing them out loud just made clear how flimsy they were. A little difficulty learning them, really? I'd proven myself completely unable to make head or tail of the majority of the spells in the school, and then one of the few I did know was more dangerous to myself than anyone else. Who was to say my detection spell wouldn't blow up in my face next? Considering the stories of that Khajiit at the Arcane University, anything was in the realm of possibility once magical disabilities came into the picture.

"Masalinie? Friend Adryn?"

Letting my telekinesis spell lapse, I turned away from Teleportation Girl's admittedly well-meaning attempt to make me feel better in order to face Ajira.

"Ajira is very sorry, Masalinie, but she needs a word with friend Adryn," my friend continued.

"Go ahead. Maybe you'll get through to her, she's certainly not listening to me. And," Teleportation Girl's eyes unfocused, as though there was something hovering in midair only she could see, "it feels like Iniel's got someone coming through from Sadrith Mora, anyway."

I followed Ajira into the alchemy lab, wondering what this was about. An attempt at cheering me up through alchemical experimentation? I wouldn't say no, but judging by the angle of Ajira's ears and the bristling of her tail, whatever Ajira had to discuss was nothing so pleasant.

"Friend Adryn," Ajira said in a low voice, coming to a halt in front of the desk in the far corner of the lab. There was a sack tied to one of its legs. I frowned at it. The sight niggled at my memory...

"What are we to do with the statue?"

"The statue?" I said blankly. "What-"

Memory came crashing back. It felt rather like being hit by a very heavy anvil dropping from a great height.

"It. I. I forgot." My voice was a croak. "How- how could I forget, after-"

After the entirety of yesterday spent tracking down a specimen, finally finding one in that dreadful cellar. After the horror of last night, in Shor's name! This morning I'd been close to hysterical thanks to that statue. If you'd asked me, I'd have said its horrifying existence was branded in my memory...

...and yet, over the course of the day my recollection of it had vanished. Galbedir's introduction to enchanting, then all the fuss about my Mysticism skills, all of it had occupied my attention while last night and the extremely dangerous magical object that had caused it had slowly faded away into nothingness in my mind.

And I hadn't even noticed.

"It does tie in with what the honoured Varvur Sarethi said," Ajira said, sounding thoughtful. "He also recounted forgetting about his statue even when there was every reason he should have remembered."

"That's-" Yes, he had said something along those lines, my slowly recovering memory provided as if in futile apology for its disastrous failure. I hadn't thought of it, I should have thought of it when I offered to guard the damn thing-

Distantly, as if through water, I heard the rush of expelled magicka I'd come to identify as a teleportation spell, followed by Teleportation Girl starting, "Welcome to Balmora..." I spared a moment to be thankful she was distracted. The entrance to the alchemy lab was right next to the guild guide platform, and I was on the verge of a panic attack. I'd had quite enough audiences to humiliating moments for the day, or possibly the century, thank you very much.

"Ajira suggests we go to the Temple immediately," Ajira continued. "She knows the honoured Varvur Sarethi believes bringing it to an Armiger is the best chance to clear him, but it is clearly far too dangerous to keep another night."

"You don't say." Cold sweat had collected on my forehead; I wiped it away with a sleeve. "Yes, sure, bring it to the Temple, toss it in the Odai, throw it off a cliff, as long as it you get it away from me-"

"Adryn? Are you in there?"

I blinked in surprise, then turned to face the person standing in the doorway.

Ervesa looked much as she had last week. The main differences were her clothes - giant insect armour having been swapped out for a simple linen shirt, the only decoration a triangle with a letter in each corner embroidered onto its breast - and her expression. The constantly smiling Armiger I'd met on Turdas, who cheated at cards as well as I did and told jokes about her god, looked downright grim.

Ervesa was here.

I didn't think I'd ever been so grateful to see anyone in my life.

"Thank the Nine you're here," I told Ervesa with perfect sincerity. "We have a bit of a... problem. A statue-shaped problem, which I was hoping you knew something about."

"Ajira and friend Adryn were just discussing what to do with the object, as they found it is far too dangerous to keep," Ajira added. "Perhaps the honoured Armiger can assist?"

"If it's the same as the ones I'm familiar with, I can indeed... Ajira, is it?" Ervesa gave Ajira a brief smile. The expression made her look far more like the woman who'd saved me from a kagouti last week. "I'm Ervesa Romandas, and I have to admit I'm hoping it's the same. It's bad enough we have the one, we really don't need another type of extremely dangerous magical statues around."

"Well, ours certainly fulfills the 'extremely dangerous' part of that description," I said with a shudder. "And there's at least one other like it."

"Really? Where- actually, tell me later. Let's have a look at the one you have first."

Ervesa didn't even blink when we showed her the sack tied to the alchemy table. Instead, she reached into a small bag at her side and pulled out gloves, tongs and a sheet of cloth, all shining with the magicka of strong enchantment. Then she turned to the wrapped statue with the air of someone tasked with trimming the fur of a live snow bear. Watching her tug cautiously at the ropes with the tongs, I remembered the way I'd picked up the statue with my bare hands yesterday and found myself feeling rather queasy.

"Yes, it's the same," she said when the red stone was finally visible. "I'll take it to Vivec to be safely disposed of."

I felt as if a great weight had fallen from my chest. "Thank you so much-"

But Ervesa wasn't done yet. "I need to know. How exactly did you come by it, and what made you realise it was dangerous?"

"Well..."

The story took some time to relate, long enough that I'd have suggested moving to the common area for a more comfortable environment if not for the statue. Near the start we gained an audience in the form of a wide-eyed Teleportation Girl. Thinking about our guildmistress' likely reaction to the story, I could only hope that she wouldn't blab... especially when I mentioned the fugitive accused of murder currently sleeping on Ajira's floor.

I did consider leaving Varvur out of it, but I wasn't a good liar at the best of times, and with him as integral to the whole story as he was I knew there was no way I'd be able to come up with anything plausible. Besides, the whole reason we had the statue in the first place was to prove that he'd been magically coerced, wasn't it? Hard to do that if we never even mentioned him.

It seemed to be working. True, Ervesa's face had been something of a picture when Varvur's name came up, but she hadn't gone running off to arrest him. Overall, she'd seemed far more concerned by the details of exactly where I'd found the statue and exactly what it had done.

"Well," she said when I'd finished. "I have to say this is even more serious than I'd thought, and that's saying something. As a matter of fact, I think the Temple may owe you major thanks. We've only ever discovered these statues in isolation before and haven't been able to track down how they were being distributed. It sounds like you've uncovered a genuine conspiracy in Ald'ruhn. Maybe this is the opening we need to track them down to their source."

I smiled for what felt like the first time that day. The Temple may owe you major thanks, that was a good phrase. That was a phrase with septims in it. If I managed to not only escape unscathed from this disaster, but get my hands on a reward...

"I'll have to see about a reward later," Ervesa confirmed my hopes, making my smile grow even wider. "For now, though..." She frowned, clearly thinking hard. "I'll send someone to make sure, but since the statue was only here for less than a day I don't think this area should need to be cleansed."

Say what?

I found myself abruptly and brutally torn out of my daydreams of what reward the Temple might offer for such a service. I hadn't realised the Mages' Guild needing to be 'cleansed' was a possibility. However, I was relatively sure that whatever cleansing entailed, Ranis Athrys would not be happy with it... or happy with Ajira and me for making it necessary.

"That's- that's good news," I managed after a moment.

"Yes," Ervesa agreed. "Somehow, I don't think your guildmates would be very happy if we had to close the Mages' Guild for two days straight."

...or maybe Ranis would skip straight past 'not happy' and straight into murderous rage. Judging by Ajira's horrified expression, she agreed with me.

"No... I don't think they would. In fact... could you do me a favour? If it does turn out that this 'cleansing' has to happen after all, and if you visit in a few days and Ajira and I are mysteriously missing, could you check if any unmarked graves have suddenly sprung up in the vicinity?"

"Really?" Teleportation Girl threw in before Ervesa could respond. "Unmarked graves? You think Ranis would leave a body? I've seen her Destruction spells, you know. But I promise to very carefully inspect any ash heaps that suddenly turn up around the guild, if it helps." There was suppressed laughter in her voice, proving that she had not managed to grasp the seriousness of the matter.

"Ahem," Ervesa said, but she was smiling too. Well, I thought with all the charity I could muster, she didn't know Ranis Athrys. She had no idea how dire the situation was. "As I was saying. I don't think this building needs to be cleansed. However, I will need you to come to Vivec with me."

I hadn't thought that Ervesa could come up with anything even more immediately threatening than us accidentally forcing the Mages' Guild to close - and Ranis' reaction to the same - but clearly I'd underestimated her.

"...Vivec?" I asked warily.

My last venture into the city had not ended well at all, could in fact be deemed the ultimate cause of this whole situation. I hadn't been planning on returning anytime soon if I could help it.

"To undergo a cleansing," Ervesa explained patiently. "Although the statues leave traces on their surroundings, it's secondary to the effect they have on people who come into contact with them or sleep near them. It's... like an infection, I suppose you could say, one that progresses in stages. Nightmares, initially, but it eventually progresses to black-outs, strange behaviour, then..."

Ervesa trailed off. I was perfectly all right with this, as I didn't particularly want to hear what came next.

"The malign influence can be removed, but currently we're only set up to do that at the High Fane in Vivec," she finished.

"If the esteemed Armiger will permit Ajira a question?"

All eyes turned towards my friend. She shuffled her feet, then went on. "It is not only friend Adryn who has been exposed to these items. In particular, as we have discussed the honoured Varvur Sarethi has been badly affected by one of them. Should he not go to the High Fane as well?"

Ervesa bit her lip. "Honestly? You're right. He should. However, I'm worried that given his current... delicate legal status..." I blinked at Ervesa in surprise - that right there was a euphemism worthy of the Thieves' Guild, "travelling with him would create problems. I'll send someone to escort him later, but it's far more urgent to take the statue where it can be safely destroyed and get Adryn cleansed."

"Wait a minute." I'd been following Ervesa's logic up until the last part. "Why me? I mean, obviously you need to get rid of that thing as soon as possible," I shot the statue a look and had to bite back bile, "but I was only... only exposed for a single night. Varvur was sleeping next to one for weeks and actually killed someone thanks to it. Why am I the one who has to be dragged to Vivec as soon as possible?"

"Ah. By your accounts this Varvur has been away from the influence for nearly a week and is beginning to recover. Although he does need to be cleansed soon, especially because any re-exposure at this point would be... bad," judging by Ervesa's careful intonation, I suspected this was another euphemism on the level of delicate legal status, "it isn't immediately urgent. You, on the other hand..."

"Me?" I felt my stomach sink. Judging by Ervesa's expression, I wasn't going to like this explanation.

"Judging by your story of how you couldn't stay awake last night, the statue has already started exerting control over your mind. And your reports of the statue moving to be closer to you, of its expression changing... I've heard such things before, but only from people in very advanced stages - after the black-outs begin to happen. It's very worrying to me that you reached that point in under a day. I think you're affected strongly enough that you might find yourself controlled the next time you sleep, and I'm not sure removing the statue from your vicinity is going to be enough to stop that. You need to be cleansed of the influence at Vivec as soon as possible."

I felt as if someone had reached inside me and scooped out all my insides, leaving me hollow and about to collapse.

"The next time I sleep? That's all right, then." I said. My voice seemed very far away. "Because I'm never going to sleep again. I've just decided."

"Adryn-"

Ervesa reached out as though to put a hand on my shoulder claws digging into my shoulder from behind-

I flinched back as memories of my nightmare the night before screamed through my head. She sighed and withdrew her hand.

"The cleansing will remove the corruption, I promise," she said, voice quiet but intense. "But we have to go to Vivec now."

For some strange reason, I found myself having no further objections.


 

Ervesa shepherded me through Vivec to the High Fane, sticking to me like a burr the whole way - and that despite the fact that the journey took rather longer than she'd initially been expecting.

We'd hardly stepped off the teleportation platform in the Mages' Guild and waved away a puzzled Cassia when Ervesa turned to me and said, "All right, now if you just cast the Almsivi Intervention spell I taught you-"

I'd almost forgotten Ervesa was the one to blame for That Spell and all that had come of it.

My reaction was both forceful and immediate. "You have got to be joking."

"What?" Ervesa rocked back on her heels, clearly taken aback. "You cast it perfectly well last time, apart from us accidentally ending up in Suran... oh, if you're worried about that happening again, I know for a fact casting from here will get us to the High Fane-"

Spoken like someone who probably didn't even know what a magical learning disability was, I thought with a brief twist of envy. When I realised where my thoughts were going, I pushed the feeling back. Getting jealous of other people over things that couldn't be changed was a recipe to misery and was, quite frankly, beneath me.

All the same, I'd better disabuse Ervesa of any idea that we'd be taking the short and easy route.

"Oh, accidentally ending up at a different Temple is definitely not at the top of my list of concerns," I retorted. "Accidentally ending up in the manor of a very humourless nobleman who looks rather dimly on intruders, I can say from experience that that's a far more worrying prospect... but the top of the list definitely and absolutely has to be accidentally ending up several miles in mid-air, and since that's what happened the last time I cast this spell I hope you'll forgive me if I'd rather walk!"

There was a moment of silence as Ervesa just stared at me.

"Several miles in mid-air?" she eventually repeated, and I remembered that when I told her how we'd come by the statue, in order to make a long story at least a little shorter I'd left out all details regarding exactly how Varvur and I met.

"I'd almost managed to repress the memories, until you forced me to dig them up again. Yes, several miles in mid-air. I wouldn't be surprised if Varvur will end up afraid of heights for the rest of his life. Oh, speaking of which," I found myself briefly distracted from being indignant, "I really meant it when I said I owe you for that amulet. If I hadn't had it on me, both of us would be a smear on the ground somewhere in the West Gash."

"I... I'm glad it helped." Ervesa said weakly. "But - seriously in midair? That's not supposed to be possible."

Oh, if I had ten drakes for every time I'd heard that in the last few days... and in all honesty, I wasn't sure whether to be happy this afternoon had finally given me an explanation for my unprecedented ability to bungle teleportation spells or despondent at what that explanation was.

"Apparently I have a learning disability, to do with Mysticism. 'Ledd's Syndrome', I think Estirdalin called it.Really rare, apparently, but I guess I'm just lucky that way. Can't cast half the spells, and the other half are prone to going... awry." All right, despondent it was.

"Really? I wasn't expecting- that's interesting." Ervesa paused for a long moment, looking thoughtful. I was about to demand what, exactly, was so interesting about my misery when she visibly gathered herself. "Well, we need to get going. It sounds like teleportation is out of the question, so in that case we'll catch a ride on a gondola. Come on, the dock for the Foreign Quarter is this way."

I'd been worried about a repeat of my last attempt at trying to find my way around Vivec, but Ervesa swept along corridors and down stairs with the ease of a native. In what felt like no time at all, we were seated in a long flat boat whose captain was steering it through the maze of boardwalks and boats with surprising speed - helped, I suspected, by the purple glow of magicka around the stern. When I craned my neck, trying to figure out how it worked (my guess was either a modified water-walking or shield spell, but which one and how did he get it to propel us forward?) I was met with a glare and spate of Dunmeris.

"He says it's a trade secret," Ervesa translated. Her face was just a little too even, and I suspected that what the man had said had been a great deal less polite.

Fine. No free exchange of information between two comrades in the fellowship of mages, then. See if I'd tell him about my Rainshield spell.

Ervesa continued pulling me along when we reached the High Fane, giving me only a brief glimpse of the two spires reaching into the heavens, the palace beyond them, the- was that giant rock actually floating?

I was on the verge of contemplating a second attempt at sight-seeing later (arguably an initial symptom of madness, if you considered how the last one went) when we stopped in front of a low door adorned with a brass plaque just past the entrance. As Ervesa knocked, I read: Dileno Lloran, Disciple of Vivec.

My first thought - that this set-up looked like it belonged to someone rather important - was quickly confirmed. The tall, severe-looking woman seated at a desk in the room we entered might have been wearing robes plainer than mine, but she wore them with the unmistakeable air of a religious devotee who knows her choice in clothing makes her morally superior. It was an air I'd learned to recognise early in my time at Kynareth's orphanage, and I found myself a little amused to encounter it again here. It seemed some things didn't change much between religions.

"Ah. Tathavis Almsivi-lloru, Ervesa nidresu-" the woman's eyes flicked over to me and my blank expression, and she shifted smoothly into Tamrielic. "I'd like your report, if you would."

A second point in favour of my theory that a "Disciple of Vivec" was a rather high rank: the way the woman effortlessly took control of the situation. Only minutes later found the statue sitting on the floor inside a gleaming nimbus of magicka, Ervesa perched on a chair in front of Lloran's desk being debriefed, and me being bustled off by a junior priestess. I'd have rather liked to stay in order to watch the statue be destroyed with my own eyes, and Ervesa had protested that she wanted to accompany me (proof of a highly over-developed sense of responsibility, I thought, since there were so many bigger worries right now), but it was no use. The experience was a little like being faced with a natural disaster shaped like a woman - your only hope was to hold on as tight as you could and work out where you'd ended up after she was a safe distance away.

"This way, please," the novice prompted.

With a sigh, I followed her down the corridor. Apparently I hadn't reached a safe distance quite yet.


 

Several hours later found me trailing after the novice again. A sufficiently flighty observer might think that we'd spent the whole period wandering through the maze of corridors that made up the lower levels of the High Fane. I did have to admit would be well within the realm of possibility; let's just say that I was glad I had a guide, as I felt my other only option would be to starve to death and haunt the underworks, unable to find my way out even to the afterlife. That said, some changes had occurred in the interim. Among others, I was clad in an undyed wool robe (with the unfortunate suspicion that I'd never see the clothes I'd been wearing originally again) and my hair was wet.

Apparently spiritual cleansing functioned much like earthly cleansing, or should I say the cleansing of earth? This version of it had definitely involved me making close acquaintances with a large round pool of milky water that smelled strongly of minerals. The temperature would probably have been scalding for anyone other than a Dunmer, and I had to say I was really coming to appreciate the way Morrowind handled water temperature. I didn't think I'd had a properly hot bath in my entire time in Skyrim.

Really, it might have qualified as pleasant experience overall, certainly a welcome change from trying to see to my daily ablutions with a bucket of water and a Firebite spell in the tiny washing alcove off the guild sleeping area... except that there had been something else in that chamber. Something that left the air so heavy with magicka it was almost impossible to breathe, raised goosebumps on my skin, had me twitching and jerking around because I thought I'd seen a glowing shape rise from the water out of the corner of my eye...

...filled my ears with a low humming that seemed to spring more from my mind than my ears, one that drowned out the whispers I hadn't even realised I'd still been hearing.

The power of Vivec, they said. Well, it had made me wonder about this god. I certainly couldn't recall feeling anything like that banked power in any shrine to the Nine.

Up ahead, the novice turned her head to make sure I was still following. On discovering she hadn't managed to lose me she looked, I felt, inappropriately disappointed. I answered with a glare.

And that had been the other reason I'd prefer to forget about the whole cleansing experience: the audience.

The, if you asked me, wholly unnecessary audience. Sure, there had been chanting and spell-casting and drawing runes and all the other hallmarks of a major magical ritual but, I ask you, would it have been so hard to do it with me behind a curtain?

More to the point, I'd asked her. At length. The answer hadn't changed, did however come delivered with an increasingly shorter temper but longer digressions on cultural relativism with respect to nudity taboos, in particular how Morrowind culture was clearly superior to all others in this regard. This had included a lengthy diatribe about how preferring not to display certain parts of one's body to all and sundry proved one was ashamed of one's natural state and hence deeply spiritually flawed. I'd risen to the bait, and...

...suffice it to say that I didn't think we were going to be friends.

"Here we are."

I looked up to see the novice had led me back to Lloran's office. She gave a contemptuous sniff as she looked me over. I gave her a glare back, but my heart wasn't in it. I'd secretly worried that after our altercations, she'd abandon me in the maze, and 'lost spirit stuck on Mundus' just wasn't particularly high on my list of prospective careers. However, I remembered that this office was just a short walk down from one of the entrances. Even I should be able to escape from here.

"Come in."

After meeting with Ervesa's superior one more time, of course.

The office had changed significantly since I'd left it. Oh, I am certain some people would disagree with this assessment. They might point out the fact that the furnishings remained the same, that no structural changes had happened, that even small decorations were still in their prior location. Of course, said people would be fools. Such trivialities as tables, chairs, wall-hangings and carpets being entirely unchanged vanished into nothingness before the following: the statue was gone, Ervesa was gone, and the high-ranking Temple member who'd previously clearly thought of me as little more than a mer-shaped inconvenience had her full attention fixed on me.

"Have a seat. Your name is Adryn, correct?"

As I slid into the chair I'd last seen Ervesa in only hours before, I found myself feeling distinctly betrayed. When we'd arrived I'd been packed off before introductions, which meant someone must have told her my name. From where I was standing, the only possible culprit was Ervesa.

I told myself I was being irrational – this woman was clearly Ervesa's superior, after all, and considering that by the sounds of it I'd done the Temple a serious favour there was no reason this woman should do me any harm – but the feeling stayed. I didn't like powerful people knowing who I was, especially when I didn't know what else Ervesa had told the woman.

The woman who was apparently waiting for me to confirm my name, eyebrow raised in question. I gulped. There was something rather ominous about her air of polite patience.

"Um, that's correct. I'm Adryn."

"And your clan name?" The feeling that Lloran's patience was finite and I would not like it when we reached its end intensified.

"I don't have one." For the sake of self-preservation, I throttled the exasperation that always rose in me at this line of questioning. (It wasn't even the first time today!) "I never knew my parents, and there isn't anyone I could ask."

A simple explanation of a very complicated childhood right there.

"Really." For a moment, the feeling of impending doom hung in the air. Then it vanished. I guessed with some relief that Lloran had decided I was being honest. "A tragedy, to be severed from your ancestors so." She bowed her head. "You have my deepest condolences." Her mournful tone wouldn't be out of place at a funeral.

"Uh, thanks?" I hazarded, rather unsettled by this reaction. Sure, being an orphan with no family had never been a walk in the park, but I liked to think I'd done reasonably well for myself. And in my experience, the "look at the poor deprived parentless child" reactions die down once you reach teenage years. This was really quite excessive.

What was worse was that the novice had reacted in the same way after I told her I couldn't give her any names of my ancestors for her spells... and that had been after the heated discussion on comparative theology. Pity is never a pleasant thing to find yourself on the receiving end of, but pity from someone who you'd have said wouldn't spit on you if you were on fire is downright worrying. Getting the same reaction now left me feeling defensive and off-balance.

"Perhaps we may speak of the kinfinding services the Temple offers later," Lloran continued. "Business must come first, though."

"Business. Sure." That sounded like far safer ground to me. Then I became suspicious. "...What business, exactly?"

"First of all," Lloran said, "you will be relieved to hear that all traces of the Sharmat's corruption have been purged from you, and that the ash statue that caused it has been destroyed."

Relieved was an understatement. However, some natural caution remained.

"So the- corruption, as you called it – is definitely gone? I'm not in any danger of-" I stopped, unable to bring myself to say the last few words.

Lloran understood what I meant, however. "Definitely gone," she confirmed. "You were lucky – if the evil progresses far enough, it becomes irreversible, but at your stage it could still be washed away by the holy waters of Vivec and the blessings of the ancestors."

Irreversible?

Well. That right there was a piece of information Ervesa had left out when she'd discussed my state in Balmora. Probably because she'd figured that it would only spur me into mindless panic.

"I do have to warn you that your experience will make you more susceptible to the Sharmat's influence from now on, and that if you ever come across an ash statue again you should remove yourself from its vicinity and contact the Temple immediately." Lloran paused. "Although I suspect that at this point, you would do so regardless." Her voice was dry.

"You can say that again." I was seriously beginning to wish I'd never thought of breaking into Hanarai's home, never agreed to help Varvur, never even met Varvur-

"Ervesa told me how you came by the ash statue," Lloran said, distracting me from my mental diatribe at the mer who'd gotten me into this by confirming my worst fears about Ervesa's discretion, "but I'd like to hear it in your own words all the same."

Truth be told, at this point all I wanted to do was stagger to a bed – my bed at the Mages' Guild, preferably, but any bed not beset by ash statues would do, and in fact the ground was looking increasingly comfortable. However, it was clear by Lloran's tone that this was not a request.

I sighed and began, for the third time in two days, to explain exactly how I'd come by the statue. The process was not made any easier by the fact that my audience was one of the sort beloved by teachers but definitely disliked by anyone who was beginning to eye the carpet and wonder how soft it would be: an audience who thought. An audience who asked questions.

"How exactly did you work out it was Hanarai Assutlanipal the statues originated from?"

"Why did you choose to investigate her home on your own instead of taking your proof to the guards?"

"Can you remember the exact words you heard in Assutlanipal's cellar?"

"Ervesa mentioned you have a... condition... which causes you difficulty with Mysticism spells. Can you elaborate?"

At that, I tried to protest – not only was it not at all relevant to Hanarai Assutlanipal, Galtis Guvron and the statues, but I'd been subjected to more than enough humiliation regarding that particular subject for one lifetime, thank you very much – but my objection didn't make it far.

"I consider it relevant. Ervesa mentioned it, and it is unusual. Anything unusual in connection with these statues bears investigation."

I frowned. Her voice was hard and left no room for protest, but I thought that she'd glanced away for a moment when she'd said that... as though she wasn't telling me everything.

Well, considering she was a high-ranking priestess privy to any number of secrets and I was a mere peon of a heathen non-believer, it would be a surprise if she was telling me everything. Still, I couldn't imagine what relevance my newfound learning disability (I hated that that thought was getting more familiar) had to anything. I must have imagined it – Divines knew I was tired.

By the time she stopped, a whole sheaf of parchment on her desk was covered in notes, the candle had almost burned down and I was swaying in my seat from exhaustion.

"Very well. Now, Ervesa tells me you are staying at the Mages' Guild in Balmora?"

I nodded. Dipping my chin was far easier than raising it again, I noted fuzzily. I wondered if the priestess would be very insulted if I simply fell asleep right here. It was, after all, the place I suspected I'd be safest from statues in all of Vvardenfell. No tendril of malign influence would dare approach the woman.

"It's far too late to return there tonight, I'm afraid, and in any case I might have more questions for you tomorrow. I've arranged for a bed for you in the novices' dormitory tonight, and we will see what the morning brings."

The only word that made it through to my tired brain was bed.

"That's-"

A loud knock on the door made both of us look up. A moment later, it opened to show one of Master Grumpy's fellows.

Lloran frowned. "I am quite certain I asked not to be disturbed, Brother Ordinator."

"My apologies, Disciple, but it is urgent."

"Ah! Do you bring news from Ald'ruhn, then?"

Despite my exhaustion I found myself leaning forward in my chair to listen. Through the questioning, I'd managed to gather that someone had been sent to Ald'ruhn to investigate my story and arrest Hanarai Assutlanipal and Galtis Guvron if confirmed. I had to admit I was rather invested in the outcome. Varvur's freedom was at stake, of course, but even aside from that I'd feel a lot safer with both those mer behind bars.

"Ald'ruhn?" The Ordinator sounded confused. "No, I'm here on Brother Suryn's orders." That expressionless mask turned to stare in my direction. "You are the clanless known as Adryn, recently of Solitude?"

Wait, he was here for me?

I had the terrible sinking feeling that I'd forgotten about something important.

"Yes, she is," Lloran answered for me. I gritted my teeth, fighting the urge to yell at her for so easily letting my identity slip to law enforcement – you never give the guards anything! "Now, what is this about-"

Quick as a snake, the Ordinator's hand shot out. Tired as I was, I wasn't able to evade the cold metal he clasped around my wrist, and found myself choking out a gasp as my magicka began to drain away.

"You are under arrest for the murder of Ordinator Selman Relas. Please come quietly."

Chapter Text

"Father, I can't breathe." Despite his aggrieved words, Varvur made no motion to free himself from Athyn's embrace.

"Have some pity for a worried parent, Varvur," Athyn responded. "Your mother and I have spent weeks wondering if we'd ever see you again."

He gave his son one last squeeze, then reluctantly began to disentangle himself. Finally he stood in front of Varvur, hands on his shoulders - and when had Athyn started to need to reach up to do that, anyway?

"Speaking of Mother, where is she?" Varvur's tone was a credible imitation of a true teenager who found his parents deeply embarrassing and was certainly far too old to need their reassurance, but Athyn, who'd noticed his son's anxious glances, wasn't fooled. Not so grown-up as all that, then.

As for Domesea...

"I'm afraid I rather made a point of not knowing," Athyn confessed. "When we heard about your arrest by the Archmaster's guards, she went straight to the armory - I decided it would be best to have plausible deniability. I'm sure she'll hear about your release soon enough. At the latest, when she has Bolvyn Venim at swordpoint." He shrugged with all the equanimity of long years of marriage.

"Mother," Varvur groaned.

"That said," Athyn continued, "there is someone else who'd like to greet you. Although I think she's not too happy with you right now." He finally let go of his son entirely and turned around. "Meryni?"

The figure who'd been sulking in the background came forward upon being addressed.

"Varvur, you missed my birthday!"

That foot-stomp would no doubt be a fierce, ground-shaking thing one day, Athyn mused. She was a little too small to have much effect with it right now, though.

Varvur crouched to get on a level with the girl. "I'm sorry, Meryni," he said sincerely. "I wanted to come, I promise, but an evil warlord kidnapped me to keep me from being with you on the day. I tried to fight my way out to you, but I didn't quite manage to free myself in time. Will you forgive me?"

"Well..."

Meryni clearly had to consider this very thoroughly. Athyn bit back a smile.

"All right," she finally said, in the tones of one bestowing a great favour. "If it was an evil warlord, I suppose."

Then she threw herself at him.

Varvur visibly relaxed as his arms closed around his sister. In that unguarded moment, Athyn could see all the exhaustion, stress and pain of his captivity written on his face.

Athyn Sarethi liked to think he was not a violent man, but that instant he found himself wishing fiercely for ten minutes alone with Bolvyn Venim and his mace.

After a few moments, Varvur straightened, his little sister held against his hip. Declarations of anger aside, Meryni looked perfectly content snuggled into his hold. On seeing his children like that, something within Athyn relaxed for the first time in weeks. Meryni was too young to truly understand why her brother had been gone, and her distress at Varvur's absence had torn at Athyn's heart.

"So," Athyn asked his son after a moment. "What happened?"

"What happened... you mean with- with Bralen and-"

"No, no." Athyn interrupted. "I mean your daring escape from the evil warlord's clutches, of course." He shot his son a smile, and was glad to see it returned after a moment - even if Varvur's was still far fainter than he'd like.

Later, Athyn thought, there would be time to talk about the rest of it. About poor Bralen's death, about the team from the Temple that was right now turning his home upside-down in the name of 'cleansing' and whatever it was they'd removed from Varvur's quarters... about the shadows that lingered in his son's eyes and the disturbing tale borne to him by that young Armiger who'd come to inform him of the law finally recognising Varvur's innocence. But not now, not in the midst of what should be a happy reunion, and absolutely not with Meryni listening.

Judging by the glance Varvur shot his sister, he felt the same.

"My escape. Well. It started when two thieves showed up at the door to my cell..."

After a while, Meryni wriggled free and ran ahead; apparently the story didn't contain enough adventure and heroic derring-do for her. Well, Athyn thought while keeping an absent eye on the small figure, even if his daughter wasn't satisfied, it certainly contained more than Athyn himself had expected. Fair maidens, a battle with a fierce barbarian, a conspiracy uncovered - Varvur had been busy.

"...and then the Ordinator told me I'd been cleared of all charges and was free to go," his son finished.

Up ahead, Meryni was balancing on the rail at the edge of the canton. Watching her while he gathered his thoughts, Athyn had to fight down the urge to run and fetch her down. They were on the lowest level, after all - if she should slip, a dunking would do her no harm. Athyn knew he would do his daughter no favours by seeking to wrap her in wool.

"Are you- what do you think?"

The naked uncertainty in Varvur's voice made Athyn turn, surprised. He wasn't sure he could ever remember his son sounding so unsure of himself.

"What do you mean?" What's wrong?

Varvur didn't meet his gaze. "Are you... ashamed?"

Athyn found himself momentarily speechless.

His son seemed to take his silence as agreement. "I didn't manage to escape on my own," he whispered. "I had to be rescued. And then I didn't even participate in the investigation-"

"Varvur-"

"-no, I hid in Ajira's house like some cowardly Hlaalu-"

"Varvur-"

"-sat playing games with a kid while other people risked their lives for me-"

"Varvur!"

Finally, Varvur stopped. The look of sheer misery on his face remained, however. It was clear that he'd managed to think himself in such a tangle a simple reassurance that no, Athyn was not ashamed of him (what an idea!) wouldn't suffice.

Athyn decided to try logic instead.

"Do you think Buoyant Armigers are weak, when they do not patrol Red Mountain alone?"

Varvur's brow furrowed. "No, but-"

"Or myself, if I call on our honoured ancestor Sarethi-Tavano to aid me against my foes?"

"Well, no-"

Athyn could still hear the doubt in his son's voice and readied the killing blow.

"How about Saint Nerevar? He sought out the Dwemer as allies against the Nords. Should I call him a coward for that?"

"Of course not!" Varvur bristled at the aspersion cast on his hero. "He did what was necessary at the time to free Morrowind!"

"Exactly!" Feeling victory at hand, Athyn pressed his point home. "Varvur, the stories Redoran tells of lone heroes against overwhelming odds are all well and good, but all too often the lone hero falls where a group triumphs. You think your story shows you in a bad light because others did much of the work. Do you know what I heard in it?"

Varvur shook his head.

"I heard that you waited without despairing, grasped the opportunity to escape when it came, made allies among people strange to you, and pulled all this together to get out of a situation I'm not sure I'd have managed to escape. A disappointment? Varvur, I don't think I've ever been so proud of you in my life."

The desperate hope in Varvur's face was painful to see. "Really?"

"Really." Athyn considered for a moment, then gave into temptation, reached up, and ruffled his son's hair. Over the yelped protest, he said, "Also, as far as doing nothing is concerned, I seem to remember something about you doing your best to save two defenseless women from a rampaging barbarian."

Varvur flushed. "Well, one of them wasn't quite so helpless-"

"Which you didn't know at the time, and when it sounds as though she couldn't have done anything without you to draw the threat away. My argument stands."

"I suppose." Although Varvur's words were doubtful, he looked lighter, as if some great weight had fallen from him.

Ahead, Meryni had reached an Ordinator. Athyn watched the interaction carefully - true and honourable they might be, but Ordinators had always been notoriously rigid and unbending, and Athyn did not like some of the stories he had been hearing out of Vivec of late. Here, thankfully, there seemed to be no cause for concern, as the masked figure bent down to Meryni with grave patience. The level of indulgence on display made Athyn suspect the mer might be a fellow parent - a reassuring idea indeed.

"So," Athyn said after a few minutes of comfortable silence. "Tell me about your new allies."

"Well..." Varvur visibly gathered his thoughts. "Jamie is an honourable sort, I think."

"Jamie being the one in the Fighter's Guild?"

"Yes. She mentioned she'd joined the Imperial Legion before, up in Gnisis, but left because they ordered her to do something dishonourable."

Athyn frowned. The Imperial Legion demanding something dishonourable? In Redoran lands, no less? That was worrying indeed. He'd have to look into it... but later.

For now, he said, "I'm surprised she joined the Fighter's Guild, then. Mercius may be reasonable, but one healthy limb is no use when the heart is poisoned."

"I get the impression she didn't know," Varvur said. "From what Adryn said, she was certainly quick to side with the victim when they sent her to collect... 'debts'." Varvur spat the word.

A move that spoke volumes. Yes, it sounded as if Varvur had the measure of this Jamie... and Athyn had a good idea of how to reward someone like that for her part in his son's escape from Venim's trap.

Now, for the others.

"This Adryn is the girl who freed you from the Archmaster's Manor, correct? What about her?" Athyn prompted.

He watched in surprise as his son went puce.

"Her? She's a dishonourable, cowardly thief! Interrupting a fair fight - by attacking my opponent with magic from behind! - prepared to simply walk away from a man in need, mocking the very idea of honour, of responsibility-"

Varvur took a deep breath, then another. His voice was notably quieter when he continued, "...and I owe her my freedom, my sanity, quite possibly my life, she risked her own in the process, and I still have no idea why she chose to get involved."

Well.

Athyn doubted his son would have had the presence of mind to recognise that second part before his ordeal. Varvur had certainly grown in both spirit and maturity during his absence.

Athyn suspected he owed this Adryn significant gratitude for that in itself, without even taking into account the rest of it.

"So, what do you think-"

A squeal from up ahead interrupted Athyn. Meryni. His head snapped up.

"Um..." The chitin-clad figure his daughter was barrelling towards - a rather familiar figure, come to think of it - seemed rather taken aback. "Hel- oof! - hello there, it's nice to see you too, I need to speak to your father... ah... if you could maybe let go..."

The Armiger - Romandas, that was her name - plucked ineffectually at Meryni, who responded by hugging her legs even tighter. As Athyn neared, he recognised the helpless expression of an adult who spent almost no time around children and thought of them as half extremely breakable porcelain figure, half unknown species of Daedra.

"Meryni, let go of Armiger Romandas at once. Do you want her to think House Sarethi consists of Nord barbarians?" Athyn scolded.

The heartbreak on Meryni's face as she disentangled herself was only matched by the relief on the Buoyant Armiger's. "But Father! I want her to tell me stories about battling evil on Red Mountain!"

"I'm sure she'll be happy to do so later." Athyn cheerfully ignored Romandas' expression saying she would be no such thing. "For now, I believe she said she had business with me?"

"Yes, and urgent at that." Now that Meryni had let go of her, the Armiger's tone was grave, and Athyn felt his heart sink. She brought ill news, he could tell, and he'd had his fill of that and more in the last few weeks.

Could he not have this one day to reunite with his son, unmarred by disturbance and disaster?

Athyn strangled the selfish thought almost before it had formed. He was Redoran. Duty was engraved in his blood and bone.

"Go on, Armiger Romandas," Athyn said.

"It's about Adryn..."


 

"Here."

Gelduin accepted the purse and scroll of parchment Shazgob thrust her way with a dip of the head. By its weight, she guessed the purse held the promised wages. She'd have to make sure to find a quiet place to count it later. Shazgob was an honest sort, but there was no point in being too trusting about these things.

In any case, in her line of work, the parchment was more valuable.

She unrolled it, glanced over the seal at the bottom, then skimmed the words. Detected a bandit ambush north of Ald'ruhn... caravan avoided all encounters with hostile wildlife when she was scouting... found a campsite in the Ashlands... did good work.

High praise indeed coming from Shazgob gro-Luzgan, and anyone worth travelling with in western Vvardenfell would know the Orc's reputation well enough to be aware of that. As a scout without a guild affiliation, a letter of recommendation like this was priceless.

"You deserve all of it," Shazgob said gruffly. "Best scout I ever hired. You sure you don't want to come aboard permanently?"

Gelduin shook her head. "I appreciate the offer, but I'd get bored of always travelling the same route." She grinned at the caravan master. "No idea how you stand it, honestly."

That startled a rare smile out of him, she was pleased to see. "Too old for that sort of excitement, that's me. Malacath knows I'd have said the same in my younger years. But..."

For a long moment Shazgob was silent, penetrating stare resting on her as though he were trying to peer right through her to any secrets she was hiding. Gelduin forced herself to keep meeting his gaze evenly. Finally, he sighed.

"You didn't hear this from me, all right?"

Now this was interesting. "Of course not," Gelduin agreed smoothly.

"Could be we'll be travelling a different route soon enough." Shazgob was keeping his voice low. "One on the mainland. I told Albuttian about the blighted creatures you encountered. Three, wasn't it, and one outside the Ashlands?"

"A guar, in the West Gash near Caldera. That's right."

"He's worried," Shazgob said grimly. "Said the Ghostfence doesn't seem to be capable of containing the spread, and none of the healers have come up with anything decent either. He's worried, his superiors are worried. Reading between the lines, they might be thinking of doing something drastic. Way I see it, if you've been thinking of leaving Vvardenfell, this is the time. If you haven't been thinking of leaving, time to think again. You read me?"

It was an open secret that Shazgob was one of the eyes and ears of the Empire in Vvardenfell, someone people like Knight-of-the-Garland Cavortius Albuttian consulted in order to get the lay of the land. Sometimes, like now, he let a little information slip the other way.

That habit was one of the reasons Gelduin had made a point of cultivating the relationship.

"Thank you for the warning," she said now. "I do appreciate it. However, I'm not leaving Vvardenfell. It's my home, and I won't be chased away easily. I've already booked passage to Vos, anyway. Rumour has it one of M- one of Aryon's people is putting together a trade caravan to the Zainab. They'll need a good scout."

Silently Gelduin berated herself for the near-slip. Thankfully Shazgob didn't seem to have noticed anything amiss.

Shazgob shook his head. "No idea how you stand living near all those Telvanni, honestly. Or why you don't use the Mages' Guild to teleport back to Sadrith Mora like everyone else."

"Teleportation makes me queasy," Gelduin lied.

"Well then. On your fool head be it. If you change your mind, we'll be in Ebonheart for a few more days."

Several hours later found the last wagons of the caravan being unloaded under Shazgob's watch and Gelduin seated in the prow of the Frost-Ghost, her unstrung bow and pack at her side, the sea breeze tangling her hair. In the distance Vivec loomed on the horizon, but the wind was coming in from the Sea of Ghosts today, heavy with salt and bearing none of the stink of the city.

The scout smiled, letting her eyes close. She did like sailing. In another life, she might have become a sailor. In this one, it was a handy preference to have, considering the reception she got if she tried to make use of the guild guide system these days. After the third time that chit at the Vivec guild had refused her transport, she'd given up on the teleportation network entirely.

Thankfully for her, none of that had spread far - certainly not all the way to Shazgob's ears. Gelduin doubted the man would have been been quite so loose with his tongue if he'd heard that the Mages' Guild was refusing her service...

Certainly not if he'd heard the reason why.

When the ship docked beside Saint Delyn canton, Gelduin thanked the shipmaster in broken Dunmeris, gave him a generous tip from Shazgob's payment and sauntered off. Ano Andaram watched her make her way towards the Arena canton.

Fresh off the boat from Ebonheart, he thought. Some outlander come to see the wilderness of Morrowind, make a handful of drakes adventuring and spend it all betting on fights at the Arena. His cousin Birama would be indignant with rage at this point, proclaiming the outlander yet another invader from the Empire, most likely a cursed tomb-robber. Ano was more pragmatic. Her coin was good, and she'd gone to the effort of at least trying to learn Dunmeris. Surely that counted for something.

"Excuse me, do you sail to Hla Oad?"

Turning towards his prospective customer, Ano put the Bosmer out of his mind.

In the Arena canton, Gelduin entered a small tavern in the waistworks. As usual, the crowd was mostly outlanders, almost all conversation Tamrielic. The Arena, once used only for duels of honour or rank, now ran fights between hired fighters twice a week. For most natives, it was yet another hateful imposition from the unwanted Empire, and there were never many Dunmer in the audience. For many from Cyrodiil, it was a familiar taste of home in a strange land, and it sometimes seemed half the Imperial population of Vvardenfell flocked to the stands when a match was on.

"Hey, Vinnus!" Gelduin hailed the barkeep. "Any rooms free tonight?"

Half an hour later found Gelduin back in the tavern, pack and bow stowed in her rented room. Her netch leather had been exchanged for an embroidered dress, fresh and unwrinkled despite having been rolled up at the bottom of her pack for weeks (and the enchantment for that had been worth every single drake), and she'd teased her hair into the many-braided style that had been all the rage in Cyrodiil two years ago and finally made its way to Morrowind. To all eyes, she looked like a young woman from Imperial City, ready for a night on the town.

Gelduin ordered a tankard of mazte and settled in to wait.


 

Gossip spread quickly around the Vvardenfell Mages' Guild. Ranis Athrys' recruitment efforts notwithstanding, the core of the guild remained much the same as time went by, small and close-knit. Any occasion where even a few guild mages found themselves in the same room was quickly used as an opportunity to catch up on news. When that occasion was a guest lecture by Wizard Borissean - come all the way from Imperial City to study Dunmer levitation spells, was the word - when that lecture was followed by a meal in the private dining room at the Flowers of Gold.... when the words free drinks (which had a magic all of their own) were spoken...

On such nights enough gossip was exchanged to fuel any spy network for weeks.

With so much opportunity to swap tales, it was hardly a wonder that some of them concerned the guild's newest Apprentice. Said member would no doubt have been distinctly unhappy about this if she'd known, a fact that might have given some of the wagging tongues pause had she been there. As she was however mysteriously absent (a fact no one seemed to know the reason for, although some speculated she was too embarrassed to show her face), the gossip flowed unhindered.

"A learning disability?" Uleni Heleran leaned forward, eyes sparkling with interest. "First I've ever heard of such a thing."

"Wish I could say the same," Procyon Nigilius muttered and took a long drink from his shein, wondering whether he shouldn't order something stronger. He'd taught a guest class on advanced uses of the water-walking spell at the Arcane University on a research trip last year. No one knew quite what had happened, but rumour had it a certain Khajiit had been among the audience, and that the Arcane University's pond had needed to be replaced in its entirety.

"I don't see why we should let someone so unsuited to be a mage stay in the guild- ow!" Tusamircil rubbed his side. "Uleni!"

"If we're going to be kicking people out, there's someone else who ranks far above her on my list." Uleni glared at the Altmer. "Have some empathy for once in your life, will you? Poor girl - it must have come as a real shock. She deserves some moral support, not the boot."

"Admit it, Uleni, you're just wondering if you can use her in a prank," Medila Indaren threw in from where she was sitting with Tanar Llervi.

"Well..."

Nearby, Galbedir had engaged Folms Mirel from Caldera. "...of course, no way she can continue as my assistant. Unable to cast a Soultrap spell, I ask you! And enchanting and Mysticism are related, there's no saying she might not encounter the same trouble. Whatever Estirdalin says," she gave the Altmer, deep in conversation with Tiram Gadar and Senilias Cadiusus two tables away, a glance, "I'd rather not be blown up."

"Quite right, my dear," said Folms, either not noticing or choosing to ignore the smirk on Galbedir's face. "Enchanting is a difficult and delicate art, and there is no telling what havoc someone facing such challenges might wreak. Better she stick to throwing fireballs, or... or healing people, or..." Clearly struggling to come up with any schools of magic beyond his own, Folms resorted to a dismissive wave.

"...or alchemy," Galbedir muttered.

"Precisely. But," Folms' eyes lit up. "It's interesting you mention the connection between Mysticism and enchanting. I've recently come across an object which I would swear exemplifies Lor's Fourth Principle - there is no magickal residue on the second-layer simplices at all, and initially Galerion's Analysis only shows trace amounts barely greater than the standard background emanation from Magnus, but if you focus solely on the Atronach-Apprentice range and then tune it to take Lorkhan's Disjunction into account-"

Just as her smirk earlier, Folms paid no attention to Galbedir's increasingly horrified expression and attempts to edge away.

"-did tell her she was to work on the Dwemer," Trebonius expounded to Skink-in-Trees-Shade, who was giving every impression of listening intently. "Obviously, I'd spotted this inability of hers at the time. Simple matter for a skilled mage, really. No idea how it took Ranis and her people so long to suss out."

"Of course," Skink murmured. "It is an excellent thing, to find a way to let an apprentice grow and thrive who many would have abandoned. A good leader nurtures all in their charge, not just the ones who are easy to teach, so I have always believed." As Trebonius puffed up, the Argonian continued. "My gravest apologies for changing the subject, but I found myself... curious... about your newest assistant, Tiram Gadar. You said he was recommended by Ocato himself?"

"Indeed! Insisted we hire him on the spot. Been invaluable, let me tell you! But you'll have to ask Malven about the details. I never let myself be bothered with such things. My time's too important."

"I understand fully." Skink's voice was still calm and even, but his crest was straight and his eyes were glittering strangely. "Of course from your perspective these must all seem mere trivialities, and I do appreciate your patience..."

And so the conversation moved on.

Eventually, every evening must come to an end. As Masser rose higher and higher in the sky, people began making their apologies. So sorry, the enchantment desk won't man itself in the morning... Edwinna's got us heading out to Nchuleftingth at the crack of dawn... need to look in on those potions I set to simmer... want to sort out some business at the High Fane tomorrow and you know how early those priests get up...

In the bustle of people departing, numerous flashes from Recall spells and a queue forming in front of the rather put-upon Cassia, one more person leaving drew no attention. Anyone following them might have felt rather puzzled when their quarry started towards to the eastern end of the waistworks - quite the wrong direction for the Foreign Quarter and with it the guildhall, the Vivec members' residences, and all the inns that might be favoured by a visitor. And they'd certainly have been shocked when the figure ducked into a doorway and emerged a few moments later looking rather different.

But who would follow such a well-known, respected member of the guild?

In the Arena canton, Gelduin had switched from mazte to wick water two mugs ago in hopes of keeping her head clear. The tavern had filled up and she'd found herself needing to use all the cunning and skill at her disposal, supplemented by her trusty charm ring, in order to stay alone at her table. She was wondering whether to call it a night when a tall, broad-shouldered Imperial slipped into the seat beside her.

It wasn't the first, or for that matter the tenth, time that night that such a thing had happened, and Gelduin was fingering her ring trying to gauge the number of charges it had left when the Imperial spoke.

"And a good night to you, my dear." His accent, straight from the Nibenay Basin, would have raised eyebrows almost anywhere else in Vivec. Here, he was just another Imperial in the crowd. "See many cliff-racers on the way?"

"Mendaxto!" Smiling widely, Gelduin shifted forward to kiss the man. It was a rather long and thorough kiss by any standards, and when she finally broke away she still stayed close, half-on the Imperial's lap, her head on his shoulder.

"You're late," she hissed.

He bent his head to hers so that his mouth almost brushed the tip of her ear. "I'm sorry," he murmured. "I couldn't get away." Then, a little louder: "Shall we move to a more... suitable location?"

The departure of a couple who were barely able to keep their hands off each other long enough to make it out the door raised no eyebrows at all. Such sights were common in the tavern come evening, especially on a day where Blue Team's newest Pit Dog had won such an astonishing victory over Red Team's experienced Myrmidon and Saprius Entius had bought a round for the whole tavern to celebrate. At most, they attracted some jealous glances from a few men who'd been eyeing the empty seat beside Gelduin themselves and hadn't noticed how all previous attempts to conquer it had ended with the interloper stumbling away looking rather dazed.

When they reached the small room Gelduin had rented above the tavern, the Imperial broke away and raised his hand. Green light flashed and raced out to settle in the corners of the room, keeping all sound within. Any would-be eavesdroppers would have very little luck indeed.

Gelduin turned to her companion.

"I hope you're not expecting me to sleep with you while you're looking like that," she informed the Imperial tartly. Ano Andaram, if he'd been there, would have been surprised at the fluent, Vos-accented Dunmeris she spoke now – barely a trace of foreign accent, a far cry from the broken nigh-incomprehensible thanks she'd strung together earlier that day.

In the meantime, her partner had made a beeline to the pack beside her bed and was fumbling with a flask.

"Or," Gelduin continued, "that you're going to guzzle all my magicka-restoring potions. Some of us can't just go to sleep and wake up with a full magicka pool, thank you very much."

"Sorry," the Imperial said in equally fluent Dunmeris, putting the empty bottle to the side. "I don't think I can risk letting the illusion lapse – I'm not sure I'll be able to recreate it perfectly after, and I'd rather not draw attention by looking different when I leave. Too many people stayed in Vivec, anyway. I'd rather not raise any questions by being spotted somewhere I shouldn't be."

Gelduin shrugged. "Sounds paranoid to me, but you have to know what's best. I'm not cut out for all this spy stuff, you know. Code phrases and disguises and illusion spells – it's like a bad Blades novel. I had trouble keeping my face straight in there."

"Well, I'm afraid you have to get used to it," her companion said apologetically. "I can't risk being seen with you, not after-"

"-after Iniel, Namira curse her nosy ways, spotted me wandering into the Council Hall and decided to inform the whole guild," Gelduin finished. "Like I said, I'm not cut out for this spy stuff. But I am sorry about that. I miss being able to drop in on you without this... rigmarole."

"Well, it can't be helped now. And, getting to business... anything newsworthy happen on your trip?"

Gelduin let herself sink down on the narrow bed. "The main thing? We ran into three Blighted creatures, one of them near Caldera – miles away from the Ghostfence, well inside the West Gash. It worried Shazgob. It worries me, for that matter, but I don't have the direct ear of the second-in-command of the Imperial Legion for the entirety of Vvardenfell. Speaking of which, Shazgob let something interesting slip."

"Oh?"

Gelduin explained.

Sitting down beside Gelduin and frowning in thought, her companion traced winding circles on the sheet - an oddly delicate gesture that seemed misplaced on the man's bulky frame. "Something drastic... a good time to leave Vvardenfell... I wish he'd been more specific. That could be anything from invading Red Mountain to withdrawing from Vvardenfell completely. Well. The last is no doubt too much to hope for." A sigh. "I suppose other... friends of ours... will just have to keep an eye on Albuttian."

Gelduin, who neither knew nor particularly cared whether they had other agents in Ebonheart, nodded.

"So, anything happen on your end which you'd like me to tell the boss?" she asked.

"It's funny you should say that. Tell me, did you happen to meet an Adryn while with the caravan?"

"Adryn?" Gelduin blinked in surprise. "Clanless girl, late teens or so, from Skyrim? Yes, she travelled with us for a day or so earlier this week. Helped me out with the scouting – seemed like a good kid, even if she and her friend were clearly hiding something. Had a detection spell I'd really have liked to learn," she added with a touch of envy. "Although I guess you'd know her better than me – I remember she mentioned she was a guild member. Apparently nobody'd clued her in on my status as an agent of the enemy."

"You wanted to learn her detection spell?"

"She had this trick of using a Detect Life spell to tell whether an animal was Blighted. You know how much easier being able to do that would make my life? And I'm pretty sure Yakin Bael would give his right arm for it!" Gelduin frowned. "What's this about?"

"It turns out that that is only the tail of the snake when it comes to her skills. Apparently she can manage a teleport to a variable destination."

Gelduin's eyes widened. "You're serious? The things you could do with that-"

"Congratulations. By seeing the potential here, you have just proven yourself wiser than, at last count, the entirety of the Vvardenfell Mages' Guild." The Imperial began to pace angrily.

"This sounds like a story." Gelduin stretched, then let herself settle back on the bed with a groan. In her professional opinion as a scout, a good mattress needed to be properly indulged in when it crossed one's path.

"Sheep. Mindless sheep," her friend spat. "Teleportation is one of the big research areas of the guild. We've- they've been trying to increase the range and flexibility of the spells for centuries, to no avail. The guild guide network is the biggest advance made during that entire time, and that requires a dedicated mage at every single end point. Along comes a girl whose spell-casting doesn't obey any of the restrictions we assumed must hold, who could open a thousand new avenues of investigation, and what do they do? The instant the words 'learning disability' fall they declare her hopeless, write off all that potential as misfires!"

"You feel very strongly about this," Gelduin said from where she was watching the rant.

"It's just such a waste! Now they're going to convince the girl she should stay away from the entire school, fill her head with exaggerated tales of danger, all because she doesn't learn or cast the spells the way they think they should, because she can't cast a Soultrap spell. Who even cares about Soultrap? It's not as if we have a shortage of fools who can cast it. She, on the other hand, managed a teleport to a place completely devoid of any Mystic beacon. Any proper organisation supportive of mages would immediately recognise the worth of such a unique talent. Great-"

At that, Gelduin's companion broke off and shot a glance into the corner. After a moment, the light of Illusion magic bloomed once more.

"Great House Telvanni," the Imperial continued, voice softer despite the renewed green gleam in the corners, "would leap on the opportunity to nurture it."

"Is leaping, I think you mean," Gelduin said, spreading her hands to indicate their current situation. "Unless this is all some bizarre prelude to telling me you've rethought your allegiances, are going over to the Mages' Guild for real and want me to join you. If so, I have to inform that your rhetorical skills need some work."

Her companion snorted. "Hardly. But..."

The anger fled from the large body like water seeping from a pierced skin. The weary sigh, loud in the small room, did not belong to the young face that made it.

"Like it or not, she's still a member of the Mages' Guild. One who is making waves despite how recently she joined. And I can't risk falling under suspicion... I'll have to tread very, very carefully."

"I have full confidence that you'll come up with something," Gelduin said firmly. "Or the boss will. Seeing as I take it you'd like me to make a full report on the matter."

"I was rather hoping you would, yes. I know that..." her companion glanced up at the corners of the room as if considering something, then shrugged and continued, "the boss is going to be very interested in this. It ties into some long-standing research interests, you see." The last words were spoken with all the authority of a close confidant.

So her nickname for their patron was a code name now? Her life had become a bad Blades novel indeed, Gelduin thought, hard-pressed to keep from rolling her eyes.

For the hundredth time, she wondered whether she shouldn't give up this spy business, go back to the boss and say she'd rather just be a perfectly ordinary scout with none of the cloak-and-dagger nonsense. Akatosh knew there was enough business in the Grazelands to keep her happily occupied.

Her friend was looking far more cheerful, Gelduin noted, the look on that false face saying that the other was already thinking up plans for gaining control over this Adryn's unique abilities. She felt a brief spark of pity for the girl, who'd struck Gelduin as rather naive – or, in other words, as woefully unequipped to be at the centre of this sort of conspiracy – but forced it down. House Telvanni had been good to Gelduin herself, after all, and it certainly sounded like the girl wasn't being properly appreciated for her abilities where she was.

More to the point, although Gelduin did not consider her companion's current appearance in any way attractive, the gleam in those eyes made her remember what lay beneath it. And exactly how she'd been... seduced... into House Telvanni in the first place.

"Are you really certain you can't stay for a while, without the illusion?" she asked. "Your guildmates are hardly going to come in bursting here, and I doubt anyone will notice if you look a little different if you leave. I've been on the road for such a long time, you know." Gelduin let her voice drop to the purr that had brought Madam Meretria to her doorstep with an offer the day she turned sixteen. "No privacy at all. I was really looking forward to catching up with you... properly."

Her companion's eyes darkened, but that was the only reaction.

Gelduin considered, and decided she could up her gambit a little. "Otherwise, well, I've got a long journey ahead of me tomorrow, and it sounds like we're about caught up on news. Unless you give me a good reason to stay awake, I'll be going to bed now."

She stood, turning her back to her partner. Her pulse hammered in her ears, drowning out all other sound, as she began to unbutton her dress. Goosebumps grew on her skin as the bare skin of her shoulder met cool air, her back-

Fingers wrapped around hers, far longer and thinner than the Imperial's.

"You make a convincing argument," a very familiar voice murmured in her ear.

A quarter hour later, the muffling spell on the room wore off. Neither of the two occupants noticed. That was perfectly all right, though, as none of the sounds that escaped could be considered incriminating.


 

Something that regularly came as a surprise to newcomers to Vivec – outlander tourists, visitors, new residents and pilgrims alike – was the Palace.

Rising towards the sky at the southernmost point of the city, an earthly thing of stone and iron topped by a golden dome, at first glance a not particularly religious newcomer might think it was much like the homes of the rich and powerful the world over. Such blasphemy was quickly proven mistaken on any sort of closer inspection, however. Only the topmost floor of the palace was occupied by the god himself, a windowless space no larger than the tiny stilted shacks that rose from the water between the cantons. The rest of the palace was given over to the Puzzle Canals, the mysterious, some claimed ever-changing maze of corridors and flowing water that was a favoured destination of pilgrims from across Morrowind. Of all the things that could be said of the Puzzle Canals, them being a suitable dwelling place was not one.

Vivec's palace was the home of a god, not a man.

As Archcanon of the Vvardenfell Temple beneath Vivec, Tholer Saryoni had access to the private writings of many of his predecessors. Some had kept more detailed journals than others – Noveni Omayn in particular had left behind a considerable collection of volumes, one thankfully accompanied by a quick and biting sense for irony and witty turn of phrase – but keeping such records was one of the unspoken duties of the job and one would be hard-pressed to find an Archcanon who had left behind nothing at all. Poring over their writings late into the night, commonalities became apparent.

My lord has changed His chamber again, wrote Tandris Nelenim. Entered this morning and found myself in an actual jungle. Narrowly escaped being attacked by a beast I did not recognise... very afraid He has gone on a jaunt to Akavir (or possibly Hircine's Hunting Grounds?) and, shall we say, left the door open behind Him...

And, of course, Noveni. His Worship is showing dangerous signs of getting bored again. After a very relaxing few months where his chamber obeyed the laws of Mundus it has been getting steadily larger by the day, and I have a terrible suspicion the carpet is currently carnivorous. I have made clear in the strongest possible terms that I would be most displeased if I entered one day and found myself on the ceiling, in an Outer Realm, or eaten by the floor, but fear I failed to make much, if any, impression. For the sake of everyone's safety and keeping the dragon of time in one piece, I do believe I may need to arrange for a distraction...

Reading it, Tholer – who, if pressed, would admit to a love for adventure better suited to a far younger man – had felt rather wistful. Such variety, he thought, sounded rather exciting. Sadly for him, in his tenure as Archcanon, Vivec's chamber had remained constant. As he entered now, it was clear today would bring no change.

Inside as outside, the room at the top of the Palace of Vivec was small and perfectly round. Elaborate murals ran along the walls, some depicting scenes Tholer recognised from history or legend, some ones entirely unfamiliar – different ones each time he entered, the only remnant of the distortions of physical reality described by so many of his predecessors. The floor was a stark contrast to such decoration, bare white stone save for a large triangle worked into it in gold, a plain dais at its centre.

Over it floated a god.

Vivec's back was to the door, and he had given no sign of welcome or even acknowledgement. Instead, his gaze was fixed on the only other item in the chamber.

An image of Vvardenfell floated before Vivec, green islands and gray ash-wastes alike rising from a sea of white fog, all leading upwards to the great sweep of Red Mountain – its peak obscured even here. Looking at it too long gave one the disturbing feeling that it was slowly growing larger, or perhaps one was growing smaller, slowly being drawn in.

(When Tholer was younger and less wise, he had asked whether it was a model or real. Instead of punishing him for a fool's desire for certainty, Vivec had told him every model is real and reality is but a model. Tholer had bowed his gratitude for the gift of the paradox and, ever since, had taken care not to come too near to it.)

Every detail was perfect, from the pebble that was Baar Dau floating in the south to the tiny spires of Dwemer ruins rising from Dagon Fel in the north, the thin wisps of cloud hanging above that island contrast to the thick grey mass that blotted out most of Azura's Coast (and hadn't Brother Eris, travelling back from Sadrith Mora by guild guide just today, returned with sodden robes?)...

And, of course, above all else, the Ghostfence.

Ringing Red Mountain, glowing with a fierce white light, it was absolutely unmistakeable. If Tholer listened closely, he could hear the whispered voices of all the thousands and thousands of ancestors who had given themselves over to it. It was awe-inspiring, a work of staggering scope, testament to the strength of the Dunmer people in both life and death... testament to the power of their gods.

It was – so someone who had come to this chamber over decades, someone such as the Archcanon of the Vvardenfell Temple, might notice – very, very slowly growing weaker.

"Enter."

Vivec spoke without turning around. His voice passed straight through Tholer to wrap around something behind him.

Tholer looked over his shoulder. Sister Dileno had stopped in the entranceway, eyes wide. Now, she took a trembling step forward, as if worried she would be struck down for daring to cross the threshold.

Had she ever met Vivec face-to-face like this before – not watching in a crowd as he greeted his people, not at a ceremony with all the upper ranks attending, but in a small group with no script or ritual to follow? Taking in her stunned expression, thinking back, Tholer decided she had not. Vivec left this chamber so rarely these days, anyhow.

I have spent the last several days attempting to explain to his Worship the nature of becoming predictable. To choose an example at random – should one be a god with a taste for wandering their flock in disguise, it is perhaps wise to only engage in such activities on a rare basis, or to choose a variety of guises, or in some way to prevent the situation where the clergy generally assume that at least one member of the new intake of novices will be no novice. Should one be such a god, one may want to keep in mind that the more senior members of one's followers may also wish to speak to one on occasion, and that the current situation, where the upper echelons of the Temple are in fact far less likely to see their god than the novices, can only be called 'absurd'...

Tholer pushed Noveni's words back in his mind.

"Enter, Dileno, daughter of Mundrila, of clan Lloran," Vivec repeated. His voice vibrated through Tholer's bones like the ringing of bell, pure and emotionless. "And tell me why you have come."

Out of the corner of his eye, Tholer saw Dileno throw him a desperate look as she edged into the chamber. He kept his gaze straight ahead and focused on Vivec. Knowing that in a few more decades he would need to seriously look into training a successor, Tholer kept an eye on the more promising of the mid-ranks, and the Disciple had struck him as having real potential. Time to see if that held up.

And should she prove weak, should she fall apart before their god... well.

One way or the other, she would never rise higher than her current rank.

After a moment, Dileno rallied. "My lord, this- this concerns news I received from one of your Buoyant Armigers, one Ervesa Romandas."

"Ervesa. Yes." Vivec's head dipped, as though he were deep in thought. Still he had not turned around; as was becoming more and more common, almost all his attention was fixed on the Ghostfence. "I am aware of her discovery of the Sharmat's plot in Ald'ruhn."

Should that be why you disturb me. He did not say it, but Tholer could hear the words ring in the silence.

Dileno licked her lips. "My lord, it- it is true this was the most urgent news she brought. However, there was... something else. She did not see its importance. In truth-" Dileno paused for a moment, then plunged in. "In truth, I do not either."

Good. Very good. Admit your ignorance, for to Almsivi we are all ignorant. Pride has no place before the gods.

Vivec did not visibly react.

"But- my Lord, I had been given to understand that you wished to be informed immediately and in person should any of your servants meet or hear of anyone suffering from the affliction known as 'Ledd's Syndrome', or showing any of its signs."

Dileno pronounced the alien term carefully, unable to keep a faint trace of bewilderment from her voice. Tholer knew she must think such a minor oddity a very strange thing indeed for Lord Vivec to concern himself with. He remembered puzzling over it himself when he had learned of the directive, an unexplained mystery....

Unexplained, until he became Patriarch and was made privy to the last, most terrible secrets of the Tribunal.

Vivec's motion upon the dais stopped.

For a terrifying moment, the Ghostfence dimmed to near-darkness. Then it snapped back to full strength. Tholer, who felt as though his heart had skipped a beat with it, had to suppress a sigh of relief. Dileno was discreet enough – no one prone to gossip would make it to her current position – but some things shouldn't be risked all the same.

Better for all if no doubt was cast on the idea that Almsivi were all-powerful and the Ghostfence impenetrable.

"You are certain?" Something new had entered Vivec's voice. Dileno would almost certainly not recognise it, but after working with his god closely for decades Tholer could name it urgency.

"I- yes, my lord. I, I spoke to the girl affected myself, to confirm the report. A clanless outlander, newly arrived in Vvardenfell. By the name of Adryn."

Vivec turned to face them, power blazing from his eyes. His gaze passed over Tholer to rest on Dileno, frozen in what looked to be mingled terror and ecstasy by their god's full attention.

(Perhaps not suitable after all.)

"Tell me everything."



Not far from the palace of Vivec, in a cell attached to the Hall of Justice in the High Fane, a Dunmer girl slept. Her cot was not much softer than the stone of the floor, but that had not kept her awake. Perhaps Adryn was not so long out of prison to have forgotten how to catch a nap at any available opportunity, perhaps exhaustion had overwhelmed all discomfort, or indeed perhaps some strange power was at play... in any case, she lay curled up on the cot, straw poking out from the thin pillow to tangle in her red hair, eyes closed, mouthing words in her dreams.

If her guard had listened closely, he might have found something to puzzle over. The words she whispered were not Tamrielic, but how was it that an outlander girl newly come to Vvardenfell should speak Chimeris, the ancient forebear of Dunmeris long consigned to dusty tomes? How was it that her mouth should form the words Dumac and Alandro Sul and Almalexia, form so many names from worship and history and legend, with such familiarity?

But the guard was leaning against the wall in the opposite end of the corridor, having glanced into the girl's cell only briefly earlier in the night. He'd been friends with Selman, close friends, and was afraid of what he might do if forced to stay near his rumoured killer. For the sake of duty and honour over vengeance, he had to keep his distance.

And so he did not listen, did not see, and the mystery remained for another day.

Chapter Text

One week.

Sitting on my cot in my new cell, I couldn't help imagining Elone's face at this turn of events. The scout I'd met that first day in Seyda Neen, who'd kindly refrained from turning me in to the guards when she'd seen me stealing, had seemed rather doubtful of my ability to stay out of trouble very long. I couldn't quite decide if she'd be smug or disappointed now... or which of the two would be worse.

One single week of freedom, and I was back in prison again.

And any pathetic defense I could muster (among others that it had not been a week, it had been eight days, thank you very much) crumpled before the force of precisely what accusation had brought me back here.

You are under arrest for the murder of Ordinator Selman Relas...

Although the event had come as something of a surprise, a few days to cool my heels and inspect my new home (much the same as the old home, and still no potted plant to boot) had made it clear to me what had happened...

...and I could truly have kicked myself for my stupidity.

Let us imagine for a moment that we are Jobasha. This is of course a difficult task, as Jobasha would no doubt make it clear that he is ever so much more intelligent, crafty, and – of course! - handsome than we are. Nevertheless, we shall give it our best effort.

So. On Loredas, Jobasha meets a friend of his Ajira's, a Dunmer girl with red hair... a fugitive from the Skyrim Thieves' Guild, Jobasha happens to know, as she is accused of terrible things by the Thief-King. But it does not quite add up, to Jobasha, the skittish, frightened, harmless girl in front of him and the gruesome tales he has heard, and he is not at all fond of the Thief-King. So instead of turning her in, he puts the fear of Vaermina in her, gives her a task to do and watches her flee his presence, prepared to sit back, watch and judge.

Half an hour later, the guard knocks on his door. There has been a murder, right outside his door. An Ordinator has been most cruelly slain. Does Jobasha know anything? Did he hear anything? Did he, perhaps, see a suspicious person pass by?

Well, Jobasha did have a customer, half an hour ago, one who has tales of bloody murder following her already. And although he thought them lies, although he looked the girl in the eye and decided she did not have a killer in her... how sure is he of his judgement, really?

Not sure enough to lie to the Ordinators, certainly.

Now, we turn to Jobasha's neighbour, one Andilu Drothan who keeps an alchemy store. Ordinarily, Adryn would never have let such a thing pass her by, but at that time she was very focused on getting back to Balmora as soon as possible and so missed the sign. A shocking thing indeed, and no doubt her day was much poorer for that fact, but as this means she did not enter his shop and never came to meet him one might think him irrelevant in this matter...

Except that, on the afternoon of that fateful Loredas, Andilu found himself feeling the need for a breath of fresh air. He had had no customers for a while now, the shop was stuffy and dark, and he felt the urge to get out for a little. His finances, he decided, were in good enough a state that he could afford to close early, today. And so he opened the door to his shop, thinking of taking a stroll along the northern shore, perhaps-

-and saw an Ordinator lying on the floor in a pool of blood, and a woman holding a bloodied dagger. Perhaps she was staring at a corner intently, angrily, as though something there had just escaped from her; perhaps there was even the spark of free magicka in the air from a just-cast spell. If so, such subtleties escaped Andilu, who found himself far more focused on screaming. At which point the woman ran away, the guards arrived, and the corpse remained where it was.

When questioned, Andilu did remember that the woman was a Dunmer with red hair.

These two accounts together, one has to admit, form something of a damning picture. Especially so because our friend Andilu, as we have seen, does not exactly have the best eye for detail. Imagine, for instance, if he had had the state of mind to note that the murderer's hair was in fact a bloody crimson – quite a different shade from Adryn's coppery orange, even if both may be labelled 'red'! Or that the murderer was well into adulthood, perhaps the equivalent of thirty-five years of age in a Nord or Imperial, whereas Adryn is not quite out of her teens. Alas, he did not, and so his description and Jobasha's agreed.

All of which might still have ended without a prison stay if I had just stopped and thought for a moment.

After all, in Morrowind I was a perfectly innocent ordinary citizen, no bounty on my head, no reason not to go to the guards if I should, for instance, be witness to one Master Grumpy's murder and narrowly escape the culprit's rage myself. I could have reported the incident to the guards in Ald'ruhn, in Balmora, provided those vitally important pieces missing from the narrative Jobasha and Andilu had created between them, without which the entire picture was terribly distorted...

But no. I'd become entirely focused on the various other problems facing me. These, to be fair, were not inconsiderable, ranging from naked Nords over angry Redoran noblemen and mind-controlling statues to Varvur, who formed a category all by himself... but nevertheless, I could have given the actual murder I'd witnessed a little more attention. Instead, I'd done my best to forget it had ever happened.

A course of action that, so I had been reliably informed, was profoundly suspicious.

A loud creaking noise came from the direction of the cell door. Torn out of my self-pity, I jerked my head upright just in time to see the Ordinator I'd dubbed Trebonius II for his intelligence, acumen and wit nudge it open.

"Follow me, prisoner. And no funny business."

I refrained from asking exactly what he thought I could get up to with my hands bound and a magicka-draining bracer on my wrist. Sometimes, even I realise I'm in deep enough that it's time to stop digging.

Besides, he'd been less than amused when I'd asked him yesterday.

I followed the guard down the hallway that had grown increasingly familiar since my arrest. It looked much like the ones I'd trekked along on the way to the cleansing chamber, and I suspected we were still in the High Fane.

Which was, I hoped, a good sign.

It was pretty clear that the Fane was set up as organisational headquarters and spiritual hub for the Temple, not a prison – especially since there was only one other cell near mine and it was empty. No, the area I was in must be a processing area for new arrests... which, combined with the lengthy questioning Trebonius II had repeatedly subjected me to, meant I was still under investigation rather than convicted. (I'd also like to assume this was the case since I couldn't remember any sort of trial, but I admit to some amount of cynicism as far as judicial systems are concerned.) In short, I still had a chance of talking myself out of this.

If only my story weren't so cursed flimsy.

We reached our destination, the small room off the main hallway that was serving as the interrogation chamber. As always, I breathed a quiet sigh of relief to discover none of the implements one might associate with such a thing were present.

"Sit."

I took a seat on the indicated stool, fighting the urge to squirm. I hated having a door to my back in an unfamiliar environment. No doubt it was the reason for the setup.

"Now." Trebonius II looked me head to toe, disgusted scowl making clear he considered me on about the same level as vermin. Dead, rotting vermin. It was an expression I'd grown rather familiar with over the past days. "Why did you kill Selman?"

Despite the situation, I couldn't help rolling my eyes. Seriously, did the mer really think I'd just blurt out a confession if caught off-guard? After it hadn't worked the previous twelve times? If he continued along those lines, I might have to downgrade him from Trebonius to... cliff racers were too clever... some form of algae, maybe. If he didn't watch himself at that point, Varvur might find himself getting competition.

"I didn't kill the man." I couldn't keep the asperity from creeping into my tone. "As I've already told you, I saw the whole thing and the murderer is a Dunmer woman. Crimson hair, taller and older than me, had some sort of enchanted dagger. I only just managed to get away from her myself by teleporting out."

"A likely story," the possible Algae-brain bit out. His hand clenched on the hilt of his mace as he stepped forward until I had to crane my head back awkwardly to keep him in view.

A classic guard strategy, this. Act like you're on the verge of losing your temper, get close enough to seated prisoner to make the height difference really apparent... intimidate them through the combination of looming and the threat of violence. No, it wasn't the first time I'd been on the receiving end of 'put the fear of the appropriate god into suspect, mark I'.

Sadly, that didn't mean it didn't still work.

"So this mysterious woman simply came from nowhere and stabbed a respected Ordinator while he was talking to you," Algae-brain growled. (The tone was a nice addition to the classic intimidation pose, I had to admit.) "A woman whom we have no other reports of, who even by your account had no apparent motive. You, on the other hand – you, the outlander who was already involved in an argument with Selman that day, who even admits to getting into another with him directly before the murder – are entirely innocent. You were in fact almost a victim, but only escaped through a teleportation accident... an accident, the likes of which I've never heard of before and which my Mysticism instructor stated to be flat-out impossible." A deep breath. "Girl, do you think I'm stupid?"

Well, that question put me in a difficult position.

On the one hand, although I am generally in favour of lying to law enforcement, I did have to admit that doing it in my current situation would be idiotic – quite possibly terminally so. On the other, giving my honest assessment of Trebonius II – no, he was definitely Algae-brain by now – at any rate, giving my honest assessment of his intelligence was unlikely to improve matters for me.

I'd just opened my mouth to attempt an answer when I heard the door open behind me.

"Elam! I said I wasn't to be interrupted-"

Situated with my back to the door as I was, I couldn't see who'd just entered, although the sound of the footsteps suggested at least three people. I could however see Algae-brain throw a death glare at whoever had dared interrupt, face twisting in fury...

...then going very pale as he opened and closed his mouth wordlessly.

Surely he wouldn't kill me for a quick peek?

The people (all Dunmer, and one day that would stop being surprising) now filing into the chamber didn't look familiar. Two of them were also wearing Ordinator armour, although like Algae-brain they'd doffed the helmets. One was a thin-faced man who carried himself with a distinct air of authority, one a girl I judged around my age with tattoos on her face who walked with an odd dragging step.

They were followed by a man with cropped dark hair in very expensive-looking robes, a mace made out of some dark metal – wait, was that ebony? - hanging rather incongruously at his side. Where the two Ordinators had ignored me entirely, he glanced at me and winked.

Hope began to bloom in my chest. I tried to squash it. The man might be on my side – or at least ready to act as if he was – but I had no idea who he was or whether he'd just make the situation even worse.

...to be fair, at this point managing to make it worse would be something of an accomplishment.

"Brother Elam. Sister Nedeni." Algae-brain said stiffly. After a pause, he sank into a bow. "...Councilor Sarethi."

Sarethi? I twisted around to look behind me again.

Yes, on a closer look I could see a resemblance there. And hadn't Varvur said his father was on some sort of council?

Considering what I'd done for his son, it wasn't even particularly surprising if he'd decided he owed me one. I knew I'd gladly forgo a reward in favour of him getting me out of here, one way or another.

Well, then. It was time to hope Varvur had gotten his brains from his mother.

But it was the male Ordinator who spoke first.

"Brother Suryn. How... good to see you." I definitely hadn't imagined that pause. "I'll have to mention your initiative to Brother Berel. It's not any mer who'd not just arrest a suspect but also interrogate them without any orders to that regard."

The tone was light, friendly, collegial. All the same, I could read the message here.

So, it seemed, could Algae-brain. This close, I could hear him grind his teeth. "The report came in on Middas. You were away – performing a 'forensic-magical investigation of the crime scene', Sister Felmena said-" those skeptical quotes were audible, "and the information needed to be acted on urgently." A grudging pause. "My message must have gone astray."

Oh, I'd bet it had.

Also, veiled meanings or no, should these two really be doing this in front of me? The suspect? Kyne knew Charon, Ingerte and I had kept closed ranks in front of outsiders, and there are more similarities between running a successful enterprise of guardsmen and one of criminals than one might think. I opened my mouth-

No, a little voice said in my head. (I suspected it was the little-heard voice of my self-preservation.) Interrupting in order to tell my current jailors how they were doing law enforcement wrong was unlikely to end well for me.

"-make sure to mention that to Brother Berel. For now, I'd like to question the girl myself," the newer idiot was saying.

I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt and leave him as 'Andas' for now. After all, it might just be forced conversation with Algae-brain causing the current spate of stupidity.

Said mer went purple, but couldn't seem to find a reason to protest. He gave a jerky nod, then stepped back and folded his arms.

"Right. Adryn, wasn't it?"

That was definitely directed at me. With a quick glance at Algae-brain to make sure he wouldn't take violent exception, I shuffled around on the stool until I was facing the newcomers. "Ah, yes. That's me."

"I'm Elam Andas, in charge of the investigation into the Vivec murders. This is my assistant, Nedeni Tenim." He nodded at the girl who'd entered with him. "Can you please recount for me the events of this past Loredas as you saw them, starting from the point where you left the shop belonging to the Khajiit Jobasha?"

Andas proved a far more congenial listener than Algae-brain, or at least willing to consider a sequence of events that did not include me killing the unfortunate Master Grumpy. Where Algae-brain had scoffed at or entirely ignored my explanations, he probed for more details.

Exactly how had Master Grumpy reacted after being injured by the dagger? Had I been able to make out the predominant school of the enchantment? (I remembered the malevolent red glitter of the blade, visible even through the blood, as if it were before me. Destruction magic – it had to be.)

How long had it taken me to get off the teleportation spell? Where had I ended up?

"Come now," Algae-brain interrupted at this point. He'd wandered to stand beside the others, and although part of me was glad not to have him at my back another part wished he'd stayed back. His facial expressions made it very hard to concentrate on my account. Now was a perfect example. "You can't possible believe her story!"

Andas gave the man a long, slow look. I wondered if he shared my assessment of Algae-brain's intelligence.

But it was the girl who spoke next. "Actually, it corroborates what we've found – there are definite traces of Mystic magic throughout the scene, leading to a knot of energy in a corner." Much like her walk, there was a slur to her speech, making her sound almost as if she were drunk. Palsy, I suspected. "I'd have called it a successful Recall spell, except that the connection to the endpoint was all twisted up and the shape of the residue was wrong. I'd never seen anything like it before..." Her voice trailed off as she seemed to notice everyone was looking at her. "Um. Begging your pardon, Brother Elam, Councilor Sarethi."

Algae-brain sneered. "You expect me to take that as supporting evidence?"

"As it happens," Varvur's father spoke for the first time, "my son can confirm her difficulties with teleportation, being present for a second... incident along those lines." His voice was mild, but Algae-brain shut his mouth with a snap.

Just how important was Varvur's family, anyway?

So it went on. Andas listened to my description of the way the murderer had acted, her slow gait, her words (Dagoth Ur does not want you here, outlander-), with a pensive frown. On my own part, I found myself drawing certain rather horrifying connections between her behaviour (strange, off, as if she were sleepwalking, as if she were being Controlled) and the statues – ash statues, that priestess had called them – where one had made Varvur kill his best friend. What if...

...well, there was nothing I could do about it in any case, and I didn't think anyone here wanted to hear my speculation. All I could do was stress that she hadn't seemed entirely in control of her actions. And although Andas' face gave nothing away, a glance at Varvur's father made it clear he'd spotted the potential connection here.

We moved to my alibi for the other murders, which Andas also took a lot more seriously than Algae-brain – especially once Sarethi senior mentioned that he'd spoken with Socucius Ergalla and I was indeed on record as having been released from prison in Imperial City into Morrowind on the nineteenth of Hearthfire. As the prison stay in question had begun in Evening Star of the year before, I could not possibly have killed someone in Vivec earlier this year, much less on five separate occasions.

"Well- well- maybe it's a gang, and she joined late!"

Andas raised an eyebrow. "Why, does that mean you do believe her story about the other woman involved after all?"

"No- I mean- I..."

There was a long pause, in which Algae-brain seemed to deflate. Eventually, he said, "All right. Suppose you're right, and she didn't do it. Who is this mysterious other suspect, where did she even come from, and what's her motive for killing Selman supposed to be?"

The fury was gone from his voice, and in its absence I could hear a thread of something else underlying it. Not expecting it, it took me a moment to identify it as grief.

Why would he be-

Oh.

He and Master Grumpy had been friends.

The events of the last few days suddenly fell into a whole new pattern. No wonder he'd been so eager to interrogate me, no wonder he'd resisted the idea that I was in fact innocent. He'd wanted to believe he'd found his friend's killer, that she was safely behind bars.

I felt a twinge of sympathy and immediately attempted to suffocate it. Really, empathy for law enforcement, how low was I planning to sink?

Andas heaved a sigh. "Exactly what I'm attempting to work out. Although as far as her motive goes, her reported words really speak for themselves, wouldn't you say?"

"Dagoth Ur doesn't want you here..." the girl repeated in a whisper.

Found you!

The memory of my nightmare suddenly came back to me, and despite myself, I couldn't help a sudden, hard flinch.

Andas gave me a long glance, then turned back to Algae-brain. "As for where to find her now... I have a suspicion. We've had some other reports of a woman behaving strangely in Vivec Canton that may be connected, and the location of the murder is... possibly telling. However, I don't believe the presence of muthsera Adryn is required for this discussion."

My ears perked at that, and I felt a sudden surge of hope. If this Andas believed me, maybe they'd let me go?

That hope was cruelly deflated when Algae-brain said, "I'll return her to her cell, then."

Andas nodded, not even looking up. "For the best, I believe. She is still a suspect, if an unlikely one, and in any case protective custody may be wise-"

"-actually, if you don't mind, I'll take charge of her."

What?

Sarethi, who'd inserted himself into the conversation as deftly as any master con-man, continued before anyone could get a word in edgewise. "I have some things to discuss with her." He gave me a searching look – I glared back, more out of reflex than anything else – and nodded to himself. "Over lunch, I should think."

"Now wait a minute-"

"Unless you have any particular objections to my ability to guard her?" Sarethi's eyes were very sharp as they rested on Algae-brain. "Or, perhaps, you do not trust my word?"

His voice was light, careless even, but all the same that question had 'trap' written all over it in letters so big even the rapidly paling Algae-brain could read them.

"None of us would dare doubt your honour, Councilor Sarethi," Andas intervened. "And as she is no longer a likely suspect, I am happy to release her into your custody."

"Very well," Sarethi said. "We'll be at the Flowers of Gold, should you have need of us."

Didn't I get a say in any of this?

I didn't bother asking, the answer was that obvious.


 

I stared at my bowl.

It had become quickly apparent that I and House-Father Athyn Sarethi, highly honoured member of the High Council of House Redoran, had very different ideas of what constituted an acceptable lunch. I'd been prepared to get something to go off a street vendor, the same as I'd done last time I was in Vivec. I'd even been ready to upgrade to a tavern or one of the cheaper eateries if necessary. Sarethi senior, on the other hand, made a beeline straight for what my trained eyes made out to be the most expensive restaurant in the Foreign Canton, all protests, swearing, and expressed worry that I might be struck by lightning on setting foot over the doorstep on my part in vain.

I nudged the bowl. Its contents rippled innocently. To my eyes, said contents looked like soup (done up fancy with toasted bread cubes and sage, true, but still soup), and the side that had come with it like sliced bread. It was in fact, or so the disgruntled server had informed me, a velouté of bolete and caramelised échalottes, accompanied by genuine Iliac ficelle. The information had left me feeling very uncertain of what, exactly, I was about to eat, but relatively confident I'd just tripled my Bretic vocabulary in one go.

"It's not going to bite."

Startled, I glanced up. On the other side of the table, Athyn Sarethi was watching me with every evidence of amusement.

"In fact," he continued, "I believe the idea is that it's the other way around."

"Very funny," I grumbled and took a spoonful of the too-fancy-to-be-soup.

It tasted...

One of the professional traits of the alchemist is a very finely-honed sense of taste. Some days, that proved an active disadvantage. (Every day I'd ever spent in prison, among others.) Today was not one of them.

The earthy taste of what I judged to be some sort of unfamiliar mushroom was perfectly accentuated by a hint of sweetness. The soup was incredibly smooth and creamy, with not a lump to be found. I'd spent hours with my mortar and pestle without getting nearly as fine a texture – I was tempted to rush into the kitchen and beg the chef for his secrets. After swallowing, the taste faded to be replaced by...

Just as a finely-honed sense of taste is a necessary skill for an alchemist, one specifically for alcohol can be a useful one for a thief, even a thief who'd rather down an experimental brew than a glass of wine. After all, it can be very handy to know if a dusty bottle rescued from a cellar can be sold on to a collector or is only suitable for scouring a pot, or – failing that – Saturnalia. Apparently, the cook and I had rather different opinions on the matter of Cyrodiilic brandy. I, personally, would have sought out a suitable trader with the warm fuzzy feeling of knowing I could expect at least a septim for my prize. Judging by the aftertaste now lingering on my tongue, they however thought it belonged in soup.

Said soup was probably the most delicious thing I'd ever eaten, but that amounted to not quite delicious enough to get rid of the nagging feeling that I was currently consuming something that cost more money than we'd used to spend on food for the entire week. Then again, I didn't think anything could have been.

Sarethi ate a spoonful of his own soup with every evidence of enjoyment. "Fedura has outdone herself this time. I will have to make certain to send my compliments to the kitchen."

"...right." I stopped myself from elaborating by crunching down on a crisped sage leaf. It tasted divine, and whatever thoughts might currently be going through my head about the sort of people who not only went to the fanciest restaurant in town but knew the chef by name were better kept to myself.

Sarethi pinned me with a long, searching look. I had the horrible feeling that said thoughts were not nearly as secret as I'd hoped to keep them. I was almost ready to preemptively apologise when he shook his head. I glanced down, happy to break eye contact. I'd never realised how disconcerting it was to be stared at by a pair of red eyes – I suddenly found myself with a smidgen more sympathy for the people back in Skyrim who'd had a hard time meeting my own.

My gaze fell on the heavy metal bracer clamped around my wrist, making me uncomfortably aware of the drain at my empty magicka pool. Although the Ordinators had done me the favour of unbinding my hands, they hadn't been kind enough to unlock the bracer, or for that matter offer an alternative to my rough prison clothes – I honestly had to marvel at the fact that the bouncer had even let me in. That thought led my mind to a matter that was admittedly far more urgent than Sarethi's patronage of a place where I had neither enough money nor lineage to get in as a dishwasher.

"Um. Could you be honest with me about something?"

Sarethi put his spoon down. "I wouldn't dream of being anything else."

He was really pushing this true and honourable image for all it was worth. Well, I supposed Varvur had to get it from somewhere.

"What do you think my chance is of walking away from this mess?" I gestured at my clothing to indicate my current status. It was a very careful motion; I was relatively sure that spilling even a drop of the soup must qualify as a capital crime, and I was in more than enough trouble in that regard already.

"Ah, you're still worried. Not particularly surprising, I suppose." Sarethi's voice dropped, becoming quiet and intense. "It's really not necessary. I know Elam Andas fairly well, and he's a true bloodhound when it comes to criminals. He'd never brook an innocent being imprisoned. And he's well on the scent right now. With the information you gave them, I wouldn't be surprised if they have the culprit under lock and key before we finish lunch."

He smiled at me reassuringly. My smile back was significantly more wobbly. Needless to say, this was not how my past experiences with law enforcement had gone. Not even when I was in fact innocent. No, in my experience guards tend to be satisfied as long as they have someone to arrest for a crime. Questions like "are they actually guilty?" are viewed as unimportant hairsplitting – and, in Skyrim, certainly a concern secondary to being able to pin the crime on a suspicious foreigner like a Dark Elf instead of one of their own countrymen.

What if-

"In any case, there's nothing more you can do about it now," Sarethi interrupted my fretting. "Now that we've cleared that up, why don't you eat your soup? It would be a real shame to let it go cold."

Truer words were never spoken.

We ate in silence that may have been comfortable on Sarethi senior's part, but certainly wasn't on mine. Although I had to admit that the food helped.

I'd hardly finished with the soup when the waiter brought the next course – Hammerfell-influenced, this time, so easier to recognise thanks to Charon's culinary experiments... although Charon would probably have sold his soul to the Daedra to be able to cook this well. Or with some of these ingredients. (Seriously, saffron?) At that point, I'd decided that the likely price of the food simply made it all the more important that it not go to waste and turned to the tagine with its side of harcha with gusto.

Eventually, the plates were cleared away and replaced by small cups of steaming dark liquid. Anywhere else, I'd have assumed tea or coffee, but I suspected that would be far too ordinary for this place. Sarethi senior took a sip, then put the cup down with a clink. "So."

"So?" I asked warily.

"So, Varvur told me what you did for him." A pause, then, "Words cannot express how truly grateful I am."

Embarrassed by the intensity in his voice, I stared down at my own drink. "It was..."

Nothing, I almost said, except that given the amount of trouble helping Varvur had got me into that would be such a colossal lie I didn't think I'd be able to say it with a straight face.

Instead, I changed the subject. "Well, I also have to thank you for helping me today." After a moment, I added, "...sir."

This addition was of course a matter of pure calculation, as I was certainly not intimidated in any way at all.

"Oh, call me Athyn," the most noble and honourable Councilor of House Redoran replied. And yes, that wasn't going to be happening. "And it was nothing." His dismissive wave indicated that he, at least, was being honest. "You were innocent, it was my duty. And Elam Andas would always have gotten involved eventually, and he'd have brought out the truth of things. I just... hastened matters a little."

Spoken like someone who'd never truly been on the wrong end of law enforcement, I thought, hiding the grimace on my face behind by taking a sip from my drink.

As expected, it wasn't coffee. Instead, it was a rich, sweet, decadently creamy liquid with a spicy aftertaste that left tingles on my tongue. At a guess, I would say that I was drinking xocolatl – and it had to be a guess because the price of the Black Marsh delicacy meant trying it had always been well outside my means.

"...without your help," Sarethi was saying, "I honestly don't know what would have happened to Varvur. And from what he's said, you went to some trouble to clear his name."

"It's been cleared, then?" I asked. "I mean, I'd hoped the evidence we put together would be enough, but I haven't exactly been able to keep abreast of the news in the last few days."

"It has," Sarethi confirmed. "Disciple Dileno Lloran gave an affidavit that in her expert experience, he wasn't in control of his actions at the time due to malevolent influence exerted by a malignant item. A squad from the Temple retrieved it from my home – we're still shut out of the living quarters. I'd be annoyed at the inconvenience, but one has to think on the alternatives... at any rate, at that point even the Archmaster couldn't argue against Varvur. He was declared innocent of all wrong-doing in the death of Bralen Carvaren two days ago."

"Good," I said, meaning it. Much as I disliked Varvur, no one deserved what had happened to him. At least he'd be able to go back to his life now.

Even if, as I knew all too bitterly, he'd probably be willing to give it all up in a heartbeat if it would return his friend to him.

"And I doubt it would have happened without you." Sarethi paused for a moment, then said, "Clan Sarethi owes you a debt, Adryn of no clan."

There was an odd weight to the words, and as he spoke he raised his hands so his index fingers framed his eyes. The gesture combined with the words seemed... formal, ritualistic almost. I'd hoped to be repaid for my actions in good, solid coin and then left to go my own way, but in that moment I began to suspect Sarethi was not going to let this whole thing go so easily.

Honourable types can be very difficult like that – all 'money cannot possibly be repayment enough', when anyone who has ever been poor will tell you that a large enough amount of money can be suitable repayment for any number of things, when it's really flagrantly obvious that you're at such different places in life that any closer involvement between you is likely to end very badly. But no. Instead of a sack of drakes (or a sack of xocolatl, which I might from now on be willing to accept as alternative payment), they offer something entirely unsuitable, like...

"As such," Sarethi said, "I'd like you to know that it would be my honour to sponsor you as a new member of House Redoran."

...like that.

"I don't think I understand." More accurately, I was really, really hoping I hadn't understood.

"For us natives, we are born into our House. However, it is also possible for outlanders to be adopted into one, if they are considered worthy. There are five Great Houses in total, three of them present on Vvardenfell. There is Hlaalu – merchants and traders, who have power around the Ascadian Isles, the Bitter Coast and southern West Gash. Balmora is a Hlaalu town. Then Telvanni, in the eastern part of the island, the Grazelands and Azura's Coast. They value magical ability and power. Finally, my own Redoran, present in the northern West Gash and the Ashlands. We're..."

"...warriors," I broke in, remembering Varvur's words with growing incredulity. "Concerned with honour and justice and fair fights and- you want me to join? You have got to be joking!" I noticed a woman at a neighbouring table turn her head our way and remembered to keep my voice down. "Varvur must have told you that I'm a-" I mentally rifled through the many, many things Varvur had called me for something suitably off-putting, "a dishonourable coward-"

"Varvur did have some complaints along those lines, yes," Sarethi said, not visibly ruffled despite my rather hostile reaction. "However, I prefer to make up my own mind."

"Well, I'm confirming his stories now. I'm selfish, I'm an unrepentant criminal, and I think the whole obsession with honour you lot seem to have going is an illness of the mind. Sheogorath probably has something to do with it," I snapped.

"Really." Still appearing entirely calm, despite the fact that this complaint had managed to get Varvur so fired up he'd lost the ability to speak and had resorted to indistinct angry noises. What did it take to rile the man? "Well then. If you're such a hardened, cynical sort, you're right – you wouldn't fit in well with House Redoran at all. However, in that case I'm sure you'll be able to explain some things to me."

"Go ahead." I leaned back and crossed my arms, feeling rather nettled. The sooner I managed to talk the man out of this absolutely terrible idea, the better.

A slight smile appeared on Sarethi's face. I had the sudden, horrible feeling I'd wandered into a trap.

"Something Varvur was rather unclear on, I have to admit, was why you chose to help him in the first place. You could have left him in the cell in Venim's manor, or failing that entered Ald'ruhn with your other companions. But you chose to get involved on his behalf, putting yourself at no little risk to do so. Varvur said you denied doing it for the prospect of a reward, but claimed yourself moved by his plight. Now, I make no great claim to wisdom and insight, but to me that sounds almost... honourable. Perhaps you can shed some light?"

Blood on my hands-

"Momentary insanity," I said stiffly, pushing the memories away.

"Mmm. Of course." Why was the man still smiling? "There's also the matter of this." His hand slipped into his robe and came out holding a very familiar-looking glass dagger. "My nephew's most treasured possession – losing it has driven him almost to distraction. You have no idea how relieved he'll be when I give it back to him. You returned it to our family unprompted, without even asking a finder's fee. Why?"

Really, why hadn't I asked a finder's fee? Too rattled by the nightmarish scene in Hanarai's house, not thinking straight. As for why I'd returned it...

"Varvur mentioned where it was from, and hanging on to a stolen gift from a god seemed like an all-around bad idea. At that point I figured I might as well give it back." A perfectly rational course of action, as far as I was concerned. Altruism certainly had nothing to do with it.

"Interesting. I would've imagined a hardened criminal like yourself might instead have sold it on and left the buyer to deal with any retribution. Clearly I don't properly understand the mindset."

I ground my teeth. So I'd overlooked a course of action. It happened!

Also... that was sarcasm, if I was any judge. How was this fair? How could the universe permit it that a man who'd spawned Varvur, of all people, was using sarcasm against me?

Sarethi sipped his drink, closing his eyes in clear appreciation. Any hope that he'd been effectively distracted from the current topic was thoroughly destroyed when he put the cup down and went on. "Now, as it so happens I also had a nice long talk with young Armiger Romandas. A real credit to her clan, that one. And I must say, she had some quite interesting things to say about how you met." A pause. "Did you really attempt to rescue a traveller from a kagouti?"

Silently, I cursed Ervesa, who clearly had never before heard of the word discretion.

"Rescue isn't the word I'd have used," I defended myself, "especially since no one had told me kagouti were going to be involved. Believe me, if I'd known, I'd have happily left the man to his fate. All his friend asked me to do was look for him – hardly a great task." I remembered the amulet. "Besides, there was a reward!"

"Which, according to Armiger Romandas, you didn't know about until she gave it to you. She said it sounded like you volunteered to help out of... what was it... 'the goodness of your heart.'" Sarethi stared at me, eyebrows raised.

"It wasn't like that at all! He just..."

I cast my mind back to the Bosmer who'd asked me to look for his friend. As I remembered, there'd been actual tears involved.

"He... just... looked so pathetic that I offered to help out of sheer embarrassment for him."

Very convincing, Adryn.

"Really." Sarethi's eyebrows hadn't lowered at all, and the corner of his mouth was twitching. I suspected he was fighting laughter, which frankly was at least as unfair as his being capable of sarcasm. "I suppose the same was true for the pilgrim you guided to Lake Amaya, then?"

"I was going that way anyway! And she-"

I cut myself off, all too aware I was just digging myself in deeper. Took a deep breath.

"Look," I said when I felt reasonably calm again. "I see how you might have... misunderstood. But these are exceptional situations! I assure you that on a day-to-day basis, I'm entirely selfish and cold-hearted. I don't go around helping people or anything-"

"Ah! There is the smooth-skin, where has it been? Miun-Gei has been looking for it!"

Both of us looked up at the interruption. While we'd been engaged in conversation, an Argonian had approached our table... a familiar Argonian.

"Er-"

"Miun-Gei owes you thanks, so many thanks!"

Yes, Miun-Gei had been the name, the enchanter to whom I'd tried to sell my amulet (and thank Stendarr I hadn't in the end!), the one who'd been suffering from an outbreak of loiterers with bardic pretensions. He certainly seemed a great deal happier than the last time I'd seen him.

"Not long after it visited, men came to speak to the buffoon," Miun-Gei was saying now. "Said she had been recommended for participation in Crassius Curio's acting troupe, that a passing Dunmer had given them his name. The buffoon left and has not been back, Miun-Gei's shop is quiet again, Miun-Gei can do business again!"

"Wha-"

Before I could get the word out, Miun-Gei had distracted me by grabbing my hand and shaking it firmly. "You have no idea how grateful he is, what sort of drastic measures it was contemplating before you came to assist. The smooth-skin must come to its shop soon, soon! Miun-Gei has a gift for her, and from now on he will only be given the very best prices."

And then the Argonian was gone.

I buried my face in my hands. Sadly, that didn't in any way help drown out the sound of the honoured Councilor of Great House Redoran collapsing into laughter across from me.

"It's not funny," I hissed, but that only made him laugh harder.

It took Sarethi what was in my opinion a truly unnecessarily long time to get his laughter under control, but eventually he managed. "So. You were telling me about how you don't go around helping people?"

"That- I don't..."

I trailed off, unable to find a way to finish the sentence.

I was really out of excuses, wasn't I.

I swallowed, facing my utter defeat. "I... may be suffering from an unfortunate case of altruism." The words came with a great deal of reluctance. "I've tried to keep it in check, I really have, but I'm still prone to outbreaks if I don't pay attention. It's really rather shameful. I don't like to talk about it."

And that right there was a great deal more honest than I'd have liked to be with a near-stranger, damn Sarethi for driving me to this point.

"I think that has to be the most interesting way I've ever heard a strong sense of empathy described." Sarethi had finally managed to collect himself, but there was still amusement in his voice. It vanished as he continued. "I'd be quite grateful if, one day, you told me who exactly taught you that kindness is a weakness. I think we would have... a great many things to discuss."

The smile that graced Sarethi's lips now had no trace of mirth in it. I let my gaze fall to the table, feeling raw and exposed.

"Another day, perhaps," Sarethi said after a few moments of silence. "For now... I believe you were telling me about how your selfish, dishonourable nature made you unsuitable for House Redoran?"

Mockery, now. I was almost starting to think this was some form of twisted revenge of his on Varvur's part.

"So I may have exaggerated a little. But..."

I gathered myself. Even with my unfortunate affliction taken into account, Sarethi's proposal was still a terrible idea. I could at least argue that, couldn't I?

"Are you seriously telling me that I'd be respected, in House Redoran? I've heard Varvur talk about the place, you can't tell me that the ideal isn't the, you know," I waved a hand in the air vaguely, "serious honest warrior type. You may think I have honour," an idea that still made me cringe, "but do you really think they would?"

"Perhaps they wouldn't. But they should. Honour comes in more forms than the obvious, after all, and it's a true failure of the House that so few of its members recognise that." Sarethi's voice was passionate, earnest... this was a subject very dear to his heart, it seemed.

Something clicked. In my head, everything the man had said in the course of this conversation, everything he'd implied, slid into a whole new arrangement.

"Oh." My voice was flat. I didn't like the picture before me. "You're planning to use me to further your agenda. Sponsor the outlander alchemist who couldn't defeat a blind elderly mudcrab in fair combat into the house, declare you think she's just as worthy as the warriors... nice idea. I have to say, though, that being the outlander in question doesn't sound like much of a reward."

Sarethi's eyebrows drew together, and he sat back abruptly. "That's not-"

He stopped, a scowl still on his face.

...yes, it looked like I'd managed to offend the other very important Redoran noble I'd met as well. Great going, Adryn. Calling him out had not been the smartest thing I'd ever done, even if I could point to truly extreme provocation in my defense.

"That is not why I am offering, and I have no intention of throwing you to the nix-hounds." Sarethi's expression had cleared, but I could tell he was still not happy. "Yes, I believe House Redoran would benefit from your presence... but I believe you'd benefit from House Redoran even more, and I would not make this offer if I didn't believe that."

I suspected my skepticism could be felt by people on the mainland.

Sarethi sighed. "Look- Adryn. I don't want to force you into this. Take all the time you need to think about it, to research House Redoran and what joining us would mean. The offer will remain open. And." He took a deep breath. "If you ever, ever find yourself needing help... please come to Sarethi manor under Skar."

His eyes were intense, and I found myself avoiding his gaze.

There was still a little xocolatl left in my cup. It would be a true shame to leave so much as a drop.

"Serjo?" An infinitesimal pause. "Muthsera?"

Both of us blinked up at the waiter, who'd appeared next to our table without sound. I'd have told him that there was a fantastic career in the Thieves Guild waiting for him, but I suspected he'd take it the wrong way.

Besides, I found myself not quite in the mood to give career advice due to being a little annoyed at the interruption. By which I meant, at the fact that the interruption hadn't come five minutes earlier.

"There is an Ordinator asking for you." The man's voice conveyed the fact that he was certain that such a call could not possibly be in connection with anything we had done wrong, as we were far too well-bred for such. Well, Sarethi was – the waiter was significantly less certain about myself, but was of course far too polite to imply such.

It was a pretty masterful use of intonation, I had to admit. Perhaps he would be best suited for the stage, instead.

"Shall I ask her to wait?"

"No," Sarethi said. "We've finished here – we'll go out to meet her."

On our way out, I couldn't help but notice that the waiter made no mention of payment. Another sign of the different worlds we came from – I couldn't even imagine dining a place where it was simply trusted I'd pay the bill eventually.

And this man wanted to sponsor me into Redoran? He had no idea what he was dealing with. It'd serve him right if I took up his invitation and robbed the place blind-

My internal grumbling was interrupted by the sight of the Ordinator girl with palsy from earlier waiting for us outside. Nedeni, she'd been called.

"House-Father Sarethi." She bowed to the man – an affair that looked rather dangerous and prone to toppling – then turned to me. "Muthsera Adryn. The Temple deeply apologises for the inconvenience. If there is anything we can do about any damage caused by our false assumptions-"

There was more she said, but I couldn't hear it over the roaring in my ears.

It had worked.

I was free.


Back in Balmora, I dodged Teleportation Girl's questions and fled to the washing alcove. Some time later, I emerged looking, if I did say so myself, significantly less bedraggled.

I'd honestly wanted to march straight to the Mages' Guild the instant the prison bracer had come off my arm, but the Ordinator girl and Varvur's father had insisted I wait for her to get my belongings from the Hall of Justice. I wasn't surprised to find the clothes I'd been wearing that fateful Middas were a loss. I was surprised to find that someone had clearly felt guilty about this, because they'd been replaced by a pair of firm-soled ankle boots, a matched shirt and leggings of some soft brown hide along with a blue wool robe with bronze stitching on the border. I suspected Ervesa's influence. Wearing the new clothes, with the grime of prison scrubbed thoroughly from my skin, I felt like a whole new person.

More importantly, although my clothes hadn't survived, a certain piece of jewellery had. The Slowfall amulet hung heavy from my neck, and it was truly amazing how much better I felt with it on me. Some people might call it an irrational attachment, I called it never quite knowing when you and gravity are going to find yourselves distinctly at odds.

Thus armoured, I left the building. After days in that cell, I couldn't imagine voluntarily staying underground right now.

At first, I wandered aimlessly, simply revelling in the sun on my face and the sight of open skies. Eventually, though, my feet stopped itching and started hurting. The boots were a little narrow for me – I'd have to see if they could be altered or traded.

I looked around.

I was on the west side of the river, opposite from the guild and the Eight Plates, the same side as the South Wall Cornerclub – although I'd made sure to stay far away from the place. I was really full up on trouble, there was no point in inviting more.

No, this was the southern part of Balmora, near where Cosades lived. Cosades, and...

In fact, wasn't that Ajira's house right there?

My feet took me up to the roof without bothering to consult my brain. I'd missed friendly faces, over the last few days. Missed people who didn't look at me as if I were scum or an interesting puzzle, missed those who took me as I was instead of trying to slot me into the role of murderer, general criminal, incompetent eyewitness, or (even more bizarre than the previous) aspiring member of House Redoran.

I'd missed my friend.

The door creaked open after my third knock.

"Ajira! It's good to see you, I wanted to let you know that I'm back-" I suddenly remembered that Ajira had Ma'Zajirr on weekends. "-um, if this is a bad time, just let me know-"

I was interrupted by virtue of Ajira yanking me inside.

A few moments later, I was seated in a chair in the tiny dining area. Ma'Zajirr was nowhere to be seen, although the mess spreading across one corner of the room spoke to his presence. Out with friends again?

Ajira confirmed this, then started on me.

"Ajira is so glad friend Adryn is all right! She was so worried – Armiger Romandas said that her friend was in Vivec as she had been arrested for- for murder. Of all the things!" The look my friend shot me made it clear she'd found this extremely unlikely and had been rather dubious of Ervesa's story.

I winced. "That... did in fact happen, yes. But!" I said hastily, seeing Ajira's horrified expression, "it was all a terrible misunderstanding. Mistaken identity, you understand. They apologised to me after we managed to clear it up and uncover the real culprit." My cheer fell slightly at that thought.

Apparently, so Nedeni had told Sarethi and me, the intrepid Ordinator detectives had managed to track the murderer to the sewers of Vivec canton – an act I had to admit I was very grateful not to have been involved in for more reasons than one. There, the knowledge that she had a Destruction-enchanted weapon allowed them to use focused Detection spells to home in on her. Nedeni had fairly glowed with enthusiasm when relating this part – rightly so, since it sounded like a revolutionary use of the spell family. I'd almost probed for details until I remembered with some level of bitterness that my newly discovered learning disability almost certainly left me unable to even comprehend, much less use, the magic involved.

They'd found the woman in a location Nedeni had been not nearly so enthusiastic about describing... no wonder, as the few details she let slip reminded me horribly of Hanarai's cellar. The instant she'd seen the Ordinators, she'd attacked. All attempts at talking her down had been useless, Nedeni had said in a sombre tone, and when she managed to knock out Andas with the dagger it became clear it was too dangerous to continue trying. The woman had been killed in the resulting fight.

Nedeni had seemed satisfied with that conclusion, and no doubt Algae-Brain would be ecstatic at having gotten justice for his friend. The whole thing left me feeling rather disturbed, however. From the details Nedeni let slip, it certainly sounded like the woman might have been under the influence of one of those statues. Not responsible for her actions, but killed for them all the same.

It could have been Varvur, in her place. It could have been me.

I wondered who the woman had been, before she ran afoul of the ash statue. What had she been doing? What had she dreamed of, before her mind was stripped from her? Did she have any family or friends... any who might be looking for her even now? Nedeni had seemed doubtful they'd be able to identify her. Those people would never know what had happened.

What had been her name?

A strong sense of empathy, as Sarethi called it, was a terrible affliction indeed.

Ajira, of course, had no idea of the dark details hidden behind my story. "-very good the evil-doer was caught, friend Adryn," she was saying. "Ajira shudders to think what might have happened!" She shook her head. "It is hard to believe that they truly believed you did it. Of all the people..."

"I know, I didn't think I made a particularly convincing murder suspect either!" Now that everything had been resolved and I was starting to gain a little more distance from the situation, I could see the absurdity in it. "It was a matter of unfortunate timing more than anything else, really."

Ajira flicked her claws, as to dismiss the whole thing. "Well, it is thankfully over now. And..." She shot me a glance. "When Armiger Romandas informed her of what had happened, Ajira did not believe it, yes? But she also thought that, regardless of whether it was true, friend Adryn would not like such a thing spread around the guild. So..." she shrugged. "Ajira made it known that friend Adryn had been called away by sudden business, urgent business. She did not go into detail. Was... was that all right?"

For some reason, Ajira was looking uncertain. On my part, I was fighting down the strong urge to hug her.

"Thank you so much, Ajira, you're a star," I said instead, and the sincerity was so evident in my voice it was almost embarrassing. "Really, I don't know how I can repay you."

I couldn't deny I'd had some qualms about returning to the guild with everyone knowing I'd been in prison on charges of murder only that morning. The fact that Ajira had apparently made certain that news travelled no farther than herself was a massive relief.

"Oh, it was nothing," Ajira said, her ears twitching back and forth as she avoided my eyes. If she'd been human or a mer, she'd probably be blushing right about now. "In fact, Ajira is not certain she did her friend a favour – the guildmistress was most put out about her absence."

Of course. Ranis Athrys certainly wouldn't be particularly happy with me if she'd thought I'd just run off straight after my promotion. Still, I'd much rather deal with an angry guildmistress than the whole guild knowing about my recent flirtation with the chopping block.

I told Ajira so, and reiterated my thanks. It only seemed to make her more embarrassed.

"Did Councillor Sarethi speak with friend Adryn, Ajira wonders? He told her he was planning on it."

I allowed my friend the change of subject, particularly since I was interested in this myself.

"He did. He offered to sponsor me in House Redoran..." I raised an eyebrow as Ajira nodded to herself, as though I'd confirmed a suspicion of hers. "You, too?"

"Indeed. He said he felt Ajira had conducted herself with great honour throughout, especially as she had Ma'Zajirr to look after. What does friend Adryn think of the offer?"

I mentally translated: Was I planning on accepting?

"I think it's a terrible idea," I said frankly. "Me, in an organisation full of Varvurs? Someone would be bleeding by the end of the day, and I'd wager septims against drakes that it'd be me." I paused. "What about you?"

"Ajira is still considering. She... shares many of her friend's reservations. House Redoran is not known to be friendly to mages, and membership would not help her in the guild. And yet, it is an opportunity that may never come again. Especially," Ajira sighed, her ears drooping, "for Ma'Zajirr."

"Oh?"

"He dreams of becoming a warrior one day, or a battle-mage, or maybe even a Buoyant Armiger. Even moreso since meeting Varvur, Councillor Sarethi and Armiger Romandas. As things are, it is... unlikely. Ajira has no way of getting him training, equipment, supplies. All she can offer is an education as a pure mage. Perhaps one day, if she saves enough... but she is told that in warrior training, it is important to start early.

"In House Redoran, now... there is potential there. And Ma'Zajirr is not doing well, at the Cult school in Fort Moonmoth. Perhaps it would be better, in Redoran. But then again, they are not friendly to Khajiit, any of the Great Houses. What if it is even worse? A choice like this, it cannot be taken back."

Ajira looked wretched, and my heart went out to her.

"Sarethi said I should think it over, and that there wasn't a time limit on the offer," I told her. "I'm sure the same goes for you. And maybe you can investigate – figure out what it would be like, what sort of opportunities the both of you would have, without committing."

Ajira nodded. No doubt she'd been planning much the same herself.

"Well, these things may wait. For now..." she grinned, the worry vanishing. "It so happens that Ajira's suppliers procured a small amount of shalk resin for her. Would friend Adryn like to hear of her experiments?"

"You have to ask?" I pulled my chair closer, happily diverted. Who cared about murders, arrests, offers of adoption... there was alchemy to be discussed!

"Well, Ajira started by mixing the resin with water, then heating it to just below boiling..."


It wasn't long after that that Ma'Zajirr returned. He made it clear that in terms of interest, I ranked far below Buoyant Armigers, Redoran nobles and similarly exciting people who had entered his life in the last week. Indeed, the only status I could lay claim to was "boring mage friend of Ajira", which apparently put me on roughly the same level as furniture.

Ajira was horrified, but the alchemy discussion had put me in a good mood and I found myself more amused than anything else. I left the two behind, opting to return to the guild and perhaps curl up in the living area with a cup of tea and a good book. In all honesty, at that point I rather felt I'd earned it.

Teleportation Girl greeted me with raised eyebrows and a sharp look. "Are you going to run off again, or are you planning to let me finish a sentence this time?"

I remembered the way I'd brushed her off on arrival, feeling slightly guilty. It had been rude.

"Sorry, I was in a bit of a hurry."

"Well, all right," Teleportation Girl grumbled. "I only wanted to let you know that a letter came in for you just now."

I took the sealed envelope she gave me with a raised eyebrow. Noting Teleportation Girl's curious look, I decided to remove myself to the kitchen area before opening it.

One thing I had to admit: the missive was truly excellent at its job. Some letters go on for paragraphs, even pages, in order to induce a proper sense of impending doom in their recipients. Some don't never manage it at all, using all their best verbiage and ominous handwriting but still only managing to instill a vague sense of puzzlement in the reader.

This letter, now – this letter scoffed at such amateurs and incompetents. This letter was a true expert, one who had achieved the pinnacle of its art. Younger messages must cluster around to learn from it. I could almost hear them oohing and aahing as the letter managed to reduce me to a puddle of dread with only the following:

Muthsera Adryn,

I'd like to discuss a matter related to the research materials you delivered to me last week. I await you at your earliest convenience.

Regards,

Caius Cosades


The true meaning was even shorter!

Worthless recruit,

I want to see you yesterday.


There went my relaxing afternoon spent enjoying my freedom.


"You know," Cosades said, pacing, "there's something I usually tell new recruits."

I watched in silence from where I huddled near the door. He hadn't offered me a chair, and I hadn't asked.

"Namely this. For the love of Talos, be inconspicuous. Don't do flashy things, don't make yourself known, don't draw attention. After all, how are you supposed to gather information for the Empire if all eyes are on you?"

If I tried hard enough, could I actually become one with this wall?

"Now, as it so happens," Cosades continued. "I didn't give you that advice. Figured you didn't need it. Figured you weren't the glory-hound type. Figured that, skittish as you were, you'd just try to disappear."

The man stopped pacing, looking directly at me for the first time since I'd come in. I flinched from his burning gaze. Alas, despite my heartfelt wishes the wall and I remained separate beings.

"Well, it seems I miscalculated just a smidgen on that front. Isn't that right?" A moment's pause. "I said, isn't that right, Novice Adryn?" he barked.

I flinched. "...um. Yes, sir." My voice was tiny.

Cosades rolled his eyes. "'Yes, sir', she mumbles, quiet as a mouse. I could almost think I misunderstood! Maybe this," he reached for a roll of parchment on the table, "is only my imagination. Ah... yes... let's see here...

"The recruit," he read out, "appears to have made a significant impression on Buoyant Armiger Romandas. After the events near Lake Amaya and in Suran, Romandas appears to be making an effort to stay in contact. Of note is the delivery of flowers and an enchanted amulet-"

Cosades broke off, glaring at me.

"The Buoyant Armigers are a very dangerous group. They're given a great deal of independence, they have a direct channel of communication to the very top of the Temple hierarchy, and unlike the Ordinators their leader likes to encourage a certain brand of... curiosity." Cosades made a face. Apparently in his eyes, curiosity was a mortal sin. "I advise all my junior agents to avoid them on principle. But here comes Novice Adryn! Three days on the island, and you have one of them sending you flowers."

Cosades' ceiling was really very interesting. If you squinted a little, those cracks almost formed a map of Skyrim.

"But, of course, that was only the warm-up." I heard parchment rustle as I stared up at Morthal in stain form. "Let's see here... recruit was travelling through the West Gash accompanied by Varvur Sarethi, son of Redoran Councillor Athyn Sarethi, after rescuing him from imprisonment by Redoran Archmaster Bolvyn Venim. I must admit, you're ambitious with your friends, but it pales next to your enemies. One week, and you've made a mortal enemy of the Archmaster of House Redoran! If you'd asked me, I wouldn't have said that was even possible."

"It was an accident!"

I clamped my mouth shut, but too late.

"Is that so, Novice Adryn?" Cosades' tone was glacial. "In that case, I never want to see what happens if you set out to offend someone on purpose."

A thump. Despite myself, my eyes left ceiling-Skyrim to return to Cosades, who'd hit the table with his first.

"My understanding is that since we last met you have managed to befriend a Buoyant Armiger, make Bolvyn Venim far angrier than is healthy, put Athyn Sarethi into your debt, uncover a dangerous conspiracy in Ald'ruhn, gain an open invitation to join House Redoran, and – oh yes – be arrested for the murder of an Ordinator and cleared of all charges. Apparently Elam Andas was very impressed with your helpfulness in the investigation, and believes you deserve a large part of the credit for them tracking down a serial killer."

Cosades' eyebrows would probably achieve flight if they went up any higher. I found myself deeply angry at the unfairness of the world. If there was any justice at all, the ground would have swallowed me up by now.

"Well? Does that about cover it? Have I missed anything? Did the leader of the Imperial Cult declare a blood feud? Did Archmagister Gothren offer to adopt you?"

...there had been that encounter with Crassius Curio, who I gathered was a noble of some rank in House Hlaalu. But Cosades didn't need to know about that, especially as I was mysteriously vague on the details.

"Well, then," Cosades said when I remained silent. "What's done is done, and it might still all work out to our benefit. For now, I have a task for you."

That was not what I'd been hoping to hear.

"It's a simple thing. Even you should be able to manage it without trouble." The dubious look Cosades gave me smarted. "I'd like you to go to Hasphat Antabolis – he's a member of the Fighter's Guild here in Balmora. Ask him what he knows about the Nerevarine Cult."

Nerevarine...

The word seemed to echo oddly, as though we were in a cavern instead of a tiny room. I frowned. Something was elusively familiar about that, something just out of reach...

"Are you listening to me, Novice Adryn?"

I jerked upright, losing track of my line of thought. "Yes, sir! Sorry, sir!"

"Right. As I was saying," Cosades growled at me, "ask Antabolis for notes, if you can. I'd rather not rely on your no doubt pitiful memory for information. Bring them straight back to me. Understood?"

"Got it. ...sir."

In all honesty, I'd much rather tell him where he could put his orders, but it was clear that no was not an option here. At least this sounded pretty straightforward. Ask this Hasphat Antabolis for notes about this cult, bring them back to Cosades. Surely not much could go wrong here?

"Hmm. All right. Oh, and Novice Adryn?"

Cosades sounded almost friendly. That had 'trap' written all over it. I gulped.

"I would be very, very grateful if you managed to do this without running afoul of any... oh... Hlaalu Councilors, high-ranking members of the Imperial Legion, or organised crime syndicates. I mean, considering how minor the task in question is, I wouldn't normally even contemplate those possibilities. But given your track record, I figured it's best to be explicit about these things."

While I was trying to come up with a retort to that, Cosades snapped, "Dismissed."

I, not to put too fine a word on it, fled.


Teleportation Girl blinked at me as I stomped into the Mages' Guild common area.

"Well. You're certainly in a mood."

"Tell me," I asked her. "Do I look like an adventurer? A mercenary? A," I shuddered at the word, "hero?"

"...no. No, I can't say you do. What-"

"Do I look," I barrelled over her, "like someone who'd be interested in, or in fact remotely capable of, fetching something from a dangerous Dwemer ruin?"

Teleportation Girl's eyebrows drew together. "Definitely, absolutely not."

Nine be praised, there was sanity left in the world.

"Don't tell me. Someone asked you to do that?"

I'd opened my mouth and was ready to vent to a sympathetic ear when I remembered that Cosades was, in fact, secretly a member of a famous spy network (why) and my task for him was tied in with that same spy network (why) and he would no doubt be distinctly unhappy if I recounted the events of that afternoon to a random Mages' Guild member. It didn't take a genius to draw the connection between unhappiness on Cosades' part and significant pain on mine.

"Well..." I'd been too obvious to deny everything now. Time to come up with a better story.

"Yes. I was freelancing, you see," I said, remembering the excuse Cosades had given me when we first met. "Thought I'd run some errands for coin. But it was supposed to be a matter of just getting notes from the man! Nobody said anything about dangerous Dwemer ruins."

The last part, of course, being the full and complete truth. I still felt rather affronted at the way events had gone.

Cosades hadn't bothered mentioning that Antabolis would require a favour before he'd hand over his notes, and Antabolis certainly hadn't let sanity, sense and the evidence of his own damn eyes prevail when deciding on something suitable. Even my very loud and demonstrative dismay at the suggestion hadn't given him pause. No, Hasphat Antabolis would only hand over his notes in exchange for a genuine Dwemer puzzle box from the Dwemer ruin of Arkngthand. No substitutes accepted.

"I'd advise cutting down on the freelancing," Teleportation Girl said with a glance around. "No one minds it in Associates, but Apprentices are expected to be dedicated to the guild. Outside commitments tend to be frowned on."

Wonderful. As if my life hadn't been difficult enough already. "Well," I shrugged, "I wanted to make some money, and I don't seem to have any guild duties right now-"

"-because Ranis Athrys couldn't find you after the whole... thing..." Teleportation Girl decided to clarify that statement via vague gesturing, "on Middas. Galbedir's refusing to work with you again, you know? But I'm sure Ranis Athrys has something else in mind. She wasn't happy when you weren't around." Teleportation Girl's voice dropped. "Did that whole cleansing thing really take that long?"

Oh, right. She'd been around when Ervesa had dragged me off to Vivec, even if Ajira (Stendarr bless her) had kept subsequent events to herself.

"Not... exactly. I ended up tangled up in other things in Vivec. Assisting law enforcement, that sort of thing... anyway!" A subject change was definitely in order. "I'll think of something to say to our guildmistress. Although I'm not sure I want to know what she's thought of this time." I grimaced.

"It won't be alchemy, I guarantee you." Teleportation Girl sounded rather resigned. "But it's not likely to be trawling through a Dwemer ruin for some item! Edwinna Elbert's the one who'll send you off for that."

...Edwinna Elbert, who I'd planned to try to catch in a weak moment to see if she had room for another apprentice. After all, I'd thought, Dwemer research seemed interesting enough and perhaps another guildmistress's claim would save me from whatever Ranis Athrys had planned. From the sound of this, I'd be better off with the Balmoran guildmistress.

"Hey, Adryn?"

I blinked at Teleportation Girl, torn out of my thoughts. She looked almost... nervous?

"I wanted to ask you something. You see -"

She jerked, eyes sliding out of focus. "Ah, Ashpit take it- I've got passengers coming in from Vivec, a whole bunch. Another time?"

"Tomorrow morning, after breakfast?" I suggested, and was met with a nod from Teleportation Girl before she turned to head back to the teleportation dais.

I had to admit to some curiosity as to what she wanted to know, but this clearly wasn't the best time to discuss it. After all, Teleportation Girl had her duties to attend to. And me?

As I heard the familiar rush of a teleportation spell, I rescued Ruins of Kemel-Ze from the little cubbyhole where I was keeping my belongings and flipped to the place where Nordssen began to describe the animated guardians he'd encountered. It seemed I'd be getting my afternoon spent with some books after all, although it was sadly going to be much less relaxing than planned.

After all, in the all-too-near future I was going to have to retrieve a 'puzzle cube' from a dangerous Dwemer ruin, preferably without getting myself killed in the process. I figured some research was in order.

Chapter Text

-draw the lines like this, make sure to balance out the nzamchend, then feed the power into the bthuri-

Two claps from outside interrupted my concentration. In my hands magicka sparked, then faded to nothing as my focus broke.

I frowned. For a moment there, I'd swear it had been working-

Well, no matter now. I had a guest to take care of.

"Come in!" I called, dropping the crystal I'd been probing as I looked up. I blinked in surprise when I noticed the light streaming in the open air-flaps had the distinctive reddish tinge of evening. How long had I been sitting here?

Voryn ducked into the entrance of the yurt. My eyebrows rose further at this most unexpected guest – I'd thought Voryn in Dagoth lands in the north of the island, days away.

"My apologies for dropping by unannounced, Nerevar," Voryn said. "We were in the area and thought we'd visit."

My friend was still stooped half-crouched in the open entrance. He looked distinctly ridiculous. I waved at the seat-cushion opposite me impatiently, then remembered that Voryn could be something of a stickler for propriety.

"Clan Indoril welcomes you, Voryn of Clan Dagoth, you may eat freely from our herds and drink freely from our winter stores in honour of our friendship- sit down, will you? You're too tall as it is, you're going to give me a crick in my neck if I have to keep staring up at you."

Voryn's lips quirked in a smile as he settled himself on the cushion I'd indicated. "I honour the welcome you give me, Nerevar of Clan Indoril. May there be friendship between our people forever more."

There. The formalities had been observed. Although-

Old lessons our Wise Woman had tried to thump into my head when I was young reared their head.

"May I offer you anything to eat or drink?" I offered, then looked between us. The low table in the center of the yurt was covered in parchment, one of the precious books Dumac had given me when we last met lying open on one side, the crystal I'd been experimenting with on the other. "Er- let me just tidy that up-"

"It's quite all right, Nerevar," Voryn said as he took in the mess. "I'm not hungry. I take it you're studying Kagrenac's work?"

"Mzahnch's, actually," I corrected. "Kagrenac has been developing some mad theories about the nature of Aedric- well, let's just say our interests are diverging. Mzahnch, on the other hand, has been looking into how to use-"

I broke off with a sigh. Voryn was no scholar, after all. No doubt his eyes were glazing over in disinterest right now... especially as, with the Chimer's general lack of participation in this sort of scholarship, any further detail would require a switch to Dwemeris.

In truth, that bothered me. My long friendship with the Dwemer meant I could speak their language well enough by now, but they remained secretive about their tongue all the same and so it formed a real barrier to any other aspiring Chimer researcher. Even aside from that, I had my pride in our people. It smarted to think our language had no way of even expressing some of these theories. If I were able to find other Chimer interested, we might be able to come up with something... perhaps some of the Telvanni...

A thought for a later day, given that I had a guest.

"My apologies, Voryn. I don't mean to either bore you or ignore you."

"I missed you, you know." Voryn's voice was fond, but there was a vast ocean of sadness beneath the words.

I found myself seized by the sudden, odd feeling that our conversation had been following an invisible script and Voryn had just departed from it.

"What do you mean?" I asked warily.

Hadn't it been evening just a second ago? It was fully dark outside now, a dim candle our only source of illumination.

"What I said," Voryn answered. He leaned closer, knees bumping the table. "It's been a long time, old friend, and the traitors have tried to keep us separate."

...Voryn had always been tall, but had he truly been this tall? And surely it was an illusion cast by the flickering candlelight that turned his face into an eerie golden mask?

"Voryn, wha..."

My voice trailed off as I found myself unable to form words, my thoughts slowing down like a river freezing into ice.

"And succeeded, too. I almost had you, dear friend, until Vivec's blind slaves intervened." Voryn snarled, a rumbling, inhuman sound. On his forehead a third eye opened, blood-red and piercing. "No matter. Soon, they will learn. Everyone will learn. The traitors will receive their due, Resdayn will live again... and we will be truly reunited."

I couldn't think. I couldn't think. I couldn't-

"She's not letting you remember, is she?" Voryn sounded almost pitying. He reached out to stroke my cheek with long, curved claws. "A cruel thing indeed, keeping you ignorant by force. And such monsters claim to be the true gods of our people. Rest assured, dear friend, no Daedra will be able to touch you when all is done."

"I-"

My voice was a choking rasp, dying before it could form, and I couldn't think.

"Alas, the traitors' interference means I cannot speak to you... properly. Soon the last threads of our connection will be gone, and then even this superficial conversation will need to end. But I can be patient. And Nerevar, I promise you this, promise it on the Heart: I will find you again."

Voryn sat back, and-

I shook my head. Pain stabbed my skull, and I- I couldn't think-

Summer evening sunlight streamed through the open flaps of the yurt, illuminating the papers I'd been working on earlier. Voryn was seated across from me and looking rather concerned.

"Is something wrong?" he asked.

I frowned.

What had happened? Voryn and I had been talking, I'd been telling him about my research, and then-

A white-hot knife lanced through my head. I winced and raised my hands to rub my temples, thoroughly distracted.

Well, no matter what had happened, right now I was most shamefully neglecting hospitality.

"My apologies, Voryn, my thoughts must have drifted for a moment. What were you saying?"

"Oh, nothing important," Voryn said, waving a hand dismissively. "Don't worry yourself. Are you well?"

I really wished that whatever had decided stabbing needles into my forehead was an appropriate activity would go and find another victim. "Headache. Not sure where it's come from. Maybe I've spent too long studying, today."

"Maybe." Voryn frowned, a dark, angry expression I wasn't used to seeing on his face. "Perhaps some distraction will help. What do you say to a wander around the camp as we talk?"

The idea of getting out of my stuffy yurt had some appeal. "That sounds like an excellent idea, my friend- ah!"

My legs cramped as I stood, and Voryn reached over to steady me before I fell. His hand felt burning hot, his fingernails oddly sharp.

"Yes," he said. Despite the fact that I'd regained my balance, he didn't let go of my arm. "I look forward to catching up with you, Nerevar."

 


 

I watched the breakfast crowd from where I nursed a cup in the corner. I'd woken this morning with a nasty headache that seemed inclined to hang around as the day wore on. Needless to say, I wasn't feeling in the mood for company, and if it hadn't been for my agreement with Teleportation Girl I'd probably have skipped the communal breakfast today – especially because the headache had apparently talked my appetite into desertion. At least that was my theory for why the spiced rolls that had been so delicious when I'd last had them looked about as appealing as prison crusts today. Worse, I'd barely made headway on my first cup of Dulnea's tea... a fact that must surely qualify as some sort of blasphemy.

Thankfully, none of the other guild members seemed to mind my sour mood and silence. Ajira would most likely have tried to draw me out if she'd been there, but she was absent and the others were deeply involved in their discussion. Listening more closely made it clear they were talking about some sort of event that was apparently happening today.

...on the one hand, part of me still wanted to crawl back into bed, pull the covers over my head and hope to wake up no longer feeling like a draugr. That part was definitely not in the mood for conversation.

On the other, I was curious.

"Hey, Marayn? What's this 'seminar' you're talking about?"

Marayn blinked at me. "Oh, right, you've been away a lot so you wouldn't know. The guild has regular events where someone gives a talk about their current area of research. Usually it's someone from one of the guilds here on Vvardenfell, sometimes we can get an independent local researcher in, and occasionally it's someone from a non-local guild who's in Vvardenfell for some reason. For instance, two weeks ago we had Edras Oril from Almalexia talking about kagouti mating habits. It was very- are you all right, Adryn?"

"F-fine," I managed once I'd finished coughing. Really, I was ashamed of myself – appetite or no appetite, Dulnea's tea was far too fine a liquid to waste on choking. "So it's about listening to people talk about what they're researching right now?"

That sounded... as if it could be fascinating or dreadfully boring, depending on who the people in question were. I hadn't forgotten Cassia in Vivec and her pots and pans.

"It's also about having tea, coffee and cakes with everyone beforehand," Teleportation Girl corrected me. "Edwinna brings these sweetrolls from a bakery in Ald'ruhn... they're delicious!"

"And don't forget the times we go out for drinks and dinner afterwards," Uleni chimed in. "Last week we were booked in at the Flowers of Gold in Vivec, the guild paying-"

"For shame, both of you!" Marayn was obviously trying to be stern, but his sparkling eyes and the smile quirking the corner of his mouth made it hard to believe in. "Scholarship is more important than food and gossip!"

The expression on Teleportation Girl's face made it clear she found this statement rather dubious.

"So who's speaking today, then? And what's the topic?" I asked, curious despite myself.

"It's Analinwe, from Vulkhel Guard in Alinor," Marayn answered. "She's on holiday in Vivec and said she'd give a talk on... what was it again... oh yes! The Miracle of Peace and what its implications may be for the connection between Akatosh and the Septim line."

The clink as I dropped my spoon was deafening. Strangely, nobody else seemed to notice.

"Well, that should be interesting. I mean, it's not every day you get a purported Dragon Break to examine."

"Not every day, but the one we have was over ten years ago, on the other side of the world, and has spurred more puerile 'scholarship' or rather excuses to hop onto the Dragon Break caravan than any other-"

There is fire everywhere.

"But don't you see, the fact that a Dragon Break resolved so favourably to the Empire..." Marayn was talking, hands darting around like cliff racers as I'd noticed they did when he was deep into explaining something, but his words were drowned out by a roaring in my ears.

"Excuse me," I said. My voice seemed very far away. "I think I need to get some air."

Outside, I looked at the growing crowds, turned and took the stairs upwards. My headache was finally ebbing, but I felt shaky, ill, and not at all up to battling my way back to the Mages' Guild. Sitting on the edge of the walkway that connected the roof of the Eight Plates with the neighbouring building and letting my legs dangle did do some good, though. The air was fresher up here, and I'd always liked heights.

The sun was out today, and I let my eyes drift closed as I indulged in the feeling of sunlight on my face. There was a slight chill in the air, but not yet enough to drive me to the clothier for a cloak. New to Morrowind as I was, I found it unseasonably warm for the beginning of Frostfall. In Solitude, we'd be seeing regular snowfall by now. Even in Daggerfall...

"Are you all right?"

I blinked up at Teleportation Girl, torn out of my thoughts. I hadn't expected anyone to follow me; they'd seemed deeply involved in their debate when I left.

But of course she'd wanted to talk to me about something, I remembered. It had been the entire reason I'd been at breakfast. Well, maybe if I ignored her she'd get the message: meeting rescheduled, please come back another day.

No such luck. Instead, Teleportation Girl seemed to take my lack of response as an invitation and let herself drop down beside me.

For a minute or so, we simply sat together in silence. Then, quietly, she began to talk.

"My family is from Wayrest, you know. My parents moved to Vvardenfell before I was born, but we went back to visit my grandparents twice and they travelled to Morrowind once. I was very young, but I remember my grandfather."

I didn't say anything, letting the words wash over me.

"I loved him, you know?" Her voice grew wistful. "He'd let me sit on his shoulders and he'd call me his little mageling, and when he found me crying because some boys had called me an outlander he taught me a spell to make them think I was a ten-foot-tall monster... he laughed so hard when I told him how they'd run away screaming. And then... then the warp happened. He was a battlemage in the army, he was on patrol..." She took a deep breath. "They never found him. And believe me, my grandmother looked."

The grief in her voice was palpable. I bowed my head.

"I still hate it when people call it that stupid name. The 'Miracle of Peace'. As if my grandfather dying was a miracle." She spat the word.

The silence grew. I shifted, uncomfortable. A story like that demanded reciprocation. I'd usually reject such an idea with great prejudice, but now I could feel words welling within me.

Perhaps it was that she understood. I hadn't expected anyone who'd understand.

"I grew up in Daggerfall." The words slipped out in a quiet, even murmur. "An village in the province, then the capital itself. I was in the orphanage attached to the Temple of Kynareth at first, there, but later I lived with-"

Fjaldir. Azha. Do'kharza, Eix-Lin-

Giants in my memory, ones where the thought of them still filled me with awe and gratitude, with hero-worship in the truest sense of the word...

...who I still viewed through the eyes of a child, because I'd never known them when grown.

Could it really be called living with when they'd been there maybe three days in a month?

"-well, it doesn't matter," I moved on. "They were all out when it happened. There was a, a neighbour who looked in on me, but she- died. I think. It became very hard to be certain of anything, at that point."

I'd have liked to leave it there, but now that I'd started I found the words kept coming, like poison seeping from a lanced wound.

"There's no way to describe what a Dragon Break is like, you know? We're children of Akatosh, we need time to make sense of the world. When it shatters, when everything starts happening out of order and location doesn't make sense anymore and effect comes before cause- when the entire concept of before stops working- and as if that weren't enough there was the fire and the fighting, armies and monsters and people dying-" I swallowed hard. "Well, usually I just try not to think about any of it."

It worked pretty well as a strategy. Barring nights.

"But the worst part, the absolute worst, that came afterwards. I- time didn't make sense, I said that, but you ask questions like how long did it last and the like anyway, that's just how we're made. I thought – two weeks? Maybe a month? Imagine my surprise when they told us it had only been a day. Especially because... when it was over, we were in the Eastern Reach, near Markarth in Skyrim – no idea how we got there – and..."

My mouth tasted like ashes.

"It was two years later," I finished in a whisper.

I jumped at the feeling of a hand on my shoulder. I'd almost forgotten about the Breton who was now looking at me sympathetically and offering what I supposed was meant to be reassuring physical contact. "I'm sorry," she said now. "That must have been hard."

"Mmm. Well. Anyway!" I groped for a subject change and found one. "What did you want to talk to me about yesterday?"

Message sent: communal trauma-sharing time is over. Normal service may resume at any time. Also - I shifted away from her - communal trauma-sharing time does not constitute an exception to Adryn's personal space bubble.

The other girl blinked at me, but withdrew her hand. "Well. Um. I have a suggestion... I guess you could see it as doing me a favour?"

I raised an eyebrow at her. I wasn't used to soul-baring being a prelude to asking for favours, but maybe that was just because I was unfamiliar with the whole thing. For all I knew, this was Caius' modus operandi. Maybe he met with people like Hasphat, they all sat down and shared sob stories from their childhood - Caius talking about how his mother wouldn't let him have sweets, maybe, and Hasphat about a traumatic experience in a Dwemer ruin that left him deciding to send poor innocent bystanders for his toys instead of picking them up themselves - and afterwards Caius would put another person on his list of people who owed him favours...

What? It's not as if I have any idea how this spy thing is meant to work!

"I'm trying to make Journeyman, you see," she continued, apparently not having noticed my current battle against an overactive imagination. "I've been an Apprentice for almost a year now, I've done my time – and I really hate being a guild guide." She scowled. "The hours are absolutely terrible, no free time at all, and being the only person in Balmora who has to take the land route everywhere gets really old, let me tell you. My parents moved six months ago and I haven't been able to visit their new home even once."

My somewhat haphazard entry into the guild meant I was missing some of the basics. I suspected I'd just stumbled across another one. "Making Journeyman would mean you no longer had to be a guild guide?"

"Exactly. It's a job for Apprentices – all the nasty ones are. You don't see Marayn or Estirdalin or, Julianos forbid, Ranis stuck behind an alchemy desk or teleporting people."

Well, that certainly shed new light on Ajira's and Galbedir's rivalry... and raised worrying prospects regarding what Ranis might have planned for me, now that enchanting was out.

"Okay. I'm with you so far," I said. "What I fail to see is how I come into this. Aren't you specialising in Mysticism? If so, I really have no idea how I could help. Given the obvious," I added with some level of (justified, in my opinion) bitterness.

"Actually, that's exactly it. I'd never heard of that syndrome you have, apparently it's really rare. I don't think anyone's ever properly studied what causes it and what its exact effects are. I asked Estirdalin and she said she thought it might make for a good Journeyman thesis."

I wasn't sure what my expression was, but judging by the way my guild-mate's steadily drooped it wasn't very positive. Estirdalin's quiz had been more than humiliating enough; I couldn't imagine voluntarily spending even more time trying and failing to cast spells only to be told how easy they were supposed to be.

I said so.

"Oh, that's not how it's going to be at all! I was actually thinking about focusing more on the spells where you get unusual effects – Detection and Telekinesis. I mean, Estirdalin did suggest investigating the inabilities, but honestly I don't think there's much more you can write for 'can't cast Soultrap'."

Hmm. That did sound better. Maybe this was worth considering after all? If-

"Well, I did think it might be interesting to see what happens to you with the guild guide spells-"

All right, that suggestion certainly brought me violently back to Nirn.

"Are you out of your mind?" I demanded once I was capable of noises other than spluttering. "Asking me to cast a teleportation spell? On other people? On customers?"

"No! No!" If she waved her hands a little more wildly she'd probably take flight. "We practice on rocks, or boxes, or sometimes summoned Daedra. I wouldn't have you try on actual people." My sigh of relief was interrupted as she continued, "Although who knows? The foundation of guild guide spells is actually completely different from the Intervention school. You might find they work out for you."

Azha, I remembered, had had the world's most cutting skeptical expression. The Mother-Superior of the orphanage had had nothing on her. She'd been able to reduce Do'kharza - inveterate rogue who'd steal the whiskers off Rajhin that he proclaimed himself – to a whimpering bundle of fur with just a long stare and furrowed eyebrows. A seven-year-old girl had been no challenge at all, and after my first and last attempt at sneaking something past The Look had featured heavily in my nightmares.

My own was only a pale imitation, I knew. Judging by the way the blood was draining from my guild-mate's cheeks, I'd managed to capture something of the essence all the same.

"I feel as if you're not really taking this seriously enough," I said after a moment of silence to let the gravity of the situation sink in. "From what Estirdalin said, me messing around with Mysticism spells could be seriously dangerous, and I'm not sure restricting ourselves to rocks will be enough to be safe. What if I actually do blow something up, or mistarget the spell and accidentally send you off into the stratosphere, or-"

I'd always had a fantastic imagination. Right now, it was throwing all the things that could possibly go wrong here at me in full, lurid detail.

"It'd be safer not to even try," I said, and the words tasted like acid.

The Breton's shoulders sagged. Had I convinced her?

I tried to squash down the sting of regret at the thought. So it hurt to have to treat the Mysticism school like a hidden fire-trap rune. So I really wanted to be able to dive into new spells, the same as anyone else would be able to. Well, I hadn't been a child in a long time now and I was used to not getting what I wanted-

An indrawn breath brought my attention back to the conversation.

"Look, Adryn – Estirdalin is a fantastic and experienced mage and all that, but in this case I think she's wrong. Just because you cast spells a little differently from most people and can have problems they don't doesn't mean you should have to give up on the whole school of Mysticism."

There was real force behind the words – this was obviously something she felt strongly about.

"So it might be a little more difficult to teach you," she continued. "So maybe we'll have to be very careful about it. So what? If that was a reason not to bother trying, there wouldn't be any mages at all. The guild should be there to help anyone who's interested in magic, not just those who do it exactly by the textbook! It should be about scholarship, about learning, not just making as much money off customers as possible and ignoring anyone who doesn't fit!"

The rant struck me as genuine, and despite myself I began to soften.

"So... you want me to try the guild guide teleportation spells to see if I can get them to work?" I'd meant it to sound scoffing, but instead it only came out as mildly skeptical.

"Exactly. I think there's a decent chance you could learn them. And if not, there's still a lot of potential for research in your Detection spells. Who knows, maybe you can teach them to me-"

"In case you didn't catch it last week, I tried that before. It didn't work."

"To some scout you met, you said. I remember. Well, I'm an Apprentice of the Mages' Guild with a specialty in Mysticism – I'd like to think I have a much better chance. How much magical education can a scout have, anyway? For all you know she'd never even heard of Lor's Principles!" She waved my objection away.

I hadn't heard of Lor's Principles. The urge to come to Gelduin's defense was strong, but my guild-mate hadn't finished.

"And even if I can't learn the spell, if I figure out enough of the way you shape it I might have enough material for a proper research article, one that one of the bigger journals would accept. At that point Ranis Athrys would have to promote me to Journeyman."

I wasn't nearly as optimistic. But...

But until this conversation I hadn't realised how much I'd needed someone proclaiming confidence in me, someone who viewed my Mystic disability as a minor obstacle and an opportunity for research instead of proof I shouldn't bother trying. It was so perfectly tailored to what I wanted to hear, such a balm to places in my soul that sorely needed it, that I almost suspected the Breton of manipulating me.

"So? Will you help?"

...well. If she was, it was working.

"Sure. Why not, You only live once, and I'm an alchemist, I should be used to explosions by now. And..."

I took a deep breath.

"Thanks... Masalinie."

 


 

Afternoon found me hiking past Fort Moonmoth in the sturdy guarhide boots I'd gotten in trade for those from the Temple, plain but comfortable shirt and breeches, and carrying a pack that a bystander might notice I treated very, very carefully.

Although I'd have liked to put it off for longer – preferably eternally – I suspected Caius wouldn't be all too happy if I didn't get moving on his 'simple task'. With that in mind, I'd decided it was time to have a look at this Arkngthand. Not look for the cube, I told myself, just get the lay of the land. A scouting mission before the actual heist, like so many I'd gone on before.

Well, not entirely like. I certainly couldn't remember any manor I'd scoped out in Skyrim being populated by murderous Dwemer automatons. However, one has to adapt to changing circumstances.

I'd prepared for this particular scouting mission in the only way I knew. This meant that I was unarmed, Elone's old short-sword having migrated to under my bed, but my pack was filled almost to bursting with potions for every eventuality. The process of preparing them had depleted Ajira's stores quite a bit, and the end I'd guiltily left two ten-drake coins on the desk in the alchemy lab to cover materials.

I rounded a corner in the path and then stopped to take in the sight. It looked like I'd almost arrived.

Ahead, the path crossed the deep gorge that was labelled Foyada Mamaea on my map via a bridge. The opposite side was grey and ashy, an abrupt shift from the scrubby green growth that I'd been travelling past since Balmora. It was broken by coppery-gold metal sprouting from the ground to the right of the path. The style of architecture was unmistakeable to anyone who'd ever seen a Dwemer ruin... let alone lived in one, those two years in Markarth after the Warp.

Steam burst from one of the pipes rising from the hillside with a hiss and a clanking noise. Yes, definitely Dwemer. I still had decidedly unfond memories of the way the rusted cog at the far end of the Warrens would randomly decide to start trying and failing to turn or the grate next to it would start spitting steam – always at an hour of the morning only Sanguine would recognise, of course. I knew I should really have been impressed that Dwemer machines still worked four millennia after their owners' disappearance, but in my defense it's quite hard to muster any emotion other than irritation when you've been woken up from a sound sleep by ear-splitting screeches and whistles and have to be ready to work at dawn. Nine knew Charon had cursed a blue streak...

My lips pressed together.

I'd really had far more than my allotted dose of nostalgia recently. For all that so many people loved to wallow in their memories – see Masalinie and her insistence on 'talking about it' – I'd always considered myself smarter than that.

After all, the past is over. Gone. Dead. For all the present is concerned, it may as well never have happened – indeed there are philosophical schools that state it didn't! – so bothering about it is really just an unnecessary indulgence in masochism.

"Halt!"

And my pointless, unwanted trip down memory lane was certainly to blame for the fact that I'd entirely missed the man standing in the middle of the bridge, just ahead of me.

He was an older Colovian with receding grey hair who was watching me with narrowed eyes, one hand on the hilt of a sword. The armour he wore was worn and oft-mended, dark brown leather with no identifying marks... no, looking closer I could make out some sigil picked out in dark red against his upper arm.

I could recognise a gang sign when I saw one.

Definitely a bandit. He couldn't be any more of a bandit if he had the word "Bandit" floating over him. In fact, the only reason he didn't was probably because the world had decided this would be unforgivably redundant.

I let my own hand drop to one particular vial I'd tucked into my belt. If I'd brewed it correctly, it should create a thick cloud of smoke when poured out or shattered...

...of course, given that it had been my first time attempting this potion with Morrowind ingredients, that if was not to be underestimated.

"What's your business here?" demanded the bandit.

I blinked, having expected something more along the lines of your money or your life.

"Ah... I was heading to the ruins of Arkngthand?"

I clamped my mouth shut, but too late. Mentally, I gave myself a good kick; any good criminal will tell you that being taken by surprise is no excuse for being honest, of all things. Especially since in this situation I didn't think telling the truth was going to be to my benefit.

And indeed, the bandit's eyes were narrowing as his hand clenched on the hilt of his sword.

"I hope you're aware that all Dwemer artifacts belong to the Emperor by law, and taking them is viewed as a serious crime."

As a matter of fact, Hasphat Antabolis had refrained from mentioning that tidbit. An omission I'd have to thank him for when I got back. Although I certainly didn't know why a bandit was lecturing me about-

"I happen to be a member in good standing of the Imperial Archaeological Society, you know," the bandit continued. "We're conducting a dig in Arkngthand right now, and I'm afraid we have to take exception to any attempts at... looting."

If he was an archaeologist, I was a kagouti-

-and I should probably wait to inspect myself for an outbreak of tusks until after I'd gotten out of this situation in one piece.

"Oh! The Imperial Archaeological Society, you say." The fact that I managed to keep my face straight when saying that proved, I think, that a career in the theatre was definitely an option for me. "That's-"

An idea bloomed in my mind, fully formed and – if I may say so myself – brilliant.

"That's fantastic!" I gushed. The bandit-archaeologist looked rather taken aback. "I'm a member of the Mages' Guild, you see, and I've been assigned to study the Dwemer." So far, I was even being entirely truthful. "Of course I'd never dream of disturbing the historical record by removing artifacts from the ruins! I simply wanted to investigate their layout. You see..."

I took a deep breath, mind racing. Time to hope the research I'd done into the Dwemer so far had given me enough to come up with something plausible.

"...Arkngthand, like many of the Dwemer citadels closer to Red Mountain, was almost abandoned some time before the disappearance of the Dwemer due to increased amounts of ash-fall. It not only left the environment inhospitable, but also caused worry that an eruption might be imminent, so many Dwemer moved to citadels further away from Red Mountain, such as Mzuleft and Bethamez."

I was genuinely surprised at how easily the words flowed. Either I was a far better liar under pressure than previous incidents would indicate, or more of Chronicles of Nchuleft, Ruins of Kemel-Ze and Antecedents of Dwemer Law had stuck than I'd thought.

"I want to investigate the architectural set-up of Arkngthand and contrast them with citadels that were built after the exodus. Perhaps the differences might reflect changes in the Dwemer mind-set in the intervening time, which could in turn shed new light on the disappearance of the Dwemer!" A breath. "I hadn't realised there was an archaeological team already here. I'd of course be delighted to collaborate!"

The bandit was goggling at me, obviously struck speechless. I waited for him to collect himself, keeping up the bright smile even though the mask of sheer enthusiasm was starting to make my head hurt.

The beauty of it all was that thanks to Trebonius (and there were three words that one didn't expect in sequence...) the whole story was built on a foundation of truth. And certainly I made a far more plausible Dwemer scholar than artifact hunter or smuggler, unarmed and dressed in robes as I was.

The bandit – no, looter, he must be – certainly seemed taken in. His grip on his sword loosened, and although he looked rather frustrated, he didn't look suspicious.

"Ah... I'm afraid that's not going to be possible. You see..."

Now it was his turn to invent wildly, and I suspected he wouldn't quite reach the standard I'd set.

"The ruins are still... dangerous! Yes, dangerous. There's still working automata and centurions and all sorts of deadly creatures. We need to finish clearing them out before we could possibly allow others access."

No, not convincing at all, I thought critically. Where I'd pulled off a performance worthy of a lead actor, the only role this man could win in the theatre would be cleaning up after the shows. Who knew, maybe a thwarted dream of stardom was the reason he'd turned to crime in the first place? Well, at least he'd given me a good excuse to turn around and leave...

...except that the keen if rather oblivious scholar I was pretending to be wouldn't give up nearly so easily, and I had to make sure the bandit didn't grow suspicious.

"Oh." I let myself pout. "Are you sure? I've told the guildmistress I'd finish this paper, you see. I need it to make Journeyman," I added, remembering Adryn and Galbedir's rivalry, not to mention my discussion with Masalinie on comparative duties by rank. "Could I talk to your leader about an exception, maybe? I promise I can take care of myself..."

"I'll talk to Boss Crito," the bandit said, managing to sound sincerely regretful (I mentally upgraded his career in drama to understudy), "but I don't think it's likely, sorry."

"Oh well." I let myself sigh gustily. "I'll have to look into Bthanchend, or maybe..."

I turned around and let myself trudge back on the path to Fort Moonmoth. Leaving the looter at my back was not to my liking at all, and I found myself glad he couldn't hear my heart race as I walked away. Finally, I judged I was out of sight and earshot.

I set down my pack beside a rock that looked like a reasonably comfortable seat, a theory I immediately tested and proved acceptable.

"Scamp drek," I hissed. The curse did nothing to improve my situation, did however make me feel a little better.

I'd expected Dwemer automata, had a whole sheaf of notes I'd made on the various types that had occurred in Ruins of Kemel-Ze with me. I hadn't, however, expected looters... much less what was clearly an organised gang. This was going to complicate things tremendously.

To begin with, how was I to even get to Arkngthand? I was excellent at sneaking and moving unseen, and that was no empty pride speaking... but across a bridge? With no cover, a guard watching, and no one else in sight? The Grey Fox couldn't have done it.

If you can't go through, go around...

I dug in my pack and pulled out the map I'd acquired on my ill-fated trip to Lake Amaya. After having done without it on my first expedition to Vivec (followed, as it had been, by my first expedition to Ald'ruhn and then my first expedition to the West Gash) I wasn't planning to let it leave my person anytime soon.

I must currently be here, on the path about halfway between Fort Moonmoth and Arkngthand. With a moment's exercise of will, the magic on the map flared to life to confirm that fact.

...why were the looters being so open about their presence so close to an Imperial Fort, anyway? They must be either very stupid or very clever, and with the way my luck had been going lately it probably wasn't going to be the former. Why no worries about being discovered by the Legion? Did they expect their story about being archaeologists to stand up to scrutiny?

Well, no matter for now. Here was the bridge, here the ruin of Arkngthand, denoted by a small gear symbol on the map. The path I'd been following left the bridge and the ruins to snake its way through the hills. Some distance away (a distance significantly less measured as the cliff-racer flew than as the Adryn walked, I noted gloomily) it met a second path. That one...

Hope blossomed as I traced the second path on its way southwest. It passed directly behind Arkngthand on its way, then reached a region I knew quite well.

I let my finger rest on the words Lake Amaya.

Come to think of it, now that I thought about it I vaguely remembered a path that had branched off the route to the shrine at Kummu in order to vanish into the hills. I'd looked at it for a moment, contemplating escape, before the minion of Molag Bal disguised as a pilgrim had caught up to me and ordered me on.

It looked like it might just be possible to access the ruin from Lake Amaya, which wasn't at all far from here. Better yet, there was the possibility the looters only had guards posted at the approach to the main entrance. Even if my luck didn't reach that far, I had a lot more confidence in my ability to sneak past guards once one took bridges out of the picture.

I forced myself up and off the rock with a groan. There wasn't that much daylight left – I wanted to make the best use of it that I could.

 


 

A few hours later, I let myself collapse against one of the metal towers. All my limbs were throbbing with pain, but that didn't remove the triumphant smile from my face.

I felt I deserved to have it, considering how bleak things had looked not long ago.

As it turned out, the path passed within spitting distance of the ruin, yes... if one allowed the direction in question to be vertical. I'd forgotten how deceptive height could be on maps, meaning that the sheer cliff that separated me and Arkngthand had come as something of a surprise.

I was a good climber, but the distance to the top was far enough and looked unsafe enough that I hadn't wanted to attempt it with no supplies. I'd been weighing the difficulty of trying the long way around, growing steadily gloomy at the thought of things like the length of the journey, the likelihood of encountering hostile wildlife, the fact that the sun was already brushing the hilltops to the west...

Then I remembered the amulet.

It turns out that a Slowfall spell is quite a multifunctional thing. As well as saving anyone unfortunate enough to find themselves in mid-air from an ignominous death involving sounds like splat, it is also a climber's best friend. Being near-immune to gravity makes ropes and harnesses unnecessary, heights irrelevant and impossible reaches a cinch. The only issue is that you do have to be quick, as the enchantment running out would qualify as a Very Bad Thing indeed.

In short, I made my way up that cliff like a veritable spider, and my amulet still had a charge left when I reached the top. Honestly, I should've learned this spell years ago. It would have saved me any number of bruises.

Well, enough patting myself on the back. Time to investigate the ruins.

Arkngthand's towers sprouted from a hill bordering the foyada. I'd come out on the slope to the southeast of the summit, out of view of the bridge – and its guard. A quick look around proved that that I was alone. Fortunately for me, the looters had apparently decided the cliff didn't need to be watched.

Dwemer citadels of this size, I remembered, were generally built with a single well-marked main entrance and either no secondary entrance at all or an emergency exit designed in such a way to make sure it could not be used by attackers. In Arkngthand's case, the main entrance was likely near the bridge... and therefore within the guard's line of sight.

Thankfully for me, dusk had fallen by now. The western horizon was still bright, but above it was dark enough to make out the Lady looking down on us mortals from the sky. In this lighting, a greyish figure against ash would hardly be noticed at all...

...especially since I was a little more greyish than usual, I thought ruefully as I brushed at the ash on the front of my shirt. My climb had left me thoroughly covered in the stuff.

As I crested the hill, I spied a circle of light just ahead and ducked behind a boulder. An armoured figure was standing where the bridge I'd failed to cross that morning met land again, a lantern held high in his gauntleted grip.

Idiot.

It wasn't full dark yet, and with the clear night this was shaping up to be, Masser and Secunda would give plenty of light. He'd have to squint a little without the lantern, true, and the low light might make it harder to spot someone beginning to cross the bridge. However, in the process of making the idea of sneaking past him on the bridge completely impossible instead of just almost certainly impossible, he'd destroyed his night vision. And I was well outside the lantern's light.

At the bottom of the hill, I was close enough to make out more details, but still far enough away the guard could have looked right at me without seeing me. It was the same guard as the one I'd met earlier, and he was standing in front of a pile of crates that definitely hadn't been there then. They must've received supplies.

...in broad daylight, less than an hour from an Imperial fort? What was going on here, anyway?

I reminded myself firmly of a certain saying involving cats and curiosity (one which, for the record, it's unwise to repeat near Khajiit). However this particular criminal band had managed things so they didn't need to worry about Imperial repercussions, it was none of my business. What was my business was that the guard seemed completely focused on the bridge – and so, thanks to my adventures in climbing, away from both me and the ruin.

The entrance to the ruin was easy to spot. Dozens of footprints had worn a path off the road to a tower that was larger and wider than the others. They stopped at a round bulge of stone at its base. As I crept closer, a shadow resolved itself into a split straight down the middle.

A protective measure, I knew, shielding the door proper. From the inside, there'd be some button or lever that would crack it open. From the outside, a handle located some distance away from the door, which could be deactivated from the inside to repel invaders. Bubbles like that had been popular during the war to free Resdayn, being excellent protection against siege from the Nords, but fallen out of favour later due to how awkward they made daily coming and going-

I frowned. Something was niggling at me.

None of the books I'd read about the Dwemer had discussed the war. Besides, I hadn't read that much, and there had been enough highly distracting things happening at the same time it was a wonder I remembered anything. Where was this flood of knowledge coming from?

I lost my thoughts to a dull throb of pain building at my temples. I gritted my teeth as it slowly died down. My morning headache had been gone by the time I got back to the guild after my chat with Masalinie. If I'd had any suspicion it might make a resurgence, I'd have left this trip until tomorrow-

A rumbling sound interrupted my thoughts. The crack in the stone shuddered.

Quick as a flash, I crouched behind a nearby rock.

The bubble split open with a tortured screech, the mechanism which had lain unused for millennia clearly protesting this forceful end to their retirement. A Nord emerged, ducking his head to manage the doorway.

"Bato, there you are." The Imperial guard approached, holding his torch high. I squinted. "About time, too! Sunset's just about over. Did you lot finish yet for today?"

The Nord shook his head, sending blond braids flying. "The boss wants the one room cleared out, and it's taken longer than he thought. You should hear him yelling about 'the schedule'." He spat, then turned to look at the crates. "Are those..."

"Arrived just now. A keg of mazte, two cases of shein, one of Black-Briar's mead-"

"Black-Briar's?" The tone, I thought, would have been significantly more suited to the words a casket full of treasure, or possibly an unknown ingredient. Behind the rock, I rolled my eyes. If I live to be a thousand, I will never understand Nords and their mead.

Judging by the Imperial's sigh, he felt similarly. "-and one of Weynon beer, which I'll thank you to leave to people who'll appreciate it."

"You can keep that swill. Man, Black-Briar's, I haven't had that since I left Skyrim. You guys had better hurry up in there so we can crack the kegs."

The Imperial stretched, his back making alarming popping sounds I could hear even from my distance. "Once I let them know what's waiting out here for them I think they'll find reasons to speed up the work. As for me, it's been frightfully boring today – I look forward to actually doing something other than standing around." He paused. "Although you should know that if Boss Crito should suspect you've started drinking while on watch... while the rest of us are still working... I don't think it'll go well for you."

"Yeah, yeah, I'm not stupid, Granius. Give me the lantern, will you?"

After a brief exchange, the Nord stayed nearby while the Imperial made his way into the ruin. When the bubble slammed shut behind him, it managed to avoid causing any avalanches or earthquakes, although I suspected it was a close-run thing.

I slumped behind my rock. Why couldn't things be easy, for once? Why couldn't there have been a... an entrance nicely tucked away out of sight of the bridge, with no strange exertions involving levers and bubble-shields necessary to enter, never to mention well-oiled hinges. Or a window! Or a chimney! As things stood, I couldn't think of any way to enter the ruin without alerting everyone within a mile.

"Man." The Nord's expression was about as despairing as mine. "Black-Briar's. And I'm on guard duty."

This seemed a bit extreme even for a Nord. Then again, he had said that he was in withdrawal. If this was a general issue for Nords in Morrowind, I might have to invest in a few bottles for distraction purposes. Just imagine if I'd thrown a bottle at Bolvyn Venim, back in the mansion! Allfool would have been after it like a shot, and in the confusion I'd surely have been able to escape without aerial acrobatics...

The mansion. There was something about the mansion. Varvur and Bolvyn Venim, and Allfool with his lockpicks...

...and the guards, slumped asleep next to the door to Varvur's cell when we entered. Allbraggart had bribed a maid to drug the stew, he'd said.

"...can't believe Crito's insisting we have to wait to break open the booze..."

I'd made many potions for this trip. Sleeping potions among the number.

And so I had my plan.

 


 

Inside the bubble, I hit the lever that would keep it from closing, then the one to open the door to the ruin proper. The screech of the hinges was ear-splitting, but nothing compared to the massive clang when it shut behind me. I winced at the sound, waiting for the shouts of alarm to start. That had been loud enough to wake the dead. If even one of the looters had abstained-

Silence. I heaved a sigh of relief and silently thanked Shor, Kyne and normalised alcoholism as I crept forward.

Doctoring the alcohol had gone far more easily than expected, considering the presence of the Nord guard. But he'd mostly stayed near the bridge, his back to the crates. That and the torch he'd stupidly taken over from his predecessor made it possible to stay out of sight.

I also found I had something else to thank Masalinie for – our conversation had given me the courage to try out the telekinesis spell I'd learned from Estirdalin again. Given how much it had helped, I suspected trying to manage without it would have ended in disaster. Not only had it allowed me to float bottles, pop corks and brace kegs with not a rustle of cloth to give me away, the one time the Nord decided to wander close to stare at the trove of alcohol I'd been able to send rocks tumbling near the bridge. The noise had distracted him enough that I could hide.

Now, of course, I hadn't needed to worry. The man had put up a good fight against temptation, but succumbed in the end. When a group of the bandits came out to bring the booze inside now that the day's looting was done, several bottles of mead went mysteriously missing on the way. Now the Nord was deep in dreamland, leaving the entrance to Arkngthand free.

It had been a good thing that I hadn't tried to sneak in while the looters were awake, I discovered. The ramp that must once have led from the entrance level down to the main part of the citadel had apparently not survived the intervening millennia. In order to let people get down without breaking their necks, someone had hewn a path down out of the rock of the wall. A narrow, winding ledge with torches placed at regular intervals, anyone who took it would be completely exposed to all eyes.

At the bottom, the sight of a looter camp and sound of snoring greeted me. A quiet count made it eleven sleeping bodies, ranging from another Nord who might, physically improbable as it might seem, be even taller than the one outside to a slight Imperial woman who'd fallen asleep in mage robes. All humans, I noted, not a mer nor Khajiit nor Argonian among the lot. Odd, but I didn't know if that meant anything in the context of Morrowind. More importantly, to my admittedly inexperienced eye all of them looked like tough, hard-bitten characters who would probably be able to squash me like a fly if it came to a fight.

...it would be really good if I could get out of here before any of them woke up.

I closed my eyes and remembered the description Hasphat had given me.

A cube of bronze metal, around five or six inches in size. Each side of the cube is divided into nine squares with a symbol etched into each square. The sides can be rotated.

Target acquired.

I smiled to myself as I ghosted towards the door leading further into the ruins. It was time to show Antabolis how a professional – well, ex-professional – thief handled this.

 


 

Some time later, I was feeling far less cocky. Indeed, "desperate" would probably be a more accurate description of my mood. I'd swear that I'd been through every nook and cranny of the rooms I'd seen so far only to turn up... nothing.

Well, not nothing per se. All the rooms I'd found contained various furniture, battered and rusted by the progress of the ages but still recognisable, as well as heavy machinery, cogs, and random detritus. The one I was currently in was the first I'd seen that also contained portable items such as decorated goblets and plates, weapons hanging on the wall, and small engraved silver discs which I suspected had been Dwemer currency, once upon a time. Most likely the looters hadn't reached this far yet.

A fact one could also deduce by this room's inhabitant.

Beneath me, the spider-shaped Dwemer automaton that had been scrabbling at the legs of the table finally gave up as whatever rusted cogs served as its brain informed it that no, unless it suddenly learned how to levitate it wouldn't be able to reach me. I watched it trundle off, wanting it to be a safe distance away before I risked descending back into clawing range.

The machine's presence was a clear sign that it was time for me to turn back. True, according to what I'd read so-called 'spider centurions' were dangerous in certain situations but overall not much of a threat as their programming was quite straightforward and they weren't very mobile (facts which I'd now verified through empirical evidence). Nevertheless, getting past it would take time – time I might not have to spare. And who knew what might be crawling around deeper in the ruin? The last thing I wanted was to run into one of the giant metal men described in Ruins of Kemel-Ze.

But I still hadn't found Hasphat's thrice-cursed cube. What if it was further i-

Wait a moment.

Some part of my mind was metaphorically jumping up and down, yelling at me to stop and think things through for a moment. It sounded, I noticed, a lot like Charon when he thought that I was about to do something only Sheogorath would think advisable.

All right. I pushed down the squirming sense of urgency, let myself settle cross-legged on the table (which had held up under both my weight and the spider centurion's attempts at climbing with admirable fortitude considering its age) and focused on the part of my mind that had apparently absorbed some forethought from Charon, miracle though he might have deemed that fact.

What are you doing, Adryn?

I'm trying to steal a so-called 'puzzle cube' from a Dwemer ruin that's infested with both hostile automatons and looters. I'm doing it because Hasphat Antabolis wants the thing, and Caius Cosades wants me to help Antabolis, and all that adds up to 'I have no choice'-

There. I was missing something in that line of thought. I focused...

I was stealing the puzzle cube for Hasphat Antabolis. He was the one who'd told me it was in Arkngthand.

How did he know where it was?

It could have been recorded in a book from back when the Dwemer were around, of course... but with four thousand years in between, anything could have happened to a portable, valuable object such as the puzzle cube. If his information had been that outdated, he should have had some doubt, and he'd sounded absolutely certain of its location. No, Hasphat's source had to have been more recent. Someone like...

Like one of the looters who was currently occupying the ruins.

"I am a prize idiot." I said it in a whisper, not wanting to attract any more Dwemer attention, but all the same I felt a statement of such utter and profound truth deserved to be proclaimed to the world.

The cube was in the possession of one of the looters. It had to be in their camp. The camp where its inhabitants might be waking up very, very soon. The camp right at the entrance that I'd seen with my own two eyes, then ignored to head straight into the uncharted depths of the ruins. If only I'd stopped to think back when I'd entered, I could be halfway back to Balmora with the cube in my pocket right now.

"A prize idiot," I whispered again, and after looking around carefully to make sure the spider centurion was definitely nowhere near I slipped down off the table to retrace my steps.

Back at the entrance some time later, I eased the metal door shut behind me. My arms burned at the weight of the thing, but I gritted my teeth and grimly hung on.

Dosing the doctored alcohol had been tricky since I hadn't known who would drink how much of what. Since I also hadn't wanted to kill anyone, I'd erred on the low side. For all I knew one of the looters was already awake, which meant that accidentally slamming the door would qualify as a Very Bad Thing.

Finally, it shut with a soft snick. I silently thanked whichever of the looters had decided to oil the hinges as I eased forward.

The camp looked exactly the same as I'd left it, and the sound of snoring was, if anything, even louder than before. I frowned.

I could leave now, decide it was too dangerous, come back and try another day...

...but could I, truly? I still had no idea how to get past the entrance without raising the alarm. It was a miracle things had panned out to get me this far this time, I couldn't count on being able to drug the entire camp again.

I let my eye rove over the sleeping camp again. All of its inhabitants looked to be firmly in dreamland.

What time was it, anyway? It had been full dark when I'd entered the ruin, and it must have been several hours since then. And although nervous energy and the desire not to die obscured it, I was definitely tired right now. Gone midnight, well into those early hours of the morning recognised primarily by criminals, nightwatchmen and vampires, as well as any intersections between those categories. Chances were that my looter camp had slipped smoothly from drugged unconsciousness into natural sleep.

All right. A quick look. And if any of the looters seemed like they were about to wake, I'd hightail it out of there.

So. Who had the cube?

The mage, I thought. They hadn't shipped it off yet, if Antabolis' intelligence was solid. Perhaps one of the looters had found it interesting and decided to keep it, and a mage seemed the most likely to be intrigued by a mysterious Dwemer artifact.

The Imperial woman in mage robes I'd noted earlier was sprawled over her bedroll, arms akimbo, mouth hanging open, a rather unsightly puddle of drool forming at the corner of her mouth. I eyed the number of empty bottles lying next to her, then her slight figure, and decided that I didn't have to worry about her waking up anytime soon. I'd almost worry about her waking up again ever, low dosages notwithstanding, except that her snores had transcended being merely loud and were making a valiant attempt at deafening. There was no way a corpse could make that much noise, and that was including necromancy. I was frankly surprised it was possible for anyone other than a very large giant trained in the thu'um. Why had I bothered being careful with the door earlier, again?

And this was really no time to go off on tangents, Adryn.

I knelt down next to Miss Probably-Has-Giant-Blood and began to rifle through her pile of belongings, a matter made more difficult by the fact that she'd apparently never so much as heard of the word organisation. Spell tomes were stacked on crumpled robes, an empty wine bottle was lying tipped sideways on top of a scroll. It would serve the mage right if the last dregs stained the runes and made it unusable. Several corked ingredient vials that made my fingers itch (those were fire salts if I'd ever brewed a potion) had been scattered across the floor, a hazard for anyone in the vicinity who wasn't watching where they were going.

I'd never complain about Ingerte's tendency to strew her belongings around the vicinity of her bed again-

No. I wouldn't, would I.

For the love of the Nine, I was currently crouched in the middle of a bandit lair whose inhabitants would be most distinctly unhappy if they woke up to find me here. This was really no place to get lost in memory. Or, worse, to start crying. I tried to avoid crying when I could, seeing as it was messy, unproductive, and humiliating... but that wasn't even scratching the surface of how extremely inappropriate it would be in the present situation. It should be obvious that tears were absolutely out of the question right now, so I didn't understand why my eyes were stinging so.

I clenched my hands into fists, letting my fingernails bite into my palms. After a long moment where I tried very hard to think of nothing but the sharp pain in my hands, I went back to work. If I was blinking a little more frequently than usual, there was no one to witness it and I'd deny everything.

The chaos meant it took far longer than I'd have liked, but in the end I found myself certain: wherever the cube was, it wasn't here.

Right. Not the mage, then. I heaved myself upright. There was a close call as I almost pitched sideways, my legs half-asleep. How long had I spent crouched down there – how long had my weakness cost me? Was it dawn yet?

My hands were shaking, I noticed dimly. I wanted to leave.

But I still hadn't found the cube.

All right. Think. Think! ...don't think of shoving the damn thing up Antabolis' nostril once I finally returned with it. Although that was indeed a valuable and viable train of thought which I'd like to consider at length later, now was really not the time.

Who had the cube?

...the leader, of course.

It was so obvious I could have kicked myself, if not for the fact that I'd have kicked Miss Giantsdottir as well and this would have resulted in what we in the trade call 'very bad things'.

But really now. A gang of looters is cleaning out a Dwemer ruin when they come across an item none of them have ever seen before. It's small, it's portable, it's mysterious, it's probably extremely valuable. Any bandit leader worth his bounty will go "no, I claim that by right of being the one who can bash all your heads together."

It was a predictable course of action, I'd seen something like it play out time and time again, and I should have thought of it immediately. Instead, my head had been full of the mages of the guild, of Trebonius' task and Edwinna and Dwemer scholarship, and my mind had leapt to the mage. Much like earlier that night when I'd headed straight past the camp into the dungeon depths, I'd gotten ahead of myself, drawn connections where none existed, and jumped to a wrong conclusion. It was a mistake I'd made all too often before... except that this time, there was no one around who could catch it.

My eyes were stinging again, I noticed dimly. Why they had to choose now to act up was beyond me. It was true that I might be due a grief-stricken breakdown, but I had no intention of indulging in one and this was definitely not the place or time.

I'd mistreated my palms enough for one night, so this time I bit my tongue to bring myself back to the present. So the leader had the cube. Who was the leader, then? Back in Skyrim, I'd have gone straight to the largest Nord in the place... but this wasn't Skyrim, and it was time to stop making assumptions.

I left the mage's side to make my way through the camp, studying each sleeper as I went. Breton, Imperial, Redguard-

A snort-

My heart almost leapt out of my throat as the huge Nord I'd just passed snorted loudly, the steady rhythm of his snoring interrupted. I froze, tensed to take flight, as his brow wrinkled in a frown. Then, after a harrowing moment, he relaxed and the snores resumed. It took a moment longer before I felt ready to move again.

I firmly squashed the urge to go for the nearest bag and hightail it out of there. I'd definitely overstayed my welcome... but that meant I couldn't afford another wrong choice.

Breton, Imperial...

I stopped.

Unlike the others, who'd spread their bedrolls over the floor, this man had apparently decided an ancient Dwemer bedstead was still up to its original job, and dragged a crate over to serve as a nightstand. A piece of parchment was lying on it. I carefully unfurled it.

Dear Crito,

...eating enough of whatever passes for vegetables in Morrowind? Are any of the other legionnaires being mean to you? You know I'm happy to come visit and beat them up for you... This paragraph was followed by a doodle of a triumphant stick figure standing on a pile of bodies.

...thought I'd try some true-and-tested Grandma-style nagging, someone should keep it going. Not sure it suits me, though. So what if you don't have enough long underwear and are freezing your bits off, there are things a sister does not want to know about the contents of her brother's trousers...

...found a new healer for Father, you know I never trusted the old one...

...won't deny the money you're sending is coming in extremely handy, but can you afford it? I know what a guard's salary is like, even with that mysterious special mission you mentioned the Knight-Protector sent you on...

...tell me more about that special assignment, will you? Speaking as someone older and wiser: acting all mysterious about it just makes it seem like you're still twelve...

...your loving sister (who can still beat you up),

Schlera

Well. I'd learned this particular looter had an unexpectedly touching motivation for his crimes along with a both loving and deluded family, but I didn't really see how that was any particular help in this situation...

Wait a minute.

Hadn't the looter on the bridge mentioned needing to talk to a 'Boss Crito'?

And looking more closely at his gear... that armour was definitely a cut above what the rest of the bandits had, and that sword was steel rather than iron, its edges glimmering red with destructive enchantment.

All right. I'd found the bandit leader. Now for the cube.

Unlike the Imperial mage, this Crito had kept his belongings carefully organised. A perfectly even stack of Dwemer coins here, a tidy pyramid of arrowheads there, his clothes not just folded so precisely the corners could probably draw blood but organised by colour. Either neat to the point of obsessiveness or an ex-legionnaire, and his sister's letter implied the latter. It made me even more eager to be out of here before the man woke up, and I'd already been so twitchy I'd probably end up on the ceiling if anyone coughed. However, the level of organisation at least made it easy to see that the cube was nowhere in sight.

I bit down a hiss of frustration. Where was the blasted thing? If the mage didn't have it, the boss didn't have it, then who-

As I turned away from Crito, I saw a gleam of reflected torchlight coming from under the bed... just where a small item might have fallen if it had been knocked off the nightstand.

Despite the situation, I couldn't help the broad grin that spread across my face as I put my pack down, knelt and finally, finally picked up Antabolis' cube.

At first glance, it looked much like Antabolis had described. I didn't give it a second glance. I didn't think it was likely there were two similar cubes in this dump, and careful study of my prize could wait until I was out of here. Speaking of, it was past and well past time to withdraw-

"Whazzat? Izzit dawn 'lready?"

If I hadn't been so tense, that might have been it for me. But some part of my mind had been waiting for precisely this to happen the whole time I'd been searching the camp, had been preparing to flee or hide at a moment's notice. And so my reflexes had me flat on the ground under the bed, pulling my pack in beside me, before Crito had finished rubbing his eyes.

"Ugh, m'head..." came from above me.

Go back to sleep, I willed silently. You're tired, you have a hangover, it can't be dawn yet. Just go back to sleep, you know you want to...

The bedstead above creaked alarmingly as the weight it was bearing shifted. Crito, providing unknowing proof that I did not have any sort of natural powers of telepathy, was sitting up.

"...coulda sworn I didn' drink tha' much yesserday... Dibella, I needda piss..." Two hairy feet hit the ground inches from my nose.

If he was just going to relieve himself, I might still have a chance. I'd seen the stinking corner with its chamberpot that was clearly being used for that purpose earlier, and it was some distance away. He'd be slow, bleary, unobservant. It would be tricky with the exposed route to the entrance, true, but surely I could avoid one half-asleep hungover bandit...

I watched the feet move away with bated breath. One step, two steps, three, four... then they stopped.

"Waitasec. Crist'sh, what're ya doin' asleep? Shouldn'ya be on wash?" A pause. The next sentence came out far clearer, slow, thoughtful and terribly, terribly awake. "Shouldn't someone be on watch...?"

Oh no.

"Oi! Maggots! Rise and shine!"

I should just stop hoping for things. It inevitably made the universe decide to prove me wrong.

I closed my eyes against the sense of rising despair as around me, the looter camp came awake.

Chapter Text

There had been a small library attached to the orphanage at Daggerfall. It had, I suspected, been one of the things the priestesses used to tell each other how good, how generous they were being. Imagine – not only taking in the poor deprived orphans, but teaching them to read! Giving them books! What kindness, what graciousness, the very image of Kynareth herself. This conclusion would, of course, be reached without actually inspecting the contents of said library. I myself had done so repeatedly and at length growing up, and the contents and state of the books had driven me to the inescapable conclusion that the last time it had been supplied had been in the Second Era.

The most popular books by far had been an adventure series. The language had been archaic, the depictions of anyone other than Bretons or Redguards often downright insulting, and the descriptions of the world had left me briefly under the impression the Summerset Isles were an independent state and there was currently civil war in Cyrodiil (I really wasn't kidding about the Second Era), but there's a certain style of cheesy pulp that remains gripping no matter how many centuries lie between you and its publication.

One of series' conceits had been to start every book with the words so, there I was. So, there I was, fingers just inches away from the Dread Ayleid-King's crown... So, there I was, clinging to a plank in the middle of the Abecean Sea... Hiding in the library, I'd dreamed of one day being in a situation that deserved being described in the fashion. How exciting! How romantic! What an amazing change it would be from my dreary life in the orphanage!

I'd been a real idiot when I was younger.

So, there I was, hiding under a bed at the edge of a looter camp in an active Dwemer ruin, trying not to breathe too loudly lest the bandits notice I was there. I had to say that so far I didn't feel particularly inclined to tell my hypothetical grandchildren about this one, but if I did I'd have to stress that of all the adjectives one could use to describe this situation, exciting did not make the list.

(Said grandchildren were never particularly close to reality. They were, however, even more hypothetical than usual today – such facts as 'Adryn is completely disinterested in the sort of activity that leads to children' and 'Adryn is demonstrably incapable of taking care of herself, let alone helpless offspring' are eclipsed by 'Adryn is currently uncertain she will survive the next few hours' as far as the likelihood to procreate is concerned.)

Given the current constraints of my vision, the only thing I could really see were feet. However, my hearing was unimpeded and judging by the amount of groaning, Crito's attempt to rouse the rest of the camp sounded unfortunately successful.

"Lazy rats, skiving off on watch, lying in bed when there's work to be done," I heard from up ahead. "Get up already, will you... ah, there we are."

Rustling, and then light flared. Even under the bed, I squeezed my eyes shut against the glare. The chorus of complaints around the room indicated the groggy looters' reflexes hadn't been quite so quick as mine.

"Have mercy! I need those eyes!"

"The night after a celebration? Has he lost his mind?"

"If you don't let me go back to sleep this instant there'll be blood!"

As Crito bellowed at the last one, I began a slow shuffle away.

In my professional experience as a thief, under the bed is not a safe hiding place. Better than none, certainly, but it's the first place many people will look – children especially. Never to mention that once you're under there, you're pretty thoroughly stuck in place. No, I had to move. And the moment when the gang leader decided to destroy everyone's night vision seemed like a good time to me.

In the small things if not the big, Nocturnal was with me. Crito had set up his bed at the very edge of the camp, away from the bedrolls spread by the other bandits. The side of the bed I'd now reached came out on haphazardly stacked crates. Although I felt in some danger of being crushed by them toppling over, they were at least distinctly unlikely to raise an alarm.

And, more to the point, the gap between those two looked wide enough to crawl through.

It was only once I'd managed to make it behind the crates that I dared sit up. I felt raw and scratched from the grit I'd dragged myself through, I doubted my poor shirt would ever recover, and my heart had been in my throat every agonised inch – but it couldn't be helped. I hadn't dare move in a way that might make me visible from the main part of the camp. Distracted, hungover and half-blinded the bandits might be, but there is nothing that focuses an eye like movement.

Which, admittedly, made the whole question of getting back to the entrance – the sole, ludicrously exposed, difficult to reach entrance where the door could wake the dead, if not the drugged – rather... tricky.

Well, first things first.

With a moment of concentration and a twist of magicka, I sent my consciousness outwards. It took a little more focus to tune the Detection spell for what I wanted to look for, but soon I was feeling the pulse of life from the camp, eleven distinct signatures. I noted with resignation that only three were still muted with sleep – the remnants of my drug had not stood up well to Crito's determination. More to the point, none of them were making their way toward me. I was still hidden.

(Well, unless one of them cast a detection spell of their own. Rule Twelve: never forget that your targets also have access to magic. Many an aspiring thief who thought they'd found safe refuge has been most unpleasantly surprised that way. Thankfully, people don't generally start off their mornings magically scanning their surroundings for hidden enemies – especially when they're hungover.)

Keeping a mental 'eye' on the life-signatures of the looters, I turned to my pack.

Amazingly, I'd managed to keep it with me so far. Its contents had not, however, survived the night's adventures wholely unscathed: judging by the wet spot on the bottom, at least one of the vials had broken. I brushed the sticky residue, lifted it to my finger and sniffed. An energising potion. It would have come in handy now, considering that even high on nervous energy I was starting to feel my exhaustion. I supposed I should just be grateful it hadn't been a smoke-bomb – that would definitely have drawn attention I'd like to avoid.

It really was only one broken potion; I'd tried to cushion the vials using one of my robes, and that had apparently paid off. All the same, I'd been expecting more Dwemer automata and fewer bandits, and the contents of my pack reflected that. There were quite a few potions to accelerate corrosion and rust which I'd created in the hopes that they might immobilise a centurion. They might even have worked quite well for their intended purpose, but they were of sadly limited use in the present situation. At least, I didn't think being stabbed by a rusty sword was much of an improvement over being stabbed by a polished one. I did pack a few sleeping potions, but those had all gone into the alcohol. There were a few of those smoke potions, one improvised flashbang, those had potential... also the vial of off-violet liquid I'd brewed following one of Ajira's recipes which should give me the power of levitation. A possible way up to the ledge? Except that it'd be no use if I immediately had eight angry bandits on my tail...

But maybe one?

I'd been listening to the grumbling bandits with half an ear. Although by the sounds of it everyone was feeling like death right now and some were still insensible, no one seemed suspicious of the way everyone had lost consciousness yesterday. No suspicion was good. If they only posted a single person on watch tonight... I was all out of sleeping potions, but I might be able to use the smoke potions to confuse them, levitate up to the ledge and hightail it out before they could mobilise, then lose any pursuers in the dark...

It wasn't a great plan, especially since by tonight I'd have gone one and a half days without sleep and that is, to put it mildly, not a state in which it's particularly wise to rely on your razor-sharp intellect and keen reflexes. But it was the only plan I had.

I'd just have to hunker down today, hope nothing happened to put them on alert-

One of the life-signatures was approaching me.

I froze into stillness, hardly daring to breathe. Footsteps neared along with the burning sensation of life... stopped. Still some steps away, I noted with relief, if not as many as I'd like. By the bed, and wasn't I glad I'd left that hiding place.

"Hey." It was Crito, and his voice was ominously calm. "Where's the cube?"

Sometimes I wondered why I even bothered getting up in the morning.

Rummaging noises came from the other side of the crates. "The cube?" Crito raised his voice. "You know, the extremely rare item our kind benefactor is paying us large amounts of m