It's done. Baron Montclair is gone, and the Lightless Remnant has been extinguished. Rivenspire is safe.
I'm having a hard time truly celebrating, though. Even though all those people are out there applauding our victory, even though we're all relieved that the shadow over this land has lifted. Knowing what it cost, the sacrifice that had to be made to secure that victory, I can't quite bring myself to be as jubilant as I wish I could be.
I wonder how much Verandis knew, as we made our way up the Doomcrag, if he knew how the journey would have to end. He said he was still working out strategies most of the way up, but maybe he just wanted to be the only one carrying that burden of knowledge for as long as possible. Or maybe he was hoping that another solution would present itself before the anticipated end became inevitable.
But either way, there was only one way for us to stop Baron Montclair without sending the bloodfiend curse sweeping through the entirety of Rivenspire. The Lightless Remnant fueling Montclair's dark power needed to be removed from the Doomcrag before his death caused it to shatter. And there was only one way Verandis could think of to accomplish that daunting task. He needed to call upon his old master, the one who had turned him into a vampire so long ago, someone he had tried ever since then to distance himself from.
He needed to beg for aid from Molag Bal.
I'm sure Verandis never knew about my own complex history with Molag Bal. If he could sense that I was lacking a soul, he never asked me about who had stolen it. But I couldn't help feeling that extra layer of dismay when he finally admitted who he was turning to for help. It wasn't just about handing a powerful relic over to the Lord of Brutality or making deals with the God of Schemes. Molag Bal was my personal enemy, as surely as he was the enemy of everyone on Nirn. And the distastefulness of having to rely on him for help only became more bitter when I realized that the cost of this aid would be not only the relic, but Verandis himself.
But of course Verandis wouldn't hear any objections to handing himself over. It was the only way to save Rivenspire. He needed to do this, to make things right after his earlier mistakes. And he needed me to play my part in his plan, to keep moving steadily forward, to do what I could to keep Baron Montclair occupied and buy time for the plot to come to fruition. And so I did, while hoping that our friends would be able to make it through the Doomcrag's many deathtraps whether I was there to help them or not.
Even before the final showdown with Montclair, it was clear that he was determined to make it as hard on us as possible as we advanced toward him. He'd had plenty of time, as he stewed in his anger and malice at the top of the mountain, to prepare for his former friend's eventual assault. Verandis' arrival brought new opportunities for revenge against the man who had taken Montclair's beloved wife and daughter away from him. And while the Ayleid traps and skeletal minions did their best to impede us, what payback could be more truly fitting than to force Verandis to watch his closest friend and protege be ripped away and corrupted before his helpless eyes?
Gwendis had bristled when Verandis expressed concern over her ability to resist the pull of the Lightless Remnant's power. He had trained her for this, and she was eager to prove her fortitude. But fighting the desire to feast on the blood of her defenseless allies might have been the greatest struggle of her life. I could feel their mutual desperation as Gwendis forced herself to stay strong until Verandis could break through the blood wards imprisoning the hostages, and it was matched only by their mutual relief when they succeeded.
Thinking about that moment, and the strength of their bond and what they meant to each other, just makes it all the more poignant watching Gwendis trying to cope with Verandis' loss. It's easy for me to say that what happened to him makes me sad. He was my friend. But Gwendis actually loved him. I wish I could say something to make her feel better, but something tells me words won't really help with that kind of grief. She's been handling it graciously, once the initial shock passed, and I think she's finding strength in Verandis' faith in her and the knowledge that he'd want her to continue being strong without him. She and Adusa-daro will be the bulwarks of House Ravenwatch now, and I know she'll want to keep Verandis' vision alive. She's a resilient woman and I admire her for it, even as I can't imagine the pain that must be in her heart right now.
I suppose it helps to focus on all of the good that has come from finally defeating the Montclairs and freeing Rivenspire from their blight. The people gathered in Shornhelm Castle certainly help make the place more festive. I presume they all wanted to be on hand to see High King Emeric name a new ruler for Rivenspire, which I guess is understandable considering what a momentous event that is.
The High King gave me the responsibility of advising him on who would be best suited to the role, since I'd seen both Baron Dorell and Countess Tamrith in action throughout my time in their land. Fortunately it's something I had already mulled over a bit, and I had more time to consider it on the way back to Shornhelm. Overall I feel pretty good about recommending Baron Dorell, and I think he'll do well as Rivenspire's new king. I can appreciate the Countess' enthusiasm for helping her people recover from the devastation they've suffered, but that didn't quite make up for her lack of experience and tendency to let her judgment be clouded by things like emotions and religious doctrine. (And honestly, I think she was trying to take a little too much credit for our success in the Doomcrag, considering that her contributions also got a bunch of soldiers needlessly killed when she and the Baron decided to be stubborn about bringing them along. I think I'm going to have to get better at putting my foot down when overconfident nobles decide to ignore the guy who knows what he's talking about and insist on getting their way.)
But anyway. The Countess accepted the decision gracefully enough, and everybody else seemed pretty happy to have Baron Dorell - sorry, King Alard - as their new sovereign. Or maybe they're mostly happy to have someone as an official sovereign. Either way, things should be looking up for Rivenspire before long.
Oh before I forget, among the guests at the ceremony I ran into Captain Thayer and her trainees from the Shornhelm Guard. Turns out that writing a terrible poem was one of the best things that could have happened to Julien - now that he's done being smitten with his old friend, he's discovered that Shuga the bandit Orc is actually his one true love. So things worked out pretty well for them after all.
Meanwhile, Skordo is thinking of joining the Fighters Guild now that things are calming down in Shornhelm. He also wants to give me a cool nickname like he's got. I guess "Ilsabet the Doomsmasher" would make an impression, but he's going to think about it.
Darien is, of course, still being ridiculous. He seemed to be worried about me before Verandis and I went to face Montclair, and he was relieved and impressed when I made it out while everything was collapsing, but now he's just back to being a goof. He seems to think that now that Countess Tamrith isn't his employer, she'll be inclined to do some... creative roleplay with him in private. Maybe he didn't notice her looking like she was ready to throw him off the side of the mountain after he questioned her Light fixation. I expect she'll be keeping herself busy helping Rivenspire rebuild, anyway, even if she didn't get to be queen. He might have a hard time getting her attention with so many people needing her help.
Darien can sort that all out on his own, though. I certainly don't need to be thinking about it while I'm on my way to Sentinel. A boat trip might be kind of relaxing right now. I feel like I've earned some downtime before the next crisis hits.
Well it was certainly interesting hanging out with the Stros M'Kai gang on the way to Sentinel. It probably wasn't as restful as it could have been, but it was fun catching up with everyone and seeing some hijinks here and there. Cap'n Marck must have made some pretty good business deals after his setbacks in Wayrest, and his new ship is serving him and his cohort well.
While Neramo and his assistant looked forward to scouring Alik'r's Dwemer ruins for long-lost secrets and treasure, and Crafty Lerisa and her boys exulted over finally signing their names to a successor to the Maiden's Breath, what caught my attention most was how Jakarn is really going after Lerisa. I mean it looked like they were flirty before, but lately he's going all out trying to impress her. He even went all the way to Vvardenfell to find a Daedric relic he thought she would like. That's on the whole other side of the continent. She apparently didn't fall head over heels for him after he brought her that present, though, so now he's working on learning some Redguard poetry to see how that goes. I almost thought about giving him some advice about writing poetry from the heart, but I thought better of it and instead asked him to read something out of the book he was looking at.
I didn't notice until he was done reading how flushed my cheeks had gotten. The way he was looking into my eyes, the warm tones of his voice... and then he smiled, with a "hmm" of satisfaction, and I realized he was probably gauging my reaction to see how effective his delivery was. And it was um... pretty effective.
I'm not sure how well it'll work on Lerisa though. I can't really tell if she likes him back or not, even after talking to her about him while she was drunk and gregarious. She seems to be enjoying his attention, but she said she's not really the type to settle down. Or maybe she doesn't trust that he's not still just playing around. He said he thinks he's finally found the woman for him, which I guess is why he's working so hard trying to win her over, but I can see where Lerisa would be skeptical that someone like him would really keep the promises he made her and wouldn't be off chasing someone else as soon as he got what he wanted.
Meanwhile, Majoll is feeling down because he's finally realized that Jakarn isn't going to look his way. He actually went along on the Daedric artifact expedition, and he felt like the two of them were getting closer, but then he found out that the artifact was a courting present for Lerisa and that was the end of that.
None of this is really straightforward, is it. You maybe find someone who maybe could be someone you could maybe be in love with, but you have to be sure they're really what they seem and not just messing around with you or hiding something. Then if you're sure about that, you have to figure out how you feel about them, which sometimes isn't that simple. And at the point when you're sure about that, you have to try to express your feelings and hope they feel the same way about you, and if they don't then you have to decide if you can win them over or if you should just let it go.
I guess I admire Jakarn's dedication, and Lerisa doesn't seem to mind his efforts. It'd be worse if she disliked him and he was just being annoying. But I can't help wondering, if they are meant to be together, and they could be happy with each other, is her hesitation just costing them time that they could be spending being happy together? If it takes five years for them to finally reach an understanding, is that really just five years lost?
I can't speak for her or make decisions for her, obviously. It's just something I wonder about. I certainly can't blame her for wanting to be sure before she commits to a guy, even if it takes a while. Especially with someone who's such a player.
Could someone who gets around so much really get serious and settle down with just one person? I guess she'd have to be pretty remarkable to win him over like that. Jakarn did say that Lerisa was a special woman, and she is pretty badass. That must be the kind of person Jakarn particularly likes. It kind of makes me wonder, what kind of person would...
Nevermind, I said I wasn't going to think about that. We've got a lot of work to do here, now that I'm done catching up with my friends. These zombies plaguing Alik'r aren't going to kill themselves, and apparently the Redguards aren't going to kill them either. So off I go.
It hasn't been an easy path through the desert, but it looks like the trouble here is finally winding down now that all three of Suturah's children have been sent to their (hopefully permanent) graves. Necromancers sure don't mess around when they decide to take a place over.
Queen Maraya knew what she was doing when she sent me down here, I think. Even if she wasn't aware of the extent of the threat to her homeland, it's a good thing she had me to check in. I'm actually not sure what the Redguards would have done if I hadn't been here to stand up to the undead hordes. At pretty much every step of the way, I've run into the old beliefs and traditions that forbade killing the "honored ancestors" - even if the only thing left of them were bloodthirsty monsters who would only create more corpses if they were left unchecked.
Even going back to the zombie infestation on the Sentinel Docks, everyone was super worried about being cursed if they were to strike down one of the undead. A watchman who killed a zombie in self-defense was afraid to go home because she couldn't face her family after potentially dooming them all. Even Throne Keeper Farvad completely freaked out about Tu'whacca being angry with him when he had to defend himself in the necropolis.
And meanwhile here I am, shooting and slicing my way through whatever comes at me. It would be easy to dismiss the Redguards' convictions as superstition, and there are those who feel that way even within their society, but I have to admit to wondering early on if I were setting myself up for trouble. I mean I know that curses can be real, and it's not a great idea to go ticking off gods. But the people I talked to seemed to think I would be okay since I was an outsider, so I wasn't too worried. I haven't noticed any cursey things happening to me so far, so I'm probably okay. Which is lucky for the Redguards, I'd say.
They did have the Ash'abah to help, at least. It was interesting seeing the founding of that niche community, as those who were willing to give up their claim to the old ways for the purposes of defending the people who couldn't defend themselves. I respected their dedication, and was even kind of proud to be counted among them despite their status as outcasts.
Choosing between honoring tradition and doing what must be done isn't anything new, I guess. But it's still a hard decision for many people. I'm even seeing that in the social conflict between the Crowns and the Forebears, those who want to maintain the old Yokudan ways at all costs and those who value "progress" and being open to the influence of other cultures. It's a schism that has led to hatred and even violence from both sides, and many communities are dominated by one group and exclude or look down on the other.
In Bergama a couple was almost prevented from getting married because one was a Crown and one was a Forebear. They were very much in love, and willing to overlook their differences, but certain members of their families couldn't get over their prejudices and just let them be happy together. Love finally prevailed, but I bet they'll still have their work cut out for them as long as they stay there.
Even King Fahara'jad faces plenty of opposition from Crowns who think he's dishonoring the true Redguard ways by joining the Covenant. I'm guessing those types wouldn't be too happy to see a Breton running around in their holy places dispatching zombies, but I hope they at least recognize that they're a lot better off as a result.
I learned from the visions at HoonDing's Watch that even the greatest of heroes face agonizing choices and carry the burden of regret. "Legend always carries a price," is what Farvad told me. I need to be prepared to make sacrifices for the greater good - but even knowing what the greater good is isn't always clear. Is duty more important than friendship? Is it better to fight to the death or submit and hope for an opportunity to rise again? Is a legacy of battle worth more than memories of loved ones?
I don't expect to ever create the kind of legends that those heroes did, even as I can feel myself becoming more and more comfortable walking in their footsteps. I'll have to think about how to put their lessons to practical use, but maybe for now it's worth knowing that even the great champions of history weren't perfect and still had to cope with the same kinds of challenges I face. I hope I can live up to their example.
Daedra are bastards. Okay maybe that's a bit strong but calling them jerkfaces doesn't really seem strong enough. Rotten, contemptible, vile sadistic fiends? Yeah, that's more like it.
So we've finally gotten to rescuing Sai Sahan, after dragging Abnur Tharn out of Coldharbour and using his connections to find out where Mannimarco has been keeping the last member of the original Companions. Tharn is... well, I can see why Lyris doesn't like him, although he hasn't dished out more sass at me than I can handle. I wouldn't say I trust him, exactly, and he doesn't seem to care whether I do or not. But he at least seems to be bristling enough over Mannimarco's betrayal and subsequent power trip that he's willing to throw his lot in with us if it means wresting control of the Empire away from the necromancer. And even if I wouldn't exactly call him cooperative, having him technically cooperating has been pretty beneficial so far.
So, with Tharn's intel pointing us to the dark recesses of Coldharbour known as the Halls of Torment, I had to choose one of my allies to accompany me in the search for Sai. Tharn argued that his knowledge of Molag Bal's realm and superior skills as a mage made him the much more practical pick, but knowing how strongly Lyris felt about saving her friend, I couldn't just leave her to sit around angsting while Sai's fate hung in the balance.
The Halls of Torment were aptly named. Everything in them seemed designed for torture. And the Halls' mistress, the Daedric Duchess of Anguish, certainly relished her craft. She'd even written how-to manuals on the most effective methods for breaking mortals' wills. And unfortunately for Sai, he'd been the primary subject of her attentions for the past two years, as the Duchess tried to force him to reveal where he'd hidden the Amulet of Kings after escaping the Soulburst.
Somehow, though, he hadn't given in. The Amulet, the key to breaking Molag Bal's hold on Nirn, was still safe. I honestly don't know, after seeing a glimpse of what he went through, how he managed to hold on for that long. Not even knowing how much time was passing, enduring constant unimaginable suffering, it must have taken every ounce of discipline and strength he had to persevere.
It wasn't just physical torture, though. Pain, the Duchess noted, is fleeting. But thoughts and emotions, the deepest secrets of the mind and heart, that's something a mortal will cling to of his own accord. And if they can be twisted, in just the right way, they can become the most effective poison a torturer could ask for.
I can't say I knew that much about Sai before meeting him, but what I had heard mostly revolved around his battle-savvy and prowess as a swordsman. As accomplished as he was, though, he carried within him a deep-rooted sense of failure that the Duchess of Anguish was happy to capitalize on. The mocking face of Abnur Tharn provided the perfect guise to taunt Sai with his inability to master the ancient art of the Yokudan sword-singers, throwing all of his efforts and dedication back in his face with all of the snide vitriol Sai had come to expect from his callous ally. Why simply remind a person of his failure, when you can show him someone he despises succeeding without even trying?
There's more than one way to use unattained desires against a person, though. While the faux Tharn taunted Sai with something he could never have, the Duchess' next tactic involved tempting him with the prospect of his desires being fulfilled. This time it was a doppelganger of Lyris that beckoned to the stoic Redguard, much to actual Lyris' surprise and consternation. If Sai would only give up clinging to the Amulet, the false Lyris purred, then he could embrace her instead, just as they'd both always wanted.
Of course, it was easy for us to see that it was nothing more than base manipulation and the whole setup was fake. Just in case I had any doubt, Lyris insisted that she and Sai were nothing more than friends, and would never play such foolish games of romance. I think it honestly offended her that anyone would think she would act so seductively. She also seemed genuinely confused about why such thoughts would even be in Sai's head. She said it was something she'd have to think about, but the whole thing also made it much more satisfying to eventually put her axe through the Duchess' skull.
Sai was relieved to see us, and even more relieved to be spirited out of Coldharbour. He was impressed with my bravery and honor, but I'm not sure that even compares to his resilience. Our next step will be to go after the hidden Amulet, once he's had a chance to sufficiently recover from his long ordeal.
Before I left the Harborage, Lyris spoke to me privately and asked me not to say anything to Sai about what we saw in the Halls of Torment. Not having realized the depth of his feelings for her, she'll need some time to think things over and consider how to react. I got the sense that part of that thought process will involve coming to an understanding of her own feelings. It's easy to tell that she cares for Sai deeply, but maybe this is a case where the line between friendship and love isn't quite so easy to place. I'll be interested to see what kind of resolution she comes to. I wonder if I'll have a chance to ask her about it next time I come to the Harborage.
I'm in Bangkorai now. Back to the familiar terrain of High Rock, and along with it Bloodthorns and zombies and wyresses. But this time there are also talking crows, and Reachmen, and Imperials trying to take the place over.
I managed the talking crows and Reachmen well enough, and the Imperials won't be getting ahold of Evermore any time soon. So it's been pretty good work all around. I did run into something today that's been kind of troubling me, though. It wasn't anything world-shaking, but it was kind of one of those choices where you have to question what's more important and there's really no good answer.
I stumbled upon the town of Kerbol's Hollow quite by chance, after almost literally running into a guy while I had my eyes to the ground looking for stuff to gather. He explained that he'd been waiting for a week to hear news of his husband, who came to the reclusive community looking for a cure for some mysterious ailment. He was hoping I'd be able to find something out for him, and I was able to talk my way past the sentry and make it into the town to have a look around.
It was a nice little hamlet, and the people there seemed pretty content if somewhat unnerved by having an outsider there poking around. It turned out that the village's leader, Kerbol herself, was able to provide cures to those who sought her out, as long as they agreed to stay there for the rest of their lives and never return to their families.
That seemed like something my new acquaintance Renoit might have wanted to know before he bid farewell to his spouse, but maybe it wasn't the biggest price to pay for a life-saving cure. And when I finally met Renoit's husband Draven, he had accepted the terms of his treatment and seemed quite happy to be joining the village.
The "treatment," though, was where things got a little hairy. Well actually they got hairy before that, when I discovered that the illness being cured here was none other than lycanthropy. When I went to deliver the news to Renoit, he had already gotten fed up with all of the secrecy and weirdness in the town and was determined to find out what was happening and stop the villagers from initiating Draven into what he saw as their cult.
When I came upon Kerbol and her assistants administering their ritual to Draven, and heard him screaming for them to stop invading his mind, some kind of instinct took over. They were hurting him, and I had to stop it. That's how it seemed. But when I interrupted the ritual, Draven seemed to go feral and ran off. Kerbol was furious, and explained that my interference had left Draven with an incomplete link to the magical bond that all of the werewolves shared. That bond kept their bloodthirst at bay, but it also required every single person to stay fully connected or the entire seal would be undone.
So, my attempt to play the hero actually ruined everything. There was still the option of completing the ritual, of course, but now that Draven knew the real details of the "cure," he had no intention of submitting to it again. He had felt Kerbol inside his head, severing pieces of his identity and taking control of his mind. He would no longer be the person he truly was if she had her way. And he was completely unwilling to give up part of himself, even to be free from the curse of being a werewolf.
I also couldn't simply leave things as they were. Draven either needed to be completely connected or completely removed. The longer he remained only loosely tethered, the weaker the spell became. Some of the townsfolk were already beginning to lose control of their forms. I needed to take action quickly - either to kill Draven, or to completely break the spell over the town so that he could be free.
What could I do? I wanted to help Renoit and Draven; after all, I had come here in the first place on their behalf. I wanted them to be safe and happy together. But how could I watch an entire town destroy itself because of an impetuous mistake I had made? And would Draven really be safe and happy, never knowing if he'd truly be able to control his bestial nature? What if he lost control one day and hurt or killed his husband? How could either of us live with that chance?
After I put Draven down, Renoit ran off before I could talk to him again. Maybe it's just as well. He'll hate me forever, I'm sure, but I pray there's a way for him to put his life back together. Kerbol was appreciative that I put the needs of her townspeople first, but it was also clear that my welcome there was limited. And so I put the town behind me, wondering if it would have been better if I'd never stumbled across it in the first place.
It was right to put the needs of the many before the needs of the few, right? As distressing as it was to see a man watch his beloved inch closer to the brink of feralness, and then to take that beloved life before his eyes... It was something I had to do, right?
Brrrh. Maybe I need to stop thinking about it. I'm sure they need me for something back in Evermore...
I think... I might have a problem. I think I... might have let him get to me.
I mean I know better. I know what kind of man he is. I shouldn't even be having this conversation, even if it's just inside my own head. This entire thing is ridiculous to be thinking about.
He's my friend. That's it. That's all it needs to be. He's a good person to have as a friend. When he's with me, when we're off on some mission, I feel like we can take on anything together. That's enough, isn't it?
So why can't I just leave it at that? Why do I arrive at every new meeting spot secretly hoping that he'll be there? Why do I care more about his safety than the queen we all worked so hard to protect? Why is it so hard to get him off my mind, even when he's nowhere near me?
I keep saying, don't get distracted when there's work to do. I have my orders. I know the stakes. There are people depending on me. It doesn't do them any good for me to stand around looking for one person to see if he's there. I should be able to just go and do what needs to be done. My allies will be there doing what needs to be done too, him included. I know he can take care of himself. He doesn't need me fretting over him. Of course he was going to walk out of that portal. Nevermind that it took everything Gabrielle and I could throw at them to stop the flood of Imperials trying to get at Queen Arzhela. He wouldn't let something like that take him down.
And yet... seeing him walk out of that portal, the rush of relief when I saw his face again, after not knowing if he'd make it out, it was... it wasn't like every other fight with every other person I've fought beside. It was different this time. It's different with him.
I didn't want to make a big deal out of it. It's normal to feel relieved about a friend being okay, isn't it? But ever since I left Evermore, there's something I can't shake. It's... it's not just that. It's something else, something more.
I mean I think I've known for a while that he was something special to me. I just didn't want to admit it, even to myself. That's a can of worms that you don't just pop open willy-nilly. I mean just look at me, now that I'm letting myself think about this in actual words. It was easier when it was just a fog in the back of my mind that I could wave off or a tickle in my throat that went away if I coughed a few times.
But now... I think I'm starting to need to acknowledge it for what it really is. At least, what I would guess it is if I had to put a name to it. It's not something I have a whole lot of experience with, after all. But... if this is what it's like to care about someone that much, to not be able to get him off my mind, to just feel indescribably better when he's near me... then shouldn't I at least try to be honest with myself? Isn't it worth at least understanding what this is, even if I don't know if I can let myself indulge in it?
Maybe I should stop trying to make it all go away. I mean finding someone you can feel that way about is good, isn't it? And the feeling is kind of nice, when I just let myself feel it. I'm not sure I'd call it fluttery, or pulse-racing. It's mostly, when I'm thinking about him, I feel kind of warm inside. And then when I haven't been thinking about him, and then he pops into my mind, I feel - it's like something jumps in my chest. Is that my heart? Is my actual heart jumping? Is that healthy?
I'm not sure there's anyone I can ask about this. I certainly couldn't tell anyone who it's about. If anyone knew I'm losing my marbles over that playboy, they wouldn't be able to take me seriously anymore.
And heaven help me if he found out, he'd probably be like "well, it was just a matter of time, another female conquered, let me just write your name down in my black book." Well maybe he wouldn't. I mean he would absolutely make some snarky comment about his irresistible charms. But I'd like to think he wouldn't consider me just another conquest. I mean yeah he's flirted with me a lot, but he's never actually tried to get me into bed. That means he respects me, right? ...Unless it means he doesn't actually think I'm that attractive. Am I not his type? Is it because I don't have any curves? Is he too old for me?
Uuuurrrrrrggghh why am I even having to deal with this. Why couldn't I have just kept thinking of him as the fun friend I got to fight with every once in a while? Why did he have to be so stupid and attractive and heroic and reliable and strong and someone I want to have by my side no matter what? STOP BEING SO AMAZING, DARIEN.
Sigh. Okay fine. This isn't going to go away, and he's not going to stop being who he is. I just need to figure out what I'm going to do about it. The main thing I need to do about it, is not let it get in the way of all the other stuff I need to do. I'm not going to forget everything else and spend all my time swooning over him. I'll just keep doing what I was going to do anyway, and let this all settle, and not do anything drastic until I'm more sure of what's going on with me and how things would even work between us and whether it's even a good idea to bring it up. There's no rush, right? I should take the time to figure my own stuff out, and not do something stupid just because I don't know how to handle feeling this way. I just need to get used to it so it's not a shock to the system every time I remember that I love him.
You know, since I've been in Bangkorai I've been feeling like I've finally got something of a reputation for all of the heroic things I've done. People have actually heard of me, and I've been able to talk to dukes and queens and generals without having to beg for an audience or convince them that I'm worth listening to. It feels especially good to hear High King Emeric tell me how much he counts on me to do things that nobody else can do. I certainly have no intention of letting down his trust.
Benefits of having a reputation aside, I guess it was only a matter of time before our enemies took notice of me too. I mean there have always been baddies coming after me, going way back to those assassins in Daggerfall. And then there was that hit list I made it onto back in Rivenspire, along with the Ravenwatch team and our noble allies. It kind of freaked me out at the time, but now that I think about it I find it kind of enjoyable. Not that I particularly enjoy people trying to kill me, of course. But there's something kind of satisfying about knowing you're pissing your enemies off enough that they just want you out of the way. What was it that Sai wrote back in the Harborage? A warrior's true merit is shown by the quality of enemies he attracts?
Well this time around I pissed off somebody awfully high up. Magus-General Septima Tharn of the Imperial army, commander of the Seventh Legion and self-appointed invader of Bangkorai. It was her grand scheme I foiled back in Evermore, and her ambush we saved Queen Arzhela from, and her dark anchor I destroyed when I led the charge to kick her troops out of the Bangkorai Garrison.
Apparently I annoyed her just a little bit.
We knew she had more schemes brewing down south. The notes and books she left in Hallin's Stand gave us a few clues, but not much that was terribly conclusive. Something about killing Daedra and a place called the Hall of Heroes.
Messing with a tomb filled with ancient Redguard heroes sounded awfully familiar, and also like something we needed to stop. So that's where we headed, and High King Emeric had every confidence that our small force would be able to take out Septima's troops - especially with me leading the way. His only request was that we leave the Magus-General for him.
Neither of us foresaw the battlemage's gambit, though. She brazenly showed up right in front of us, and when the soldiers and I moved to defend the King, she unleashed some kind of powerful magic that immobilized me and killed the others. Claiming Emeric as a trophy, she teleported away with him.
Well then. I guess there was a reason I hadn't felt too great about the High King allowing himself to be so vulnerable in enemy territory. It does irritate me, though, that all it took was one spell to make me completely helpless. At least it hadn't killed me outright, so there was still something I could do. And so I raced toward the hall, hoping to catch up with them before something bad happened to the King.
Septima was waiting for me inside the Chamber of Passage - waiting so she could make me watch as she ran her sword through Emeric's heart. I watched her disappear again, and then watched Emeric's soul drift away from his body and pass through the portal to the Far Shores.
Again, though, it wasn't over yet. Here, on the precipice between our world and the afterlife, I could cross over to the Redguards' corner of Aetherius and try to find a way to reclaim the High King's soul.
The Far Shores were part tropical paradise and part ancient Redguard monument. It didn't take me long to find Emeric's essence, still chained in Septima's magical bonds. She was there too - and seemed smugly gratified to see me approach.
It wasn't about Emeric, you see. Not entirely. She was happy to get him out of the way, but the reason we were all here in this plane was so that she could dispose of me. She knew all about my history in Coldharbour and my soulless nature, and all of that research back in Hallin's Stand had told her that the way to get rid of someone like me was to kill them in Aetherius. And so here we were.
I'll give her credit for the masterfully constructed plan. Not only did she know more about the nature of my body and soul than I do, but she knew exactly how to choose the right bait to get me where she wanted me. She knew I wouldn't hesitate to follow my King into any sort of danger, and that I wouldn't give up on him even after the point of death if I thought there was still any chance of saving him.
I had played right into her hands. And in her mind, she had already won. The only thing left was to strike me down for good. But her arrogance and disrespect for the sanctity of the Redguard tomb had earned her an unexpected adversary - the Keeper of the Hall, who had instructed me on the proper ways to conduct myself as I passed through his domain. He offered me the chance to return to Mundus along with my liege, if I could defeat the trespasser and put an end to her wrongdoing.
I was going to be fighting for my life anyway, so it was an easy deal to make. This time Septima didn't even bother with immobilization magic. She came at me with all of her battlemage's fury, and when her first barrage didn't take me down, she summoned waves of warriors to try to overwhelm me with numbers. It might have been tempting to throw everything I had back at her, but this was a case where I needed to think more strategically and defensively, and deal with things as they came. As long as I didn't lose my head, I could focus on keeping myself alive for as long as it took to whittle her down.
And it worked. It was a ferocious battle, but in the end sheer determination won out over arrogance and spite. I hope Molag Bal was paying attention to what happens to his dutiful servants when they push me too far.
King Emeric seemed to be taking being dead pretty well, all things considered. He was right that the Far Shores were a nice place, but we both needed to be getting back to business. The Keeper said I'd be welcome there when my time came, but for now he was happy to send us back where we were supposed to be. I hadn't really considered which version of the afterlife I'd most like to hang out in for eternity, but it's nice to think that I have some options.
Back in Bangkorai, mourners had already gathered around the King's corpse. Queen Arzhela was especially distraught to see her fallen cousin. Neither I nor the King were especially certain how the coming-back-to-life thing was supposed to work, but his soul seemed to just sort of find its place within his body and there he was. I hope it's that easy when I get my soul back.
Speaking of, I need to be heading to the Harborage. High King Emeric has an errand he wants me to run, but first I need to check in with the Prophet and the others and see if they're ready to go after the Amulet of Kings yet. I can already feel that things are going to start heating up soon, and I don't think it's just the aftereffects of the adrenaline-fueled battle with Septima. Maybe this was a fitting warm-up for what's to come.
I actually did it. I killed Mannimarco. I defeated the traitorous bastard who murdered me and stole my soul and planned to sacrifice everyone on Nirn to fuel his ambitions of godhood.
Of course, death was hardly an impediment for a master necromancer. I did kill him, I'm pretty sure, but he had ways to keep it from sticking. Which would have been a major problem, except that there was someone who had an even bigger beef with Mannimarco than we did and took that opportunity to make his presence known. Molag Bal had apparently not been blind to his would-be usurper's plotting, and he was not at all happy about being betrayed. I'm still not sure how he broke into Sancre Tor or why he didn't drag the rest of us into the portal to Coldharbour too, or why he ignored the Amulet of Kings sitting right there on its pedestal, but it worked out pretty well for us in the end so I won't complain.
We had some quiet time in the Harborage after returning, and it was nice getting to chat with my friends on a more personal level. Lyris had some rather insightful things to say about seeing the world and living with our regrets, and the mead she shared was... interesting. It didn't hit me as hard as I might have expected, but I think I'd have to get used to the taste if I ever had it again.
Getting back to business in anticipation of our next move, Tharn explained to me that I'll have to choose one of our companions to sacrifice to power up the Amulet of Kings. There isn't any way around it if we want to have any hope of defeating Molag Bal. On the plus side, all three of them had their own reasons for volunteering, and I don't think any of them would hold my decision against me. I'm going to give it some serious thought, although I can already feel myself leaning a certain way. Especially after I worked up the nerve to ask Lyris about Sai, and whether they've spoken about what we saw in the Halls of Torment.
They haven't, but it seems like they have kind of an unspoken understanding. "Our hearts are connected," is what she said. They're just not the type of people to talk about their feelings, or even truly understand them. But somehow... their hearts know. And they're okay with that. It seems kind of sweet, the more I think about it. But I'm not sure how much I'm like that. Knowing for sure what's in my heart would be a nice start. But what would it be like to be with the one I love, and never say anything about it? Would he just know too? Would our hearts be connected, without us even really trying?
I don't know when I'll see Darien again. Maybe once we get this invasion of Coldharbour thing moving he'll magically show up out of the woodwork looking for some adventure. Or maybe I can track him down and ask him to come along with the team. He'd probably enjoy it. I still don't plan on saying anything to him when I do see him, since I'm still kind of trying to figure things out, but if we do get the chance to spend some time working together, it'll be interesting to see how that goes. And maybe I'll have some way of telling how he might possibly feel about me, which might possibly help me clarify how I feel about him and maybe even what to do about it.
Orrrr maybe I should do that thing where I don't let myself get distracted by my personal kerfuffle and keep my head in the game. What was I even talking about? Oh, Mannimarco and the Amulet. Yeah, we won and we have that thing we need. So I'd better be heading to Daggerfall to meet with that Copper person about that thing High King Emeric wanted me to do. Right then.
Why is it that politics can turn otherwise mature, thoughtful adults into petulant, bickering children? Is it like this everywhere? Or only when the fate of the entire world is on the line?
I mean I know the Three-Banners War is important and all. I know we all have reasons to dislike the other alliances and distrust their motives. I know people who are enemies aren't going to suddenly start acting like buddies just because they're at a treaty conference that might determine whether or not we still have a world to fight over.
Ahem. Not that I'm still kind of annoyed about doing all that work convincing the most powerful political figures in Tamriel to meet with each other only to watch them spend all their time calling each other names and throwing tantrums about being called names. And then storming off in a huff so I had to try to calm them all down and convince them again that this thing was worth doing so maybe they should set aside their differences for five freaking minutes. And then none of them being willing to commit actual troops to doing this thing because it might mean they have fewer people to throw at each other in Cyrodiil, so the only way to make it work at all was to put it in the hands of the Mages and Fighters Guilds, who were the ones trying to make it work in the first place, but they were too worried about being accused of being biased if they did anything without unanimous approval from the alliances, which ended up being "well none of us are going to actually help you but that means you still get to be neutral because you're totally on your own but hey we hope you do great so we can get back to squabbling over the Ruby Throne."
Blarg. Maybe I'm being petty about this myself. I mean I don't think High King Emeric would appreciate hearing me say all this. But honestly, considering he was the first person to sign on when Vanus proposed this whole thing, he had the most to say about the "child queen" and the "barbarian" and how he fully expected both of them to go stabbing him in the back. It really wasn't his finest moment. I was actually fairly impressed with how relatively level-headed Queen Ayrenn was as she tried to keep the other two focused on Molag Bal's threat, but she too was quick to throw up her hands when things got heated. King Jorunn was obviously very prideful and had no trouble rising to the bait when the insults started flying. It's probably a miracle that we got anywhere at all with them, but I suppose it did help when Molag Bal's threat dropped right on top of them and they got a reminder of what's going to happen to everyone if we can't stop the Planemeld.
And so, we're actually doing this thing. That's the important part of what happened here today. We're going to Coldharbour, and we're going to kick Molag Bal's butt and save our world. Just as soon as Vanus has the portals ready, and our small but resilient team has everything together, it'll be go time. I'm trying to give myself a breather, now that I'm done babysitting royalty, but it's hard to really settle down knowing that we don't have much time before we put everything on the line.
At least I'll have Darien there. He ended up being here after all, representing the Fighters Guild along with Skordo and some other people I didn't know. It was a relief seeing him since I hadn't quite figured out how I was going to get word to him to ask him to come along. Somehow it makes the whole thing seem less daunting knowing he'll be with me. I'd been wondering if my feelings might have calmed down some since I haven't been around him, but as soon as I caught sight of him my heart did that jumpy thing again. So that answers that question. I'm going to keep everything professional, though. We've got bigger things to focus on right now. As long as he doesn't get too distracted looking for beautiful ladies in Coldharbour, we should be fine.
I have to talk to Darien. That was the thought that pressed on my mind as I made my way back to the Hollow City from the Cliffs of Failure. As emotionally taxing as my experience there had been, and as sure as I was about the decisions I had made and the actions I had taken, I knew that I wouldn't feel truly settled until I took that necessary next step.
Ever since our forces got scattered coming into Coldharbour, I'd been keeping an eye out for Darien as I searched the wasteland for survivors. I tried not to let myself get too worried about him, but the longer I went without finding him, the more I couldn't help wondering if he might not have made it through - especially when he wasn't with Skordo and the others from the Fighters Guild at the Tower of Lies.
And so when I made it back to the Hollow City with King Dynar, and the Groundskeeper mentioned that Darien was trying to keep things together in the new Fighters Guild headquarters, it was another rush of relief, one less thing to need to worry about. And as I continued braving Coldharbour's dangers to bring people to our home away from home, there was something reassuring about knowing that he'd be there when I got back, whether I got to see him in between missions or not.
This time, though, I knew I needed to make a point to see him. There was something I needed to tell him, something I needed him to understand.
I walked in on a scene that had become all too familiar in the days since the Fighters Guild had been reestablished, as a philosophical rivalry played out between Darien Gautier and an Altmer compatriot. As surprised as I'd been to hear Darien advocating for caution and restraint, I couldn't disagree that we needed to move carefully now that we were in enemy territory. Not so Valorone, who had found no shortage of ways to disagree as the group bided their time in their bastion.
I had pretty much stayed out of the whole thing during my visits to the Guild hall, although when I heard Valorone questioning Darien's sense of honor, I might have had a few pointed things to say to him if Darien hadn't beaten me to it.
Things were comparatively low-key at the moment. Everyone was seated, and voices were being kept to moderate levels as the noncombatants wearily tried to distract themselves from the ongoing debate.
"...I keep telling you, we're not abandoning our people to die," Darien was saying. "Haven't you seen them coming back to the city?"
"No thanks to you and your ilk," the Altmer retorted. "You've got us all sitting here on our fannies while we hope by the grace of Auriel that they somehow find their way here."
"We've got someone out there looking for them," Darien said. "Someone I trust a hell of a lot more to move quietly and get the job done without drawing attention, than I would a platoon of meatheads in heavy armor."
"You are including yourself in that assessment, I trust..."
"What was that?" Darien sounded like he was about to get agitated again, and he rose from his seat.
I took the opportunity to clear my throat. While the Altmer seemed somewhat annoyed to have his "discussion" interrupted, Darien perked up as soon as he saw me.
"Well if it isn't our hero in the flesh," he said gaily. "I don't suppose you'd like to regale us all with your latest rescue mission success stories?"
"Well, actually..." I said, glancing at the Altmer's scowl, "I was hoping to talk to you privately."
Darien raised an eyebrow. "Well then. I'll have to ask you gentlemen to excuse me. It's my policy never to turn down alone time with a lady."
"This isn't settled -" Valorone insisted, but Darien cut him off with a wave before escorting me into a side room.
With the door closed behind him, Darien leaned back and rubbed his temple. "Divines give me strength..."
"I see you've got everything under control here," I quipped.
He gave me a beleaguered look. "Do you know you have incredible timing?"
"I was just saying to myself, if a pretty girl didn't walk through the door right at that moment, I was going to pop that High Elf right in his smug little mouth."
My heart started beating a little faster, but I pretended not to notice.
"Well I guess it's lucky for everyone that I showed up when I did," I said. "The last thing we need is a brawl in the Fighters Guild."
He gave me a nod, but I got the feeling he wouldn't actually mind a good brawl.
"So what's up?" he asked, straightening up again. "Did you need me for something, or just knew I needed a rescue?"
"I wanted to talk to you about something, actually." I prepared myself for the inevitable shift in tone. "Do you remember Angof? The Gravesinger?"
Darien's smile vanished. "Of course I do. How could I forget that vile bastard? All of that corruption, all those people lost... And it's his fault Camlorn was almost destroyed. No, I couldn't forget him if I tried. In fact now that you've got me thinking about him again, I almost wish he was here so I could pop him in the mouth."
I suddenly had a hard time looking him in the eyes. I think he noticed.
"Why do you ask? What's got you thinking about him at a time like this?"
I took a deep breath. "I saw him. He's here, in Coldharbour."
His face brightened. "Really? Well why didn't you say so?" His hand started moving toward the hilt of his sword. "Lead the way, then. It's never too late for more payback."
I held up a hand. "Wait. That's not... that's not why I wanted to talk to you about him."
He looked at me expectantly, like he wasn't sure why I would try to talk him down.
Another deep breath. "He helped me. And... I helped him. There were some mages, being held prisoner. Being forced to play this game. And Angof was in the game too. They had to win, to get their freedom."
He seemed to be following along with my fragmented narrative. "And did you save them? The mages?"
"I did. Well... we did. That's where he helped. We were a team, really. So when we won, I had a chance to free them all."
"Okay... so you freed the mages..."
"...And I freed Angof too."
He grimaced. "I was really hoping that wasn't where this story was heading..."
"I know. That's why I needed to talk to you. I wanted you to know why I did it."
He sighed and crossed his arms. "Let me guess. You had to make a deal with him to get him to help you, and you decided it was worth it to rescue the mages."
"Well... no. Not exactly. I mean we do have a deal now, but that's about him helping against Molag Bal."
"Helping against Molag Bal? He's turning on his master? He's even more underhanded than I thought."
"He had reasons for it," I tried to explain. "Molag Bal turned him into a monster, and ever since he failed in Glenumbra, he's been trapped in that game being tormented with a prize he could never win. All he wanted was freedom, to be done with it."
"And you just gave it to him? You don't think eternal torment is exactly what that bastard deserves?"
I had to stop to think about how to respond. I had known that Darien wouldn't be happy about all of this, but I hadn't expected him to react so harshly.
He seemed to notice that I was taken aback by his vehemence, and his expression and voice softened a bit. "Look, Hero of the Covenant, you know how much I trust you. And I'll follow your lead just about anywhere. But it is possible to be too nice for your own good. Maybe you felt bad for him. But it's okay to enforce justice on people who deserve it. Even if they make puppy dog eyes at you and promise to be good from now on."
I saw what he was getting at, but he didn't need to be patronizing about it. "Darien..."
"I'm sorry. I should just let you explain yourself. You must have had a good reason, right?"
There was something hopeful about that last question, like he wanted to believe I wouldn't do something stupid without a meaningful justification.
I thought back to those decisive moments on the cliffs. "The way he talked, I could tell he was different. It was all about regret, mistakes he'd made, hating what he became. It wasn't just about his failure. I think he still believed in the reasons he had for attacking Glenumbra. It wasn't about that. But he knew he was a monster. He'd believed in Molag Bal's promises of power, and it turned out to be a curse. Even still being around after I killed him, not really being able to die as long as he's here, he hated having to be that way. I think he would have been just as happy to die, to be able to end it all."
"You could have done that for him too," Darien said quietly, and I caught his subtle point.
"I know. And maybe that would have been simpler, assuming that there was even a way for me to kill him in that form. It sounded like he needed to track down the source of the magic that made him what he is, and once he does, he might be able to go back to being human. If he can do that, he can decide whether to start over or simply allow himself to die."
"And you wanted to give him that chance?" he asked, somberly but not unkindly. "You thought he was worth taking that risk, even knowing what he's capable of?"
I returned his steady gaze. "I guess I wanted to believe that there might be hope for someone who wants so badly to change, even if he's beyond holding out hope for himself. That... even the darkest heart doesn't have to stay that way if the light is allowed to reach it."
For a moment something seemed to be unexpectedly resonating within him. Then he looked at me, and the grin came back to his face. "You know, that was almost poetic. I never knew you had such a way with words."
I felt suddenly self-conscious as I realized how cheesy I must have sounded, getting all carried away like that. But he seemed to have appreciated my sentiment, and his joshing tone told me that things just might be all right.
"So... can you be okay with it?" I asked, needing to be sure. "Can you understand why I did it, and be okay with him being part of our team?"
"I can't say I'm happy. But if you thought that was the right decision to make, I'll trust your judgment. If he stabs you in the back, though, my sword's gonna be the first thing he feels."
I nodded, and the tension I'd been holding onto began to fade, giving way to the reassurance I always felt knowing Darien was on my side. I hadn't blown it by doing something he couldn't accept. He understood, and things would be okay.
He seemed to be already putting the matter behind him, in fact. "So then, if that's all you needed from me, I don't suppose you'd like to go share your way with words with that insufferable Elf? He could use some enlightening too, if you catch my drift."
I shook my head and smiled, and waited for him to open the door for me. "I'll see what I can do."
I spared another enemy today. I don't know if Darien would have said I was too nice again. Maybe he would have, given our experiences in Rivenspire. Although ironically, it was our experiences in Rivenspire that made me decide to spare them.
Vanus certainly wasn't happy that I didn't go along with his plan to deal with the vampires in our way by turning their brains into mush. He had his ritual all planned out, and all I had to do was grab some blood and mark some lairs and we'd be on our way.
And then this lady started calling to me, imploring me to spare her "children" and saying that Molag Bal was their enemy too. So that was something I needed to think about, and in the end I decided to believe that the vampires could help us in our mission against the Dark Lord - but more than that, that they deserved a chance to retain their humanity. Such as it was.
The vampire matron thanked me for freeing her children from Molag Bal's enslavement, and for being willing to see them as something more than monsters. My first thought, honestly, was that she should be thanking Verandis Ravenwatch. He was the one who showed me that vampires can be honorable and humane. And I was putting my faith in his example, believing that others could choose to walk an honorable path too.
Unfortunately, the vampires didn't seem to know anything about Verandis or the Lightless Remnant. I'm still hoping that as we continue to push toward Molag Bal's sanctum we might come across some sign of him. If we do, I'm entirely ready to bust him out of whatever prison he's trapped in. I just hope he's holding up, wherever he is.
And so it's all come to this. All the challenges we've overcome, all the people we've lost, the new friends we've made, everything has brought us to this moment.
The Endless Stair looms ahead of us, and beyond it the Labyrinth that guards the inner workings of Molag Bal's Planemeld. That is where our quest will meet its end, whether in the salvation of everything we hold dear, or in the cold fires of destruction and death.
The people gathered here at the Citadel are all we have left. There are more than I might have expected, mostly thanks to the reinforcements sent by our new allies. They all seem to know how grave the situation is. But even if any or all of them might not come back, we can do nothing less than press forward with all the courage and determination we can muster.
The first task is one that only I can accomplish, of course. Yet another portal to be closed so that the rest of our forces can make it to the battlefront. I can only take one of my companions with me. Cadwell and Skordo both volunteered, but I knew who I needed to take. I need to have Darien with me right now. He was happy to join my vanguard, but I wonder if he knows just how much it means to have him by my side. If we're going to live out his dreams, then I want to see them through with him. And if I have anything to do with it, I'll do everything I can to make sure it's a good ending.
It looks like King Dynar is about to give the signal to move. This is it. One final assault, and then this will all be over. Maybe then, once the fate of the entire world isn't hanging in the balance, maybe then I'll be able to talk to him. Maybe I'll know what to say when there isn't so much else on our minds. Maybe...
Maybe I should stop thinking about it for now. I don't need one more thing to be nervous about, right? One thing at a time. We'll just go save the world, and then... and then we'll see.
I've finally bid Summerset farewell. Once I felt like I had done about all the good I could do there, and it seemed like I was a little more ready to take on the rest of the world, I booked passage to the Gold Coast and sent a message to Alinor Palace to let Razum-dar know I was leaving. I maybe should have made more of an effort to see him in person, but considering that he probably hasn't been hanging around there all this time since the Sapiarchs meeting, I decided that it would be best to just send my regards and head out.
It was kind of a strange feeling, looking back at the brightness of that island to which I've become so accustomed, watching the trees and white stone buildings and even a far-off glimpse of the Crystal Tower receding as the ship moved further and further away. So much had happened since I first laid eyes on those shining shores. I had to remind myself that I wasn't leaving Darien behind. I was moving forward, on to wherever the next stage of my journey would lead me, just as I felt he would want me to.
When I arrived in Anvil I went straightaway to the Mages Guild. Just as I had feared, Gabrielle had long since departed to continue her research elsewhere. One of her acquaintances thought she might have headed toward Daggerfall, and thankfully it didn't take me long to find a boat at the docks that made regular runs back and forth to Glenumbra. Unfortunately she wasn't in the Mages Guild hall there either, and she hadn't let anyone know where she was going when she had last left. And so, there wasn't much for me to do but leave a message for her with the magister to try to let her know I wanted to see her.
Of course, it would have been easier if I could have let her know where she'd be able to find me once she got the message. The news I had for her was definitely something I needed to tell her in person. But the idea of sitting around in Daggerfall until she showed back up wasn't terribly appealing to me. I honestly wasn't sure I felt that great about being back in Covenant lands at all. And so it didn't take long for me to start getting squirmy.
I was ambling back toward the docks, wondering what my next move should be, when an Imperial woman near the wayshrine called out to me. She asked if I'd like to do something worthwhile, almost as if she could tell that I was searching for some kind of purpose.
The purpose she had in mind had to do with collecting Argonian antiquities and returning them to their rightful places in Black Marsh. It seemed... kind of mundane, especially after the world-shaking plots I've recently been involved in. But maybe that was just what I needed. Something a little less serious, a little more manageable, with a little less at stake. I accepted her proposal and headed off to find some intel on her rival in the antiquities trade.
It had been quite a while since I frequented the outlaw refuge there in Daggerfall, but the place was just as familiar to me as ever. I was greeted by the dank smell of the water dripping down the moss-covered walls, bringing to mind memories of a much less worldly me breathlessly slipping beneath the sewer grate with a pack full of not-quite-clean goods.
There were some new faces calling the place home, and some of them knew quite a bit about the antiquities market and its movers and shakers. Which was good, because it turned out that the relic this particular unscrupulous broker was after had a pretty nasty curse attached to it. Longish story short, the trifling-sounding enterprise that started with me running procurement errands for informants and smugglers culminated in a race for a golden skull that could supposedly eradicate Murkmire and everyone in it if a vengeful sorcerer's curse was activated.
At least that's how the legend went. Not a whole lot seemed to come of it, considering that the guy was in the process of performing some kind of ritual with the skull when I found him. And aside from consuming him when I interrupted the proceedings, nothing really bad seemed to happen. But maybe that's just because I was able to intervene before things got to crisis levels. I dunno.
But with the relic in hand, and Murkmire apparently saved, our attentions turned back to the more mundane operations of Cyrodiilic Collections. The Mercius sisters and their Argonian associate, Jee-Lar, had quite a lot of busy work to be done as they prepared to launch their Murkmire expeditions in earnest, and so I made myself useful.
And then, once I felt like I'd supplied enough mammoth meat and bug-repellent candles to last them a good long while, I set out myself for Murkmire. I wasn't entirely sure if the small boat that sailed out from Daggerfall would hold together long enough to make it all the way around the southern end of Tamriel, but eventually I found myself in the port town of Lilmoth, the first stop for those who plan to venture further into the marsh.
Based on my experiences in Shadowfen, and the fact that Black Marsh is literally a marsh, I wasn't terribly surprised at the swampiness that greeted me. I think, as I've become more acclimated to the environment here, that the choice of a light Altmer-style tunic and pants was probably a good one. I briefly considered an airy Bosmer skirt and top, which would certainly suit the muggy temperatures, but I'm pretty sure I would get eaten alive by bugs with so much skin exposed, and I'd lose my sandals as soon as I started slogging through the muck. So the more conservative outfit prevailed.
Concordia's sister Famia hailed me almost as soon as I got off the boat. I got the feeling it was a habit for her to try to drum up interest from pretty near anyone arriving in town. She could barely contain her enthusiasm for Argonian history and the little pieces of it that she and her intrepid team were pursuing. And she was thrilled when I agreed with very little cajoling to join her team, especially after she found out that I was the helper Concordia had described in her letters.
Before I rushed off to meet the team for their next expedition, though, I of course needed to get a bit more familiar with my new base of operations. And so I left Famia to her last-minute errands and took to wandering around Lilmoth.
Even here, in a long-established pocket of civilization, the swamp was as much an inhabitant as any Argonian. I gathered from my extracurricular reading that the sturdier stone structures in the town had been put in place by the Imperials who had once occupied parts of Black Marsh, but these had been supplemented by assemblages of wood and reeds and vines that bespoke the Argonians' laidback approach to permanence. Indeed, sometimes it seemed that the pathways I walked along were being called back into the swamp, and on more than one occasion I had to pull a boot out of the muck that had crept up on me while I was busy gazing up at the stilted buildings and wondering how they didn't collapse.
I wouldn't imagine that the bustling foot traffic helps the wear-and-tear situation. For what might be considered such a backwater corner of Tamriel, the place had an awful lot going on. Maybe that advertising Jee-Lar had me do paid off. But there were also a lot of people just going about business of their own, seemingly not affiliated with the Mercius sisters and their venture.
One of the first people I spotted, even before Famia reeled me in, was an Altmer man who was waiting for a business associate and was feeling kind of jittery for no discernable reason. It was later that I noticed the Argonian woman skulking nearby, whose response to my leading question confirmed that she was in the middle of a contract and didn't really need me distracting her or her quarry.
The Pact has a recruiting table set up at the edge of town. I stopped by just to see what they'd say, and they apparently had no interest in making polite conversation with someone from my alliance. I decided it wasn't worth arguing with the woman, or pointing out that I was technically (maybe? I guess?) something of a champion of her alliance too. I suppose it's not surprising that some random low-ranked army official might not have heard of me, but it also seems like they'd have better results if they didn't immediately write off anyone who isn't a Dunmer or Nord or Argonian. But hey, that's not my battle to fight.
On a happier note, I overheard what seemed to be, judging from the lady's response, a highly romantic marriage proposal. I wonder what Darien would have said if I told him his eyes reminded me of swamp algae?
Another man was having a less successful time wooing the object of his affections, being unfamiliar with the customs and body language of the homeland he had only recently come home to. I would have liked to know what the woman thought of her suitor, although his inability to discern that very thing was the root of his problem. So I suggested that he might eventually get through to her if he kept trying to express himself and understand her responses, and he seemed hopeful that he might one day win her love. I hope it won't set her up for unwanted annoyance...
Continuing my exploration of the town, I was climbing a ramshackle ramp toward what seemed to be a crafting area when I caught wind of one of the most peculiar noises I've ever heard. I'm still not really sure how to describe it. It sounded like... groaning? Wheezing? A sound you might hear emanating from a horker with really bad indigestion?
And then, as I was letting my ears lead me toward the source of this bizarre noise, a voice joined the fray. It was possibly even more croaky than the drone that had preceded it. It was then, just as I was realizing that this was supposed to qualify as music, that I caught sight of the Argonian man standing next to some kind of large curved multi-horned apparatus. Which he seemed to be massaging in a way, changing the pitch of the droning as he croaked out his song.
Have you ever found yourself transfixed by something that was in its very essence both off-putting and mesmerizing? That you knew should be driving you away, but still you found yourself strangely fascinated and unable to pull yourself away? Well that's how it was, as my mind tried to sort out what was even going on here.
And then, as if coalescing from some kind of swamp ooze, words came out of the buzzing morass: These feelings of despair, that I cannot forget...
A kind of pang broke through the drone-induced haze in my mind. Despair... that I cannot forget? Was that... what this song was...
The song continued, and the words just kept coming, accompanied by phrases that I assume must have been Jel.
Why do I cling to my troubled past?
Despair over lost ones, those I must avenge...
Hatred and sadness, a thirst for revenge...
They blind me from reaching the path ahead
And so I am lost to my dread...
If anyone happened to be walking by at that moment, they might have wondered why this Breton girl was standing there frozen and oblivious to anything but the rasping bard. I don't think I could have explained it to them. There wasn't time, as the words kept coming and coming, for coherent thoughts to pass through my mind. But there was a distinct feeling swirling within me, like mud being stirred up from the bottom of a stagnant pool. This man couldn't have known anything about the person standing there watching his performance, but he may as well have been singing directly to and about me - giving voice to inner doubts and regrets that now seemed so present and clear before me.
Did I really think I could leave my past behind? Did I really think I could distract myself from grief and anger by running off after some new frivolous adventure? Surely it wouldn't be that easy. Surely I must have known that.
But like a stream, the flow of words meandered toward a turning point.
I will become like the river below
I will clear the rubble of my hate and woe
I will release these dark thoughts that cloud my mind
I'll leave what has been behind...
The singer was a bird, learning to soar past the bonds of his past regrets. By looking up, and moving ahead, he was finding a new beginning. Wasn't that what I was trying to do?
For all that has begun... one day must end...
The clarity of the words receded into the mire of droning and wheezing, finally giving me a breath to ponder what I had just heard. It must have been a span of only two or three minutes, but it felt like an Elf's age since I'd stepped onto that platform.
A few moments of meandering later I found myself leaning against a rickety wooden railing, looking out over the placid waters of the inlet where the swamp met the sea. Off to one side the wooden walkways were peopled with fishermen and fighters training with spears, while the odd bantam guar scratched in the mud and a couple of crocodiles lurked patiently at the edge of the water. A ship, much larger than the one that had brought me to this place, rested further out in the bay.
There was a palpable serenity here, listening to the water rippling over the rocks and the peepers chirping in the grass. Under any other circumstances, it would have been easy to let myself be lulled into a sense of peace. But here I was, with those troubled feelings churning inside me, seeming so at odds with the tranquility of my surroundings.
I suppose I could have stayed there as long as it took to numb my uneasiness, or simply told myself to suck it up and stop moping over a silly song. But as feelings began to give way to thoughts, I knew that this wasn't something I could just bury or ignore. Not if it still ran so deep, that a simple song could send me reeling.
Become like the river below...
I took a deep breath. This was something I had thought about, both before and after I left Summerset. I could have just camped out on Artaeum, hounding Val and huffing and puffing all over the Dreaming Cave until that portal opened up again. Part of me wanted to devote everything I had to finding a way to get to Darien. But I had decided not to remain chained to that place and that desire. I had made the commitment to leave that place and venture to someplace new. I had already let the current carry me away from what was in the past. I just needed, it seemed, to reassure myself that this was an okay path to take. To quiet those doubts and regrets that hadn't receded quite as much as I might have thought.
When I resumed my wanderings through the town, it was with a much more introspective air. I barely registered the conversations and activities going on as I passed. I was simply moving through it all, through the midst of the mugginess and the buzzing and the abundance of life. But I felt, as I moved through it, that I was a part of it all now too. Even if my thoughts were drawn to a faraway place, to an island in another cosmos or a room filled with fading light, my here-and-now was this place and this time. This was my river to follow. And whether it was going to be about tagging along on an Imperial woman's scavenger hunt for Argonian trinkets or saving Murkmire from some unforeseen calamity, I would find a purpose here. I would make something of my time in this place. And I wouldn't let lingering mud and rubble drag me down.
What was it I had told myself on the ship sailing from the Alinor Docks? I wasn't leaving Darien behind. I could never leave him behind. If the opportunity came to do what my heart most wanted to do, then nothing would stand in my way. But in the meantime... yes, in the meantime I had this. I had Murkmire, and whatever it had in store for me. And I owed it to both of us to approach it with my eyes as clear as possible. The regrets and grief and anger would still be there. But I didn't need to let them cloud my mind. For now, as long as I couldn't do anything about them anyway, I could leave them where they were and look ahead.
It's bonding ritual season around here, apparently. That must be why there are proposals going on and people trying to get other people's attention. From what I've gathered there are actual ceremonies where couples, um, actually do the bonding that will produce that year's eggs. For some people it's more about being matched up with a high-quality sire or egg-bearer than consummating true love, and if matches are made between people of different tribes, they may not even know each other before the ceremony. That seems kind of weird to me, but I suppose it's practical.
For some, though, it is about love. Today I sort of inadvertently helped one such couple get together, after one of them had misplaced some items in the swamp and couldn't express her feelings until she got them back. Things got more complicated when she changed into a man, but then the beloved changed into a woman, so it all worked out in the end. I wonder if the Hist knew that these two were meant to be together, and made sure to change both of them so that they'd still be able to have children with each other. That's kind of a nice thought.
One thing I learned from them is that in Argonian culture, or at least in the tribe these two belong to, women are the ones who make the first move when they're interested in a prospective mate. And they do it by writing a poem and carving some sort of totem for their beloved.
So of course that got me thinking that maybe I should write a poem for Darien. I guess in all my various brushes with poetry I've never actually written any myself. I mean not that I'm going to ask him if I can lay his eggs, but maybe it would be a fun thing to think about. And honestly, from what I've seen of the Argonian style, it doesn't seem to be too rigorous, so I don't think I need to worry much about getting it wrong.
So, let's see...
I lead the way
Knowing you're close behind me
I stand behind you
Knowing your shield protects me
The flash of your sword
Shows my arrow where to strike true
The flash of your smile
Shows my heart where its home is
If my heart could be your home
If my smile could show you the way
Then I will smile for you
For as long as it takes, for you
Please let me bear your children
Okay no I'm not going that far with the Argonian style. But the rest of it isn't half bad, I think. Not too sappy, and I only teared up a little writing it. That's a good sign. Now I just need to figure out what I would carve for him. A lion, maybe? Yeah, like the one on his shield. Or a loaf of bread. That would be a lot easier, assuming he didn't immediately try to eat it. But I bet it's a deal where the more complicated it is, the more impressed the recipient would be. Of course it's not like I have any actual woodcarving skills beyond making bows and shields. Although, maybe...
Hum hum, something to think about. Maybe when I have more downtime that I'm not using to write silly poems.
Update: Attempt to carve a lion ended up looking more like a glob of mashed potatoes. Don't think he's that into potatoes. Also I almost cut my pinky off. Probably should have invested in an actual whittling knife. Miniature shield is coming along much more nicely. Considering options for getting a non-globby lion on the front. Not sure if using wood glue or paint invalidates the carving. Xukas would probably know.
Okay, that instrument. With the buzzing, and the wheezing? It's made with frogs. They put actual frogs in there. And they live in there, and they're happy, and they make happy croaky wheezy noises that somehow translate into music.
This place, man.
I know all this because I helped make one. Well, by helped make, I mean I went chasing after a bunch of different types of frogs so the guy who actually knew what he was doing could put them into the big horn thing and they could live there happily ever after making drony noises for Argonian bards.
Or whoever ends up using them. This particular frog team was destined to impress Captain Jimila and become the first in a wave of exports introducing the rest of Tamriel to the wonders of the vossa-satl. (That's what the instrument is called. I'm still not sure I'm saying it correctly.) If my new business partner's plans go well, we could be hearing the strains of the Argonian homeland far and wide before too long.
...Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing, I'll leave up to the tastes of the locals wherever these things end up. But Jimila seemed favorably inclined, and Nesh-Deeka had a point that Argonian travelers and emigres would find value in hearing the sounds of home in far-off places. So hopefully this will be a profitable venture for all involved.
And hopefully the frogs will survive the trip. I worked hard to catch those frogs. And I'm still trying to get the smell of toad musk out of my hair...
What a fun little snapshot from Murkmire! Also, awesome poem a couple posts back.
Yay, thanks. You can probably tell that the vossa-satl made quite an impression on me. (The thing with the bard song from the first Murkmire post actually happened when I was first exploring Lilmoth, too. I heard the crazy noise and then the first few words of the song and I was like "ummmmmm... yeah this seems relevant to my interests.")
And the poem legit made me cry. I guess that's one way to know you're doing it right.
So, it seems the river winding through Murkmire has come to its resting place. A place of respite, sheltered between cliff and xanmeer, laid on the rubble-strewn foundation of a sleeping civilization. I don't think I would have expected this to be where my adventures in Murkmire would lead me. But here we are, and something about it feels right.
I can feel pretty good about my contributions here, I think. The folks calling me Rootmender are certainly appreciative. And now that we're done with dream-walks and chases through the swamp, I can take a moment to ponder the deeper significance of what's happened here.
I can't really say if we saved Murkmire from some calamity. There's no way of knowing what Kassandra might have done if she'd succeeded in fully harnessing the power of the Remnant. But maybe this time it wasn't about stopping something bad from happening, but about helping something good to happen. Kassandra was an obstacle that had to be overcome, but she was also part of the process by which the Hist's dreams were fulfilled. How ironic would it be if the very Hist that denied her its voice knew the part she would play as she pursued the connection she longed for? Could that have been part of the plan all along?
The Hist that put itself to sleep within a glowing orb so long ago probably didn't have her in mind, considering that the souls dwelling alongside it weren't supposed to have to wait this long to be awakened. But maybe the Hist as a whole thought it was about time for the lost tribe to be found and set things in motion using the players currently at its disposal. One of whom just happened to be me, once again the catalyst, the ku-vastei who enables the needed change.
Was I really born for this, like the Sap-Speaker's spirit said? Has the river flowing through my life guided me to the places I needed to be, so that I could have the experiences that would best prepare me for a challenge like this? That seems to be what the Hist is all about, or at least that's the basis for the Argonians' faith in the Hist, even if I have a hard time believing that the Hist was paying attention when a little Breton girl was born in the middle of Glenumbra almost two decades ago.
And yet here I am, watching the results of my change-enabling unfold, hoping the Hist is happy with the decision I made. It's never a great feeling when I have to choose someone to give up their life, but I think things will work out here. I had a feeling that Xukas, as he is now, would be a good person for Murkmire to still have around, especially if the returning souls will need some guidance on this side of the roots. Was that the Hist whispering to me, or just my own intuition? Either way, it was probably a good feeling to have, as Xukas is now the leader of the reformed Root-Whisper tribe, and he will be there to welcome the reborn souls once they make their return. Including, we hope, Jaxsik-Orrn, whenever the Hist decides it's time for her to walk again as a hatchling.
I assume that's how it's going to work, anyway, that the souls will start making their appearances once eggs start getting laid and hatched. I suppose that'll be one of the primary jobs of the new residents of Root-Whisper Village. The fact that the village even has residents already is kind of amazing. Even before Xukas and I completed the ritual to restore the Hist tree, it had begun calling people from all over Murkmire to come and join the tribe. People who may or may not have had a home elsewhere have claimed a new home here, and they all seem determined to build it up into something they can be proud of. It may not be quite the same as the Root-Whisper tribe of old, but it will certainly be something interesting to observe as it evolves.
It does seem like a fitting symbol of the Argonian vision of change. What was passes away, and what will be comes to be. Even if the stone foundations are still there to be built upon, that which arises will not be a perfect copy of what came before. But whatever it turns out to be will have meaning, in whatever way it manifests.
It's an interesting lens through which to view my own life. My world was supposed to be a simple little town with a simple way of life. But because my pa wrenched his ankle, because I couldn't come up with an excuse to get out of riding a horse to Aldcroft, because I didn't think to take a different route through the moors, my life changed. And because my life changed, in the way it did, how many other things have happened? I became something I never could have imagined being. I met and affected so many people I never would have encountered. I saved the world from threats I never could have fathomed. And I came to know a man in a city I never would have visited. And all of those things affected me in turn, and helped me become the person I am today, the person who is still even now in the process of becoming the person I will be.
All that has begun one day must end. That's what the song said. That's why the Argonians don't bother building dwellings of stone anymore. Once you recognize that everything eventually crumbles and nothing is truly permanent, your focus is freed to turn to repair and rebuilding. You don't need to stress about something breaking, you simply patch it up. You don't need to be devastated when something is lost, you just create something new or accept that loss is part of the natural cycle of life.
Darien was never really mine. But even so, it was always inevitable that I'd lose him someday. We all pass on. We all fade away. The best I could ever hope for was to share some amount of my life with him. And if the time we've had was all the time we were ever going to get... no matter what, nothing will ever diminish what that time meant.
With all that said, I can't bring myself to just hand-wave away everything that happens as the will of Sithis, or the Hist, or whatever cosmic force we want to blame for the things we can't control. Maybe those forces do guide us to be where we need to be, and whisper to us in the form of gut feelings, but I also remember something else the Sap-Speaker told me - that as easy as it is to be carried along by the Hist in times of peace, it is in times of conflict that our choices truly matter. I might let myself take solace in thinking that some greater power is looking out for me, and the things I can't change were inevitable to begin with, but I'm still going to keep making the choices that seem right for me and the people I care about. Even if I have to blindly guess at what's going to turn out best half the time.
Maybe part of it is continuing to let myself be carried by the winds and waves of whatever currents want to move me around Tamriel. Not trying to build myself a stone foundation where I can plant myself, as if everything else in the world that matters will come to me. That's what being an adventurer is all about, isn't it? Going where things need doing, and never really knowing what's in store? So I guess I'll keep doing what I'm doing, and we'll see who needs a ku-vastei next.
The spoiler warning in the thread title is getting kind of unruly, and at some point I'm probably going to run out of space to add abbreviations. I'm considering replacing the whole thing with something like "Quest Spoilers through [most recent content covered]" since it'll include pretty much the whole game released up to that point. Thus far I've wanted to keep the order of content in the title so people know where to look or avoid based on what they don't want to be spoiled on.
So, for anybody who follows the thread or just happened to wander in here and see the last post, is the specificness of the spoiler warning beneficial? Does anybody who reads this thing care about quest spoilers? Would it be off-putting to potential new readers to feel like they need to play the whole game through, say, Elsweyr before they can look at the thread? Am I overthinking this entire thing?
How close... how close am I to him... he has to be here, and yet...
I knew it was her, even before Narilmor spoke her name. I knew it was Meridia, as soon as I heard the whispers, the reverent murmurs of the lady and her light, mechanically intoned by her obedient minions as we cut our way through them. The minions she enslaved here, stripped of their free will, as if immortality were a magnanimous reward for eternal mindless servitude.
Is that what you're trying to do to your Knight, Glister Witch? Does it gall you so much that he still has a will of his own? Should I rub it in your face, while I'm here, that he gave himself for me and not for you? Would that get you to finally stop ignoring the challenges ringing through your fruity-colored void?
She must be able to sense me here, can't she, treading once more in her domain. I've certainly been making enough of a ruckus since we took down her stalwart guardian. To think, all this, three thousand years of vigilance and the sinking of an entire city, all for a dumb chunk of stone. Although maybe I should be thanking that chunk of stone for leading me here, even though this whole thing was just supposed to be a favor for an old acquaintance I ran into back in Eastmarch.
I guess it's that river again, leading me where I need to be, right into the Colored damn Rooms. And yet being here, exactly where I've wanted to be ever since I first held that book in my trembling hands, it's still not enough. Every time I try to leap from this ledge, some invisible force holds me back. Does the Lady of Infinite Energies want to keep me from him that badly? It must be enjoyable watching me struggle, knowing how much power she still has to deny me.
But he's here, isn't he. He has to still be here. Do you know how close I am, Darien? Which speck of light are you? Can you hear me calling your name? Did you even know I could holler this loudly? I'm here, and you know I would smash every rock in this place until I found you. If only I could freaking move.
Dammit, I think Tharayya is coming to drag me away. I should tell her to just go without me, to leave me here until I've had my fill of shouting and peering and reaching toward what I can't have. But Quintus left her in rough shape, so I don't know if she'd be able to make it back to civilization on her own. Dammit, do I really have to turn away again, when I'm this agonizingly close?
I hope you can hear me, Darien. I hope you can feel the fire blazing inside me right now. I may not be able to come any closer to you, but I'm still not leaving you behind. If my tripping into the Colored Rooms can somehow let you know that, then maybe it was worth the trip.
Amazing, isn't it, how people can come out of the woodwork. Someone you didn't think you'd ever see again, and then all of a sudden there they are, and you find yourself having a conversation that you never could have been prepared for. And somehow, when you walk away again, the world has changed.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. I guess I should start with the letter. The woman who delivered it seemed nervous. What is it with couriers and being nervous? I suppose in her case it's understandable. It's not every day you're instructed to deliver a missive from Abnur Tharn.
Her spoken message, and the letter that accompanied it, summoned me to Daggerfall Castle to discuss a "matter of some urgency" that Tharn claimed could bring an end to the Three Banners War. An intriguing enough proposition, without even considering who it was sending it. And so I went.
I've been able to keep a low profile whenever I've gone back to Glenumbra, but the Knights of the Dragon certainly remembered the Hero of Daggerfall and were happy to greet me as I ascended to King Casimir's castle. I haven't quite decided how worried I still need to be about word of my presence reaching certain royal ears, but I did my best to shrug it off and focus on my errand. It did make me wonder, though, why the shrewd battlemage would choose such a public place to talk about something that he apparently wanted to keep discreet.
Inside, there was Abnur Tharn, talking to Tharayya about the stones he'd just bought from her. So that would explain who her patron was. And if he was that interested in them, then there must have been more to those dumb chunks of stone than I'd thought.
Tharn didn't bother with pleasantries. At all. Before I could even really process the fact that I was standing in front of him after all this time, he was off on his diatribe about how we needed to act on some vital information he'd gained that could completely change the future of Tamriel and bring the conflict between the alliances to a standstill. Those stones, two halves of a tablet called the Wrathstone, formed a map leading to some incredible weapon that Tharn believed would cow the alliance leaders into calling an end to their hostilities, if only we could pinpoint the right landmarks to put the map into context. And so if I would be so kind as to make myself useful, we really couldn't waste time muddling about when there was so much to be done and so much at stake.
I'm not quite sure what I expected from Tharn. The businesslike demeanor and focus on getting things done certainly shouldn't have surprised me. But it might have been nice to have some acknowledgment of our history, beyond a perfunctory "Vestige." Something beyond requests that sounded more like orders. Maybe even some sort of hint about what he's been up to since the end of the Planemeld.
I mean, did he think I'd forgotten that the last time I saw him, he was busily running off with the Amulet of Kings? Was he going to conveniently fail to mention what he had done with the key to our victory over Molag Bal? Was he just going to stand there, giving me that pompous, imperious look until I acquiesced to his request?
Yes, yes he was. I started to open my mouth, and then thought better of it as a guard walked past us. Glancing around, there were an awful lot of people here. Perhaps this wasn't the best place and time to be loudly demanding "WHERE IS THE AMULET OF KINGS?" And as if he could see the thought process going on in my mind, Tharn's face momentarily relaxed into a hint of a smug smile.
So it wasn't a miscalculation to be making his overtures to me in a public place. That crafty bastard knew exactly what he was doing. And he probably knew that regardless of how much it irked me, he was going to get exactly what he wanted.
I probably should have had more to say. I could have pointed out that giant horrible weapons are not the safest things to have out and about. I could have mentioned what happened the last time the alliance leaders came to the negotiating table with a major threat looming over their heads. I could have told him to go pick his own dang mushrooms. But at that point it was easier to just roll my eyes and say "fine" and take my leave before I got any more annoyed. The rest could be sorted out later.
And that, kids, is how there came to be dragons flying around Elsweyr. Because an artifact hunter dug up a couple of chunks of stone, and because Abnur Tharn hauled them to an old ruin, and because I was dragged along for all of it, there are dragons now. Because the great mastermind didn't want to hear it when I finally got around to saying "hey maybe this giant weapon thing isn't the greatest idea," and because he pressed on even when his scheming half-sister's minions showed up and it started looking like we weren't dealing with just some simple old weapon and the stealthy Khajiit and I were like "hey this really really doesn't seem like a good idea," we got dragons.
I mean I absolutely am not going to blame myself for any of this. Maybe I could have made a bigger stink about Tharn doing something potentially really stupid. But I wasn't going to be able to stop him, as determined as he was. He would have gone ahead by himself if he had to. Maybe it would have taken him longer, but Abnur Tharn is not someone who lets simple little things stand in his way when he thinks he's doing something for the good of the Empire.
And so now we get to be in damage control mode trying to deal with this mess we caused. Tharn was certain he could come up with something, but he made it clear that he didn't need me hanging around while he and Khamira talked strategy. Honestly that was fine with me. I suppose I could have found a room in Cormount and reacquainted myself with the Grahtwood jungle, but I just kind of didn't feel like being there anymore. So I told him he could find me back in Daggerfall whenever he was ready to need me again, and since he was apparently all portaled out, I scouted around until I found myself a Baandari caravan heading northwest.
I probably could have made better time on my own, but sitting in the back of a wagon just watching the scenery go by gave me plenty of time to cool off and think about things a little more rationally. Okay, so there are dragons in Elsweyr. It's not the end of the world just yet. Just another catastrophe to deal with, another job for a hero to take care of. Good thing I just happen to be available, right?
The courier was already waiting with my message when we pulled into Daggerfall. Tharn needed me in Elsweyr, she said. I was supposed to meet him in the city of Riverhold as soon as possible. It was time to go, again.
I wasn't about to ask my Khajiiti escorts to turn right around and go back, so I tried my luck at the docks. There didn't seem to be any navigators heading directly to Elsweyr, so the best I could do on short notice was a ship bound for the Gold Coast later that afternoon. That would at least get me within striking distance to hire a wagon or even ride the rest of the way.
With some time to kill while the crew made their final preparations, I wandered over to the market district. I could at least pretend to think about what supplies I might need for a crazy dragon-hunting mission. Do dragons have a favorite shiny trinket that we could use as bait? How big can you make a bear trap? Should I ask the weaponsmiths for some arrows that can take down a dragon?
I was momentarily distracted from my snarky musings by an unexpected yet familiar sound wafting from the marketplace. Right there at the edge of the square was an Argonian man massaging a vossa-satl, croaking and droning away. Captain Jimila must have made pretty good time on her distribution routes. The bard hadn't really attracted an audience, but nobody was covering their ears or fleeing in horror, so I guess we can call that business venture a success.
I was perusing a pile of scarves, wondering which color would provide the best camouflage against dragons flying overhead, when I got a strange sensation like I was being watched. Once the initial moment of awareness passed, I told myself to stay nonchalant and continued my inspection of the display. Then, very casually, I stepped toward the next stall and let my gaze wander around the marketplace.
It wasn't too hard to find the person who was triggering my danger sense. Across the square, a young man in a well-traveled traveling coat was looking straight at me, not even trying to be subtle about it. When he noticed me looking back at him, though, he flinched and turned away.
I wouldn't say he looked especially threatening, but... the more I looked at him, the more he seemed like somebody I should know. I found myself staring at him, trying to place where I'd seen him before. He was fairly tall, with sandy brown hair and the scruffy beginnings of a goatee. He was kind of scruffy in general, honestly, as if his appearance was an afterthought to whatever else he had on his mind. If you took away the scruff, though, and he were just a few years younger, then - wait... could he be...
He glanced back to see me still looking at him, and it seemed to embolden him. He took a step toward me, just as I began walking over to him, and then he paused and waited as I approached.
"I'm sorry you caught me staring at you, miss. I didn't mean to be rude," he began tentatively, still searching my face.
"Ian?" I interrupted him.
His expression immediately changed from uncertainty to hope. "Ilsabet... it's really you?"
The look of recognition on my face answered the question for him.
"Dammit, Ilsabet, finally!" he exclaimed, and I found myself suddenly wrapped in his arms, my face pressed against his chest.
It was a strange feeling, being embraced by one of my oldest friends, someone I didn't expect to ever see again. Maybe I should have been overjoyed to meet him, but to be pulled in so suddenly, to have my senses overcome by the unfamiliar smell filling my nostrils... it was more unsettling than anything else.
"I can't believe it..." he murmured. "You don't know how long I've been standing here just second-guessing myself, after all those false alarms... I finally found you..."
I realized that he was trembling, and my apprehension softened. This wasn't just some stranger. It was Ian. And if it meant this much to him to find me...
I let my arms make their way to the small of his back. "Don't tell me you've been standing around in Daggerfall all this time just hoping I'd drop by," I said, trying to lighten the mood.
"I wish it was that easy," he replied. "I'd have stood here forever if that was all it took."
"Well I'm here now, so you must have done something right."
His arms tightened around me. "Yeah. I guess so."
We spent several more moments standing there, and then he drew back and regarded me as if he were trying to take in all of my features. Being this close to him, I had to tilt my head to look him in the eyes. He was definitely taller than I remembered him being.
"Look at you," he said, as if he still couldn't quite believe his eyes. "You look all grown up."
"I kind of am," I said. "I guess that means you are too."
"For all the good it's done me." I got the sense that he was suddenly very aware of how unkempt he was. "I probably don't look like much of an adult right now..."
"Don't worry about it," I said indulgently. "I still figured out it was you, even with the scruff."
He smiled self-consciously, and then his eyes wandered. "I should have known as soon as I saw that braid." I felt his fingers brushing along the side of my temple. "You never did let your hair hang loose."
"It always got in the way," I pointed out.
"I know, I know. I just always thought you were - that it was prettier when you had it down."
It was my turn to feel a little bit self-conscious. I glanced around at the people milling about the square. Nobody seemed to really be paying attention to us, but...
"Hey, do you want to go sit and talk somewhere?" I asked. "If we're going to catch up, we should probably get comfortable."
"Yeah, sure. There's an inn where I've got a room, the Lion something, if I can remember how to get back to it..."
"Rosy Lion. It's just over this way," I said, starting off without even considering how easy it was for a newcomer to the city to get turned around.
He didn't say anything as we walked, but the way he was looking around at everything reminded me of how overwhelmed I'd felt when I first landed here. It made me smile, and I slowed down my pace to make it easier for him to keep up with me.
When we entered the inn, Ian immediately turned toward the stairs leading to the second-floor rooms. "Do you want to come up? We could have some privacy there."
My instinct led me to scan the common room. It wasn't terribly crowded at this midday hour.
"Looks like there's an open table back there," I said, pointing to a back corner that was thankfully vacant. "It shouldn't be too loud for us to hear each other."
As I made my way back to claim the table, a raucous Orcish voice called out "UNNNNNNDAUNTED!" I gave Mordra an acknowledging nod, and she hoisted a mug in my general direction before chugging down the rest of its contents.
I signaled to Urvie the server on the way by and made it over to the corner table. Taking the seat with my back against the wall, I'd be able to keep an eye on the room while Ian had a sense of seclusion.
"There's certainly a lot going on here," Ian observed, glancing over at the Undaunted table as he took his seat.
Urvie asked for our order once we were settled, and I requested a mug of ale. Ian regarded me for a moment before saying he'd have the same.
"You never liked to drink," Ian remarked as the server headed back to the bar.
"It's not so bad once you get used to it," I replied. "And ale isn't gonna knock anybody out in the middle of the day."
We both let our attention wander around the room while we waited for our drinks. When they arrived, I raised my mug a bit before taking a sip, and he followed suit.
"So... how is everyone back home?" I asked. "Are Ma and Pa... are they okay?"
His expression grew more sober. "They're about as well as they could be, far as I know. They took it awful hard when you went missing. But they kept on, best they could. I think the work made it easier not to think about you being gone."
I looked down and nodded. I'd always been afraid that my parents would have a hard time coping with my loss. "I hoped they would. Keep on, I mean. I didn't want them to be too broke up about it."
He looked like he kind of wanted to say something and then changed his mind. "It was a tough time in general, after you disappeared. When the time came for you to be getting back, and we didn't hear anything, and a few more days went by after that, we tried sending word out to the fellow who was supposed to be getting the horse. But it seemed like the messengers were having a hard time getting through for some reason, so we didn't hear much of anything back. And then that thing crashed out of the sky near Aldcroft, and all hell broke loose for a while. We even heard tell of werewolves in Camlorn, and strange monsters on the roads. We kept everything at bay around town, but it wasn't for a long while that we could go looking to see if we could find what happened to you."
"And were you able to find anything?"
"Well, it took some doing, but we managed to track down the horse, and found out who'd sold it to the folks that had it. And then we tracked that trader down, and the guy he'd gotten it from, and that got us to the bandits in the moors."
I raised my eyebrows. "Don't tell me you went after them..."
"Of course I did. Pa came with me. Your pa wanted to come too, but his foot still wasn't quite right. Your ma told him that if anything happened to him, she'd haunt him in his afterlife."
That sounded like Ma, all right. "So what happened?"
"Well they knew right away what girl we were talking about. I'll never forget the look on that smarmy bastard's face, telling us we were too late and you'd already been sold off. He said if I was in the market, to check back later and they might have some new stock."
I snorted. "That sounds about right."
He looked at me with concern. "They didn't hurt you, did they?"
"Naw, they just kept me around to do their grunt work for them," I reassured him. "Until they decided it was more profitable to sell me off, I guess."
"Good," he said, seeming relieved. "They got what was coming to them, anyway."
"You didn't try to fight them, did you?"
"Well - no. I wanted to, I wanted to kill them all. But Pa just paid his respects and steered me on out of there." He grinned, slightly deviously. "And then we went and found a Lion Guard camp and told them exactly where they could find the wretches who'd been waylaying people in the moors. And that was the last anyone ever saw of them."
I couldn't help smiling, imagining the louts being overrun by lawmen in their own camp, and impressed that Ian and his pa would pull off something so wily.
He seemed to appreciate my reaction. "I'm glad you enjoyed that story. After what they must have put you through..." He sighed, and his expression changed. "I wish I could say the rest of what happened after that was as successful. But after I went out on the road, it was one failure after another."
"You left home? When was that?"
"Soon as I could gather up what I needed and set out. Started with Camlorn, but the place was in shambles, so I made my way south. I reckon I've been everywhere there is to be in Glenumbra and Stormhaven. Even made it up to Rivenspire once."
"And nobody could tell you anything about me?" I asked, surprised that there'd been no trace of my having been to any of those places.
"Oh there were plenty of people who remembered you," he said. "But every time I found someone who thought they'd seen you, it was so long ago and they couldn't say where you might've gone since. I'd get a clue and then it'd lead to nothing. Seemed like I should just give up sometimes, but I couldn't just forget about you and go back home. I couldn't let you down like that."
I took a moment to let it all sink in. "So... you've been out there trying to find me, all this time?"
"Yeah. It's been... I don't even know how long. Years."
"What about your ranger training?"
"Jacob's taken that up. He's been a lot quieter since you disappeared. He told me once, he wished he wasn't so lazy back then. If he'd gone with you then maybe you would've come back."
"He shouldn't blame himself," I said.
"I know. That's what I told him. It wasn't his fault." He looked at me soberly. "I should have gone with you."
Something in his expression told me that this had been a serious regret for him.
"You were out with your pa that day, weren't you?"
"I didn't have to be. It wasn't even anything important. He could have done without me for a few days. But I didn't think about it, until it was too late. I should have looked after you better. I know you always wanted to prove you could do things on your own. But... I should have taken care of you better. The way I always wanted to."
I couldn't help feeling sympathetic, even though he was exactly right about my old tendencies. "You should know I wouldn't have wanted you to blame yourself," I said gently. "I know it's easy to feel that way, but I'd never want you to be consumed with guilt or anything like that. And your training, I know how much you always wanted to be a ranger like your pa, you didn't have to give that up just for my sake."
He nodded, and then he took a deep breath and his face slowly brightened. "It's okay. It's... better than okay now. We can go back home and I can get back to my training and we'll just pick right up where we left off. We've got some time yet, anyway, before Pa's ready to pack it up. I can just imagine how relieved Jacob will be, knowing he can relax and go back to goofing off or whatever he decides he wants to do. He'll be real happy to see you, everybody will be so happy to have you back..."
I just let him ramble on, as he grew more and more exuberant, not wanting to crush his dreams just yet. But reality needed to intrude sooner or later.
"Ian... I don't think that's how it's going to be."
"Hmm? What do you mean?"
"I mean us going back home together and it being just like it was. I don't think that's possible."
"Well... why not?"
"Things are different now. I'm different."
"That's obvious. I mean just look at you. That fancy armor, you look like a real fighter. I bet you could take out a whole pack of wolves. You could probably teach me a few things while we're out on patrol."
I just sat there, trying to fathom how I could explain to him how things were now, how I could break through this perfect illusion he seemed to have crafted for himself.
He noticed my reticence. "Is something wrong? Do you have things to take care of before we go? We don't have to be in a rush if you need to stay in Daggerfall a while longer."
"It's not just about Daggerfall," I said. "There's actually somewhere else I need to be."
He wasn't going to let me off the hook without some kind of explanation, was he. "Elsweyr. I'll be leaving as soon as the ship's ready to sail."
He looked like he wasn't sure if I was joking or not. "Elsweyr? With the catfolk? Why would you possibly want to go there?"
"There's... some trouble going on there that I've been asked to help with."
"Asked? By who? How is that more important than going home?"
I sighed. "It's important. It's something I have to do. People's lives are at stake."
He seemed unconvinced. "Well okay, but... can't someone else take care of it? I mean if it's that big a deal, what do they think you're going to be able to do about it?"
I didn't even know what to say. He really had no idea, how far the woman in front of him had come from the girl he used to know.
"I'll do what I can," I said firmly. "Just like I always do. And Divines willing it'll be enough."
I think my tone caught him off-guard, and he looked at me for a moment. "Then... let me come with you."
I shook my head. "I don't think you can..."
"Then what am I supposed to do? Do you really want me to just turn around and go back home, after I've finally found you? After all that, everything I've gone through to get you back, I'm supposed to just let you go again?"
There was a hint of desperation in his eyes, tinged with despair. Something about it resonated with me. But...
"I'm sorry, Ian. I know it's not what you want to hear. But things are the way they are. All I can do is be honest with you."
"Ilsabet..." he began, and then seemed to be trying to decide what to say. I waited for him to continue.
"There's something I need to tell you. Maybe you didn't realize it before... I didn't even realize it myself until after I lost you. But... I... I've always..."
I felt the blood drain from my face as I realized what he was trying to say. I knew that nervous look on his face, the struggle to find the right words. But... it wasn't going to be like it was for me. If he said what he meant to say, I wasn't going to be able to offer him the hope he was looking for.
He paused and looked at me expectantly.
I took a deep breath and looked down at my hands, clasped around my mug. "Before you go on, there's something you should know."
He followed the direction of my gaze, and then something seemed to occur to him. "Oh. Of course. I... should have made sure..."
"I'm not married," I said quickly, understanding why he was scrutinizing my fingers. "But... I'm not free either."
A moment of disappointment, which he did his best to cover up. "Of course. I should have guessed that you'd... you found someone."
I was kind of glad that he'd said it, so I didn't have to. "Yeah."
"And it's serious."
"I'd... say so, yeah."
"But he hasn't asked you yet."
"Well..." I had about a second to decide how much to try to explain to him. "It's complicated. He's... he can't be with me right now."
"He left you?"
"He... well no, not exactly..." This conversation definitely wasn't going to get any easier the longer it dragged out. "Look, I... I just want you to know before you say whatever you were going to say, that I... appreciate it, and I'm happy to see you again, but... if you're wanting me to come back home with you, it can't happen. For multiple reasons."
"Because you have to go to Elsweyr."
"Yes. And... because I can't... be what you might want me to be."
He was very quiet, studying his drink, and I wondered if I might have gone too far with my assumptions. Was I too harsh, when he hadn't even gotten to say what he'd wanted to say? What if it had nothing to do with feelings? Should I say something to try to smooth things over, or just let him -
"What kind of man is he?"
Ian was still very very interested in his drink, but there was a clear intent to the sudden question. Somehow I knew that I was going to have to choose my words very carefully.
"He's... a good man," I began. "He's someone I've always been able to trust. We've gone through a lot together, and... He's one of the most remarkable men I've ever known."
"Yes. Very strong. He's my... he's a knight."
"He's honorable, then? Loyal?"
"And he takes care of you?"
"We take care of each other."
As I watched him, I could sense a slow process of coming to terms taking place behind the studiously placid exterior.
"Does he make you happy?" he asked, finally meeting my eyes again.
My thoughts intuitively drifted back to those moments on Artaeum, what it felt like simply to be in his presence... "Yes."
I think Ian saw something of those memories flitting across my face, and he nodded. There was something somber about his expression, but it seemed that he'd settled something in his own mind. "What I want is for you to be happy, you know."
"Even if... even if it's not me who's doing it."
"I appreciate that."
"And I think... it's good that you told me. It's good for me to know how things are."
"I thought so. I just... don't want things to be awkward between us."
He seemed wryly amused by the thought. "Awful hard to get around that, with things being so different now. There's a lot we're gonna have to get used to."
It was an insightful observation. I really shouldn't have expected him to just instantaneously adapt to my new reality. He was probably as blindsided by a lot of this as I was.
"So you're definitely running off again?" he said, after we'd had a few moments to nurse our drinks.
"Yeah. Like I said, it's something I have to do. I should probably be getting down to the docks, actually. I'll be in trouble if they leave without me."
He nodded, but there was a sort of strained pensiveness in the way he was watching the last of his ale swirl around in his mug.
"I... would like you to do something for me."
His eyes locked on mine. "Tell me."
"Go back home. You can tell everyone you saw me, and I'm okay. If you think they'll want to know."
"Of course they will."
I nodded. "Good. Let them... let my parents know they don't have to worry about me."
"You're not going to come see them yourself?"
"I will. I promise, as soon as I can, I'll... I'll come visit. If you don't think it would be too much of a shock. I mean if everybody's already gotten used to the idea of me being gone..."
"We haven't," he said firmly.
"I know. I'm sorry."
"So is that all you want me to do?"
"No, actually." I took a deep breath. "I'm not sure I have any right to ask you this, but... what I'd like for you is to go back to living your life. Go and be a ranger like you always wanted. You'd be really good at it, you know. You shouldn't have to give that up to go chasing after me." He opened his mouth to object, but I kept talking before he could. "You found me. You did what you set out to do. And... when I do get back home, I want to see that you're happy and doing what you always wanted to do. And not still worrying about me and letting that hold you back."
He was quiet again. "You know I'm probably not going to stop worrying about you as long as you're out there doing something dangerous without me keeping an eye on you."
I smiled in spite of myself. How familiar did that feel... "I know. And... if you feel like sending me good thoughts, I'll make good use of them." He softened a bit, but wasn't quite up to returning my smile. "I have gotten pretty darn good at taking care of myself. So I should be okay."
He glanced over my armor, and the bow and greatsword leaning against the wall. "At least this time I'll know you're out there," he said. "I guess... if that's all I can ask for, it's at least something to hold onto."
We finished our drinks and settled up with Urvie, and then he saw me off to the docks. We didn't talk a whole lot more as we went, mostly just comments on what we saw as we passed by.
As we stood before the ship, though, watching the sailors preparing to depart, I think we both felt that things were still unresolved. At almost the exact same moment we turned to each other, and he seemed to be trying to take in everything about me one last time while he still had the chance.
"You know I've never forgotten you all, even though I decided to start over after my life changed," I told him. "I hope you can forgive me for finding another path, but you should know that you never stopped being important to me."
"I'm glad to hear that," he said. "And... I have to say, the last few years don't seem like such a big deal anymore. If that's what it took to get me standing around in Daggerfall at just the right time, I guess it was all worth it in the end."
"I guess so. Although I'm not sure I'd call it the end of the story just yet."
"Hmm. I guess that's true."
We stood there looking at each other, sharing small smiles. After a moment of hesitation, he leaned forward and kissed my forehead. It was gentle, but there was a sense of longing to it.
"I'll be waiting. Don't forget, you promised. We'll all be waiting for you to come see us again."
I nodded. "I won't forget. It might be a while though."
"Go do what you need to do. Just make sure you come home safe."
"And you'd better bring some good stories with you too. I want to hear about what you've been up to all this time."
I lingered as long as I could on the dock with him, until the bell rang and the captain called out her "All aboard!" Then one last hug, one last fare thee well, and I took my place on the ship's deck.
I waved to him from the rail as the ship took to the open sea, and I stayed there until he, and the docks, and the great city of Daggerfall faded from view.
And then I asked the boatswain to show me to my bunk, and once the door was closed behind him, I sat down on the bed and finally let myself cry.