Leave it to Narsis Dren to show me a lighter side of something I've been angsting over. Not that Dren had any clue what was going on, preoccupied as he was (always is?) with his ongoing conquest of historical treasures. And it wasn't really even him who got me thinking. But I'll appreciate the inspiration for what it was.
The adventure with Dren was pretty much what you would expect, rescuing him from trapped rooms and helping him work out puzzles as he salivated over ancient ancestral discoveries. I miiiiiight have pushed a few extra buttons on the wall to unlock one particular door even though I knew right away which one it was, but that was only a little bit mean. And I resisted the urge to shove him into a well after he got all pouty about the tomb not being sufficiently treasure-laden. We'll see if he puts my name in the book this time, but somehow I doubt it.
Bookending the experience were some conversations with Elfbetta, the pretty and pert Nord assistant who enlisted me to go check on her employer in the tomb. She could barely contain her adoration for the brave adventurer, and she made it very clear that I was not to make any moves on her man while I was in there. I of course never had any intention of getting handsy with Dren, but for the sake of decorum I decided against pointing out that snobby self-aggrandizing glory hounds aren't really my type.
While Elfbetta dreamed of becoming Mrs. Dren, Mr. Dren was... substantially less taken with his assistant. In fact I had to remind him who she was, and even then his first thought was to downplay her role in finding the dusty scroll that had led him to this tomb. I can't say I was really surprised, especially as our subsequent jaunt reminded me that all Dren really cares about is himself - and his treasure.
But there was Elfbetta, watching her man speed from tomb to tomb, arranging his mage portals, serving him wine and snacks, while he paid as little attention to her as possible. While she marked her territory and fended off fangirls and planned out her ritual of Mara ceremony, he barely knew she was there. It was kind of comical to watch, especially when you knew she was never going to get what she really wanted.
The thing about it is, though - she seemed pretty happy. She was getting to be the companion of the man she idolized, and got to do things with him that nobody else could do. Having wine with him and giving him backrubs and deciphering his handwriting made her feel connected to him in a satisfying way. And I've seen cases where people delude themselves into thinking that an unhealthy one-sided "relationship" was something more than it was, but maybe sometimes it really just is enough to be with the person you love, even if that love isn't overtly returned. Or, in this case, acknowledged at all.
I'm probably reading way more into their silly affair than is really warranted, but that's just the state of mind I'm in right now after everything I've had on my mind. I still feel quite a bit of trepidation about seeing Darien again. But there's a lot about that situation that there's no way to prepare for, that's going to be strange and scary and exciting and unexpected. But if nothing else, by now I should be a pro at handling unexpected situations, right? Just like going into a dungeon and not knowing what kind of beastie is going to jump out at me. I'll just take it as it comes, and do what feels right at that time. Maybe it won't be a perfect love story. But... maybe whatever it turns out to be will be enough.
(But I'm still probably going to be pretty nervous.)
It's really happening. What the Prophet told me, about Daedric conspiracies and the Clockwork City. Is this what the beginning of war feels like?
The mystery of Vivec's waning powers seemed fairly straightforward once I found the Ashlander using one of Sotha Sil's old inventions to drain the Living God's energy to power his bid to become the Nerevarine. But it seems he was merely a pawn in a bigger game, a tool who thought he was furthering his own ends but was merely taking on some of the grunt work for the real mastermind.
I can't say I've ever matched wits with a dog before. Unless werewolves count. I do, however, vaguely remember encountering this particular dog before. Somewhere in Reaper's March, maybe? He seemed pretty sketchy, and not just because he was talking to me. But I don't think I would have expected him to be capable of something like this.
It was Barbas, the hound servant of Clavicus Vile, who was really pulling the strings here. He had even taken the place of the recently deceased (of natural causes, he claimed) Archcanon Tarvus. The energy stolen from Vivec was not meant to help some Ashlander become the Nerevarine, but to locate and break into Sotha Sil's hidden city - a gift to the hound's master.
I was lucky to have one of Sotha Sil's disciples there to aid me as I tried to stop the unfurling plot. I knew little or nothing about the Clockwork City other than that it existed. But apparently it is of great interest to certain Daedric Princes, and breaking into it would grant them some kind of power to majorly mess up Nirn. I'm still fuzzy on the details, but that's probably even an understatement. Suffice it to say, it was incredibly important that we prevent the Princes from finding their way into the city.
We couldn't prevent Barbas from getting past Sotha Sil's mystical wards, unfortunately. He taunted us as we pursued him through the city's vaults and made our way to the reservoir where Vivec's siphoned energy was contained. We had hoped to beat him there, but the best we could do was catch up to him as he was trying to activate a portal to Oblivion big enough for his master to come through.
He was prepared for me to challenge him. With Vivec's stolen divine powers at his disposal it was not an easy task to subdue him. But I was not about to let him have his way. Once I had defeated him, I retrieved both the magical device and the store of divine energy that it had drained. The dog was banished back to Oblivion, and the immediate threat to the City was quelled.
Clavicus Vile was not pleased with me. But it seemed that this was only a temporary setback for his far-reaching plans, which after all Barbas had merely sought to speed along via his independent actions. He knew where the Clockwork City was located now, which was enough. He and his associates, he said, had been caused some trouble, but I had only delayed the inevitable.
And so now the threat lingers, and I know something more of the conspiracy that the Prophet foresaw leading to outright war.
I wish I could remember what he said about those involved in the conspiracy. Something about deception... darkness, maybe? I have an unfortunate feeling that I won't know until the next plot comes to light.
I guess that means I'll have to expect more plots, then. Even with Vivec restored, even with Vvardenfell safe and sound, I can't rest easy. Not until Vile and his partners are stopped. Maybe this is what Azura sensed when she summoned me to be her champion. She was certainly willing to offer assistance in aiding Vivec if it meant thwarting Barbas and Vile. If the trickster and his pals are the ones Azura was worried about, then she might have a stake in what happens when I have to face them again.
But what to do in the meantime? Just wait around for the next crisis? Wait for another letter to come that may or may not lead me in the direction where I'll be most needed? I've already visited Barilzar's tower again, hoping that Sotha Sil's disciple could offer some insight into what can be done for the City, but he seemed to be holed up in the inaccessible bowels of his laboratory tinkering with Vivec's present. Vivec himself tried to assuage my concerns when I went to speak to him, apparently not wanting me to be troubled until there's something to actually do. But I'm not sure how much longer I can just kill time wandering around Vvardenfell looking for people I haven't already helped. I'll have to think about taking action myself. So, what to do...
I decided to head back to Mournhold to see Almalexia. As the only other member of the Tribunal I've met, I figured she might have something to say about the threat to her counterpart and his stronghold. But she simply commented on how the Daedric Princes aren't supposed to meddle in our affairs, and brushed off my interest in continuing to help. So either she doesn't think it's that much of a problem, or she figures it's something for the likes of gods to handle and not a mere mortal. Either way I didn't get anything useful out of her.
While I was there I also ran around the Temple to see if I could find my way back to wherever the miniature City was housed. At the time I thought it was a good sign that I wasn't able to find it, and I hoped that Almalexia's security detail and whatever wards Sotha Sil still had in place would keep intruders from forcing their way in even if the secrecy of the location had been compromised. (How little I knew then...)
With nothing to really show for my trip to Mournhold, I took to wandering around the city, and in the Mages Guild I spied a missive that someone had left lying on a table. It was addressed to the Archmage in Eyevea, and as it happened the young mage who had written it was standing nearby. Unfortunately, I didn't get the chance to talk to him about it, since almost as soon as I approached him his shadow rose up and killed him. Not a great start to a mission, but at least now I had something I knew was worth looking into.
The unfortunate mage's friend, Bonafryd, urged me to warn the other Order of the Eye initiates who were investigating a certain Daedric artifact. This wasn't the first mysterious shadow murder, apparently, but she was hoping it would be the last.
Well, it wasn't the last. At least a couple of people were kept out of harm's way, though, and my efforts caught the attention of a woman from the Psijic Order, a reclusive group of intellectuals that I'd been only vaguely aware of. Lilatha was interested in that same artifact, and enlisted my help to try scrying on the thing to find out more about it. With not much to lose, I decided to help her, knowing I'd have to keep my wits about me if she turned out to be sketchy.
When Bonafryd unexpectedly showed up wanting to accompany me to meet with the Psijic, my intuition told me to leave her behind. I can't say that I distrusted her, really, but I didn't see a reason to bring a bumbling (even if she had been well-intentioned) mage along with me when my contact had instructed me to come alone. Of course there was always the possibility that it was a trap, but after everything I've been through, I had no reason to think I couldn't handle it myself if things went haywire.
Of course, it turned out that Bonafryd was not well-intentioned. She managed to follow me to the gloomy island where Lilatha was preparing for the scrying attempt, and pulled the same shadow-manipulation thing on the Psijic that she had apparently used to murder her colleagues. And when I proved a match for Lilatha's shadow, Bonafryd turned on me herself.
I didn't have an issue taking her down, even though she displayed much more raw power than would be expected from an inept mage initiate. But she said some things during the encounter that got me thinking - especially after Lilatha pointed out that it seemed like unusual power had been given to her, possibly by an agent of Oblivion. Bonafryd said something about not letting down her mistress... perhaps one of the Princes? But why would a Prince invest so much in a person who was so inconsequential on her own?
When we finally got the scrying apparatus working, we began getting some clues. There was an image of one of those mechanical lizard-looking things that I remember dealing with in the Halls of Fabrication, back on Vvardenfell. And a kind of primal-looking woman, and then a very familiar-looking small globe made of gears and wires. The artifact, it seems, is located within the Clockwork City. And if Bonafryd's mistress had her on the hunt for an artifact with ties to the Clockwork City, then it's very possible that we're dealing with an associate of Clavicus Vile.
Of course, that could all be wild speculation on my part, as focused as I was on following up on Vile's plot. I didn't mention my suspicions to Lilatha. She claimed to be a friend to Sotha Sil, but I couldn't be sure how much she knew about what had happened to Vivec. Fortunately she saw the importance of dealing with any threat to the City, and she tasked me with following up on it while she reported to a higher-up in her organization.
And so then it was back to Mournhold, back to the Tribunal Temple, to find Divayth Fyr already waiting for me to accompany him into Sotha Sil's city. The assistance I rendered to him back on Vvardenfell apparently was enough to convince him of my usefulness as a lackey, and so off we went to find the super-secret entrance to Sotha Sil's carefully concealed masterwork.
...Which was hidden in a cave underneath a waterfall out back of the Tribunal Temple. I mean it's exactly the sort of place where I'd go nosing around looking for a treasure chest or something. Apparently it's usually actually inaccessible, but recently for some reason (perhaps having to do with a canine infiltrator?) people have actually been able to get into it. Which... does not say much for Almalexia's security forces or Sotha Sil's wards.
But anyway. The ruined underground Dwarven city we came upon was quite the sight to see, and I learned a bit more about the history of the Tribunal along the way. (The story of Indoril Nerevar was particularly interesting, and puts that whole Nerevarine thing into an intriguing kind of perspective...) The path didn't really look familiar until we came upon that unforgettable whirring sphere. I think Fyr expected me to be more surprised to see the tiny clockwork globe, and I didn't have the gumption to tell him I'd been there before.
Where the whirring sphere spit us out was apparently not where Fyr expected us to end up. It didn't look that different from the areas that Barilzar and I had traversed, but it was definitely a bad sign that we had been diverted - especially when Fyr's own shadow was ripped away from him. I got to relive the experience of Fyr shouting at me to deal with the mechanical men coming at us, and fortunately he got to reunite with his shadow once I had defeated it. And then, with not much more to go on in terms of knowing who was working against us, we made our way out of the bowels of the City toward the center of its civilization, the Brass Fortress.
I don't think I was quite prepared for what I would see when we stepped out of the Pneumatic Forge. The areas I had been to with Barilzar and Fyr, and the Halls of Fabrication themselves (which, I had to remind myself, Fyr had described as kind of an intersection with the Clockwork City), were all corridors and darkened chambers and tarnished brass. Something Dwemerish, but not quite. The expanse of what I came to know as the Radius was a vast open space by comparison, with the ever-present clockwork dome providing a reminder that this was all an artificer's world.
Not that anyone could possibly mistake this realm for anything natural. If everything in Stonefalls was on fire, everything here has a metallic glint - from the "trees" and "rocks" to the "wildlife." I can't even use those terms without qualifying them as artificial.
I think that was what caught my focus most as we made our way toward the Brass Fortress. In a more familiar-feeling kind of new place, I would be eager to explore every nook and cranny I passed by, without feeling much compunction. This time, especially with Fyr with me, I didn't feel much of an urge to stray far from the main path. It just felt... safer to stay where I was supposed to be, and truthfully I felt better having him there as an escort. He didn't chide me for spending the entire trip gawking, although he did clear his throat a few times when my curiosity pulled me toward the wrong direction.
When we finally made it to the Fortress, I was introduced to the bureaucracy that seems to be as ubiquitous here as the sound of clanking and the pools of oil that I still can't bring myself to run through without doing my best to hop across them with as little actual contact as possible. (I mean seriously, I've dealt with some gross stuff, and I'll swim through just about anything, but this stuff is grooooossss.) Apparently if you're not an official citizen here, you can't do much of anything, unless you're a super important friend of Seht's like Fyr is. And even he isn't exactly appreciated by the local constabulary. But the Apostles are willing to give outsiders a pass if we can get sponsorship from a ranking citizen, which fortunately our little band was able to do after taking care of some detective work for one of the council Provosts.
Oh right, I should also mention that aside from the bureaucracy and the cranky Apostle Proctor who greeted us at the Fortress gate, none other than Neramo and the Vanos siblings were hanging around there after having wandered on into the impenetrable Clockwork sanctum. Along with a few other members of the wave of new arrivals that have hit the City recently and are threatening to overload the place's resources.
And to think I was so worried about people being able to find this place and force their way in. Sigh.
But too late to do anything about that now. Fyr is still on the hunt for that artifact that started this whole endeavor, and on top of that he's noticed some weirdness going on with his old friend Sil. So the next task for this newly-minted Clockwork citizen is to see if I can find out what's going on with that. And we'll see how far into Oblivion the rabbit hole goes.
Today I met a woman who's spent decades living with regret over something she did to save the man she loved. She was a Clockwork Apostle who had done extensive research into the interplay between souls and machines, drawing disapproval from her peers and superiors. When her lover was struck by a near-fatal accident, she did the only thing she could think of to preserve him - she used a soul gem to transfer his soul into a metal body.
The factotum that Bolin became was nothing like the man he had been. His vibrant soul couldn't accept being trapped in a cold metal cage. It rebelled against its new reality, sending the machine out into the Radius in a frenzy, lashing out indiscriminately at anyone who approached it.
When the exiled Terari joined Bolin in the wilderness, she was the only person who had a chance of reaching Bolin's troubled soul. At times, she said, she was able to calm him down, but she had never really connected with him the way they had before. All she could do was stay near him, and she'd had lots and lots of time to think about how her attempt to hold on to her lover had forced him into this tortured existence.
I can see exactly how a person could resort to such an act of desperation in a moment of crisis when a beloved life is on the line. How many times has my mind replayed that critical moment in Coldharbour, grasping for anything that could have possibly pulled Darien out of that flash of light, even knowing that even if I hit on the perfect solution it was far too late for it to matter? Terari had the solution in her hands, and she couldn't let the chance slip away. But it was an experimental solution, and the results of the experiment were disastrous. And now, even if all she wanted was to put Bolin out of his misery so that he could rest, the metal body she had given him was too strong to simply be put down.
And of course that's where I came into the picture. Well, me, and a Proctor named Sovor who had decided that a metal body was the perfect alternative to the aging flesh he was currently inhabiting. He had been among those who disavowed Terari for her research, but as mortality loomed he had seen the error of his order's ways. And so with my help he set out to convince Terari to use her methods to transfer his soul into a factotum.
While Terari was reluctant to get involved in the scheme, she saw an opportunity to right her old wrong. I was able to draw Bolin's soul out of its cage and into a soul gem, and then Terari managed to swap Bolin's soul with Sovor's - leaving the Proctor in the ageless metal frame he coveted, and Bolin in a fragile mortal shell that had only moments left in this world.
It was, in a tragic way, the greatest gift Terari could give to the man she still loved. For at least a few moments he was able to experience warmth, and softness, and full awareness of the smile of the woman he still loved. And then, he was able to rest.
I had some trouble holding back tears of my own as I watched their reunion, finally coming together after all those years of being nearby but never truly close. I reassured Terari that she had done the right thing, and she seemed to be allowing some of that burden of regret to ease.
What it must be like, going from wanting more than anything to keep someone alive, to wanting more than anything to allow them to die. I can tell that's going to be my food for thought for quite some time.
For his part, Sovor seems absolutely delighted with his new body. His consciousness, unlike Bolin's, values the durability and cold precision of the mechanical ideal. Not all of his contemporaries in the Brass Fortress seem as enthused about the whole soul-swapping thing, but Sovor seems to be doing his best to convince them to give Terari another chance. Whether she's willing to take the chance remains to be seen. But as painful as it was for her to watch her loved one's suffering and passing, hopefully she can find some peace of mind knowing her work can also be used to bring others happiness and longevity. And I hope the weight on her heart will grow lighter after all these years, knowing that he's finally at peace.
Does it make me weird that I'm feeling bad about a crow right now? I mean I've been kind of not taking these guys seriously, but after all of that absurdity... an ally has fallen, and after everything we've been through together it actually makes me feel sad for him.
I may not have ever mentioned the Blackfeather Court, but I remember them quite vividly from one of my first adventures in the Pact after I reached Stonefalls. They're an actual murder of crows (an apt name) who ruled (at least in their own minds) a small pocket of Evergloam. I paid their toll of flesh, and listened to their grand proclamations, and they made me an honorary vassal before I went on to sort out the affair of the hagraven and the Dunmer mage who wanted to welch out of a bargain.
A trail of actual black feathers led to the discovery that the Court has now infiltrated the Clockwork City, but it's a fairly complicated matter. You see, that Daedric artifact everyone was clamoring over turned out to be the Skeleton Key of Nocturnal, and Evergloam is Nocturnal's realm - which meant that the crows were among her minions. At least they were, until the Blackfeathers decided they didn't feel like serving her anymore. Or something like that. They knew about the key, though, having succeeded in filching it from the Apostles, and so I had to curry favor with them to get information and try to track it down. And I had no idea what I was in for.
At first it involved procuring shiny things for them. But then, as I set out to convince one Knight of Marrow to escort me to see the Duke of Crows, he demanded that I help him obtain his heart's desire - the long-denied love of one Lady Blightwing.
Did I mention that these are all crows? And here I was, with perhaps the fate of Nirn on the line, playing matchmaker for crows?
The Knight decided, after having all of his advances rejected by the cruel Lady, to resort to the kind of tactics that the featherless meatbags use to woo mates. And so I, romance expert that I am, ventured into the storehouse of words (the Archivox) to see if I could come up with a love poem that would impress a Lady who was bored by heroic stories and laughed treasure hoards to scorn.
So um... yeah. I asked a few of the denizens of the Archivox for advice, and ended up with three things you could sort of call poems to choose from.
Now if it were me, I would have leaned toward the "Ode to a Brass Lily." It was sweet and poetic, comparing a lady's beauty and grace to that of a flower. Quite nice. But if the Lady in question had already mocked conventional overtures of affection, she was probably likely to turn up her nose (beak?) at this too.
The factotum archivist I spoke to ended up composing a poem for me on the spot. I was impressed by its speedy creativity, but I also wondered what kind of love poetry a machine would produce. And it was... pretty mechanical. I mean it said some nice things about the beloved's face, and some sort of reaction to her touch, but um... not... what I would really go with to woo someone who wasn't made of brass. So that was pretty much a no.
A Nord mathematician suggested a passage from an old Nord ballad celebrating the valor of a warrior named Brisbor the Battle-Axe. He was right that it wasn't the sweetest verse. In fact it was about the passionate ardor of ripping his foes asunder. But at least it was passionate?
With nothing better to show for my efforts, and not quite bold enough to pretend to be a poet myself, I wavered quite a bit between the tender and the ardent, not quite sure that either of them would impress the haughty Lady. But finally, my reservations about the more conventional poem won out. I presented to the Knight of Marrow, with less confidence than I would have hoped for, the blood-pumping Nord narrative. He was enthusiastic about the choice, and immediately flew off to make his presentation to Lady Blightwing.
...And somehow it worked. The courageous crow managed to spin the verse into an expression of his desire to present a feast of the charred flesh of his enemies to his lady love, and she practically swooned to imagine it. Success at last for the persistent lover! And then it was onward to the audience chamber of the Duke of Crows, and only a few more bits of busy-work before getting the information I so urgently needed.
...Which meant flailing my arms around to chase away a rival bird flock, and being the only one steady-nerved enough to face down the Motionless Guardian who left every feathered warrior cowering in its gaze.
I mean it was a scarecrow. It wasn't... whatever, they're crows.
But at that point they were also my allies. And when the Skeleton Key ended up in the clutches of Sotha Sil's malicious Shadow, the Knight of Marrow accompanied me into valiant battle against the Wraith-of-Crows it had summoned as it fled. And there, much to my sorrow, the once-triumphant lover and fighter fell in glorious combat. The death-stroke I bestowed upon the vile wraith was too late to save my avian comrade, but served yet to avenge him. And may the heroic deeds and ardent words of the Knight of Marrow ever be sung by those who love and battle in his stead.
...Maybe there's something to this poetry thing after all. I should write some of this stuff down...
While I've been chasing around Nocturnal's agents, and assessing threats to Sotha Sil and his Nirn-in-miniature, I happened to come across a rather astounding monument to Seht himself. It was the Mnemonic Planisphere, the facility Sil designed to store the memories he didn't feel like holding in his head. Because that's a thing you can do when you're the Clockwork God, you just kind of pluck them out and turn them into stars and let them float around in vaguely-organized catalogues of constellations.
Nocturnal's lackeys had taken an interest in the place too, and I was entreated by the assistant to the facility's caretaker to help drive them out and thwart whatever plans they might have for Seht's misplaced memories. It was unclear exactly what they planned to do, but you can pretty much figure that tinkering with a god's memories is not something we'd want to encourage.
I set out to retrieve some of the "stars" that had been set loose inside the Planisphere. It could have been a quick and easy task, but then I got distracted. I ended up spending what could have been hours just wandering through the metal halls, catching fragments of scenes from Sil's life. Considering I still haven't met the real Sotha Sil, it was the closest I've come to getting to know the god I've been told no one can ever really know.
I'm not sure I'd even be able to summarize what I learned. I heard different voices, one that I'm pretty sure was his sister, one that sounded like an assistant or apprentice, one that might have actually been Divayth Fyr. And one introspective voice that I suspect was Sotha Sil himself.
Still mulling over the wisps of memories, I returned to Amili and her mentor, known as the Astronomer, to see what needed to be done to protect Sotha Sil's memories. The Astronomer had already confided in me that he felt his life drawing to its close, and he would need to pass his torch to his apprentice before it was too late. But we discovered, thanks to visions unlocked by the memory-stars, that becoming the Astronomer required a complete wipe of the vessel's memory, so that there was nothing in the caretaker's consciousness that would interfere with the purity of Seht's recollections.
And so Amili had a choice to make. She had never been told that this was the cost of devoting herself to the Mnemonic Planisphere. And it was hard to accept losing so much of herself, what made her the person she was. Thinking about the sacrifice she was being asked to make, I thought about what such a sacrifice would mean for me.
All of the many and varied experiences I've had would be gone. But more than that, would be all of the people I've known. I would lose Darien. And Raz, and Naryu, and Gabrielle and Skordo and Cadwell and all of the other friends I've made along my journey. Not to mention my parents and Ian and Jacob and all of my other friends from my old life. That... would be hard. I could only imagine what would happen if Gabrielle finally contacted me about Darien and I had no idea who either of them were. Wow, I think a shiver just went down my back thinking about it. But then, if I had some greater purpose that I had to devote myself to, as the new Astronomer does, maybe I wouldn't need to care who those people were. I'd have my own responsibilities, and Gabrielle could just go take care of Darien on her own. But... no, Darien needs me. He's counting on me to find a way to bring him home. No matter how selfish it was, I don't think I could give that up.
It always comes back to duty versus self, doesn't it.
Well fortunately Amili was willing to accept the duty that she'd been preparing for all these years. She might not have known the price she would have to pay, but she understood the importance of maintaining the line of succession of Astronomers and the problems that would arise if her mentor died before he could pass on his legacy. She might have lost her previous achievements, her frustrations and triumphs, even her first kiss, but she's become something much bigger than her old self. And I admire her for it.
After the transformation, her buoyant personality had become more stolid and she had no recollection of who I was or what we had done together. But she sensed that I had helped her somehow, and it gave her comfort to know that I had stood by her. I suppose, all things considered, that's not such a bad thing to have as a first memory.
Still nothing from Gabrielle. Maybe that shouldn't surprise me given that I've been buried away here in the Clockwork City. She probably has no idea where I am, and I doubt it's an easy thing to get messages here. Maybe once I finish my business here I should stop by Anvil again. (There is going to be a way out for me, isn't there? I should probably talk to Fyr about that...) I would think that she must have moved on from there by now, though. Come to think of it, I can't even really be sure how much time has gone by out there, even though it seems like everything here is happening so quickly. She did promise to let me know as soon as she found anything, though. Patience, Ilsabet, patience.
So... I've finally met Lord Seht. The real Lord Seht, finally in control of his wayward Shadow, freed from Nocturnal's interference. It was quite the effort to reach him within his Cogitum Centralis, and were it not for supreme exertions from Proctor Luciana and Divayth Fyr, we might have still been overcome by Nocturnal's shadows. But our team prevailed, and used the Skeleton Key to free Sotha Sil from Nocturnal's grasp, and then we had some time to breathe as the brass filings settled around us.
He has a calming way about him, as if he feels no need to expend extra energy during conversations. Even when discussing matters of grave peril, his mind seems always to govern his emotions. As if he knows that what will be will be, and feeling strongly about it will not change what is to come.
I'm not sure if I would want to see the world that way or not. He said, during a later conversation, that he envies those who are able to feel uncertain. The luxury of doubt brings a kind of freedom that he cannot experience, seeing and knowing all things as he does. So maybe it is an asset for someone like me, to occasionally let my emotions spur me toward seemingly impossible goals. Maybe that's what makes me the Prisoner and not just the imprisoned.
That was something that was hard to wrap my head around, why Sotha Sil kept referring to me by that name. The Prisoner, he said, must be aware of the prison but must also see a way out of it. He, on the other hand, knows that everything he does is dictated by necessity. He sees the prison, but knows he must remain within it for a greater purpose. Even the Clockwork City itself is part of that unwavering timeline, intended to lead to the redemption of Tamriel, but built on death and betrayal and horrors.
I chose not to delve too deeply into that dark-sounding history. It was surprising enough that he was willing to offer me so many insights, even into his fellow Living Gods. It seemed that the entire pretext of divinity was something that he didn't put as much stock into as the other two did. Almalexia, he said, finds her identity in the deceptions that both she and her followers implicitly believe in. Vivec, on the other hand, knows the line between fact and fiction, but despairs in never being able to reach limitless heights of beauty and freedom. He wants nothing more than to become all things, but he can only ever be what he is.
It's probably just as well that I didn't learn those things until after I had my interactions with the two of them. I should probably try not to let it skew my impressions of them too much, since we are still allies and who knows when I'll need to help or be helped by them again. It did seem that Sotha Sil will be involving himself more directly in the current troubles, so perhaps I'll be seeing more of him once we figure out what the Triad's next move will be.
Ah yes, the Triad - our three adversaries, now more clearly defined as Nocturnal, Clavicus Vile, and Mephala. Sotha Sil is certain that I will have a major role to play in facing whatever they throw at us next. I suppose it's reassuring that he has that much confidence in me. Or maybe hope is the better word. Either way, I can't get complacent, even as I wait to see what will happen next.
As for our other allies, Fyr was entrusted with the Skeleton Key and will be taking it somewhere far away. Proctor Luciana seems to be making a slow but steady recovery from her debilitating exertions, after Sotha Sil made good on his promise to me to restore her from death's doorstep. Provost Varuni has been grappling with new questions about her previously-absolute faith in Lord Seht, which hopefully will lead to a healthy expanding of her horizons. The Vanos siblings are back on good terms after a bit of a falling-out and an attempt at independence on the part of Raynor. And the crows are... well, they're still hanging around, and seem to like their new home an awful lot, so I doubt they'll be leaving any time soon.
I, however, should probably be heading back to Tamriel proper. Just a few more pieces of business to attend to, and I'll be off.
Summerset. Summerset is the sequence of the words. Where Sotha Sil said the Triad of Princes would turn their attentions next. If Clavicus Vile and Nocturnal were concerning themselves with the conquest of the Clockwork City, then perhaps Summerset is where Mephala lies in wait. This time I listened to the prophecy much more carefully. This time I'll be ready. Defeat is almost certain. But there is still a chance. And I can already feel that drive to prove myself taking hold in my heart.
I suppose I should back up a bit and explain where this prophecy came from. Earlier in my adventures here in Clockwork City, before things with Nocturnal got serious, I helped out a young man with an axe to grind about a certain tradition among the poor folk in Slag Town. They would make a perilous journey to see something called the Grand Prognosticator, who was supposed to tell them their fortunes. In almost every case the prognosis was continued poverty, poor health, and eventually a beggar's demise.
Kamid's mother had made the dangerous journey and hadn't come back. She wasn't the only person to have died on the trek, and now Kamid was on a crusade to get the denizens of Slag Town to realize that seeking out their fortunes from a machine was a fool's errand that wasn't worth the risk. And so he wanted me to help him confront the Grand Prognosticator, expose it as a fraud, and show the others that its predictions were unreliable. Then, maybe people would stop believing in it and would stop putting themselves in jeopardy to visit it.
That was all well and good, and by the end of it Kamid was convinced that he could turn his fortunes around and pull himself out of the poverty that the Grand Prognosticator had foreseen for him. I left him to his efforts, but before I left Slag Town behind I was given some additional information about the Grand Prognosticator. Apparently it actually did have a prophecy mode. And I was given the passphrase to activate it.
It was something to contemplate, to be sure. Having information about things that haven't happened yet can be more of a curse than a blessing. I certainly considered just walking away. But as my time in the Clockwork City approached its end, I remembered that the opportunity was still there. And if the fortune-teller had something to say to me that was different from what it said to everyone else... in the end, I wasn't able to resist curiosity.
And so here I am, with a cryptic message pointing me to Summerset. There are things about the fortune I already understand, like the three princes and their spreading darkness, and I assume the island is Summerset, and the end is presumably what will happen if the Princes get their way. The parts I don't understand will hopefully become clear as I move forward. The prediction of almost certain failure, and something about a sacrifice, don't make me feel too great, but there's always the chance - however miniscule - to change things. And so I'll do what Sotha Sil asked of me, and ready myself to run toward the battle that is to come.
So, I needed to get to Summerset. I didn't know who I would be able to contact once I got there, but if that's where the action was heading then that's where I needed to be. After I used the portal that Fyr had left for me to get back to Mournhold (actual water! grass! trees!), I started by going to Auridon. That's the closest island to Summerset, so there must be a ferry across somewhere, right?
Before I headed down to the docks in Vulkhel Guard, I decided to take care of some pre-travel necessities in town. As I approached the bank and reached out to push the door open, a strange glowing stone seemed to fall from the sky and landed in my outstretched hand. Pulling off to the side on the manor lawn, I managed to poke at the stone enough to prompt an illusory Vanus Galerion to emerge and start grumbling about how long it took for the stone to reach me. I guess being tucked away in the Clockwork City really does make it hard to be found.
Vanus wanted me to check on a Wyress Oracle who had told him about a vision that included my name, before suddenly ceasing all communication. I seem to be the go-to person for rescuing oracles, but at least this time I had an inkling of what it was all about. We discovered that Oracle Marieve had drawn the interest of both Daedric forces and the Psijic Order, and we had to work hard to keep her out of the clutches of Mephala's minions.
She had seen visions of Summerset, and of an island called Artaeum, the hidden home of the Psijic Order. They were both caught in a dark web, she said, and the servants of the Daedric Princes who threatened her were determined to get her to reveal Artaeum's secret location.
Upon hearing of Artaeum, and realizing just how deeply interested the Psijic Order was in this whole thing, Vanus excused himself from further involvement. The Mages Guild and the Psijic Order have a complicated history, it seems, and he wanted to keep the Mages Guild out of the Psijics' affairs.
My pursuit of Oracle Marieve led me into the Spiral Skein, Mephala's shadowy spidery realm. I managed to rescue Marieve from her spiderwebbed bonds just before Mephala's agents succeeded in attuning a portal to Artaeum, and after we returned to Auridon both she and Vanus were grateful for my help.
Vanus instructed me to continue on to Summerset. It was a welcome directive. I still didn't really know what to look for when I got there, but at least I could start some investigating.
The journey across the sea was quite pleasant. I arrived at the Alinor Docks and was immediately caught up in the view. I was expecting something like Auridon, and it is - but brighter, and cleaner, and grander, and more radiant. The sky, the sand, the stone, everything glints in the sunlight. It reminds me of all the times I heard the word "gleaming" in Clockwork City and makes me think that none of those people have ever been here.
With nobody specific to meet and nowhere specific to go, I got to wandering along the shore and then wandering wherever my feet and my gaze took me. Not everything was entirely unfamiliar. They have welwas, and enormous crabs with coral growing on them, and those obnoxious skeeters from Hew's Bane. And a lot of other amazing and beautiful creatures I've never seen before, many of which want to kill me. I mean all I wanted to do was go up and say hi to the big flying bird-lion, or maybe pet the nice glowy elk-thing, but nooooooo.
My meandering took me in a fortuitous direction, at least. Before I knew it some guy was running up to me shrieking about monsters and a cat who he thought needed help dealing with them. And then, there was Razum-dar, who of course had already taken care of the weird spiky creatures at his feet before I even got there.
And so my mission gained a sense of direction, as I once again teamed up with Raz to try to find out what was going on with weird creatures showing up and various residents of the town of Shimmerene not being entirely on board with Queen Ayrenn's proclamation opening Summerset's borders to outsiders.
The sociopolitical climate of Shimmerene was in itself interesting, and I was reminded of some of the Altmer biases toward other races that I had encountered back in Auridon. The bureaucracy of rigid High Elf society had responded to the influx of newcomers by piling on the rules and regulations, and I learned that incoming visitors were being quarantined and questioned before being allowed to go about their business.
That didn't seem too bad until I found a dead Argonian with a note indicating that there was more going on behind the scenes than simple profiling. On top of that, some of the people who had been sequestered weren't even newcomers, but non-Altmer residents who had been there well before the Queen's decree. This definitely required further investigation.
Raz sent me to nose around in the monastery where some of the newcomers had been taken. It seemed that the local religious order's new leader, Aldarch Tilcalar, was overseeing the efforts to process the influx of newcomers. And so we hoped that the monastery, which had been totally-not-suspiciously closed to the public, might hold some further clues to what was going on.
Something really weird happened while I was on my way up to the monastery. I heard someone calling out, while I was distracted by this lady praying, and all I saw was some kind of glowy portal or something before it disappeared. But then someone standing nearby said something about a "golden knight" - and that absolutely got my attention. The Grand Prognosticator's prophecy mentioned a golden knight. There's supposed to be somebody involved in this whole thing on Summerset who fits that description. Was that him? What was he trying to do, and why did he leave so suddenly? I looked all over for any trace of him, but I finally had to give up and go back and talk to that lady about her missing son before continuing on to watch Raz snooker the monastery's sentry so I could sneak inside.
I had to put aside thoughts of this mysterious knight to focus on my snooping around the temple. Fortunately the monks mostly ignored me, and I responded to the guards' surly comments by saying very nice things about the decor and promising to show myself out. Aside from the many urns, wardrobes, and jewelry boxes, what I found there wasn't good. People coming into the island are being thrown into cells thanks to some plan that the Kinlady and the Aldarch have been conspiring over. At least this time the racist jerks working against the Queen made it easy to find them.
Before I could report back to Raz, I made the acquaintance of a woman from the Psijic Order named Valsirenn who was following up on the warnings they'd received about the island. What we discovered in the bowels of the monastery was even more horrifying than mere racism. Just as I had feared, the newcomers who were being culled had met an unfortunate fate - but in a way I couldn't have predicted, having their very life forces siphoned out to fuel some kind of Daedric ritual.
So it was Daedra already, and somehow the Kinlady and the new Aldarch were in on it. Just peachy.
Raz suggested dropping by a soiree that the Kinlady was throwing at her mansion that very afternoon, to see if I could learn more about her involvement in the plot. Apparently the fancy dress I had already been wearing to blend in wasn't elegant enough, but the puffy outfit and forged invitation Raz provided for me got me right past the bouncer and into Kinlady Avinisse's garden.
To make a long story slightly less long, the sneaking around and chatting up visitors I did led us to the conclusion that while the Kinlady didn't want any dirty foreigners cluttering up her island, the Daedric-murder-ritual thing was the doing of Aldarch Tilcalar and his lackeys. Confronting him further revealed his connection to Clavicus Vile, which tells me that this whole thing is somehow connected to the greater plot I came here to stop.
So that's one piece of the puzzle identified and eliminated, and probably many more to go. As my two allies and I were wrapping up the case, Valsirenn surprised me by inviting me to actually go to Artaeum to help her report to her superior there. After hearing so much about the long-departed isle of mystery, I was excited to get to go there, but I figured I should go back and help that lady with her son before I left Shimmerene.
That turned out to be an interesting look at the underbelly of Altmer society. Those who commit crimes, beyond just failing to uphold the standards expected of proper Altmer, are branded as "apraxic" and banished. I met a woman known as the Mother of Rats, who had decided to remain on Summerset rather than accepting exile, now living in the shadows along with others whom polite society had shunned.
She had forged a patent of lineage in her younger days, and the fallout sent dozens of mer to their deaths. She had done it for what she called the most foolish reason of all - love. I took it to mean that the relationship hadn't lasted as long as the consequences of her actions, but she didn't seem to still be holding much of a torch.
It turned out that the missing young man, Arethel, had been caught up in a failed assassination plot after a rival underground gang lord named Mirulon had twisted his idealistic ambitions. It was a classic case of doing all the wrong things for somewhat understandable reasons. For those who lived under the feet of the well-to-do, the idea of shaking things up and remaking High Elf society was appealing. But Mirulon had chosen an extreme, violent way of trying to change things. And those who hadn't been taken in by his honeyed words and mind magic knew that assassinating a Sapiarch was a good way to bring the fury of the Divine Prosecution down on all of them, not a good way to restore them all to society's good graces.
Arethel seemed to have learned his lesson after being rescued, and even the agent of the Divine Prosecution who had gotten involved seemed willing to let bygones be bygones considering that the real mastermind - Mirulon - had been eliminated. I suppose it remains to be seen what further tremors of discontent will ripple through this not-so-pristine island.
But for now, there's another island in store for me. This should be an interesting trip...
So Artaeum is absolutely beautiful. Let's just get that out of the way right up front. It might be the most beautiful place I've ever been. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but I wouldn't have been surprised if the entire place had been made of aether or dreams or numbers. But it is an actual place, and it, too, was similar to the island I had previously known, but unlike it as well. The sky was bathed in a gradient of pastels. A seemingly permanent sunrise - or was it a sunset? - hovered above the horizon. Flowers and trees of so many different hues swayed in the soft breezes. It was breathtaking.
Before I set out to track down Valsirenn, I inevitably started just wandering around. Among other things, I found Lilatha reading a book in a quiet pavilion. She was pleased to hear that I had saved Sotha Sil and the Clockwork City after our encounter on Dranil Kir. It made the sacrifice of her shadow easier to bear, especially since the Psijics' efforts to restore her lost powers had been futile.
When I found Valsirenn, I also received a friendly greeting from the Psijics' leader, Ritemaster Iachesis. He had apparently been impressed with my contributions to Val's investigations on Summerset - and he had been told of my appearance in Wyress Marieve's visions as well. Thus satisfied that I could be of use, he invited me to join the Psijics in their continuing attempts to unravel what was going on back on Tamriel.
Val had brought back a large pearl that we had found in the monastery, which seemed to be tied to the Daedric ritual taking place there. The Psijics weren't able to discover much about it, but their augury ritual did reveal visions of a meeting between representatives of three familiar Daedric Princes. The false Aldarch, Tilcalar, was presented as the Earl of Clavicus Vile, while the faces of the Earls of Nocturnal and Mephala remained hidden. They called themselves the Court of Bedlam, and they had some nasty-sounding machinations afoot.
Of course, they were not so kind as to mention the details of those machinations, beyond the location of their next operation. And so I've been assigned to visit the town of Rellenthil along with Valsirenn to see what we can find out.
I have a feeling I may be getting accidentally sidetracked by the views here before I make my departure, though...
I seem to be getting pretty good at this whole murder-mystery thing.
On the road between Shimmerene and Rellenthil, I came across a winery of some renown in Russafeld. Before I could consider stopping in for a midday drink, news reached me of an untimely death in the area. The winery's foreman, Halimorion, had been killed under mysterious circumstances. And at the scene of the crime, a disagreement had arisen between the justiciars assigned to investigate the death.
Custom dictated that the murder should be examined by a three-person team. Only two inquisitors were present at the scene, though, which was putting their work on hold until a suitably objective-looking stranger just happened to walk up to them off the street looking like she was just waiting to be deputized.
One of my new teammates, Soravil, wasn't keen on having some random outsider tagging along on their case. But the other, Lorne, was glad to have a fresh pair of eyes helping to look things over. Especially since this murder reminded her and her partner of a series of killings they had solved decades before. With the possibility of unpleasant memories clouding their judgment, she knew it would be even more important to have someone impartial advising them.
At first, the clues we uncovered seemed to be pretty straightforward. The deceased had a reputation for mistreating the Wood Elves who worked under him. It wasn't hard to imagine someone exacting personal justice on the oppressor, especially using the guise of the Bosmer avenging hero known as the Ghost of the Green.
But the Ghost of the Green killer had been apprehended by Lorne and Soravil decades before. And as Lorne noticed, while the murder had been clearly staged to resemble the Ghost's old modus operandi, some of the details weren't quite right. It seemed more likely that this was a copycat killer, rather than an actual ghost.
The plot thickened when we discovered a second body. This one belonged to a Bosmer girl who had been on the receiving end of Halimorion's salacious attentions. The plot thickened even more when we learned that the Bosmer town chief's son had been infatuated with the girl and had been talked into taking up his bow to avenge her honor.
There was another mastermind here, someone who was responsible for the vintner's murder even if he hadn't plucked the bowstring himself. And after the chief's son was himself shot and killed by this newly emerged Ghost, and Lorne revealed further details about her and Soravil's personal involvement with the old Ghost of the Green, I began forming a clearer picture of who that person might be.
Someone who had intimate knowledge of the old Ghost of the Green case, including details that had never been released to the public. Someone perhaps whose memory for details wasn't as precise as Lorne's. Someone who maybe wasn't thrilled about having an outsider sticking her nose into the investigation. Someone who might have even had a reason for offing Lorne's husband back in the day when he discovered the affair with his wife.
I was wrong about that last part, actually. I never got any indication that Lorne's husband hadn't been killed by the Ghost of the Green that they captured all those years ago. And it seems that Soravil's wife had actually committed suicide over losing her lover, and hadn't been done in by an angry husband who knew how to stage the scene of a death.
While we're on the subject of my incorrect guesses, I was also thinking that reviving the old Ghost of the Green case would have been an easy way for Soravil to get the old team back together after he and Lorne had drifted apart. Set up an obvious copycat murder, have their old mentor call in the two people best suited to tackle the case, and surely Lorne would regain her focus and the two of them could recapture what made them such an effective duo. That's the hypothesis I was going with right up until the moment Soravil's ghostly memory image started taunting Lorne. But no, he wasn't interested in playing the straight arrow for the purpose of winning back his old partner. He was seriously out to destroy her, one cherished piece at a time.
And all because he had loved her. At least purportedly. After their mutual losses, Soravil hoped that he and Lorne would find comfort in each other's arms. But Lorne dealt with her grief by burying herself in her work, and she pushed him away. His feelings for her gave way to bitterness. And now, decades later, he was out to break her completely. He was relishing watching her honor and pride be stripped away. And after taking the life of her beloved mentor, the only thing left to take was her life itself.
Of course, I wasn't going to let him do that. Fortunately the shot he took at Lorne was not very well-aimed, and I was able to pursue him to a final showdown. The Ghost of the Green was at last put to rest, again.
Lorne couldn't help blaming herself for the way everything had spun out of control. She should have seen the killer by her side, should have been a better investigator, a better wife and friend. Even knowing that Soravil was a madman whose actions were inexcusable couldn't assuage her distress about all of the innocent people who had gotten caught up in his crusade. Even with the case closed, it will take some time for her to make peace with everything that's happened.
And I am once again confounded by the way feelings can become twisted and corrupted, from something beautiful into something malicious and hateful. Maybe it means Soravil didn't truly love her to begin with, and only really cared about getting what he wanted. I'm sure emotions were raw and not terribly rational in the midst of so much misfortune. But to claim to care about someone and then to want to hurt them so badly, simply because they didn't respond the way you wanted them to... I'm not sure I can really understand that. And I'm not sure I really want to.
He appeared again. This time I saw him more clearly, bathed in a golden light. He said something about... Dawnbreaker, I think it was? And something about Daedric interference, and then he was gone. But at least now I know he's a real person. I hope he comes back soon.
Oh right, so I made it to Rellenthil. Razum-dar had arrived there too, following up on leads of his own, and his whiskers practically wrinkled at the mention of the Daedric activity that my Psijic friend and I expected to find there. He really isn't a fan of anything Daedric, and I don't blame him.
What we found, upon further investigation, was something that started out looking like an edgelord club for Altmer supremacist youths with too much time on their hands. The local Canonreeve's son had gotten caught up in it, and was taking it awfully seriously. But within the cave where the club liked to hang out, we discovered two alarming connections - to the Court of Bedlam, and to a Sea Sload named K'tora.
I'd heard a little about the Sload, and knew that they were a historical enemy of the Altmer. But the way Valsirenn explained it, the Sea Sload were really bad news - and the fact that they were working with the Court of Bedlam was really really bad news.
Raz was even more alarmed to hear that the Sea Sload were threatening Summerset. He would need to warn Queen Ayrenn, but first he needed to personally deal with the Canonreeve's traitorous son. I was expecting to have to advise him on what course to take, or to help make an arrest, but Raz wasn't going to waste time on niceties when a traitor and murderer stood before him. He was sorry that I had to see him use his blade in that way, but it was imperative to make an example of someone who had transgressed so far against his Queen and countrymen. I don't think I've ever seen Raz so grim, but it was a reminder of how seriously he takes his job even as he goes through life with his fur seemingly unruffled.
Raz wanted me to take the news of our discoveries back to the Psijics, but before I left Rellenthil I had a bit of a foray into the world of the performing arts, courtesy of the fabled House of Reveries. I was pressed into service by an up-and-coming mage named Rinyde whose twin brother, Larydel, had run off to join the performers rather than continuing on their mutual path to join the Sapiarchs. She wanted to find out what had happened to him and try to convince him to come to his senses and leave this tomfoolery behind.
But, as I discovered when I infiltrated the group, Larydel was happier with his new life in the arts than he had been pursuing the strenuous life of a mage. He had always felt pressured to follow his sister's dreams of magical achievement, even as he felt himself being stifled by the stuffy and solitary atmosphere of libraries and lecture halls. He wanted Rinyde to find her happiness within the life she wanted, but he had to be free to do the same for himself. And despite the inevitable conflict between the close-knit siblings, I had to agree that diverging paths were best for them.
And so I agreed to keep the secret of Larydel's new identity, and advised him - or perhaps I should say her? - to tell Rinyde the truth after she had gotten settled in with the Sapiarchs. Rinyde was not pleased with my reticence, but I expect things to turn out for the best in time.
I've been thinking, since my whole "audition" experience, about the House of Reveries' policy on creating new identities to completely replace the old ones. Members who are accepted must choose a new name, and wear masks to preserve the secrets of their old selves. Part of my process of being accepted as one of Alchemy's Hopefuls was to create a mask for myself, which involved procuring a gryphon feather and a suitably exciting tale for how I had acquired it. Wearing the mask as I interacted with other members of the troupe was an interesting feeling, becoming more aware of how I see myself and how I present myself to the world.
I've never really thought of myself as the performing type, although I do find myself humming some tune or other every now and then, and I suppose I could put on a decent show doing trick shots with my bow. It's probably a good thing that Rinyde provided me with a set of magic juggling daggers as a pretense for auditioning, even if Alchemy did see right through them. (I do think I gave a fairly convincing reading of a lovelorn Altmer noblewoman bidding farewell to her rugged Khajiit sailor lover in a scene from a play that a fellow member was testing out, but nobody asked me to become an actor after that, so maybe it wasn't quite up to their standards.)
The one thing Alchemy didn't ask me about, which I'm still mulling over, is what name I would choose for myself if I did leave Ilsabet Menard behind. For one thing, I'd have to decide how much of myself to cast off, which might be difficult considering how the "me" I am has evolved into what it is. I would no longer need to be a hero, or constantly on the lookout for an impetus to go adventuring, but what would I become instead? I suppose I'd devote myself more fully to whatever my art of choice turned out to be. It seems fairly common for people to take names that relate to their crafts, like how Quill is a writer, and Firebird is a flame-eater, and Chisel builds sets for their stage productions.
But without having that performing specialty to guide me, what kind of name would sum up the essence of who I am as a person? The closest I could come up with, although I'm still not really sold on it, is "Light." I like that it has multiple meanings, associations that I can see applying to me. Light as a feather, light on my feet, light-fingered (although I probably wouldn't be pickpocketing people as part of my act). Maybe I could even come up with some way to float while I'm taking my trick shots. That would be kind of fantastic, actually.
It's probably a bit mundane as an identifying moniker, though, and there's already a Candlelight, and for that matter a Feathermoth and who knows what else that kind of already covers the theme. I definitely wouldn't want to step on anybody's toes, so I think I need to put more thought into this. Maybe something more directly related to archery? Quiver? Arrowhead? Bullseye?
Hmm. I wouldn't have thought that my biggest challenge here would be something that technically doesn't even matter anymore. But at least I've got something to think about while I head to Artaeum, that doesn't involve Daedra and conspiracies.
So, the Golden Knight is a Champion of Meridia, bearing her sword Dawnbreaker. At least now I know that much, thanks to his appearance in the Psijics' scrying pool and subsequent explanations from the sages.
I wanted to ask them more, but I had to hurry to follow Ritemaster Iachesis into the ruins where they store all sorts of mystical artifacts. The abyssal pearl the Psijics had been studying had disappeared from Ceporah Tower, and the strange yaghra creatures had begun mounting an invasion of Artaeum's shores. If the Sea Sload behind the plot got ahold of any of the relics on the island, it would be bad news.
And so off we went to find the pearl and cut off the invading monsters. We ran into a roadblock just inside the ruins, where some of Mephala's minions had sealed up a door with a barrier of nasty Daedric webs. My attempt to burn them away went badly, and it seemed like we were stuck - until none other than the Golden Knight appeared to help us.
He materialized fully this time, striking a gallant pose with his sword resting on his shoulder. I felt like a little kid seeing the hero from a favorite fairy tale appearing before my eyes. (I don't know if I should feel silly for admitting that or not.) He apologized for taking so long to reach us, and then with a swift (and flashy) stroke of his sword he burned through all of Mephala's pesky webs.
...And then he muttered something about being found and disappeared again, promising to return. I couldn't stop myself from taking a step forward and reaching out toward him as he vanished, before realizing that was a pretty silly thing to do in front of the Ritemaster. But something about him... Maybe it's just because of the prophecy, but... It shouldn't have been that hard to get him off my mind after he cleared the way for us to continue our mission. But there was something...
I really should just snap out of it. I mean it's not like I'm going to develop a crush on someone I haven't even spoken to, just because he's literally a knight in shining armor, right? And there are tons of more important things to think about, like the fact that the Ritemaster's mind was infiltrated by a Sea Sload three hundred years ago and he was compelled to do something with a crystal that could warp realities or something if it falls into the wrong hands.
Honestly I think it's the experience I just had in the Sea Sload's mindscape that's got me so muddled right now. It was... so unlike anything I've ever seen, even here on Artaeum. Almost painfully vibrant blues and pinks and purples, intertwining tendrils stretching across the sky, strange organic shapes everywhere I looked. The atmosphere was at once stifling and invigorating, filled with an implacable hum and buzz as if the space itself couldn't contain the energy coursing through it. I could have easily been overwhelmed and dazzled by everything around me, and it was hard to keep a clear head and press forward.
I think it was actually the fact that I had enemies to defeat that kept me focused. Every time some creature emerged and came at me, it gave me something to concentrate on and a point to move toward. And the ethereal memories I observed gave me enough of a narrative to see what had transpired to bring us to this point. I finally faced the Sea Sload, K'tora, who assumed that I would have no chance of defeating him in the domain of his own mind. He was wrong.
I came back to reality to see K'tora slumped on the ground where he had previously been tormenting the Ritemaster. Not even cognizant of anything else around me, I stood over the slug's bloated corpse, my mind still trying to process what I had just experienced. It took some time for me to completely come back to my senses, and then I realized that Sotha Sil had been standing there the entire time, patiently waiting for me to notice him.
The Clockwork God was a welcome sight at that moment, and definitely a calming and steadying influence. He assured me that the Ritemaster was all right, and I went on to learn more about this Heart of Transparent Law that the Sea Sload had sought to obtain. The gem is the key to the Crystal Tower that protects Summerset and stands as an emblem of the Altmer heritage. With the Heart removed, the Tower's protective magic has apparently been slowly weakening over the course of the last three centuries, such that the current invasion of the Sea Sload and their monsters has now become possible. Talk about playing the long game.
I'm setting out to get access to the College of Sapiarchs, the cloister of sages that maintains the Crystal Tower. They need to know that they're going to be a target, and hopefully we can bolster their defenses before the invaders pull their next move.
...I just thought of something. I can't believe I didn't think of this before. If the Golden Knight is the Champion of Meridia, I should ask him if he knows anything about Darien. If Meridia is keeping him in the Colored Rooms, then her Knight might have seen him there. Now if only he would stick around long enough for me to actually talk to him...
As I've been following the threads left by the Triad, I've still been finding opportunities to help people I meet along the way. A couple of those recent experiences have gotten me thinking about lovers making sacrifices for each other, which isn't really a new thing to encounter - but in these cases, I had to really question whether those sacrifices were for the best.
On the surface, it's kind of romantic to think about two people loving each other so much that they would do anything and give anything for each other. I've seen and admired couples who have given up their old lives to be together, and counseled people having to make difficult decisions for the sake of the one they loved. In some cases, I may have felt that the feelings in play were questionable, but I can't deny that true love is something worth sacrificing for.
And yet, in these two instances, I found myself opposing that desire to be selfless. There was just... more at stake, I guess. And even when the path wasn't clear, and I'm still not sure I made the right decision, I guess I just didn't want to see people suffer for the sake of their love.
The first case involved two people I had met earlier, after my adventures in Rellenthil. Tableau was an artist with the House of Reveries, and Manacar was the subject she had picked out as a muse for her paintings. She was tired of the superficial perfection emphasized by Altmer society, wanting instead to find beauty in imperfection and expose the shades of gray in the deepest moral taboos of her people.
As a hulkynd, Manacar had been cast out by his family as a child - not for some crime, like an apraxic, but because his physical deformities brought shame to the "purity" of his family's bloodline. According to High Elf society, a High Elf without a family might as well not even exist, but Manacar had made a life for himself in the wilderness, embracing the freedom that came with rejection.
When I brought the artist and the outcast together, it seemed like the beginning of a beautiful working relationship. Tableau was delighted with her new model, and Manacar seemed to appreciate having someone treat him like an actual person (even if it was something he had to adjust to). By the time I encountered both of them again in Alinor, things had changed. Tableau had struck out on her own, setting aside her mask to bring her art to a wider audience. She had gained the support of a wealthy patron, and was preparing to make her debut to high society. And Manacar had decided that it was time for him to step aside so that he wouldn't be in the way of his friend's rise to fame.
Except that that's not what Tableau wanted. When Manacar cut off all contact with her, preferring to allow both of them to make a clean break, it simply distressed her. She had to go to extreme measures to get him to come back to her again, staging a kidnapping with some of her actor friends in the hopes that he still cared about her enough to come running to her rescue.
When Manacar found out what the plot was really all about, he couldn't understand why Tableau would go to so much trouble just to see him again. He knew what would happen if she was seen associating with a hulkynd, and he didn't want to see her castigated and shamed that way. He didn't want her to come to regret allowing their friendship to tarnish her accomplishments, especially when rising above one's station was already so hard for all but the most talented artists. If that would be the outcome of continuing to hold onto their relationship, then he wanted to end it while the memories would still be sweet.
He had insisted earlier that he harbored no romantic inclinations toward Tableau, knowing his place as he did. But even without him admitting it, I sensed that he was making this decision because he cared for her enough to want to put her happiness above his own. His mistake, it seemed, was in making assumptions about what would truly make her happy.
And as she told both me and him, the happiness she found in simply being with him was more important to her than the fame she might gain if she cast him aside. His was the one genuine face among a sea of smiling masks who only cared about keeping up appearances. Rather than considering her success being somehow devalued by having him by her side, she couldn't imagine being content with her fame if it meant denying her feelings for the person she cared about most.
In a way, they were both prepared to make sacrifices for each other. And I had the chance to either advise Manacar to put aside his concerns for Tableau's career and stay with her, or tell Tableau that what Manacar was doing was the best thing for both of them.
In retrospect, my decision probably shouldn't come as much of a surprise. As much as I respected what Manacar was trying to do for the woman he (probably) loved, I couldn't let him go through with it when what she wanted most was for him to be by her side. Even if it meant scorn from the entire rest of their world, she knew that they could weather it as long as they were together. How could I argue against something like that?
And then, when I got to Lillandril, I was confronted with yet another murder mystery. I mean when I was congratulating myself on being such a good detective, I wasn't really asking to make a habit of it. But these things keep happening, I guess.
This one was odd from the start, though. A member of the Mages Guild had confessed to a murder, and the local authorities considered the case closed since they had their culprit in custody. But the man's friend was insistent that he wasn't guilty, and so as an outsider I was persuaded to look into things and try to find out what had actually happened.
I discovered that the "murder" wasn't actually a murder at all. At least, not the intentional kind. The deceased, a Sapiarch named Haladan, had been trying to cure a bizarre and devastating illness that had stricken an old friend and her shipmate. He and his lover, Emile, had come up with a potential solution, but it had come too late to stop the shipmate from going berserk and tearing apart Haladan's body before succumbing to death herself.
I knew something was fishy about how emphatically Emile insisted that he was the murderer and refused to accept my help. He really, really didn't want me looking into what had actually happened. And after learning about the actual cause of death and the secretive and highly forbidden magical research the couple had been pursuing in search of a cure for the disease, I understood why. The "cure" had involved imposing a sort of vampirism on the sufferer, which needless to say was a huge taboo in itself.
But it wasn't just a matter of Emile wanting to hide the unsavory activities he and his lover had been undertaking. If it were only about being punished for dabbling in dark magic or turning someone into a vampire, I can't see being punished as a murderer being a more appealing alternative. There was something more at stake, something he was desperate to protect.
As a Sapiarch, Haladan was held to the absolute highest standards of conduct. He had taken a huge risk to try to help his old friend. The real punishment, what terrified Emile so much, was that if the Sapiarchs discovered what Haladan had done, they would wipe away his entire legacy. Everything he had ever created would be gone. His memory itself would be expunged from the group's collective consciousness. Emile couldn't bear to see everything his love had accomplished destroyed like that. And so he was willing to take on the mantle of a murderer to protect the memory and legacy of the man he loved.
Norasea, the friend that Haladan had risked so much for, had warned me that Emile would react that way when I confronted him with what I knew. In the brief time since she had met Emile, she could sense the deep bond the two men shared. But she also knew that Haladan would not want Emile to suffer because of what had happened. She told me not to let Emile throw everything away even if that was the only thing he wanted.
And it was. When I convinced him that I knew the truth, he begged me to go along with his ruse. Protecting Haladan's legacy was too important to him. And there was also protecting Norasea, who would be hunted down if the Sapiarchs found out there was a vampire on the loose. On top of that, the already strained relations between the Mages Guild and the Sapiarchs would be further tested by revelations of individuals colluding on forbidden magic. All of those problems would go away if Emile would simply accept being a prisoner for the rest of his life. And he was entirely ready to make that sacrifice.
But... Norasea had told me that that was not what Haladan would want for the man he loved. Haladan wouldn't want Emile to endure punishment and ignominy on top of his grief and loss. He would have been just as ready to sacrifice for Emile as Emile now was for him. Wouldn't he want his surviving beloved to go on with his life, accomplishing as much as he could in his stead?
And so, I went with what I believed Haladan would have wanted, and not what Emile wanted. I tried to tell Emile that it was for the best, but he cursed me for taking away this one thing he could still do for his beloved. Taking away everything they had struggled to achieve together. He hated me for it, when I had no right to push myself into their personal affairs to begin with. He would never forgive me for it. And even if he didn't have to spend the rest of his life in prison, he would have to live with regret and despair over his failure to protect his love, all because some outsider thought she knew what was best for two people she'd never even met.
I... kind of had to force myself not to cry after hearing him lash out at me like that. He'd already gone through so much, and I had destroyed the one thing he could do to keep some part of his lover alive. Seeing him sitting there as I left, looking so dejected and broken...
But... it's something he'll get over, right? When emotions are less raw, when he has a chance to think about things more rationally? He'll realize that he can carry his love's memory with him, and keep his legacy alive within himself even if the Sapiarchs have forced themselves to forget. And he'll grow to look forward to all the things he can accomplish, knowing that he is honoring the man whose love helped make him what he is. Right?
He said he'd never forgive me. Now I have to think about whether I can forgive myself. I should probably just go see if Val has had any success talking to the College gatekeepers. I think I've caused enough trouble trying to help random strangers today.
Well then. The Court of Bedlam moved quite a bit faster than we expected going after the College of Sapiarchs. In retrospect it's not hard to see how they could strike so effectively, considering that they had no less than a Psijic sage helming the offensive.
Not a current Psijic sage, fortunately, at least not one I would have considered an ally. But it was most certainly a betrayal, one felt most keenly by Valsirenn. That person she's been looking for? The friend who turned out to be her husband, who's been missing for a long time? Yeah, he's not just Leythen, he's Earl Leythen, esteemed official of the Court of Bedlam. Of course Val had no clue that that was the case, until we arrived in the College headmistress' office to find him sneering and threatening and demanding that the Crystal Tower's keys be handed over to him.
Val's binding magic made short work of his aggressive overtures, while I cleaned up the last of the grunts he had brought with him. His surly mouth was still fully functional, though, and he gave me an earful about his mistress Mephala and how insignificant I was compared to the grand new age she was going to usher in once we fools had been wiped out.
While I wondered if this egotistical ass was really someone that Valsirenn could fall in love with, she was livid to see what her husband had become while she was blindly worrying about his safety. She had no idea how he could betray the Order - and her - like that. He said something about her turning her back on him and their daughter, but this whole messy situation certainly wasn't something we were all going to work out while we were standing there in the carnage-strewn Sapiarch's office.
Val seemed to be keeping her emotions in check enough to be able to manage getting our captive back to Artaeum, but I'm sure this revelation is only going to make things more difficult for her. I'm trying not to put myself in her place, wondering how I would handle it if the person I cared for suddenly reappeared acting like a villain. I'll need to keep in mind that this is her personal business to deal with, and if she wants to confide in me it'll be up to her. But for now, I'll just do what I can to keep our mission moving forward.
If I ever wondered what it would be like if stories really did come to life, I've gotten a glimpse at the school of higher learning known as the Illumination Academy.
I headed out there to look for the Sapiarchs who hold the keys to the Crystal Tower, and right from the beginning it struck me as a pretty strange place. First I was greeted at the entrance by a High Elf doing her best Nord warrior impression. As I went in to look for someone to talk to, I saw a teacher instructing a group of chickens and a Khajiit running in terror from a tiny kitten. At the time, I didn't think too much of it, even when a pirate crew "sailing" a large tree called out for me to shiver their timbers or something.
I was more interested in the fact that Razum-dar had shown up too. He says I seem to have a knack for appearing just when he needs me, but I could say the same for him. He had caught whispers that the Court of Bedlam was tracking a Sapiarch at the Academy, and it all became clear to him when I told him about the sentinel keys and the danger to the Crystal Tower.
It didn't take long for us to find Sapiarch Hannayel, and she gave me directions to find her partner in a nearby delve. Before I left, though, I got pulled into the bizarre goings-on that had turned the quiet center of learning into something out of a House of Reveries stage production.
I made the acquaintance of a young man named Erudil, who had somewhat accidentally unleashed a strange and powerful enchantment on his classmates and teachers. Somehow he was unaffected, but every other person in the place seemed to be consumed with delusions that they were characters from some story or other. That explained all the Nords, and the pirates, and the people walking on their hands and knees oinking like pigs. There was even an Inspector Vale, and a Brave Little Scrib, and I think one person thought he was Pirate Queen Fortunata.
It's probably a good thing I'd read most of these stories along the way during my travels. Especially since breaking the spell involved identifying what story each character came from and then coming up with some way to make the actors contradict what they knew the characters would do. I have to say that as solutions to problems go, it was nice having more of a puzzle to solve rather than needing to go charging in killing things.
Although I did end up having to do battle with the force behind the enchantment, which had manifested in Erudil's friend and was pretty peeved that I was messing with its stories. It turns out that cursed books get bored, and they find it exciting to trap people into acting out adventures around them. It seems that Erudil was spared only because he was simply too dull for the enchantment to have any interest in him.
So that was a thing. I'll admit that it was pretty entertaining watching these characters come to life, and if it were just a play and not a bunch of people being controlled against their will I might have hung around longer just spectating. And perhaps, getting away from humdrum routines to "be" someone else for a little while can be pretty exciting. Would that prudish librarian be better off if he indulged in his repressed amorous inclinations now and again? Was that Nord actually happier as a pirate queen? I couldn't really say, but I don't think I'd blame them for indulging their imaginations a bit. In a controlled fashion, of course.
Of course, I say that as someone who gets to regularly enjoy the role of the dauntless hero traveling far and wide to slay great beasts and rescue damsels and gents alike. My fantasies would probably involve a quiet evening at home with my feet up, maybe wearing a fuzzy robe and getting a nice back massage. Come to think of it, there's someone who owes me a neck rub, isn't there...
But anyway. Time to leave fantasy land behind, and get back to work.
No, it shouldn't be this hard for me right now. I've had enough time since I left the grotto beneath Eton Nir. And right now my mind needs to be as sharp as it's ever been. Darien is the Golden Knight, that's all I need to know. Darien is Meridia's Champion. And now I'm on my way to rescue him. Just as I've always wanted. I'll tear the entire Spiral Skein apart if I have to.
After I returned to Artaeum from King's Haven Pass, I told Ritemaster Iachesis that the Golden Knight had been pulled into Mephala's realm just as I recovered the second Resolute Diamond, expecting him to send me to the rescue in response. But he was preoccupied with things he had remembered from long ago, and he asked me to accompany him to the Dreaming Cave in pursuit of that elusive memory. I set aside my concern for the brave Knight, knowing that Iachesis was probably right to prioritize the recovery of the Heart of Transparent Law that he had hidden away all that time ago.
But the portal in the Dreaming Cave was blocked by malevolent Daedric energy, preventing us from pursuing the Ritemaster's memory. The Golden Knight, he said, could wield Dawnbreaker against the barrier, and again my hope was stirred. But Iachesis was not inclined to act directly. He thought that the next step should be to try to contact Meridia and seek her assistance in retrieving her champion and the sword. And so I obediently if somewhat grudgingly went to talk to our resident Daedric cult expert, Val's disagreeable traitor husband, and with little or nothing of value from him I went on to find Razum-dar to see what he'd uncovered about Daedric worship activity on Summerset.
Finally our path led me to an underground shrine to Meridia, and I found myself at last standing before the Prince I would have given anything to interrogate about a great many things over the course of the last year.
She sensed that I had a question in my mind, and asked what I wanted of her. I seriously almost blurted out "Where is Darien?" but... we were on a mission. And so instead I told her that her Golden Knight had been captured, and asked her how to repair her sword. I almost wonder how much she knew about what was truly on my mind, because in her next breath she told me... that my next task was to set Darien free. She actually said it, just like that. "You must set Darien Gautier free."
Darien Gautier... the name rang through my mind like the peal of a bell in a hollow chamber before I put the pieces together. Darien... my Darien... was her vessel. A manifestation of her will, she said, sent to our reality to banish darkness. And now, as her realm itself was falling victim to the Triad's attacks, she was finally sending me to rescue him. He and I, together, will be what Nirn needs to stop this assault on our world.
She said something else, that ever since her vessel met me, he... cares. I don't quite know what that means. I scarcely dare to hope... but I can't dwell on that. It's time for me to make good on my promise. I will find him, and I will bring him home. And I will burn down anything that stands in my way.
I just want to share some snippets from a chat with a friend, from the day I did this part of the story:
auuuggghhh this quest
"hey Darien got captured even though I don't know it's Darien yet"
"okay cool how about you don't try to rescue him and instead come with me to this other place"
"but I want to rescue him okay fine"
"oh no there's evil juju preventing us from using this portal, but the Golden Knight's power could help us"
"okay awesome send me after him to rescue him"
"naw man go talk to this other guy and find some priest to help us get in touch with the Golden Knight's deity"
"JUST SEND ME IN THERE I'LL TEAR THEM ALL TO SHREDS TO RESCUE MY MAN"
(45 minutes later)
talking statue of Meridia let drop that the Golden Knight is Darien
and she wants me to go rescue him
GAME ON BITCHES
(2 hours later)
Darieeeennnnn I've missed yoooouuuuu
he's all tied up in a spiderweb being threatened by a miniboss and he's like "you're about to be really sorry"
because he sees me coming
and he knows I'm gonna KICK ASS
I'm not sure I can remember the last time I got this serious about an operation. As I traveled back to Artaeum, I inspected my weapons, tightened up my bow, made sure my quiver was fully stocked. I laid aside the fancy dress I've been wearing and suited up in my customary armor. It's not that I haven't become pretty skilled at fighting in a dress, but I think I wanted him to see me as he would have remembered me. As a warrior.
And when you're about to storm Oblivion, the last thing you want to be thinking about is ripping your fancy dress.
Iachesis had apparently expected Meridia to just hand me a new sword or something. To be fair, he was a bit addled with all of this forgotten memory business, but I had to actually explain to him that we needed to rescue the Golden Knight so that he could repair Dawnbreaker. And that was the impetus he needed to finally agree to send me to the Spiral Skein.
As Valsirenn and I prepared to depart, Iachesis told me to stay focused on my destination, and not to lose the Dawnstar Gem. He didn't need to be worried. As long as my destination was Darien Gautier, and the Dawnstar Gem was what was going to lead me to him, nothing would distract me or pry that gem from my hands.
The Dreaming Cave deposited us in different areas of the Spiral Skein, and it took some time and searching and burning through webs and finding secret passages before we met up with each other again. By the time I found Val, she had been attacked by something large and creepy and was about to suffocate in a cocoon. It was not a great start to the mission, but things could only look up from there.
As we made our way through the web-covered corridors, my arrows mowed down anything that moved, whether it stood in my way or not. This was not a time to be judicious. It's a good thing I had Val with me, because while my attention was fixed on hunting down enemies, she noticed a light in a distant tower that she knew could only come from the Golden Knight. With that as my focal point, we pressed on even more resolutely.
I heard him before I saw him. I had systematically eliminated all of the sentinels standing guard outside the room where the light was shining. Expecting that Mephala's prize captive would be even more heavily guarded within, I crept closer to the entrance to see what we would be facing. "You're about to... regret this..." said the voice, now unmistakably his, and I looked up to see him suspended in webbing on the far side of the room, being threatened by a powerful-looking spellcaster with a couple of ogrim minions.
I didn't even take the time to marvel over seeing him there. My ambush was swift and unforgiving. And then there was nothing left to stand between me and my prize.
"I tried to warn them..." he said wryly, as I stood breathing heavily over our enemies' corpses and the last of my rain of arrows fell around me. My eyes finally met his, and through the pain on his face was a look of amused gratification that told me all I needed to know. He remembered me, and what I could do. He knew exactly what would happen as soon as he saw me with my bow drawn.
And a moment later, after I had burned through the heinous webs, he was free.
He also hadn't lost his snarky sense of humor. Val got kind of offended when he chided us for taking so long to rescue him, but it just made me smile. I knew exactly what he meant. He knew I would come. He knew it was only a matter of time. And if the Ritemaster hadn't sent me chasing after a bunch of extra errands, I might have actually been able to meet his expectations.
When we finally came face to face, whatever feelings I might have imagined coming to the surface at that moment just kind of resolved into a sense of relief and gladness. He figured this whole thing must be pretty awkward, finding my old friend Darien in the guise of Meridia's Champion and all tangled up in spiderwebs. He wasn't wrong, but after already having wrapped my head around the idea of him being the Golden Knight, not much else was going to faze me.
He was surprised that I'd been able to find him, after Mephala had made a point of hiding him someplace where no one would think to look. I told him I'd been searching for him for a long time. It made him happy to know, that he'd been right to put his trust in me, that I wouldn't abandon him after everything we'd been through together.
I felt a flicker in my heart. But as he pointed out, this wasn't the time for reminiscing or catching up. This was the time for getting the hell out of there. I was still firmly in mission mode, and I assured him that even though he wasn't in any condition to fight, all he needed to do was stay close.
I hovered alertly around him as he trudged after Val, ready at any moment to offer an arm if he should stumble or an arrow to the face of anything that might come after us. Val was already working on summoning a portal out, and it was up to me to put down the spidery minions that wanted to stop us - including the big ugly creature that had put her into that cocoon.
As soon as we returned to the Dreaming Cave, Val whisked Darien away to be tended to by the Psijic healers. I watched them go longingly, but I needed to talk to the Ritemaster and update him about what had happened. He also had news for me, that he had recovered another fragment of his memories.
Words had come to him, words in an ancient tongue that he didn't understand, whispered to him in the low melodious voice of a beautiful woman. He was sure that those words held the key to finding the Heart of Transparent Law, and so I was tasked with assisting the efforts to translate them. After speaking with Oriandra, and then the insufferable arse Leythen (who was at least becoming somewhat more self-aware about his arseness), I had my objective: travel to the forest of Ebon Stadmont, and find some tablets that Leythen could remotely study.
Before I set out, I spent a considerable amount of time trying to discover where Valsirenn had taken Darien. I must have asked every single person in Ceporah Tower "Excuse me, where is your medical ward?" and "Could you tell me where to find the healers?" I got a lot of blank stares in response, and the occasional person trying to change the subject to interest me in their topic of choice. I hope they didn't mind the rudeness of me turning around and walking away when it became obvious that they were not going to give me the information I needed.
I finally set my growing exasperation aside, telling myself that I would find him after I got back from this little jaunt. The healers would need some time to work on him anyway, and they probably didn't need the distraction of an overprotective friend hovering around him. After so much time apart, what was a few more hours?
I found out what happened to Veya. After she was sent to Summerset to start a new life. After I decided to take pity on her and thought she deserved a second chance.
I had found a couple of discarded journal entries earlier in my travels that suggested some disquiet in her mind. She had misgivings about being shipped off to become ward to a new master. I could have told her that her new guardian was no ordinary Khajiit, and more than worthy of her respect, but Naryu may not have given her too much of a primer. In any event, it seemed that she had written off her new venture before it even began.
But somewhere along the way, she found a new purpose. She would not be a slave to an Altmer Queen. Instead, she decided to become an Earl for the Lady of Shadows.
And so it was Nocturnal's Earl I encountered, in illusory form, within the twisted pathways of Ebon Stadmont. She didn't want Mephala's Earl getting too close to the secret of the Ritemaster's ancient words. But she freely shared with me that the words are a magic spell that will reveal something hidden. When the time is right, Iachesis will be able to speak the words, and the location of the Heart will become known.
It was valuable information, that may or may not serve us well. But I couldn't help being more focused on the revelation of what Veya has become. Even after being spared, knowing she was getting a second chance, she felt forsaken and lost. And so she turned to the comfort of a Daedric Prince who promised her a place in some new world she wants to create. She feels motivated to serve this new mistress, along with her new family within the Court of Bedlam.
As I listened to her, I felt my surprise and incredulity turning to something harder. The way she went on about her mistress' unstoppable plans to remake the world. Her overt, unapologetic rejection of what Naryu and I tried to give her. Her insistence that I would never be able to stop her. The attempt to justify the Triad's destructiveness with claims that it was all for the greater good, to eliminate war and sickness. And, of course, to bestow "godhood" on the dutiful servants of the Court.
I was too nonplussed to laugh at that last part. But she really believed it. She thought that working for the Court's destructive ends somehow elevated her to a higher stature than everybody else, and that the final destination of her rise would be godhood. As if it were that easy.
I wasn't quite mentally prepared to try to talk her out of it, or really offer much of a counter other than reminding her that I was out to stop the Triad. She practically sneered as she dismissed me as nothing more than a minor nuisance. And then her illusion dissipated, leaving me to wonder just where Naryu and I went wrong.
This whole exchange, which Mephala's Earl had been locked out of, also left Leythen wondering about Nocturnal's motives once I told him about it. Veya had suggested that Leythen had been informing the Court about the goings-on on Artaeum, but he turned up his nose at the notion that he would allow his language research to be cut off prematurely. It bothered him that one of his allies would interfere with his work, as eager as he was to unlock the secrets of this ancient language. I wasn't displeased to see him so vexed, and maybe it will somehow work to our advantage to have a bit of strife among the Court's dutiful lackeys.
But now we have to figure out what to do with this information. I'm sure Iachesis will be keenly interested to hear what we uncovered, so I'd better not keep him waiting.
Iachesis was... not happy that we had gotten Leythen involved in our little magic words translation project. He was ready to discard everything we had learned as untrustworthy, until I pointed out that it was in the interest of Nocturnal's Earl to help him remember how to find the Heart of Transparent Law. As much as none of us like the idea, if we want to recover the Heart, we'll have to take into consideration what we've learned from the Court of Bedlam. And we do need to recover the Heart, to have any chance of restoring the Crystal Tower's protections over Summerset.
Once he had gotten over being grumpy about my unauthorized expedition to Ebon Stadmont, Iachesis sent me to speak to the Golden Knight in preparation for our next move. I practically ran outside now that I knew where to find him. As I approached I saw that Val was with him, and then I noticed that he was... doing exercises... shall we say... less than fully garbed. I will confess to pausing for just a moment to appreciate the view, before my need to speak to him took over again.
Val tactfully took her leave when she saw me coming, and Darien took to a stool for a respite from his physical exertions. I'm not sure if he noticed the blush on my cheeks or not.
The blush deepened, I'm sure, when he said that he was glad to have the chance to speak with me privately. Maybe he had been looking forward to seeing me again, just as much as I had...
He started by asking me if I remembered him, from before we met in Summerset. I wasn't sure why he'd ask, but I assured him that I did. That memory of losing him in Coldharbour is still etched in my mind. His memories are hazier, it seems. Maybe he just wanted confirmation that our time together, before the Colored Rooms, wasn't just a dream.
But he definitely remembered me. He also said that Meridia talked about me, a lot. I found myself hoping that she had focused on the more heroic parts of my adventures, and maybe left out some of the parts I'm less proud of. But at least that saved me from having to recount everything I'd done since Coldharbour, and we could spend more time talking about him.
It had been a strange experience for him. He didn't know that he was Meridia's vessel, when he first found himself floating in the vast expanse of light, and his first assumption - much like mine - had been that he was dead. But then Meridia began explaining things to him, and he found out that he was in the Colored Rooms, and there were a lot of boring lectures and boring conversations with Meridia's Golden Saints, and I got the impression that he had been pretty well stir-crazy.
He still had a lot of questions about himself. Aside from instructing him to help me stop the Daedric Princes from getting to the Crystal Tower, Meridia had told him very little about his purpose or why she brought him to her realm. He couldn't even be sure if he was really a Breton, or why he remembered so little about his childhood, or how Meridia's magic had been within him all his life, or why he needed to be so attractive and charming if he was just supposed to beat up Meridia's enemies.
Okay, so that last one might not have been such a serious question. But it did spur some kind of inner mischief in me that led me to comment on his current state of shirtlessness. Glancing back in the direction of the departed Valsirenn, I asked if he made a habit of going around half-dressed in front of strangers. His response was predictably saucy, and just for good measure I told him that it was something I could get used to. He said he'd try not to distract me too much while we were off saving the world, and after that? Well, he didn't have any plans if I didn't.
It seemed just like the old days, tossing around suggestive repartee that was never expected to go anywhere. And then... I had to go and keep talking.
"This isn't the first time I've seen you without a shirt on, you know," I pointed out, perhaps to downplay the current situation.
"Well, lucky you," he replied, taking the opportunity to stretch his muscles a bit more. "I'm not sure I remember the occasion, but I can see how it would be hard for you to forget."
"It was... memorable, all the way around."
He seemed to catch something in my tone. "Maybe you should give me a refresher..."
"It was in Rivenspire. You had just, um... seduced a lady captain from the Montclairs to get information from her. I walked in afterward. And... there you were."
"Hmm, that does sound like something I might do." He looked at me like he was trying to size up my expression. "Sounds like it was kind of awkward for you."
"It could have been worse, actually. On my way there I overheard some of her underlings talking about their captain's new boytoy, so I had some idea of what to expect."
"I see." He lowered his voice. "I hope it didn't make you too jealous."
I gave him a skeptical look. "At that point I wasn't really thinking along those lines, so no."
He cocked an eyebrow. "'At that point'? Does that mean you've come around since then?"
I felt my cheeks growing warmer as I caught my slip-up. That wasn't the smartest thing to say if I was trying to stay nonchalant...
He must have noticed the change in my expression. "There isn't anything you're not telling me, is there?" he teased.
I could have just laughed it off, made it all about his irresistible physique and my girlish weaknesses. But if I didn't say something now... if I couldn't bring myself to tell him, when he was asking me the question directly, then when...
The longer I waited to say something, the more obvious it would be that it wasn't just a joke.
I let out a breath. It was really time.
I smiled at him, a little ruefully. "You mean you really never noticed?"
He looked a little taken aback, and then kind of sheepish. "You should probably assume I'm an idiot and just lay it out for me."
I nodded. This was it. It took another moment or two for me to get the words out, but when I did they came surprisingly easily.
"I've been in love with you for a long time."
The look on his face told me that this wasn't something he'd considered.
"You're... you're being serious? You're not just, you know... cheeky banter and all that?"
"I was debating whether I should just leave it at harmless flirting," I said wryly. "But... you did ask."
"Yeah... I did." He ran a hand through his hair. "You're right, I... I really was an idiot, wasn't I. All that time, I was just having fun being your sidekick. The hero of the Covenant, the hero of Coldharbour... and I had no idea I was that important to you."
"I didn't exactly make it obvious," I pointed out.
He tipped his head in acquiescence. "Still, though... I usually have a pretty good eye for these things." He looked thoughtful for a moment. "Was there a reason you never told me?"
"There was a lot going on back then. Everything we had to do, it all seemed more important. And then you were gone."
He caught something in the look my eyes. "That must have been hard for you. I'm sorry."
I shook my head. "It wasn't your fault. It..." I felt something starting to sting the back of my eyes, and I instinctively knew I should stop talking.
I looked away. I had to, if there was any chance of keeping my composure.
"Ilsabet... hey, Hero of Coldharbour..."
Now he was standing up, coming toward me. Didn't he know he was just making it harder?
"Come on, cheer up. I always hate seeing a pretty girl cry."
He tentatively reached toward my chin, turning my face so I could see his reassuring smile. "It's okay. I'm here now, and everything will be all right."
I don't think he was aiming for me to burst into tears and throw my arms around his neck, but that's what happened. As I sobbed into his shoulder, he patted my back and valiantly continued trying to calm me down. "Hey, hey, it'll be all right. You don't need to... I'm not going anywhere, okay? You don't need to worry. I'm right here. I..."
He finally gave up, and just stood there holding me while my emotions had their way.
"I’m sorry, I really am," he said quietly, after a few more moments had passed. "The only thing worse than seeing a pretty girl cry is knowing I'm the one who caused it."
I tried to shake my head, but I had to pull myself together a little before I could answer him.
"I'm just so happy to see you again," I murmured, in between sniffles. "All that time, I thought you were gone, and then I wanted to find you but couldn't... I didn't know what to do... I can't believe you're really here... but you are, and it's just..."
I finished the thought by squeezing him just a little tighter.
I felt him sigh. "I know it must have been tough. But I also know you're strong enough to handle just about anything. Even me going away for a little while."
I felt better just hearing him say that. It was a welcome reminder that he believed in me. "Yeah..."
We stood in silence for a little while longer, until he seemed satisfied that I had my emotions more or less under control.
"Good, now that's out of your system..."
He drew back a little, and I couldn't quite bring myself to meet his gaze. I can only imagine what a mess my face must have been. He gave me a look that seemed both sympathetic and amused, and then raised a hand and started gently wiping the tears from my cheeks. I just closed my eyes and let him do it. I felt a little like a child being cared for after I'd hurt myself.
"There, that's better," he said. "Now how about a smile? You did say you were happy to see me..."
I raised my eyes to meet his, and almost immediately I felt a compulsion to smile.
He seemed relieved, and gave me an encouraging smile of his own. "That's much better. Let's stick with that from now on."
I nodded, already feeling like I was going back to being my old self. The self who didn't have to angst about every little thing, who could feel at ease knowing that someone I could count on was by my side.
He looked at me earnestly. "Tell you what. We'll go save the world, again, and then you and I will have a nice long conversation. You can tell me everything you like about me and how I unwittingly captured your heart. And... by then, I should have had plenty of time to come up with something better than cheeky banter to say to you."
I felt any remaining melancholy melting away. "Okay."
I just looked up at him, feeling a kind of serenity born of catharsis, and gingerly placed a hand on the side of his face. It was somehow still hard to believe. It was really him, and he was really here. He was an actual person, and I was touching him. It struck me how very close he was, and I felt my face getting even warmer.
He seemed to have noticed it too. "For now... here's a little something to tide you over."
His face was moving closer. My eyes widened, then closed as his lips touched mine.
I'm not quite sure how to describe the sensation of being kissed. I probably should have been nervous, but it wasn't hard to just get lost in the moment, the feeling of his lips pressed against mine.
As he pulled away and I tried to catch my breath, he studied my blushing face with a curious look in his eyes. "That wasn't your first kiss, was it?"
I felt kinda shy all of a sudden. "It... was, actually. I mean there was the time Ian tried, but I didn't let him, and he really only got the corner of my mouth, so I don't count that..."
He laughed. "Well... we'll just have to do some practicing."
I couldn't tell if he was implying that I was bad at it or what. "I thought it was very nice."
That cheeky gleam came back to his eyes. "Well in that case... there's more where that came from."
I just looked at him, a little incredulously, and I felt something bubbling up inside me. In retrospect, I can only really describe it as... joy.
I pushed myself away from his embrace, feeling kind of giddy. "You really are ridiculous," I chided through the big goofy grin on my face. "We're here needing to go save the world, and you're talking about giving me kissing lessons?"
He grinned. "Well... call it planning ahead. Something to look forward to once the world-saving is done."
"Uh-huh." I tried my best to give him a getting-back-to-business look, which was probably not very successful. "We should probably get moving on that, you know. I'm pretty sure the Ritemaster is waiting for us." As I spoke, I felt my feet meandering backwards, as if reinforcing the need to escape his gravitational pull. "How about you meet me down there in the cave - after you put your armor back on."
He pouted a little. "And here I thought you preferred me this way."
"I don't need you distracting me, remember?"
"Right, right, gotta try to tone down the overwhelming natural attractiveness." His expression changed, and he pointed at something behind me. "But uh, speaking of distractions, you might want to watch your step..."
I had a momentary flash of panic as I remembered that we were basically standing on a cliff, and I had been paying exactly zero attention to where my feet were taking me. My attempt to turn around to look where I was going only tangled my feet up, just as I was tripping over a stone poking out of the ground directly behind me.
On the plus side, I didn't actually fall on my face. I managed to get a hand down just in time to catch myself, and it somehow turned into a supremely ungraceful spinning-falling-stumbling-steadying-notfalling maneuver that I could never pull off again even if I tried to choreograph it.
Out of the corner of an eye I saw what looked like Darien taking a step toward me, and as I began righting myself I held up a hand to ward him off. "I'm all right! All right..."
I straightened myself out, and once I was sure I was rightside-up, I nodded resolutely (with a muttered "right" under my breath just for confirmation) and set off toward the stairs leading downward to the Dreaming Cave. I didn't look back at him as I stepped much more deliberately over the stones along the path, doing my best to look dignified and not as if I were about to burst into hysterical laughter at any moment. The people I passed along the way probably wondered what was wrong with me as I tried and failed to look casual.
I made it down the stairs, and as soon as I was out of sight of the world above I tucked myself into a corner and stopped trying to be dignified.
I pressed myself against the wall, and then slid down it as I finally succumbed to delighted giggling. I heard a clatter as something fell out of a pocket, and looked down to see... the Breton love charm, that I'd been hauling around with me for no real reason. I looked down at it in stunned silence, and then started laughing even harder. It... it couldn't have, it was just a silly trinket, it obviously had nothing to do with anything. But as I scooped it up and tucked it securely back into my pocket, I also knew that I would never let it out of my possession again.
I had a few minutes, once the giddiness subsided, to just sit there and reflect. All of the uncertainties, all of the trepidation about how he would react, it was as if it had never happened. Maybe he didn't feel exactly the same way I did, just now, but what he had given me... it was hope. It was the knowledge that things weren't going to be worse between us now that he knew. In fact, there was a very great possibility that they would ultimately be much, much better.
But first, there was the mission. Always the mission. But even now, knowing that we were once again putting duty before ourselves, I didn't feel conflicted or unhappy about the situation. On the contrary, I was looking forward to seeing where our adventures would take us this time. No matter the dangers we might face, the man I loved would be with me. The hero and her Knight in shining armor. And nothing was going to stop us.
My meditations after my conversation with Darien didn't last a moment too long. I had just crossed the threshold into the Dreaming Cave and started making my way over to talk to the Ritemaster when Darien came sprinting into the room calling for us not to start without him. He gave me a wink as I ascertained that his armor was indeed fully on, and then we both turned our attention to the task at hand.
Iachesis beckoned the Golden Knight to come forward and deal with the Daedric barrier, which he did with gusto. The gloomy miasma seemed to cower as Darien raised Dawnbreaker aloft, and after he slammed the sword to the floor with a great burst of light, it was gone completely.
He turned back to me with a satisfied smile, resting the blade on his shoulder, and I gave him a suitably impressed look. As I headed past him toward the portal, he mused about one day being able to just relax in a tavern somewhere, without any Daedra or monsters or evil necromancers trying to destroy the world and kill us all. One of these days...
It was a nice thought. Having no idea where this portal was going to lead us, I was tempted to imagine that we would actually all just end up sitting around a table in a tavern, and we could just talk things out with our enemies over meads and ales.
But, when I emerged on the other side, what met me was a familiar pervasive gloom - or perhaps I should say gloam. It was Nocturnal's domain, where the Ritemaster had apparently hidden away the Heart of Transparent Law three hundred years ago.
Iachesis hadn't made the trip quite as heartily as the rest of us, and Valsirenn stayed back with him while Darien and I scouted ahead. Darien couldn't help admiring the revealing fashion style favored by Nocturnal's minions, although the fact that they were trying to kill us was a bit of a turn-off.
I was more perturbed by the appearance of some of the Blackfeather crows, and the realization that they were still serving Nocturnal. It would have been nice if they'd gotten the memo about my status as Crow-Friend and decided to help us out. Instead, they mocked us as we went along, making comments about the "featherless one" who had been there before - but at that time, he was carrying a crystal that he no longer bore.
While Darien was mostly confused about the talking birds, Iachesis and Val were inclined to dismiss the crows' ravings as nonsense. But they did stir Iachesis' memories. He had definitely been to this place before, and recollections were coming back to him as we traversed the path. He had brought the crystal here, and he was becoming more convinced that he had made some kind of deal with Nocturnal to hide the Heart away before it could be claimed by K'tora.
As Darien and I continued, I kept an eye out for anything of interest along the path. It may have been a bit of a sidetrack, but I didn't want to miss anything that might provide additional clues about what we were dealing with. It turned out not to be a waste of time.
I found two more of Veya's diary entries, describing how the Lady of Shadows had begun whispering within her psyche. How she had found acceptance and comfort within a new mother's embrace. How she had devoted herself to that mother's vision of a reworked world where hatred and greed and war would be no more. Where no one would ever again lose someone they loved. All they had to do was burn down the world that is.
As I saw more clearly into the girl's current mindset, the creeping hardness in my heart that had taken root during our conversation in Ebon Stadmont grew stronger. Veya... that's not how it works...
Darien waited patiently for me, no doubt noticing the troubled look on my face as I studied each scrap of paper. He was tactful enough not to say anything when my pace walking away was a little more labored than it had been. And he followed, close behind, as my steps grew more purposeful.
Something was waiting up that final flight of jagged rocky stairs before us. And if it was her... mercy would not stay my hand again.
As it happened, it was not Veya that awaited us at the top of those stairs - or anyone else. It was a portal, which led to another set of stairs, which led to an ancient ruin where more of Iachesis' memories took form. He remembered, that this was the place where Nocturnal's spell had locked the Heart away.
Confident that we had reached our destination, he ascended to the top of one of the crumbling walls, ready to speak the invocation that would reveal the Heart's hiding place. Darien and I instinctively took up positions on either side of Valsirenn, on the lookout for anything that might interrupt or threaten the Ritemaster's ritual.
As Iachesis spoke the words that had been dancing through his mind, I heard echoes of the language I had encountered in Ebon Stadmont. Almost immediately a look of innate understanding came to his face, as his chest began glowing with an otherworldly light. The Heart, he suddenly remembered, had been hidden away within himself. The one place that no one would think to look, including the one who had given him the spell.
Before we could feel too good about cracking the code, we were joined by two-thirds of the Triad. Clavicus Vile and Mephala appeared, delighted that the Heart was now theirs for the taking. While the three of us on the ground scrambled to deal with the waves of Daedric monsters they had brought with them, Mephala and Vile played tug-of-war with the Ritemaster's body, each trying to be the one to wrench the gem free.
The game came to an abrupt halt when Evergloam's mistress arrived. With scarcely a flick of her fingers, Nocturnal banished her compatriots from her realm, and then turned her attention to the beneficiary of her long-ago assistance. She had helped him hide the Heart of Transparent Law in his moment of desperate need, and now it was time for her to collect on her end of the bargain.
But Iachesis wasn't going to just hand over the soul of the Crystal Tower to one of our avowed enemies. He resisted her pull with every fiber of his being, knowing that the only way she would get it was by killing him.
Unfortunately, she had no problem doing just that. All we could do was watch helplessly as she tore his body apart and ripped out the crystal heart as if it were his own flesh. I took a few shots out of desperation, but they seemed to just sail right through her.
"We need to go. Now." There was a commanding urgency in Darien's voice. But first we had to deal with a couple of monstrous creatures that made the Wraiths-of-Crows look like pigeons by comparison.
As Val began summoning a portal to make our escape, Darien tried to reassure us that Dawnbreaker would protect us. He took a defensive stance in front of us, but it only drew Nocturnal's attention. "The sword of light... I'll take that," she crooned, and we watched as the sword flew from the Knight's hand to hover beside the Prince. Darien dropped to his knees despondently as Nocturnal's shadows dulled the blade's golden shine to a blackish purple.
Smugness dripped from Nocturnal's voice as she admired her new toys. She assured us that the Crystal Tower would soon be hers, and added that she no longer needed Mephala or Vile. The last thing I saw, as I glared at her while stepping into Val's portal, was her self-satisfied face leering back at me.
Back in the Dreaming Cave, we had to break the news of Iachesis' death to Oriandra. She was astonished that the strongest mage in their Order could fall to such a fate, and that he would even make such a deal with a Daedric Prince in the first place. But more than that, we were all left with the vast uncertainty of what to do now, without the Heart and without the Ritemaster.
Sotha Sil, Oriandra hoped, might have some answers for us. He had arrived while we were away, bearing news that he said he would give only to the Ritemaster. In his absence, it would be up to me to speak with Seht while my more seriously wounded compatriots visited the Psijic healers.
While Valsirenn was emotionally reeling from Iachesis' death, Darien was more genuinely frustrated than I had ever seen him. He was Meridia's Champion now, and she had sent him to save everyone. But he hadn't been able to do it, and on top of that his weapon had been stripped from him. He was not used to failing so spectacularly, and he did not like it at all.
A notion resolved itself in my mind after I spoke to him, as I made my way to see what Sotha Sil had wanted to tell the Ritemaster. Darien couldn't save everyone by himself. Neither could I. But now, as he recovered from his injuries, I would do what I could to be of use to him.
In this case, that meant putting my foot down when the Clockwork God was going to just turn around and go home after finding out that the Ritemaster was not coming to meet him. He thought it was interesting that I would make a demand of him, but really, what did he expect?
Fortunately he seemed to respect my show of impudence. He shared the realization he had had that Nocturnal's true purpose in invading his City had been to discover his secret for using life energy as a power source. Apparently the Skeleton Key, while it would have been a useful prize, was just as much a diversion as anything else. With this technique, and control of the Crystal Tower, Nocturnal could amplify the tower's capabilities. Which, since the Crystal Tower was connected to all realities simultaneously, meant that she could access all realities simultaneously. Control them all simultaneously. She could, Sotha Sil theorized, become infinite.
I wasn't sure I liked the sound of that. But she wasn't there quite yet. Obtaining the Heart of Transparent Law got her one step closer to her apparent goal, but it wouldn't do her any good if we could prevent her from getting into the tower.
Before I could ask Sotha Sil how we could accomplish that task, Darien came in to tell me that I needed to go see Valsirenn. There was something serious going on, and he thought I should go step in before it got any more serious. As I turned to go, Sotha Sil asked to speak to the Knight of Meridia. How I would have loved to listen in on that conversation, but...
I arrived in Val's study to find her suspending Leythen in some kind of magical choke-hold while Oriandra pleaded with her not to kill him. It seemed that I was just in time to prevent her from taking out her fury on him over Iachesis' death, and she decided it would be better if I interrogated the traitor to find out why this had all happened.
Leythen, for his part, had never intended for his Court's plot to lead to his friend's death. He claimed that his lieges had only ever sought to make the world a better place, and he refused to believe that Nocturnal would betray her partners. But he couldn't deny that we were in a desperate situation now that Nocturnal had the Heart. He insisted on being allowed to leave Artaeum to contact Mephala, declaring that if Nocturnal really had betrayed the Triad then we would need his mistress' help to thwart her.
I demanded as much information as he had to give me, but neither Valsirenn nor I was about to just throw ourselves at Mephala's feet as long as we had any other alternatives. And Valsirenn pointed out that there was still the chance that the Sapiarchs would be able to attune the tower's gate keys to a new set of sentinels, which they were even now attempting to do in a hugely risky sped-up ritual.
With time never more of the essence, I hurried to the gatehouse outside the Crystal Tower to check on the ritual. I arrived to find Razum-dar shouting at a couple of Sapiarchs, wanting to know what was going on there. He drew my attention to a strange glowing at the top of the tower, which he was pretty sure was not what it was supposed to be doing. Just as I was hypothesizing that it might have something to do with Nocturnal's possession of the Heart of Transparent Law, catastrophe struck before our very eyes.
A horrific cracking sound echoed across the rocky hills as the stone structure of the Crystal Tower seemed to splinter. Somehow it held together, but an unnatural light peeked out through newly-formed fractures. The sky turned instantly to night, and the glow at the top of the tower intensified. This was bad. We had to get to the ritual site to see what was going on.
Raz sprinted ahead of me as I found myself distracted looking up at the looming tower, wreathed in otherworldly dark purplish clouds. If I hadn't known what it signified, I might have said there was something beautiful about it. But now, it was just a portent of calamity.
At the gatehouse, Valsirenn was monitoring the two Sapiarchs still desperately struggling to meld with the diamond keys. Nocturnal's attack on the tower had been accompanied by mobs of Daedra trying to interfere with the ritual, and I joined Darien and Raz in repelling them. But despite our efforts, somehow Nocturnal's malevolent energy permeated through the diamonds, killing the Sapiarchs trying to attune to them.
The Sapiarchs had failed. We were no closer to being able to use the Resolute Diamonds to get into the Crystal Tower than we were when I first recovered them.
Valsirenn thought that the Psijic Conclave should have been the ones working on the diamond keys to begin with, and I agreed that it would be best to take them to Artaeum to see what the Psijics could do with them. But when Val instructed Darien to gather the keys, he rebelled. He'd had enough of watching people die while the Psijics didn't do enough to stop it. His frustrated outburst troubled me, but he responded to the concern in my eyes by agreeing to return to Artaeum with Val. As much as the situation didn't sit well with him, Meridia had instructed him to cooperate, so that was what he was begrudgingly going to do.
And so I left him behind, hoping that things wouldn't get any worse while I was riding to Alinor to help Raz warn the Proxy Queen about what was going on. There was no denying that things were really, really bad. But there had to be something we could still do to fix all of this.
I don't like this. I don't like this at all. Making deals with Daedric Princes is a really bad idea. Especially when they're the Daedric Princes who have been trying to screw over Nirn. ESPECIALLY especially when one of those Daedric Princes is Clavicus Vile. That's why I told Valsirenn not to take Leythen up on his alliance scheme. It might have been the easy way out, but it was most certainly not the smartest way to deal with our problems.
And then of course that damned dog had to come stick his nose into things, and drag me into this damned deal with the Prince of Bargains. Why didn't I just walk straight back out of that cave? Was there really no other way to get into the Crystal Tower? Maybe just taking the key doesn't count as accepting the bargain. Maybe I can turn it down later. And when he tells me what he wants in return... it shouldn't be unduly costly, is what he said. No more than I can afford. I swear, if it even crosses his mind to try to make me give up Darien...
And now Darien! Dammit, why didn't I tell him not to do anything reckless? It's what I was thinking, when he said he didn't trust the Psijic Order to take care of things anymore. But he said if he came up with any ideas, he'd let me know. Why didn't he wait for me? Doesn't he know that at the very least, even if he's planning to walk straight into Hell, I should be with him?
Damn all of this. Can't this horse run any faster?!