Darien knew I was upset with him the moment he saw me. I told him I was listening, and waited for him to explain himself. I already knew what his reasoning was, though. Sitting around waiting for a bunch of mystics to hem and haw over a couple of shiny rocks wasn't getting things done. Not in his mind. Not when Nocturnal was already sitting in the Crystal Tower and every moment was precious.
And so he decided that drastic measures had to be taken, and that buying into Leythen's "enemy of my enemy" scheme was the way to go. I asked him if he really thought that was a good idea. "Not you too," he groaned, having already dealt with the disapproval of everyone on Artaeum. But he could see the worry on my face.
He rested his hands on my shoulders and his voice softened a bit as he explained why we needed to do this. After being betrayed by Nocturnal, Mephala would at least have an incentive to help us. And since he couldn't contact Meridia, we had to get the power we needed from somewhere.
I still didn't like it. But looking into his imploring eyes... if he felt that strongly about it... I relented, and reluctantly admitted that this might be our best option. Besides which, I had already technically made my alliance with Vile. Like it or not, we were in this.
But I still really didn't like it. And the look on my face told Leythen exactly that, even as I agreed to accompany him into Mephala's shrine and try to make contact with his Prince. He was willing to return to Artaeum to face his punishment when we were done, but first he needed to see what was going on with his comrades in the shrine. He felt that something was wrong, that it shouldn't have been so hard to get the warded door to grant him access.
And inside the shrine, things were very definitely wrong. The corpses of Leythen's fellow cultists and strange shadow yaghra alike were strewn along the corridors of the decrepit stone ruins. It was most certainly the work of Nocturnal and her minions. They had attacked the other Princes' cults, and now that the Triad alliance was broken, there was nothing keeping her from trying to wipe out the followers of her former co-conspirators too.
Waiting for us deeper within the shrine was none other than Nocturnal's Earl. Veya stared us down imperiously from the other side of a collapsed great hall. It pained her, she said, that things had to end this way, but carrying out her mistress' will was more important than anything else. Leythen was not impressed by her show of sympathy, and neither was I.
Darien noted that she was carrying Dawnbreaker, now corrupted with shadows. He wanted it back, but Veya wasn't going to play nicely. She revealed that betrayal had always been Nocturnal's plan, and taunted us to follow her into the ruins to witness true power.
When Leythen teleported after her, Darien was worried that he might be tempted by that power. But as we caught up with Mephala's Earl, he was angrily insisting that he could not condone power that only destroys and kills innocents. Veya had heard enough of that, and froze him in place so she could speak to me.
She probably saw the coldness in my eyes as I approached her, especially after she threatened Darien with a taste of his own blade. I still couldn't be sure how much of the old Veya was left, how much of a chance I had of reaching her, but the more I saw the less hopeful I became.
She wanted to offer me a "mercy." If I stood aside and let her mistress carry out her work, she would kill the Psijics quickly. If not, then we would all suffer before we died.
I didn't even validate the offer by giving an answer. If Veya, and Nocturnal, thought I would just stand aside and watch them siphon the life energy of the world itself to twist reality into something dark and corrupt... they obviously hadn't been paying attention.
Veya bristled when I addressed her by her name. As far as she is concerned, "Veya" died in Balmora when her old life came to an end. She has a new name now, to go with her new purpose. It's fancy and Elvish, and I don't plan on using it. She may not be the same Veya I knew, but that doesn't mean I'm going to pretend that she never was that person. If anything, it makes her shift in loyalties even more damning.
Having laid down her challenge, Nocturnal's Champion took her leave. The shadows remaining in the shrine interfered with Leythen's ability to contact his Prince, but he had a backup plan.
Darien let a hint of worry about me show after Leythen instructed him to circle around and meet us at the back of the shrine. He didn't want to think that Leythen would stab us in the back, but you never knew with the servants of Daedric Princes. Excepting himself, of course.
Fortunately, Leythen was pissed off enough about Nocturnal and her Earl that he was fully on board with the plan we were concocting together. He summoned a shimmering blood-red image of Mephala, who was highly amused that her former adversaries were now begging for her help. She was even more amused to learn that we had every intention of challenging Nocturnal within the Crystal Tower, and that was enough to convince her to consider our proposal. It wasn't an actual acceptance, but at that point a "maybe" was better than nothing.
Darien wryly commented on how aloof and ominous the Daedric Princes always seem to be. "Would it be asking too much to just get a straight answer out of them once in a while?" If only he knew how many times I'd asked that very question about his own Prince.
Darien took on the responsibility of escorting Leythen back to Artaeum while I made my own way back there. Valsirenn wasn't happy about the bargains we had struck, but since the mystics' hemming and hawing had failed to make the Resolute Diamonds usable, the assistance of our former enemies was officially all we had left. Just in case, though, she was going to have the Psijic Conclave on standby if things went badly in the Crystal Tower.
Sotha Sil wanted to see me too. The Tribunal, he said, were also making their own preparations just in case. He was intrigued by the way Nocturnal was using his method for drawing and storing life energy along with the abyssal pearls and the Crystal Tower to enhance her capabilities. The process of fusing the Heart back into the crystal of Transparent Law would be a particularly critical point. If Nocturnal was the one to do it, then she could establish a permanent connection with the Crystal Tower - and, via the Tower's connection to all realities, become infinitely powerful. She really could bend reality itself to her will.
It was a sobering thought. But Sotha Sil didn't seem to think it was a foregone conclusion that she would succeed. He was waiting to see what would happen, and he seemed to think it would all revolve around me. A catalyst, is what he called me. All I had to do was make sure that I was the one to repair the crystal, and Nocturnal would be defeated and repelled.
No sweat, right?
And so, it was time to gather my allies and turn our attentions to the Crystal Tower...
Okay so I haven't totally fallen off the face of the planet. I've been working on something I should have started working on a long time ago, and I wanted to get it finished and posted before I moved on to the next climactic part of our heroes' journey.
Something dangerous happened while I was writing about Ilsabet and Darien's adventures in Summerset. I started wanting art of the two of them together, and imagining scenes and settings for them. And then, knowing that nobody was going to just draw art for me, I got crazy enough to try actually drawing them myself. I'm pretty sure I'm better at writing than drawing, and I can't even try to estimate how ridiculously long it took to create this, but I'm actually really happy with how it came out.
And so here we have our portrait of The Hero and Her Knight:
Pardon me while I go over here and squeal like a little girl.
I found Darien sitting alone at a table in one of the side rooms of Ceporah Tower, being ignored by the mages bustling around him. He was trying unsuccessfully to enjoy a mug of ale, and discovering that the Psijics' mastery over the cosmos did not extend to their brewing capabilities.
He'd been feeling fidgety since returning with Leythen, and was glad to hear my news that we'd be beginning our assault on the Crystal Tower soon. But there was something pensive about his otherwise eager mood. The last time we waged war on a Daedric Prince, he recalled, we were surrounded by friends, allies we knew we could rely on. There was something celebratory about all charging out there together to save our world. This time, when he looked around all he saw were nameless faces who barely noticed he was there. This time, all he had was me.
But he did have me. And I didn't even need to remind him that he could count on me. He was grateful for that fact, and promised me that when this was all over he'd buy me a drink so we could have a real celebration.
I decided not to point out that he already owed me at least one drink, or that we already had a standing date for a long talk once we were done saving the world. I got a bit pensive myself when it hit me that this would be the last moment of quiet time we'd be likely to share together before we went back into the fray.
But there wasn't any time to spend on gazing into his eyes or thinking up something meaningful to say to him. And I knew he understood that too. And so we exchanged knowing smiles, and I left him to what was left of his terrible ale, and went out to look for the rest of our team.
I didn't expect to find Raz outside Ceporah Tower, but there he was, having been smuggled into Artaeum by Oriandra. He had wanted me to know of developments back on Summerset. He had been able to contact Queen Ayrenn, and she had made swift arrangements with the leaders of the other alliances to send a united force to stand against the Daedric threat.
...Except that this force wouldn't arrive from the mainland until well after whatever was going to happen happened. And so, as Raz said, we were on our own. His plan was to prepare evacuation strategies for Summerset, just in case the Crystal Tower persisted in exploding. But he was certainly very hopeful that we would succeed in stopping that from happening.
Valsirenn and Leythen were together, speaking quietly at a small memorial shrine honoring their lost daughter. It seemed that they were coming to terms in a way, and I had never heard them speak to each other so gently. Val confided in me that while things between them would never be the same, they had come to understand each other a little better. Perhaps it was easier for them to put aside their anger and old resentments knowing that they were facing the end of the world.
I did my best to assure Val that we wouldn't let Nocturnal remake reality. She appreciated the sentiment, and it reminded her of how the Ritemaster could always inspire confidence at the right moment. If they couldn't have him along to face this challenge, she was glad to have me.
I was still wary of Leythen's allegiances, but he had no reason to be antagonistic now that the Psijic Order and his mistress were technically on the same side. He pledged that he would do his part to summon Mephala here and secure her assistance. His aspirations of turning the world into a paradise without suffering might have collapsed along with the Court of Bedlam, but he wouldn't stand to see Nocturnal destroy everything to gain infinite power.
The group that assembled in the Dreaming Cave was somber but hopeful. In the Ritemaster's absence, Sotha Sil would be the one helming the portal that would send our assault team toward its destination. Valsirenn and Oriandra were on hand to assist him in maintaining our connection. Barbas was there too, having been allowed into Artaeum so that he could guide us through the Fields of Regret just as his master had agreed. Leythen stood ready to contact Mephala, and Darien was steeling himself to run heroically into what his instincts told him to run far, far away from.
When Lady Mephala appeared, she seemed to have already decided to go along with helping us. The chance to best Nocturnal was simply too enticing for her to pass up. She attuned the Resolute Diamonds that would grant us entry to the Crystal Tower, but she also turned them into an anchor point that would keep us moored to our own reality as Nocturnal's energy shifted the Tower through different planes of existence. She warned us that straying too far from the anchor could leave any one of us adrift in the nothingness between realities.
Her price for her assistance was twofold. She wanted us to take her Earl with us into the Crystal Tower. And she wanted a private audience with Sotha Sil once everything was finished. I wasn't about to speak for Sotha Sil, but I saw no reason not to bring Leythen along now that we were on better terms. Maybe he wouldn't make me feel as secure as Darien did, but he would be able to provide support that went beyond what either of us could do. And he had already demonstrated his commitment to foiling his mistress' betrayer.
Once Mephala had departed and her red mist cleared, I handed Vile's key over to Barbas so that he could open the way to his master's realm. It was time for me and my two companions to go. We would make our way into the Crystal Tower, face Nocturnal, retrieve the Heart, and repair Transparent Law. At least, that was the plan.
As I checked over my gear one last time, I heard Darien's voice from across the room. "If I die saving the world, know that our brief time together has made me a better man," he was saying, to... Oriandra?
I looked over at them with raised eyebrows, but Oriandra seemed even more confused than I was. Darien went on to tell her that it was okay to cry, and promised that he'd do his best to come back to her.
I wasn't quite sure what to make of the whole thing. I mean... he knew I was standing right there, right?
Darien noticed my quizzical look as he walked toward me, apparently oblivious to Oriandra's befuddled reaction.
The smile he gave me almost seemed like he was proud of himself. "See, I learned my lesson," he told me confidently. "A young lady's emotions have to be handled very delicately."
I glanced at Oriandra, who still looked like she had no clue what had just happened. "Really..."
He grimaced. "Wait... don't tell me you're jealous again?"
I looked at his beleaguered expression, and just sighed. He was such a dork. Even if I had wanted to be mad at him, it wasn't going to happen.
"Let's... just get going," I said, and headed for the portal before he could notice the amusement coming to my face.
As I went through the portal, I heard him still protesting. "Better safe than sorry, right? You know how I just inspire those feelings..."
The matter was put out of both of our minds when we materialized on the other side of the portal and got our first look at Clavicus Vile's realm. At first the Fields of Regret didn't look like anything out of the ordinary, just wooded hills and actual fields - until you noticed the floating walls spiraling up to nowhere and big chunks of some kind of weird stone just hovering in the air.
And then there were the purple meteorites crashing into the ground in front of us. Leythen's suspicions about Barbas abandoning us were answered when we found the hound surveying Nocturnal's incursion into his master's domain. He pointed us in the direction of this place's Crystal Tower, but as long as his home needed to be protected, that's where his priorities would lie.
And so we proceeded into the tower without our guide. On the inside it looked an awful lot like any of the other moderately-maintained Altmer buildings I'd seen on Summerset. There was an eerie quiet about it, though - at least until we started coming across the creepy zombie shadow people that had once been the Sapiarchs in this version of the Tower. Something must have shattered their minds and bodies when Nocturnal's power took hold, and now there was nothing left to them but instinct to repel the invaders trespassing in their territory.
We managed to hold them off, and our progress was steady until we came to what seemed to be a dead end where a bridge ran straight into a wall with no door. Before we could get into strategizing how to get around the obstacle, the wall itself began to reshape itself, as we got a firsthand look at the warping of realities. At least this time, reality was remaking itself in a way that was advantageous to us, but it was also an impetus to keep moving before the opposite happened.
We found someone we could actually speak with, on a floor that was free of shadow Sapiarchs but covered with rubble from the explosions that had shaken the tower. The woman had been protected from her peers' fate by a magic staff that she had happened to take hold of when the tower began to shake, but as the relic's magic was fading, so was she.
I found out as much as I could about what had happened there, but the woman was overcome with terror as she sensed her impending death. Leythen stepped forward and offered his magical aid, telling her to picture her loved ones. A kind of transcendent calm came over her, just before she vanished.
Leythen didn't have the power to prevent her from succumbing to the shadows' pull. But he had at least made her last moments peaceful. It was a show of kindness that I wouldn't have expected from him.
We had to keep moving, before the shadow zombies caught up with us again. Darien's knowledge of siege weaponry came in handy as we were able to fix up an old ballista to blast through the rubble blocking our way, and I got a few extra shots in against some baddies that showed up to see what was making all the noise. I think Darien was disappointed that we couldn't take the ballista with us, and I have to admit it was kind of fun.
We made our way into a musty-smelling library, where the sky peeking through the holes in the walls looked nothing like what we had seen in Vile's realm. It seemed we really had shifted into another reality.
I'd been wondering when Nocturnal's Earl would show her face, and she finally did so in the form of an illusion interfering with our attempts to get through a magically locked gate. She made one last attempt to lure Leythen back into the fold, but he was having none of it. Despite Veya's taunts that Nocturnal was moving ever closer to her inevitable victory, her former accomplice was as determined as any of us to keep pressing onward to oppose her.
Veya's sabotage left us without a key or a way to get the unlocking mechanism to work, but once again Leythen's Psijic magic came to the rescue. He sent me and Darien running for the gate while he forced it open - but just as we reached the other side, expecting him to teleport through after us, Veya herself appeared to block his way. The gate slammed shut, and Leythen was left on his own to face down his former ally.
She was intent on stopping all of us right there - but she didn't expect Leythen's next move any more than Darien or I did. Leythen bound her in some kind of glowy forcefield, and then both of them vanished.
When Leythen materialized again, he was alone - and he was also covered in some kind of black glowing energy. He had done the only thing he could think of to get Nocturnal's Champion out of our way for a time, spiriting her away to someplace that would be troublesome for her to get back from. But... that someplace had also been far enough away from our anchor point that he could feel himself beginning to be unmade, just as his Lady had warned.
The words of the prophecy suddenly came back to me as I realized what Leythen had done. An unexpected sacrifice... I certainly couldn't have anticipated that the self-important traitor I had first met would be willing to give himself up for a greater good. But as he looked back at me through the gate, I had a hard time holding his old sins against him. He was giving us a fighting chance, and I thanked him for it. He appreciated that I had trusted him and allowed him to reach a sort of reconciliation with his wife, and said to tell Val that he and their daughter would be waiting for her. And then his body was consumed by the black energy, until there was nothing left.
I stood there for just a moment, until I felt Darien's hand on my shoulder. I'm not sure either of us would have called Leythen a friend before that moment, but we both felt for his loss. But there was nothing more we could do there. We had to keep moving.
Darien urged me forward as we continued climbing. Neither of us wanted Leythen's sacrifice to be in vain. We had to press on, despite our enemies' impediments, and make the most of the time he had bought us.
We were nearing the top of the tower when Nocturnal's Earl reappeared before us. She still had the corrupted Dawnbreaker, which Darien angrily demanded back. "Come and get it," she challenged, intent on putting a halt to our interference in her mistress' plans.
I had long since discarded any sympathy for Naryu's wayward apprentice. She was now only my enemy, and with Darien by my side I took her down as readily as I would any other. As she knelt broken before us, she seemed astonished that the stolen sword would fail to protect her.
"Dawnbreaker was never intended for you," Darien told her, with a reproachful edge in his voice.
"Meridia's magic is gone," Veya retorted. "The blade isn't yours anymore either."
Darien and I exchanged looks. "We'll see about that," he asserted, perhaps as much to me as to Veya.
As he reached for the sword, suddenly Nocturnal's voice rang out around us. "Join Meridia in my eternal darkness!" she cried, and a barrage of shadows swiftly washed over us.
My mind scrambled for a way to react as everything turned black. It was happening so fast, and there was nothing for me to shoot at. "Darien!" I called, starting to panic when I realized I didn't know where in the inky black void he was.
Then I heard his voice, indomitable, fervent, adamant. "We are... not... dying... like this!" he roared, as through sheer force of will he drove the darkness back. I just watched, powerless, as the shadows retreated from the space around us, driven back by the resonating light of Meridia's unyielding Champion.
The effort had completely drained him, and the fact that it had worked amazed even him. I looked at him, stooped over, panting for breath, and in that moment I loved him more than I ever thought possible.
He could see the relief and admiration in my eyes when I went to speak to him. But there was a new air of introspective contemplation about him. He had finally come to understand the true nature of his own being. His own purpose. He saw it now, what it meant to be Meridia's vessel. If she had been overcome by Nocturnal's darkness, then he was Meridia's last Light. The Light... that would restore Dawnbreaker to its uncorrupted state. That would transform the tainted sword into a divine relic suited to repair the crystal of Transparent Law.
He actually smiled, as if he could already envision reality being saved. He could see me turning back Nocturnal, using the restored Dawnbreaker to save the world. It was just too bad that he wouldn't be around to watch me do it.
"Darien, what are you saying?" I asked, dreading that I already knew the answer, already feeling tears coming to my eyes.
He gave me that look, the one that always reassured me of his confidence in me, but this time there was an extra aspect of warmth to it. "I'm saying that you've got this," he replied. He had seen how time and time again, whenever a threat appeared, I inspired allies and found a way to win. "And I'll be at your side for this one final battle," he added. "Just... not in the way I originally expected."
He looked into my eyes as a radiant aura began shining around him. "I wouldn't do this for anyone else," he said, his voice infused with tenderness. "Thank you... for everything."
I reached out, knowing nothing could stop him, as the brilliance of Meridia's light blinded me. Then... all was still.
I didn't want to open my eyes again. I didn't want to make it real by seeing. But... when I did, when I had to... he was gone. There was only Dawnbreaker, shining brighter than I had ever seen it, floating gently above the ground not an arm's length away.
I knew what he had done. I knew what I had to do. But still I stood there, not wanting to believe it, whispering his name even though I knew he would not answer. I don't know how many tremulous moments passed before I finally reached out my hand to accept his final gift.
As soon as I touched it, a radiant warmth began flowing into my hand. It was his warmth. His radiance. I held the sword out in front of me, my other hand supporting the blade, and slowly the truth sank in. This was what was left of him. This... Dawnbreaker... was all I had left.
And then I held it to my chest, letting his warmth flow through me, and my mind's eye looked ahead to the challenge I was about to face. We would face it together. Just as he had said, he was by my side.
From that point there was very little to stand in my way. None of Nocturnal's minions had ventured this high in the tower. She saw me coming, though, and mocked the futility of my attempt to stop her. "The tower crystal is almost whole," she taunted. "You're too late, mortal!"
I retorted, not caring if she could hear me or not. "No. I'm not too late. We're not too late."
I strode forward, my pace purposeful but unhurried. All of my senses were on high alert. Nocturnal's shadows swirled above me, above the tower pinnacle where she was even now infusing her dark will into reality itself.
She stood above the corrupted crystal, still mocking me, secure behind her shadowy barrier. I brandished Dawnbreaker and the barrier dissipated, along with the vision of the Prince. She remained, more of a presence than a figure, and called forth her champion to once again rise and strike me down. What appeared from the shadowy void looked nothing like the Veya I had known, but something monstrous and harrowing.
"Meridia's power won't help you against me!" Nocturnal crowed, anticipating her champion's victory.
But she didn't understand. It wasn't just Meridia's power. It was Darien's power. I had Meridia's Champion with me. And while Nocturnal's Champion was a grotesque specter of what she had once been, the Champion of Light had been reforged into a perfect blade. A blade he entrusted to me, to the Champion of Coldharbour, to the woman who loved him. It's almost a pity that Nocturnal had no idea how outmatched she was.
Veya's specter was fierce, determined as she was to live up to her Mother's purpose for her. She rose not once but twice, ever more desperate to overwhelm me with her Prince's corruption. I remained unyielding, as our danse macabre wove its way around the tower-top platform, interspersing arrow shots with strikes of divine light.
When her champion's grotesque form at last lay still before me, Nocturnal took up a wail of defeat. She knew, as I did, that nothing now stood between me and the unfinished Transparent Law. It hovered in its pedestal, suffused with purple-black energy that reflected the dark sky of Nocturnal's realm. But it could not stay that way. I would not let it.
I held Dawnbreaker poised above the crystal. This was what he had given everything for. My eyes were drawn to the Dawnstar Gem, glittering in its setting. Before my vision could be overwhelmed by tears, I leaned forward and pressed my lips to the gem, still pulsing with warmth. And then, with no time left to lose, I plunged the divine artifact into the crystal. And the whole world went blinding white, as Nocturnal's final outraged scream reverberated and then faded.
The first thing I heard, even before the world came back into focus, was my own gasping breaths, as if everything outside myself had been muffled by something covering my ears. As my vision clarified, my gaze first settled on my hands, outstretched before me, now empty. My gaze drifted upward, to a sky now blue and peaceful, and then settled back downward onto the rough crystalline form of Transparent Law.
With no reason now to remain stoic, I fell to my knees before the crystal. It was the first time I had ever seen it as it was meant to be, whole, unsullied. I'm not sure I would have called it beautiful. The jagged edges, though, seemed to be somehow softened by the tears clouding my eyes.
There was a voice that seemed to come from somewhere far away. Who was it, I wondered, who had come all this way to call out to me, now that everything was done. I turned my head, and saw Valsirenn, standing in front of a portal, not very far away at all.
She had been able to make her way here with Psijic magic once the crystal had been restored and the tower had been reformed on Summerset. Once she had ascertained what had transpired atop the tower, she asked about Darien and Leythen. As I might have expected, it was Leythen's fate that elicited the stronger reaction from her. She decided that she could mourn later, though, which was just as well considering that I wasn't in much of a state to console her. She disappeared back to Artaeum, thinking ahead to what still needed to be done. But I wasn't ready to go back yet.
I looked up at the sky, letting my feet take me toward the edge of the platform where just minutes before I had been fighting to overcome Nocturnal's shadows.
"Look, Darien..." I murmured. "Look what we did..."
I began drifting around the edge of the tower promenade, letting my gaze wander past the stone balustrades.
"The sky is clear. It's beautiful. It's not dark anymore. It's so bright. Just the way you would have liked it..."
Tears started welling in my eyes again. But... there was a calm within me. I didn't feel a need to break down. Not just yet.
I drifted my way back to the portal that Valsirenn had left at the top of the tower. It was time to go back. I looked again at the crystal, just perched there in its place, gleaming blood-red in the sunlight that Darien had helped me restore. On a different day I might hate that crystal, hate it for being the thing that had caused so much trouble, that had made it necessary for Darien to be taken from me again. But right now, it was just there. It just was. And as long as it was, the skies could be clear, and I too could just... be.
I closed my eyes as the portal's light enveloped me. When I opened them again, there was the soft deep blue of the Dreaming Cave, and the steadfast form of Sotha Sil standing before me.
The Clockwork God was as analytical as ever as I mumbled my report to him. His prediction, the odds, probability, proof. He commended my perseverance, how I had never given up even when the darkness was unbearable. I made it clear that it was Dawnbreaker's power that had made Transparent Law whole, and the tears sprang to my eyes again when I spoke of the friends we had lost.
He responded with the cold detachment of logic. "Life and death. It's all part of the ongoing circle. As long as you remember them, they will never be forgotten."
I don't know if that last part was meant to have any kind of sympathy behind it, but it reinforced something my heart already knew. He would always be there, just as he had always been. My heart would never forget.
Sotha Sil went on to reassure me that while there would undoubtedly be other Daedric schemes to come, the fruits of Nocturnal's hundreds of years of laying this particular plot had been wiped out by one swing of Dawnbreaker. I suppose it was a kindness that, when I wearily asked what would happen next, Seht granted me a moment to simply bask in my success. "You have done well, my mortal friend. Even I could not have done better."
Having thus concluded his business with me, the Clockwork God took his leave to attend to other matters, and I was left standing alone in the murky expanse of the Dreaming Cave. I turned back to look, at the pool of shimmering energy, at the empty space where, every other time I had been here, someone had been waiting to meet me.
Some of those people would never be here again. And as I trudged slowly out of the cave, I wasn't entirely sorry to be leaving it behind.
When I stepped out into the open air of Artaeum, Valsirenn was waiting for me. I don't know if she noticed the faraway look on my face or stopped to think about what it meant. But she, having resolved to postpone her mourning, was all business. There was still a threat remaining, a problem to be solved. Work to be done. Of course.
I stared blankly at the vicinity of her collarbones, barely absorbing the words coming in my direction. The Crystal Tower was open, I think she said. People could just walk right in, as long as they weren't Daedra. The Sapiarchs needed to be convinced to accept help defending the tower. Something about a meeting with important people. No time to grieve. Ensure the welfare of Summerset.
"Right... Summerset..." I murmured, and trudged past Val up the stairs. Of course, Summerset needed my help. I would go and get those important people and tell them to come talk to the other people and then we'd go do the thing that needed to be done. Because that's what I do.
I'm not sure what direction I was supposed to go in. I was supposed to talk to Oriandra, I think? I wonder where she was... I don't think she was at that overlook with the benches, or at that little pool with the pink flowers, or on the cliffs, or on the beach, or tucked away in this little nook in this cherry tree looking out at the eternal sunset. But that's where my feet took me, and that's where I am. They can wait, can't they, just a little longer.
I still haven't wept, not truly. Not like he deserves. My sight clouds over sometimes, but then when I open my eyes again the warm pastels of the sky and the flowers swaying in the soft sea breeze are still there waiting for me. I'm glad he got to see them, even if he felt like an outsider here, even if the ale was barely better than water. I hope he found solace in the beauty here. I hope... he was happy. And I hope he knows how happy he made me.
It was a gift, wasn't it? The time I got to spend with him, after thinking it was all over, to have him with me for just a little while longer. His smile, his touch, the look on his face that told me he believed in me. Even when he was being reckless, even when I kind of wanted to tie him down and knock some sense into him, just having him there to worry about was more than I had any right to ask for.
And then... being able to tell him... knowing he knew... knowing it meant something to him... If nothing else, that opportunity set my heart at ease like I never could have imagined. If it was any kind of a gift to him, if my love brought him even a quarter of the joy it brought me, I would give it all again a hundred times over.
I don't know what it's going to be like when I finally have to stand up and walk away from this place and go back to playing the hero. I know that there's going to be a familiar ache in my heart that may never truly go away. But I will also carry something of him with me. All of those new indelible memories, up to and including the very end, and a lingering warmth that I will never ever let go. Even now, sitting here leaning my head against this tree trunk with the tears streaming down my face, it's as much out of gratitude as sorrow.
This is actually the first drawing I did. It started with me playing around trying out brushes in my new art software, and then I tried drawing a face and it actually looked like a face, and then I just kind of kept going. It's on the sketchy side but I think it captures the emotion I was going for, which is the important part.
So in the spirit of mix tapes being the best way to express our innermost emotional states, I present now a list of Songs I Heard on the Radio After Doing the Crystal Tower Quest that Made Me Think of Darien. Feel free to Google them if you want to see just how hopeless I am.
Now I Know - Lari White
Perfect - Ed Sheeran
No One Like You - Scorpions
Iris - Goo Goo Dolls
Everything I Do - Bryan Adams
A Thousand Years - Christina Perri
Let Me Be There - Olivia Newton-John
I Wouldn't Have Missed It for the World - Ronnie Milsap
Somebody Loves You - Crystal Gayle (this song is 100% Ilsabet after the Orsinium letter)
With or Without You - U2
Where the Streets Have No Name - U2
Never Say Goodbye - Bon Jovi
Patience - Guns N' Roses
Chasing Cars - Snow Patrol
Here Without You - 3 Doors Down
and every sappy love song ever
Also, having listened to the Summerset soundtrack on loop while writing and drawing, I can say that the new Auridon track is the musical embodiment of my Darien feels. It's sad and lovely and wistful and it's got those little unresolved motives and I'm just gonna go cry some more.
That meeting ended up not being that big a deal. Oriandra actually took care of most of the rounding people up, thankfully. I did go talk to Sotha Sil, who excused himself from getting further dragged into things on Summerset. I don't really blame him. He had already taken care of negotiating a sort of truce with Clavicus Vile and Mephala, and he had much to do back in his own domain. I wasn't in much of a mood to argue with someone who had already done so much for us, so I just let it go.
By the time I met Oriandra at Alinor Palace, the council had already decided not to wait for me to show up. It was still a good thing that I had given myself some time to compose myself before I got back to work. I was more subdued than I've been in a long time, but if my eyes were still red or there were lines on my face, fortunately nobody commented on it.
If Valsirenn expected me to be able to convince the Sapiarchs with some kind of strong-willed speech, though, I was not going to be up to that task. All I could do was repeat that the Crystal Tower needed to be protected and that the Sapiarchs couldn't do it alone, just as Val had told me. But Sapiarch Larnatille stubbornly insisted that the Tower was the Sapiarchs' responsibility and the Psijic Order could not be trusted. Why, I myself was just a newcomer, she said, and she had no reason to believe I had Summerset's best interests in mind. For all she knew, I could be plotting with the Psijics to take over the Crystal Tower for our own purposes.
Her accusation stirred up a sudden surge of indignation within me. Didn't she have any idea what I had gone through to save their stupid tower? What it had cost? Did she really think Darien would give everything he had for some silly little trick?
But a confrontation wouldn't help anyone right now. And so I choked back the angry tears and simply told her through gritted teeth that I thought she was making a mistake.
I think Raz sensed something of what I was holding back, and saw that this was not a battle I was going to win on my own. He had made some preparations of his own, though. And so he invited some guests to come forth and make statements to the council. I watched, astonished, as Kinlady Avinisse related how I had saved Shimmerene while she was blinded by prejudice and hate. Justiciar Hyircil told of my efforts to reclaim peace from the Daedric cult at Cey-Tarn Keep. And Alchemy vouched for the loyalty and trustworthiness I had shown during my time with her troupe.
I had to hold back tears of a different type as I listened to them, feeling the knot in my stomach loosening a little more with each story. What I had done, during my time on this island, it had made a difference. And I wasn't quite as alone as I had been feeling ever since I drifted back from the top of the Crystal Tower.
Larnatille was much more receptive, even apologetic, when I spoke to her again. She finally relented, admitting that accepting help might be the best way to ensure that the Sapiarchs do not fail in protecting the Tower again. She still wanted nothing to do with the Psijic Order, but with the Mages Guild and the Divine Prosecution lending their aid, the outlook seems hopeful.
With the council's business concluded, I bid farewell to Val. She will be returning to Artaeum to act as interim Ritemaster until they can get their affairs in order. It's good to know that I will still have a place there as long as they call me ally and friend.
Back out in the throne room, I discovered that Raz had been even busier than I thought rallying people I had helped to come speak on my behalf. Speaking to each of them eased my mood quite a bit, to the point where I was even able to smile at the rascally Khajiit claiming the Proxy Queen's throne for himself.
It seemed that the tide had turned. Things really would be okay.
I had just finished making the rounds chatting with the visitors when my attention was diverted by two guards talking near the great hall entrance. One of them was claiming that a book had suddenly appeared out of nowhere while he was up on the balcony. A book just teleporting past the palace's magical wards? Potentially a cursed relic? Sounded like something I should check out.
As I approached the book, just lying there on one of the padded benches, a yellow mote of light shone above it and then faded. It almost reminded me of... but I was trying not to get pulled back into my melancholy. And so I took a seat on the bench, feeling more curious than apprehensive as I opened the mysterious book.
At first I couldn't be sure whose writing it was. It was... angry-sounding. It was about how the Daedric Princes are not to be trusted. The writer had learned that from his recent experiences. He had believed he had a purpose, but it hadn't turned out the way he expected.
And then I got to the part about him being Meridia's vessel. It was... it was him. He had written this, after he left me in the Crystal Tower. He hadn't just vanished into nothingness. He had simply returned to the Colored Rooms.
My heart practically leapt at the realization. But as I kept reading... what was he saying? Meridia was holding him prisoner, not keeping him safe? She had deceived him? Deceived all of us?
And... even though he was alive, and himself... he could feel himself fading. There was a darkness closing in. And when the light finally waned...
No, I couldn't believe it, even as I was reading the words. He couldn't give up that easily. Not the man whose indomitable spirit had overcome the ultimate darkness.
As I was trying to process these new revelations, I heard the sounds of the two palace guards coming up the stairs to the balcony, still discussing what to do with this "cursed" book. Without even thinking, I bolted out of my seat and shoved myself into the space between two bookcases on the other side of the hall. I held my breath as they walked past me toward the now-empty bench, and then clutched the book under my arm and scurried away down the stairs as quietly and quickly as I could. With my best "nothing to see here" face on and my heart in my throat, I hurried out of the palace as if I were making off with the Queen's crown jewels.
I didn't stop moving until I had reached a little out of the way corner nestled between rocky walls near a rushing waterfall. Once I was sure that no one could see me, I pulled the book back out and just held it in front of me, staring at its cover as I tried to steady my breathing.
A sinking feeling was beginning to settle in, a feeling that I was back to where I was after finding the letter in Orsinium. Darien was trapped in the Colored Rooms, and he needed help. I couldn't trust Meridia to take care of him. He hadn't asked me to save him this time, but my mind was already working out strategies. I could go back to Artaeum and have Val teleport me there through the Dreaming Cave. Or there was the statue in Eton Nir Grotto, where Meridia had spoken to me before. Maybe I could go there and parlay with her.
I closed my eyes and held the book to my chest, trying to will my thoughts to reach him.
Keep fighting, Darien. Keep fighting to hold onto that light. It's your light, not Meridia's. You can't ever give up. Keep that beautiful spirit within you.
I mulled over the situation for a few more minutes, letting my disquiet fully turn to resolve. And then I set out to put my plans into action.
...Only to watch them come to absolutely nothing. I did find Val, who was taking a moment out of her busy interim Ritemaster schedule for some quiet reflection at her daughter's memorial. She was sympathetic to my request to go after Darien, knowing as she does what it's like to find someone after so long only to lose him again. But she insisted that after being traversed by the likes of Daedric Princes, it had been necessary to essentially deactivate the Dreaming Cave so that it could be carefully cleansed and safeguarded before she would allow it to be used again, and she couldn't say how long that process might take. So, with my best option cut off, it was off to Eton Nir Grotto to shout at Meridia's maddeningly silent statue. I may have shot a few arrows into it for good measure, but if that offended the Prince it wasn't enough to make her come out and confront me.
So... there was nothing I could do. Again. As much as I wracked my brain trying to come up with something, anything, more to try, there would be no storming Oblivion this time.
By the time I left Meridia's forsaken shrine behind and came to rest in the grass beside a nearby stream, I was legitimately upset. Was it really all for this? For nothing? The happiness I had found during my brief time with him, and even feeling some measure of peace after his noble sacrifice? And now it was all back to frustration and hopelessness? I was supposed to just accept that the man I loved was even now fading from existence, and just go about my business?
I pulled out the book, wanting to read his words again. Maybe there was something I had missed, some clue that would tell me how to find him. There had to be something I could do for him.
I reread his warnings about the Daedric Princes, the description of his situation and Meridia's broken promises. Nothing there gave me any new ideas about how to save him.
But... wait. There was more. Somehow I hadn't noticed that the missive continued. How had it not occurred to me that there was more beyond that first page?
As his message continued, there was an immediate shift in tone. Despite the way things had turned out, Darien had found peace. Meridia had at least given him the chance to see the world and the people he cared about again. To save those he loved. I immediately felt my emotions softening as I read his words. It seemed I was not alone in feeling grateful for the time we had spent together.
He wished he had seen Skordo and Gabrielle, to make sure they knew how much he missed them. I felt a twinge in my heart realizing that Gabrielle had never been able to share the opportunity to see our friend again. I'll need to remember to go and find her, as soon as I can. She'll need to know everything he's done, how he helped save all of us.
And then... I saw my name. He wrote that he didn't know if I would ever understand how much I truly meant to him. And... that's the moment when I finally gave in to the tears.
He hadn't quite found the words to say to me while we were together. But I knew somehow, from the way he looked at me as his essence began to pour into Dawnbreaker, from the emotion in his voice. He wouldn't have done it for anyone else. He had given himself for me. And I knew just how much that meant.
But to see the words there on the page, to imagine what he might have wanted to tell me if we'd been able to have that nice long conversation... Maybe it was still wishful thinking, just a little bit. But if he had been moved to write these words, in a book he wasn't even sure anyone would find, I couldn't not take them to heart.
He went on to ponder if we might ever see each other again. In another time and place, perhaps. He might not even be the same version of himself by then. But he was okay with that, even if the person he is now was gone. I wasn't quite sure exactly what he meant by that, and initially it wasn't a comforting thought. But... thinking about it more, maybe it was a hint that the end might not really be the end.
I smiled through the tears as I read the rest of his message. He wished he could have had more time and more adventures with his friends. Gotten around to all of those drinks he had promised us. He hoped we would all find peace and happiness, and love. He would never forget us, and he wanted us to know the importance of holding onto and protecting those we love. Cherishing the moments together, and how very precious they were. I hoped he knew how much that was true of the time he had spent with me.
By the time I got to his characteristically cheeky send-off, I was crying and laughing in equal measures. It was so like him, wasn't it. It was a relief, after seeing his disappointments and dire circumstances, to see that his spirit hadn't been dampened. He was still that roguish charmer, who knew exactly how handsome he was, who cared for his friends more than anything, who knew how to lighten any mood with a moment of sly humor. Even when he could see the end looming, even when the future was so uncertain.
Once again I held the book to my chest and sent my thoughts out to the aether. There were no distinct words this time, just a feeling of love and longing and appreciation. I hope he could still feel it. I hope he knew that my heart was his and always would be. Even if he didn't think he could ever have that happy-ever-after that he thought his friends deserved. Maybe I wouldn't either. But what I had was worth just as much.
I could see it now, what he had really wanted me to know when he put his thoughts to paper. It wasn't about the dreadfulness of his plight. It wasn't about the necessity of saving him from certain doom. It wasn't, in some ways, even about him at all.
It was about his love, for me and all of his friends. For our world and all of the good things in it. More than anything for himself, he wished for us to be happy. And I felt, with some chagrin, that the last thing he would want was for me to be consumed by anger and hopelessness, especially on his account. I might not be able to stop myself from crying over him, but I also couldn't let myself stop living the way he would want me to. I just had to hope, and trust, that my knight would remain strong until we could find our way to each other again, and keep being the person - the hero - that he trusted and believed in. That was what I could do for him.
And so, even though the contents of this book hadn't done great things for my sense of closure, and part of me would still worry about him every moment he was still in the Colored Rooms, and these were far from the last tears I would shed for him, I knew I would be able to go on. There would be more people I could help, more friendships to create and nurture, so much more of the world to see and experience. That warmth of his would go with me all the way. Maybe he would experience it all with me, somehow, even if I couldn't be there to hold him in my arms for as long as I possibly could.
And... maybe he'll be right, as I pray he is, and it will be only a matter of time before we see each other again. Hopefully I'll be able to recognize him, even if he's not still an impossibly attractive Breton with a muscular physique and a roguish grin. No matter what, I'll be sure to have my smile ready for him.