I wasn't expecting to be taking breaks from slogging through the Blackwood swamps for side trips back to High Rock, but when duty calls, you go where it takes you. Especially when the duty is to a friend.
We were lucky, in retrospect, that that letter from Quistley showed up during a relative lull in the adventuring. Bastian was kind of subdued and thoughtful for a while after he received it, as if he were trying to make his mind up about something, and I suspect it would have been even more of a dilemma for him if we'd been in the middle of something urgent. I decided not to pry into what was probably a personal family matter, but eventually he asked if we could talk, and it wasn't hard to see why this particular summons from the little lordling wasn't one he could readily ignore.
He'd mentioned a little bit about his family history, how he ended up as the Silvelles' ward and how his mother and older sister had died after his father's treachery against High King Emeric was revealed. I chose not to react too strongly to the treason bit, since Bastian obviously had nothing to do with it, but I wonder if Lord Hallix ever considered what his actions would mean for his family in the event he didn't get to take over as king regent. Probably not, but they've been dealing with the consequences of his choices ever since.
For Bastian, that meant being raised as the ward of a family that didn't place a whole lot of value on him when he wasn't making himself useful to the estate. If it had only been managing contracts and overseeing trade goods shipments, he might have convinced himself to be content with his lot. But I'd already seen how fed up he was with managing Quistley's shenanigans, and how much happier he was now that he was choosing his own destiny as an adventuring mage. As far as he was concerned, whatever debt he owed to the Silvelles for providing for him had been more than repaid, and he had very little reason to look back.
But there were still doubts in his mind, about what had really led to his mother's death, about the fate of his sister, about why it was the Silvelles who took him in when he was little more than a foundling. And so as galling as it must have been to be back at Quistley's beck and call, the lure of information about his mother couldn't be denied.
As reluctant as he'd been to bring up personal matters, especially as a diversion from our work, I think it was a relief to him when I agreed to join him for the trip back to Daggerfall. I have to imagine that that conversation about Darien helped open things up between us, enough that he felt comfortable involving me in something that he could have kept private. And as we went along, it seemed to reassure him that I was there to back him up, especially once he realized how nervous he was about finding out the truth about his family.
It was especially helpful for him, I think, to have a buffer in his direct dealings with Quistley. It's funny, as even-tempered as Bastian usually is, all it took was being in the same room with Quistley to get his blood pretty near boiling. I guess that's what happens when a person spends his whole life weathering irritations while having to keep his own feelings contained in the name of good manners and gratitude.
To his credit, though, Quistley was relatively subdued this time around, and seemed to be legitimately trying to do right by his new fiancee. So maybe he's ready to actually take some responsibility in his life, even if he does still need to impose on Bastian for some of the dirty work.
We are pretty good at taking care of dirty work, though. And fortunately Bastian got the payoff he was looking for, and in the end he found himself with not only a truer picture of his mother's fate, but a reunion with a family he never knew he had.
It'll take longer, I think, for him to come to terms with what all of those revelations mean for him and his sister. As happy as they were to find each other, I know it bothers him to think of what his life could have been like if his mother's wishes had been honored. The Silvelles did provide for him, well enough to say so, but he could have had so much more with a family who truly cared for him. And I think he's going to have to actively choose forgiveness, to look past old wrongs and toward the better life he's building for himself. Hopefully with those old doubts resolved, he'll be well on his way.
Bastian wanted to take a few days in Wayrest to get to know his sister and her family, and I certainly wasn't going to object. He was quick to assure me that he wasn't putting our partnership on hold, but I told him to take as much time as he needed. I have to admit I kinda miss having him around, though. I probably shouldn't dwell on that too much. I'll just see what else needs doing here in ol' Blackwood, and no doubt it'll be something I can handle just fine on my own.
Oh look, another shocking betrayal. Who would have thought that the Dremora would be working for Dagon and would try to kill us?
To be fair, Sombren had already established a positive working relationship with Xynaa, so he can be (mostly) forgiven for not realizing she'd been playing a long game the whole time she'd been protecting and guiding him. It was a pretty savvy game, too, taking over as caretaker after Sombren was prematurely busted out of his vault, earning his trust until the time was right for her to follow through on delivering him to her true master.
There were risks in venturing into Xynaa's Deadlands lair, obviously, but with the twins' powers rapidly spiraling out of control, it certainly seemed worth taking the trip to meet the mentor that had helped Sombren so much. And even with the way things turned out, I'd say we gained much more than we lost. And not just because Xynaa's attempt to drain the twins' powers inadvertently succeeded in dampening them, however temporarily.
It was awfully thoughtful of her to share so much information with us before she sprang her trap. I'm not sure if passing through the trials of the Path of the Obelisks actually played a part in the ritual she had planned, or if it was all window-dressing, but those visions have given us plenty to think about since we made our escape.
Calia and Destron were of course shaken by the revelation of their origins, how they were handed over for a Dagonic ritual by parents who were sacrificed in the process. It seems that the babies who grew up to be the Ambitions were basically incubators for Dagon's power, entrusted with a share of his energy so that it could grow along with them and mingle with their mortal forms. That's why they're so vital to what increasingly looks like Dagon's version of the Planemeld - they themselves are living embodiments of the merging of Nirn and Oblivion, and by harnessing the power they've been unwittingly storing up, he's got himself a clear path from his realm to ours.
It's a solid plan, decades in the making as it was. Nothing could really go wrong. Not even with the interference of a meddlesome adventurer who's convinced that she could never fail to take down whoever she decides is the bad guy. She can try, of course. But we all know how that's going to turn out. And so now all that's left is to watch her try, and fail, and die.
Such is the future promised by the third vision, heralded by the Obelisk of Inevitability. A future that had already come to pass, from the perspective of the man who had lived through it. And the future Emperor Vandacia seemed to hold those memories quite fondly, even as I glared at him and told him that he hadn't won yet. Because, from the throne where he was sitting, he had. And there was nothing for me to do but go through the motions and live through it myself.
It occurs to me that this wasn't the first time I've been presented with an ominous picture of a future where everything has gone wrong. But when Khali and I walked the Two Moons Path, we knew deep down that what we were seeing was only one possible future. And knowing what had led to that future told Khali what she needed to do to prevent it from actually coming to pass.
But here? Vandacia was all too quick to remind me what "inevitability" means. To assure me that there was nothing I could do, because there was nothing I could do the first time around either. I had tried as hard as I could, and it wasn't enough. And so Dagon became the master of Nirn, and bequeathed the whole of Tamriel to his devoted high priest, while my story came to a permanent end. So it was, and so it must be.
Well. I guess it's been fun while it lasted. I wonder if I'm allowed to give up and go home now that I know that trying is pointless, or if that would mess with Vandacia's perfect preordained future. I'm probably stuck here, so I guess I might as well make the most of my valiant last stand. Maybe I should bring some extra fireworks with me just for effect.
Sigh. You know if Bastian were here, he'd probably say something corny about how giving up is the only way to guarantee that we fail. Actually he'd probably be having a field day with this. I should give him a hard time for missing out on his calling whenever he gets back.
But, if I must, I suppose I can soldier on with the philosophical pondering on my own in the meantime. I mean, Sombren seems convinced that this was only one possibility, not set in stone, and it wasn't hard for me to encourage Destron and Calia not to lose hope despite what they'd seen. Now I just need to decide for myself how much I believe that we have the power to change the inevitable course, or if this is just how the river is meant to flow.
It wouldn't be the first time I turned a premonition on its head, would it. The prophecy I uncovered in the Clockwork City foretold an almost-certain demise, with a miniscule chance of averting it. But even the mechanical prognosticator acknowledged that I had the capability to alter the course of its calculated future. And Sotha Sil, the god of logic himself, saw in me an ability to break through the walls of the prison cell of what must be, even as the odds steadfastly stack against me.
But can I really put my faith in those vague assurances, that this vision of "inevitability" is but a window into a future that we can now set about changing? If I died once, en route to that one possible future, what's to say that's not how it's meant to be? How many chances will we get to see what works and what doesn't? Or should I just do what I think is right, what I would have done anyway, and hope for some kind of miracle along the way?
It's been a long time since I was that scared kid who couldn't help shaking a little every time I had to nock an arrow. It's easy to believe in myself, as the hero who's come through countless battles, that no matter who I fight, I'm going to be the one who comes out alive. Maybe there's even a little bit of arrogance mixed in with my confidence. But... wouldn't it be folly to believe that I'm completely invincible? Isn't it probable, if not inevitable, that I might someday face an enemy that I can't beat?
There was something that came to me once, one of those insidious whispers that sound like Molag Bal, something about how I have to defeat him every time but he only has to defeat me once. That's what this is, isn't it. I keep fighting and fighting, but it only takes one defeat and it's all over. And it's only a matter of time, isn't it.
Well. That doesn't mean this needs to be the time. And it never means I should just give up.
I can see why some consider foresight to be more of a curse than a blessing. But at least in this case, knowing what is most likely to happen just reinforces the importance of making sure it doesn't. By whatever means we might find at our disposal.
For now, that means gathering allies to stand with us in the coming confrontation. I have a couple of ideas, folks we've aided who might be willing to join us, but there are also a few corners of Blackwood I haven't scouted out yet. It's impossible to know if past-future me sought out those same allies, but it can't hurt to have them along now. And that's about all we can do: everything we can think of, to try as hard as we can, to give ourselves every available advantage. And that way, even if we lose, we'll know we didn't leave anything to chance, and whatever will be was truly meant to be.
Have I ever met someone pretending to be me? I'm a little surprised that doesn't happen more often. I mean not that they would just stroll on up to me and introduce themselves as Ilsabet Menard, but given all the illusion magic and even shapechangers out there, you'd think somebody might find a way to use a renowned hero's name and likeness to their advantage. Even if it's just getting a free ale out of that guy in Daggerfall.
Of course, if someone wanted to get serious about the identity theft, there are all sorts of more substantial (and damaging) things they could do while pretending to be me. I mean hell, instead of mass-producing handprints, just use your murder victims' blood to graffiti "Ilsabet was here" on the wall and see what hijinks ensue.
I should count myself lucky that nobody's gotten any big ideas that way. That I know of. Maybe when things settle down I should check around at the local taverns and make sure I don't have any running tabs I don't remember setting up. And maybe come up with a secret handshake to share with my friends so they know it's really me. I wonder what Bastian would think if I made him memorize a passphrase to use whenever we've been separated for a while?
Oh right, Bastian is back. He made it into Gideon just as I was about to set out on my recruitment tour, and he looked as happy to see me as I felt to see him. He had a nice time with his sister's family in Wayrest, but I could tell he was eager to get back to adventuring. Especially when he found out that things will soon be coming to a head with the Waking Flame.
I decided... not to tell him about the vision we saw in the Deadlands. At least not all of it. I told him about the twins' origins, and what we learned about Dagon's plot, and how we saw a future where Vandacia wins and Dagon takes over and the twins are claimed as trophies. He was predictably incensed at the cruelty involved, and predictably determined and encouraging as we looked forward to what must be done.
And so we headed out to see what old friends we could enlist to the cause, and what new friends we could make along the way. Which is how we ended up in Farmer's Nook, just in time to help some old friends solve a new problem.
I wasn't aware that the House of Reveries put on performances outside Summerset, and I certainly wouldn't have expected them to pitch their tents in the middle of backwater Blackwood. But I saw Alchemy's point, that people everywhere are just as much in need of some mirth to brighten their days, maybe even more so when those days are so mundane.
Not that people disappearing and then coming back as weirdly-behaving shells of their former selves really counted as mundane. And in retrospect we're lucky that things turned out as well as they did, and there wasn't something sinister going on with zombies or brainwashing or body-snatchers. Just an inquisitive observer who wanted to know what it was like to be someone other than themselves.
Having spent most of my life in a sleepy little farming village, I can certainly see the appeal in leaving that mundane life behind and letting someone else go through the motions of the daily humdrum routine. I mean if someone had magically appeared who was willing to deal with horse poo every day so I didn't have to, I might just have taken them up on their offer. And I know I've contemplated the allure of indulging in my perfect fantasy world as an alternative to being constantly on call to save the real world.
But when Alchemy asked if I'd jump at the chance to trade reality for a dream, I couldn't ignore everything I'd be leaving undone. She observed that most people aren't so driven by obligation. But doing things that no one else is willing to do is what being a hero is all about, isn't it?
The other half of the Daedric bargain, though, is almost more interesting to consider. What would happen if someone stepped into my life and tried to "become" the new Ilsabet Menard? Cres didn't have a great track record with that, but it's interesting to think about what a sanctioned impostor's portrayal would look like. It would be pretty easy to just create a stereotypical hero persona, but how convincing would it really be?
I suppose it would partly depend on how much material the actor had to work with. Did Cres just interview their marks, or were they able to read their minds or probe their psyches to see what was important to them? Cres' portrayals all seemed unusually focused on the past, so maybe their Ilsabet would be obsessed with horses and trying to prove she could outshoot the local boys. Or if they went for a deeper delve into the psyche, maybe they'd find themselves driven by an unnatural urge to punch Daedric Princes and smooch handsome Breton knights.
Ahem. I'm thinking it's just as well that my psyche stays right where it is.
At any rate, I'm guessing it wouldn't be hard for people who know me to tell that something was up. There are certain things I'd do, and certain things I wouldn't, and probably enough personality quirks that it'd be pretty obvious if they didn't all line up. (Hot tip: If she doesn't try to loot every container in the room as soon as she walks in, it's not really Ilsabet.)
After all that, I decided not to ask the Reveries crew to help at Fort Redmane. Alchemy is going to have her hands full with her new protege, and they're not really equipped for full-on battle. But it was still worthwhile running into them here and helping set things right in this corner of Blackwood.
Thinking about people pretending to be me, though, I wonder if the House of Reveries would ever put on a play about me. "Adventures of the Vestige," they could call it. Or just "Vestige" if they were feeling artsy-fartsy, or "Vestige!" if they made it a musical. Or if they wanted to go the tragic romance route, "The Hero and Her Knight" has a certain ring to it. It would be pretty wild seeing Alchemy portraying me on stage, and I think she's seen enough of me in action to do a pretty great job. Or if they did some kind of Vestige origin story, I could even see Dreamer playing the young Ilsabet thrust into the adventurer's life after being stolen away from her sleepy little farming village.
...Am I getting carried away? Maybe? I mean I do have a lot of pretty remarkable stories in my back pocket. And that lady back in Summerset did say she was going to paint a portrait of me, so I have at least a little bit of fame to back me up. And if that overly exuberant Wood Elf hadn't gotten himself turned into a vampire ghost, I bet he'd be first in line to get tickets. Come to think of it, he still might, as long as they let ghosts into the theater.
I'm not going to say anything about it to Alchemy, of course. It's not like I'm trying to hype myself up or anything. But if she happened to get the idea on her own, it could be kinda interesting, just saying...
The moment of truth. That single moment separating life from death. The moment that proves that what has been must be.
When you know that moment is coming, but you don't know when, it makes for a hell of a ride.
I don't remember the last time I was so nervous before a battle. It was an active, buzzing sort of nervous, the kind that made me hyper-aware of everything going on around me. The scores of soldiers and supporters preparing to carry out their designated roles. The calm warriors pacing themselves with some meditative stretches. The commanders quietly discussing their strategies. The quartermasters seeing to their provisions and the healers preparing their makeshift infirmaries. So many people come together in one place, all working in concert toward one goal.
And I was just one of the many. I had that awareness, deep down. I had my own role to play and my own job to do. The difference was that I knew I was going to die that day.
Nobody put it in those terms, of course, not even me. The Ambitions and I didn't even really speak about what we had seen in the Deadlands, aside from Calia fretting over what might happen to her and her brother if the soldiers weren't able to protect them. And I certainly wasn't going to tell anyone how scared I was that Evil Future Vandacia might have been right. Not when so much was riding on the big damn hero once again saving the day.
Bastian noticed, I think, that I was more on edge than usual. He had that look on his face every time I glanced over at him, trying just a little too hard to be reassuring. I briefly wondered if I should have told him the whole truth about the vision, about what it had really portended, but in the end I was just as glad that he never asked. He and Eveli didn't need to have those worries clouding their view of what had to be done. It was enough that they knew we needed to try with everything we had to see our mission through.
On the outside, we were as prepared as we could be. As the Waking Flame approached, the Black Fin Legion and the Ivory Brigade stood in their organized ranks, ready to counter the waves of attackers coming to break down the gate. It was impressive seeing how disciplined and coordinated they were, how they all snapped to attention at their commanders' signals. At least the fight outside the fortress was in good hands.
My fight, though, would be within. I, along with my close circle of allies, would be the last line of defense inside the fort, ready to protect the Ambitions from the inevitable portal assault. I'm glad General Keshu had thought of that, so I didn't have to point it out. A strong wall against your back is only so helpful when your enemy has a squad of portal mages at his disposal.
That force would be relatively small, though, nothing we couldn't handle. At least until... well, we would come to that in due time.
We had barely taken our places inside before the influx of Daedra and cultists began. And it wasn't long after that that any semblance of organization gave way to chaos and running and skirmishing as we tried to catch up to the Ambitions charging rashly ahead through the fortress.
When we finally found the three of them, we actually managed to move forward as a fairly cohesive unit... until Vandacia found them too. A new wave of adrenaline coursed through me as he stepped through his portal, and I tried to steady my nerves by considering my options for slinking behind cover and taking a few potshots just to test the waters. It might work, as long as he was focused on his true quarry...
But he was focused, and he knew exactly how to draw his prey out. A few brazen threats directed at Calia was all it took to drive Destron into a reckless fury, primed as he was to protect his sister no matter what. If only "don't do anything stupid" had been part of our pre-battle instructions.
As soon as I realized what was going on, I propelled myself after Destron, knowing that he wasn't going to listen if I just called to him to stop. I was only a step away, just one more good stretch forward to reach him, when a searing heat just about scalded my hand. If Bastian hadn't been right behind me, to pull me back as I was desperately pushing forward, I might have gone up in those flames along with the wayward Ambition. But all we could do was watch as Destron's surge of crackling electricity was repelled and then consumed by the surge of infernal power that Vandacia pulled out of him, a wellspring of Daedric energy finally given release to create a conduit to the heavens.
And then Destron was gone, and all that was left was Vandacia's cruel smile as he presented his gift to his master: Dagon's power returned to him, along with the very ground on which we stood. The sky turned red, and the earth shook, and a meteor came crashing down just beyond the fortress walls.
And then the meteor stood up, and stretched out his four arms, and peered down at us. He was not terribly impressed by what he saw. But boy did he sure make an impression on us.
And so, the Deadlands-flavored Planemeld was upon us. With the power of one Ambition at his disposal, the Prince of Destruction had overlaid enough of his realm onto ours to be free to roam this little corner of Nirn at will. Coldharbour Contract be damned.
Dagon was not, apparently, in a big hurry to scoop up the other two Ambitions, and turned his attention to stomping around swinging his axe outside the fort. Vandacia likewise only took a moment to further taunt us before taking his leave. And then Sombren pulled Calia along with him into the relative safety of the nearest building, leaving Bastian to fret over my singed hand and me to wonder how things had gone so badly so quickly.
We were prepared. We were organized. We knew, more or less, what we were up against. But this... this was already so far out of our control.
But, all was not lost. I was still alive, which counted for something, and Sombren had an idea about how to counter Vandacia and the Dagonic energy boost he'd siphoned on the way by. That conveniently Dagonic book that Eveli's been carrying around all this time held the answers, he thought. All he needed was time to study it and find a way for the two remaining Ambitions to turn Dagon's power to their favor.
I, of course, was the one who needed to buy them that time. Me and Eveli and Bastian, the last line of defense against a threat that was now more present than ever. And so onward we went.
The path ahead of us was a contorted fusion of Oblivion and Nirn. But even then we weren't without allies. Elam flitted in and out of the shadows, passing on the Brotherhood's regards, and I thought I saw a trio of Argonians keeping the rabble busy as we hurried past. Even some of the Leyawiin brigadines had made it far enough to attempt to hold a semblance of a line.
At last we reached the passageway to the main courtyard. Eveli took off to find a vantage point on the wall to cover us. And then it was just a matter of walking into the preordained future waiting for us.
I paused with my hand on the door, trying not to let Bastian see that it was trembling.
Is this what we did the first time? This dance in the courtyard? Just trying to buy time for Sombren to read his book?
Vandacia knew we were coming. He said he'd be waiting there when we were ready to stop running. When we were ready to accept our fate.
Maybe I held back too much. Maybe I treated it as just biding my time. Maybe that's why it wasn't enough.
Maybe I needed to rush in with everything I had. I couldn't give an inch when everyone was depending on me. To hold back now was to admit defeat. I couldn't make it that easy for my enemy to do what he was always meant to do.
No hesitation, no vulnerability. Unload everything you've got.
Just as my hand was tensing to push open that door, I felt a hand coming to rest on my shoulder.
"Don't forget, I'm right behind you. We're all behind you."
Of course he was. It wasn't going to be just me. I didn't turn back to him, but I could almost see that look on his face...
But - huh. The image that appeared in my mind's eye wasn't a reassuring smile, but an exasperated frown. You need to stay closer to me. My healing magic only reaches so far, you know. I'd almost forgotten about that little scolding, the day he'd finally gotten fed up with all of my rolling around. Of all the times for that little episode to come back to me...
I closed my eyes and let out an amused breath. Fine then. We charge in there, we don't hold anything back, but we stick together and dance this dance together, for as long as it lasts.
Vandacia was indeed waiting in the courtyard. He was perched on a wall, still occupied with channeling his Prince's energy and completing the merging of realms. I almost thought I saw a twinge of annoyance when he saw us arriving and saw that the Ambitions weren't with us. But enveloped as he was in his master's power, neither my arrows nor those of the Wood Elf and the brigadines on the walls proved more than a minor distraction.
Of course. If I'd blindly rushed in and unleashed the full force of my bow's strongest attack, it would have bounced right off him. This is why we bide our time.
But we weren't going to just stand around watching him giftwrap his master's present. Maybe we couldn't hurt him, but we could still distract him. Merging realms is delicate work, you say? Then you'd better concentrate real hard on not blowing things up while you're being pelted with arrows and falling stars.
I think Vandacia was actually relieved when Sombren and Calia showed up. But if he thought he'd have an easier time of it with their powers on tap, they were fully prepared to defy him. I don't know what Sombren found in that book, but this time when Calia unleashed her rage and grief on her brother's murderer, her fiery bolt was already charged with that Dagonic energy we'd seen consume Destron. And that sudden infusion of energy must have been enough to throw off Vandacia's delicate procedure, and somehow even drain him in the process, spurring him to put his ritual on hold long enough to come down from his perch and face us.
So. This was how our future would play out. Not in the biding of time, but the fires of desperate combat. At least the story would have a valiant end.
But, my enemy was going to work for his promised victory. And we sure did make him work. The hordes of minions were a handful on their own, but each time Calia's energy overload goaded Vandacia back down from his wall, he had some new trick to show off, some new way to try to overwhelm me with his master's power. If a simple deluge of fire wouldn't do it, then maybe a tether drawing me into a burst of flame. If that didn't work, then how about some giant fire-spirit-daedroth-flamethrowers? Okay then, giant daedroth flamethrowers AND another few waves of Daedra?
Through it all, I kept in my periphery a red-headed mage whose healing spells extended only so far, and who even managed to draw our enemy's attention onto himself when I needed to slip inside Sombren's protective barrier to catch my breath. There was Eveli, come down from the wall, and there was Captain Rian ready to give his archers the order to loose. And as Vandacia's efforts grew ever more frenzied, I found myself simply holding steady, doing what I do, just one of the many all doing our jobs together.
And that, somehow, is how we changed the future. Vandacia perished, engulfed in his own borrowed power, and the sky turned blue again, and the conduit to the heavens lost its anchor. The would-be master of two realms found himself unwelcome on mortal soil and was expelled to his rightful domain. And then... it was over.
Well, not entirely over, of course. Our story gets to continue. And the Black Fin Legion is going to have a lot of work to do fixing up that fort again.
But it's a strange kind of release, standing under an open sky, not quite knowing what to do with yourself once you're not about to die anymore. Even with the very real losses we suffered, even with a Daedric Prince's threats ringing in our ears, there's something comforting about just being okay.
And now we get to have a party, and get lauded as heroes by people who are very happy that their homes didn't get trampled by Dagon's giant feet. And that of course means that Eveli gets to stuff her face with cake, and I get to sit back and reflect on what it means for me to not be dead.
Maybe that vision was all a ruse, all a test, to see how we would respond in the face of despair. But that explanation almost seems too easy. There has to be more to it. The possibility existed that I would fall today, but this time, we kept it from happening. And there has to be a reason why.
Maybe I can never know for sure, but an image is starting to form in my mind that I can't shake off. Was the difference that I was nervous? That I hesitated? And my allies noticed, and stepped up to take some of the burden on themselves?
Could it be that I won not because I was strong... but because I was weak?
I think... it's a good thing I'm sitting down and nobody's really paying attention to me right now. It might dampen the party for the guest of honor to randomly start crying.
I sought out reinforcements that I might not have turned to if I had been confident in my own self-sufficiency, and the Winds and the brigadines did their part to thin the ranks and make it easier for me to pass through the fortress without wasting time and energy on grunts. Being on edge gave me that awareness of everything around me, helping me locate threats and dispatch them before they could do too much harm. My hesitation gave Bastian that moment at the door to remind me, however inadvertently, to rely on him and his healing. And in the heat of frantic battle, a sense of my own limits told me when it was time to pull back and let my allies protect me instead of pushing myself too far.
Maybe none of them realized what odds I was fighting. I still haven't told Bastian what was supposed to happen today, and I probably never will. But seeing the walls of that prison cell, being told what "must be," meant there had to be something beyond those walls. And somehow, even without being able to see the way out, we found it.
There will be other fights, of course. Even here in Blackwood, our work isn't done. There's the fourth Ambition to find, and the Waking Flame will be regrouping, and Dagon isn't going to be content to lick his wounds for long. As long as Calia and Sombren are still alive, as long as any of the Ambitions are alive, they'll need to be protected. We'll need to defeat our enemies every time. But they only need to defeat us... well, they'll need to fight an awful lot of battles too if they want to take us down for good. Because there's an awful lot of fight left in us, and we're not going to let any of it go to waste.
This entry inspired another art idea, and this time I was smart enough to bring it to someone who actually knew what they were doing. And so I am very happy to present a commission by @TiaFrye, leading provider of quality Darien fanart, featuring Ilsabet and the two men who have always believed in her the most.
Okay. Just... okay. Why would I think it was a good idea to take Bastian home to meet my parents? Why would I even do that?
I mean I know why I did it, because he wanted to see where I grew up, and we've got some downtime before the next phase of the crisis hits, and yeah sure Bastian let's go swing by that little corner of Glenumbra and meet the folks. I'm sure nothing will go absolutely haywire when my mother sees me walking up with a nice-looking man who's only a little bit older than me and no Mother this isn't what it looks like and dammit why didn't I tell him not to mention Darien because politely insisting that he would never impose on a lady who was already spoken for was not the kind of embarrassment-deflecting maneuver he thought it was.
At least Ma thought he was talking about Ian, and we might have gotten away with just that if Ian hadn't been in the process of stifling a knowing grin when Ma shot her daggers over at him, and then he went into his own denial mode, and oh gods what have I gotten myself into.
It's probably a good thing that it was Ian who came across us first, on our way into town, so I could explain right away that no, this wasn't him, we've just been working together for a few months and he's from Glenumbra too so here we all are. I still caught Ian giving Bastian the sizing-up sideeye on the way into town, but hopefully neither of them took it too personally.
And then of course we made it to the house, and you would have thought I was bringing a prize turkey through the door with me the way my mother lit up when she saw him. It was all "well now, what do we have here" and "aren't you a strapping young man" and "I see, I see, so you've been working quite closely with our Ilsabet, haven't you?" I might have felt bad for Ian, except I think he was kind of enjoying it being someone other than him getting my mother's attentions for once.
She of course completely ignored me when I pointed out that we were working together professionally, and when we called ourselves partners it was in a professional capacity, and it wasn't until Pa came in and Ma couldn't wait to have him meet ILSABET'S NEW PARTNER that Bastian thought it wise to speak up on my behalf before Pa started asking him about his intentions toward his daughter. Just in case there might be any misunderstanding, he said, he wanted to make it clear that we were working together as friends, and he didn't have any intentions beyond that, and my mother didn't even try not to sound disappointed when she asked him if he was sure. And then of course, HE WOULD NEVER and grrarrrghhghgh couldn't he have found a way to phrase it that didn't include the words "spoken for"? Or anything else that would give my mother ideas that she didn't already have?
At least Ma wasn't quicker than my draw when I dragged Bastian away to privately explain why yes it was kind of a problem because they didn't know I had someone which is why they all thought he was my someone and if she thought I actually had a someone I'd never hear the end of it. And yeah I might have to just tell her but how do you tell your mother, who has the highest hopes for you and your eventual happiness, that the someone you've found isn't actually technically your someone, and on top of that he might be dead?
See you might think I might have thought about that, since the first time I had that debate in my own head, but even if I had the obvious conclusion still would have been just don't say anything. Which was working great until this exact moment and yes I know Bastian thought he was helping but we really need to have a conversation sometime about just not saying things when you think you're helping.
So it was pretty obvious when we came back into the room that my mother was not going to let me pretend it was nothing, so then of course the trick was how much to say and how to say it, especially since Ian was still there valiantly trying to withstand my mother's interrogation and I had to try to remember what I'd said to him so as not to make him think I hadn't been honest with him while still making it clear that I wasn't engaged or something. And that all turned into okay so this isn't actually an official thing or anything but remember when I told you about Coldharbour the place where everything was dark blue and gloomy and we stopped those things from crashing out of the sky, well this guy was there and helped me do it, and even before then we'd done a lot together and we hadn't really made anything official yet but he was a pretty great guy and yeah that was pretty much where we were at.
Ma of course wanted a name, and Pa knew of a Gautier family up in Camlorn, and Ian remembered General Gautier being in charge of putting things back together up there after that werewolf business, and so yeah that's his dad and it's probably lucky that Ma didn't make the connection that Darien was some kind of Camlorn nobility or something, and I decided not to make a big deal of the guard captain thing since somehow this whole being excited about my man was turning into trying to make it as not-big of a deal as possible.
Then Ma wanted to know if Bastian had ever met him, which of course he hadn't, and I think he was starting to say something about being familiar with the Camlorn Gautiers by reputation, but by then he had figured out that the less he said the better so that was the extent of that. But he had every reason to believe that Darien was an honorable man and he thought they could trust in my judgment on that concern.
And then she comes out with "well should we be making plans for a visit to Camlorn" and oh my gods Mother can it not just be enough for me to say admittedly awkwardly that he's not officially my I mean we're not but if I had to be, with anyone, it would be with him, and no we're not going to Camlorn because I do not need anyone going up to General Gautier and asking him about his son's intentions toward their daughter and oh my gods if she tries to pull something like that after I'm gone I might legitimately need to burn something down.
But thankfully I got something out about Darien being off doing his own thing for a while, no I don't know exactly where, and yeah I wish I could be with him but sometimes people just need to be doing things apart for a while and it was going to be okay and thank the Divines that was enough to get her settled down even though she did give me a bit of that look like she wasn't sure if I was making excuses again, but then she said well she hoped he'd be making good use of his time away and she was looking forward to hearing all about his work whenever I had the chance to finally bring him around to meet my family who was looking forward to finally meeting him and oh my gods that entire song and dance was exhausting. I mean how is it that spending a solid day fearing for my life left me feeling less drained than however long it took to face down my mother about a son-in-law she may never have?
"Your mother certainly cares a lot about you," was Bastian's first comment once we were free of her clutches and out of earshot of anybody who might report back. I'd managed to convince Ma that we didn't really need to stay overnight since we needed to be getting up to Wayrest to see Bastian's sister, and he played along well enough that we actually made it out of town far enough in advance of sundown that we could plausibly make it to Aldcroft before we needed to find rooms (two SEPARATE rooms, Mother) to bunk down. And that gave us enough time for Pa to show Bastian around the stables, and Ian to make his getaway back to his patrol, and me and Ma to sit there painstakingly talking about anything other than marriage and relationships. But she was happy to see that I had someone looking after me, who really did seem like a very nice man, and quite a gentleman besides, so if that was the best I could do at this point then she was happy to know I was in good hands.
I can only assume that the menfolk outside managed to have a relatively tension-free conversation in the meantime, and while Ma was holding herself back from giving Bastian some kind of overly affectionate motherly farewell, Pa just shook his hand and asked him to do his best to keep up with me. And that was the end of the visit back home.
At the time I could only respond to Bastian's pronouncement with an exasperated eyeroll, but upon reflection I can see where even an agita-inducing episode like that might seem like a welcome change of pace for someone whose parental figures didn't much care whether he was there or not. I mean I'm sure Quistley's mother had a few things to say about his prospects for an advantageous match, and I can only imagine what kind of scrutiny Quistley's fiancee will be subject to, but Bastian's never mentioned any such interest in his own love life. And maybe that suits him just fine, but there was something a little wistful in his look after he made his observation. And I think I can understand why. My mother might drive me crazy sometimes, but I can't deny that she and Pa care about me.
...But I'll still be thinking twice about who I bring around to meet them from now on.
You know, as much as I may have at certain times in the past groused about how easy it is for people to come chasing me down with letters or other messages, at least being handed a letter by a courier is a relatively simple process. Usually. I read the letter, it tells me where to go and who to meet with (sometimes), and (most of the time) I at least have a vague idea what I'm getting into (except when I don't).
And then, sometimes, I'm just walking down the street minding my own business when an angry-eyed prophetess jumps out at me and demands that I answer her Dread Lady's summons. And then gets progressively angrier every time I see her, since either I'm not doing her mistress' bidding well enough, or I'm doing it too well and she can't understand why I'm the favored mortal and not her.
At least it wasn't a pushy Orc this time. Although even she left me alone after she'd succeeded in passing on her message. I'd say Lyranth sure knows how to pick 'em, except I'm not sure what that says about me.
I guess I'll choose to take it as a compliment that the Dread Lady sees me as such a reliable asset. I certainly came in handy when Lyranth was busy being stabbified by a paralyzing blade, and I managed not to barf when I had to drink her gross disguise potion, and I only had a little bit of fun pushing her around while we were putting on our cultist-and-prisoner act.
That act became a bit harder to keep up when it turned out to involve plugging Lyranth into a Daedric empowerment machine and having me be the one to turn it on. But she assured me she was ready for whatever happened, and fortunately she was prepared to keep herself from being turned into a giant walking disaster. (The firestorm type, not the Revus Demnevanni type.)
And so we got a little bit closer to understanding what the Waking Flame is up to now, even if we're not sure how it relates to the Ambitions project or whether the Fourth Ambition is even involved. But a new plan to invade Nirn with an army of giant walking disasters is certainly something to take notice of, and Lyranth seemed particularly troubled about the way the cataclysts can change Daedra into monsters. (Well... different monsters.) She didn't really want to talk about it before she'd had a chance to mull it over, but our little escapade certainly gave both of us plenty to chew on.
It also directed us to our next point of interest, and so here I am with another not-on-Nirn locale to add to my travelogue.
Fargrave is certainly more interesting now that I actually get to explore the town, instead of just rambling through some adjacent caves and cultist-infested ruins. I wouldn't have expected a whole lot from a frontier town "on the edge of all reality," as one resident put it, especially in a plane of Oblivion that nobody's ever heard of and nobody even seems to be able to place. But that's the beauty of Fargrave, being nowhere and almost-everywhere all at once. Wherever we are, the borders between planes are thinner here, more easily traversed, and so this cosmic backwater has become a cosmic crossroads where anyone and anything can wind up.
I'm not actually sure how long we've been here just wandering around, but it seems like every time I turn around there's something new to catch my attention and draw me in. Another market stall full of things I've never seen before, or a fountain with an actual nereid singing over the flowing water, or a ghost trying to sell me a bigger pack. (Trust me, man, this is already as much as I can carry.)
And then of course there are all the Daedra, just going about their business like anybody else. Because here, they pretty much are just anybody else. One of the other nice things about Fargrave is that it's not beholden to any particular Prince, and so it serves as a neutral ground for all sorts of Daedra to just show up and do their own things. I suppose I've met my share of nonhostile Daedra before, but it is nice to see a whole city's worth who don't immediately want to kill me. So far, anyway.
Do I look silly going up to ogrims to see if they'll talk to me? Because none of them have, and I'm not sure if that says more about me or them. I mean I might as well try to be sociable, right? One of them might eventually have something to say. A conversation with an ogrim certainly wouldn't be the weirdest thing I've seen here.
If you want weird, I can recommend the um... services at a place called the House of Whims. I'm still not exactly sure what happened to me there, but I figured if they had local specialties it couldn't hurt to give them a try. Well that's not true, we were told specifically that it would hurt, but that just got Bastian all worrywartish and I wasn't about to back down from the challenge at that point. I didn't die, and it was strangely... invigorating? I guess? Although I'm still trying to decide if anything is dislocated. Also there may have been barf involved, but I'm honestly trying not to think about it too much. I'm sure it'll be fine.
How long have we been here again? It's hard to tell sometimes, if time is even a thing here, when everything gets all hazy and I find myself just drifting, staring off into the distance or gazing at some shop display or watching the banners fluttering over the alleyways. And then, eventually, I realize there's someone standing next to me, and they look kind of familiar, and then I realize it's Bastian and he's waiting for me to do something besides just stand there looking vaguely lost. And then I come back to myself, and I couldn't even tell you what I was thinking of or seeing in the distance of my mind's eye.
There are dunes, beyond the bounds of the city, where the hewn stone ends and the expanse of sand and wind goes on and on. That was what got me the most, that expanse, the nothing and everything going on and on beneath the infinite-hued sea of the sky. I could have stood there forever, and maybe I did, until I heard a faraway "Hey" and the shape next to me turned out to be someone I knew, who was turning to me with the same coming-back to awareness that I felt in my own eyes. And once again, I couldn't have told you where I was coming back from, but it was kind of a relief to know I wasn't alone anymore.
It probably is a good thing I have Bastian here with me, so I don't get completely distracted by shinies and fascinations without someone to come back to. And I shouldn't make it sound like we've spent all our time spacing out, either. I guess we haven't run into Lyranth yet, but we have made some new contacts amidst all the sightseeing, including a couple of job brokers who should keep us on our toes when we're not busy chasing cultists.
There was one in particular who represented a group that seemed fairly well-aligned with my talents and interests, and the conversation after we made her acquaintance is one thing I definitely remember clearly.
"Was it my imagination, or did you perk up when that lady from the Gleaners mentioned joining their group?" Bastian said, as we made our way out of the plaza with our new assignments.
I made a very nonchalant face. "Their work sounded... interesting."
He sighed. "Well, I suppose that work is technically not against the law here, if the Grasp is willing to look the other way."
"See, nothing to worry about."
"Just make sure you don't overreach your bounds. The Grasp does have rules they expect to be followed, and I get the feeling they're not something you want to trifle with."
"It'll be fine. I'm good at avoiding the authorities."
As soon as I realized what I'd said, I didn't even need to guess what look he was giving me.
"Avoiding... trouble with the authorities."
He let out an audible sigh, but when I finally met his disapproving gaze, there was actually a touch of resigned amusement to it. "You know I'm not paying your bail if you get yourself caught."
I could have pointed out that I also have ways of getting out of paying bail, but I decided to cut my losses.
We should probably find Lyranth, though. Her devoted disciple is probably already frothing at how long it's taking me to present myself and get to work. On the other hand, she hasn't jumped out to accost me yet, so maybe I'm still safe. I hope.
Ugh. What the hell is it with Bastian? And why did I ever think that having a goody-goody holier-than-thou stick-in-the-mud following along scrutinizing my every move was a good idea? Whatever, I'm better off without him.
We should be helping the Anchorite investigate these votive runes the Waking Flame has been putting up around Fargrave. But no, apparently throwing tantrums about my occasionally sticky fingers is more important than helping protect all these poor innocent people from being harmed by the actual bad guys.
We've already seen what the votive runes can do. People despairing that the world is about to end, a woman turned into a mindless husk. You'd think that that would be enough of a looming threat to keep us focused on an actual mission. But noooo.
We were doing fine for a while, meeting with the Anchorite's contacts and learning what we could about what the Waking Flame is up to. A bit of portal-hopping back to the realm of fire and ash, another visit to the House of Whims, and then all we needed to do was meet back up with the Anchorite to compare notes.
And then something shiny caught my eye, left out on a display table with nobody around to keep an eye on it. A trifling matter to reach out as I passed by, and then the bauble was in my pocket, with nobody the wiser. At least that's how it should have been.
A few steps ahead of me, Bastian stopped. "I saw that."
Crap. Well, whatever, I could just play it off. "It's fine, I don't need you to cover my bail, remember?"
He turned to me, and this time there was no trace of amusement in his disapproving gaze. "If the Grasp catches you, you're more likely to lose a hand. And we both know you deserve it."
Well okay then. I guess it was going to be "make a huge stink over something petty" day all of a sudden.
Once the initial affront wore off, I just rolled my eyes and sighed. "You really think I need a lecture right now?"
"No, of course not. You know exactly what you're doing. And you actively choose to do it." He shook his head. "Such a pity."
He was actually looking down his nose at me, like I was a pathetic child who'd disappointed him terribly.
Okay who the hell did he think he was? What the actual hell?
I crossed my arms. Apparently it was time for some real talk. "Yeah well, sorry to break it to you, but I'm no saint."
"You think I don't know that? I'm not blind, or stupid." Now there was a touch of indignation in his voice. "I know how you pride yourself on your expertise in deception, but you're not fooling anyone. I know exactly what you're up to when you think I'm not paying attention. When you think you're keeping me busy with your menial tasks. You didn't actually think I was that gullible, did you?"
Maybe he wasn't gullible, but he sure was pissing me off. And if he wasn't going to hold back, then I didn't need to either.
"Okay so why do you go along with it, mister paragon of virtue? Why are you even still here if I'm such a horrible person?"
"Maybe I should be asking myself that very question. Maybe it's because I actually honor my commitments. Because honor actually means something to me." He paused, and then forged boldly onward. "Maybe that's why it's so hard for you to understand."
I just looked at him, as he waited with that challenging glare to see what I'd do. Maybe he thought I'd argue with him, or punch him. Maybe I should have punched him. I did kind of want to punch him.
But no. I saw how it was. What he was really saying. And if that's what he wanted so badly, then fine.
I kept my voice steady. At least one of us could be a grown-up here. "Well. If it's your commitment keeping you bound to someone you clearly can't stand, then why don't I go ahead and do you the favor of releasing you from that commitment? You go your way, I'll go mine, and you don't have to care what sort of dastardly deeds your former partner is getting into."
He flinched a little bit, like he wasn't actually expecting me to take the bait. But then his face hardened.
"Fine. That sounds better for everyone."
"Yeah. I'm sure it does."
"Fine then. Try not to get yourself killed."
"Fine. Have a nice life."
And that was the last I saw of him. I don't even know what he did after I turned my back on him and stalked away. Didn't need to matter to me. If that was how he felt, and he was finally done keeping his disdain for me bottled up, then I'm not going to pretend to care what my former friend does with his newfound freedom, whether he was dancing in the street or coming to realize there might be actual consequences for telling me off.
Whatever. I don't even need him. I'm the damn Vestige, and everything that gets done comes down to me anyway. He can go keep himself busy rescuing kittens from trees for all I care. If he can even find his own way back to Nirn without me holding his hand.
Whatever. I'm done with this judgmental garbage. Now where the hell is the Anchorite. I have actual work to do.
(Since I've been running with Mirri, it's been delightful to read Ilsabet's adventures in Blackwood with Bastian for as much as they were a odd non-couple couple.)
As I've probably mentioned elsewhere, I've been enjoying seeing how their lawful/not-so-much dynamic would develop, and I have to thank a certain early Deadlands plot point (which is never really elaborated on in terms of the Vestige) for planting the rather wicked idea in my head to see what would happen if that dynamic got a little more... dramatic.
(Now that you mention it, our stories kind of complement each other that way. I get my Mirri fix reading about her and Varanis after I've spent all my own time thinking about Bastian. )
You know how, sometimes... something seems really important to you, and you feel really strongly about it, and it seems really important to say exactly what you think, so the person you're talking to knows what's what in no uncertain terms?
And then, maybe, when your blood isn't boiling quite so hard, you wonder if maybe that thing you felt so strongly about maybe wasn't quite so important after all, and maybe you could have been a little less forceful saying what you said?
We got those votive runes taken care of, me and the Anchorite and Lyranth, and I was pissed off the entire time. There I was tromping through slums, and fighting off random thugs who wanted to kill me for no reason, and fussing with lucent crystals and dynamus fonts, and chasing after yet more frickin' cultists, and the entire process pissed me right off. I could handle it all no sweat, of course, with or without the Anchorite or the Dremora, but all I could really think about was how a certain red-headed prig could have been there making himself useful if he didn't have such a damn stick up his ass. And of course I wasn't going to say anything about it to either of my actual colleagues, since it's not like they needed to care about my personal kerfuffle and it's not like it mattered whether my personal healer was on duty or not, and there was no point in taking out my frustrations on people who weren't active pains in my ass like SOME people I could mention.
I had no trouble taking out my frustrations on Sister Celdina's grunts, though, and she's lucky she made it out the door before I turned my pique-colored sights on her. But she'll just have to go boohoo about her ruined work somewhere else. She certainly wasn't getting any sympathy from me.
And then... something weird happened. With the last of the votive runes smashed, and the Anchorite lamenting that we'd let Sister Celdina get away, and Lyranth directing me to do yet more busy work rifling through the Sister's abandoned office, I started to feel... better. I mean I guess it was still kind of annoying being ordered around by the Dremora, and it probably would have meant less trouble down the line if we'd killed Celdina then and there, but things weren't really all that bad. We'd stopped the cult from taking over Fargrave, and rummaging through piles of junk was kind of a nice breather after all the tromping and fighting.
By the time we came up with an encoded note, which should be helpful once we find someone who can read it, Lyranth thought she'd sussed out what the Waking Flame was trying to do. Those runes, magically empowered by Dagonic prayers, had been targeting mortals specifically to heighten their emotions, which apparently produced energy that the cult could then harvest to channel into some ritual that was supposed to wreck all the Daedra in Fargrave.
...Oh. Well. That, um, maybe explained a few things.
I think that was about when I felt my first internal pang about that tiff with Bastian. I mean he was still an uptight patronizing killjoy jerkface... I guess? And well yeah, he certainly wasn't going to get off saying all that crap directly to my face without some sort of comeuppance, but... I mean...
Hum. This... had the very real potential to get awkward.
I wasn't going to go chasing him down to beg him to come back to me, of course. At least not without thinking things over. Maybe he really was happy being freed of his conscience-chafing shackles. And if he did feel that strongly about things that might technically qualify as crime, then maybe we were both better off just not having to deal with each other.
But... we mostly just needed to talk. As probably awkward and discomfiting as that was probably going to be.
I found him in the Plaza of Portals, standing at the edge of the terrace just beyond the portal back to Leyawiin. He was gazing out over that hypnotizing expanse, and I hovered at what should have been the edge of his awareness until he came back to himself and glanced over and saw me. His eyes widened a bit, and then I saw that tension come back to his jaw.
I tried not to look uneasy. "Um... hey."
"Hey." He shifted uncomfortably, like he was weighing his fight or flight options, and then took a deep breath and turned back to the dunes. "I see you haven't gotten yourself killed."
I may have rolled my eyes a bit. "I hope you weren't actually worried about that."
"No, I... I suppose not." He regarded me warily from the corner of his eye, and when I didn't seem inclined to bite his head off, he decided to try a tentative conversation-starter. "How's the adventuring going?"
I found myself matching his studiously casual tone. "Fine. We took care of those votive runes. Turned out Sister Celdina wanted to siphon energy out of the mortals to destroy all the Daedra in Fargrave. Or something. I'm a little fuzzy on the details, but... we stopped it."
"Good. I should have known you wouldn't have any trouble."
I nodded, studying his expression, knowing we were just dancing around saying what needed to be said, but not sure I wanted to be the first one to say it, just in case.
But then, as that tension spread across his brow, and then to clenched fists, the words came tumbling out of him. "Look, Ilsabet, I'm sorry. I know you probably don't want to hear anything I have to say, but... please, let me say I'm sorry."
I let out a breath, actually relaxing a little now that the barrier had been breached. "Are you sure you have anything to apologize for?"
"Yes. Of course." He turned to me. "I don't know if it's having had time to think, or... it almost feels like there was some sort of fire coursing through my veins that's not there anymore. Whatever it is, now that my head is clear... I think back to those things I said to you, and... I can't fathom why I would act that way."
"I mean I have a pretty good idea."
He grimaced. "I suppose I didn't really hold anything back, did I. And maybe there have been some things building up, that haven't been sitting well with me, but... that doesn't excuse the way I treated you." He let out a frustrated breath. "Maybe Lady Silvelle was right about my lack of self-control."
"No, that's not it. At least... there's more to it," I said, and he looked at me expectantly. "Those runes, that siphoned the energy from us? They worked by making our emotions more intense. Basically, whatever we were feeling... it was just grist for their mill."
He took this revelation in. "Then this whole time, we were feeding into their plot? They were using us, and we let them?"
"I guess you could look at it that way. But it also means that what we were feeling wasn't natural. At least... not the way it came out of us."
He considered this for another moment, and then the tension in his face eased. "I know I shouldn't feel as relieved as I do, but I'm glad you told me. It won't erase the guilt of hurting a friend the way I did, but... it makes it just a little easier to bear."
"You still consider me a friend, then?"
He looked down, and then looked at me earnestly. "You might be the truest friend I've ever had. And I don't say that lightly. Especially... especially after what just happened."
That sounded nice, but I wasn't going to pull punches. "Even though I'm a thief, and a liar, and maybe worse?"
He wasn't expecting me to be so blunt, and I could see his resolve starting to waver. But then he set his jaw, and looked me in the eyes. "Yes."
Now it was my turn to waver. We weren't dancing anymore. We were done pretending there wasn't a mammoth in the room. Maybe he could look past it, but...
"So what do you want to do?" I asked quietly.
"That should be obvious." He looked at me, but maybe didn't see the affirmation he wanted. "Isn't it?"
"Well, now that we all know there are things about me that don't sit well with you, I'm not going to assume you're totally fine with going back to the way things were, even if we're not at each other's throats anymore."
He sighed. "I suppose that's fair. And... maybe it's a conversation that's been a long time coming."
He turned to look out over the dunes, and I waited while he mulled over his verdict. It didn't take long.
"I know you have your reasons for making the choices you make," he said carefully. "I understand that, even if they're not the same choices I would make. Even if I sometimes have a hard time accepting that you make them."
I eyed him warily, not sure which shoe was about to drop.
"You'll have to live with the consequences of those choices, of course." He turned back to me. "But... maybe I don't have to be your judge and jury. Not when we can be so much more together."
I had to take a moment, as I felt a rush of warmth come to my cheeks. But I knew him well enough that I had to be sure.
"And that's more important to you than -"
There was no hesitation in his voice or uncertainty in his eyes. And while I found myself not knowing what to say, he went on resolutely.
"I don't like the idea of compromising my values, but I know the value of compromising. You are who you are and you do what you do... and most of it is... well, beyond admirable. Should I throw away the chance to be here with you because of a few less admirable traits? When I know how much more good I can do at your side? How much of a fool would I have to be to cast that chance aside? To... to cast you aside?"
As his speech grew more impassioned, it almost seemed like he was talking more to himself than to me, and I can only imagine that he was picturing what might have been if he'd gone through with stepping through that portal.
I allowed myself a small smile. "You know, if I didn't know better, I'd wonder if you still had some of that fire in your veins."
He caught himself, and rubbed his neck sheepishly. "Maybe I am letting myself get a little carried away. That old lack of self-control, you know."
"It's not such a bad thing. When we're not at each other's throats, anyway."
He returned my self-conscious smile, and then a trace of melancholy came to his eyes.
"If I can be honest... the worst part of it all... was watching you walk away, how easy it was for you to turn your back on everything we had. The thought that you cared more about doing whatever you wanted without having to take any responsibility, without anyone holding you to a higher standard, that that was more important to you than anything else. That... maybe I was never worth that much to you at all."
Something clenched in the pit of my stomach. "If that were true I wouldn't be standing here right now."
"I know. At least... I hoped so. If that's the case... you have no idea how comforting it is."
So, I wasn't the only one who needed reassurance. And yeah, there were words I needed to say too.
"I'm sorry too, you know. For..." I cast my mind back, and dammit it really wasn't a good look for me, was it. "...Yeah."
He smiled a little at my self-directed annoyance, and when he spoke again his voice was softer, more settled.
"I know how messy this has all been. But... if you can forgive me, I can forgive you. Things won't go back to the way they were. But maybe that's a good thing. Letting things build up isn't necessarily healthy. I should know that better than anyone."
I nodded, cautiously. "I'm still not going to be perfect, though. I never was, and... "
"...and you're not the only one," he finished for me. "Believe me, you don't have to tell me that. Old habits die hard, I know."
I may have pouted a bit. "I have actually been behaving myself more since you've been around, if you can believe it."
"I know. At least, I've noticed opportunities that you could have taken but didn't." He winced. "Not... that I've been keeping score or anything."
He was totally keeping score. But maybe that didn't need to matter anymore.
I shook my head, with one last wry smile, and then took a deep breath and put on my getting-back-to-business face. "So then, if that's all out of the way..." I held my hand out to him. "Feel like teaming up? I recently had a spot open up on my roster, and I could use some solid backup."
It took him a moment to see the mischievous glint in my eyes, and then he reached out and grasped my hand. "Well whoever that fool was, I hope I won't make the same mistakes he did."
We just stood there looking at each other, with our hands clasped and barely holding back grins, and I felt a rush of relief and happiness that pretty well distracted me from the realization that a simple handshake didn't need to last that long.
"So, what's next on the agenda?" he asked briskly, once we'd retrieved our respective hands.
Oh right, there was an actual adventure going on. "Um, right. Well there was a note we found, that Sister Celdina left behind. No idea what it says, but the Anchorite might have some ideas about getting it decoded. Actually I think she and Lyranth are waiting for us at the inn."
"Sounds like a plan. Lead the way... partner."
The city felt warmer, somehow, as we made our way toward the inn. And then a familiar-looking display table caught my eye, still completely unguarded by anybody who would care about its contents. I slowed down, suddenly feeling a bit pensive, and Bastian turned to me inquisitively.
"Hey, could you go on ahead?" I asked. "I'll be right there."
He raised an eyebrow, and glanced over at the table, and I saw a look of recognition pass over his face. There was a moment of indecision, and then...
"Yeah. I'll wait inside. Maybe see about getting a couple of drinks. Just don't take too long, I'm pretty sure you'll need to be the one doing the talking once things get started."
I smiled and nodded, and watched him head off toward the inn. When he was out of sight, I glanced around again, and then a bauble slipped out of my pocket and back to its spot on the table, with nobody the wiser. And then I nonchalantly hurried after my friend.
It was a perfectly nice bauble, probably would have fenced decently, but eh. I didn't really need it anyway.
Why is everyone so weirded out by a talking daedrat? I'm still half-expecting the random scamps and ogrims around Fargrave to start talking to me at any moment. And okay maybe I've been kind of conditioned by the talking dogs and skulls and trees I've met along the way, but you'd think people as well-traveled as Lyranth would have come across their share of unexpectedly conversant critters.
And at least this particular talking beastie is helpful. And hopefully not planning to screw me over in any way. He does seem quite loyal, considering that all I did was let him out of a cage. And give him a nice, only slightly cluttered pack to hunker down in. I wonder when I last cleaned that pack out? I'm sure it doesn't smell that bad in there. I should probably check to make sure he hasn't eaten anything I would care about. Assuming I can remember what all was in there to begin with.
But anyway. He has been quite helpful, and surprisingly well-versed in Dagonic code and the lay of the land in the realm of fire and ash. I'm not sure how much I buy his boasts about being the Terror of the Deadlands, but I'm not going to discourage his fighting spirit. He is a feisty lil' guy, and his enthusiasm for my occasional displays of violence is rather endearing.
It's kind of strange, but I haven't found my mind wandering quite so much since Arox joined the team. I hadn't really thought about it until Bastian mentioned that it's been easier for him to focus lately, but that got me thinking. It couldn't have been the Drain already affecting us, could it? It's supposed to take a certain amount of time for those symptoms to set in, even decades for some people. And it's not like our minds are so weak that we can't handle being here for more than five minutes. But... maybe having a daedrat tagging along to repay a debt counts as a pact with a Daedra or something, and maybe that doesn't hurt when you're adrift in a cosmic crossroads.
Ah, well. I wonder what daedrats like to eat? Maybe I'll pick him up some snackies next time we swing through the market. I think we all deserve some snackies.
Maybe it's just as well that I never took my Psijic studies too seriously after Loremaster Celarus decided to let me be a Psijic. I mean he probably took one look at me and decided that I was less of the "study esoteric mystical theories for decades" type and more of the "tromp around Tamriel doing grunt work that only requires literal grunting" type, and he wasn't wrong. But fortunately there's a place in the Psijics for people like that too, apparently, as long as they're sufficiently noble of heart and in good with the Ritemaster.
Being generally clueless about mystical theories does have its benefits, though, such as having only mundane reasons to get myself torn apart in the Deadlands. It's easy to say that if I were practicing subjecting myself to the most powerful of the Eleven Forces I'd be super careful about not getting split up into a bunch of pieces that could all get lost if I wasn't paying enough attention, especially knowing how easily I get sidetracked when there's only one of me, but really it's better that I don't even know enough to attempt it. Especially after seeing what it did to someone who actually knows what she's doing.
Valsirenn would have been pretty high on the list of people I wasn't expecting to see in the Deadlands, but there she was, or at least there part of her was. You should have seen the look on Bastian's face when he realized we were talking to an actual Psijic mage, and the even better look on his face when he realized I was an actual Psijic too.
I'll probably have some explaining to do about why I never mentioned Artaeum to him. I guess I figured taking him to Eyevea would be enough to satisfy his mage's curiosity. And if I'm being honest, there was probably something in my subconscious that didn't want to face the possibility of getting my hopes up about the Dreaming Cave yet again only for them to be shot down yet again. I've come to terms with needing to bide my time, right? And Val would get in touch with me if that portal became available for me to use, right?
It really wasn't the time to be asking about that, with her body missing and her psyche and senses all hither and yon. It was enough of a trick just staying in sync well enough to communicate, so the focus needed to be on getting her put back together before she got even more out of touch with our reality. And we did it, eventually, with a few lessons on that Eleventh Force along the way.
Turns out the Deadlands is an epicenter for the Force of Change, since all of that destruction and revolution stuff boils down to changing the old way of things into something new. I found a book recently that explained the Dagonist philosophy pretty well, lauding destruction as the pathway to change. In that light, when something that exists is removed, something even better can take its place. And so where Argonians would let change happen, Dagon and his followers seek to make change happen. As violently as possible, apparently.
I'm less convinced about the "lesson" that ultimately led Val to reclaim her whole self from the surging tides of that Force. She had to learn to resist the need to resist, and accept that she couldn't control what was happening to her. It was a concentrated case study in accepting the inevitability of change, and not thinking she could just strong-arm - strong-mind? - her way out of it.
But relinquishing the stubborn urge to futilely deny the currents of change doesn't have to mean giving up will and agency and becoming helpless. I learned that much in Murkmire. The reeds that allow themselves to sway with the river's currents also keep their roots strong so they won't be swept away. And those that do find themselves carried downstream can still make what they will of their journey and destination. They do what they can wherever they find themselves, alone or together, knowing that sometimes just getting through the rough spots is accomplishment enough.
Hmm. I guess that all means I'm more cut out to be a ku-vastei than a Dagonist. And that suits me just fine. And I hope that Val is able to find the nuances she needs as she treads more cautiously along with her new guide. Maybe her real lesson was simply a means of finding balance between the foundation of where she's been and the flexibility to navigate where she's going.
...She would have told me if I could use the Dreaming Cave, right? I mean she must remember how anxious I was to get to the Colored Rooms. She wouldn't just forget all about it, especially if she... used it... to get here... unless, I suppose it's possible that she didn't...
You know what, maybe I'll just go take another swing around the Plaza of Portals. I didn't see one conveniently labeled "Colored Rooms" before, but maybe it's just not in an obvious place. Couldn't hurt to look around again, right?
Well, there. That's the biggest and baddest cataclyst down. I'd like to say it's the last, but there's still the matter of Valkynaz Nokvroz's little side project, and if we give Sister Celdina too much breathing room then it's a good bet she'll be trying to salvage whatever's left of her operation. Hopefully this Deadlight clue turns into something useful, and we can set about smashing whatever else needs smashing.
The Anchorite made herself surprisingly useful as I set about smashing the Riven Cataclyst, and she's not the only one wondering just where those powers of hers suddenly sprang from. I suppose her unforeseen familiarity with the cataclyst could have come from her repressed memories, if she spent time learning from Elegian before he made her mask, but that energy she wielded... now where have I seen that distinctive hue of billowing orange before...
I have been thinking it was kind of strange that Lyranth hasn't mentioned the Ambitions at all, or shown any interest in finding the fourth one. We also haven't run into Sombren and Calia out in the Deadlands, although if the idea is for them to stay out of sight, it would probably be counterproductive for us to go looking for them.
But if I'm right about that power the Anchorite used... then maybe we've found the Fourth Ambition without even looking. Now that I think about it, it would also explain why she was affected along with Lyranth when Celdina tried to activate that ritual back in Fargrave, if her nature wasn't entirely mortal. Hum hum.
I'd better not bring up my suspicions, though. I doubt the Anchorite would know if she was an Ambition even if she was one, and she's got enough to grapple with already. And if Lyranth thinks other things are more important - or if she's got her own suspicions but is keeping them close to the vest - then I don't need to stir things up. We'll have enough Dagonic baddies to contend with without anybody giving them an extra reason to come after us.
The Order of the Waking Flame sure does like their melodramatic titles. Now would I rather be a Doombringer or a Devastator? Maybe a Disastrix? Doombringer Ilsabet sounds like something Skordo would come up with. I bet he'd approve.
I did bring my share of doom today, much to Arox's delight. I know he would have loved to be the one raining down fiery death upon Valkynaz Nokvroz, but under the circumstances I'm glad I could do it on his behalf. And I hope he got his fill of fiery death in the all-too-brief time he was restored to his true form.
To think that this entire time, I've had Mehrunes Dagon's fiercest general riding around in my pack. This is why you respect your allies, no matter how small or verminous they may seem. Arox's loyalty to Dagon was repaid with indifference to Nokvroz's treachery, and now I'm the one he calls master. Fortunate for me, and I'd call it an upgrade for him, even if I don't have four arms and a giant axe.
Those ruminations on change earlier were apparently just a prelude to what I've seen and learned since then. And we can start with Arox, Terror of the Deadlands, diminished in form but never in ferocity. It must have been maddening to find himself so much smaller, so easily dismissed, after standing atop the pinnacle of Daedric stature and strength for so long. And to have no idea how it happened, no hint at the curse inflicted by the cowardly usurper, must have only fed the simmering furnace of frustration.
But I'd like to think he made the most of his diminished form, putting his newly enhanced nose to work alongside the knowledge and savvy he'd retained, becoming a master of shredding bonds if not barriers. And when he realized that he could contribute more toward our shared goal of eliminating Nokvroz by joining the Bladebearers in their assault of distraction, even if it meant giving up his best chance to undo the curse keeping him bound to his verminous shape, there was no hesitation in his choice. After all, he has practically forever to find another means of restoring himself, and the patience to go with it.
That sense of longevity, even permanence, has been a recurring theme in my interactions with the Daedra of Fargrave and the Deadlands. The concept of mortality, of at any point ceasing to exist, is a quaint notion to most of them, a curious inconvenience for those who are unfortunate enough to be created man or mer. What we would consider death is merely a time-out for them, as they wait to rematerialize and pick up where they left off. Even Nokvroz will return someday, though hopefully too deflated to cause much trouble.
The nature of any given Daedra, the essence of what makes them who they are, is also supposed to be permanent. Immutable. That's why Lyranth was so intrigued by the cataclysts' ability to transform Daedra - it shouldn't be possible to change the unchangeable. Now I suppose that's not to say that Daedra can't evolve over the course of their interminable existences, in the sense of learning and growing and perhaps even shifting their principles from time to time. But there is a core identity that remains, that lasts through each reconstitution, that can never be truly altered or destroyed.
Well, almost never. And that's why the cataclysts were so horrifying to the Dremora who realized their true mechanism. The Daedra who were fed to the machines had their entire essence absorbed into the resulting Incarnates, leaving nothing to return to Oblivion and reform. They were just gone, forever. And in a way, that must be even more terrifying for an eternal being than it is for those of us who know it's an inevitable outcome of our mortal existence.
It's strange to think that a Daedric Prince, who ought to share that natural immutability, should be so invested in the force of change that change itself is his nature. I mean we know that Daedric Princes do what they do because they can't not do it, because their obsession with domination or pestilence or throwing really raging parties or whatever is just who they are. But can Dagon himself change? Or is he just all about changing the things around him? And if he is as unchangeable as any other Daedra, does it gall him that he can't bring his nature to bear upon his very self?
It would be pretty hilarious if that's the real reason he's so angry all the time. Makes me think of Vivec, too, who can never become the everything that he truly wants to be. But in either case, they make do, doing what they can, and maybe it's just more motivation for Dagon to work even harder to make the destructible universe outside himself bend to his will.
I wonder if it's a source of fascination for eternal beings, watching things change around them. They are the constant, spending centuries and millennia and eons existing in the midst of a shifting cosmos. They can watch mortal kingdoms rise and fall, the struggles and glories that consume mortal lifetimes, and still they remain as they are, observing or attempting to influence as they see fit. They may claim to be above caring about what we mere mortals do or think or want, but I bet we're more entertaining than they give us credit for when the alternative is spending centuries sitting on a rock waiting for lava fish to bite.
And of course, we mortals do our share of changing, whether on our own or under duress. The Anchorite is doing her best to come to terms with what she's learned about her identity, her parentage and the intended purpose for her existence, but ultimately it's up to her to decide who she wants to be and claim her right to be that person. Her old self was essentially erased when she donned Elegian's mask, and replaced with a new self that she had to create from scratch. I can only imagine how simultaneously freeing and terrifying that kind of process must be - you can make anything of yourself, without anyone telling you what to do, but without any context or guidance or anything else that we take for granted from our upbringing.
Of course, when your upbringing is "hey so you're the emperor's kid and we're gonna need you to help us destroy the world," it's not hard to do better than that. And the former Mairead did indeed do better, and had become happy with the identity she created for herself as Fargrave's darling of the alleys. And then, of course, that whole past came crashing back to her, and I can only blame her a little bit for rushing off recklessly to assert herself in those heady first moments of trying to reconcile past and present.
She's lucky, though, and we're all lucky that things turned out as well as they did, even with her royal blood empowering the Perfected Cataclyst's first and final Perfected Incarnate. In the end, even Valkynaz Nokvroz was willing to sacrifice what he was to embrace what he was able to become. Perhaps he knew that his true self, the being he had always been, was not enough to stand against us. Or maybe it was simply the desire to see his work come to the greatest possible fruition while he still had the chance. Either way, his empowerment outweighed whatever aversion he might have had to giving up his immutable identity, not that it did him much good in the end.
My suspicions about the Anchorite haven't gone away, and I wouldn't be surprised if there's a reason for Dagon's sudden interest in her now that he remembers who she is. But there'll be time for all that after we congratulate ourselves for another crisis thus far averted.
So it all comes back to that damn book. Was that the very first thing Eveli and I did when this whole adventure started? How long ago was that? And she carried it around all that time, with only some bad dreams and headaches to show for it.
Handing it off to someone who might get some actual use out of it seemed like a decent idea at the time. Sombren and his quick study were instrumental to defeating Vandacia, after all. And the earnest survivor who just wanted to protect Calia in her brother's stead was willing to work as hard as it took to make sure the power of the Ambitions could never be turned against them again.
That eagerness must have provided just the right conduit for Dagon's influence to seep into Sombren's mind and heart. I can just imagine the enticing insights it promised him, if he'd just ponder a little more deeply, commit himself a little more fully. You can't rely on anyone but yourselves. No one else has the strength to protect you. No one else can understand you. All you need is within yourselves. And only your creator, your true master, can offer you a worthy place at his side.
It's ironic, probably, that Sombren's slow-burn corruption had its roots in a desire to protect Calia from being used by Dagon. Even as his defiance slowly turned to resignation and submission, he kept the book away from her, implicitly understanding that it wouldn't help her to be exposed to the mysteries he was struggling to fathom. He took it upon himself to learn, to fathom, to become the strength she needed. And ultimately it led him to believe that he was the only one who truly understood what it meant to be an Ambition. And he may have been right, in the sense of fulfilling Dagon's intentions for his existence in a way that Calia and the Anchorite could never bring themselves to accept.
I have to believe the old Sombren never would have invoked Destron's spirit to fight against his former allies. His version of Destron blamed us for allowing him to die, and endorsed Sombren as the only one who could save them all. But it might as well have been a puppet, simply mouthing the words that Sombren wanted us to hear. Sombren probably didn't even consider how cruel it was to force Calia to watch her brother return only to be struck down yet again. And when she rebuffed his last attempt to draw her to his side, his recourse was to appoint himself the only qualified caretaker of the Ambitions' power, and claim her powers for himself.
In spite of everything that went wrong, though, it could be said that Sombren's course of action actually did save Calia's life. If she had been corrupted along with him, and the two of them had stood together as Dagon's tools, they both would have shared the same fate.
Looking back, it's strange to think that the emperors who started this whole Daedric debacle also provided the means to end it. It probably says something about the mindset of the Longhouse Emperors that their master plan to make a pact with a Daedric Prince was immediately followed by a contingency plan in case they needed to get out of it. I guess it was actually Dagon who broke the agreement first, by not protecting Leovic against the insurgency that sought to end the Black Drake's legacy. And then, of course, the three former rulers were incensed to find themselves imprisoned and tormented by the very Prince who had failed to ensure their continued supremacy in Tamriel. Tough break.
But that gave Moricar more than enough motivation to help us learn how to use his daughter and the other Ambitions to carry out his contingency plan. Turns out turning those babies into Daedric incubators involved more than just a little bit of Dagon's energy. Dagon had to grant each of them a piece of his own identity - a fragment of his true name, if I'm understanding Lyranth's explanation of the egonymic correctly. Knowing a Daedra's secret true name grants power to the one who wields it, which is most commonly used by mortals to summon Daedric servants. In this case, though, we wouldn't be summoning Dagon - we'd be combining the four parts of his true name in order to weaken him, maybe even enough to banish him to the far corners of the Deadlands. We hoped.
But everything depended on getting to Sombren before he could deliver himself to Dagon. Himself, and the power he'd stolen from Calia and whatever was left of Destron. If we were right, he was now carrying three fragments of Dagon's egonymic within him, along with enough Ambition energy to make the aborted fusing of realms at Fort Redmane look like an orange-tinted picnic.
Just killing him wasn't the answer, either. Having all of that energy released at once, I'm not sure I want to think about what it would do. We needed the Anchorite to turn Sombren's game against him, and carefully draw out the stolen Ambitions' power along with those three fragments of the egonymic. Then, maybe, we'd have a chance of telling off the Prince of Destruction for good.
But first we needed to get to them. Lyranth figured Sombren would be headed to Dagon's capital city, Destruction's Solace, which isn't exactly a place you just wander into with a small token force. But fortunately that force got a lot larger when it was time to go.
It was quite a thing seeing all those people step through those portals when Lyranth snapped her fingers. Seemed like she managed to recruit half of Blackwood - Captain Rian, Governor Keshu, the Winds, even Elam showed up for another round with Dagon's minions. Arox and Rynkyus were pretty sure most of us would die, but might as well give it a shot, right?
Things started going badly pretty much as soon as we arrived at Destruction's Solace. The front gate was eerily unguarded, but we forged right ahead, into a disconcerting orange fog. And then I started hearing literal poofing noises around me, and every time I turned around it was only to see another one of my allies being vaporized into orange mist. Suddenly it was just me and Bastian, and in a moment of near-panic I grabbed his hand as if that could keep him from being taken away too. But then Lyranth's voice called out to me, and we were both pulled to safety.
Lyranth assured me that my comrades had simply been dispersed through the city to fight on their own, but the ambush had rattled her confidence even more than it had mine. We couldn't stop now, though. Dagon had watched me rely on my allies to win before, and so now he thought he could weaken me by scattering them. And if I allowed myself to be distracted looking for them, it would cost valuable time getting to Sombren. I had to press on, and hope that the others could fend for themselves until we somehow found each other again.
And so press on we did. I could barely see anything but orange in front of me. I didn't even dare to look back to make sure that Bastian was still with me, for fear of losing all sense of which way was forward. And when I did catch a glimpse of one of Dagon's minions off to the side, I knew better than to veer off course to dispatch them.
There were a few who came to meet us head-on along the way, though. So Dagon hadn't left the path to his front door completely undefended. And fortunately Eveli spotted me from a higher vantage point and was able to keep me going in the right direction.
As I went along, other allies found me too, each doing their part to clear a path while Dagon sneered at us as we ran past. When we caught up with the Anchorite, she'd sensed Sombren nearby, but when we finally came upon him it was just in time to watch him obediently open a portal to Nirn so that Dagon could kick off another attempt at merging realms. Even Lyranth wasn't strong enough to bind Sombren before he went through, and so once again we were off to try to stop a Planemeld in progress.
Trying to distract a high priest can't really compare with trying to distract a Daedric Prince, though. Bows and arrows probably wouldn't have done much good, but this time we had trebuchets and a Daedric-power-slinging Anchorite. And that was good enough to keep Dagon off my back while Bastian and I confronted Sombren.
It wasn't the first time I've seen a mortal servant trying desperately to please their Daedric Prince master, although I'm not sure how "mortal" Veya was by the time I faced her atop the Crystal Tower. Sombren might have been even more desperate, now that he finally had the chance to fulfill the purpose he had so fully committed to. The magic he flung at us encompassed lightning and fire along with his usual ice, appropriate for his appropriated powers, and we got some of Vandacia's fire-spirit-daedroths along with the usual slew of elemental minions.
While Sombren did his best to flaunt his accumulated powers, to show us everything a true Ambition could do, the Anchorite chose her battles much more carefully. While I withstood Sombren's heaviest attacks and wore him down with my own, she played cat and mouse with Dagon until it was time to take advantage of Sombren's weakest moments. And then, she drew out one fragment of the egonymic at a time, not getting greedy and trying to take too much at once. And when the effort of using her powers knocked the wind out of her, Bastian watched over her until her strength returned and she was ready to jump back into the fray.
I didn't notice any particular element in her powers, just pure Dagon. And so it must have been an especially potent slap to the face when we unleashed that final fragment of Dagon's true name, the one Mairead's father had augmented especially for this very moment. I'm not sure if that banishing would have been quite so satisfying if we hadn't been down on Nirn, but wherever Dagon ended up, I sure hope he feels it for a good long while.
The Anchorite was left reeling with four Ambitions' worth of power surging within her, but Lyranth had a plan for that. Her plan all along, apparently, or at least from the point when she realized she could use that power for purposes of her own. It was all too easy for her to siphon all of that energy from the Anchorite, before any of us could even try to do anything about it. And then she calmly informed us that our work was done and we would not see her again, and she was gone.
I don't know if she knew at the time that that was a lie, or if she determined afterward that trying to evade me would be more trouble than it was worth. Or maybe, considering how easy it would have been for her to portal off to some realm I couldn't reach, she saw some value in getting the closure of one final conversation.
I didn't approach it confrontationally, and neither did she. We both knew there wasn't anything I could do to her, or to those powers. I mostly just wanted answers, and she knew me well enough to expect the questions.
She didn't want to tell me what her purposes were, of course. She just said there was a promise she had to keep, that she had made a long time ago. And somehow the power to "shift destinies," as she put it, would help her to fulfill that promise. And to do so, she had to go somewhere that no mortal, and maybe even no Daedra, had ever been.
I'm not entirely sure what to make of all that, but I don't think she was just giving me vague untruths to throw me off the trail. And knowing that there was something she felt so compelled to do - and someone she felt so compelled to keep faith with - is much more meaningful to me than the thought that she simply wanted more power for herself out of greed. I don't know if I'll ever find out what she had to do, but I find myself hoping she's able to accomplish it, however long it takes.
And maybe she's right that the surviving Ambitions will be better off without the burden of those powers and expectations. Calia and the Anchorite both seem to be enjoying the relative freedom of just being regular people, with a whole world to explore together, and no reason for a Daedric Prince and his followers to come chasing after them. I hope that having each other will help ease the grief of what they've lost and what they've been through.
And so we all continue making of ourselves what we will, and making the most of our journeys down the river. Eveli discovers that she can make speeches in front of people, and Arox discovers that even a daedrat can be a badass, and Rynkyus discovers that he can feel something other than mild disdain for a mortal. And me and Bastian, well, we can say we're a better team now than when we first came through that portal to Fargrave, and that ought to mean something whenever the next adventure comes around.
What was it that happened the last time someone told me they wanted to put an end to the Three-Banners War? Oh right, dragons invading Elsweyr. Well at least things haven't gone that haywire this time around. Yet.
Maybe I shouldn't be so pessimistic. I mean it's not like we've tried this whole treaty conference thing before too, only to watch it devolve into a royal slap-fight while the people who had to do the actual work tried to be the grown-ups in the room.
Sigh. Less pessimistic, right. Maybe certain royal personages have done some growing up over the years since the Planemeld loomed over them. Jorunn was certainly more amenable to the idea of making nice with his age-old rivals in Western Skyrim, and Ayrenn even reached out to her counterparts when faced with imminent catastrophe back in Summerset. (What ever happened with that armada, anyway?)
I suppose the fact that they're even willing to show up for new peace talks is a good sign in itself. And I can't say that bringing about world peace isn't a noble goal. So sure, if they want some extra muscle around to keep the baddies from interfering, I can get on board.
Because of course there are baddies trying to interfere. I haven't been able to decide yet if this Ascendant Order just really likes the idea of keeping the war going, or if they saw an opportunity for a little light assassination and figured hey why not. And their medallion-sabotaging scheme was actually quite clever. We're honestly lucky that we got out of it with only one undue murder. I probably shouldn't be relieved that "at least" it was "only" a leader of the Mages Guild that I'd never heard of before, but I really don't want to think about what would have happened if we hadn't been able to get to the alliance leaders in time.
Given how those leaders' subordinates welcomed me in recognition of my service to their alliances, I guess it's time to just accept that I'm not just the champion of one alliance anymore. Maybe this is Meridia's old horizon-broadening plan come to fruition (remember when we thought Meridia just wanted to help?). Or maybe being friends with pretty much everyone will help me play mediator more effectively this time around.
But even if those old concerns about whose "side" I'm on don't really come to anything... there is one old fear that I'm going to have to face head-on. I mean I kind of already am, ever since we stepped onto that island off the coast of Daggerfall. How long has it been that I've been tiptoeing around Wayrest, when I couldn't stay away altogether? And yet there we were, charging right into High King Emeric's private sanctum, where at any moment we might find ourselves suddenly face to face with the man I've spent years avoiding.
I wish I could say I went without hesitation. I mean I wasn't going to let those old anxieties stop me from doing what needed to be done, especially when my King's life was at stake. But I could feel that weight on my heart with every step I took. There was a reckoning to be had, just up those stairs, just around that corner, just behind that door. At any moment I could see that once-friendly face curling in contempt at the sight of his presumptive rescuer.
And even the fact that nothing came of it hasn't set my mind at ease. Maybe this time King Emeric stayed safely hunkered down behind his protective wards, and the fight never got far enough to reach him. But presuming that Lady Arabelle mentioned who had accompanied her into the estate, he knows I was there. He knows I'm involved. And if he's going to be further involved, whether as an actual delegate to these peace talks or as an authority behind the scenes, then it's still just a matter of time before that reckoning comes.
I couldn't help thinking, as I stood at the ship's rail watching Daggerfall harbor fading into the distance yet again, that those days when I could definitively call myself the Champion of the Covenant seem so far away now. Whether it's divided (expanded?) loyalties, or just not giving that much of a damn anymore who ends up on the Ruby Throne, I'd have a hard time throwing myself into a Three-Banners anything with the same gusto I once had. Honestly I kind of wish they would all get over themselves and find something productive to do with everybody's time. But maybe that's what this peace conference is trying to achieve. And maybe it'll actually work this time. I guess we'll see.
I should probably at least try to lighten up before I worry Bastian. He was pretty quiet during that whole mission, but he did come up to me while I was musing at the ship's rail.
"Hey, Ilsabet, could I..."
"...No, nevermind. It's... not that important."
Maybe I should have encouraged him to speak his mind, but it's probably just as well that he could tell I was distracted. I'm not even sure how I'd explain my worries at this point. And it's going to be on me to pull myself together and keep the game face on, so there's no point in burdening him with my issues.
He's liable to have his hands full, anyway, keeping tabs on our rogue associate. As much of a handful as Jakarn usually is, I probably should have predicted that the two of them would not get along especially well. Neither of them really said anything directly, but I don't think it was an accident that Bastian immediately planted himself squarely in the middle of whatever cramped seating we were all squeezing ourselves into, and I caught Jakarn grumbling about a "chaperone" at one point when Bastian's back was turned.
Really I should probably be doing less introspective moping and more enjoying the personality dynamics at play here. Between the two of them and definitely-not-Investigator-Vale Lady Arabelle, this could actually be a more entertaining enterprise than most. And I will absolutely take a swanky noble Breton resort island over another horrific plane of Oblivion any day.
So then, optimism it is. Let's see where it gets us.