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> Sleeper in the Cave, a Morrowind fanfic
Kazaera
post Jan 28 2018, 10:49 PM
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@ghastley - I think you've found the most accurate summary of Adryn's life on Vvardenfell to date...! biggrin.gif

Last chapter, Adryn got cleared of suspicion regarding the murder of Ordinator Suryn Athones with the help of Athyn Sarethi, who immediately capitalised on his actions via both inviting her to join House Redoran and then forcing her to admit to a less selfish nature than Adryn is really comfortable with. She fled to Balmora, where she promptly got dragged into a new task: Caius Cosades would like some notes, and for some reason this now involves getting a Dwemer artifact from a ruin. Adryn is not happy.

Also, for some reason the subject of said notes - the so-called "Nerevarine" - seemed oddly familiar to Adryn when she heard it. Surely only a coincidence...

Chapter 13.1
****


-draw the lines like this, make sure to balance out the nzamchend, then feed the power into the bthuri-

Two claps from outside interrupted my concentration. In my hands magicka sparked, then faded to nothing as my focus broke.

I frowned. For a moment there, I'd swear it had been working-

Well, no matter now. I had a guest to take care of.

"Come in!" I called, dropping the crystal I'd been probing as I looked up. I blinked in surprise when I noticed the light streaming in the open air-flaps had the distinctive reddish tinge of evening. How long had I been sitting here?

Voryn ducked into the entrance of the yurt. My eyebrows rose further at this most unexpected guest – I'd thought Voryn in Dagoth lands in the north of the island, days away.

"My apologies for dropping by unannounced, Nerevar," Voryn said. "We were in the area and thought we'd visit."

My friend was still stooped half-crouched in the open entrance. He looked distinctly ridiculous. I waved at the seat-cushion opposite me impatiently, then remembered that Voryn could be something of a stickler for propriety.

"Clan Indoril welcomes you, Voryn of Clan Dagoth, you may eat freely from our herds and drink freely from our winter stores in honour of our friendship- sit down, will you? You're too tall as it is, you're going to give me a crick in my neck if I have to keep staring up at you."

Voryn's lips quirked in a smile as he settled himself on the cushion I'd indicated. "I honour the welcome you give me, Nerevar of Clan Indoril. May there be friendship between our people forever more."

There. The formalities had been observed. Although-

Old lessons our Wise Woman had tried to thump into my head when I was young reared their head.

"May I offer you anything to eat or drink?" I offered, then looked between us. The low table in the center of the yurt was covered in parchment, one of the precious books Dumac had given me when we last met lying open on one side, the crystal I'd been experimenting with on the other. "Er- let me just tidy that up-"

"It's quite all right, Nerevar," Voryn said as he took in the mess. "I'm not hungry. I take it you're studying Kagrenac's work?"

"Mzahnch's, actually," I corrected. "Kagrenac has been developing some mad theories about the nature of Aedric- well, let's just say our interests are diverging. Mzahnch, on the other hand, has been looking into how to use-"

I broke off with a sigh. Voryn was no scholar, after all. No doubt his eyes were glazing over in disinterest right now... especially as, with the Chimer's general lack of participation in this sort of scholarship, any further detail would require a switch to Dwemeris.

In truth, that bothered me. My long friendship with the Dwemer meant I could speak their language well enough by now, but they remained secretive about their tongue all the same and so it formed a real barrier to any other aspiring Chimer researcher. Even aside from that, I had my pride in our people. It smarted to think our language had no way of even expressing some of these theories. If I were able to find other Chimer interested, we might be able to come up with something... perhaps some of the Telvanni...

A thought for a later day, given that I had a guest.

"My apologies, Voryn. I don't mean to either bore you or ignore you."

"I missed you, you know." Voryn's voice was fond, but there was a vast ocean of sadness beneath the words.

I found myself seized by the sudden, odd feeling that our conversation had been following an invisible script and Voryn had just departed from it.

"What do you mean?" I asked warily.

Hadn't it been evening just a second ago? It was fully dark outside now, a dim candle our only source of illumination.

"What I said," Voryn answered. He leaned closer, knees bumping the table. "It's been a long time, old friend, and the traitors have tried to keep us separate."

...Voryn had always been tall, but had he truly been this tall? And surely it was an illusion cast by the flickering candlelight that turned his face into an eerie golden mask?

"Voryn, wha..."

My voice trailed off as I found myself unable to form words, my thoughts slowing down like a river freezing into ice.

"And succeeded, too. I almost had you, dear friend, until Vivec's blind slaves intervened." Voryn snarled, a rumbling, inhuman sound. On his forehead a third eye opened, blood-red and piercing. "No matter. Soon, they will learn. Everyone will learn. The traitors will receive their due, Resdayn will live again... and we will be truly reunited."

I couldn't think. I couldn't think. I couldn't-

"She's not letting you remember, is she?" Voryn sounded almost pitying. He reached out to stroke my cheek with long, curved claws. "A cruel thing indeed, keeping you ignorant by force. And such monsters claim to be the true gods of our people. Rest assured, dear friend, no Daedra will be able to touch you when all is done."

"I-"

My voice was a choking rasp, dying before it could form, and I couldn't think.

"Alas, the traitors' interference means I cannot speak to you... properly. Soon the last threads of our connection will be gone, and then even this superficial conversation will need to end. But I can be patient. And Nerevar, I promise you this, promise it on the Heart: I will find you again."

Voryn sat back, and-

I shook my head. Pain stabbed my skull, and I- I couldn't think-

Summer evening sunlight streamed through the open flaps of the yurt, illuminating the papers I'd been working on earlier. Voryn was seated across from me and looking rather concerned.

"Is something wrong?" he asked.

I frowned.

What had happened? Voryn and I had been talking, I'd been telling him about my research, and then-

A white-hot knife lanced through my head. I winced and raised my hands to rub my temples, thoroughly distracted.

Well, no matter what had happened, right now I was most shamefully neglecting hospitality.

"My apologies, Voryn, my thoughts must have drifted for a moment. What were you saying?"

"Oh, nothing important," Voryn said, waving a hand dismissively. "Don't worry yourself. Are you well?"

I really wished that whatever had decided stabbing needles into my forehead was an appropriate activity would go and find another victim. "Headache. Not sure where it's come from. Maybe I've spent too long studying, today."

"Maybe." Voryn frowned, a dark, angry expression I wasn't used to seeing on his face. "Perhaps some distraction will help. What do you say to a wander around the camp as we talk?"

The idea of getting out of my stuffy yurt had some appeal. "That sounds like an excellent idea, my friend- ah!"

My legs cramped as I stood, and Voryn reached over to steady me before I fell. His hand felt burning hot, his fingernails oddly sharp.

"Yes," he said. Despite the fact that I'd regained my balance, he didn't let go of my arm. "I look forward to catching up with you, Nerevar."

*****


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haute ecole rider
post Jan 30 2018, 03:59 PM
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blink.gif blink.gif :huh?:


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ghastley
post Feb 2 2018, 12:40 AM
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Flash waaaaaaay back, I think.

Or it's a completely different story, just getting started. biggrin.gif Calling it Chapter 13.1 suggests the former.


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treydog
post Feb 4 2018, 02:19 AM
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So much Adryn goodness and then the unexpected bonus of seeing one of the moments where the events that shaped Vvardenfell began...

/Standing ovation/

Most excellent, Kaz!


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Kazaera
post Feb 4 2018, 10:56 PM
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@haute ecole rider - Here's hoping those are good emoticons! biggrin.gif

@ghastley - well, sort of a flashback... until Voryn ventured off-script. wink.gif

@treydog - thanks! I'm glad the Nerevar interludes are going over well - I really enjoy writing them (and want to regularly underscore exactly what is happening in Adryn's head at night right now...) but don't want to overdo it since they're relatively disconnected from the rest of the story. Well, this one maybe not as much...

Last installment, Nerevar had a very, very odd encounter with Voryn Dagoth. One that may not have gone exactly that way originally, and left Nerevar both unable to remember the details of what occurred and with a splitting headache. Let's see what the effects of that are...

(apologies in advance for an awkward split; this scene doesn't divide well.)

Chapter 13.2
*****


I watched the breakfast crowd from where I nursed a cup in the corner. I'd woken this morning with a nasty headache that seemed inclined to hang around as the day wore on. Needless to say, I wasn't feeling in the mood for company, and if it hadn't been for my agreement with Teleportation Girl I'd probably have skipped the communal breakfast today – especially because the headache had apparently talked my appetite into desertion. At least that was my theory for why the spiced rolls that had been so delicious when I'd last had them looked about as appealing as prison crusts today. Worse, I'd barely made headway on my first cup of Dulnea's tea... a fact that must surely qualify as some sort of blasphemy.

Thankfully, none of the other guild members seemed to mind my sour mood and silence. Ajira would most likely have tried to draw me out if she'd been there, but she was absent and the others were deeply involved in their discussion. Listening more closely made it clear they were talking about some sort of event that was apparently happening today.

...on the one hand, part of me still wanted to crawl back into bed, pull the covers over my head and hope to wake up no longer feeling like a draugr. That part was definitely not in the mood for conversation.

On the other, I was curious.

"Hey, Marayn? What's this 'seminar' you're talking about?"

Marayn blinked at me. "Oh, right, you've been away a lot so you wouldn't know. The guild has regular events where someone gives a talk about their current area of research. Usually it's someone from one of the guilds here on Vvardenfell, sometimes we can get an independent local researcher in, and occasionally it's someone from a non-local guild who's in Vvardenfell for some reason. For instance, two weeks ago we had Edras Oril from Almalexia talking about kagouti mating habits. It was very- are you all right, Adryn?"

"F-fine," I managed once I'd finished coughing. Really, I was ashamed of myself – appetite or no appetite, Dulnea's tea was far too fine a liquid to waste on choking. "So it's about listening to people talk about what they're researching right now?"

That sounded... as if it could be fascinating or dreadfully boring, depending on who the people in question were. I hadn't forgotten Cassia in Vivec and her pots and pans.

"It's also about having tea, coffee and cakes with everyone beforehand," Teleportation Girl corrected me. "Edwinna brings these sweetrolls from a bakery in Ald'ruhn... they're delicious!"

"And don't forget the times we go out for drinks and dinner afterwards," Uleni chimed in. "Last week we were booked in at the Flowers of Gold in Vivec, the guild paying-"

"For shame, both of you!" Marayn was obviously trying to be stern, but his sparkling eyes and the smile quirking the corner of his mouth made it hard to believe in. "Scholarship is more important than food and gossip!"

The expression on Teleportation Girl's face made it clear she found this statement rather dubious.

"So who's speaking today, then? And what's the topic?" I asked, curious despite myself.

"It's Analinwe, from Vulkhel Guard in Alinor," Marayn answered. "She's on holiday in Vivec and said she'd give a talk on... what was it again... oh yes! The Miracle of Peace and what its implications may be for the connection between Akatosh and the Septim line."

The clink as I dropped my spoon was deafening. Strangely, nobody else seemed to notice.

"Well, that should be interesting. I mean, it's not every day you get a purported Dragon Break to examine."

"Not every day, but the one we have was over ten years ago, on the other side of the world, and has spurred more puerile 'scholarship' or rather excuses to hop onto the Dragon Break caravan than any other-"

There is fire everywhere.

"But don't you see, the fact that a Dragon Break resolved so favourably to the Empire..." Marayn was talking, hands darting around like cliff racers as I'd noticed they did when he was deep into explaining something, but his words were drowned out by a roaring in my ears.

"Excuse me," I said. My voice seemed very far away. "I think I need to get some air."

Outside, I looked at the growing crowds, turned and took the stairs upwards. My headache was finally ebbing, but I felt shaky, ill, and not at all up to battling my way back to the Mages' Guild. Sitting on the edge of the walkway that connected the roof of the Eight Plates with the neighbouring building and letting my legs dangle did do some good, though. The air was fresher up here, and I'd always liked heights.

The sun was out today, and I let my eyes drift closed as I indulged in the feeling of sunlight on my face. There was a slight chill in the air, but not yet enough to drive me to the clothier for a cloak. New to Morrowind as I was, I found it unseasonably warm for the beginning of Frostfall. In Solitude, we'd be seeing regular snowfall by now. Even in Daggerfall...

"Are you all right?"

I blinked up at Teleportation Girl, torn out of my thoughts. I hadn't expected anyone to follow me; they'd seemed deeply involved in their debate when I left.

But of course she'd wanted to talk to me about something, I remembered. It had been the entire reason I'd been at breakfast. Well, maybe if I ignored her she'd get the message: meeting rescheduled, please come back another day.

No such luck. Instead, Teleportation Girl seemed to take my lack of response as an invitation and let herself drop down beside me.

For a minute or so, we simply sat together in silence. Then, quietly, she began to talk.

"My family is from Wayrest, you know. My parents moved to Vvardenfell before I was born, but we went back to visit my grandparents twice and they travelled to Morrowind once. I was very young, but I remember my grandfather."

I didn't say anything, letting the words wash over me.

"I loved him, you know?" Her voice grew wistful. "He'd let me sit on his shoulders and he'd call me his little mageling, and when he found me crying because some boys had called me an outlander he taught me a spell to make them think I was a ten-foot-tall monster... he laughed so hard when I told him how they'd run away screaming. And then... then the warp happened. He was a battlemage in the army, he was on patrol..." She took a deep breath. "They never found him. And believe me, my grandmother looked."

The grief in her voice was palpable. I bowed my head.

"I still hate it when people call it that stupid name. The 'Miracle of Peace'. As if my grandfather dying was a miracle." She spat the word.

The silence grew. I shifted, uncomfortable. A story like that demanded reciprocation. I'd usually reject such an idea with great prejudice, but now I could feel words welling within me.

Perhaps it was that she understood. I hadn't expected anyone who'd understand.

"I grew up in Daggerfall." The words slipped out in a quiet, even murmur. "An village in the province, then the capital itself. I was in the orphanage attached to the Temple of Kynareth at first, there, but later I lived with-"

Fjaldir. Azha. Do'kharza, Eix-Lin-

Giants in my memory, ones where the thought of them still filled me with awe and gratitude, with hero-worship in the truest sense of the word...

...who I still viewed through the eyes of a child, because I'd never known them when grown.

Could it really be called living with when they'd been there maybe three days in a month?

"-well, it doesn't matter," I moved on. "They were all out when it happened. There was a, a neighbour who looked in on me, but she- died. I think. It became very hard to be certain of anything, at that point."

I'd have liked to leave it there, but now that I'd started I found the words kept coming, like poison seeping from a lanced wound.

"There's no way to describe what a Dragon Break is like, you know? We're children of Akatosh, we need time to make sense of the world. When it shatters, when everything starts happening out of order and location doesn't make sense anymore and effect comes before cause- when the entire concept of before stops working- and as if that weren't enough there was the fire and the fighting, armies and monsters and people dying-" I swallowed hard. "Well, usually I just try not to think about any of it."

It worked pretty well as a strategy. Barring nights.

"But the worst part, the absolute worst, that came afterwards. I- time didn't make sense, I said that, but you ask questions like how long did it last and the like anyway, that's just how we're made. I thought – two weeks? Maybe a month? Imagine my surprise when they told us it had only been a day. Especially because... when it was over, we were in the Eastern Reach, near Markarth in Skyrim – no idea how we got there – and..."

My mouth tasted like ashes.

"It was two years later," I finished in a whisper.

*****


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mALX
post Feb 5 2018, 04:20 PM
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I am catching up! I am so glad you are back to updating again! Adryn is one of my favorite characters!!!




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haute ecole rider
post Feb 6 2018, 04:28 PM
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Adryn survived the Dragon Break? Of course she would, makes sense with the timeline in the Lore.

This just suddenly went from amusing and enjoyable and interesting to a very compelling read . . .

More, please.


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Kazaera
post Feb 11 2018, 11:03 PM
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@mALX - I'm glad! And thank you so much for your kind words about Adryn, especially coming from the creator of Maxical!

@haute ecole rider - I did wonder if anyone would catch the implications of Adryn having grown up in Daggerfall! The timeline actually works out so beautifully I had to get her involved - and for all that I initially thought I was reaching by having it be a horrifying traumatic experience for her, the witness descriptions in The Warp in the West include lots of death along with details like someone's eyes being burned out of their sockets so it's actually supported in lore. The geographic and temporal displacement is my own invention, but there's reasons why Adryn was closer to the "epicenter" of the Warp than most people and could have been affected more badly.

Chapter 13.3
*****


I jumped at the feeling of a hand on my shoulder. I'd almost forgotten about the Breton who was now looking at me sympathetically and offering what I supposed was meant to be reassuring physical contact. "I'm sorry," she said now. "That must have been hard."

"Mmm. Well. Anyway!" I groped for a subject change and found one. "What did you want to talk to me about yesterday?"

Message sent: communal trauma-sharing time is over. Normal service may resume at any time. Also - I shifted away from her - communal trauma-sharing time does not constitute an exception to Adryn's personal space bubble.

The other girl blinked at me, but withdrew her hand. "Well. Um. I have a suggestion... I guess you could see it as doing me a favour?"

I raised an eyebrow at her. I wasn't used to soul-baring being a prelude to asking for favours, but maybe that was just because I was unfamiliar with the whole thing. For all I knew, this was Caius' modus operandi. Maybe he met with people like Hasphat, they all sat down and shared sob stories from their childhood - Caius talking about how his mother wouldn't let him have sweets, maybe, and Hasphat about a traumatic experience in a Dwemer ruin that left him deciding to send poor innocent bystanders for his toys instead of picking them up themselves - and afterwards Caius would put another person on his list of people who owed him favours...

What? It's not as if I have any idea how this spy thing is meant to work!

"I'm trying to make Journeyman, you see," she continued, apparently not having noticed my current battle against an overactive imagination. "I've been an Apprentice for almost a year now, I've done my time – and I really hate being a guild guide." She scowled. "The hours are absolutely terrible, no free time at all, and being the only person in Balmora who has to take the land route everywhere gets really old, let me tell you. My parents moved six months ago and I haven't been able to visit their new home even once."

My somewhat haphazard entry into the guild meant I was missing some of the basics. I suspected I'd just stumbled across another one. "Making Journeyman would mean you no longer had to be a guild guide?"

"Exactly. It's a job for Apprentices – all the nasty ones are. You don't see Marayn or Estirdalin or, Julianos forbid, Ranis stuck behind an alchemy desk or teleporting people."

Well, that certainly shed new light on Ajira's and Galbedir's rivalry... and raised worrying prospects regarding what Ranis might have planned for me, now that enchanting was out.

"Okay. I'm with you so far," I said. "What I fail to see is how I come into this. Aren't you specialising in Mysticism? If so, I really have no idea how I could help. Given the obvious," I added with some level of (justified, in my opinion) bitterness.

"Actually, that's exactly it. I'd never heard of that syndrome you have, apparently it's really rare. I don't think anyone's ever properly studied what causes it and what its exact effects are. I asked Estirdalin and she said she thought it might make for a good Journeyman thesis."

I wasn't sure what my expression was, but judging by the way my guild-mate's steadily drooped it wasn't very positive. Estirdalin's quiz had been more than humiliating enough; I couldn't imagine voluntarily spending even more time trying and failing to cast spells only to be told how easy they were supposed to be.

I said so.

"Oh, that's not how it's going to be at all! I was actually thinking about focusing more on the spells where you get unusual effects – Detection and Telekinesis. I mean, Estirdalin did suggest investigating the inabilities, but honestly I don't think there's much more you can write for 'can't cast Soultrap'."

Hmm. That did sound better. Maybe this was worth considering after all? If-

"Well, I did think it might be interesting to see what happens to you with the guild guide spells-"

All right, that suggestion certainly brought me violently back to Nirn.

"Are you out of your mind?" I demanded once I was capable of noises other than spluttering. "Asking me to cast a teleportation spell? On other people? On customers?"

"No! No!" If she waved her hands a little more wildly she'd probably take flight. "We practice on rocks, or boxes, or sometimes summoned Daedra. I wouldn't have you try on actual people." My sigh of relief was interrupted as she continued, "Although who knows? The foundation of guild guide spells is actually completely different from the Intervention school. You might find they work out for you."

Azha, I remembered, had had the world's most cutting skeptical expression. The Mother-Superior of the orphanage had had nothing on her. She'd been able to reduce Do'kharza - inveterate rogue who'd steal the whiskers off Rajhin that he proclaimed himself – to a whimpering bundle of fur with just a long stare and furrowed eyebrows. A seven-year-old girl had been no challenge at all, and after my first and last attempt at sneaking something past The Look had featured heavily in my nightmares.

My own was only a pale imitation, I knew. Judging by the way the blood was draining from my guild-mate's cheeks, I'd managed to capture something of the essence all the same.

"I feel as if you're not really taking this seriously enough," I said after a moment of silence to let the gravity of the situation sink in. "From what Estirdalin said, me messing around with Mysticism spells could be seriously dangerous, and I'm not sure restricting ourselves to rocks will be enough to be safe. What if I actually do blow something up, or mistarget the spell and accidentally send you off into the stratosphere, or-"

I'd always had a fantastic imagination. Right now, it was throwing all the things that could possibly go wrong here at me in full, lurid detail.

"It'd be safer not to even try," I said, and the words tasted like acid.

The Breton's shoulders sagged. Had I convinced her?

I tried to squash down the sting of regret at the thought. So it hurt to have to treat the Mysticism school like a hidden fire-trap rune. So I really wanted to be able to dive into new spells, the same as anyone else would be able to. Well, I hadn't been a child in a long time now and I was used to not getting what I wanted-

An indrawn breath brought my attention back to the conversation.

"Look, Adryn – Estirdalin is a fantastic and experienced mage and all that, but in this case I think she's wrong. Just because you cast spells a little differently from most people and can have problems they don't doesn't mean you should have to give up on the whole school of Mysticism."

There was real force behind the words – this was obviously something she felt strongly about.

"So it might be a little more difficult to teach you," she continued. "So maybe we'll have to be very careful about it. So what? If that was a reason not to bother trying, there wouldn't be any mages at all. The guild should be there to help anyone who's interested in magic, not just those who do it exactly by the textbook! It should be about scholarship, about learning, not just making as much money off customers as possible and ignoring anyone who doesn't fit!"

The rant struck me as genuine, and despite myself I began to soften.

"So... you want me to try the guild guide teleportation spells to see if I can get them to work?" I'd meant it to sound scoffing, but instead it only came out as mildly skeptical.

"Exactly. I think there's a decent chance you could learn them. And if not, there's still a lot of potential for research in your Detection spells. Who knows, maybe you can teach them to me-"

"In case you didn't catch it last week, I tried that before. It didn't work."

"To some scout you met, you said. I remember. Well, I'm an Apprentice of the Mages' Guild with a specialty in Mysticism – I'd like to think I have a much better chance. How much magical education can a scout have, anyway? For all you know she'd never even heard of Lor's Principles!" She waved my objection away.

I hadn't heard of Lor's Principles. The urge to come to Gelduin's defense was strong, but my guild-mate hadn't finished.

"And even if I can't learn the spell, if I figure out enough of the way you shape it I might have enough material for a proper research article, one that one of the bigger journals would accept. At that point Ranis Athrys would have to promote me to Journeyman."

I wasn't nearly as optimistic. But...

But until this conversation I hadn't realised how much I'd needed someone proclaiming confidence in me, someone who viewed my Mystic disability as a minor obstacle and an opportunity for research instead of proof I shouldn't bother trying. It was so perfectly tailored to what I wanted to hear, such a balm to places in my soul that sorely needed it, that I almost suspected the Breton of manipulating me.

"So? Will you help?"

...well. If she was, it was working.

"Sure. Why not, You only live once, and I'm an alchemist, I should be used to explosions by now. And..."

I took a deep breath.

"Thanks... Masalinie."

*****



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ghastley
post Feb 12 2018, 02:23 AM
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Well, I don't see how a Detection spell can go wrong in a dangerous way, but I'm now expecting to find out. ohmy.gif


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Kazaera
post Feb 19 2018, 10:14 PM
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@ghastley - now you're giving me ideas!

Last installment, Ajira and Masalinie talked, and Masalinie somehow got Adryn to not only agree to help her with research in Mysticism but also use her name. Now that's charisma for you.

Chapter 13.4
*****


Afternoon found me hiking past Fort Moonmoth in the sturdy guarhide boots I'd gotten in trade for those from the Temple, plain but comfortable shirt and breeches, and carrying a pack that a bystander might notice I treated very, very carefully.

Although I'd have liked to put it off for longer – preferably eternally – I suspected Caius wouldn't be all too happy if I didn't get moving on his 'simple task'. With that in mind, I'd decided it was time to have a look at this Arkngthand. Not look for the cube, I told myself, just get the lay of the land. A scouting mission before the actual heist, like so many I'd gone on before.

Well, not entirely like. I certainly couldn't remember any manor I'd scoped out in Skyrim being populated by murderous Dwemer automatons. However, one has to adapt to changing circumstances.

I'd prepared for this particular scouting mission in the only way I knew. This meant that I was unarmed, Elone's old short-sword having migrated to under my bed, but my pack was filled almost to bursting with potions for every eventuality. The process of preparing them had depleted Ajira's stores quite a bit, and the end I'd guiltily left two ten-drake coins on the desk in the alchemy lab to cover materials.

I rounded a corner in the path and then stopped to take in the sight. It looked like I'd almost arrived.

Ahead, the path crossed the deep gorge that was labelled Foyada Mamaea on my map via a bridge. The opposite side was grey and ashy, an abrupt shift from the scrubby green growth that I'd been travelling past since Balmora. It was broken by coppery-gold metal sprouting from the ground to the right of the path. The style of architecture was unmistakeable to anyone who'd ever seen a Dwemer ruin... let alone lived in one, those two years in Markarth after the Warp.

Steam burst from one of the pipes rising from the hillside with a hiss and a clanking noise. Yes, definitely Dwemer. I still had decidedly unfond memories of the way the rusted cog at the far end of the Warrens would randomly decide to start trying and failing to turn or the grate next to it would start spitting steam – always at an hour of the morning only Sanguine would recognise, of course. I knew I should really have been impressed that Dwemer machines still worked four millennia after their owners' disappearance, but in my defense it's quite hard to muster any emotion other than irritation when you've been woken up from a sound sleep by ear-splitting screeches and whistles and have to be ready to work at dawn. Nine knew Charon had cursed a blue streak...

My lips pressed together.

I'd really had far more than my allotted dose of nostalgia recently. For all that so many people loved to wallow in their memories – see Masalinie and her insistence on 'talking about it' – I'd always considered myself smarter than that.

After all, the past is over. Gone. Dead. For all the present is concerned, it may as well never have happened – indeed there are philosophical schools that state it didn't! – so bothering about it is really just an unnecessary indulgence in masochism.

"Halt!"

And my pointless, unwanted trip down memory lane was certainly to blame for the fact that I'd entirely missed the man standing in the middle of the bridge, just ahead of me.

He was an older Colovian with receding grey hair who was watching me with narrowed eyes, one hand on the hilt of a sword. The armour he wore was worn and oft-mended, dark brown leather with no identifying marks... no, looking closer I could make out some sigil picked out in dark red against his upper arm.

I could recognise a gang sign when I saw one.

Definitely a bandit. He couldn't be any more of a bandit if he had the word "Bandit" floating over him. In fact, the only reason he didn't was probably because the world had decided this would be unforgivably redundant.

I let my own hand drop to one particular vial I'd tucked into my belt. If I'd brewed it correctly, it should create a thick cloud of smoke when poured out or shattered...

...of course, given that it had been my first time attempting this potion with Morrowind ingredients, that if was not to be underestimated.

"What's your business here?" demanded the bandit.

I blinked, having expected something more along the lines of your money or your life.

"Ah... I was heading to the ruins of Arkngthand?"

I clamped my mouth shut, but too late. Mentally, I gave myself a good kick; any good criminal will tell you that being taken by surprise is no excuse for being honest, of all things. Especially since in this situation I didn't think telling the truth was going to be to my benefit.

And indeed, the bandit's eyes were narrowing as his hand clenched on the hilt of his sword.

"I hope you're aware that all Dwemer artifacts belong to the Emperor by law, and taking them is viewed as a serious crime."

As a matter of fact, Hasphat Antabolis had refrained from mentioning that tidbit. An omission I'd have to thank him for when I got back. Although I certainly didn't know why a bandit was lecturing me about-

"I happen to be a member in good standing of the Imperial Archaeological Society, you know," the bandit continued. "We're conducting a dig in Arkngthand right now, and I'm afraid we have to take exception to any attempts at... looting."

If he was an archaeologist, I was a kagouti-

-and I should probably wait to inspect myself for an outbreak of tusks until after I'd gotten out of this situation in one piece.

"Oh! The Imperial Archaeological Society, you say." The fact that I managed to keep my face straight when saying that proved, I think, that a career in the theatre was definitely an option for me. "That's-"

An idea bloomed in my mind, fully formed and – if I may say so myself – brilliant.

"That's fantastic!" I gushed. The bandit-archaeologist looked rather taken aback. "I'm a member of the Mages' Guild, you see, and I've been assigned to study the Dwemer." So far, I was even being entirely truthful. "Of course I'd never dream of disturbing the historical record by removing artifacts from the ruins! I simply wanted to investigate their layout. You see..."

I took a deep breath, mind racing. Time to hope the research I'd done into the Dwemer so far had given me enough to come up with something plausible.

"...Arkngthand, like many of the Dwemer citadels closer to Red Mountain, was almost abandoned some time before the disappearance of the Dwemer due to increased amounts of ash-fall. It not only left the environment inhospitable, but also caused worry that an eruption might be imminent, so many Dwemer moved to citadels further away from Red Mountain, such as Mzuleft and Bethamez."

I was genuinely surprised at how easily the words flowed. Either I was a far better liar under pressure than previous incidents would indicate, or more of Chronicles of Nchuleft, Ruins of Kemel-Ze and Antecedents of Dwemer Law had stuck than I'd thought.

"I want to investigate the architectural set-up of Arkngthand and contrast them with citadels that were built after the exodus. Perhaps the differences might reflect changes in the Dwemer mind-set in the intervening time, which could in turn shed new light on the disappearance of the Dwemer!" A breath. "I hadn't realised there was an archaeological team already here. I'd of course be delighted to collaborate!"

The bandit was goggling at me, obviously struck speechless. I waited for him to collect himself, keeping up the bright smile even though the mask of sheer enthusiasm was starting to make my head hurt.

The beauty of it all was that thanks to Trebonius (and there were three words that one didn't expect in sequence...) the whole story was built on a foundation of truth. And certainly I made a far more plausible Dwemer scholar than artifact hunter or smuggler, unarmed and dressed in robes as I was.

The bandit – no, looter, he must be – certainly seemed taken in. His grip on his sword loosened, and although he looked rather frustrated, he didn't look suspicious.

"Ah... I'm afraid that's not going to be possible. You see..."

Now it was his turn to invent wildly, and I suspected he wouldn't quite reach the standard I'd set.

"The ruins are still... dangerous! Yes, dangerous. There's still working automata and centurions and all sorts of deadly creatures. We need to finish clearing them out before we could possibly allow others access."

No, not convincing at all, I thought critically. Where I'd pulled off a performance worthy of a lead actor, the only role this man could win in the theatre would be cleaning up after the shows. Who knew, maybe a thwarted dream of stardom was the reason he'd turned to crime in the first place? Well, at least he'd given me a good excuse to turn around and leave...

...except that the keen if rather oblivious scholar I was pretending to be wouldn't give up nearly so easily, and I had to make sure the bandit didn't grow suspicious.

"Oh." I let myself pout. "Are you sure? I've told the guildmistress I'd finish this paper, you see. I need it to make Journeyman," I added, remembering Adryn and Galbedir's rivalry, not to mention my discussion with Masalinie on comparative duties by rank. "Could I talk to your leader about an exception, maybe? I promise I can take care of myself..."

"I'll talk to Boss Crito," the bandit said, managing to sound sincerely regretful (I mentally upgraded his career in drama to understudy), "but I don't think it's likely, sorry."

"Oh well." I let myself sigh gustily. "I'll have to look into Bthanchend, or maybe..."

I turned around and let myself trudge back on the path to Fort Moonmoth. Leaving the looter at my back was not to my liking at all, and I found myself glad he couldn't hear my heart race as I walked away. Finally, I judged I was out of sight and earshot.

I set down my pack beside a rock that looked like a reasonably comfortable seat, a theory I immediately tested and proved acceptable.

"Scamp drek," I hissed. The curse did nothing to improve my situation, did however make me feel a little better.

I'd expected Dwemer automata, had a whole sheaf of notes I'd made on the various types that had occurred in Ruins of Kemel-Ze with me. I hadn't, however, expected looters... much less what was clearly an organised gang. This was going to complicate things tremendously.

To begin with, how was I to even get to Arkngthand? I was excellent at sneaking and moving unseen, and that was no empty pride speaking... but across a bridge? With no cover, a guard watching, and no one else in sight? The Grey Fox couldn't have done it.

If you can't go through, go around...

I dug in my pack and pulled out the map I'd acquired on my ill-fated trip to Lake Amaya. After having done without it on my first expedition to Vivec (followed, as it had been, by my first expedition to Ald'ruhn and then my first expedition to the West Gash) I wasn't planning to let it leave my person anytime soon.

I must currently be here, on the path about halfway between Fort Moonmoth and Arkngthand. With a moment's exercise of will, the magic on the map flared to life to confirm that fact.

...why were the looters being so open about their presence so close to an Imperial Fort, anyway? They must be either very stupid or very clever, and with the way my luck had been going lately it probably wasn't going to be the former. Why no worries about being discovered by the Legion? Did they expect their story about being archaeologists to stand up to scrutiny?

Well, no matter for now. Here was the bridge, here the ruin of Arkngthand, denoted by a small gear symbol on the map. The path I'd been following left the bridge and the ruins to snake its way through the hills. Some distance away (a distance significantly less measured as the cliff-racer flew than as the Adryn walked, I noted gloomily) it met a second path. That one...

Hope blossomed as I traced the second path on its way southwest. It passed directly behind Arkngthand on its way, then reached a region I knew quite well.

I let my finger rest on the words Lake Amaya.

Come to think of it, now that I thought about it I vaguely remembered a path that had branched off the route to the shrine at Kummu in order to vanish into the hills. I'd looked at it for a moment, contemplating escape, before the minion of Molag Bal disguised as a pilgrim had caught up to me and ordered me on.

It looked like it might just be possible to access the ruin from Lake Amaya, which wasn't at all far from here. Better yet, there was the possibility the looters only had guards posted at the approach to the main entrance. Even if my luck didn't reach that far, I had a lot more confidence in my ability to sneak past guards once one took bridges out of the picture.

I forced myself up and off the rock with a groan. There wasn't that much daylight left – I wanted to make the best use of it that I could.

*****


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- Lo-Fi Version Time is now: 21st February 2018 - 10:05 AM