Chapter 9 – Interlude 4; What Happened Because Of The Plague
Castle Wayrest, High Rock, Hearthfire 3E397. It is 32 years before the present day. Morgiah is 21.
Wayrest’s gates were shut and bolted. The quarantine was absolute – no-one entered, no-one left.
The plague had hit quickly and with little to no warning. There had been crises across the Bay, but it had seemed so far away, and now… even the Royal Family were prisoners, sealed within the relatively safe environment of the palace walls.
Karethys raved. Morgiah was watching from the door of the makeshift hospital room; she had been lucky to get that far at all with the heavy restrictions placed on the family’s movement. But while she could, she stood unnoticed, and listened to the delirious words…
“NO! Let me – I mustn’t – tomorrow, let me go, for tomorrow – please – please – must go – speak to him – stop –”
One of the nurses noticed Morgiah and ushered her away, shutting the door with a final, resolute clang. In the darkened hallway, the light from the closed-off room gone, she leant against the smooth panelling and felt her heart beating. The corridor smelled of wood-polish and dust, but under the familiar scents there were medicinal herbs, and sweat, and death.
They may have been delirious ravings, but Morgiah thought she knew what they meant. It had been two months since she had first followed Karethys to the meeting-house; since then, she has done likewise four separate times. Each time the figures had touched the scroll and vanished. Sometimes Karethys would be back in the morning; last time, it had been two days.
Morgiah started to walk down the dim corridor. It was night; a stifling, cloud-blanketed night, with hot air begging for a thunderstorm to clear it. The plants glistened with moisture in the kitchen-garden, glimpsed through the small windows that lead back through the servants’ quarters. Bad weather for plague. No cooling, cleansing wind, no refreshing rain. Just this irrepressible stuffiness.
Another meeting tomorrow… a mad idea started to form in her head, one that made her heart quicken as well as her steps.
Karethys was not wearing the cloak and clasp in the hospital room – they must still be in her chambers somewhere. She and Morgiah were of similar height and build, their voices of comparable pitch, they were both dunmer – Karethys was older, but the cloak would hide that…
Don’t do it, she told herself. You’re a fool with more curiosity than is good for you. You have no idea what’s waiting on the other end.
But she knew she would. Something had changed in her that day she had read the book of symbols in the library, saw the cloak-clasp, read that name. Something had a thread around her wrists and ankles and mind, and it was pulling, pulling her. She knew she would go.
And go she did.
Thirty-two years later, hundreds of leagues from eachother, three people are sipping wine.
The first we know very well. She wears a red dress and her eyes are far, far away. She is passion run by clockwork. On the table before her is a green gem, and she is looking at it and thinking about the things that have happened because of it.
The second we also know well. He is travelling back from Vvardenfell, brooding, thinking of golems and mantellas and fame and glory. The crown on his head is heavy, and is pressing into the skin of his scalp. It is not only physically that it leaves its marks.
The third we do not know, except in legend.
We cannot see his face. No, of course not – who can? The wine in his glass is deep, deep red, like the dress of someone else. There is a strange symbol on the clasp at his throat – one that would be recognisable to some, but this particular clasp is old. Very, very old. The eyes that glow from under his hood are like no other eyes in the world, and they are fixed in thought.
And so these three people sit in these three different places, their thoughts all occupied by one another. And when that happens to people, sooner or later they meet.
They were in a circle round the scroll. It was beginning to glow. Morgiah was sure the others would be able to hear her heart beating – it was so loud in her own ears that she could hear practically nothing else.
She had been admitted into the house by a silent, suprisingly normal-looking blonde woman in a green dress and apron, who gestured for her to go upstairs. Passing by a few ground-floor rooms, she saw a couple of other people, all dressed in civilian clothes, all silent. She assumed they must be there to keep some sort of cover.
When she reached the scroll-room, six other cloaked figures were already there. They spoke no word other than an introductory “Are you ready, brother?”. Morgiah nodded, not trusting herself to speak. Then they gathered in a circle, and watched the scroll.
The glow was strong now. One by one, the cloaked figures stepped forward and touched it. Finally, only she was left.
She took one, long, deep breath, and counted to ten. Then she touched the scroll, and everything went dark.
Sooner or later they meet.
When Morgiah’s sight returned, she found herself on a strangely lit podium covered by a heavy gazebo of some luminous stone. What was it that made the sky so impenetrably black, or gave this feeling of closeness, weight, oppression…?
As her night-vision strengthened, she realised. She was underground. Torchlight flickered along the rough face of the rock. And as she cast around, trying to get her bearings, assessing her position, she suddenly felt a shock of fear grip her.
She was not alone.
As her eyes adjusted to the light she realised that standing in the shadows beyond the gazebo were two figures, two shapes, whose outlines seemed terribly wrong.
One of them took a step forward.
Don’t come into the light, Morgiah silently pleaded, though she hardly knew she was doing it. Please don’t come into the light…
But the other one moved too, and as the light fell over their wasted remains she felt her fear like a kick in the chest. Ancient Liches, their musty cloaks holding together decayed limbs, their battle-staffs crackling with half-wrought spells.
For a moment she thought she was done for. Though she boasted years of magical training and study, she’d never actually used it on so much as a kitchen-rat. Two Ancient Liches…
But she was prepared to go out fighting. As they raised their staffs, so she raised an outstretched arm, spells of fire and destruction on the tip of her tongue...
And stopped just before they flew from her palm. The Liches’ staffs were raised, certainly, but not in attack. They were saluting. Bowing.
And now they were reaching out their hands – surely it couldn’t be, though she recognised the gesture from a hundred grooms and nobles throughout her life – yes, it was unmistakeable.
They were offering their once-hands to assist her from the platform, like any footmen might their lady. The unbidden comparison revolted her, even through her astonishment.
She took them, feeling the dustiness of the dry bone. She noticed with satisfaction that her own hands were perfectly steady. The Liches, like some kind of perverse suitors, opened an iron door in the rock and stood back respectfully as she passed through. Gesturing along the cavern corridor, they bowed once more and then withdrew, leaving Morgiah alone with the torches blazing from each smooth alcove.
She was breathing quickly. The shock had not yet subsided – and yet, what had she expected? These were the headquarters of the Necromancers. Liches were probably not the worst of what she’d see. And there was no reason to feel as if she were in deadly danger, when at any moment she could cast the Recall spell to transport her back to the meeting-house in Wayrest. Next time, she chided herself, she should cast a Mark in the Palace itself.
But she was determined not to Recall yet. To have come this far already, to have risked so much; her spirit balked at the thought of flight. What had she come here for? Knowledge. To learn, to slake her powerful curiosity. And always at the back of her mind like a canker – the idea of catching even a glimpse of that fabled figurehead of this profane branch of magic, that leader, that Worm King... It was like a guilty secret under her every thought, impossible to dispel. She had not come this far only to go back.
Instead, she started down the corridor. It was little more than a tunnel of rock; at least she thought so, until one of the torches flared and she saw the myriad of unrecognisable symbols that crawled over the walls like oil through water. She guessed at the meanings of some, but soon gave up. Their only recognisable qualities seemed to be some common traits with Breton, other with Altmer, but she could discern no more and the way the torchlight made them creep along the rock made her stomach churn.
Presently she came to a heavy set of double doors. The sounds from beyond them seemed unnatural after the oppressive stillness of the corridor, but before she could hesitate the door had swung open and she was looking into the heart of the Necromantic world.
It was a vast hall, its walls polished smooth and the whole place animated with some of the last things she had expected to see in such a place. Conversation, unstilted and lively, buzzed all about her, and (perhaps most disconcertingly of all) a sweet fluting music drifted from the far end, where groups of dancing girls were gathered as if in a temple.
“Welcome, Brother,” said a rich voice from her right. Turning, she saw a tall, powerful figure of a man, a red hood obscuring his face but otherwise naked from the waist up. She realised she must have been staring.
“May I be of assistance, Brother?” the guard – for so he must have been – prompted, his voice surprisingly calm and pleasant. She thought about correcting his address of ‘brother’, but then realised it was probably a standard greeting, regardless of gender. She had heard the Dark Brotherhood used a similar system.
“What is your name?” she asked, feeling a sudden rush of boldness. She knew she ought to keep as low a profile as possible until she was familiar with their ways and customs, but she couldn’t resist a little indulgence.
Luckily, the guard didn’t seem to feel her question was out of the ordinary. “I am called Klark, my Brother,” he replied, his voice firm but amiable.
“Then thank you, Klark, but no,” she answered, feeling a little squirm of pleasurable excitement. “I’m meeting someone,” she added on improvisation.
“Go well,” he said simply, the device on his spear gleaming. It was identical to the one on Karethys’ cloak-clasp; it winked at her from the throats of a hundred others throughout the hall.
She moved, dreamlike, through the crowd. The flute music, high and haunting, floated through the air and seemed to work the torchlight into its song, for she fancied the flames dimmed and flared according to its pitch. Groups of people, their faces hidden like hers, mingled and talked, some casual and familiar, some serious and formal. Dancing-girls wove sensually throughout the host, their bodies entwining, their skin creamy in the half-light, made faceless and nameless by the hoods that fell to their mouths. Incense curled through the air. Temple scents, temple practices…
She saw several doors leading out of the main hall, but for the most part the polished walls receded into blackness, and here and there she could detect the shadowy outline of mouldering capes and dry, spiderlike joints. More Liches, silently flanking the edge of the cavern. Her wariness, which had eased at the introduction of Klark and the groups of talking people, came back full force. Her spine crawled. The hall might seem welcoming (of a sort), but one glance at the figures lurking just out of the light and she remembered where she truly was, and the awful risks she was taking.
But before she really had time to dwell on this uncomfortable state of affairs, she realised the crowd was quietening and parting.
Someone was coming through.
She fell back and peered, jostling for a glimpse, although she already knew deep down what she’d see…
The leader of the Necromancers. The King of Worms.
The meagre noises in the hall seemed muffled, inconsequential, as he neared. A scarlet cloak fell about him in heavy folds. As he passed, he turned his hooded head in her direction – she stifled the gasp, but not the racing beat of her heart. There was nothing there.
No face, not even shadow, per se. Only blackness, denser than a night without the moon; save for where to points of blue light glowed at eye-level – unnatural stars in an unearthly sky…
And then half a moment after he’d come into view he’d gone again, into a door in the side-wall of the dais. The conversation, respectfully stilled at his entrance, continued once more.
She felt weak and drained. She was shaking, but not with fear: excitement? Anticipation? It was hard to tell… in just that one moment she had become unable to think straight; her thoughts were jumbled, there was no solidity or definition to her attention. She was out of control.
And that meant she had to leave. She was not so out of control that she misunderstood that vital fact – the moment she had less than total mastery of herself, she was putting both hers and Karethys’ lives at terrible risk. Though she’d been there only a few minutes, she had reached the limit of the visit. To overachieve would be to ruin.
So she turned and wove back through the crowd. Klark opened the iron door. His voice – “Until the twenty-fifth, Brother” – did not properly register with her, and even if it had she would not have trusted herself to answer. He boldness had vanished along with her command, and it was simply too dangerous.
Neither did she proceed to the gazebo chamber with the Liches. Halfway down the silent corridor, in the dark lull between torch-brackets, she cast the Recall spell and appeared in the wood-panelled salon of the meeting-house.
She climbed out of the window rather than venture downstairs, and saw no-one on the way back to the palace.
Once in her room, she sat on her bed and bowed her head over her knees. It was only when dawn began to break, an hour later, that she was able to take off the cloak, hide it at the bottom of her wardrobe, and get into bed.
Palace life went on; Elysana played, Helseth brooded, Karethys raved. But Morgiah still couldn’t sleep; not then, and not the night after either. Not for a long time.
On to the next chapter