Trail of the Archmage

This is Arvil Bren's second journal. His first journal can be found in its entirety here.

Part one

The Trail of The Archmage

My previous journal began 'I am Arvil Bren, a wizard of Breton descent.' Though I possessed some command of the magic arts I was hardly a wizard, then. Since, I have joined the guild of Mages and have risen through their ranks. Now I am acknowledged as a wizard among them. On the opposite note, though I cannot change my Breton heritage, I no longer consider myself a Breton, really. I could not take my mate Ahnassi home to Bretonia any more than she could take me back to Elswyer, land of the Khajiiti cat people. Vvardenfell is our home, and by default so it shall remain. With Vvardenfell our lives and fortunes shall rise or fall.

The fortune I have, which could fall, is vast. I have accumulated a huge trove of treasures, and the call to retire and leave the problems of this isle to others to solve has been strong. I bowed to it briefly. But if the problems are left to others to solve then any consequences that befall me, or Ahnassi, or my friends will weigh directly on me. This isle, huddled in the path of war, is my home. I cannot rest while this war looms, knowing that my fate may be to avert it. Or my fate may be to win it.

My mentor, Caius Cosades, the spymaster of the Blades, told me to 'think locally'. The Emperor sent me to Vvardenfell as a ruse, a false fulfillment of the Nerevarine prophecy. A ruse that would likely lead to my death or imprisonment, a fate reserved, not exclusively, for such false prophets. I owe him no allegiance. I will think locally, and if I pursue fulfillment of the prophecy it will be under legitimate terms. If I am the Nerevarine I will restore the Dunmer to their own rulership as prophesied. With or without the Nerevarine the power of the Empire wanes with the Emperor's health, and the far provinces of the east could soon be cast adrift even if they do not rebel. The new king in Mournhold does not seem inclined to wait long.

Over the short span of my retirement I have seen things worsen. I can stand against the occasional ash minion of Dagoth Ur who tracks me down, and I am immune to the blight and disease that spreads from the dark stronghold under Red Mountain, but what of the rest of the inhabitants of my chosen homeland? Their plight weighs on me.

The plight of the multitudes and the machinations of Dagoth Ur would perhaps not be enough to bring me back into the fires of public life. The plight of friends, good friends, whose troubles stem directly from my own ambitions; that is the call that cannot be ignored. The mage's guild is in complete disarray. The council in distant Cyrodiil maintains support of the Archmage Trebonius. With the imminent possibility that Imperial troops could be withdrawn none of their number would take his place, so their support is unshakable despite Trebonius' obvious failings. To be Archmage of Vvardenfell on the day the legions are withdrawn would be a death sentence, as the ancient wizards of the Telvanni house will likely fall upon the guild immediately.

Even without the withdrawal of the legions the guild is in danger. Internal strife under Trebonius could allow such an opening that the Telvanni will act. That internal strife has been brought very close to a head, not only by me, but for me. The guild stewards who backed me were left hanging when I raced to Mournhold after Ahnassi was kidnapped. Even without the Telvanni Trebonius could find himself with no guild to preside over. If the local in Balmora could survive on its own Ranis Athrys would likely have renounced the guild and led her group to its own path. I met with her today.

"I'm ready to get back to work Ranis," I said as I entered her office.

"Working for who?" she asked bitterly. "Trebonius send you to stick a spear in me?"

"You know better than that Ranis. The guild in Vvardenfell needs you. It needs you a lot more than it needs Trebonius."

Ajira burst into the room hissing like netch with a slow leak in its gas bag. No doubt she was about to complain about something but she stopped when she saw me. "Good friend Arvil Bren! Ajira is always glad to see you!" Suddenly she saw the intensity in Ranis' red eyes, which were narrowed to murderous slits. "We will talk later!" she said quickly as the door closed behind her.

"I could have joined house Telvanni," Ranis sighed. "Instead my fortunes are tied to a bunch of outlanders. Trebonius is a half breath away from having me removed from the guild, if not killed outright, and you are living the life of leisure with your cat people."

"He can't have you removed Ranis. Most of the guild knows you are our best defense against the Telvanni."

"The guild here knows that," she said, "but the council is far from here Arvil Bren."

"Too far by half to make important decisions Ranis. It's time we start planning for the withdrawal of the Empire."

"Withdrawal?" Her dark Dunmer skin actually paled. "Without the legions the Telvanni would fall on us in an instant."

"That's why we need to come to terms with them Ranis. Not the council in Cyrodiil, us; the Mage's Guild of Vvardenfell."

There were a lot of points that had to be worked out. Some mages will know our plan immediately, others will be brought along as we go. Some will be kept in the dark until the legions are sailing for the mainland. A few will likely not join us even then. Trebonius is one of them. He will be my problem, personally.

Two: The lonely cave

Tonight I see how my life could have gone. Vvardenfell is pocked with caves; hideouts for smugglers and bandits, or those who otherwise don't want to be found. Months ago I claimed such a cave for myself, near the Vivec-Balmora road. It was a refuge from the Dark Brotherhood; safe and comfortable. When my involvement with Ahnassi endangered her life I wished that I had stayed there. Today I saw what a trap that would have been.

Telura Ulver put herself in such a trap. Skink-in-trees-shade, the guild steward in Sadrith Mora spoke fondly of her, and respectfully of her abilities; but he had no choice but to order her death. If we are to establish a viable independent guild on Vvardenfell in the wake of an Imperial withdrawal we cannot harbor necromancers, and Telura Ulver chose the path of necromancy.

It's strange. The Dunmer ancestral rites have many similar effects to the spells of necromancy. So similar in fact that Telura may have been well beyond the limits of acceptable magecraft before she even realized it. A Dunmer of good family like her must have been shocked to find herself in those swirling currents of powerful but unsanctioned magica. That may have begun the unhinging of her mind. To be exposed by the Telvanni no doubt pushed her further towards madness as it forced her to flee their territory, and effectively condemned her to leave her homeland.

Unfortunately she could not leave. Fear of Dagoth Ur's blight has led to a nearly complete quarantine of Vvardenfell. The Temple, the Telvanni, any great house really, would put her to death and she had no escape. Even though she violated no Imperial law the guild cannot condone defiance of local law, nor can the legions. The only course available to her was hiding.

She chose a cave in the Bitter Coast region. The dank tunnel leading into the darkness opens onto a typical muckpond, its surface choked with the green growth. From the mushrooms growing in the tunnel she brewed potions that gave her breath beneath the layer of slime that hid her as she came and went, leaving no tracks. Her fine clothes reeking of the swamp, she became as one of her conjured spirits; a ghost of the marshes, unknown to men.

She may have traded potions and spells for supplies from an Orc band who dwell in the nearby ruins, hiding themselves also as they follow the arcane rituals of the bad Daedra. Or she may have relied on her undead minions to provide meat and forage from the swamp. In any event she had no interaction with her own kind; only savages, or worse. Alone in her cave she continued her descent, a descent into the depths of madness.

In a way it was a kindness for me to track her down here. She did not even emerge at the sounds of battle as I dispatched her skeletal minions to their wickedly delayed rest. As I forced the door to the interior chamber she lunged, gibbering, to lock a large chest. By magic, the key vanished into thin air. "No one must see, no one must know. No one can ever know," she muttered, then interrupted her rambling with a word of command that launched an icy blast from her enchanted ring.

My heart lurched with sorrow. Later I found, as expected, that the chest contained the profane texts of the necromancer. Her last thoughts were to hide what she had done. I ran her through with my spear. To have taken her alive would have been a further cruelty.

Tomorrow I will report back to Skink, taking the body to be turned over to the Telvanni authorities. Iwill leave the desolation of this cave behind, and be thankful that that other cave did not claim me as this one claimed Telura Ulver.

Three: Politics of Sadrith Mora

Skink-in-trees-shade was saddened, but satisfied with my report. Managing the guild chapter right in the Telvanni capital is a daunting task, and being able to pass on that the necromancer Telura Ulver had been tracked down and killed would purchase him a small amount of good will. He has cultivated as many good personal relationships among the Telvanni as he can, and mostly keeps guild members from antagonizing the situation fairly well. However, we both agreed that if the legions withdraw from Vvardenfell the Imperial fortress at Wolverine Hall will be a very dangerous place to be.

"It is a question of timing Arvil Bren," he said. "There are some among the younger Telvanni who would be less difficult if they were in charge, but these Dunmer live so long. The council is almost entirely ancient wizards who still live in the days of Dunmer glory. We have planned for the escape of our mages..." It took a moment for me to sort out the pronouns. Like all Argonian's Skink refers to himself in the plural. It was his plan. "They will transport out by guild guide, and she has cast a mark for herself in the hall at Balmora. Once all are safely out we shall examine the situation, and if needed take our leave by water."

I acknowledged the need for such a plan, but I was loath to think of the guild hall abandoned without resistance. I also was concerned for Skink. "You are a master of illusion, and the people of the root obviously are well suited for this departure by water, but you can't take chances Skink." He rolled an eye at the reference to 'people of the root'. That is what the Argonian lizardmen of Black Marsh call themselves, but few others know the term. The single eye moving while the other held unblinkingly to mine was a bit disconcerting. "If we are going to have a viable guild after the Empire withdraws we are going to need your skills and your contacts."

The translucent membranes flickered over both reptilian eyes. "Viable guild after the empire withdraws? Are we not the Imperial mage's guild? Surely the intent is not to withdraw the legions and leave the citizens?"

"I don't know what the Emperor or the guild council would intend. What I do know is that Vvardenfell is my home, and I am not leaving. If the Empire leaves they leave without me. A lot of others agree. We will be a guild, a guild for Vvardenfell."

"Bold words Arvil Bren, but almost treasonous." It took some persuasion, but by the time I stepped onto the guild guide platform Skink could see the beginnings of a working plan. He could see the beginnings of it, but I could see the end. If the longevity of the Telvanni councilors is a problem steps can be taken to shorten their spans.

Four: High Council

It is official. Odd word to use to describe what others might call treason. Edwinna, Skink, and Ranis are in agreement, and I have deemed them the High Council of the future Mage's Guild of Vvardenfell. The High Council of the Imperial Mage's Guild would no doubt call it treason. However, we are far away in distance and condition.

Reports are coming in from all over Vvardenfell. The blight worsens day to day. The Ashlanders get more hungry, and more dangerous. The highest orders of the Tribunal Temple hold that the ghostfence contains Dagoth Ur as it always has, which does more to damage their credibility than it does to reassure the people. Even the devout are starting to openly question. The strange madness called 'soul sickness', characterized by the disturbing dreams sent by Dagoth Ur grows ever more widespread. My own experiences with these dreams I keep to myself.

I could not keep everything about the Nerevarine prophecies from my advisors though. For one thing, they needed to know fully how their chosen Archmage could be embroiled in events outside the guild. For another the protection of the Nerevarine may, in the end, be the only way to preserve the guild. Despite our brave stance we knew as we embarked on this conspiratorial path that we could be 'baiting the mad kagouti', as the saying goes.

I explained what I know of the Nerevarine prophecies. The Ashlanders expect a reincarnation of the hero Nerevar to unite the Dunmer and lead them to victory over Dagoth Ur, as well as throwing off outlander rule. Though it seems absurd to think that this prophecy could be fulfilled by an outlander there are certain aspects of the prophecy that I have already been found to fit. The most critical being that I have been restored from the corprus, known to the Dunmer as 'the divine disease'. According to Divayth Fyr, the wizard who provided my cure I still have the disease, but no longer suffer the ill effects. The corprus grants me immunity from other disease, and I can expect to match or better the Dunmer in longevity. This revelation made it easier to launch our conspiracy. There will be no concerns of succession for a long time unless something happens to suddenly end my extended life.

"The power of Lorkhan's heart," Edwinna said with a nod of her head. We all looked at her. She flushed and looked down at her hands.

"Edwinna, this isn't the guild of Trebonius the flathead," I said gently. "Your research is of tremendous value to me; to us." I met Skink's reptilian gaze, then stared down Ranis. "Not every wizard is a battlemage, nor should they be. It is a fact that almost all positions of authority in the Imperial guild have gone to those with demonstrable mastery in the school of destruction, but that isn't this guild, and it isn't going to be."

Edwinna brightened. For her to have risen to the position of guild steward, even in what the guild considered the far backwater of Vvardenfell, is a testament to her incredible brilliance. I could not afford for her to be cowed by the more warlike natures of Skink, Ranis, and myself. "Well," she said, "I've been examining those texts you had translated, and of course talking to Yagrum Bagarn." Yagrum Bagarn is the self styled last surviving Dwemer. "It seems the source of the Dwemer's power, and likely the source of their ultimate undoing, is a stone buried deep in Red Mountain. The stone they believed to be the heart of the banished god Lorkhan."

"So this 'Heart of Lorkhan' would be what Kagrenak tapped for the power that he thought would transform the Dwemer into godhood?" I prodded.

"Right," she said. "And make no mistake Kagrenak was brilliant. His ego, or the immediate needs of the war, may have caused him to reach too far too fast; elevating an entire race. It seems likely though that he would have understood the essential core of the stone's power. That power lying unharnessed beneath Red Mountain could be a contributing factor in the Dunmer's longevity to start with. And it would certainly account for the apparent immortality of Dagoth Ur. Then Dagoth Ur's power that lies at the source of the blight has the effect of passing that longevity to you."

Skink gave a sudden hiss of indrawn breath. "We have had many conversations with Minabi," he said tentatively.

Seeing the question cross the other faces I filled in background. "Minabi was an apprentice wise woman of the Ashlanders. Her mistress let her go to Sadrith Mora to meet with Skink."

"Yesssss." The drawn out hiss was unusual for Skink, but he was clearly deep in thought. "The Ashlanders say the immortality of the Tribunal is not a gift from the gods as they claim. Ashlander tradition says that the Tribunal stole the profane power of Kagrenak."

"That would make sense," Edwinna agreed. "Not to say the Tribunal is definitely lying. It just makes sense, given that immortality seems to lie in the power of the Heart of Lorkhan, and there would certainly have been opportunity for them to tap that power."

Though I am glad to have the brilliant Edwinna for an advisor it is valuable to have a balance. Ranis brought our flight into the magical realms of speculation back with her usual pragmatism. "Immortality can still come to a bad end. This conversation would bring the Tribunal down on our necks, and whatever the source of their power we really can't afford that right now. We must guide the guild against the craft of the Telvanni." We all nodded agreement. "But of even more immediate concern," she continued, "it has taken all my political capital to block Trebonius from getting the High Council's approval to expel you from the guild. We can plan for the eventual withdrawal of the legions and the end of their authority. We can name you the next Archmage of Vvardenfell, and the Council will accept it for as long as their authority lasts. But there is one insurmountable obstacle that can easily portray this whole meeting as treason."

"She is right Arvil Bren," Edwinna concluded. "This involvement in the Nerevarine situation may make you immune to many forms of death and decay, but that doesn't change that Trebonius wants your head. While you were retired we could get away with leaving you alone, but when he hears that you are active again; running down necromancers for Skink and meeting with us, he is going to demand that we help him get it. Since we have blocked him from expelling you he can't order us to kill you, but he will demand that we send you to him, and not doing so would be an open defiance that would shatter the guild."

"Well then," I said, "it seems the blade is in the forge. Trebonius wants my head. Let us see if he can take it."

Five: The bitter end

Flacassia's eyes flew open wide when I appeared on her platform. She is an Imperial from Cyrodiil, and the guild guide in the guild headquarters in Vivec City. If there were only one mage in the guild still loyal to Trebonius it would be her. "You need to go back where you came from," she said, "or somewhere else." Mystical energies started to coalesce around her fingertips as she readied the spell. "Where to?"

"I'll be staying," I replied. I listened to my calm voice with a curious detachment.

"Do you want your retirement to meet a sudden end?" she asked. "Ranis was here a few days ago and said you were in seclusion, and I thought Trebonius was going to kill her. When he sees you he is going to explode!"

Craetia the alchemist chose that moment to appear around the corner. Craetia is of Imperial descent as well, but I was fairly certain she would be inclined to stay on in Vvardenfell, and completely certain she would be glad to see the last of Trebonius. "Flacassia who are you...oh! Arvil Bren!"

"Quiet!" Flacassia hissed at her. "Tell this fool Breton that he needs to get out of here before Trebonius sees him."

The ebony foot of my staff struck the floor with a distinctive sound, and I let a trickle of magica gather around my own fingers where they gripped the shaft. "Flacassia I appreciate your concerns, but remind your tongue that Trebonius is not the only master wizard in the guild. Nor is he the only one that is dangerous to offend."

Craetia's jaw dropped slightly, Flacassia's nearly hit the floor. In their experience I was the cheerful errand runner of the guild, popping through the dimensional doors of the guides, bringing rare ingredients to Craetia's lab, always with a laugh and a smile. As I surpassed the others in ability and rank I had always brushed it off, and thanked them for maintaining the halls at the expense of their own practicing. Today called for something more stern; alien to me, shocking to them.

Sirlonwe the Altmer mage, whose apartment lies close to the guide platform, arrived at the head of the nearby stair in the moment of surprised silence. "I heard that he was in seclusion, but surely you girls can't be that surprised to see Arvil Bren," she said. Her voice struggled to be light, but anything less than serious comes difficult for the Altmeri. Then she recognized the crackling magica dancing on the ebony staff in my hand and lapsed into more familiar gravity. "It is good to see you Arvil Bren. Perhaps these two have been carried away in their excitement."

"More than a bit," they agreed, almost in unison. "No disrespect intended Master Wizard," Flacassia concluded quietly.

"A bit unusual to hear ranks and titles in a conversation with Arvil Bren," said Sirlonwe. She had chastened me more than once about what she considered a frivolous attitude.

"Today is an unusual day, Sirlonwe, and I am feeling the weight of my rank," I replied. "No harm done ladies, or intended." The angry red glow receded into my clenched knuckles and I eased my grip.

"Weight of a rank you have neither earned nor deserve you squeezing of a mucksponge!" boomed an irate voice from the stair. "A rank I would gladly see stripped from your name over your scorched remains!" The junior mages scattered like leaves in the tornado of Trebonius wrath.

Again my staff struck the stone with an ominous crack. "Have a care Archmage. I respect your position, but I am a master also. I've earned that rank, and proper respect, even from you."

"Earned? You have the rank true enough, but to earn it calls for serving the guild. You serve nothing but your own ambition!" he roared. "Do you think I don't know how you've maneuvered behind my back? Do you think I don't know you covet my office? Do you take me for a fool?"

"I covet nothing!" I let my voice match his volume, but kept a note of respect. "I would not choose to lead the guild through the coming wars. That is a responsibility I would rather avoid. You might consider the weight of failing in that responsibility before you think about who might be wanting to take it off your head."

"Failing?!" he roared back, foam flecking his lips. "Are you saying I'm failing?"

"I'm saying nothing Archmage, but answer yourself. The Telvanni move against us almost openly. If the legions are withdrawn to Cyrodiil whose power will guard this hall? You are at the helm of the guild. Are we on a safe course?" I had lowered my voice to a level of reasonable discussion. "I would rather retire. Will you keep me safe?"

"You don't need to worry about the Telvanni," he grated back. "I will kill you myself." Flames and sparks coursed the length of his staff.

"Fool!" I shouted. "I accept your challenge, but battle here would destroy the hall you are supposed to be guiding to safety."

"The arena then." The destructive energies winked out as his voice dropped to ice. "I should have tracked you down and killed you before." He spun on his heel and stalked down the stair.

I went to the arena fairly directly, but could not outpace the rumor. I knew there was a lot of betting going on. I didn't ask who bet which way. I hope to never know. The stands of the arena were filling quickly, and arena officials held me in a small room below the arena floor for an hour before ushering me to a door.

This was no gladiatorial game. There was no pretense of handshakes. The doors on opposite sides of the arena floor opened simultaneously. I dove through and rolled quickly to my right as a bolt erupted into a raging ball of elemental energy that scorched the page who had opened the door. "You would be Archmage and you do not even bring your wizard's staff!" Trebonius taunted as he launched another bolt. "What sort of wizard are you, muckscum?"

I had to drop my spear as I quickly drew an egg of electrical energies about myself that protected me from half the blast. "I'm an effective wizard Trebonius. What Vvardenfell needs, not a pompous preener like you. I enchanted this spear and it serves me well, and it will pop your useless heart." The frosty energies of the Dwarven Icepick spear coursed along the shaft as I gathered it back into my hands. I was only slightly damaged by his previous spell, and calculated that with all my protective spells and the shelter of my heavily enchanted Daedric shield I could actually withstand a direct hit. I charged.

I did take that direct hit. The bolt exploded directly against my shield, but did not break the momentum of my attack. There was no second spell. I had taken away Trebonius' favorite spells by drawing too close. His huge blasts require some range, for his own safety. Our weapons crashed together in a fountain of elemental energies. Frost, flame, and great sheets of lightning danced and swayed over our heads.

Trebonius is a master of destructive magic, perhaps the finest in the guild, but he lacks diversity. Though his staff is powerful it merely duplicates his own elemental spells. I have seen him scoff at enchanters and alchemists. Today he saw first hand what skillful enchanting can do. My shield protects me constantly, and not just from physical attack. And while I knew that could not quite match his unarmored quickness he badly underestimated how quickly I would be able to move in my heavy ebony armor. He did not know that underneath the ebony leggings pulsed the enchanted energies of my pants of strongleg. They give me the strength to move the ebony as if it were the lightest mesh. He did not know, and he never will.

When Trebonius had fallen there was a hush, then an eruption of cheers. He was not popular in the guild, and certainly not outside of it. As the Archmage it will be my first task to mend some of the relationships he left torn asunder.

Six: Day of the Archmage

Well, I clearly have a job to do. Trebonius did not trust his staff, so he involved himself in managing the tiniest details. It may take a while to get them settled into a new pattern. We started today.

I walked into the dining room for breakfast and the chatter immediately died. I sat at the head of the table in the oppressive silence. I slowly spread scrib jelly on a roll, eyeing the staff with what I hoped would be taken for amusement. Their furtive glances told me that hope was in vain. "Since I got the roll out of the common basket I assume it is safe, but I suppose someone may have poisoned my knife. If I keel over, throw out the rest of the Jelly," I said, then bit in with gusto. The silence was deafening.

I put down the rest of the roll. "Listen," I said, "I know I came through here yesterday like a bull kagouti. Flacassia, I said some harsh things to you in particular that I'd rather you would forget were said. If I had seen another way to move Trebonius aside I would have taken it."

"Trebonius was right!" she snapped. "Everyone else said he was just paranoid, but you were maneuvering to kill him all along!" Her eyes flared with anger.

"Well, not all along," I replied quietly. "Just from the moment it became clear that he was endangering the guild."

"You say he was endangering the guild! You say it so you can justify killing him! No one else says so!" Tears glistened in her eyes. Flacassia had clearly been Trebonius' favorite, and I was doubting that anything I could say would make any difference. Fortunately someone else could.

"Arvil Bren is not the only one Flacassia," came a calming voice from the doorway. "I saw it also. Even sooner. Arvil Bren put off seeing the obvious because he knew it would fall to him to do something about it." As she completed her speech Ranis took a seat at the table. "Edwinna and Skink should be here soon," she said, turning to me.

"That is good," said Malven Romori the Dunmer wizard. She turned to Flacassia. "It is not just Arvil Bren, and not just our members in the outer halls who saw the danger Trebonius was leading us into. Do not stand against the transition of power Flacassia. We need an Archmage now, and we need one who can stand against the Telvanni."

"There is no standing against the transition of power," hissed Skink from the doorway. "The only other Master Wizards in Vvardenfell are behind Arvil Bren. We see in Sadrith Mora that there is no time for..."

I interrupted. "Wait." May the nine divines bless his political soul, Skink fell instantly silent. "Skink, Ranis, I appreciate you backing me, and I appreciate you being here today as we do have a lot of work to do. But the staff here is going to have to accept that or not on their own terms, and at their breakfast table is not the time to force anything down their throats. Flacassia, I think it is clear that no matter who likes it, and to be honest I really don't, I am the next Archmage. There are a lot of ways that people expect that to be a change for the better, and I plan to make sure that is how things go. One thing that will be very different. I cannot do what I do best if I am sitting here in the headquarters, so Malven, as the ranking member of the staff you will assume the duties of a guild steward." I got out of the chair. "So this is your seat." I waved to include the entire staff, "If you choose to have my company at meals I will be honored, but not as a formality, or to manage the business of the hall. If there is business for the Archmage, it will be handled in my offices, not at your table." I swept out of the room. "Ranis, Skink. Malven, finish your breakfast and join us please."

"Excellently handled Archmage," Ranis said as we settled in downstairs.

"Malven may want to trade Flacassia for another guild guide," I said without acknowledging the compliment. It remained to be seen whether or not it would work. "If so I want her handled delicately wherever she goes. She can't go back to Cyrodiil because of the quarantine, but I don't want her to look at it as being trapped here."

There was a brief flicker in Ranis' red Dunmer eyes. Not dissatisfaction, just the clicking realization that her former apprentice really was the Archmage and could give her direction. "As you see fit Archmage," she said. We looked at each other silently for a moment, then burst out laughing. Edwinna entered at that moment and shared a puzzled frown with Skink.

"Okay, now that that is out of the way we need to get on with the business of waiting," I said. "I for one need to eat." I crossed the hall to my chambers.

"Waiting for what?" Edwinna asked. "I thought I was late."

I let Malven have some time with the experienced guild stewards while I cooked my own breakfast, frying kwama eggs on the back of my shield. When I returned the four of them seemed to have settled any issues that needed immediate resolution in the headquarters. "Malven, I am counting on you," I said. "Not only as a guild steward here in Vivec, but you are now in the council of my closest advisors.

"Thank you," was all she said in response. Without consciously realizing it I had done exactly the right thing. Of all the mages assigned to the headquarters the highly qualified wizard had certainly chafed the most under Trebonius intrusive management. I had actually promoted her into the position she was probably assigned here to fill in the first place.

The brain trust met through the morning. Then our plans went into motion. Ranis drafted the necessary dispatches to the high council, and I got out of the hall. I wanted to get on with pursuing the lost prophecies of the Nerevarine and give Malven an opportunity to establish herself in the hall, but in the immediate wake of Trebonius death I had to agree that I could not go far. I spent the afternoon roaming the foreign canton halls and businesses, letting everyone get accustomed to the idea of a new Archmage.

I was delighted when I returned to the hall and was invited to dinner. I sat at Malven's right hand, the seat of an honored guest. The conversation was light and lively, free of the business of the guild. This will work out.

Seven: No simple shopping

Skink's early indications from the Telvanni capital indicate that they are not making any sudden changes in the wake of Trebonius' death. The Telvanni council does not actually meet in person. Each member is represented by a 'mouth'. With the mouths having to get their master's position after such a sudden turn of events it will likely be some time before the Telvanni themselves know how they will respond. As the only Telvanni council member who knows me personally Baladas will probably have to be consulted heavily, and given his isolation in distant Gnissis that will certainly take time.

Malven is managing the guild hall quite well, and my hands off approach is beginning to show signs of acceptance. There is a vast difference between an Archmage who you bring trouble to and one who brings problems to you. The staff here is starting to recognize that. At dinner I said, lightly, that I was getting slow from inactivity and suggested that there must be problems plaguing the ranks here in Vivec that I could lend my attentions to. We shall see if anyone comes up with anything interesting.

Left on my own I can find trouble anywhere. After breakfast I told Malven that I would be out of the city for a while and transported myself to Ahnassi's house. Upon inspection of the door seals and other security measures I believe it is safe for her to return home, and I set out for Balmora with a light heart. The lightness of my heart did not, however, counter the weight of my pack. I took the opportunity to load myself with another bundle of loot from the Dark Brotherhood's stronghold to sell to the armorers of Balmora.

Too much of a load as it turned out. The armorers gladly emptied their tills for the fine black mesh armor and adamantium swords I delivered, but among them they could not muster a fair price for it all. The thought of the pile still left in the house had me briefly considering giving them a ridiculously good deal, but Wyan provided what seemed an excellent alternative. I returned to Vivec City by guild guide, had lunch, then crossed the foriegn quarter plaza to meet Wyan's friend Alusaron.

Alusaron, like Wyan, is a Redguard, and a very skilled armorer. Unlike Wyan, who has cast his fortunes with the fighters guild, Alusaron has opted for the greater risks and rewards available to an independent merchant. He does not have the sure business that a guild armorer has, but his great skill should be enough to draw clients. He must rent his own shop space rather than just setting up his forge in the guild hall, but he does not share his profits. A difference of style more than substance I suppose. But a difference that made a big difference to me.

Alusaron could not just empty his cash drawer. Expenses must be met, and even a good opportunity to profit on the items I had to sell could not sway him. There was just no way he could be sure of sales replenishing his gold in time. I got the feeling that business was not going as well as he hoped.

"No Arvil Bren," he said when I asked,"it is not going well of late. I have a competitor; a Dunmer. He does not have my skills at the forge, but he is a shrewd businessman. He uses his 'connections' to land the large contracts with the temple guards and Dunmer great houses, then sells individual pieces for too little for me to compete. And I have to pay for this guard," he tilted his head towards the Ordinator who stood patiently by the door, "or his 'contacts' could put me directly out of business. Truthfully I think they will anyway. Since he moved his shop in next door I am barely making the rent."

It certainly wasn't something an Archmage should get involved in. Alusaron is Wyan's friend, and Wyan is my friend. A friendly armorer in Vivec City with a strong business will be of value. That is not what got me involved. The way this Dunmer smith, Ralen Tilvur, did business sounded too much like the style of my old nemesis, the Cammona Tong. That is what got me involved. Fortunately we came up with a plan that would work without any public involvement on my part.

I visited Ralen Tilvur's shop a while later. I wear a robe appropriate for the Archmage, but underneath is the ebony mail that has seen me through many battles. As I examined the armors and weapons in Tilvur's shop, mostly cheap items of fur and hides and sharp plates of chitin I had to agree with Alusaron. I would not let Tilvur work on my armor with a polishing cloth, much less the tools of the armorer's trade.

I made a cheerful exit and lurked in the plaza chatting with the Ordinators and passers by, watching for Tilvur's next customer. It did not take long. As I saw that the tall Dunmer was heading towards the shop I disengaged from the conversation I was in and ducked into the doorway of the guild hall. In that shelter I activated my amulet of shadows, then scampered unseen across the plaza to slip through the closing door of the shop.

Tilvur was certainly more cordial with the Dunmer customer than he had been with me. If I had had any lingering doubts about my actions they would have been dispelled, but I had none. At an opportune moment when their conversation would mask any sound from the tumblers I cast my unlocking spell on the locked door to Tilvur's office, quarters, and workshop. When Tilvur saw the man to the shop's front door there was no way for him to hear the other door that opened and closed. I relocked the door behind me and sped down a stair.

It did not take long to find the latest contract. I slid it up my sleeve and cast my intervention spell, appearing in front of the temple on the High Fane at the southern end of the city. Without the contract it is beyond doubtful that Tilvur will hit upon the right combination of blades, maces, shields, and armor to fill the ten thousand septim order. The buyer will not be harmed. Alusaron will have the needed pieces in stock on the date of the expected delivery. There will be no missing the superiority of his wares. He will pay handsomely for the pieces I provide then.

Eight: The business of alchemy

Craetia the alchemist was the first to test my willingness to help with problems rather than cause them. She raised it at the breakfast table, hesitantly. I eagerly started asking for details of the problem, as I really was wondering what to do with myself for another day in Vivec. Malven smoothly interceded. "The Archmage is our guest at meals, so his business needs to be conducted elsewhere Craetia. From his eager response I'm sure he'll be looking for you in his office shortly." I stuck a forkfull of kwama egg in my mouth to hide my grin. Before the plates were cleared I clattered down the stairs with Craetia in tow.

Aurane Frernis is an alchemist with a public shop in the waistworks of the foriegn quarter. Craetia told me that she is a member in good standing, though not active in her involvement with the guild. She also told me that Aurane Frernis is highly skilled, and very diligent. Then she produced a folded leaflet. I was glad that she had briefed me ahead of time. From what the leaflet says one would think Frernis a pretender at best, more like a dangerous fraud.

"Where did this come from?" I asked. She explained that she had found it in the plaza, and that apparently they were being handed out by a Redguard on a regular basis. She had tried to bring it to Trebonius' attention, but his response had been that he was far too busy to meddle in the business of alchemists. "He may have been busy," I said, "but this is a smear on the reputation of the guild, one way or another. It definitely needs to be taken care of. It also is something that would normally be brought to the attention of a guild steward, so let's go talk to Malven."

I let Craetia deliver the same report to Malven as she had delivered to me. Malven lightly suggested that this would be something a guild steward would handle without the Archmage in any other guild hall, and the two of them set out a course of action. I was a bit disappointed not to be in the thick of things, but pleased with the rising level of accountability in the staff. Craetia was astonished at being tasked with further investigating. As she went out into the plaza Malven chuckled. "The apprentices here are not accustomed to being assigned any duties that can actually be done. Trebonius gave them duties, but since they were clearly impossible no one ever really thought to actually do anything." Since it was her first foray into the duties of a mage I decided to keep an eye on Craetia's progress. As it turned out I have the chance to contribute something of my own as well.

When I went out into the plaza I could see Craetia in animated discussion with a Redguard, who held a stack of the leaflets in his hand. He was a burly sort, as Redguards often are, and I nodded to myself thinking 'he will present a good challenge for her'. I struck up a conversation of my own with an Ordinator. He was pleased that the new Archmage is a follower of the temple, and remembered me from the business of the Dreamer Prophet some months ago as well. My good standing with local law enforcement serves me well, I am glad I made the effort.

I was pleased to see Craetia depart with the leaflets, the crestfallen Redguard seething in her wake. As she left the plaza I approached and introduced myself. Domalen the Redguard was not a happy man. "There is hardly any work in the city if you aren't a dark elf, and what there is always seems to lead to trouble," was the gist of his complaint. It was challenging for me not to probe further into the origin of the leaflets, but I wanted to build my trust in Craetia. Whatever she had learned about the situation would suffice. Instead I directed my attention towards affairs outside the sphere of the guild.

"Domalen, I have Redguard friends, and it seems to me that Redguards are raised to be at the least a fair smith, and usually quite skilled," I said. He agreed, and claimed to be a fair hand himself. "Well," I suggested, "whatever work you've been getting in trouble with, perhaps you'd be better off working with Alusaron." I pointed towards the shop across the plaza. "I have it on good authority that he has fallen upon a substantial contract and could use some help, and that a new supplier has offered him such favorable terms on premium merchandise that he can afford it." The man's eyes fairly lit up in his head. Passing out leaflets is no job for a man-at-arms. "Let me introduce you," I said and headed across the plaza. The terms I gave Alusaron will certainly not break me, since I paid for all the armor and weapons I have to sell with blood, and most of that not mine, and it is good to have friends.

When I got back to the hall Craetia was already there, excitedly giving her report. The confrontation with the Redguard had done wonders for her,and she certainly got all the information that was needed. The subsequent meeting with Aurane Frernis had also gone well, and our staff alchemist now had a valuable contact that could, perhaps, be brought more actively into the guild; although running an apothecary shop is a fairly demanding pursuit. Craetia gave me a beaming smile and went chattering back to her lab. "She is a skillful alchemist," Malven said quietly. "A few more successful little duties like that and we can promote her."

"You can promote her," I smiled back. "As the Archmage I think my duty lies more in the direction of promoting you. I'll cheer for her though, you can be sure."

She laughed; that quiet Dunmer laugh that was so familiar to me from being with Ranis. Even the Dunmer of the great houses are not so far from the harshness of the Ashlands. Their humor tends to the ironic, and they can give that quiet laugh even when the fate being dealt harsh blows is their own. Today it was full of good humor. Malven is pleased with the way things are playing out in the hall, as am I.

"Archmage there is something more here," she said, turning the conversation on another tack. I nodded for her to continue. "The source of the leaflets; the Redguard told Craetia they came from a competitor."

"That makes sense," I said. "I hope the competitor isn't one of ours too."

Again the laugh, only this time it had the familiar coldness behind it. "No, not ours. Galuro Belan. A Telvanni. I didn't think that sending Craetia would be appropriate, but I think someone should speak to her about her slanders. I could go myself..."

"Ah, but is that what a guild steward would do?" I asked.

"No," she replied immediately. "A guild steward would assign the task to someone appropriately skilled for the job. Unfortunately this hall is in such a state that I don't have the options that another hall would have. Perhaps I should contact Ranis, she undoubtedly has someone available for this sort of thing. And I will get this hall up to par, count on it."

"I have no doubt about that. And actually Ranis might be a little harder pressed than you think. She relied pretty heavily on one person to do this kind of dirty job, and he isn't as available to her now," I explained.

"What happened to him?"

This time it was my turn, and I gave a passing impression of the dry Dunmer laugh. "She pushed him into becoming the Archmage. I'll pay this Galuro Belan a visit. High time the Telvanni got a taste of the new order."

Nine: A complaint put to rest

I rose before dawn and slipped quietly out of the hall, and the canton. Though the great skylights let plenty of light into the plaza it is still indoors, as is the entire city of Vivec. It always surprises me how few people I see on the walkways and bridges between the cantons. I suppose it is possible for many people to live their lives completely inside their home canton, but why would they? The air was brisk, with a hint of mist rising from the bay. I strolled down the ramps, whistling to myself.

Of course, saying that I seldom see people out and about leaves out the Ordinators. They patrol the ramps, decks, and causeways, constantly on the watch. With the three great houses maintained in separate cantons, and the foriegn quarter in another it is often useful to know who is moving about I'm sure. For example, me, the Archmage of the Mage's Guild, making an appearance on the decks of the Telvanni compound was a noteworthy event. I made sure I was noticed.

The Telvanni have the easternmost canton in the city, and I leaned against the railing of the upper deck watching the sun rise. It didn't take long for me to be questioned. The Ordinator took a casual stance leaning on the rail next to me. "Good morning Archmage," he began. When I returned his friendly greeting he continued. "Enjoying the sunrise?"

"Yes indeed. I like the view here. From the foriegn quarter this canton obstructs half the horizon. I'm glad you are about. Having my back turned to the Telvanni does make me a bit nervous. With my new position they seem to not like me much."

"Wizards," he snorted. "Oh. No offense." I nodded with a grin. "It's just that not many wizards seem to have much respect for the law. The Telvanni usually settle their differences with a duel, and their council takes no action at all. You are right to be nervous about them."

"Well, I did pick a spot as far from any exit doors from the canton as I could."

"Wise choice. Not much stirring at this time of day either. No fights on my watch," he said with severity. I agreed again, and he resumed his patrolling.

As soon as he turned the far corner I was over the edge, cloaked in the chameleon spells of my amulet. I landed on the waistworks deck is a crouch and scurried to the door. No way to check the corridor inside. I cracked open the door and was relieved to find it empty. I hid the spare robe I was carrying in a planter and made a hasty exit, levitating back to the upper deck and returning to the rail. Once the sun was full up I strolled back to the foriegn quarter, arriving just as the businesses began stirring to life for the day.

In the afternoon no one questioned my wanderings through the foriegn quarter. The Ordinators might have had they seen me dropping into the sewer tunnels beneath the canton, but they didn't see me. No ebony mail today; I stripped off my robes to uncover the thin black mesh of the Dark Brotherhood and dropped into the murky water protected by alteration magic. The gratings gave way easily, and I was soon in the clearer depths of the bay. I weighted the robe with a rock and made my way to the Telvanni compound unseen.

Finding a grating loose enough to be worked open took some time, but soon enough I stood dripping on the edge of a channel with the Telvanni canton looming overhead. I climbed a nearby ladder and cautiously lifted the trap door. The way was clear and I slipped over the lip into the canalworks level. I used my amulet sparingly, slipping quietly through the corridors and stairs. As expected, Galuro Belan's shop was on the waistworks level. Fortunately it lies at the end of a lightly trafficked side passage. I retrieved my robe from the planter and stopped outside her shop to put it on.

"The Archmage of the outlander guild," she sneered as I entered the shop. "Get out."

"But what if I need a potion?" I asked. "Surely you would expect me to use nothing less than the best, and I hear the alchemists in the foriegn quarter are...lacking." I dropped one of the leaflets on her worktable.

"They are certainly not up to Telvanni standards," she hissed. "That's too bad for you though. Your business I do not need. I'm surprised you got this far into our compound without being run out."

"Not so surprising," I said. "No one saw me." I cast a locking spell on the door. "No one will ever know I was here."

Her jaw dropped. "This is no business of yours!" she cried, snatching up the leaflet.

"But it is. Frernis is in the guild; my guild. So her business is my business. Slandering her you slander me. If you were in my guild also then I would have a problem figuring out what to do, but if you slandered another Telvanni we both know what would happen. Honor is very fluid in your house, but they would kill you if they could. I can." I brought my staff ready as she saw the inevitable and rushed towards me with magica gathering in her hands.

Telvanni are highly skilled in the ways of magica, but Belan was, after all, just a shopkeeper. Her spells scorched, but did not char; chilled, but did not freeze. Two blows from the Archmage staff and she was reduced to a smoking heap. I burned the leaflet, dropping the ashes to mingle with her remains.

A quick intervention spell and I appeared, the composed Archmage of Vvardenfell, before the entry to the High Fane temple. I greeted the watchful Ordinator cheerfully, then entered the nearby Hall of Justice. I was visiting with Elam Andas, the officer of the watch, when the report of the murder came in. "Looks like you are suddenly busy my friend," I said. "I'll leave you to it."

He sighed. "Telvanni roast each other on a regular basis," he said.

I enjoyed the walk back to the foriegn quarter.

Ten: Act and react

Malven was very quiet at breakfast this morning. Craetia chattered merrily about her adventures, and I thought it wise to put in a word. Not to dampen her spirits, just to keep her from letting her light brush of experience turn dangerous for her.

"Don't count on a Redguard backing down regularly. Handing out leaflets is not their business, his heart wasn't really in it. Had his mission been to guard those leaflets you would only have gotten them if you killed him," I said.

"Oh, I wouldn't want to kill him," the alchemist replied. "I wouldn't want to kill anyone." I noted the intent look from Malven and let it go. The rest of the staff quickly had Craetia's excitement restored, but hopefully she will not underestimate the next Redguard she meets.

Malven followed me down the stairs to my office. "I had no idea you were going to kill her," she said. I looked at her, keeping my face a blank. "Galuro Belan. You said you were going to talk to her, now she is dead. I had no idea that is what you had in mind."

"That isn't what I had in mind," I said, "but what I had in mind makes no difference."

"Did you kill her?" she asked.

"Yes I did. That's why what I had in mind makes no difference."

"Well just what did you have in mind?" she asked with a trace of bitterness.

"I don't know," I said. "An apology with a public acknowledgement of our alchemist's skill, then the Telvanni having her executed for treason maybe? Like I said, whatever I had in mind would make no difference. Malven, this is important, and it was a hard lesson that I had to learn. It's also imperative that you learn it right now, because if you don't teach it to Craetia and the others we will have losses that I will not tolerate. Losses your conscience would find much heavier weights than others it will have to bear." I could not tell if I was getting through. I have yet to get comfortable with reading the red eyes of the Dunmer. All I could do was plow ahead.

"So here it is. We are at war with the Telvanni. Maybe not the kind with the armies marching out the gate with trumpets blaring, but a war; and in war there are soldiers. After a war there are two kinds of soldiers; heroes and monsters. The monsters faught for the losing side, because history is written by the winners. They were remorseless killing machines unfettered by conscience. The heroes faught for the winning side. During the war there were also two kinds of soldiers," I continued. "Those who left their conscience at their commander's feet and went on to be heroes, or monsters; and those who died."

Malven sat silently, and I still didn't know if I was getting through. "A lot of the time I am the Archmage, Malven, but yesterday I was a soldier. A soldier that you and I sent into a skirmish. Now, you didn't give any clear instructions, which I would hope that you would if you had sent someone else. I gave the instructions myself, because I knew that when I got there I would not want to take the time to think. My instructions didn't include 'do not kill her'. I would also hope that you would think long and hard before you tied someone's hands that way and sent them against the Telvanni." I stopped, and looked at her. I'm sure my face was hard. She nodded slightly.

I said, "It used to bother me a lot that Ranis seemed to end every assignment she gave me with 'or kill them'. Now I understand. She took the limits off of her soldier, and I'm likely alive because of it. I didn't kill everyone, in fact I usually found a way around it, but if it came to a fight I never hesitated. Soldiers can't be deciding the right and wrong of the battle, they have to fight it with everything they have. It's up to you to send them into the right battles; you, and ultimately me. We have to be the ones with conscience, but if you end up facing the Telvanni yourself leave your conscience at the door and be a soldier."

It was harsh, and looking back I think there must have been a way to make it easier for her, but she needs to know the true weight of her position. In the end she seemed to have shouldered that weight. Hopefully she talked with Ranis, or Skink, or even Edwinna while I was out. I thought it wise to give her time and space so I spent most of the day out of the hall. As fate often has it after a speech like that I had to confront my own demons.

Aurane Frernis, the alchemist who was unknowingly at the center of this object lesson, is a dues paying member of the guild. Her shop directly competes with services the guild provides, but since she is a member this is not a problem. The enchanter Muin-gei, on the other hand, is not a member.

In keeping with the theory I had presented to Malven I gave myself a clear assignment; persuade him to join, by either showing some benefit or just making him feel good that the Archmage himself had requested his membership, but do not get into any sort of conflict and certainly don't kill him. It was the 'showing some benefit' part of the assignment that ended up testing me.

Muin-gei turned out to be a very personable Argonian, with a stock of quality items at fair prices. Unfortunately his response to my suggestion that he join the guild went directly to the typical businessman's defense against expenses. His business is down; plagued by a recent turn that makes paying dues out of the question. Naturally the conversation goes directly from there to 'what if being a member of the guild solves the problem?', which led directly to me being outside his shop looking for some trinket selling street vendor that Muin-gei said was to blame for his current downturn.

When I met Marcel Maurard I couldn't help but agree. If I were shopping for enchantments, or anything else, I would shop elsewhere rather than have a second meeting with this foppish pretender. His 'lucky charms and gifts of splendor' are of no particular value, but getting away without an endless description of each and every item was on the verge of impossible. The demon I fear most rose up inside and hissed in my ear, "you could just kill him." With all the deaths on my hands it is a constant battle to keep my conscience active when it really is called for. Ultimately the lengths I went to to get him to move on were a proof that my conscience is intact, but he was no help.

Marcel Maurard claims to be an actor, and from the drama he added to selling his wares I suppose he is; a bad one. Tonight I am looking through a play written by Crassius Curio, a member of the council of the Hlaalu great house, and I think they are made for each other. Fortunately, as the Archmage it was not hard for me to gain access to the worthy playwrite and suggest the actor Marcel for a part in The Lusty Argonian Maid. I graciously accepted this copy, but it is a bit of drivel I will be happy to avoid. Hopefully I will never see the star again either.

Eleven: Away from the city

It was time to give let Malven have her hall to herself. I don't know how much the reality of our war with the Telvanni has gotten through to her, but staying and arguing about it would not help. It also would not help me. Holding myself too long against the knife edge of readiness where killing is the norm does not serve me or the guild. Those I killed today will not weigh on my conscience. In fact their deaths could be looked at as a kindness.

I had just arrived at the conclusion that I needed to get out of the hall for a while when Flacassia brought me a message from Skink. The worthy Argonian steward of our hall in the Telvanni capital helped me greatly, probably without knowing it.

"Arvil Bren," the message said. "We are continuing our research into the natures of Dagoth Ur's minions. As our council expected the Telvanni are not quickly forming a consensus, and we believe we must take this opportunity to focus on the greater enemy. Our research requires a sample; the soul of an ash ghoul. There is rumored to be a base of the Sixth House not far away, but we think it unwise to send any of our mages on this errand through Telvanni territory. Our request is that you assign this task to another hall. The soul gems and soul trap scrolls enclosed should suffice to complete it."

I considered the options. Who could Malven assign, or Ranis in Balmora? My own first experience with the cult came to my mind. A harrowing nightmare of red candles and stench, with the shocking recognition that came from seeing a corprus stalker devouring its own flesh that it tore free in chunks. I had fled that base so many months ago. Since then I had been in others; others that I had left with their evil bell stands smashed, silencing the dreamer calls. A mage could be assigned to find a base and capture an ash ghoul soul, but I opted to do it myself.

I found the island as I remembered it, not far south-east of Seyda Neen. The cavern mouth yawned open, waiting ominously. I crept inside. This time the guttering red candles and the wafting stench of rotting flesh were familiar rather than mysterious. More than just my conscience has been hardened by my time on Vvardenfell; my stomach lay in relative ease. I met the creatures of Dagoth Ur without fear or disgust, and released them from the horror their lives had become. Fulfilling the task that had brought me there I charged one of Skink's gems with the first ash ghoul that I dispatched.

In the depths of the shrine huddled the Dagoth; an ascended sleeper held directly in the sway of Dagoth Ur. This benighted creature was dwelling in the bell chamber on a ledge above a pool of seething lava. I approached, crossing a great stone arch from the larger ledge where the huge bells hung from their frame. "I have a message for your master, Dagoth," I shouted.

"I will deliver no words outlander. I will be crowned in glory when I bring him your head," was the monster's response.

After an exchange of spells the beast was staggered, in danger of falling to the lava below. I conjured a mighty Daedric spear as I leapt forward. The supernaturally keen point pierced through the Dagoth and pinned it to the offering trough filled with chunks of corprus meat. As its life hissed away I explained. "No words to deliver Dagoth. Your death, the destruction of the bells, the end of this base; that is all the message I would send to your master."

The mighty bell hammer quivered with resistance when turned on the framework of the bell stand, but could not but land where it was swung. The stand collapsed, dropping the great iron bells to the floor with a final cacophony. I wedged them one by one among the wreckage and hammered them into shapeless lumps.

The sun was lowering in the west when I emerged again into the muggy air of the bitter coast. I made my way around the bay and arrived with the night at Seyda Neen. If I needed further reminding of the true enemy I found it here. The embargo has brought the legitimate transport of goods to a stand-still, and the little town with its mighty harbor has suffered. The excise office is now manned by harshly roughened pirates who wage a constant battle with the smugglers, who have erupted like the fungus that thrives on the swampy coast. In his hunger to consume the island and its people Dagoth Ur is bringing it all to ruin.

With the Telvanni not actively moving against us, at least for the moment, I must turn my own attention to the Nerevarine prophecies. Dagoth Ur must fall.

Twelve: Skink's research

I took the familiar walk from Seyda Neen to Balmora. Even in the swamps of the Bitter Coast far from Red Mountain there are blighted monsters. I do not see how anyone can claim the ghostfence is working to contain Dagoth Ur. Containment is not a solution. Perhaps in the security of the High Fane the leaders of the temple cannot see that, but out in the countryside it is painfully obvious.

When I arrived in Balmora I went directly to the Southwall Cornerclub. Ahnassi was not there. Habasi told me that she was on an 'errand' for her. An errand in the thieves guild no doubt involves stealing something. Something that the guild believes it will put to better use than its former owner. Better use than Ahnassi would, no doubt. The challenge of opening locks and secret passages draws her, not the resulting gains. I have seen her take some prized possession, wait a week or two, then defeat the improved security measures to return the loot to its place. Habasi promised to tell Ahnassi that our home appears to be safe and that I am looking forward to seeing her there.

I was disappointed, and wandered into the guild hall obviously downcast. I will have to be more careful. The manner of the Archmage can have too much of an effect on the guild; another weight on my shoulders. Fortunately with Ranis running the hall in Balmora I had some room for error and learned this lesson with no damage done. I ate lunch with my fellows, then met with Ranis. She agreed that the situation with the Telvanni is stable, and that confronting the problems of Red Mountain holds the greatest promise for resolving everything.

She listened as I recounted my experiences with Malven, then nodded gravely. "In the shelter of Vivec City it is harder to see certain realities Archmage. She is no fool though, and I'm sure you got your point through. I will follow up with her in your absence." With that assurance I took transport to Sadrith Mora.

I delivered the charged soul gem into Skink's hands. "This will help, Archmage. Our research continues." The hardy Argonian looked tired.

"Do not wear yourself down in your studies, Skink," I cautioned him. "We need your eyes on the Telvanni. Finding Dagoth Ur's weaknesses may lie down a path that I must travel, not in your lab."

"Perhaps so," he said. "But perhaps this can help." He handed over a badly eroded bit of a letter. I read what could be made out, and consulted his attached notes. "It is a report describing a manuscript," Skink elaborated. "You can see that it refers to the manuscript as 'the vampires notes' here." He pointed out the reference. "Then it suggests here that the writer of the manuscript was cured. It is not clear whether this vampire was a blood vampire..."

"Or one of Dagoth Ur's ash vampires," I finished.

"Right," he said.

"Where did this come from?" I asked.

"It is an ancient temple document. The cured vampire would have been one of theirs. Perhaps an Ordinator. They suppressed the manuscript and hid the writer. That doesn't tell us anything, either form of vampire among their ranks would be an embarrassment."

"Suppressed," I mused. "But does the manuscript still exist?"

"We have sent our mages to make discreet inquiries. Jobasha, the rare book dealer in Vivic City may know something of this book," Skink said.

Jobasha is the most prolific collector of books in all of Vvardenfell, but is under constant scrutiny from the temple because of his outspoken opinions against slavery. He can be difficult to get information from. "May know something?" I asked.

Skink nodded. "Malven spoke to him herself. He said he does not have such a book, which we tend to believe, but she thought there was something left unsaid."

I took the opportunity to explain my concerns about Malven, though in this case I was glad she had accepted Jobasha's claim and backed off.

"We are sure Arvil Bren that if you were on the trail of this information you would not have left without it. Malven is perhaps more diplomatic than you, but she will serve well. She is a balance for Ranis in your council," he said. I turned that over in my mind. "Which leaves us with Jobasha and the book he may not have heard of," he finished.

"Jobasha is an old friend, and I stand differently with the Khajiit than Malven would. In this case diplomacy was certainly correct. I'll talk to him. If he knows anything of this," I motioned towards the scraps of message, "I'm sure he'll tell me."

"It is a slender reed in the marsh," Skink concluded, "but even a slender reed can mark the bank."

Wisdom from Black Marsh; I do appreciate the diversity of my friends.

Thirteen: Lost day

I used my recall spell to come home to Pelagiad this evening. Ahnassi is still not here, but the comfort of our house is settling my spirits. I levitated to the uppermost battlements of the fort and watched the sunset. I am proud that I resisted the desire to conjure a bow and shoot something... anything.

This morning I returned to Vivec City. Malven has done well at establishing her position in the hall. I was greeted respectfully, but not as the direct authority to give orders, or be feared. I left the hall with my morale high. The crowds in the plazas of the foriegn quarter closed pleasantly around me.

Things continued to go well at Jobasha's Rare Books. I browsed the shelves after exchanging a friendly greeting with the learned Khajiit proprietor and the Ordinator assigned to his shop. The Ordinator is there because Jobasha is outspoken in his decrying of slavery, and his shop is reputedly a meeting place of the Twin Lamps. Jobasha considers it a convenience, having free security services. He has a great many valuable books in his inventory.

In due time the Ordinator gave us an opportunity to share a few words. Jobasha chuckled at my mention of Malven's questioning. "Yes good friend Arvil Bren, the Dunmer asked questions. I was glad the guard was here. She did not seem to wish me well."

I laughed myself. "Well, she did think you were keeping something from her. By the way my good friend I need to know if you were."

"I was, of course. You know we Khajiit love our secrets," he said.

"How well I know good friend, but this is a secret I need you to share," I said.

"Oh, this I will gladly share with Arvil Bren, this secret and another, a secret place." The twitching tail I recognized as friendship, and the excitement of secrets. "I do not have the book you seek, but I have heard of it. I can guess where it may be found. A very secret place indeed, a place I cannot guess how to go."

When I left Jobasha I thought I had made progress. When I reached the offices of the Ordinators in the Hall of Justice I was beginning to have doubts. It did not take long for me to conclude I was against an insurmountable obstacle. The Ordinators have a secret library beneath their offices. There are trapdoors, kept locked. I am well enough liked by the Ordinators that I could invent a pretext to visit their offices. To try opening those trapdoors would lead to death for someone. I could see no way around it.

I spent most of the afternoon in the guild hall. Malven spoke to me briefly, but could see that I was distracted. There was really nothing she needed from me. There was nothing I could think that she could do for me. I transported back to Sadrith Mora and told Skink the situation quickly, then had dinner with the mages there. After dinner I teleported home.

I could walk into the Office of the Watch, concealed in magecraft, and kill everyone in my path. Then I could teleport to safety and offer my services, and the services of the guild, in investigating the hideous crime. I could even, perhaps, justify this as some necessary act in the war on Dagoth Ur. I could be no better than my enemy.

This may be a long night.

Fourteen: My own part

After a fitful night I rose this morning with a somewhat clearer head. Mostly I think a head cleared by necessity. There is just nothing to be done about the library. There is also no need for me to wait for Skink's research, or Ranis' plots, or Edwinna to find a solution in some dusty Dwemer artifact. If I become the Nerevarine that will clarify so many things. If I don't I suspect I might die in the attempt, which is a clarification of a different sort. By the time I walked back to Vivec I was settled; not comfortable, but committed.

Having determined my course I spent the day setting things in order. I will be gone for some time, and cannot really predict how long. The only thing I really knew this morning was that the direction I had to follow was to find Mehra Milo and the dissident priests. All I could tell my advisors was that my path led to Ebonheart. They had answered my call and gathered in my offices.

"There will be affairs of state where your presence is expected," Malven said. "There are times that the Archmage represents the guild. Times that your absence may be hard to explain."

"It's a big guild that extends beyond Vivec City," Ranis put in. "The succession of the Archmage requires his involvement throughout Vvardenfell. Evade the requests, confront the demands. If the Duke requires his presence we will find him."

Malven nodded. I count on her diplomacy to temper things with the intrigues of the city. Ranis would probably have someone killed. "Malven," I encouraged, "I will be in contact, frequent contact. There shouldn't be any demands that can't be put off for a few days."

There was no way to cover every aspect, but we pursued everything we thought of to a solution that at least seemed workable. By the serving of the evening meal I had the grudging agreement of all four stewards that the guild was as prepared as we could make it. I spent the evening laying out my familiar gear.

Light armors, for ease of travel. The Archmage staff, which is good for walking and potently enchanted. Restoratives for healing, endurance, magica. Extravagant robes for meeting dignitaries, common robes for moving without drawing attention, the black mask of the Dark Brotherhood for clandestine activities that may become necessary.

The power that came to me with the mantle of the Archmage seemed like it would provide answers, but in the end the imperial guild cannot bend the ancient structures of Morrowind. Surviving the clash of those structures is going to require using those structures. My origins are in the Empire, but my fate lies with the Dunmer. After my sleepless night I am tired, but it will be easy to sleep well tonight. Before dawn I will be on the docks of Ebonheart.

Fifteen: Travel to Holamayan

I am in the hidden monastery of Holamayan, shelter of the dissident priests. If there were any doubts in my mind about the favor of Azura this place would dispel them Through the power of Azura the entrance is completely hidden except for brief periods at dawn and dusk. The remoteness of the island supplemented by that enchantment could allow this base to operate in secret forever. It was an honor to be allowed in, but the real test will be whether I am allowed to leave.

Blatta Hatteria, who provided me with passage to the island, took great pains to keep her secrets. I found her on the docks, preparing her fishing boat to sail with the tide. As Mehra Milo had instructed I asked her for a charter.

"Do you know where you would like to go?" she asked.

"No," I replied, continuing to follow the instructions. "I just want to fish, and I was told the fish keep no secrets from you."

"Very few, sera, very few. Is your name known to the fish? They may have whispered it to me."

"Arvil Bren."

"That's the one. Come aboard, we sail in five minutes."

She hurriedly finished preparations and cast off; too hurriedly it seemed. We had barely cleared the harbor when the sail came down in a heap as a line parted near the top of the mast. Other boats sailed by, the fishermen jeering good naturedly. "We will leave you a fish or two Blatta, the skinny ones!" came through the thin morning mists.

"I'm not worried Gorla, without me leading you to the fish you will likely return with empty nets!" she returned. She seemed in no great hurry to make repairs. "That one, with the red stripe on the sail Arvil Bren, that is the one that would follow us," she said.

"You think you are being followed?"

"Not me. You." She motioned with her eyes while staying bent over her work. I could see two men on the distant deck in animated discussion. "Arkeg will not long tolerate that n'wah making demands."

"What demands do you think he is making?"

"Arkeg is no fool, he continues towards the fishing grounds. He knows that to heave to immediately when our sail came down would reveal the pursuit. The shirtless one is not so wise. I saw him rushing to charter a boat when we set sail so quickly, and now he is clearly worried about losing sight of us. Arkeg will circle with only the tip of his mast on the horizon, and he will watch ours." With a yank the sail sped up the mast, popping loudly as it billowed open. "I've see enough." She laughed at my surprise. "You didn't really think we stopped accidentally did you?"

Arkeg was also taken by surprise and hard pressed to get turned around in time. The tip of his mast was frequently obscured by the waves as we sailed into the rising sun. Ours was no doubt completely lost in the glare. "So we have shed our pursuit. Well done captain," I said.

"Not really. Arkeg can't see us, but he will know where we are simply because he can't. He will sail directly into the sun, just like we are."

"You seem unconcerned."

"We have enough lead that he will not share the winds." I looked out at the surface of the water. In our immediate vicinity the tell-tale rippling revealed the strong wind that sped us along, but not far astern the sea fell glassily calm. "By the time the sun is high enough that he will expect to see us we will be far beyond his vision, Azura will see to that."

It was afternoon when Blatta dropped me at the rough dock. Blatta did not tie up, touching the freeboard gently to the decrepit wood only long enough for me to jump. "I don't know what happens next Arvil Bren. Stay near the dock." The little ship heeled as the wind shifted direction and she sped away.

Her sail had just disappeared on the horizon when a voice at my elbow surprised me. "Holamayan lies at the top of the trail, but the door will only be visible in the twilight." The monk who stood watch had been concealed by a spell of invisibility, and once he had spoken he again winked out of view. I climbed the steep path.

The monks of Holamayan have treated me with a strange deference this evening, and have provided quarters that seem outfitted for a long stay. The robes are serviceable, and though there are no luxuries the sparsely furnished room is comfortable. Most who come here come seeking refuge, they seem to assume that I will be staying.

Part two

Sixteen: Master Barelo

I spent most of today reviewing what I know of the Nerevarine prophecies and comparing it with texts maintained here in the monastery. Most of the Heirographa, the writings of the Tribunal Temple can be found here. One of the critical differences that has led to the casting out of the dissident priests is their belief that the Apographa, writings the hierarchy have kept secret for millennia, should be open to study. Much of the Apographa is also available.

I found texts of the critical prophecies of the Stranger and the Seven Visions of the Seven Trials, which I heard from Nibani Maesa the Wise Woman of the Urshilaku. It is impressive how the oral traditions of the Ashlanders have preserved the legend. Texts transcribed by temple scholars many generations ago match the notes I took when Nibani described the trials to me almost perfectly.

The first trial reads;
On a certain day to uncertain parents
Incarnate Moon and Star is born

This is what got me into this in the first place. The 'certain day', by tradition, happens to be my birthday. When the Emperor got that piece of information his agents found me in the Imperial prisons. Parents unknown, born on the correct day, the perfect pawn in the game of creating a false Nerevarine...or a true one. In any event, Nibani agreed that I do meet the test of the first trial. She was, however, quick to point out that a great many people share my birthday.

When I met Nibani that was a deciding factor. The only factor that went my way in fact. Now the second trial has taken on great significance. It reads;
Neither blight nor age can harm him
The curse of flesh before him flees.

The 'curse of flesh' is a common reference to the corprus disease, and Nibani suggested that this could mean that the Nerevarine could cure that dread disease. I cannot cure the disease, but I have been cured of it through the wizardry of Divyth Fyr. Through that disease and curing I have taken an immunity to diseases, including the blight. Divayth Fyr also speculates that I will not age normally, if at all. While it is not exactly what Nibani expected it does seem to serve, especially since Edwinna tells me Fyr has not been able to cure anyone else.

I discussed this today with Master Barelo, leader of the dissidents. He agreed that this second trial could be seen as fulfilled by my condition. He seemed easily convinced in fact, more easily than I am myself, and I'm afraid more easily than Nibani would be. To her the Nerevarine being an outlander is absurd, and it seems easier to agree with that than anything else. When I suggested that to Master Barelo he stopped, pondering, and suggested we move on to the third trial.

The third trial reads;
In caverns dark Azura's eye sees
And makes to shine the moon and star.

This appears to me to be the definitive trial. Nibani hinted at knowledge of a 'cavern of the Incarnate' when I asked about this, but she said she could not reveal anything more than that there is a shrine to Azura there. If I can convince her that I have passed the second trial she will perhaps tell me more.

Barelo nodded at that and excused himself to do some research. I suppose he may be able to locate this shrine, or perhaps he can find the 'lost prophecies' that Nibani is seeking. Despite the uncanny consistency of the oral traditions handed down by the Ashlanders, Nibani knows there are pieces that have been lost. If those pieces were recorded by temple scholars before they were lost Barelo may be able to find them.

I continued my own search through the ancient texts for a while, but must admit that the task is too much for me. When Mehra Milo came into the chamber in which I was reading she apologized for the interruption, but I thanked her. "I will have to rely on the scholarship of others to sort what I need from the wealth of documents here Mehra. I hate to do that, but to do anything else is a life's work."

"Yes, it is. Master Barelo knows a great deal about where to look. Have faith that Azura will guide him to what you seek."

"What I don't understand is his interest in helping me. I read Progress of Truth, and I honor the stand your order has taken against the persecution of the Nerevarine cult by the Ordinators. But it seems like that was a stand against the injustice of it. It doesn't ring of any great belief in the prophecies."

"I'm not sure there is any belief in them Arvil Bren, and there certainly wasn't at the time that Progress of Truth was written. But times have changed. At that time the ghostfence and the power of the Tribunal seemed to be keeping Dagoth Ur safely contained, and the good works of the Tribunes was openly and obviously visible, and on going. Now things are...different." She looked like she was about to cry.

"The blight," I said.

"Not just that. There's the tools of Kagrenak."

"Kagrenak. The Dwemer master enchanter."

"Yes," she murmured. "Accursed Kagrenak. His efforts to create a God to do the Dwemer's bidding destroyed the Dwemer."

"So I understand. Not really a bad thing though, considering that the Dwemer were at war with the Dunmer at the time. It could have gone much worse for the Dunmer."

"Yes, it seemed good in the short term. The Dwemer were destroyed, their outlander allies scattered. But the Heart of Lorkan, and the tools Kagrenak used to tap its power remained. Nerevar decreed that the tools were too dangerous to use, but Lord Dagoth fell to their temptation and became Dagoth Ur. So did the Tribunal after the death of Nerevar."

"They used the tools? So they are like Dagoth Ur?"

"Not entirely. Dagoth Ur tapped directly into the power of the heart, driven by greed and fear. The tribunes were cautious, and at heart wanted to do good. Dagoth Ur was immediately driven mad...with them it has taken longer..."

"But they are mad all the same," I concluded.

"Yes." She nodded sadly and her eyes brimmed over with tears. "I don't think we believe in the Nerevarine prophecies Arvil Bren. It is just that they hold out our only hope."

Seventeen: Lost prophecy

I am hard pressed to sleep tonight, or even lay down. The inactivity of a day spent toiling through dusty scrolls has left me with too much energy, and the revelations of Master Barelo have my head in a whirl. Around midafternoon he brought me a parchment.

"This is the work of an elder priest thousands of years ago. His transcriptions of conversations with an Ashlander Wise Woman are what we consider the authorative source for much of the Ashlander's history. There are bits and pieces of prophecy scattered through it, including one of the oldest written records of the Seven Visions. Read this part." His finger ran carefully along seven lines of graceful script on the the aged hide.

From seventh sign of eleventh generation
Neither Hound nor Guar nor Seed nor Harrow
But dragon born and far star marked
Outlander Incarnate beneath Red Mountain
Blessed guest counters seven curses
Star blessed hand wields thrice cursed blade
To reap the harvest of the unmourned house

I read carefully, then again, though certain words seemed to leap from the page. 'Outlander Incarnate', an outlander Nerevarine. Me.

"Not of the four clans," said Master Barelo. "A guest. Dragon born; born of your Empire." He shook his head. "Not hard to see how this would get lost. It isn't something an Ashlander would want to remember, or admit. Even the scholars of the temple born of their great houses would just as soon pass that over. I did myself in my youth."

"What about the rest?" I asked. "The seven curses? Star blessed hand?"

"The seven curses rings familiar. It may be more prophecy. I have a few places to look, but I wanted to bring this to you. Give you a chance to... get used to it. The star blessed hand would no doubt refer to the ring Moon and Star. You have heard 'journey far neath Moon and Star' I assume?"

I nodded. "The mark of Nerevar."

"Mark; yes indeed. A ring which Nerevar wore that clearly identified him, since its enchantments would kill any other that tried to wear it. The thrice cursed blade is likely Keening, one of the tools of Kagrenak. Instrumental in tapping the power of the Heart of Lorkan, and probably required to undo that as well. Nerevar and the tribunal believed they had slain Dagoth Ur, every sense told them he was dead, but he survived. The tools that made him what he is will no doubt be needed if he is to be truly undone; reaping the harvest that House Dagoth sowed so long ago."

"Seven curses," I muttered. "Seven curses faced, then use a cursed blade."

"There is another possibility," he said. "Lord Dagoth had seven close kin, powerful wizard-lords in their own right."

"His kin would be long dead though, right? They didn't all tap into the stone."

"They didn't have to tap in directly themselves, they have been preserved by Dagoth Ur. They are the ash vampires." He went to continue his search through the prophecies, leaving me with a careful copy of the prophecy of the Outlander Incarnate. He was apparently out of bad news, at least for the moment.

Eighteen: Departure

I had to wait until evening to leave Holamayan. The protection of Azura prevents teleportation in or out, and Master Barelo demands certain precautions. Waiting until the twilight allowed a monk to come out and verify that I did indeed teleport away so that no backtrail would be left leading to the refuge. Since I had to teleport away I chose to use my recall spell and come home. I did not know where the nearest temple or Imperial fortress would be, and did not want an intervention spell to land me in an unknown city.

I was not sure that Master Barelo was going to let me leave at all. It weighs hard on him, being the leader of such a persecuted sect. The greatest weight being that he finds the prophecies hard to believe himself. While he clearly disagreed with the Temple's doctrines of persecution I don't know that he wouldn't describe the Ashlanders as superstitious rabble himself. Not justifying persecution, but certainly not worthy of actual belief. He could not ignore my experience with the corprus disease, and ultimately had to let me go to face further testing.

That testing looms more impossibly at every turn. While he was preparing to send me on my way Master Barelo sent Mehra Milo with another snippet of prophecy. These are, perhaps, the seven curses which must be countered. It looked bad enough when it was the seven ash vampires. The first two curses are fire and ash, obviously referring to the great volcano of Red Mountain itself. Am I expected to extinguish its mighty furnace? The curse of flesh is, of course, blight and corprus diseases that spread from the halls of Dagoth Ur. I am immune, but does countering the curse mean stopping their spread? Curing the afflicted? The final curse is the curse of dreams. The rising incidence of 'soul sickness', people driven mad by sleepless nights and tormented by dreams of Dagoth Ur's vengeance would suggest that this curse is at hand, and the time of the Nerevarine is as well. This more than anything else I believe led to my release. But there are three more curses; the curse of ghosts, the curse of seed, the curse of despair. I am expected to counter them, and I do not know what they are.

I say I am expected to counter them as if I were the Nerevarine. I would hope that I am not. The first two trials, and the prophecy of the Outlander Incarnate are compelling, but far from certain. My next task is clear; to present that case to Nibani Maesa so that she will confide the location of the Cavern of the Incarnate. There Azura herself will mark me as the Incarnate, or I expect that I will die. To die seems the easier path. The remaining trials seem impossible.

A stranger's voice unites the houses
Three halls call him Hortator.

Hortator; an office that has been vacant since Nerevar himself, a warlord who can command the united forces of the Great Houses of the Dunmer. The Great Houses could not unite behind their king in the face of Imperial expansion. They are locked in seemingly eternal strife, having replaced the devastating house wars with legalized assassinations and vendettas. For anyone to unite them seems impossible, but for me? The Redorans with their stiff codes of honor are staunch supporters of the Temple; the temple who would have me killed immediately at the first breath that I could be the Nerevarine. The Hlaalu are not so concerned with the affairs of the temple, but their council is under sway of Orvas Dren, who would have me slain out of hand if he ever traced responsibility for the setbacks his Cammona Tong have suffered. That trail of responsibility leads to the tip of my spear. Even further into the realm of impossibility is House Telvanni, sworn blood enemies of my guild. As the Archmage I am further down their list of prospective Hortators than Dagoth Ur himself would be.

A stranger's hand unites the Velothi
Four tribes call him Nerevarine.

The four clans of the Ashlanders; they are looking for Nerevar to return and sweep the land free of outlanders, Great House Dunmer, and the Tribunal Temple. A scrap of lost prophecy is not going to suddenly change their expectations and make a Breton acceptable, particularly if that Breton has somehow become the Hortator of the Great Houses. The fourth trial pushes the fifth even deeper into impossibility.

He honors blood of the tribe unmourned
He eats their sin and is reborn.

The tribe unmourned is no doubt House Dagoth, and to 'eat their sin' is to atone somehow, but after studying histories and prophecies and fantasies and fabrications I don't think anyone even knows what their sin actually was. What happened an age ago under Red Mountain? What is it that is to be atoned for?

His mercy frees the cursed false gods
Binds the broken, redeems the mad.

And that makes a clean sweep. The Great Houses, the Ashlanders, House Dagoth, and the Tribunal; all the Nerevarine has to do is make friends of every enemy, which is to say everybody. The only question, really, is who is going to hate me the most, they are all going to hate me.

The house is quiet. Ahnassi has not yet returned. I read, I write, I touch the armors and weapons of my collection. I look at my fate looming before me. I await the dawn.

Nineteen: Juggling

I awoke this morning from a fitful doze. The brief sleep did little for me, and I had to rely on restoratives that I brewed in my lab. Fortunately I have learned well. I have also learned that there are times that call for walking alone. By the time I crossed the double bridges over the Odai and turned in the south gate of Balmora I had restored my spirit, the part that is beyond the reach of any alchemist's brew. Then I put aside the questions of trials and prophecy that are the lot of the Nerevarine. As the Nerevarine, if I am, I will shape the future of Vvardenfell, but today I needed to be the Archmage of the Mage's Guild.

Under Trebonius the mages were in some ways sheltered, and in other ways restrained. For me to be out of contact for the last few days was a trial for them; on both counts. While Ranis is among my most trusted advisors it was good to appear unannounced in the hall in Balmora and put things into perspective. My best friends in the guild, in all of Vvardenfell actually, needed to see that me being the Archmage was going to change some things...and that it was not changing some others.

I came in upstairs, through the enchanter's shop. Galbedir was momentarily shocked, and I laughed at her expression. It took a minute to sort out that I was her friend, her customer, and the Archmage, all in one untidy package. I dumped a bundle of various weaponry that I had claimed, some already enchanted and some ideal for enchanting. Our opening round of negotiation was strange. Her opening price was absurdly high. "Galbedir, what are you doing?" I said.

"You could demand whatever price you wish Arvil Bren. I know that."

"And you might think that since I'm your friend your shop doesn't have to be profitable, but it does. I'm not going to stop Ranis from seeing to that." At the mention of Ranis' name her eyes widened. "Tough spot." I grinned. "It would be best if at times like this you treated me as a customer, not the Archmage, and not your friend."

Ranis was a bit more difficult. The hall in Balmora has been her personal turf. I don't think Trebonius ever set foot there. When she saw me coming down the stairs her mouth fell open. I had never imagined Ranis at a loss for words. "Let's go in here a moment," I said, opening the door to her office. She recovered well, but it was a defining moment. It had always been her that used those words.

Ultimately the resilience of the Dunmer won through, and I took something from that. Ranis did not expect to have an Archmage who would just walk into her hall. That is what she has. When her expectations turned counter to reality she moved on; the Dunmer way. "Our lives are long Arvil Bren, we see the world change around us, and we adapt." Will that help the Great House councils accept me as the Nerevarine? The Ashlander clans? I can hope.

Our new relationship was reflected in the way she responded to my needs. It is necessary that any hall can serve as a base for me. Ranis left her office and gave a flurry of instructions. In short order word had gone out through the guild guides to every hall that I was available in Balmora. Hopefully that not only gave them a chance to report anything I needed to resolve, but also will have them all better prepared for my possible arrival.

By the end of the day I had heard from Ald-ruhn, Sadrith Mora, and Vivec City, and given a handful of decisions and opinions. There was nothing critical, but it made clear that I expect to keep my hand on the direction of the guild.

At the dinner table everyone was a little uncomfortable. I tried to imagine what it would have been like if Trebonius ever had visited the hall. His demands would have revolved around the show of false respect that fed his pompous ego. It gave me an inspiration. "My work is over for the day," I said. "I assume my usual bunk is open." To sit here at the library table, where I have sat so often, writing in my battered journal as I always have; it's a comfort to me, and to my friends.

Twenty: New hall

Keeping things in balance is going to take some work. Yesterday I was very resolute that the business of the guild had to be taken care of. The fact that I only made it from Pelagiad to Balmora in my journey to the Urshilaku camp seemed like acceptable progress. As I sit here at this same table, prepared for sleep in the same bunk, it is harder to see myself as moving to meet my destiny. While the other trials of the Nerevarine are still looming ominously the possibility of not being the Nerevarine and dying in the Cavern of the Incarnate is now slowing my steps. I do not want to die.

It would not be too difficult to claim today as great gains made for the Archmage though. I again set out walking. Not just to clear my head; and not to knowingly slow my progress though now I see that may have been underlying my choice. I wanted to arrive at the guild in Caldera by walking in the door, not appearing on the guild guide's platform. As I followed the pleasant trail northwards past the headwaters of the Odai I formed a plan that would only work because I had chosen to walk.

When I reached Caldera I did not go directly to the guild, but went instead to Surane Leoriane's house. Surane is a Blade, a member of the organization that collects information directly for the Emperor; in short, a spy. Unknown to the Mage's Guild I am also a Blade, in fact the ranking member here in Vvardenfell as far as I know. That is what I was told by spymaster Caius Cosades when he returned to Cyrodiil, but being a secret organization it is hard to tell. In any event I must admit my own loyalties do not lead directly to the throne of the Emperor, but since his instructions for me are to fulfill the prophecies of the Nerevarine it is easy enough to maintain at least a fiction of being at his direction. Being 'senior' in the Blades certainly does not put Surane under my orders, but it does provide opportunities.

Surane is posted in Caldera to monitor and investigate the Caldera Mining Company, and she is a very proficient mage. The Caldera Mining Company is an Imperial charter granted to House Hlaalu to exploit the local ebony deposits, and is the economic engine that allows Caldera to exist in the first place. Since House Hlaalu is in many ways a thrall to the Cammona Tong and the awarding of the charter stinks of graft there is definite cause for investigation by the Empire. Since the Cammona Tong has a huge price on the head of a spear wielding nemesis that they fortunately don't know is me I have my own reasons to be interested. All of these parts were clicking together in my mind as I walked, eventually forming a very cohesive whole.

"Hello Surane, it's good to see you again," I said as she answered the door.

"Hello Arvil. You are looking a little more wizardly these days. Unless I am sorely mistaken that staff is the badge of office of an Archmage. Come in, please." It was certainly simple to fit this visit into my cover story. My previous visits as a ragged spearman were a bit less obtrusive, because they would be much harder to explain. The time of day was in my favor, and I got to enlist Surane in my plan over an exquisite lunch.

Then I went to the makeshift guild hall, where they were just clearing away the plates following a hearty but plain meal that I was glad to have missed. Madila Indaren, a Dunmer mage who I think might be a distant relation of Ranis is the ranking member of the guild in Caldera. As I walked through the door she nearly collapsed, then erupted in a flurry of orders, all of which were intended to somehow relate to 'making me comfortable', most of which were contradictory. I had intended to shift the course of this fledgling hall gently, but this start left me no choice but to use a heavy hand.

I crashed the butt of my staff against the planking of the floor, which unleashed a shower of sparks and curling flames. "Stop!" was all I could think to say. Everyone froze in their places. At least the incipient chaos was headed off. "I didn't come here to test your furnishings or hospitality, so most of what you have all just decided to do is uncalled for. This hall is not getting done what really needs to get done already, so that would be a much better direction for your efforts. Assuming that you have regular tasks that forward the mission here, get about them while I consider what will have to be done for Madila here to get promoted." I looked around, taking in each startled face in turn, ending with the piercing red eyes of Madila. "You have an office?" She didn't. To have any sort of private conversation required Ernand Thierry the alchemist to disappear into his tower laboratory and the rest of her crew to retire to a common room upstairs.

"That is the first of many problems that need to be resolved," I said as soon as this was established. "I am here as the Archmage to get you set up as a guild steward in a proper hall, and having this meeting leaves no one but you and me to answer the front door. That really doesn't work Madila." She nodded, and wisely didn't say anything. Any trail of explanations she started would curl inevitably back at her and she knew it. That was what I was looking for. Had she not seen that the responsibility ultimately landed on her she would be difficult to mold into a Steward.

Caldera had been established under Ranis' supervision, mostly I suppose because it is Hlaalu territory and Ranis runs the hall in the Hlaalu capital of Balmora. A totally unworkable plan whose only real selling point had been that it didn't involve Trebonius in much of any way. Ranis has done a commendable job under the circumstances, but operation as a distant annex is not going to accomplish anything for anyone in the long run.

The crux of the problem in Caldera is that it operates at a loss across the board. Folms Mirel is a skilled enchanter, but in the 'business first' environment of a Hlaalu town he isn't in a position to provide services competitively. The local traders, pawn shops, and street corner hucksters all peddle enchantments and are overwhelming him. The alchemist Ernand Thierry gets much the same results. The guild guide does not do any thriving business. About the only place people in Caldera need to go is Balmora, and it is not a prohibitive walk. Ranis managed to assign Eraamion, an accomplished nightblade, as the spellsmith, but never quite handed his control over to Medila, and Ranis is too far removed to direct him.

"The Altmer, Eraamion," I began delicately, "to be a guild steward and have a successful hall you need to learn to use his talents."

"There is not much call for a spellsmith here Archmage."

"His other talents." A nightblade is the magically inclined version of an agent or an assassin. They use their spellcraft to conceal their entries and speed their escapes. Judiciously assigned they can tip the scales of commerce in favor of the guild, or against it. I knew that House Hlaalu had one of their best assigned in the governor's manse. "To begin with at least his eyes and ears. You have a very capable mage two doors away..."

"Surane Leoriane. She seems to do more business than we do."

"Seems to? She does. That's the sort of thing you need to know, and do something about. And you aren't in any position to do anything about it because you really have no idea what it is she is doing. She had a visitor for lunch, do you know who?"


"You should have. Sometimes important business gets done over lunch. In this case it would at least have given you a couple hours to get ready for me walking through your door. Madila I count on this hall to keep me apprised of the comings and goings of important people. That's one of the great benefits of having the guild guides sell their services to the public, but you still have to keep up with other transport. A master wizard shouldn't be able to walk into town and have lunch without you knowing it." Medila went back to nodding.

"Listen. I'm not here to crush you, and this isn't a reprimand. In fact Ranis is going to pop up on the guild guide platform shortly and we are going to formally turn this hall over to you as a guild steward. But by the time that happens I need you to be on top of what it is going to take for you to grow into that. We can call you one, but it's up to you to make yourself one."

"I will not disappoint you," she said. My turn to nod, deliberately.

"So here's the first big step. Surane Leoriane is ready to join the guild. A visit from the Archmage can be persuasive. In this case it may even have been required. Do you know why?" I hoped that she would not sidestep the reality that question represented.

She did not disappoint me. "Surane Leoriane is more skilled at magecraft than I am, or anyone else in this hall."

"Yes, she is. Truthfully in some schools she is probably more skilled than I am, but that doesn't keep me from being Archmage, and it doesn't keep you from being her guild steward. We need the best, and they have to be recruited. Now, you might be thinking that with her skills if she sets her sights on your position she may well take it from you. If you are thinking that you may even be right. If you let that thought get in the way of recruiting and training our members then you will get replaced, fast. Even if we don't have someone more talented a guild steward cannot let that thought get in their way for an instant." She nodded again. I was beginning to recognize her nods, and was pleased that this one showed grudging acceptance, not just mindless agreement. It's never easy to put yourself aside, I was glad it wasn't easy for her to say that it would be.

"What you need to do is give her assignments that will give her a chance to establish her loyalties. At the same time you might be able to improve everyone else's skills, even your own. I have learned a few things from her myself; no embarrassment in that." Surane is an established trainer in the Blades. "So, between her and Eraamion you need to get a handle on what is going on in this town. I am particularly interested in the relationships between House Hlaalu, the Caldera Mining Company, and the Cammona Tong."

"I'll get on top of it Archmage, you have my word."

I smiled my satisfaction. No need for her to know that she would be assigning Surane to do what she was already doing for the Blades. It would provide an extra layer of cover for Surane, get me direct access to the information she was sending back to the Emperor, and improve the standing of the guild in Caldera, all at the same time. Perhaps with Eraamion involved Surane's investigation would go even faster.

Ranis arrived as planned, and we announced the change to the guild members. Medila will have her hands full, certainly, but I think it will work out. Ranis and I were agreeably optimistic as we arrived back in Balmora on the guild guide platform. "I assume you set up enough of a cut from Surane's profits to balance their books," Ranis said as we walked into her office. "I don't know if Medila will be able to push her far enough herself. She will be good, but she isn't that good yet. Surane is formidable."

"I know. She will push Medila just by being in the guild. And yes, she will be generous in her contributions financially." That had been easy to manage. As soon as Ranis and I concluded our conversation I slipped invisibly through the streets of Balmora to the house of a Blades courier and dispatched two thousand gold septims to Surane to cover the expenses of her additional cover.

I ate a cheerful dinner here. In Balmora at least there is beginning to be a distinction between the work of the Archmage and the life of Arvil Bren. It was not until I sat down to write that I really had to face being not one step closer to the Urshilaku than I was yesterday.

21: Surprise, I'm just passing through

The guild guides provide transport from one guild hall to another. This service is available to guild members at a very inexpensive price, and the public at a fair price as well. Transportation is via teleportation spells and is instantaneous. Gossip, of course, travels even faster.

I appeared on the guide platform in Ald-ruhn right after breakfast. Erranil, the mage who operates the system nodded gravely. "Good morning Archmage. We were not expecting you so early, but Edwinna is in her office. I'm sure she will be pleased to see you." I suppose having appeared at two halls in the last two days I would be expected in Ald-ruhn next.

Erranil reached into a drawer and drew out a pack of small parchments. "These are to notify the other halls of your arrival. Do you know how long you will be staying?"

I laughed. There would not likely be much for me to do. "Not long Erranil. I have business in the north. This is your idea?" I took one of the notices and looked it over.

"Yes, Archmage. Edwinna wanted a system for keeping track of your location."

"Excellent." I handed it back. "Note that I will be in the northern Ashlands for three to five days and send them along."

As expected there was little to say to Edwinna. In her low key way she had her hall completely prepared to serve as my headquarters should I require it. I left after a brief visit, jogging northward at a strong pace that I maintained with my flask of restorative potion.

I had planned to eat lunch in Mar Gaan, but the early start made me think I would be well past that Redoran outpost. I was not. The rugged flank of Red Mountain did not slow me greatly, but the swarming blighted monsters did. There were many that I could easily have run past, as they were swollen into bloated masses of muscle that could barely move. I can't say that I gathered much information from the charred corpses my fireballs left behind, but it was a kindness to free these creatures from their horrific existence. Unable to hunt, they are reduced to gnawing on their own useless extremities. For every one that could not move though, there was another that could. Hugely overgrown muscles, blind unthinking fury; the blight monsters ravage the land. I noted the scars on the walls of Mar Gaan as I ran through the gates.

I had lunch at Aldur's Tradehouse. I considered making an inconspicuous entrance and moving on quickly, but opted instead to test my rank and privilege. It was not really out of line, as the Archmage of Vvardenfell, to command the main table in the dining hall, and send for the great warrior Miles Gloriosus to join me. The Cyrodiil has battled in every corner of the Empire, and he is the central pin in the defense of Mar Gaan; a defense that he tells me is failing. While the heroes and mercenaries have rallied to the cause from near and far the tide from Red Mountain batters inexorably against them.

I could not offer any long term hope without bringing up the Nerevarine prophecy, but I did the only thing I could to support the resistance. Mages and healers from all the halls will rotate through Mar Gaan, and they will bring scrolls and potions from the enchanters and alchemists, a tenth of their production. Gloriosus was exuberant in his gratitude, but concerned at the cost. I told him to be sure that all those who came to the outpost knew that the Mage's Guild is a part of Vvardenfell, and we will defend it. In the long run we will make back our costs.

Lunch was longer than anticipated and I had to draft a message to be delivered to Ald-ruhn. I opted to stay in Mar Gaan for the night. The harsh conditions of the Ashlands and the heavy flow of monsters from Red Mountain make it rash to risk being caught out at sunset.

22: Among the ancestors

Nibani Maesa met me eagerly when I arrived at the Urshilaku camp. When I showed her the lost prophecies that I had brought she laughed. "Arvil Bren, you have done well, but you are thinking like an outlander, not an Ashlander."

The clan gathered for a feast, and I was honored to participate as a clan friend. During the feasting there were ceremonies over every dish. I did not immediately understand the significance, but as the meal wore on it became apparent. The night air swirled with spirits. By the final course the Urshilaku clan was truly gathered; the living at the tables and the ancestors above.

Nibani Maesa and her apprentices disappeared promptly into her tent, accompanied by the swarming spirits of wise women past. Minutes later I was ushered inside.

"You will read the prophecies Arvil Bren; the mysterious writings of your Great House priests. The ancestors will recognize the truths, or the falseness. You will read them until we have the truths added to our lore."

As I read the ghosts of the ancestors clucked and chortled. They could not have restored the words of the prophecy, but they clearly verified it. As Nibani and her apprentices stumbled through the words it was obviously a huge shock. I was impressed and surprised at how quickly they overcame the difficulty of accepting the prophecy, and settled into committing it to memory. Like a drip of water wearing away a stone the words 'outlander Incarnate' pounded away at the wise women, and the ancestral spirits gathered over me to strengthen my words.

Time passed unnoticed. Eventually Nibani could repeat the prophecy as written, and her apprentices were close. The ancestor ghosts began to dissipate through the tent into the night sky.

Nibani dismissed her apprentices. "Practice these words, this is our lore," she told them. "Arvil Bren you have served our clan, and our people. I must consider this, and dream the dreams of the ancestors to seek the meaning here. You are an outlander, but there are many outlanders."

"Nibani, we need to talk about the trials."

The second trial, 'the curse of flesh before him flees'; I had to explain the entire series of events. I started with my mission to the Sixth House base. I told her about the curse of Dagoth Gares. I told her the message that had been delivered to me from Dagoth Ur. I wished the ancestor spirits would return to verify the truth of my words, but all I could do was tell her and hope she would hear the ring of truth in my words.

"This too I must consider Arvil Bren. I must sleep, and dream. You must wait. Live as an Ashlander. Hunt. Stay among us. As the ancestors confer with me the clan must confer with you. They will accept the words of the prophecy, an outlander Incarnate, but it will be up to you to sway them to accept it willingly."

Tonight I will sleep in a communal hut, shared with other hunters. I don't know how long the ancestors will take to confirm the prophecies. I have to wait.

23: Hunting

The Ashlanders are solitary hunters. After a coarse breakfast I set off into the wastes alone, as did the other members of the clan. I hunted alone, but not unobserved. Through the early part of the day I was well aware that the other hunters were watching from distant ridges. I rose to the challenge.

Stealth plays a large part in the hunt. With my conjured bow I could bring down a cliff racer from a fair distance, but that would not have impressed my clanmates. I watched. I followed the patterns of the great soaring creatures, learning the air currents that enabled their flights. When I had isolated a promising site I approached, slithering along the sand. The racers were bound to return to ride the rising air current. A hidden blind among the trama vines, a deadly shot from close range, and I passed the test.

By the late morning I had brought down three racers, and tracked a kagouti into a canyon where I could slip to an elevated spot and fell the great beast without allowing it to charge me. My distant monitors seemed to be satisfied and had gone about their own hunting. I had covered a significant distance to the south-west by then, and set off on a little hunt of my own.

Dividing the northern Ashlands of the Urshilaku from the western foothill region of Mar Gaan there is a deep foyada that cuts down the northwest slope of Red Mountain. This canyon may well run all the way to the shores of the Sea of Ghosts; I don't know. I do know that crossing that canyon involves following a very sketchy path through the wastes. I have found that path on some crossings, but more often I've resorted to a levitation spell. Yesterday was no exception.

When I crossed yesterday I passed directly over an ancient Velothi tower in the bottom of the foyada. There were ample signs that the tower is occupied. I wanted to know by whom. Who would be taking this remote outpost, so near Red Mountain? I expected to find the Sixth House cult.

With the threat of Dagoth Ur looming over all of Vvardenfell it seems to me the Great Houses would be setting their differences aside, or at least not openly be antagonizing each other. That would make sense, but I suppose over the long lives of the Dunmer they accumulate too much bitterness to set aside.

I crept to the door, and was surprised to find it ajar, partly torn free of its hinges. I slipped cautiously inside. The entry chamber held decorative columns that cast deep shadows in the light from the doorway. The torches hung askew on the walls, extinguished. In the broken light a battered corpse lay in a crumpled robe. I listened. There was no sound. I crossed the chamber.

In the hallway beyond I stopped again. A sound? I wasn't sure. To the right, or the left? Or no sound at all? I drew in magica, shaping it through the school of mysticism. The walls around me grew hazy, shimmering, and faded from my reality, leaving an undifferentiated grayness. Then to my left dim lights took form, like distant fireflies. I focused, and the lights, the energy of trapped souls, became more distinct. Enchantments, enchanted swords, and one was moving, coming towards me.

The mist cleared in the blink of an eye. I slipped quietly but rapidly down the hall to my right. The signs of battle were everywhere. The hall opened into a chamber. Typical of the quarters of retainers. Scorch marks marred the walls. Beds overturned, one burned. Another body, stricken down by a mighty blow from an unknown sword. Unknown, but quite possibly one of the enchanted blades I had detected.

Secure that I would not be attacked from this side I returned to the entry. Though I could no longer sense the enchanted sword I could hear the bearer approach. The tread of boots, bonemold boots by the sound of it. I blended into the shadows among the pillars.

The distinctive armor of the Redorans swept around the corner, a glowing blade leading the way. He approached the door, the visored helm sweeping the chamber. He could not see me. As he prodded the door, obviously looking for a way to secure the portal, I slipped into the passageway. Again the surge as magica flowed through me, creating a barrier of silence that filled the hall.

"Who are you, and what happened here?" I asked the back of the armored figure.

He spun, dropping into a warrior's crouch. The blade gleamed wicked in the dim light. "Back mage!" Then his voice raised to a shout. "Another! Here!"

"They can't hear you. For the next minute it's just you and me. I don't want to fight." Though I didn't want to fight I did not want to underestimate the warrior. House Redoran harbors the most respected warriors of the Dunmer. I conjured a spear. "What happened here?"

"This is Redoran territory. You may think that having yourselves declared as rogues by House Telvanni gives you free reign to settle anywhere, but it does not..."

"Telvanni? Trust me friend I am no Telvanni..."

"A mage, in this tower of magery. Where is your mage lord?" He prodded the robe clad corpse with the toe of a bonemold boot. "Like this one, you are a Breton, a retainer. Where is your master?"

"Once more, I am no Telvanni. If there was a Telvanni here alive I'm sure that would be painfully obvious."

"Enough lies!" he roared as he leapt to the attack.

His sword was powerful, as was he, but the Daedric spear struck through the bonemold easily. Blood flowed freely, and the spear lodged in his chest. I left it there, hampering his movements. I released the bonds of magica, and the shaft of the spear separated from the staff it had taken shape around. I spun the staff in a blurring arc and fended off a wild swing of his blade. Loss of blood began to take its toll and he struggled to keep his feet.

"I wish you had listened Redoran. I am no Telvanni. In fact these Telvanni would have been more inclined to kill me than almost anyone else that could come through that door." I hoped that I could reason with the wounded warrior, and perhaps use my restoratives to keep him from death. Instead, his final charge drove the spear completely through his body. He got close enough that I could see the red eyes glaring through the slotted visor as the life winked out of them.

I used my amulet to conceal me. At the end of the left hand passage I found the main tower. Stairs led to an upper level. I crept to the top. Two Redorans; one standing, the other seated at a desk; they did not see or hear me. I slipped past, away from the stairs. They continued to speak, agreeing on the content of the report that lay on the desk. This was the chamber of a Telvanni mage. Another slain retainer lay on the floor in a pool of blood.

The Redorans were drafting a request for reinforcements. The tower is in their territory. I certainly saw no reason to interfere. I left as quietly as I came and returned to the hunt. The enchanted sword of my opponent made a fine gift for the Ashkahn.

24: To trap a soul

This morning I rose with the rest of the hunters. It seemed clear that I earned some respect yesterday. Over breakfast I was included in the conversation more than before, but it didn't take long for that to get difficult. They trust their Ashkahn and their Wise Woman, but it is difficult for them to consider an outlander as a possible Nerevarine. I did not press the claim, but I did not back away from it either. Truthfully I just wanted to change the subject.

The opportunity to turn the conversation came from a hunter named Tussurradad. He said something about a golden creature that he saw yesterday. I pressed for details, and he gladly became the center of attention.

His description was concise, and as I asked about specific details it was clear that he had seen a golden saint. These rare constructs are summoned from a distant Daedric plane. They are basically nothing but an intangible spirit animating a gilded shell of pure enchantments. They are the most potent charge that can be contained in a soul gem, allowing the enchantment of the most powerful items. I asked where he had seen this creature and was pleased that it was not far away.

"But," he said, "the ruins of Assurnabitashpi house a shrine to Mehunes Dagon. They are horribly accursed. Hunters circle wide to avoid it. It is a very dangerous place outl...Arvil Bren."

I let his slip pass. "A dangerous place for a dangerous creature, clan brother. But a reward of great power to the bold."

Kurapli, the clan's armorer spoke up. "I have heard these creatures are often armed with great Daedric weapons; weapons of inhuman sharpness, like the summoned weapon of a conjurer."

"They are," I agreed. I put the Daedric shield I carry on the table. "Their weapons are like this shield. It is bound over from the Daedric plane permanently. It can turn the edge of the deadliest sword. It is an artifact of another plane that would rarely be found in an armorer's shop, and then would likely not be for sale. There are few opportunities to own a thing like this. I cannot turn from this one. Where is this ruin?"

I set off to the west as the other hunters conferred. There was little doubt that the morning's hunt would be delayed. They did not go their solitary ways, but climbed to a hilltop where they apparently had a view of the ruins. I would either impress them, or die.

The ruin of Assurnabitashpi is vast, and would be a source of great wealth to a hardy adventurer who dared to enter the shrine. I may be willing, but today it was not neccessary. It also would not have been ideal to leave my clansmen watching an empty ruin and a closed door. Instead I stood challengingly in the open, calling down the guardians of the cursed ruin.

First to catch sight of me were two great ogrims. They lumbered out of the ruins on their great legs, like the trunks of twin trees. Ogrim are not fast, and these two charged with the half hearted gait of monsters that are accustomed to being outrun by their intended victims. Ogrims are also not very smart, and they had covered half the distance between us before the recognition showed on their huge grey green faces that I was not taking to my heels. They faltered a step in their surprise, then accelerated their charge with a great gleeful roar. I'm sure my observers could hear it from their distant vantage.

The staff is far from my favorite weapon, but the powerful destructive spells woven into the fibers of my staff of office make it serviceable. It serves me well because the spells are unleashed on impact. A jab with the head or butt of the staff, normally a weak blow doing little damage, will unleash a storm of elemental energies on my enemy. The explosions provided a good showing for my observers.

The ogrim tried to use brute strength, which they have in abundance. To be caught in their grip would have been a terrible death, but the same lack of speed that has them so often outrun makes them vulnerable to a quick footed opponent. My time in Vvardenfell has honed me to a fine physical edge, but I wanted to push myself as far away from risk as I could. When their charge was within moments of completion I called upon a spell of the school of restoration to fortify my speed even further, making my advantage over my lumbering foes insurmountable.

I danced lightly aside as great arms slowly gathered air. The scaly green titans seemed to be wading through water they were so slow in comparison. I struck a huge round foot with my staff as it passed, and the explosion of magica sent the ogrim sprawling on its great belly in the dust. I released one hand and let the force of that foot kick the staff in a blurring whirl around my other hand, grabbing it again very close to its silver shod tip. It had just enough length at this full extension to rap the other ogrim lightly across the back of the neck as it lumbered past. The resulting fireball streaking from the tip of the staff sailed wide and exploded against a distant block of rubble, but the ogrim's head was shrouded in a cascade of elemental sparks. He howled in agony and rage as he dragged himself to a skidding halt.

As I said, I am not overly skilled with the staff, and without its enchantments neither of my foes would have been badly hurt by those initial blows. However, even without great skill the broad back of the fallen ogrim was an easy target. With my enhanced speed I was on him before he could gain his knees, much less his feet, and I brought the staff down with both hands in a whistling arc that went straight over my head. The stout steel shaft is very resilient, and reinforced by the enchantments woven through the essence of the metal. Even so the force of that impact brought the weapon into a great bow as it fell across the scaly green back. It sprang straight, driving the beast face first into the ground in an explosion of fire and sparks that ended its life.

Confusion flickered across the face of the other ogrim as it turned to find its partner already slain. I brought the staff to the ready, gripped in both hands across my body, head to my right and slightly raised. "You are going back to the plane of the Daedra, foul beast," I challenged. The creature had learned not to charge, and it stalked forward with its arms outstretched. Though certainly not nimble it could lunge from side to side, and clearly hoped to sweep me up in the crook of a great arm and crush me. Many of the green scales of its head and neck were blackened, and cracked as it moved allowing a thick grey blood to ooze through.

I spun the staff. With my heightened speed the ogrim seemed to be motionless, viewed through a gleaming disk. With a lunging step and a move that I learned from Wyan the smith I turned the staff from its vertical spin, bringing all of its velocity into one sweeping blow to the outside of the opponent's knee. The attack was designed to come in below a swordsmans shield and strike the vulnerable joint between his armor and his boots, but it was an effective way to keep my staff and myself out of the beasts grip. The blow fell lower on the huge ogrim, crashing against what could be called a shin. It was like striking a stone column. The impact rang through the shaft like a great gong, and the staff fell from my numbed grasp. The ogrim crashed down to one knee, engulfed in flame and again wreathed in huge sparks of elemental energy. I conjured a spear and rammed it through the titanic neck.

The ogrims lay dead. I gathered my staff and shook the dust from my robes. Fortunately the battle had not lasted long. Drawn unerringly to the clash of arms the golden saint emerged at a trot from the ruins. It came on quickly, but with control, a huge Daedric axe ready in its hands.

The enchantment of my staff was nearly spent, and a golden saint relies on great skill rather than the clumsy strength of the ogrim. I felt that I needed my best to match that skill. I dropped the staff to the gritty sand and conjured another spear. The mighty axe sped in great whistling arcs, but I kept just out of reach, backing and dodging. At one point I took a fierce blow that rang off the shield strapped high on my left arm that spun me sprawling to the ground, where only a frantic roll evaded the overhand blow that would have split me in two. But while my defenses were seldom breached the great reach of the spear allowed me to prick away at the misnamed saint. "You are more of a demon, spawned from the plane of the Daedra, nothing but a curse in this world," I jeered at one point when my spear had struck a particularly telling blow. The creature fought on in silence. The only sound it made was a sort of hissing sigh when it finally collapsed to the ground.

As it struggled to rise I cast the spell it dreaded most. Mystical energies coursed around it in a purple cascade. That broke its silence, and a searing howl of despair erupted from the golden helm. I drove the spear through, pinning it to the ground, a deathblow that would have dispatched the spirit back to the plane from which it was summoned. Would have, but did not. Instead its life force was channeled by the spell surrounding it, channeled into the soul gem glowing hot in my hand.

My clan marveled at the Daedric axe. It is a great prize. A prize that can be made all the greater if enchanted with the powerful soul of the creature that wielded it.

25: Another test, another quest

Today I did hunt alone. The other hunters of the clan have apparently seen enough to accept me among them. Hunting today was a joy. I returned to the camp with meat, hides, and racer plumes. There is a comfort in this primitive life; a comfort that is now over for me. Accepted as a hunter and clan member is far short of accepted as the Nerevarine.

When I returned to the camp I was immediately summoned to the Ashkahn's yurt. Sul-Matuul bid me welcome. The wise woman Nibani Maesa was already there. I sat and listened as these guardians of the Cult of the Nerevarine explored my future.

Nibani has studied the portents of her dreams. "I am to be your guide. You are to complete the Seven Trials to fulfill the prophecy. That which is done shall be done, that which is undone shall also be done."

The three of us discussed my date of birth, the mystery of my parents, and my experience with the corprus disease. Nibani agrees that I have passed the first two trials, and seemed to be pressing Sul-Matuul.

"I do not doubt or dispute the Wise Woman," said the Ashkahn. "The ancestors give their favor, and the first two trials are her province. She shall be your guide. But the cavern where Azura's eye sees is my province. My warriors are impressed with what they have seen from you. You passed my test, and I called you clanfriend. They opened their hearths on my order, now you are welcomed freely. But there is more that I know to being the Nerevarine than the hunters or even the Wise Woman. I will keep my own council, and assign my own challenge to test your strength, courage, and cunning."

There was no argument. Sul-Matuul's word was final. "As you direct. Name this challenge Ashkahn."

"Here is your task," said Sul-Matuul. "There is a place of trial for our people. It is an ancient Dunmer stronghold, a hall of the lost house, House Dagoth. Corridors wind deep into the heart of the mountain below, only ending their ever deepening quest when they reach pools of molten lava. The fortress has become the home of all sorts of blighted and otherwise cursed creatures, including men. You may be safe from the ravages of their disease, but you still could fall prey to its victims. I have faced these creatures myself, and I admit that I was afraid."

"I will face them, and my fears Ashkahn."

"Good. As a token bring me the weepings that ooze from the flesh of a corprus stalker," he said. "Of course, in these dark days there are many places to find a corprus stalker besides Kogoruhn." Nibani did not gasp at the name of the cursed place, but she was definitely shocked. "The second token I require is a cup, marked with the mark of House Dagoth. I have seen them myself. These cups are rare, but again they may be found somewhere else that I do not know."

I thought of the collections of artifacts that I have seen, particularly in Mournhold, and nodded. "I will bring these tokens from Kogoruhn Ashkahn, nowhere else."

"I do not doubt your word. Azura would not welcome you if you falsely passed this test. But to be sure, you will bring a third token, a token which has no duplicate. Deep beneath the ruins is the ancient tomb of Dagoth Morin. There you will find the Shadow Shield."

The Ashkahn marked my map and gave me directions to the ruin. I took my leave. The rest of the clan eyed me curiously as I left the Ashkahn's tent. I ate dinner quietly, enjoying their company, ignoring their curiosity. After dinner I said good-byes, emotional good-byes to the clan that has taken me as one of their own in such a short time. I showed great confidence that I will return. Perhaps more than I was sure that I felt.

I teleported to Pelagiad. I do not want to carry the weight of the Daedric axe and some other items I've collected. Also, the light armor appropriate for traveling and hunting in the wilderness is not what I would choose for delving the ruins of Kogoruhn. Most importantly, it is not yet certain that I will be the Nerevarine, and there is grave danger in this quest. Before I embark I will enjoy this night; this reunion with Ahnassi.

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