Elspeth skipped dinner and went straight to the Mystic Archives. For the rest of the University, it was still early and she secured a table toward the back, far from the entrance, where she would be able to work in relative peace and quiet. She had research notes to transcribe, qualifying exams to study and practice for, and a presentation—on the aforementioned research—to prepare. She was tired and sore and she had more work than time, even less time if she intended to sleep at all. She had fallen behind, having only just returned from a particularly grueling training session. It had taken her twice as long as she expected to clear the Aleyid ruin Xeri sent her to.
To make matters worse, just as she settled in with her books open and her notes spread out, she looked up and saw Andil and Dabienne sitting down at a table across the room. Elspeth’s stomach lurched and she dropped her head so they wouldn’t see her. She attempted to read but she found it difficult to focus.
“You look awful.”
Elspeth looked up and saw Yarah standing over her, arms crossed and shaking her head. She sat down and started rifling through Elspeth’s papers. “I looked for you at dinner,” she said as she picked up a notebook and started paging through it.
“I’m sorry,” said Elspeth as she pulled her notes away from Yarah’s curious hands. “I just wanted to get an early start on work.”
“Indeed.” Yarah sat down across the table and looked very seriously at Elspeth. “You need a break. Let’s go into town for a drink.”
Elspeth looked incredulous at this suggestion. “Are you insane? Do you have any idea how much work I have to do?”
“Yes I do,” she said. “And I also know that you aren’t going to accomplish anything with those two around.” She gestured behind her as she started to gather up Elspeth’s things. “Come on,” she insisted. “There are plenty of things you can do over a pint. You can copy my notes from Ilario’s lecture that you missed.”
Elspeth frowned again; she was disappointed to have missed the lecture. Ilario was the University’s newest senior scholar. He was a Master level mage who specialized in Mysticism. He was brilliant and his lectures were spirited and irreverent. It was rumored that his ability to capture and inspire his audience was part of the reason the Thalmor had recently issued a unilateral ban on the practice and study of Mysticism. The University responded in kind with a petition denouncing the ban that was signed by over 90% of the student body, the entire faculty, and then delivered to the Justiciar’s office in Imperial City by Arch-mage Relamus himself. The faculty response was unsurprising since they were tired of the Thalmor’s influence over the University. However, for the Arch-mage, who had a long (and well deserved) reputation as a Thalmor puppet, it was a bold and unexpected move. The Thalmor had yet to respond.
She shook her head. “I really, really can’t. I have too much to do. And if Xeri finds out I left campus to study in a tavern she’ll—“
“She’ll what?” asked Yarah sternly, her dark eyes looking intently at Elspeth. “Lock you in an Elven ruin for three days?”
“Yes,” said Elspeth quietly.
Yarah narrowed her eyes and replied, “She’s going to do that anyway.”
“True,” said Elspeth. “But she’s a lot easier to travel with when she’s not angry with me.” Elspeth sat back and looked at the books and papers in front of her. She glanced over at Andil and Dabienne again. Dabienne was giggling and seeing that stung Elspeth’s chest. The pain she felt was acute and obvious to anyone looking, especially Yarah.
“Look, this is not one of my usual attempts to corrupt you.” Yarah look genuinely concerned. “I’ve been worried about you. You’ve been going nonstop for months now.”
“All right,” she said, her tone was somewhat harsh. “Let’s go now before I change my mind.”
They left the archive and walked across campus to the Mage’s quarters where they swapped out their robes for street clothes and reorganized their satchels, while trying to look as inconspicuous as possible. Yarah’s Sundas excursions to local watering holes tended to draw a small crowd—but she wanted Elspeth to herself tonight. They exited the University grounds quickly and unnoticed and on the way to City Isle, they talked about Ilario and the changes that seemed to be taking hold in the University.
“So, what do you think the Thalmor will do?” asked Yarah. “I thought they would have responded by now. Do you think they are trying to come up with a compromise on the Mysticism ban?”
Elspeth laughed and shook her head. “I doubt it very much. I think they are going to withdraw all their financial support.”
“Really?” Yarah’s eyes grew wide. “That would be devastating. Neither the Synod nor the College of Whispers can sustain the University on their own. I can’t believe Relamus risked that. It’s about time he grew a pair.”
“I wouldn’t give him that much credit,” said Elspeth somewhat derisively as she looked around. Apart from a few guards in the distance, the bridge was empty. She lowered her voice anyway and said, “Relamus wouldn’t do anything so bold without first securing his position. He told me that he’s met with an associate of the Psijic Order–some Altmer noble or some such–and that he would lend his support if the Thalmor withdraw.”
“Are you kidding?” Yarah was incredulous. “He tells you a lot, doesn’t he? Must be nice to be the Arch-mage’s pet.” She was teasing, but she wasn’t wrong. Relamus had favored Elspeth almost from the moment she arrived and surprised her cohort and most of the faculty with a demonstration of her destruction abilities. It was a bit ironic, since Relamus had been Evangeline’s replacement after she was removed from the position. But of course, Yarah didn’t know this.
“I think that Ilario has connections to the Order and was hired to teach Mysticism and all that entails. Divinity. Apotheosis. Talos.” Elspeth sighed. “I’m probably being too hard on him,” she relented. “Maybe he’s not such a puppet after all. The University is starting to feel like a place where knowledge is produced, not just a place to practice Candlelight spells until your hand falls off.”
“Indeed,” agreed Yarah. “Where shall we go tonight?” she asked as they arrived at the Arboretum. “The Plaza Inn? The All-Saints Inn?”
“Let’s go to the old Boarding House in the garden district. I’m not in the mood for pretentious conversations.”
They passed quietly through the Plaza and Temple districts. The sun was starting to set and citizens were heading home for the evening. With the exception of the Arena district, Elspeth always felt very relaxed wandering the streets of Imperial City. It had been almost 25 years since the Great War had ended and, according to Xeri, the city had never recovered its energy and likely never would. Buildings and statues had been restored—to some degree—but its spark was gone. Elspeth liked that the city was heavily and diversely populated but remained calm, although she was sorry that her tranquility was the city’s war weariness.
The Boarding House was crowded but they managed to secure a table by the door. It was a popular spot for adventurers stopping in city to restock before moving on to the next quest. The people here were strangers and mostly kept to themselves, making only small talk. However, Portia, the publican, recognized Yarah—all the publicans knew her—and had her Colovian Brandy waiting. Elspeth got a bottle of red wine and they settled in for a night of transcribing and talking.
Yarah let Elspeth work for about a half an hour before she started with her concerns. If Elspeth were a normal Breton she would just wait until the wine kicked in and the confessing began. But Elspeth was not a normal Breton; she had the tolerance of a 250-pound Nord warrior. Finally, she asked, “How are you feeling about Andil?” Yarah wasn’t generally blunt, preferring to let her friends confide at their own pace. But she hadn’t seen Elspeth grieve at all and she was really worried. Elspeth could hold her liquor like a Nord, but she didn’t have their characteristic stoicism. She was a sensitive young woman and her sudden detachment was unexpected.
Elspeth dropped her pen and looked up. “So, that’s why you brought me out tonight?”
“Don’t even pretend to be shocked.” Yarah smiled and looked into Elspeth’s face, searching for some semblance of emotion. “I haven’t seen you mourn. And maybe…maybe that’s okay, but it’s not like you.” Yarah looked at Elspeth whose face was now about to break and suddenly regretted bringing her to a crowded public place. “We can go for a walk if you want.”
“No, it’s okay.” Elspeth’s eyes filled with tears, but she took a deep breath and swallowed hard against crying. “The day that Andil told me he fucked Dabienne, I lied about having a training session with Xeri and I camped out in Fatback cave for two days. I cleared out about twenty goblins and spent the next day crying and screaming.”
“Oh, honey.” Yarah touched her arm. “Why didn’t you come to me?”
“Because, it was my fault. I wasn’t mad at him, I was furious at myself. You tried to warn me….” Her voice trailed off.
“I didn’t know about her,” explained Yarah. “You two were becoming estranged and I just wanted you to talk to him.”
“No, I know.” Elspeth blew her nose. “And that’s just it. I felt bad for him. I felt bad that I forced him to sneak around and wasn’t available until he’d already—oh gods.” She dropped her face into her arms and sobbed. After a few moments she continued, “And you know, I can accept that we weren’t meant to be. My life isn’t exactly conducive to that sort of commitment. But he was my best friend. I met him in Bruma two days after I moved there.” Yarah just nodded. “The thing that hurts the most when I think about my future without Andil is not that he won’t be my husband, it’s that he won’t be my friend.”
“I’m so sorry,” said Yarah. “And I’m sorry I brought you out here like this—”
“Don’t be,” Elspeth interrupted. “I needed this.” She looked back at her notes and the work she needed to finish. “Do you have a deck of cards?”
Yarah smiled and they played cards and chatted until the wee hours of the morning. They knew that they were going to feel the effects of blowing of their work for the next several days, but it was worth it. It was around three o’clock when they finally packed up and walked back to campus.
“Yarah, why isn’t the main well lit?” asked Elspeth. The building was unusually dark and as they approached, it felt eerily quiet and empty, devoid not only of people but also of the magical energy that enveloped the campus.
“Let’s go in through the Lobby. Someone will be minding the Orrey and can tell us what’s going on.”
The lobby was pitch black and Elspeth tripped and fell flat on her face. Yarah threw a Magelight onto the wall and when she saw what—or rather who—made Elspeth trip, she screamed. It was Taura, the Arch-mage’s assistant. She was dead.
“Oh my gods, TAURA!” Elspeth yelled as Yarah started banging on the Arch-mage’s door. The magical seal was gone but the door appeared bolted shut.
Elspeth stood up and looked around. In the Orrery she found the bodies of three more mages. The Orrery was destroyed. Back in the Lobby, Yarah had just vomited. She opened the door to leave. “Come on! Elspeth, we have to get the guards. Let’s go now.” But Elspeth wasn’t listening. “ELSPETH! IT’S NOT SAFE!” Yarah shook her head and muttered, “Mara’s mercy, what is she thinking.”
Yarah ran after her but Elspeth was fast and she didn’t see the direction she went. The campus was littered with dead bodies. In their robes, they all looked alike and Yarah wanted to look each one in the face but she was terrified that Elspeth would run into whatever vile evil had done this. And so in true Redguard fashion, she went to face the evil with her friend even though it likely meant going to her death. She ran as fast as she could to the Mage’s Quarters, suddenly realizing where Elspeth would check first. And as she entered the building she heard it, the sound of wrath and grief that would haunt her until the end of her days.
“FUUUUUUUUCK, NO….no no no…”
Yarah expected that she would be prying Elspeth off Andil’s body. But Elspeth was just sobbing, looking at Andil and Dabienne whose bodies were entangled in whatever attempt at comfort and safety they sought in their last moments together.
She gathered Elspeth up to her feet and implored her to leave. “We have to go. We have to find the guards. We don’t know who did this or if they’ll be back.”
“I know who did this,” she said.
It didn’t take long for Yarah to understand and realize for herself that the Thalmor were behind this. It was another Purge, like so many that happened in the years leading up to and during the Great War.
“There is going to be another war,” said Elspeth calmly—a little too calmly. “And we’re going to fight.”