(Author note: Some context points: (1) this chapter begins where chapter sixteen left off, with Nerien leaving Mzulft, and occurs before/concurrently with Labyrinthian an the Eye of Magnus. (2) The prophesy brought up here was mentioned at the very end of chapter thirteen.
Nerien was furious. After leaving Mzulft and thinking more about how Quaranir had gone behind his back and sought Elspeth out on his own, he had to restrain himself from finding the other monk and demanding an explanation. In his rage, he could only imagine the most distrustful reasons for such a betrayal, that his colleague meant to push him aside and claim the honor of finding a champion for himself. But this behavior and the feelings of paranoia and frustration: as a monk of the Psijic Order they were beneath him. He would not confront the other mer; he would consult the Oracle.
The Oracle, a seer from the Dragontail Mountains, one of a long-line of wise women who had advised mages and monarchs for centuries, had prophesied that he would find their champion. Molagkynd, she said. In Ayelidoon it meant fire child. For Nerien, who had been agitating the Order to take a more aggressive stance against the Thalmor, this revelation steered him toward his current path. Soon after, he and some of the other Psijics infiltrated the Thalmor tower in Alinor and discovered Martin Septim’s journal and various dossiers on the Sigeweald family. According to these texts, this particular bloodline had ended with the death of Elspeth’s father. Nevertheless, Nerien had taken it as a sign that he was meant to find a Septim, believing “fire child” referred to a dragon.
The Loremaster was displeased. The Psijic Order’s opposition to the Thalmor had nothing to do with reviving the Septim dynasty. As a scholarly matter, however, the apotheosis of Talos was a topic of immense importance and no one understood that better than his own protégé, Ilario, a not-yet-initiated apprentice of the Order who had been requested personally by Arch-mage Relamus to teach Mysticism at Arcane University, a clue that the Thalmor’s grip on the old institution was being slowly loosened, by one of their very own agents.
Ultimately, the journal and dossiers were a dead end. The Oracle’s divination was cryptic, and without any more leads, Nerien began to despair. However, when he heard from Ilario about the young destruction mage at the college, the student to whom the Arch-mage had taught his most notorious and powerful spell, his hope was renewed. Perhaps this woman, her name unknown to him, was the fire child he was seeking. With this hope in mind, he gave the journal to Quaranir to take to Evangeline and he made his way to Arcane, only to discover that the entire university had been purged the night before.
For months he sought out witnesses and survivors, but every attempt was thwarted while the Thalmor completed their investigation and issued their report. Up to this point, the two young witnesses listed in the record were nowhere to be found and so he could only surmise that the mage was killed along with her classmates and instructors.
And then, like a crack of lightening tearing through the entirety of Mundus, they heard the spell being cast, the Sorcerer’s Bane. That Relamus’ apprentice might still be alive filled him once again with hope. When he first approached her in Saarthal, he only meant to observe, not wanting to overwhelm the young mage or distract her from the path she was on, confident that her it would eventually lead to the Order and his personal tutelage. Now he wished he’d never given the journal to Quaranir. He should have taken it to Evangeline himself. All along the dragon and the fire child had been one and the same and that should have been his to discover.
However, by the time he arrived in Daggerfall, Nerien’s feelings toward the other monk had softened and he felt somewhat foolish over his envy and petty thoughts. Quaranir’s involvement with Elspeth did not preclude his own. And he knew could trust his colleague to keep her safe and her identity concealed until the appropriate time. In the meantime, he would meet with the resistance and speak with the Oracle.
Things were busy at Wintorne Castle, a small stronghold in southern Daggerfall belonging to Henri, the patriarch of House Gaering, a merchant and long-time supporter of Evangeline. A lower house of little influence, House Gaering’s clandestine activities went unnoticed by most everyone, Thalmor and otherwise. Several dissident battlemages and the captain assigned to the stronghold, Elalda Laemius, an Altmer sorcerer, were gathered around a table in the small study going over correspondence from around High Rock and Cyrodiil, tracking both Thalmor movement and the growing mass of resistance fighters.
“Greetings Nerien,” Elalda welcomed him with a broad smile. “What news from Skyrim? What of the artifact the college discovered?”
“I was only there briefly before I—before I was called away,” he explained, not wanting to reveal the true reason for his quick departure from Skyrim. “But Quaranir has been in touch with the mages. I expect his report with be forthcoming.”
“And is it true that the dragons have returned and the greybeards have summoned a Dragonborn?”
“Indeed, it is true,” he replied, thinking carefully about how much detail regarding Elspeth was absolutely necessary at the moment. “She’s a mage with the college. A Breton.”
“Interesting,” Elada looked thoughtful for a moment, but before she could inquire further, their conversation was interrupted.
“Ah yes, Ysmir, the dragon of the North has been found. Yes, yes this is good.” A raw and aging voice came from behind him. It was the Oracle.
“My lady!” Elada stepped aside as the woman slowly made her way to the table around which they were all standing. She walked steadily and though her humped back made her bearing somewhat unsteady, her stride was strong and her presence commanding. She didn’t generally attend meetings, but her counsel was always welcome.
Though Nerien was eager to speak with her, he stood patiently with the others while Elada prepared for the next order of business. She was shuffling some parchment around when there was a loud knock. At the door was a courier accompanied by several stronghold guards. Nerien retrieved the correspondence and, after tipping the young man, brought the letter to captain.
The initial look of confusion on the captain’s face quickly gave way to a slight grin as she read the letter. “Mithedi Thrameus is dead.”
A collective gasp sounded amongst the mages. Mithedi Thrameus was an Altmer noble, an immensely wealthy and powerful sorcerer, who was joked to be older than Anu. Though he was not technically a government official, members of the Thalmor regularly convened at his estate. He was also believed to be one of the instigators of the fringe element of the Thalmor whose goals were far more nefarious than warmongering and enslavement, the ones who would tear the world asunder.
“I didn’t think anything would kill that old wizard,” Elada was bewildered.
“Was it one of ours?” Nerien asked.
“No,” she replied, looking intently at the letter again. “This seems to indicate…natural causes.” She cocked her head and folded the letter and carefully tucked it into her pile of papers.
“Yes, good.” The Oracle was speaking, at first to no one in particular. But she turned and her gaze, as well as that of all mages in the room, settled on Nerien. “You must go,” she said. “You will find your dragon there.”
“I suppose it is prudent for us to investigate a bit,” Elada agreed, looking back and forth between Nerien and the old crone. “See Adela in Anvil. She runs the harbor side inn.” Her facetious emphasis on “runs” was a nod to the fact that the inn was one of several port businesses that was largely a front for resistance activities. “She can find you as many rebels as you need. And Evangeline may still have an outpost at Crowhaven, where—”
“No,” the old woman interjected. “No soldiers.”
“Excuse me,” Nerien began, considering his words carefully. “You believe I should infiltrate the estate of a very powerful Thalmor supporter alone?”
“No, not alone.” The Oracle spoke quietly and narrowed her eyes at the mer. “Take Yarah.”
Nerien took his time walking to the small cottage on the far end of the property, pondering the Oracle’s directive to take Yarah along on the mission. It made sense he supposed, considering her past. When they first met, he’d remembered her name from the Thalmor’s dossier on the incident at Arcane. Young and beautiful, she had a fierceness typical of Redguards. She was not an exceptional mage, though she was well trained in alchemy, enchanting, and alteration, and she could also hold her own in a fight. And she had survived a purge. A few apprentices escaped death that night, but only one had saved Elspeth by convincing her to ignore her studies in favor of drinking in the city.
He stood outside the door of the room, in which she was working and thought for a moment. Some day Nerien would tell her just how important that drink was. But that would have to wait.
“Yarah,” he called out as he entered the room.
“Nerien, hello,” she responded, seemingly surprised, and hurried to clear the table of her papers to make room.
“What are you working on?” he asked, gesturing to her notes.
“Daenil asked me to research a specific type of paralysis spell that works by burdening the mark and then hardening the bones rather than the muscles. Then I’m supposed to find an antidote.”
“Well, that’s awfully specific.”
“That’s Daenil,” she replied, chuckling and nodding toward the long list of detailed instructions the fastidious senior alchemist and left for her. “I’m just about done, I think. I mean, nothing is ever finished for him but…did you need something?”
Nerien laughed. “As a matter of fact, yes. We’re going to Cyrodiil, leaving first thing in the morning.”
“Cyrodiil?” Her eyes grew in nervous anticipation. Her assignments barely took her outside of Daggerfall. And if she was to accompany Nerien, it must be important. She nodded and took in a deep breath to quell her anxiety. “I suppose I must prepare then.”
About a week and a half later, after two uneventful boat rides, they arrived in Anvil posing as an Altmer noble with his bodyguard. Yarah remarked, somewhat teasingly, that he looked resplendent the exquisite robe that he had procured for the quest, while she felt awkward in the elven armor they gave her to wear. It fit well enough, but she was used to robes.
“Security will be tight,” Nerien explained in the carriage on the way to Brina Cross village, which was located just a few miles south of Mithedi’s estate. “There are a few areas open to general visitors, a library and a lodge. The main embassy building, Mithedi’s home, accessing these will be difficult, if not impossible. The barracks will be a bit easier, a small bribe and a story concerning a runaway servant should suffice.”
“And my task?” Yarah asked.
“Stay with me. Look both imposing and deferential,” he explained. “I have confidence you can act the part. Surely your family had hired muscle in its employ?”
“Yes,” she nodded, though she disliked when comments about her family’s wealth emerged. “And I am sure I can act the part. I once had quite a flair for dramatics. When I was a little girl, my father was convinced I would wind up on the stage.”
“That doesn’t surprise me at all,” he replied. He rather enjoyed Yarah’s company. From the stories she told on their journey, of her life before the purge, he could tell she had come a long way. In less than a year she had gone from a carefree life of leisure, using the university as a means to facilitate her sociability rather than to develop her skills and intellect, to one of rebellion and service. And while her days of reckless abandon were over, she hadn’t lost her adventurous spirit or conviviality.
It was late when they arrived at the inn. After a spread of freshly baked bread and several cheeses, a bottle of wine, and the best pear tart he had ever put into his mouth, Nerien’s belly was full and he was nodding off. But the meal only invigorated Yarah, and while Nerien retired to his room, Yarah settled in to a card game with a group of off-duty guards and paid the bard to play the bawdiest songs she could think of.
The next morning he found Yarah drinking tea and eating dry toast as she attempted to nurse her hangover without the aid of an elixir. “I hate this village,” she said, as she poured herself another cup of tea. “There’s no chitin to be found anywhere.”
Nerien chucked and shook his head. “You’ll recover soon”
“I always do,” she replied. She forced the last bit of toast down by dissolving it in her mouth with tea. It was unpleasant, but having something in her stomach felt better than not. “I’m ready to leave when you are.”
Nerien nodded and stood. After procuring some food and potions, they set out to Mithedi’s estate, which was located several miles north of the village. This first step was mostly reconnaissance. Under the guise of paying his respect, Nerien would access the estate, determine the basic layout, and though the Oracle had instructed that he only take Yarah, he hoped to find a dissident mage among the staff. That would save him a considerable amount of time as well as money, since it would mean fewer bribes.
“Do you have any idea who we are looking for?” Yarah asked.
You will know. That was the only thing the Oracle said. He was generally an intuitive individual, so this was not surprising, nor was it particularly bothersome. But such knowledge did not preclude a long, involved, or even dangerous search.
“I have some ideas,” he replied. “A prisoner, I think. Either someone locked up in his barracks. Or a noble. One of his wards. Either way, we’re going to have to get them out and away from the estate.”
“Let’s hope they’re in the barracks then.”
Nerien nodded in agreement. Before and during the Great War, there had been many dealings between the Aldmeri Dominion and the Empire’s nobility, particularly among the Bretons of High Rock. Though an Imperial province, the courts of High Rock were fraught with conflict and Imperial loyalty was dubious at best among the Houses. In this context, the Thalmor was able to implement an elaborate system of hostage taking to secure their economic and military interests in the region, relationships that persisted to this day. Under the circumstances, retrieving a Dominion ward from their captor would be far more difficult than a mere prison break.
“There is a hostel just inside the gate,” Nerien explained as they approached the well-guarded estate. “It’s where the guards socialize and housecarls stay. Sit, have a drink, listen for gossip, ask a few questions, but don’t seem overly inquisitive.” Somehow he didn’t think this would be a problem. Yarah was naturally inclined toward socializing and had a rare talent for casually enticing information from people.
“Will they be suspicious of a Redguard?” she asked. She was a little nervous, but this was her only real concern.
“Amongst the bodyguards?” he replied. “No. In Cyrodiil, hirelings are far more diverse. As long as you stick to the common areas, the hostel, the smithy, or some of the other craftsmen, you shouldn’t raise any suspicion.”
In his expensive garb, Nerien looked every bit a noble, barely raising an eyebrow among the guards and they passed through the main gate of the estate with ease. After Yarah left him, he quickly made his way toward the Mithedi’s manor. The private quarters would be locked tight, but there was a garden, a gallery, and a reading room that were open to general visitors. Any wards living on this particular estate would likely be there, enjoying what little freedom they had to move about the place.
Indeed, there were several younger Bretons and Imperials wandering the grounds, studying magic tomes, and distinguishing wards from guests would be impossible. At the far end of the reading room, were rooms dedicated to magic and academic instruction for younger individuals living there. Nerien stopped and listened carefully just outside a room where several young students were practicing spells. None of them seemed particularly remarkable in their skills Of course, there was always a chance that the person he was looking for was not an exceptional mage or warrior. Though it seemed unlikely, they could be unremarkable in almost every facet.
But the Oracle said he would know and no one here was triggering any intuitive feelings. A more thorough investigation of the Estate’s inhabitants was warranted. That would be difficult, but not impossible. It was just a matter of getting some coin into the right hands. In the meantime, he needed to visit the dungeon and investigate the prisoners there.
The jailor accepted a bribe for fifteen minutes in the dungeon. Only a handful of prisoners were interned and Nerien strode around, looking at each one carefully. He recognized one, an Imperial named Felix, one of Evangeline’s dissidents. Nerien approached the cell and cast the spell that allowed him to stop time briefly. “Felix,” he said, startling the poor Imperial.
“Hello,” he replied. “I wasn’t expecting someone from the order.”
“I’m here on…well, what you might call an independent investigation,” he explained. “Are you okay? Is there anyone I should get a message to? I…” His voice trailed off as he there was little he could do for the man. It simply wasn’t a priority.
“I’ll be fine for now,” he said, shaking his head. “What brings you all the way out here?”
“I’m not exactly sure,” Nerien replied as the spell holding time began to waver a bit. “Are there any other prisoners? Anyone…important?”
“Not that I am aware, most are transferred to one of the cities within a day or so,” he explained. “The only permanent prisoners here are the wards.”
Nerien nodded as the spell dissipated. Within a few seconds, the jailer called out, “Time!” and the Altmer slowly departed nodding good-bye to the jailer and the elderly Khajiit woman who was sweeping by the doorway. Outside, he wandered around, pondering his next step. He would need to access the living quarters and other private areas. They would need to head back to Anvil. There he could acquire more detailed information on the layout of the estate and the names of corruptible agents among the estate’s staff. With this plan in mind, he quickly made his way back to the tavern where Yarah would have no doubt fulfilled her obligation, making friends and gathering gossip.
Indeed, when he found here there, she was in the middle of a small group of men hanging on her every last word. Looking up, she gestured to Nerien that she was ready and excused herself from her companions, several of who looked rather disappointed as she left.
“What news?” she asked as soon as they left the gate.
“Nothing really. You?”
“Mithedi’s death was sudden, but the aftermath? Seamless.” She nodded to emphasize this point to a skeptical looking Nerien. “He had no family—well, no family that he liked apparently. Everything’s been bequeathed to various people in the Dominion, and his wards already are assigned new guardians.”
The Thalmor were nothing if not meticulous in their planning, but nothing was ever seamless—at least not with so much at stake. Mithedi’s influence was expansive among various players in Tamriel’s political landscape, and there had to be a wrinkle somewhere. “We need to find out exactly where everything went. Tomorrow, we’re going to Anvil. You can meet with Adele, see what they know about the estate. I’m going to visit the records office—there has to be official records of some of his dealings within Cyrodiil.”
They were about midway between the estate and the village when Nerien stopped suddenly and slowly turned around, looking over the terrain.
“What is it?” asked Yarah.
Nerien cast a detect life spell and sure enough there was a figure that appeared to be crouching behind a large boulder. He frowned and gestured for Yarah to follow him. Moving swiftly but quietly, he stepped around the rock. He caught a quick glimpse of fur before he lunged forward, grabbing the Khajiit by the neck and tossing her down to the ground. Letting out a squeal, she threw her arms over her face and hissed a little before crying out. “No! Please! Dro’zita means no harm!”
With Yarah behind him, sword drawn, Nerien let down his casting arm and looked a little more closely. The Khajiit looked familiar and within a few moments he recalled seeing her in the estate prison. She was frail and if it was true she meant them no harm, he felt bad for the way he shoved her down. Leaning forward, he offered his hand. “Who are you?” he asked sternly. “Why are you following us?”
With their help, Dro’zita stood and brushed the grass from her dress, a simple frock in the tidy and casual style worn by kitchen and cleaning help. After steadying herself, she looked at the Altmer and Redguard carefully. “Dro’zita saw the mer today. Noblemer never come to the dungeon. You are looking for someone, yes?”
Nerien and Yarah looked at each other and then back to the Khajiit. The Altmer studied her carefully before nodding slowly.
“Dro’zita knows where he is! Mithedi’s special prisoner. Dro’zita takes care of this prisoner. No one else knows about him. You come tonight. Dro’zita will bring you to him.”
Nerien looked at her skeptically. He was certainly intrigued, but he wasn’t stupid. “Take us now.”
“No! Dro’zita must return to her duties. You come! Three hours past midnight. Go one mile north of the manor. Wait by the trees.”
By the time they arrived at the place Dro’zita had indicated, Nerien was as convinced as Yarah that they were walking into a trap. But there had been no time for better preparations, no way to find a reliable courier to send word back to High Rock or one of their contacts back in Anvil. Yarah had suggested staying behind, but that didn’t seem like a good idea either. And so they made their way back to the estate, taking the long way around the perimeter and arriving nearly a mile north of the back gate right where the Khajiit indicated.
After about twenty minutes, there was a rustling. Nerien cast a detect life spell just as Dro’zita’s head emerged from a trap door in the ground. “My apologies,” she said when she saw the mages standing there. “Getting away from my duties this evening was most difficult.”
The Altmer glanced around, following the disappearing remnants of his spell, which confirmed that Dro’zita was the only living being in the area.
“Come now,” she said as her head disappeared back down into the ground. “We must hurry!”
The mages followed her into the trap door, balancing on the rickety ladder, and then made way down a narrow and musty stone corridor, lit only by magelight spells.
“What is this place?” asked Nerien.
“It is a secret,” Dro’zita began. “It was built a long time ago and it leads right back to Mithedi’s private home. I believe before he kept the man down here, he meant to use it as an escape route. It was only known to a few people, including my sister who worked here before I did.”
Nerien and Yarah walked along quietly, nodding as Dro’zita nattered on a bit about her sister and Mithedi but not really paying attention until the Khajiit gestured toward a room. “That room there, that is the laboratory. We are very close now. Mithedi used to spend many days down here at a time, doing his work. Others believed he was travelling.”
The Altmer stayed close to Dro’zita, his thoughts solely on the prisoner, but Yarah paused and stepped into the room. A candlelight spell thrown against the wall illuminated one of the strangest workshops she had ever seen. Along the left wall, separated from the main part of the room was a large bed and armoire, which wasn’t that unusual, especially if he worked down here for days at a time. The enchanting and alchemy tables were also quite normal. What was strange was the enormous leech tank that ran the length of the right side of the room. Some healers she knew, particularly those interested in sanguinare vampiris and lycanthrope, used leeches, though she had never seen a tank quite this big before. Next to the tank was a bookshelf with hundreds of vials filled with what looked like blood.
“Yarah!” Nerien’s voice interrupted her thoughts. Taking one final glance around the room, she noticed a pile of journals and loose papers on the bookcase’s bottom shelf. She gathered these up and shoved them in her satchel as she hurried down the hall.
“That’s him,” Nerien whispered as she sidled up next to him at the entrance of another, smaller room. Inside the room, which was furnished more like a bedroom than a prison cell, was a man who appeared to be sleeping peacefully on a comfortable-looking bed. The Altmer made no moves to approach the man. For the moment, he simply stared, transfixed on the prisoner. He knew, just as the Oracle said he would, that this was one he was destined to find.
“I don’t understand,” said Yarah. “If he’s a prisoner, why doesn’t he just leave when he wakes up?”
Dro’zita went to the man and smoothed down his dark blonde hair. As she did this, his eyes fluttered open but he did not move or respond in any other way. “The magic is too strong and he’s been here for so very long,” she explained, her voice tinged with sadness. “Years and years, he’s been here. He never moves, except when I take care of him.” She took a bottle out of the side table and propped it into his mouth. “I give him elixirs, special brews to keep him alive and healthy. I also trim his hair and his beard.” She looked lovingly down at the man, but when she looked back up at Nerien, she appeared frightened and confused. She gestured toward the cupboard, which held only a few more bottles. “Soon, there will be nothing left. I will have nothing to help this man and Dro’zita does not trust the Methidi’s friends, the Thalmor, no.”
“What sort of magic?” Nerien knelt by the man to get a closer look, clearly astonished at his condition, which appeared to be some sort of magically induced coma. He had so many more questions, but assumed that the Khajiit, for all her dedication to this man’s well being, likely knew very little more that she had already revealed.
“Artifacts,” she replied. “Very old artifacts.” She pushed the man’s beard aside revealing an amulet and gestured to his hand, which Nerien inspected.
“He is wearing a ring of burden, and that amulet has a powerful calming enchantment,” he let out a deep breath. The sheer amount of power required to enchant something with an illusion spell was incredible. Mithedi went through a lot of trouble for this prisoner. “Why didn’t you remove these?”
“Dro’zita is afraid. The magic is very strong.” Dro’zita’s voice wavered a bit. “I take good care of the man, no?”
“Yes, yes you did good,” Nerien said, smiling warmly at the Khajiit before turning to Yarah. “We should remove the ring first.”
“Won’t that be terribly painful?” Yarah lifted the man’s robe slightly to examine his calves. His muscles were severely weakened, though not atrophied. “He’s extremely weak, but seems rather healthy. But…just removing that ring is going to hurt an awful lot. And there is no way to remove the enchantment gradually. Are you sure we shouldn’t remove the amulet first?”
Nerien nodded. “It will be painful, but I fear removing an illusion spell that’s been in effect for years may actually drive him insane. We’re going to have to be more careful about that.” He paused and studied the man’s face, looking into his eyes. “Who knows what’s going on in there?”
The ring easily slipped off the man’s withered finger and they all watched as he felt, for the first time in years, the unbearable lightness of his body return. It would be a long time before his bearing would be anything close to normal. In the meantime, his head rolled and his limbs twitched. Groaning, he tried to turn over and lean up but all he managed to do was jerk uncontrollably, like when a dog dreams of running.
“Hold on!” Nerien grabbed some cushions from a nearby chair. “Help me prop him up.”
Gently, they eased him forward, the man’s eyes wandering, his lips and tongue lapping and smacking against each other as he slowly regained control of his body. The sound was enough to drive Yarah mad and she was almost grateful when he started coughing; the barking and gagging sounds were somehow not quite as annoying.
“Water?” she asked. The man looked up, his eyes widened as he nodded slowly and his mouth curled into a very weak grin. Even with Yarah’s help, however, he only managed a few small sips before nudging her arm away. The sensation of swallowing on his own was, for the moment, a bit overwhelming.
“We are here to help you.” Nerien spoke calmly and deliberately. His job, for the moment, was to help and comfort this man who had suffered through Auri-El-knows-what at the hands of Mithedi. It was not about prophesy or rebellion—that would come later, much later if need be. “What is your name?”
“My name?” the man whispered. “My name…oh yes of course, my name.” His voice was raw, its pitch growing slightly with each word, as if he was astonished to be speaking at all. “My name is Bedyn Sigeweald.”