It was true what they said, Solstheim didn’t have weather, just ash. The women pulled their scarves tighter around their faces as they trudged toward the fort. The lulls in the storms were long enough to gain some momentum, but when the winds blew, the ash whipped around them, settling into the cracks and creases in their clothing and skin. It was terribly unpleasant and Evangeline was beginning to regret pushing them to go to the Fort.
“I’m sorry,” she said, during one particularly quiet lull during which they stopped to rehydrate. “We should have waited for Xeri.”
“Why? It’s not like she could have made this any easier. If anything, she would have berated us and our delicate non-Dunmer sensibilities.” Nerussa paused, smirking a little. “And then, you know, saved our skins from whatever life threatening situation we will no doubt find ourselves in.”
Evangeline chuckled and gestured toward a dilapidated building in the distance. “That’s the old farm. The fort’s not too far east after that.” She didn’t wait for Nerussa to respond before moving forward.
Nerussa adjusted her satchel and hurried after the other woman, losing her as another ash squall picked up. Dammit, she thought as the thick dust pricked her face. She slowed her pace, squinting with an arm over her eyes, her slight now completely blocked. She shuffled along like this until she crashed into Evangeline.
“This way, back over here.” Evangeline grabbed Nerussa’s arm and dragged her behind a large fallen tree. “Do you see anything strange?”
“I can’t see anything,” she replied. “It’s just ash and more ash and—wait, what is that?” Her gaze fell back in the direction of the dilapidated farm, where the ash appeared to be snowballing into larger stones and boulders. “Is the ash coming alive?”
Evangeline nodded. “I’m heading over there. You stay put.”
“What! No, this is insane. We scouted the area, found it too dangers to proceed. And now we shall return to await the release of the prisoner Xeri Tharys.”
But Evangeline wasn’t listening. “There, look!” She pointed at a random group of the creatures. Nerussa wasn’t interested; she was confused as to why they weren’t already on their way back to Raven Rock and irritated at Evangeline’s dogged persistence toward their demise. After a few moments, she stopped following and simply watched. Between the gusts of ash, she could make out several Redoran guards fighting. And as the winds died down, she could hear the creatures, cringing at the sounds of metal and bonemold clashing against the molten rock comprising the monster’s bodies—the peculiar combination of magic and mineral set her teeth on edge.
The guards, no doubt seasoned Redoran warriors, were tough, but they were outnumbered and the creatures grew stronger with each gust. Evangeling had stopped as well and Nerussa prayed she’d seen some sense. But no, she was getting ready to fight. Nerussa gasped as she saw Evangeline brace her entire body. She knew what was about the happen. The Breton meant to bring forth something from Oblivion in an attempt to end the fight. Nerussa, keeping low and out of sight, started to make her way closer, terrified but knowing that she too had to be ready.
Evangeline was a highly skilled Conjuration mage but for as useful as an atronach was in battle, there was always a moment in the process of casting, where the mage’s soul was literally caught in Oblivion, vulnerable to being stuck there, should they die at that moment. With a regimen of other mages and soldiers, or with adequate privacy to cast, this was not generally a huge concern. But where Evangeline had situated herself offered no such protection. The guards had no idea she was there and there was no barrier she could use to shield herself that was close enough to the skirmish.
“Well shit.” Nerussa sucked in a breath. She stepped up to Evangeline with her dagger drawn, though it was unlikely she would be much help past the few seconds it would take her friend to draw herself back to the mortal plane of Nirn.
The spell was seamless and the storm atronach that emerged was massive, an amalgam of rock, thunder, and lightening. It moved forward, its destructive gait enveloped in elegant swirls of electricity as it began its assault. The guards paused, steeling themselves for the new threat. But within moments, it was apparent that Evangeline’s abomination was not aiming for them. The monster couldn’t take care of all the ash spawn but it gave the guards a clear advantage. Nerussa tried to watch but the maelstrom kicked up by the monsters and the guards was blinding and her hood and scarf, inadequate. She felt Evangeline’s body against hers, tugging her down into a tight, protective squat.
Several moments after the dust had settled, the guards approached the women, still huddled together on the ground. The one leading the group spoke first, demanding, though not hostile in his address.
“Which one of you cast that spell?”
“That was me sera,” Evangeline replied as she stood, helping Nerussa to her feet. “I am Caterine and this is Harinde. We are on a research expedition to Fort Frostmoth to investigate what happened to a general who was once stationed there, his name was Falx Carius.” She assumed that indicating a historical, rather than arcane, interest would eliminate any remaining suspicions he might hold toward them.
But the Dunmer simply nodded. “I’m captain Modyn Veleth and I wish to thank you for your help with the Ash spawn.” He rubbed his hands together and looked around. “The creatures, they seem to be coming from the fort, and they are getting worse.” His voice lowered a bit, betraying some concern for the women. “What is your plan for advancing on the fort? Will it just be the two of you?”
Advancing on the fort. That made it sound like a military operation, a perspective on this quest that Evangeline had not considered. She looked at Nerussa who appeared no less perplexed, but before either of them could respond, one of Veleth’s guards approached with a slip of paper that he handed to the captain.
Frowning, Veleth read the note before handing it to Evangeline. “This may interest you.”
Raven Rock Stronghold,
My calls for the unconditional surrender of your forces and an immediate cessation of all hostilities has [sic] been ignored numerous times. I therefore have no choice but to assume your purpose on Solstheim is hostile, and to treat Raven Rock Stronghold as an enemy of the Empire. I warn you, any attempt to breach Fort Frostmoth will be met with an equal level of aggression. I will do everything in my power to wipe you and your forces off the face of Tamriel. There will be no further communications between us.
General Falx Carius, Garrison Commander, Fort Frostmoth
“This parchment is new,” said Nerussa. “This note was written recently. It most certainly not from when Carius was garrisoned there.”
“Well this is most…unusual.” Veleth was rubbing his forehead. “I can only imagine what Councilor Morvayn is going to say when I tell him we are in open conflict with the Empire.” He thought for a moment, looking back and forth between the women, as if assessing their prowess. His expression revealed little, if any, confidence. “As this missive is addressed to Raven Rock, I will send a couple of soldiers with you.” He turned back to the guards and called out, “Ulien! Tabith!”
“I expect a full report,” he said to the soldiers. “You are to accompany and assist Caterine and Harinde on their expedition, but this is first and foremost a response to this note. So, proceed as if defending the colony.” And to the women he continued, “If you would be willing to lend any observations, I am sure the Councilor would be most appreciative and would compensate you appropriately.”
Nerussa started to nod and glanced at Evangeline, expecting to see her offering some enthusiastic agreement as a way of maintaining their scholarly ruse. But Evangeline was staring off in the distance, her face hardened and distracted. Nerussa felt it was a bit rude. “Catherine!” Nerussa addressed her firmly. “Of course will be willing to help, won’t we?” She couldn’t image what had suddenly struck Evangeline.
“Right, of course,” said Evangeline finally. “Nerussa, could I have a word with you?”
“What is it?” Nerussa spoke quietly but firmly as she joined her several feet away from the Dunmer. The last they needed was for Evangeline to lose focus.
“This is a terrible idea. We need to go back. I’ll get a job and we’ll rent the room indefinitely.”
There was a sort of desperation in Evangeline’s tone that Nerussa found disconcerting, but they didn’t have time for this. “What are you talking about?”
“We can’t have all these people tagging along, replacing Xeri. Something feels terribly wrong about this. Surely—” But she stopped and frowned. After insisting that they move forward, she had no idea how to explain why it suddenly felt so wrong.
Nerussa let out a sigh. “At this point, all we can do is move forward. Every choice engenders the next one. And I believe the Divines will no doubt judge our vacillation more harshly than our companions.
“Why are they jumping?” Evangeline exclaimed, clutching her chest as she tried to catch her breath.
Nerussa had to stifle her laughter. “Don’t tell me you are afraid of spiders?”
Evangeline ignored the question as she looked back toward the guards who were finishing off the last of the flying arachnids. Unsurprisingly, they were unfazed by the creatures. Their trek through the fort had been relatively quiet, though not uncomfortably so. Their companions were stoic and held themselves with a cool civility that Evangeline found reassuring. Though at times she wondered what they were like off-duty. No doubt they could throw back sujamma and sling barbs like other Dunmer she knew.
But there wasn’t time for any of that. As they moved deeper into the fort, more ash spawn joined them. They were no less menacing as they were outside, but the narrowness of the stone hallways and the dearth of ash in some parts of the building offered some respite as the creatures did not have seemingly endless space and components from which to build and draw strength.
As a number of them seemed to be emerging from a room on the far end of the building, the dunmer fell into formation, with Ulien brandishing a sword for those spawn that were not killed by Tabith’s lighting runes. Evangeline and Nerussa held back. They would nap stragglers that tried to get them from behind, while Evangeline remained alert, lest she needed to pull another elemental daedra from the void. They approached the room weary but vigilant and as they last of the spawn seemed to finally fall, they heard a gravely voice from the back of the room.
“You look tired.”
The figure that emerged was a tall, sallow looking individual, who was very likely human at one point, but whose pallor and cloudy eyes clearly indicated his undead status. Nerussa recognized his armor as that of the third era Imperial army, though this one bore a red stone inlaid in the breastplate. “General Falx,” she whispered.
“I suppose I should thank you,” he continued, “for showing me how weak these creatures are. Once I’m done killing you, I will be sure to find a more suitable element to conjure. It’s sad really, this ash once held an island together.” He raised his massive war hammer and charged Ulien who had made his way to the front. Tabith shot a perfectly aimed lightning spell, which struck the general square in the chest, but merely caused his armor to spark briefly.
“Here we go,” said Evangeline, nodding to Nerussa. As she was preparing her spell, Falx lurched forward, slowed only momentarily by the Dunmer guards who were knocked readily on their bottoms with only a few swings of his war hammer. Just as she finished the spell, he raised his weapon but before he could come down, Nerussa ran her dagger into his hip—or she attempted this. But the blade would not penetrate and before she could try again, he knocked her back with his other arm.
“Enough! You are all of you beneath me! I am immortal you dull creatures and I will not be bullied by—” His rant was thwarted by the frost atronach Evangeline had conjured who knocked the general in the head before grabbing him and tossing him around, slamming him repeatedly into the ground like a rag doll. The force of the atronach’s blows put dents in the floor and went on until the spell wore off, leaving the broken body embedded in the stone.
“Thank you, again,” Tabith said, nodding to Evangeline. She staggered over to the general’s remains and yanked the heart stone out of its armor. “This should prevent any further resurrections. I hope. I have never seen anything like this.”
Ulien picked up the war hammer and offered it to Evangeline. It was massive, with symbols expertly carved into its head and handle, decorations indicating that the bearer must have been an individual of high achievement, once respected and admired. “This is pretty clearly an Imperial artifact, “ he said, “but more than that, I’d say you’ve earned this.”
“It’s not really my style, but I know someone who will make mincemeat of her enemies with this,” she replied, as she awkwardly accepted the prize. Evangeline couldn’t help but grin at the thought of presenting the weapon to Xeri, who would sneer and berate the women for attempting the trial without her, but would no doubt be unable to resist such a gift.
“You have more work to do here, I suppose. Do you need us to stay?”
She shook her head. “We’re just going to loot the place for letters and journals, or other things of historical interest.”
Ulien smiled. “The councilor will be most pleased. It’s been a long time since anyone scholarly has shown an interest in this place.”
After bidding the guards farewell, Evangeline joined Nerussa who seemed to be growing frantic as she searched the room.
“It’s not here!” she cried. She looked up at Evangeline from the floor, where she was digging through the ash. “It usually appears right after we complete the trial and I can’t find the next missive anywhere.
“Calm down,” said Evangeline. “Let’s do this methodically.”
They set about searching the entire room and when the missive did not appear, they backtracked, inspecting every corner of the fort with painstaking precision, leaving no chest or barrel unopened, no random flatware unturned. They did this for hours. Though she tried not to let it show, by the time they reached the fort’s entrance, Evangeline was panicked.
“We…failed,” Nerussa’s voice shook. She rubbed her eyes, streaking wet soot across her face. “It’s over.”
“It can’t be over!” Evangeline tried to suppress the painful knot forming in her gut, a discomfort borne of self-reproach, though she was not quite ready to apologize.
But they both knew Nerussa spoke the truth. They trudged wearily outside and stopped to stare across the water. It was morning and they were nearing a full day with no sleep. Without speaking, they walked slowly back toward Raven Rock, their thoughts, ranging from despair to paranoia, spun as they tried to imagine what this meant for the trials.
They were greeted in town by several guards, which seemed unremarkable at first.
“The councilor wishes to see you immediately.”
“We’ve been out all evening,” said Evangeline. “I promised to offer my observations and we will report to the councilor after we’ve had some rest.”
“You’ll come now.”
The guards drew their weapons. Shocked by the sudden assertiveness, Evangeline threw her hands up. “All right, all right, we’ll go.”
The guards led them to Morvayn Manor and they were hurried into the councilor’s throne room, where Lleril Morvayn sat with his second in command, Adril who Evangeline recognized from when they first arrived. Their expressions were severe, but it was unclear if this was because the women were in trouble or just their typical countenance—they were Dunmer after all.
Adril spoke first. “I should have known you weren’t to be trusted.”
Morvayn shook his head. “Adril, please.” He paused again and looked at the women. His expression was more perplexed than severe, though this was not much comfort. “Captain Veleth and his soldiers have reported that you were instrumental in dealing with the ash spawn. For that you have my gratitude. However, we know that you have not been completely forthcoming with us since your arrival here.”
Neither woman responded to this, nor did they look at each other. They kept their gazes firmly on the councilor, anxiously waiting for him to elaborate.
“I do understand why someone of your station might be inclined misrepresent her intentions.” He spoke slowly, considering every word. Normally, Evangeline would appreciate such deliberation, but now it was just making her tense.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t—” She spoke almost automatically but before she could make some protestation she would regret, the councilor threw up his hand, which quieted her.
“I need you to be plain with me,” he said, his voice growing angrier but not less composed. “I need to know what has brought the leader of the Thalmor resistance to Solstheim. Evangeline Sigeweald! What are you doing here?”