Snippets of Destiny
Following the life of a young Martin Septim, and Lark, the minstrel Blade, his mentor.
Lark has to solve the mystery of a dragon trapped in Oblivion
Finding the destiny of Zigo Sunnysto, a foundling.
Snippets of Destiny
Part 1: Misbegotten Martin
The cave mouth gaped ominously.
The boy, out of breath from running, gave the matter little thought, and disappeared into the depths before the gang of youths chasing him could see where he had gone. He stumbled over rocks in the darkness but kept going until he was sure that no-one was following him. Then he collapsed, sobbing, onto a patch of sand.
“I am Martin, son of Beran Retienne,” he finally gasped. “How could they say otherwise?”
All his life he had lived on his father’s farm south of Chorrol, secure in the safety of his family and his roots. Yesterday had been his eighth birthday, and today his father had allowed him to take the mule laden with cans of milk to town by himself for the first time. The trip there – about ten miles – had gone smoothly, and he had delivered the milk to the shopkeeper without trouble.
The man had paid him and he had carefully stowed the coins in the pouch on his belt. When he had left the city gate, leading the mule, he had suddenly found himself surrounded by a crowd of jeering boys. He knew some of them slightly, having seen them in town on previous trips with his father. One, a 14-year-old named Jamal, had bullied him before, until his father had gotten Jamal’s father to put a stop to it. Martin suddenly felt afraid because he was all alone.
“What do you want?” he asked, trying to look unconcerned.
Jamal swaggered to the front. “Look what we caught, boys. A rabbit, by the Nine!” The boys laughed. Jamal grabbed Martin by the collar of his shirt and half-lifted him off the ground. “A tale-telling rabbit, boys. Couldn’t take a bit of friendly sport, he couldn’t. So he ran to Daddy. Well I have news for you, you little bastard. Daddy ain’t going to help you today. Will he, boys?”
Martin struggled to no avail as the boys laughed. He knew it would do no good to explain that it had not been him who had told his father. Jamal’s little sister had told. She was six and was Martin’s friend. He didn’t want her to get hurt so he kept quiet.
Jamal started patting at Martin’s pockets. “So you’re going to give me those coins you got for the milk, and in return I’m going to give you a thrashing, rabbit.” He found the pouch. “Ah, just the thing,” he said as he extracted the money.
Martin couldn’t stand for that. “That money belongs to my father,” he yelled. “You have no right to take it!”
“Your father?” Jamal asked, an evil smile growing on his face. “And who would that be, rabbit?”
“You know as well as I do,” Martin said, confused. “Beran Retienne.”
To his surprise all the boys started laughing, and Jamal suddenly put a companionable arm around his shoulders. “Ah no, little rabbit. He sure ain’t your Daddy.”
“What do you mean?”
“Anyone can see you’re no Breton, boy,” Jamal told him. “You look like Imperial blood to me. I wonder who your Daddy was. The milkman?”
“Beran is the milkman, Jamal,” another boy yelled.
“True,” Jamal grinned. “I know, a bandit, lonely for company.”
“A travelling merchant…”
“A big fat rabbit! Look at him, Jamal! Look how red his ears are!”
“It’s not true, it’s not true,” Martin was muttering under his breath. Suddenly he wrenched himself free. “It’s not true!” he screamed, and dashed through the throng and down the road; forgetting the mule, forgetting everything except to get away from his tormentors.
They ran after him, chanting “Misbegotten Martin, misbegotten Martin” until he heard himself repeating it syllable by syllable to the rhythm of his pounding feet. Then he turned a corner in the road, slipped off into the forest and disappeared into the cave before they saw him. The darkness and the silence did nothing to erase the horrible words in his mind.
If it was true, what would that mean? Would anything change in his life? Did it matter? He did not know and could not focus on the problem while he was so upset. With a maturity beyond his years he decided to put the matter aside until he could think about it calmly, and finally looked at his surroundings.
He could see nothing at all. His rush into the cave had taken him down a corridor that curved away from what little light penetrated from the outside, and he could not even be sure which way that was. Far from making him panic, this setback seemed to calm him even further, and he quickly recalled the spell the monk had taught him to make light. It was not a very powerful spell and he had mastered it more than a year ago. The monk had told him it was good to know because you never knew when you might need it.
Martin quietly said the invocation and a softly glowing nimbus of light surrounded him. He regretted not having had something useful to show those bullies a thing or two, and resolved to learn all he could about magic when the chance presented itself.
In the light he could see his footprints in the sand, leading to the exit, but he had no wish to go outside and meet the band of roving bullies once more, so he turned and made his way deeper into the cave. The corridor lead downwards at a gentle slope, and was surprisingly smooth. Twice it made sharp turns, before going fairly straight for a while. Then, after another turn, he came to a pile of rocks that obstructed the way.
Thinking he would have to turn back, he noticed a crack in the wall, just large enough for an eight-year-old boy to squeeze through. Even so, he got stuck halfway and lost some buttons and some skin before he managed to get through, although by then he would have been happy to get back out if only he could move.
Once through, he stared in wonder. His light revealed a chamber comfortably furnished with wall hangings, screens and carpets. A bed stood along one wall and some crates and cupboards along another. There was a writing desk and a shelf filled with strange objects. For all the comfort, it looked as if it had not been lived in for a long time, since everything was covered with dust and cobwebs.
Martin carefully looked around without touching anything, wondering who had lived there and where he had gone. He found the door to the chamber and followed the corridor back to the opposite side of the rock fall that had blocked his way before.
There, sticking out from under the rocks, he discovered some old bones still dressed in the remains of a black robe. Martin felt no revulsion or fear when he saw the bones. His father had taught him never to be afraid of things he could see and touch. Satisfied that he had found the previous inhabitant of the cave, he decided to see what he could find in the chamber.
When he emerged from the cave, hours later, he was carrying a bundle containing some books, a few strange crystals, a glowing dagger and quite a bit of gold. There was still a lot of loot in the cave but he knew he would have to come back for it another time.
He hoped the gold would placate his father for losing the mule, but to his delight he found the mule making its leisurely way home along the road, and the catastrophe abruptly shrunk to just a philosophical problem.
He arrived home hours late and had to endure a scolding from his mother, Sathna Retienne. He accepted it because he knew he had lingered longer than necessary in the cave. When his father came in to dinner, Martin gave him the bundle with the gold, books, crystals and dagger. “I found this in a cave along the road,” he said.
His father was delighted about the gold, less so about the crystals (“One could sell them, I suppose”) and downright negative about the books.
“These are evil books, Martin,” he explained as he burned them in the hearth. “Books about dark magic bring no good to anyone, least of all little boys. I won’t have them in my house.”
Martin accepted that too, trusting his father’s greater experience, but decided not to bring the rest of the books in the cave home. He wanted to know about magic, and if his father did not see them, he could not tell Martin that they were evil.
After dinner he finally asked his father the question burning in his heart. “The boys in town said I don’t look like a Breton,” he started. “They said you can’t be my father.”
He watched as Beran’s face turned slowly red. “Which boys said that?” he finally asked.
“Just some boys,” Martin replied. “Is it true, Dad?”
Beran sighed. “It’s true, son.” He regarded Martin gravely. “Eight years ago a man begged lodging here one night, and he was carrying you wrapped in a bundle. He was wounded, had been attacked in the wilderness by a pack of wolves. I don’t know how he managed to protect you. When Sathna saw you she was smitten. She’d wished for a child for so long. The man asked us to raise you, to protect you, as he wasn’t sure he could do it, and we gladly accepted.” He placed his hands on Martin’s shoulders. “I don’t know if he was your father or not, but for your
Mother and I, you are our son and no-one can say otherwise.”
“Then nothing will change?” Martin asked, relief making his voice tremble.
Beran embraced him. “Nothing will change, son.”
Part 2: Lark
Lark sat down.
He glanced nervously around the office, waiting for Captain Jauffre to finish reading a dispatch. The office, little more than a cubicle in the wall of the Imperial Palace, nonetheless had a window affording a view over Green Emperor Way. Outside people walked purposefully or conversed in low voices so as not to disturb the Emperor or the Council in the Chambers. Inside, every surface was cluttered with papers, maps and dispatch cases – sources of information that the Blades analysed and acted upon in their duty to protect the Emperor.
Jauffre finally set the dispatch aside and studied Lark for a long moment. “Blade Silas,” he acknowledged.
“You sent for me, Captain?” Lark asked, wondering if he had erred in answering the summons.
Privately he suspected that someone had made a mistake in calling him, as he had not been a Blade very long and had never been asked to report to the Captain before.
“I did,” Jauffre confirmed. “I have a special assignment for you.” He searched for a particular piece of paper on his desk, found it and handed it to Lark. “I want you to go to Chorrol and find the farm of Beran Retienne. He’s a milk farmer with a wife and 15-year-old son. I want you to befriend the boy and teach him all you know about combat, self defence and survival in general.”
“A boy?” Lark asked incredulously, and mentally kicked himself as Jauffre fixed him with a disapproving look. “Sorry sir.”
“I am aware of your background, Blade Silas,” Jauffre continued. “I know you are well qualified for this task.”
Jauffre was right, Lark reflected. He had grown up in a band of mercenaries who had taught him to fight since he was old enough to hold a blade. But what had attracted the attention of the Blades was not his skill as a fighter, but as a minstrel. Lark was named for his voice, and when Captain Jacques had found him he was teaching some youngsters the history of Cyrodiil with a ballad he had composed himself. Captain Jacques had asked him to join the Blades because he could travel incognito as a minstrel, but Lark had a nagging suspicion that Captain Jauffre did not altogether trust him.
“With respect, sir,” Lark said after a moment’s hesitation. “I joined the Blades to protect the Emperor…”
Jauffre sighed. “I know, Blade. But this task is more important than you can know. The boy is the Emperor’s son. I entrust his safety to you, in the hope that you will never need to defend him, and in the hope that he will live his life never knowing his true legacy.”
Lark sat speechless. He was to protect the Emperor’s son? Guess they trusted him after all. He realised that he was staring with wide eyes at Jauffre, and cleared his throat. “I understand, sir. How long should I remain there?”
Jauffre leaned forward, his elbows on the desk, all trace of formality gone. “For as long as necessary.” He sat back. “Go be a minstrel, Lark. Teach the boy to defend himself, keep an eye on him and live your life.” He smiled. “You have far too fine a voice to waste it on a bunch of soldiers.”
Lark was shocked. He had only just become a Blade, and now he was being exiled from that Brotherhood. “I am no longer a Blade, sir?”
“You will always be a Blade, Lark.” Jauffre replied. “Just deeply under cover, if you will. You know the signs to identify yourself to other Blades. You need only ask and Blades will assist you, and you will always be welcome in our safe houses. I will arrange with Count Valga of Chorrol to pay your Blades salary as well. The Count will know your true status but not the reason why you are stationed there.” He handed Lark a scroll. “Give this to the Count when you arrive.”
Lark got up and stood at attention. “Yes sir! I will not let you down!”
Jauffre laughed. “I know you won’t, Lark. But you had better lose the military manner.”
Lark shrugged, relaxing. “I’m no good at it anyway.”
“You are good at what counts,” Jauffre told him. “Now go get that fat white horse of yours from the stable and get going.”
“He’s not fat,” Lark protested. “He’s just well-padded.”
“The better to sit on,” Jauffre agreed. “Good luck, Lark. Drop in whenever you can.”
“Thank you, Captain,” Lark replied. He saluted, turned briskly and marched out of Jauffre’s office. Outside he dropped the military manner, this time for good.
The sun rose.
Lark was again dressed in his minstrel’s garb of green leather pants, green-and-yellow striped shirt and knee-high leather riding boots. His sword hung from a loop on his saddle and his throwing knives were hidden about his body as usual. His armour was securely packed in a bundle behind him on the horse. The nice thing about Pavan, his admittedly fat horse, was that he did not mind Lark letting the reins hang loose while he played his lute as they plodded along. Pavan kept to the way of least resistance – the road – and Lark fancied that the horse even liked his playing and singing.
As they crested a hill, a magnificent stag bounded across the road ahead of them. It stopped for a moment to regard Lark with surprise, ears twitching at the sound of the lute. Then it startled and disappeared into the woods. The beauty of the moment inspired Lark and he started to pick out a new tune, using what he saw around him to fill in the details.
“Where are you going?” he sang. “Alone there in the misty morn.”
He looked between the trunks of the old forest to see where the stag had gone. “The trees have been growing before your ancestors were born.” The rising sun supplied the next line. “Sunlight is peeking through the golden leaves of fall.” He remembered the stag’s reaction to his lute. “And you seem to be seeking the direction of some silent call.” A squirrel chattered at him as his passage disturbed it, so he wrote it in. “Small creatures are working to gather food against the cold.” The road was strewn with autumn leaves. “And sylvan load is lightening as fallen leaves turn gold.” Time to finish it off, he decided. “Oh, where are you going? Poised there in primordial might.” What rhymes with ‘might’? Ah. “With merely a sense of knowing that dawn will follow after night.”
“That was beautiful,” a voice said. “Won’t you play it again?”
Lark looked down to see a youth step from the wood unto the road. About fifteen years old, Lark thought, wondering if this was the boy he would come to know so well. No need to rush anything.
“Certainly,” he said and sang his new song again as the boy kept pace with the plodding horse.
When he was done he introduced himself. “People call me Lark, and this is Pavan.” He indicated the horse.
“I’m Martin Retienne,” the boy said, confirming Lark’s hunch. “What does ‘Pavan’ mean?”
“The wind,” Lark replied.
Martin regarded the fat horse for a moment, politely trying not to laugh, and Lark rescued him from making an unfortunate remark. “In his young days, Pavan was indeed as swift as the wind, young master. But now that he’s old and dignified we don’t hold that against him.”
Martin grinned. “Of course not.” He considered something for a moment. “Have you had breakfast yet, Mister Lark?”
Lark laughed. “Just Lark will do. And yes, I did nibble on some dried rations an hour or so ago.”
“Then perhaps you might like a real farm breakfast by now,” Martin said. “I live not far from here.”
It seemed to Lark as if the fates were arranging this meeting to go smoothly, which, knowing about the Septim bloodline, did not surprise him too much. “I would be honoured,” he replied.
His stomach growled in agreement.
Martin giggled. “Follow me,” he said, and lead the way.
The kettle sang on the hearth.
Sathna Retienne stood up to set the tea steeping, and Martin gathered the used dishes from the table and carried them outside to wash them in the tub next to the well. Lark sat back. The ‘real farm breakfast’ of fresh bread, eggs and sausages left him replete, and he doubted he could move much for the moment.
“My thanks, Ma’am,” he said. “That was a fine meal.”
She smiled in reply and busied herself clearing up the kitchen.
“So you’re a minstrel,” Beran Retienne stated. “Where from?”
Lark considered his reply carefully, as Beran had been watching him rather intently during the meal. “Well, I grew up near Anvil,” he said. “My father leads a band of fighters. Not bandits!” he said quickly as he saw Beran getting upset. “They do contract work for Count Umbranox, clearing goblins from mines, that sort of thing.” Beran nodded. “Ever since I can remember, I could sing, and I could play the lute since I was seven. My real name is Silas, but pretty soon everyone just called me Lark.”
“I see,” Beran said. “So you decided to leave Anvil?”
“I wanted to see more of the world,” Lark explained. “The Gold Coast is beautiful, but it is only one part of Cyrodiil. I left Anvil when I was eighteen, travelled to Kvatch, through Skingrad and on to Bravil. I stayed there for a few months, singing in a tavern, and then I moved on to Leyawin. I didn’t stay there for long; I guess I’m not suited for the tropics.” He grinned. “Then I did a long haul up the Nibenenay Valley, looked at Cheydinhal, and finally reached Bruma. It’s very cold up in the Jerall Mountains, but those Nords tell the most amazing tales. Someone in Bruma told me to go to the Imperial City next, so that’s where I ended up for almost a year. It’s taken four years all told of singing for my supper in wayside inns, ratty dives and royal parlours to get here.”
“You sang for the emperor?” Beran was sceptical.
“Not exactly,” Lark grinned. “I sang in the emperor’s parlour, but he wasn’t there. I entertained some of the ladies of the court.”
“From the court to Chorrol,” Beran mused. “Quite a come down.”
“Perhaps,” Lark agreed. “But I haven’t been to Chorrol yet, so here I am.”
Beran suddenly laughed. “How about singing for your breakfast?”
“Of course,” Lark said, getting up. “I’ll just get my lute.”
“No, no!” Beran stopped him. “I’ll send Martin.” Lark settled back into his seat. “Martin!” Beran yelled. “Fetch Lark’s lute, please.”
A few moments later Martin appeared with the lute, and they all settled down to listen. Lark adjusted the tuning. “What would you like to hear?”
“Play your song about the stag,” Martin said quickly.
At nods from Beran and Sathna, Lark did so. He tried more intricate chording and fingering patterns this time, turning the simple tune into a more complex work with a counter melody worked in against the lyrical line. He did not look at his audience until the last note had faded. Sathna sat with her eyes closed, a smile on her lips. Beran was nodding in time with the music as if he still heard it. And Martin was sitting with his mouth open in awe.
“It didn’t sound like that this morning!” he finally said.
“No,” Lark said. “I was still working on it, after all. This is only the third time I’ve played it.”
“You have a marvellous gift,” Beran said.
“Can you teach me to play like that?” Martin asked at the same time.
“I’d be happy to teach you,” Lark said. “But it will take a lot of practice, you know.”
“I know,” Martin said. “When can we start?”
Lark laughed. “At least let me get settled in Chorrol. Then we can work out when and where your lessons can take place.”
“Wonderful,” Martin said. “Oh! The dishes!” He stood up. “I’ll be right back.” He dashed outside and his mother smilingly followed to help him.
Lark noticed that Beran was watching him intently again. “What?” he asked.
“You remind me of someone,” Beran said slowly. “Fifteen years ago a man brought Martin to us. He asked us to raise and protect him. At the time, I thought that it was chance that brought him to us, but now…”
Lark quailed inwardly. It seemed that his cover was blown and he could not think what he had done wrong. Beran was incredibly perceptive. Lark knew without a doubt that if he denied Beran’s speculations, the man would sense his lying and would never trust him. And Lark needed Beran’s trust if he was to have access to Martin.
“Now?” he asked gently.
“Now you’ve come, and you instantly charmed my Martin, and he doesn’t take to people quickly. And there is something in your manner… Are you of Martin’s real kin?”
“No,” Lark replied. “But I, too, have been asked to look out for him and protect him.”
“By his father?” Beran asked. “The man who brought him?”
“I’ve never met his father,” Lark said truthfully. “But yes, the man who brought him sent me.”
“Who is he?”
How much to tell, Lark wondered. “His name is Jauffre,” he said. “He serves in the Order of Talos in the Imperial City.” That was true enough. The Blades have always been connected withthe Order of Talos.
“Jauffre,” Beran repeated. “Where did he get Martin?”
“I don’t know the whole story,” Lark said. “I’d guess someone left the baby with the Order, and Jauffre found him a home.”
“And will he want him back?”
Lark realised that Beran was desperately afraid that he would lose Martin, although he was hiding it well. “He told me to teach Martin to defend himself, so that he could live his life in safety without knowing his true legacy, whatever that may be.” He looked Beran in the eyes. “You do not need to fear for your son.”
Beran held his gaze for a while, then nodded and slowly smiled. “No, I can see I do not. You’ll be staying, then?”
“For as long as necessary,” Lark said, and they both knew that it was a lifetime commitment. What Beran guessed about Martin’s origins, Lark could not tell, but he felt certain Beran would keep it to himself.
“Well,” Lark said. “I’d better get to Chorrol and find a place to stay.”
“I’ll ride along,” Beran said, surprising him. “I have business in town.”
So it came that Lark entered Chorrol accompanied by Beran, Martin and three cows on their way to market. Somehow, he had become part of the family, and when he took his leave of them he missed them immediately, as he had never missed his real family. It felt right to know that he would see them again soon.
Part 3: Choices in life
Martin opened the door.
The smell of cheap wine and ale wafted into his face along with the sounds of a fair number of people talking, cheering and whistling. Through the din the sound of a lute was audible, as Lark finished off a song. The lunch crowd at the Grey Mare hooted appreciatively. Martin stepped inside and found a place along the wall. The common room was packed to capacity and Martin reflected that Lark was very good for business. He knew the landlord paid Lark well for his lunchtime performances.
The dark-haired minstrel smiled at his audience. “I can do one more,” he said, as they quieted down. “Any requests?”
“Cyrodiil Girls!” someone yelled from the back, and the request was seconded by a chorus of other voices.
Lark nodded and swung into the rollicking tune he’d composed less than a week ago. Martin had even helped him with some of the rhymes.
“Come closer friends and hearken to me.
I have travelled far and wide you see,
And I have met girls in every town…
But Cyrodiil ladies brought me down.”
The song was already so popular that people sang the punch line of every verse along with him, and one man pulled out a wooden flute and played along as Lark continued.
“In Anvil I was a sailor’s mate.
Sea shanties I sang and fish I ate.
Anvil’s girls were pretty as can be…
But none of them ever looked at me!
A light fingered dame from wet Bravil
Told me one day to keep very still.
She relieved me of my hard-earned gold…
And told me also I was too old!
Snowy Bruma felt so very cold
But for a short while my heart was sold.
Frosty those tall Nord ladies were not…
But I found their tempers way too hot!
I fell for an elf in Cheydenhal:
A dark pretty lady six feet tall.
She had blue skin and piercing red eyes…
She called me ‘fetcher’ and said goodbye!
In mountainy Chorrol I did see
The tall beauty of the great oak tree.
With pretty girls in the shade I spoke…
But for one of them my poor heart broke!
In Kvatch on its high mountain top
An Arena lady made me stop.
In her presence I was never bored…
Trying to get away from her sword!
Lovely Leyawiin on Topal Bay
Is bright and cheery as they all say.
Argonian and Kajeet girls rock…
But when one kissed me it was a shock!
In Skingrad Hightown I shared some wine
With a pretty lass I would call mine.
Oh she liked the wine but then told me…
She would rather stay with Surilie!
I strolled one day by White Gold Tower
With a girl pretty as a flower
She saw a guard in shiny armour…
They left – that was the last I saw her!
Oh in all my travels I have been
To every town yet I have seen
The only place I would rather be…
Is where a pretty girl smiles at me!”
Lark ended with a flourish, which left the crowd breathless and laughing with shared excitement. He stood up and took a bow to prolonged applause. “Thank you, friends.” He accepted their praise – and coins – with becoming modesty. When things had quieted down, he took the lute and made his way to where Martin sat.
“Here you go,” Lark said, handing some coins to Martin. “Your fee for helping me write the song.”
Martin grinned. “I just wish I could sing like you. I could make my own fortune and not wait for handouts from my master.”
“You do well enough,” Lark said, ruffling Martin’s hair. “Come on, this place is too crowded for talk.”
They made their way outside and wandered up the street, settling finally on a bench under the Oak. Martin said nothing as they walked, thinking about his training and his future. Lark had taught him many things over the last three years. In some he excelled and in others he was merely competent. Although he could play the lute he could never do the extraordinary things Lark could do with it. Martin had proved much more apt with a blade, but his true talent lay with magic. When Lark had offered to teach him some spells helpful in combat situations, they had both been surprised at how easily he had picked up the skill. This had recalled his childhood fascination with magic, and he had told Lark about the cave and the books he had never showed to his father. On one of their expeditions they had gone there and with some work had cleared the closed-off tunnel.
Inside all had been as Martin had last seen it, ten years before. They had gathered the books and scrolls and took them outside into the sunlight, and, perusing them, Lark had expressed some doubt about the contents.
“I’m no expert,” he had said. “But I think these deal with Deadric magic.” He had shaken his head. “My advice is, stay away from this stuff. We can rather find someone to teach you regular magic. This is bad news.”
Martin had nodded in agreement, and they had stacked the books back inside the cave. He had believed Lark’s advice, but as time passed, he sometimes found himself daydreaming about the strange symbols he had seen fleetingly in the leaf-dappled sunlight.
He had learned some more spells from a man at the Mages Guild, and as he learned his craving for knowledge increased. Finally he had come to a decision, but he needed Lark’s help if he was to have any chance in succeeding in his ambition. This brought him back to the present, sitting under the Oak with Lark telling some story about someone at the castle.
“… So Count Valga ordered an inspection,” he was saying. “And the Guard turned out in the castle courtyard, all shiny armour and buckles, you know.” He laughed. “And Captain Gerontius walked up and down the parade, the Count at his side, with ‘Kick me!’ stuck to the back of his cuirass… and no-one said a word! Can you imagine that? Lucius tells me he almost died holding back his laughter.”
Martin smiled distractedly. “Very funny, yes.”
Lark gave him a searching look. “So, what’s the matter?”
“I want to join the Mages Guild,” Martin came straight to the point. Lark was his friend and mentor. He knew he could tell Lark anything, without wondering what he would think or whether he would approve.
Lark lifted an eyebrow at that. “Good idea, what’s the problem?”
“My father,” Martin sighed. “I don’t think he will like the idea.”
Lark considered for a moment. “Well, you may be right about that, but there’s no harm in trying, don’t you think? Do you want me to come along?”
“Oh, would you?” Martin brightened. His father respected Lark’s opinions.
“Sure,” Lark grinned. “Let’s go. If we time it right, I can scrounge some dinner from your mother.”
Martin had to laugh at that. Lark never seemed to miss an opportunity to join them for dinner.
“You must really love Mother’s cooking,” he remarked.
“Mostly I like leaving you with more dishes to wash,” Lark said, ducking under the playful punch that Martin aimed at him. He grabbed Martin’s arm and quickly immobilized him. “Are we sparring or going?”
“Going, going,” Martin laughed as Lark let him go. As always, the minstrel was too quick for him, but Lark’s easy company made him forget his apprehension at facing his father as they got their horses from the stable and set off for the farm.
Part 4: Letting go
Martin, watching him anxiously, plunged ahead. “It’s the one thing I’m really good at, Father,” he tried to explain. “I want to learn more.”
Beran shook his head. “It’s too dangerous. Besides, you have your responsibilities here on the farm.”
He turned away as if that ended the discussion, and Martin bit back bitter words as he shot a pleading look at Lark, sitting quietly in the corner. Lark spread his hands to indicate his helplessness, and Martin suddenly could not stand to be in the room any longer.
“I’ll go see to my responsibilities, then,” he said quietly to mask his anger, and turned and went outside.
“You’ll lose him if you don’t let him go,” Lark said mildly as the door swung shut.
Beran rounded on him. “You! You caused this! You encouraged him in this madness!”
Lark stood up to confront Beran on equal height. “His talent is in his blood, Beran. I would not dare suppress it and neither should you. You will have to face some hard facts today. Martin is not your son; his destiny and legacy are not to be hindered by such as you and I. Can you really see him growing old here on this farm, surrounded by cows?”
“I could wish such peace for him,” Beran said hoarsely. “But tell me the truth today – if today I must face facts. Who is Martin’s father? For I know that you know who it is.”
Lark took a moment to answer. When he did, his voice was low and steady. “You also know that I can’t tell you that. Suffice it to say that he is noble born and leave it at that.” At Beran’s reluctant nod he continued. “Martin is like a flame in darkness; if you refuse his dreams you will douse that flame and the world will be a darker place.”
Beran sighed and sat down, gesturing for Lark to do the same. “I just want him to be safe,” he said earnestly.
“I know that,” Lark said. “But I really think you’ll do better to let him pursue his dreams. He is too young to be content with the simple life you offer him. If you refuse him, he will run away to do his own thing, and you won’t see him again.” He pushed a hand through his hair. “What do you have against the Mages Guild in any case? It’s an honourable profession, and Martin is more than old enough to become an apprentice.”
“My youngest brother joined the Guild,” Beran explained. “He was so excited about it, about the things he learned and the work he did. One day he was sent on some errand and was attacked by necromancers. My brother was slain in some old ruin, still in his youth. He had never really lived his life. I can’t stand the thought of Martin…”
“I’m sorry,” Lark said awkwardly as Beran choked to silence. “I can understand how you feel.”
“I don’t think you can,” Beran said, his eyes flashing. “You did not raise my boy from infancy. You did not soothe his fears, you did not …”
“No, I did not,” Lark interrupted. “But I am his friend and I love him as a brother. I do not wish to see him come to any harm, but I also don’t wish to see his spirit broken.”
Beran lowered his eyes. “I am sorry, Lark. You are right. You have been nothing but a friend to us and I have no right to talk as I did.”
Lark smiled. “It’s all right, my friend. I do understand.” He stood up. “I must go. It is getting dark and I have to sing tonight. You will talk to Martin, won’t you?”
“That I will,” Beran replied. “I may not like it, but you are right about Martin. I will let him do what he wants.” He clapped Lark on the shoulder. “You are a wiser man than I.”
“Not wiser,” Lark said. “But perhaps more objective in this matter. You are a sensible man, Beran. I would hate to see your heart ignore your head and cause you unnecessary pain.”
“That sounds cold,” Beran said.
“It is, and it isn’t,” Lark smiled. “If I was wise, I would be able to explain it better.” He picked up his lute, forgotten next to his chair. “Goodbye, my friend.”
When he got outside he found Martin in the stables, currying the horses. In stead of speaking Lark gave him a grin, a thumbs-up and a gesture to go into the house. Martin’s eyes widened incredulously, then he turned and dashed for the door.
Lark laughed to himself as he saddled Pavan for the ride back to town.
Part 5: Consequences
The darkness seethed.
Martin cradled Lark’s body against him while he kept the creatures in the dark at bay with spell, sword and sheer willpower. He felt that if they could only survive till dawn, all would be well, but he had long since lost track of time in the all-consuming darkness. Something lashed out through his defences and claws tore at his robe. He jerked back and lost his grip on the unconscious minstrel, who toppled to the ground. Martin didn’t know whether Lark was still alive. In sudden despair he found hidden reserves, and launched himself at the undead creatures with a great cry.
His sword flew, and his spells spread destruction wherever they hit. As his levels of magicka depleted, Martin felt a growing fear that he would not last the fight, but when he knew that he could do no more, he found that there were no more to face, for the moment. He had prevailed. The cavern floor was strewn with the remains of the undead, but nothing stirred in the darkness and the whispers had ceased.
He stumbled to where Lark lay in a crumpled heap on the ground, and sank down beside him, fearing to find that his friend had died during the fight. To his relief the minstrel was still alive, and watching him. His pain-filled eyes were lucid again as he spoke softly. “All that sword practice was worth it.”
Martin tried to laugh, but found his eyes filling with tears. “Forgive me, my friend,” he said. “I should have listened to you.” He swallowed. “I have been a fool.” Lark merely nodded in agreement. Martin smiled at that. “Yes, you have every right to blame me.” He sobered. “I have caused the death of my friends, and if I don’t heal you soon, yours as well.”
He busied himself making Lark more comfortable, folding his cloak as a pillow for the minstrel’s head. “I need a few minutes to regain some magicka.” He settled down next to Lark. “You rest now, I’ll watch over you.” He watched as Lark dropped off into an exhausted sleep as he replayed the events of the last few days over and over in his head.
It was the lure of knowledge, he told himself, but he knew in his heart it was rather the seduction of the power such knowledge could give him, that made him follow the lore of Daedric magic. Against all the rules of the Mages Guild, against the council of his father and his mentor, Lark, he pursued his unhealthy obsession with the darker arts to the extreme. And, caught in his wake like stars in the tail of a comet, had come his fellow apprentices, lured by his expositions on the duty of mages to know and harness all power – to be used for the good of the Empire, of course.
When he mentioned that he believed Daedric Shrines had power imbued in their very structure, someone in his group of followers had suggested that they try their experiments to summon a Daedra Prince at such a shrine in stead of in the woods out of sight from the town, where they had met no success.
Martin had agreed and they enthusiastically planned the expedition. Almost as an afterthought Martin had mentioned the whole thing to Lark, who had vehemently tried to dissuade him. But Martin’s mind was made up, and Lark had reluctantly decided to join them, to “keep you out of trouble.”
But none of them could ever have imagined the trouble they were getting themselves into. In an underground shrine devoted to an unknown Daedra Lord, they had cast their spells. Martin’s idea had worked. The Daedra Prince had appeared through the shimmering portal they had created, glared contemptuously at them, shrugged off their command spells as if they were of no consequence, and had proceeded to wreak havoc amongst them.
Martin recalled with horror how his friends had died. Some, torn limb from limb by the awful strength of the thing. Some he merely picked up and smashed to the ground. Martin had been flung to the side and had seen when Lark hit the cavern wall. One unfortunate apprentice had been tossed through the portal to Oblivion knows what. Then the Daedra prince had stepped through with a last snarl at Martin. “Your protection will not last, boy!”
The portal collapsed and they were left in utter darkness. Too shocked by the events to give any thought to the Daedra’s words, Martin had gathered up his surviving followers and Lark, and they had tried to go back to the surface, but somewhere they had lost their way. They had been attacked again and again, and after every skirmish there were fewer of them left. After what seemed like days to Martin, only Lark remained, and the minstrel was too weak to cast spells to heal himself, and all of Martin’s energy was spent in fighting back the hordes of undead.
A fool indeed, Martin reflected. But now his only concern was to heal Lark before the man expired from his wounds. His magicka restored, Martin cast a healing spell on Lark, watching in satisfaction as wounds closed and bruises faded. After a while Lark woke.
“Welcome back,” Martin said. “How do you feel?”
Lark’s eyes looked peculiar in the light of Martin’s spell. “I don’t know,” he said hesitantly. “I feel… strange.”
“I can cast another healing,” Martin said, getting ready.
“No, wait,” Lark forestalled him. “I feel fine, really, it’s just…”
Martin looked at him closely, noticing that Larked seemed very pale. And his eyes…
“Oh no,” he said softly. “Lark, those vampires…”
“How long ago was that?” Lark asked. “Three days? And I’ve slept…” He trailed off. The thought was in both their minds. Vampirism has no cure. “No, not that,” he muttered. “Martin, I couldn’t stand it.”
“Perhaps we’re wrong,” Martin tried to reassure his friend. “It can’t have been three days. You should be fine, it will go away now that I’ve healed you.”
Lark shook his head. “Healing is not the same as curing disease, you know that.”
Martin sat back, stumped. He had no Cure Disease potions, and no spells to do the same. The only hope was to get Lark to a temple, but he feared they were too late already. And from the look in his pale red eyes, Lark knew it too.
“Well, this wasn’t part of the plan, was it?” Lark asked, trying hard to hide his fear, but he did not fool either of them.
“We’ll figure something out, Lark,” Martin said. “Somehow, we’ll work it out.”
It took them two more days to fight their way back to known tunnels. As the time went by, Lark showed more and more symptoms of the awful disease he had contracted. His pale skin and sunken cheeks sharply reminded Martin of the terrible consequences of his rashness. Not only had he caused the deaths of his Mages Guild friends, he was the sole reason why Lark would now be forced to live an eternity enshrouded in darkness, feeding on the lifeblood of living beings.
In a world where vampires were despised as foul animals, Lark would be hunted by everyone, other vampires included. Never again would he sing for his supper in a tavern common room. Never again would his marvellous voice entertain his listeners.
Martin sunk into deep despair, while Lark, strangely, came to be resigned with his plight. As his symptoms worsened, he also became aware of the new abilities that he developed. His reflexes and speed increased until he could dart through the cavern like a shadow, making no sound. He could see in the dark, and he could detect living and undead with sight and hearing so acute, it astonished him that he ever thought he was good at it before.
But in him grew a hunger – a craving so intense that it caused him agony. He suppressed it, and said nothing to Martin, determined never to feed on a person, even if it meant starving to death.
Martin woke during one of their rest periods to find Lark – who was taking first watch – in agony on the ground. Martin ran to his friend, realizing that Lark had not fed since he had contracted Porphyric Hemophilia.
“What a fool I am!” he cursed himself for the added pain his inattentiveness had cost his friend. He tried to calm Lark, but the minstrel moaned and tossed and showed no recognition when Martin spoke to him. Not knowing what else to do, Martin cut his wrist, and as the blood welled up, forced Lark’s mouth open and let the blood drip in a steady stream down his throat. After a while Lark stopped struggling and swallowed. The next moment instinct finally took over as he grabbed Martin’s arm and bit down. Martin grew dizzy as his blood was drained, until he became afraid that he would pass out.
“Lark!” he cried, trying to get his attention, but the vampire paid no heed. In desperation Martin slapped Lark with his free hand. “Lark! Please!” As his sight dimmed he felt the pressure on his wrist ease, and then he knew nothing more.
Lark came to himself out of an ecstasy like nothing he had ever experienced before. The warm blood sang through his veins like fire. It was like being born into light. He felt alive like never before. He glanced around with his new-found perspective, and suddenly became aware of his surroundings. Next to him lay Martin, pale as death, blood still pumping from a cut and two puncture wounds on his wrist. Lark finally realized what he had done.
He grabbed Martin’s arm and tried to staunch the bleeding, tearing strips from his shirt to bind the wounds. Then he cast a healing spell, and then another, desperately trying to save Martin’s life. At last the spells began to make a difference. Martin’s colour improved and his wounds closed. Then he regained consciousness. As soon as he opened his eyes Lark was urging him to his feet.
“Move, boy!” he said, handing Martin his pack.
“What’s going on?” Martin asked in confusion. The last thing he remembered was his blood draining from his veins, and now Lark would not even stop to talk about it.
“I don’t know enough about this foul disease,” Lark snarled. “If I just infected you, you need to get to a temple as soon as possible.” He shouldered his own pack. “Come on.”
Martin followed in dazed comprehension.
At last they found the way out, and came to the exit of the cavern just as dawn was breaking. Lark could feel his skin hurting with even the barest amount of sunlight falling on him. He ducked back into the shade of the cave.
“I can’t come with you,” he told Martin. “Go on without me.”
“I won’t leave you!” Martin protested.
“You have to,” Lark said forcefully. “I didn’t protect you all these years just to turn you into a vampire now. Don’t worry, I’ll make my way to your secret cave, travelling by night. Get yourself cured, just in case, and meet me there when you can.”
Martin was not sure that he believed Lark would really go to the cave. He suspected Lark would disappear into the darkness to try and end his life there. “I want your promise that you’ll come,” he said, holding Lark’s gaze with his own. “Your oath.”
“I swear, Martin,” Lark said earnestly. “I will meet you there. Now go!”
With that he darted into the shadows so quickly that Martin could not see him move. Martin sighed, then stepped out of the cavern and started the long walk back to the town. He had thirty-six hours to get to a temple. Thirty-six hours were enough: Enough to beat into him with every step that he did not deserve to live; that his ambition and lust for power could never again be allowed to rule his life, and that he should spend his life somehow trying to make amends for his folly.
The temple of Akatosh welcomed him when he arrived. The humble brothers cured him, fed him, gave him comfort. In their ministrations he found a kind of peace in himself, and he resolved to join the order as soon as he could tear himself free of the life and debts he had created for himself. Lark waited in the dark, and that was one debt he could never settle.
Part 6: Taking leave
The cave mouth still gaped ominously.
Martin tethered the pack horse and removed the bundles tied to the saddle. He stacked them just inside the cave, then, carrying only Lark’s lute – retrieved with his other belongings from his rooms in town – entered hesitantly. It had taken him a week to get back from Kvatch, finalize his dealings with his guild, send his
regrets and apologies to the families of his slain friends, get Lark’s things and make the trek to the cave.
He worried that Lark would not be there. There were so many things that could have befallen him. He could have been attacked again in the terrible cavern where Martin had left him. He could have been caught outside without shelter from the sun. He could by now have starved because Martin was certain that Lark would never hunt people to survive as a vampire.
So he entered the cave with trepidation. As he made his way inside he called down the dark corridor. “Lark? Are you here?”
He heard only the barest rustle as Lark practically materialised next to him. He swallowed a startled exclamation because the minstrel-turned-vampire had eyes only for the lute.
“Finally,” Lark exclaimed, removing the lute from Martin’s unresisting fingers. “Listen to this!” Without pause he started picking a tune. “Remember the stag? I was hiding in a hollow log the other morning and guess what I saw?” With that he started singing.
“When slanted rays of light
Adorn the wood in pools of gold
And the last vestiges of night
Disappear into morning cold
When the forest evergreen
Resounds with the daily song of praise
And flowers with a dewdrop sheen
Spread their petals in the haze
Then he comes slipping through the trees again
Ever aware of possible danger
Looks in the water and sees again
The face of that familiar stranger”
He finished with a flourish. “There, what do you think?”
Martin gaped at him in astonishment, finally finding his voice as Lark impatiently cleared his throat. “It’s very beautiful, Lark. You were hiding in a log?”
Lark grimaced – a startling sight as his canines gleamed. “Where are my manners? Come inside, let’s not talk in the corridor.” He drew Martin into the furnished cave. “Sit down, will you? Yes, I was caught without shelter coming here. The log had an excellent view over a pond, though, and it did the job it was supposed to do. And I had a lot of time that day to compose the song.” He stroked the lute lovingly. “I am glad you brought this to me. It’s been hard without music.”
Martin realized that Lark was feeling as awkward as he did, and was talking to keep them from staring at each other in silence. He decided gratefully to play along. “I brought the rest of your things, too,” he said. “Your landlord sends his regards.”
“His regards? What did you tell him?”
“Only that you had decided to stay on in Kvatch for a while,” Martin said, feeling guilty about the lie. “I couldn’t tell him about… you know…”
They stared at each other in silence.
At last Lark shrugged. “I suppose not. You didn’t tell anyone the truth?”
Martin shook his head. “I told them about what had happened at the shrine, to the apprentices.
I didn’t talk about you.”
“I see. And what did they say?”
“I’ve been expelled from the Mages Guild,” Martin said.
“No, it’s fine. If they hadn’t done it, I would have left in any case.” Martin sighed. “I’ve decided to do something worthwhile with my life.”
“Really?” Lark said. “And what is that?”
“I’m joining the order of Akatosh in Kvatch,” Martin said. “Perhaps by helping others I can atone for what I’ve done.”
“You’re leaving?” Lark could not keep the hurt from his voice.
Martin heard it. “I am so sorry, Lark. I’m abandoning you just when you need me most. If I could somehow cure you, you know I would. But I can’t spend the rest of my life looking after you…” He heard how callous his words sounded but could not recall them to his mouth. “Oh, this is coming out all wrong,” he groaned. “Forgive me.”
Lark smiled a sharp-toothed smile. “No, you’re right,” he said. “I can’t expect you to keep a pet vampire secretly in a cave. I have to adapt and live my… unlife… as best I can. But I did hope to at least see you now and again.”
“Why?” Martin asked. “Why would you want to see me? You should hate me for what happened. I can barely stand myself as it is.”
“I could never hate you,” Lark said simply. “And I don’t blame you, either. I went along of my own accord, and I was willing to face the risks. I’m sorry if I sound bitter, it’s taking some getting used to, but it is not your fault.”
Martin nodded dubiously. “If you say so. In any case, I will come to see you whenever I visit my parents. In the meantime, is there anything that you need? Something I could help you with?”
“I have two favours to ask,” Lark said. “First, could you give this to Lucius at the Chorrol garrison?” He handed a cloth-wrapped parcel to Martin. “It contains letters to my family and so on. He’ll make sure they get where they need to go.”
“Of course,” Martin said.
“Secondly,” Lark said. “I need some cattle.”
“What?” Martin was shocked. He knew that vampires kept people submissive with charm spells, to feed on, and that such people were called ‘cattle’. He could not believe that Lark would even contemplate such a thing. “You can’t mean…”
Lark laughed. “I meant the kind that goes ‘moo’, Martin. Two or three will do.” At Martin’s incredulous look he explained. “Any blood can keep me going. I’ve been catching deer to stay alive, but a cow or two won’t even miss the blood, they’re so large. And I won’t have to range so far out to hunt.”
“I understand,” Martin said, relieved. “I’ll see what I can do.”
“Just tell your father,” Lark suggested. “I’d prefer it that he knows the truth about… me.”
“All right,” Martin said. “Anything else?”
“No, I think that’s it,” Lark said. “Just…”
“Promise me that you won’t dwell on this. If you find your place amongst the brothers of Akatosh, do that wholeheartedly. Don’t let the past spoil your future.”
“I will try,” Martin said. “Farewell, Lark. Thanks for everything.”
Lark smiled. “No need for thanks, my friend.” He considered something for a moment. “I guess you should call me ‘Nightingale’ from now on – I won’t be singing in the sun anymore.”
Martin tried to laugh. “Then I’ll listen for your song in the night.” He embraced Lark.
“Goodbye.” Letting go, he whirled and strode from the cave into daylight, not heeding the tears that streamed down his face.
Part 7: Helping hands
Lark woke to the sound of hammering.
Instantly awake and wary, he tried to think what could cause such a sound. The only thing that came to mind was that the locals were boarding up the cave with him inside it. He moved surely through the dark corridor, his enhanced senses making it as clear as daylight. As he came into view of the cave entrance he had to squint against the brightness. It was daytime, and although the glare was painful, he could see enough to realize that there was no-one at the door. The noise was coming from further away.
Carefully moving forward, his eyes adapting to the light, he finally reached a position that allowed him to see outside while still under the shade of the rock. To his astonishment, he saw Beran Retienne busy constructing what looked like a corral. A horse-drawn cart was stacked with boards which Beran was nailing together into fencing, a gate and a little shed.
“What in the world are you doing, Beran?” Lark asked from his doorway.
Beran dropped the hammer and came closer. He stared at Lark for a moment. “Oh Lark,” he sighed. “I almost didn’t believe Martin, it’s just too horrible.”
Lark smiled. “Nothing to be done about it now,” he said. “But what are you doing?”
“Martin said you needed cows,” Beran replied. “So I’m just setting up a corral for them.”
“Two or three cows!” Lark protested. “This thing could hold twenty!”
Beran nodded resolutely. “Yes, well, I’ve been thinking. If I build a large corral and keep twenty cows here, and have somebody in my employ living here to look after them and milk them, it would make perfect sense to everyone. This cave is still on my farm, and it lies on my route to town. Now…” He held up a hand to forestall Lark’s interruption. “Now I figure since you want to feed on my cows, the least you can do is to milk them and leave the cans here ready for
me to pick up in the mornings. And I won’t even charge you to live on my property.”
Lark listened in amazement as Beran gave him safety, food and a plausible reason to be where he was. “Beran, I… this is incredible! Are you sure?”
“Of course, I’m sure,” Beran said gruffly. “You’ve been a good friend to us all these years; you’ve become part of the family. And besides,” he winked. “I can make a nice profit farming twenty more cows.”
Lark laughed. “Then I accept! I won’t stand between a businessman and his profit.”
“Good,” Beran said. “Let me get back to work. You can go back to sleep – you’ll need the rest. When I bring the cows you’d better be ready to do some work.” He laughed. “I bet you’ll be the only cow-herd working at night.”
Lark agreed. “As long as the cows don’t mind. Oh, and Beran?”
“You’d better teach me how to milk them.”
Jauffre opened the parcel that had been sent to him from Chorrol. It did not conform to Lark’s normal reports, being written on scraps of paper that had seen better days, but it bore Lark’s unmistakable handwriting.
It is my duty to inform you that I can no longer protect Martin as I have done the past eight years. Following a disastrous expedition to a Daedric shrine, Martin has decided to join the Order of Akatosh in Kvatch. I would follow him there but for the fact that during the same disastrous expedition, I had contracted Porphiric Hemophilia. Since I was unable to get a cure in time, I regret to inform you that I have become a vampire.
I am living for the time being in a cave close to Beran Retienne’s farm, where I can come to terms with my new abilities and limitations. I do not know yet what my future plans might be. I do know that there is no plausible reason why Martin would keep a vampire with him at the Temple of Akatosh, so I conclude that my mission has failed – at least to the point of not being able to stay with him. On the other hand, he should be safe at the Temple, and I think that said disastrous expedition may have taught him some humility.
I remain, of course, a loyal Blade in service to the Empire.
Jauffre sat thinking for a moment. Then he rang the little bell that stood on his desk. A young Blade appeared at the door. “Have them saddle a horse for me, and get me provisions for a trip to Chorrol,” Jauffre instructed. The Blade saluted and disappeared to do the errand.
Jauffre found Beran Retienne’s farm without difficulty, even though it had been twenty-three years since his previous visit. But he had no idea where the cave was, so he reluctantly decided to go ask at the farmhouse. He dismounted just as Beran himself came round the corner to see who the visitor was.
When he saw Jauffre he froze for a moment, but then came closer. “Hello again,” he greeted Jauffre as if he had seen him only a few days ago. “You’ll be looking for Lark, then?”
“I am,” Jauffre agreed. “How are you, Beran?”
“We’re all fine,” Beran shrugged. “But your poor boy, now – he’s not so fine.” He pointed down the road. “Go down that way about two miles, you’ll see a track turn off to the right. Follow that up to the cave.”
“Thank you,” Jauffre said. “I’ll come by here when I head back.”
“You’ll be welcome,” Beran said. “Now mind the cows!”
Jauffre did not understand Beran’s last remark until he got to the cave, where twenty cows were lazily chewing the cud in the corral. He dismounted and hitched his horse to a fence post.
When he stepped inside the cave he took a moment to let his eyes adjust to the darkness, but before he could take another step, he heard a voice.
“Why did you come here?”
“Lark?” Jauffre called. “It’s Jauffre.”
“Yes, I know,” Lark said distantly. “Why have you come?”
“I wanted to see if you’re all right,” Jauffre said, wondering what the matter was.
“You came all the way for that? You’d better come inside then.” Lark was suddenly right next to him and Jauffre gripped his sword. “I won’t hurt you,” Lark said, aggrieved. “This way.”
He led Jauffre down the corridor that twisted a few times before opening up into a comfortable furnished and well-lit room. “Please sit down. I’d offer you something to drink but all I have are milk and water.”
“Water is fine,” Jauffre said, watching with awe as his Blade glided about the room. It was hard to see his movements. No wonder vampires inspired such fear. Their powers seemed supernatural, and their reputation as ruthless killers was not undeserved.
Lark handed him a glass. “Now, captain, why did you really come? To see if I’m a threat to anyone? To eliminate the rogue vampire Blade?”
Jauffre sighed. “When did you become so cynical, Lark?”
“When I had to skulk like an animal from cave to cave, and hide like one in hollow logs when I was driven from caves,” Lark said bitterly. “I haven’t told anyone, but I just barely escaped some ‘concerned citizens’ who walked into a cave I was sheltering in. They found it expedient to drive me out into sunlight. It’s bad to be hunted like that, for nothing I had done.”
Jauffre nodded. “I understand, and I’m sorry. It was never my intention that you should come to any harm for doing this. In fact, I wanted you to be safe.”
“I know,” Lark said. “But what’s done is done.”
“Yes,” Jauffre agreed. “So what do you do now? I suppose you must spend your nights… hunting?” He tried to sound casual, as if this was nothing out of the ordinary.
Lark smiled, showing elongated canines. “In a manner of speaking, I suppose. I spend the night milking cows.” He laughed at Jauffre’s consternation. “Oh, I get a few sips of blood, but mostly it’s milk, yes. I leave the full cans for Beran to collect on his way to town, and he brings back the empties when he returns in the afternoon.” He picked up his lute. “I also serenade the moon on occasion.”
Jauffre smiled. “Still singing?”
“That’s what’s hardest about this,” Lark said. “I miss having an audience. The cows really don’t seem to have an ear for music.”
“Tone-deaf.” Jauffre suggested.
“Well, I have an idea,” Jauffre said. “You are still a Blade, and there is no reason why you should be all alone. You can go stay at Cloud Ruler Temple, where you will be accepted and welcome, and where you can sing to your heart’s content. Beran can find someone else to milk his cows. What do you say?”
The unshed, bloody tears in Lark’s eyes, and the incredulous joy on his face was all the answer Jauffre needed.
Part 8: Reunion
“This way, Your Majesty.”
Jauffre lead Martin into Cloud Ruler Temple’s main hall, explaining the layout of the building as he went. “To the left are the living quarters. Your room will be upstairs, I think. And to the right is the mess hall.” He regarded Martin closely. “What is the matter, Your Majesty?”
Martin sighed, pushing a weary hand through his hair. “Just tired. Please Jauffre, call me Martin. I can’t think with all of you calling me Highness and Majesty like I’m someone special.”
Jauffre nodded in agreement, but Martin could almost see him decide to slip in a few honorifics all the same. He supposed he could not blame the Blades for their joy in discovering an heir to the Septim throne after they had lost all hope, but he kept looking around to see the important person they were addressing.
Jauffre was leading him to his room. “If you’re tired, perhaps you would like to get some rest. It’s been a long journey and you’ve had a lot of shocks. Baurus here will bring your supper.” He indicated a Redguard Blade standing at attention.
“Your Majesty! I shall die to protect you!”
“Let’s hope you won’t need to, Blade,” Martin said, feeling overwhelmed. “But supper would be nice.”
“At once, Your Majesty!” Baurus disappeared in the direction of the mess hall.
“What’s with him?” Martin asked Jauffre as they climbed the stairs.
Jauffre smiled. “Forgive Baurus for his enthusiasm. He blames himself for the Emperor’s death, even though there is nothing he could have done. He is overjoyed to have an Emperor to protect once more.”
Jauffre opened a sliding door, revealing a large room with a bed, table and washing facilities. “I hope this will suffice,” he said. Martin could hear the unspoken ‘Your Majesty’ all too clearly.
Smiling, he shook his head. “This is ample, my friend. My room at the Temple in Kvatch was little more than a cell.”
“Then I’ll leave you to get settled in,” Jauffre said. “Good night… Martin.”
“Good night Jauffre. And… thank you.”
Jauffre nodded and closed the door as he left. Martin looked around the room, debating whether to just fall into bed and sleep, or whether to wash up a bit first. He remembered that there was still supper to come, so he postponed the sleeping. He was plunging his face into the water when there was a soft knock on the door. “Come in,” he called through the drops. “Just put it on the table, please.”
When he had rinsed his face and dried it, he finally noticed that it was not Baurus who had brought the tray of food. This person was dressed in a dark green robe and a hood that shaded his face so that only an impression of eyes and features could be seen. “I’m sorry, did you need anything?” Martin asked when the robed man said nothing.
“Hello Martin,” the figure finally spoke.
Martin recognized the voice after a moment. “Lark? Is that you?”
Lark threw back the hood, revealing his pale face and red eyes. “None other.”
“I thought you were dead!” Martin exclaimed. “It’s been ten years. When my father told me that you had left, and I heard nothing from you, I thought…”
“I’m sorry,” Lark said. “I couldn’t tell you where I’d gone; this place is kept hidden, after all.”
“You’ve been here all this time? But, why would the Blades let you stay here?” Martin was having trouble keeping all the revelations straight in his head.
“I am a Blade,” Lark explained patiently. “When they heard that I’d become a vampire, they recalled me to Cloud Ruler Temple, where I could live in safety.” He noted Martin’s growing comprehension. “Yes, I was a Blade when we met. I’d been assigned to teach you self-defence and to protect you.”
Martin shook his head. “This is… too much,” he said, swaying on his feet.
Instantly Lark was at his side, supporting him until he could sit down. “Here, eat something,” Lark said firmly. “They tell me you’d journeyed here without pause, from Kvatch? And you’ve been attacked several times?” Martin nodded, chewing bread. “Then you really have had too much, I agree.”
He refused to answer any more questions, and made sure that Martin ate enough to satisfy him. “Now, get some rest,” he instructed finally. “We’ll talk in the morning.”
Martin, too tired to protest, meekly lay down as Lark snuffed the candles. As he slipped into sleep he thought he heard the vampire speak.
“Good night… Your Majesty.”
They were standing on the buttress, overlooking Bruma in the early hours before dawn. “Other vampires no doubt find me rather pathetic,” Lark was saying. “I live on the blood from the venison the huntsmen bring in every day.” He smiled. “But I must be the only vampire in history who has drunk the blood of a Septim.”
Martin grinned. “Not by your choice, though.”
“Even better,” Lark agreed. “A Septim volunteered me his blood.”
“I didn’t know I was a Septim then,” Martin disavowed. “It doesn’t count.”
“Will you take away everything I could boast of?” Lark asked melodramatically.
“I would volunteer you my Septim blood rather than do that,” Martin said earnestly. “I owe you too much.”
Lark shook his head. “Now you’ve gone and spoiled a perfectly good moment with unwarranted sentimentality.”
A passing Blade on patrol gasped as he overheard Lark. Apparently one does not address one’s Emperor-in-waiting like that.
Martin laughed. “How do you get away with that? You don’t seem to be under the same rules of hierarchy as the other Blades.”
“I’m a close personal friend of the Emperor’s,” Lark explained, straight-faced. “Besides, they’ve long ago given up trying to fit me to the mold. I got the job to teach you because even then it was obvious I would bend the rules and break the mold.” He smiled his toothy smile. “Now, I think they’ve finally gotten used to me. And of course, I’m a living legend, for my singing.”
“Your modesty is awesome indeed,” Martin said. “It’s so good to have you here as a friend; one who isn’t bowing and scraping to me all the time, although I have done nothing to deserve it.”
Lark turned to look at him. “I do my bowing and scraping when you’re not looking, Martin. You may think you’ve done nothing, but you’ve given these people – all of Tamriel – hope.” He gestured out over the sleeping town. “And I have a feeling you will still get to earn all that respect.” A moment of silence. “Oh, look at that; dawn is breaking.” He turned and started walking back along the wall. “I’m off to bed for a nap, Your Majesty. If you’ll excuse me?”
“Certainly,” Martin said, following him. “I’m for the books, I think. There’s a lot to learn and not much time to do it.”
“You were always a quick learner,” Lark quipped. “You’ll do well enough!”
Part 9: Endings
Cloud Ruler Temple was in an uproar. Blades were saddling horses and packing provisions for the trip to the Imperial City. They were going as an honour guard to present Martin to the Elder Council. Although they knew that there was still danger from the daedra spawned from Oblivion, all were buoyant with hope after the Hero of Kvatch had returned with the Amulet of Kings. All Martin had to do was light the Dragon Fires and the war against Mehrunes Dagon would be won. Martin would be Emperor, and all would be well.
Lark watched from the sidelines, ignored by everyone as he would take no part in the coming events. When it became clear that he would get no chance to speak to Martin before he left, he made his way to his room and sat there listlessly picking at his lute.
“There you are,” Martin said from the door.
“I thought you’d left,” Lark said, surprised.
“Not without saying goodbye,” Martin said. “Since you can’t come with us just yet.”
“I wish I could be there in your moment of triumph,” Lark said, standing up. “I wish I could see you ascend the throne.”
Martin smiled. “I insist that you come to the coronation.” He grinned. “What good would it be without my minstrel to witness and commemorate the event with a song?”
Lark swallowed. “Then I shall surely be there, my Lord.”
Martin nodded, and the two men clasped hands. “I have to go,” Martin said.
“Yes,” Lark whispered. “You have to go.” He was filled with foreboding but could find no words to express it. He cleared his throat. “Farewell, Martin.”
“Come see me in Imperial City,” Martin said. “When you can.” With that, he turned – cloak swirling – and strode off to meet his destiny.
For two days there was silence, then news began to reach those waiting in Cloud Ruler Temple. The Oblivion Crisis was over; Mehrunes Dagon had been defeated in the very streets of Imperial City. The avatar of Akatosh himself had appeared to banish Dagon back to Oblivion. The reports were conflicting as to what exactly had happened. Apparently the Elder Council was still in charge.
It was only when Jauffre returned with the Blades that Lark finally heard what had happened to Martin. How he, confronted with the terrible figure of Dagon in the Imperial City, had lead an attack to reach the Temple of the One. How he had smashed the Amulet of Kings to unleash the power contained within. How he had been transformed into a gigantic fiery dragon; how he had destroyed Dagon and had died there for his people.
Jauffre related all this to the minstrel, who sat quietly with his hood drawn low over his face, listening.
“What an Emperor he would have been,” Jauffre concluded.
Lark lifted his head to look at him, revealing trails of blood across his cheeks. “What an Emperor he was,” he said softly.
Moonlight spilled into the roofless ruin of the Temple of the One, throwing the silhouette of the giant stone dragon into sharp relief. Beneath its feet and outstretched wings, a crowd of people stood respectfully as the singer drew to a close.
“…though mountains crumble, towers fall
Strangers overtake these halls
Rivers eternal become locked in ice
Still we’ll remember his sacrifice
His triumph stands for all to see
A beacon lit for history
A flame in darkness, star in space
Martin died to save this place.”
There was no applause. People just silently nodded their thanks, and quietly left.
Lark looked up at the dragon. “Well,” he said sadly. “I did commemorate your triumph in song, my friend. And I did come to see you.” He laid a hand on the stony foot. “It gives me no joy, only sorrow.”
There was no reply in the silent night, and the vampire minstrel finally turned to go, trailing his fingers across the stone. A sudden tingle of energy flowed into him from the statue, filling him with joy and contentment. Lark regarded the dragon with astonishment, but nothing more happened.
Softly, almost at a whisper, he began singing once more.
“For everyone there is a time
And a purpose and a place
You’ve left me now, far behind
Stepped out of the frantic race
But while the twinkle in your eye remains
As clear to me now as then
I can see you without pain
I can hear you once again
Your voice and words still reach me
Now, though I barely listened then
And your courage and wisdom teach me
Much more than I can comprehend
For everyone there is a time
And still a purpose, still a place
While you are in this heart of mine
And my memory holds your face”
The moonlight coated the dragon in perfect silver light, and Lark lifted his hood to drink in the sight. The future stretched before him, undetermined, untapped. The past was quiet now, at rest. He was smiling as he left.
The Tamriel Bureau of Investigation is a semi-secret government agency specialising in the solving of violent crimes, counter-infiltration and information gathering, cataloguing and analysis. The operatives of the TBI are highly intelligent, well-trained professionals working mostly anonymously to ensure the safe and orderly way of life that people expect from this great nation.
The headquarters of the TBI are situated in Cyrodiil City, and from there the various department heads run field branches or dispatch field agents to wherever in the provinces their services are needed. The department heads report to a triumvirate consisting of the Minister of Security, the Commissioner of Police and a reclusive man known only by the code-name ‘Lark’.
Rumour has it that this ‘Lark’ has his own secret headquarters somewhere in the Jeral Mountains, and that he oversees the TBI’s information gathering and analysis departments. The fact that ‘Lark’ has been in charge of this facet of the TBI’s operations since its inception, is easily explained by pointing out that a succession of people had been known by that code-name over he years.
It is not common knowledge that all of these people had been the same man, born over six hundred years ago. Once a minstrel and a Blade in the service of Emperor Uriel Septim, Lark is the only one who knows that the TBI is merely the modern front for the group known as the Blades
Part 1: Mystery
He dreamed of sunshine.
In his dream he walked on rolling green hills, beneath tall trees swaying in the wind. Bird song and the buzzing of insects filled his ears. He wanted to linger but his feet carried him onwards as the dream changed. Black clouds blotted out the sunlight; the breeze became a storm. Red lightning lit dark fissures and black crags with a lurid glow. Eternal fires burned within the ground. Carried ever onwards, he began to feel a fear born of despair – a fear that he could never escape this place.
Then he saw it: four stone pillars, and bound to them with chains and shackles, a dragon.
The dragon lay spent between the pillars, the signs of its struggles carved into the solid rock beneath it. Its hide, once fiery red, was scuffed and dull, and the shackles had cut deep into its flesh.
He felt such sadness for the dragon’s plight, but still the dream had hold of him and he could only reach out in compassion as he went by. The dragon lifted its head to regard him with hope, and as he left it behind he heard the dragon speak: “Find me, Lark. You must find me!”
Lark woke at the knock on his door. He sat up, disoriented, still halfway in his latest nightmare. The knock was repeated and he looked at his watch. 3am. Dragging a hand through his hair, he finally found his voice. “Yes?”
The door opened at a crack, and his young aide, Lume, peeked in. “I’m sorry to wake you, sir,” she said. “But there is something you have to see.”
Lark yawned. “Okay, I’ll be there in a minute.”
She withdrew, closing the door, and Lark flicked on the light, squinting his sensitive eyes against the brightness. He had learned years ago that fluorescent lighting burned him just as thoroughly as sunlight did, but good old-fashioned light bulbs worked a treat. That just meant that old Cloud Ruler would stay a little behind the times.
He dressed quickly, giving himself a critical look in the mirror on the way. The latest in experimental medicines kept his Vampirism symptoms pretty much suppressed, but if he missed a dose the red eyes, hollow cheeks and pale skin re-appeared. At the moment he looked normal, and only a few people knew of his condition.
Ablutions done, he left his room to find Lume waiting for him in the hallway. Lume was a fairly new recruit, straight from university where she had proven herself a wizard with computers and especially with extracting information from seemingly unrelated sets of data.
Lark, always quick to size up people, had seen at her job interview that Lume would be most helpful as his personal aide. He wanted to eventually tell her some unbelievable things and she would be best prepared for them if she understood the workings of the organisation as well as he did. So in stead of stuck in a little cubicle as she had expected to be, Lume travelled all over Nirn on Company business and reported back to Lark at regular intervals. She had rooms at Cloud Ruler to stay over when she was there, and whatever had happened must have been important for the staff to wake her.
“So what’s up?” Lark asked.
“This way,” she said and led the way to the main hall.
Lark was surprised to see most of his squad of security guards congregated near the door.
“What’s this?” he asked, walking closer, Lume a step behind.
The guards stepped aside to let him see. Two of them were holding a very peculiar man. His skin was pitch black, with red whorls visible in curious patterns across his arms, neck and face.
He had red eyes, glowering from under dark brows, and there was a sardonic smile playing over clever, crooked lips. Lark catalogued features as he noted them, trying to figure out what he was seeing. When he noticed the horns growing from under the black hair, he finally remembered. “Dremora!” he exclaimed. He had never even seen one since that fateful day when Martin had summoned the Daedric Prince … almost six hundred years ago.
This creature looked nothing like the Prince that Lark remembered. It was hard to focus on him, he was so black. And he had none of the arrogant attitude that Lark associated with Daedra. He stood passively in the grasp of the two guards, and he was trembling.
“Where did you catch him?” Lark asked.
A guard cleared his throat nervously. “We didn’t exactly catch him, sir,” he said. “He came to the door and knocked.”
“And?” Lark said, gesturing to indicate the current situation.
“He asked to see you, and pushed inside before we could stop him,” the guard explained.
“I see,” Lark said. “Well, let him go.” At their startled exclamations he sighed. “If he meant any harm you would not still be standing, friends. Let him go.”
The guards let go of the Dremora’s arms and stepped away. He seemed to relax and the trembling stopped. Lark realized he had been trembling with the effort of keeping himself still.
“You wanted to see me?” Lark asked.
“The dragon,” the Dremora said. “I came to help the dragon.”
“The dragon?” Lark remembered his nightmare. “Who are you?”
“Shadow,” the Dremora replied. “You must help me…” He took two steps forward and stumbled, going down hard onto his hands and knees. “I escaped… days ago…” he whispered.
“Help me, please.”
Lark regarded Shadow for a long moment. Everything he knew about Daedra told him not to trust the creature, and yet… the dragon. The dream came to him regularly and every time in more detail, and always ended with him unable to help the dragon. The appearance of a Dremora claiming to know something about the dragon was a little too coincidental to be a coincidence. And Lark felt sorry for him, because he looked so vulnerable on the floor.
Apparently, so did Lume. Before Lark could stop her she had sunk down next to Shadow and put her arm around his shoulders, supporting him. “Don’t worry,” she said. “We’ll help you.” She looked up at Lark. “We will, right?”
“We’ll see,” Lark said, unwilling to commit to anything yet. “At least, we’ll feed him,” he relented. “All right, all of you. Thanks, and let’s get back to work.”
The guards saluted and returned to their posts. Lark held out a hand to Shadow. “Come on,” he said. “You look exhausted.” With Lume’s help, Lark pulled Shadow upright. “This way.” They took him to Lark’s rooms where he sank gratefully into a chair.
Lume disappeared and came back shortly with bread, cheese and fruit juice. “All I could find in the kitchen,” she apologised.
Shadow seemed not to mind and ravenously ate everything she brought. When he was done he looked down as if ashamed. “I have no manners,” he said. “I am sorry.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Lark said. “You can rest here for a while.” He pointed to the couch.
“We’ll talk later.”
“Thank you,” Shadow said softly, lying down with a sigh. “It has been so long…” He did not even complete the sentence before he was asleep.
“The poor man,” Lume whispered as they stepped out and closed the door.
“He’s not exactly a man,” Lark said, not wanting her to be caught off guard. “Dremora are creatures from the planes of Oblivion.”
“And dragons are mythological creatures,” she said. “It’s not for real, is it?”
“I’m afraid it is,” Lark said. “And it fills me with dread, because the Daedra are not supposed to be able to enter our plane of existence any more. Not since Martin’s sacrifice…”
Lark shook his head sadly. “So time blunts the memories of those who should be grateful for what he had done… I suggest you go fire up your computer and do a little research on Martin
Septim, and on the history of the Oblivion crises. I think we may need to know all about that before this little mystery will be played out.”
“Yes sir,” she said.
“Come see me at 10am,” Lark said. “I’m going to get some more sleep and you should too…
I’m not paying you to work this early in the day.”
“Sleep well, sir,” she said. As she made her way back to her room she couldn’t help but think of the intriguing creature sleeping on the Boss’ couch.
Lark went back into his room and looked closely at the sleeping Dremora. He was wearing some kind of skin-tight black leather clothing and boots. He looked like a swath of darkness spread out over the couch, with only the peculiar red lines making a break in the even tone of his skin. Closer examination of the red marks had Lark reeling back in shock. It was obvious that the lines were freshly carved into Shadow’s flesh. Some of them still oozed blood. It must have been remarkably painful but the Dremora was so exhausted that the pain could not keep him awake.
Lark collected bandages and antiseptic cream, ready for when Shadow awoke. He did not want to disturb the sleeping Dremora. He couldn’t explain it, but he felt a growing sense of compassion for the Dremora, who had obviously suffered much before coming here. He was also very curious to find out what Shadow’s mission was. What he knew of Daedra did not fit with the image in front of him now. He had never heard of any of the Daedric creatures trying to ‘help’ anyone. They were more known (in legend, these days) as cruel, fierce warriors with no sense of mercy or compassion. Shadow was a riddle, or a trap, and Lark meant to find out which as soon as possible.
Shadow dreamed of fire. The planes of Oblivion always burned in one way or another, but the fire now followed him everywhere he went, burning his flesh with every movement. He whimpered in pain and heard the dragon moan in an echo of his anguish.
“I’ll set you free!” Shadow gasped as he dragged himself over burning rocks. Just one more pull. And another. And another…
When Lark got up again at 6:30am, Shadow was tossing feverishly on the couch. Lark shook his head, disgusted with himself. He wet a cloth and wiped Shadow’s face, carefully avoiding the oozing wounds. Shadow suddenly snarled, grabbing Lark’s hand and pushing it away with surprising strength.
“You’re safe,” Lark told him. “Remember? I’m Lark.”
The confusion cleared from Shadow’s eyes. “I’m sorry,” he groaned. “Did I hurt you?”
“You did not,” Lark assured him. “May I tend your wounds?”
Shadow nodded tiredly. “If you’ll help me…” He tugged at his black shirt, trying to get it over his head.
Lark helped to peel it off; shocked to see that Shadow’s entire body was criss-crossed with lines. “What happened to you?” he asked helplessly. His antiseptic cream would not be enough.
Shadow needed proper medical care and yet he could not just take him to a hospital.
“It’s a long story,” Shadow said. “I can’t seem to heal them.”
Heal them? Lark gaped at him in astonishment. He had become so used to modern life and technology that he had all but forgotten about the old magic spells. And yet, long ago, he had known such things and used them as a matter of course. He wondered suddenly if magic still worked at all.
“I can try,” he told Shadow. “Let me just think for a bit.” The last time he had used the spell was to heal Martin in the cave, just after he had become a vampire. After that he had never needed it – one of the many perks of his condition was immortality, after all. But yes, he could recall how it went. He started the invocation.
Lume woke at 6:20am, remembered the strange visitor and got up quickly. She dressed and then decided to go see if he needed anything. At Lark’s door she quietly sneaked in without knocking, just in time to see her boss make a strange gesture that resulted in a bright light enveloping the Dremora’s form.
“Wow,” she breathed. It looked like magic.
Lark swung round, startled. Then he turned back to Shadow to see if his spell had worked. It seemed that it had for the Dremora’s wounds closed, leaving only scars.
Shadow let out a deep breath. “Thank you,” he said simply.
“You’re welcome,” Lark grinned. He turned back to Lume. “Just another mythological happening, my dear.”
“What did you just do?” she asked.
“He healed me,” Shadow replied when Lark just shrugged.
“With… magic?” she said faintly.
“Who are you?”
Lark smiled. “You tell me, after you’ve done your research.”
She sighed in exasperation. “Fine, I will.”
“Good girl,” Lark said. “Go to it!”
Thus dismissed she had no choice but to go. So she did.
Lark grinned at her retreating form before turning back to Shadow. “How are you feeling now?”
“Much better,” Shadow said. “But I am hungry again.”
“That’s easily solved,” Lark said. “Let’s go see what we can find.”
In the kitchen Lark found his cook, who raised her eyebrows at the unusual guest but set to making him a proper breakfast without comment. Lark ate sparingly as usual, and swallowed a couple of pills – iron supplements – to suppress his craving for blood. When Shadow was finished, Lark decided it was high time to find out what the Dremora wanted.
“Right,” Lark said. “You’re rested, healed and fed… you’ve been remarkably docile for a Dremora… and you’ve gotten me very curious indeed. Will you tell me about the dragon? And what I can do to help?”
A frown crossed Shadow’s expressive face. “I’m not sure what to tell you,” he said finally. “A lot of what I know is a blur, very confusing.”
“Just take your time,” Lark encouraged. “What can you remember?”
“I remember pain, and fire,” Shadow whispered. “Screaming.”
“Mine, I think,” Shadow said. “I can’t remember where I came from. I was just… there, suddenly. In an awful place. There were pits of fire, and horrid creatures tormenting a great beast chained to pillars.”
“The dragon,” Lark breathed.
“Yes,” Shadow said. “I didn’t know what was going on, but I could feel the dragon’s pain as if they were torturing me in stead.” He grimaced. “These wounds on my skin… they just appeared while the creatures were torturing the dragon.” He swallowed. “I don’t know how long it lasted, but after some time they let the dragon be, and went away. I crawled to the dragon and collapsed next to it and for a while I knew nothing more.” He shuddered with remembered pain.
Lark reached out a soothing hand and Shadow jerked away.
“I won’t hurt you,” Lark said, surprised.
“I know,” Shadow said. “I can’t help it, I’m sorry.”
“It’s all right,” Lark said. “What happened then?”
“I woke when the dragon pushed at me. It looked even worse than I felt, with wounds all over its body. Somehow I knew that I had to help it, to set it free. The dragon spoke to me, I think. Or… I don’t know. But I knew I had to get away before the creatures returned. And I knew I had to find you.”
“Me?” Lark knew he was involved somehow, because Shadow’s story matched his dreams so closely. The question was why?
“I don’t know why,” Shadow said, reading his mind. “I just knew I had to find you, urgently.
I left the dragon and started to make my way somewhere… else. I have no idea where. Then the creatures returned and resumed their horrible pastime. One moment I was climbing a ridge and the next I was on the ground rolling in agony. This mark here appeared then.” The mark in question was slashed across his torso from collar bone to hip. “I realized that I would just have to keep moving regardless, or I would never get away.” He closed his eyes for a moment. “It was very hard. And I still don’t know how or when I escaped that place. But at some point I saw that it was dark all around me, no fires or red sky in sight.”
“Where were you?” Lark wondered.
“It was a cave.” Shadow said. “When I finally got outside it was night, and there were buildings with bright lights everywhere. I don’t know what I had expected but it wasn’t this.
There were fast-moving things with more bright lights going down roads…”
“Cars,” Lark said.
“I wouldn’t know,” Shadow shrugged. “I walked and kept to the shadows as much as possible. I finally saw a sign that said something about Chorrol County, so I assume I must have been close to Chorrol.”
“Chorrol is a suburb of Cyrodiil City,” Lark explained. “Long ago it was a separate town.”
“A suburb?” Shadow asked. “I’m not sure I know what that means. But anyway, I knew I had to come to Cloud Ruler Temple near Bruma to find you. I had to travel at night and find shelter in the daytime because then the torture would start…”
“Still?” Lark interrupted.
“Soon,” Shadow said. “In a while. It was really hard to find shelter; you have a very peculiar country here. It’s not at all what I expected.”
“It has changed a lot over the last few centuries,” Lark conceded. “They call it progress.”
“Whatever,” Shadow said. “So here I am; I’ve found you, but I’m not at all sure why you in particular, or how you could help the dragon.”
“We will figure it out,” Lark promised. “I’ll do whatever I can to help you.”
“I’m not important…” Shadow gasped suddenly. “It’s starting!”
In front of Lark’s astonished eyes a large gash appeared on Shadow’s face, and he groaned in pain. “To help me, you have to free the dragon,” he managed to say before another wound appeared.
Aghast, Lark half-carried the Dremora to a room, where he cast healing spells to no avail.
Each wound healed but a new one would appear to replace it. “What can I do?” he asked the moaning Dremora.
“Just… let me be,” Shadow said through clenched teeth. “There is nothing you can do.”
Lark watched for a while, until he could not stand it any longer, and then he left. He had never in his long life felt quite so helpless and so horrified. He went to his office, thinking about what the Dremora had said and what was happening to him. He could almost put his finger on what this mystery meant, but it seemed he was still missing a final link before it could fall into place.
Exactly at 10am, Lume knocked on Lark’s office door.
“Come,” Lark called and she entered. “So, what have you learned?” he asked, interested to hear what she could dredge up from old records in a few hours’ time.
She sat down, knowing Lark never stood on ceremony. “Not very much,” she said. “Most of the records were lost in the political upheavals at the end of the Third Age.” She flipped open her notebook computer. “Apparently, Martin Septim was the illegitimate son of Emperor Uriel Septim. After the assassinations of Uriel and his heirs, Martin would have become Emperor.”
She sighed. “Unfortunately the only source for this information must have been a very fanciful and romantic minstrel, for he goes on about Daedra from Oblivion and how Martin defeated them by becoming a dragon.” She shook her head. “These are obviously literary devices to symbolize the end of the Third Age.” She looked up to see Lark grinning at her. “What?”
“Who was this romantic minstrel?” Lark asked innocently.
Lume tapped a few keys. When the answer appeared she looked up quizzically at Lark. “It says his name was Lark.”
Lark nodded. “Amazing, these computers.”
She still didn’t understand. “What is the significance of the code name ‘Lark’? Does it have something to do with this minstrel?”
“It isn’t a code-name,” Lark explained gently. “It’s my own name… or at least, that’s what people called me.”
“You… you’re the minstrel? That’s impossible!”
“Not impossible,” Lark said. “Have you heard of a condition called Porphyric Haemophilia?”
She nodded slowly, her eyes growing wide. “Vampires are just stories…”
“These days, yes,” Lark agreed. “There are very few of us left.”
She instinctively started to get up and he could see the growing fear in her eyes. Once again he cursed the ‘stories’ that made all vampires evil – things to scare children with at night.
“Lume,” he said earnestly. “Have I ever harmed you? Have you ever heard that I harmed anyone at all? No? Then be assured that I am not about to change into a monster just because you now know about it.”
Her common sense saw the logic in this and she settled back into the chair. “So why tell me now?”
“So that you have all the facts in the mystery of Shadow,” Lark said with a smile. “I need another head thinking about this. Take some notes, will you? I spoke with Shadow and there is something that I’m missing.”
“Shoot,” she said, tapping more keys.
“Okay,” Lark said. “Of ancient history: The Oblivion invasion was real. Daedra did attack through Oblivion gates. Martin used the Amulet of Kings, became the avatar of Akatosh, defeated Mehrunes Dagon and died of his wounds, according to witnesses.”
“This is so weird,” she said. “You want me to believe myths and legends… I’m not even sure I believe you are really a vampire! You don’t look like a vampire…”
“I take medication,” Lark grinned. “But have a good look at my teeth.” He obligingly smiled wide so that she could see his elongated canines. “Satisfied?”
“I guess so,” she said. “I’ll believe myths and legends on probation. What’s next?”
“Shadow’s story,” Lark said. “He doesn’t have any memory of who he is or where he came from; he just remembers suddenly being aware of pain in a place that sounds to me like the planes of Oblivion. He reports seeing a dragon being tortured, and he shares the dragon’s wounds…”
Lume stopped typing. “What do you mean?”
“Exactly that,” Lark said. “Whatever is done to the dragon happens to him as well.”
She shuddered. “That’s awful… go on.”
“He claims he doesn’t know how he got here, but that he had to find me specifically to help the dragon. And finally, I’ve been having dreams for weeks, about a dragon asking me for help.”
He frowned. “I think that about sums it up. The question now is what is my connection to all this? And what am I supposed to do?”
“It won’t be pretty,” Lark warned, his hand on the door knob. “Are you sure you want to see this?”
Lume nodded resolutely. “It’s not that I don’t believe you, but… I don’t believe you, you know?”
“I understand,” Lark said. “This is a huge adjustment you have to make in your thinking.” He took a deep breath. “All right, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.” He opened the door.
After several hours of torture the Dremora was in a terrible state. He lay on the floor, and it was obvious that he had thrashed around a lot earlier, but now he was nearly unconscious and unaware of his surroundings.
Lume gasped at the sight, as Lark’s description had not prepared her for the reality. “Oh, this is horrible,” she whispered. “Isn’t there anything you can do?”
Lark knelt next to Shadow. “I tried healing him but I couldn’t keep up. Tonight when it stops,
I’ll try again.” He felt Shadow’s pulse. “He’s strong enough.” Preparing to get up he heard something – almost just a vibration – coming from deep inside Shadow’s chest. He leaned closer and listened intently for a moment, then sat back with a stunned expression.
“What is it?” Lume asked.
“He’s singing,” Lark said. “Listen closely.”
It was little more than a drone in the Dremora’s rough voice, but after a while she could make out words. “… have been growing… before your ancestors were born…” He became quiet for a few moments, and then started up again. “Sunlight is peeking…”
Lark was shaking his head in denial. “No, no, no… This is impossible!” Abruptly, he got up and stormed out, leaving Lume staring after him in confusion.
She found him on the balustrade overlooking the City. He was alternating between pacing frantically or standing rigidly, hands clenching the railing.
“Lark,” she said hesitantly when he paid her no attention.
He stopped his pacing and faced her. “Do you know what that was?”
“What, the song?”
“No, I don’t know it.”
“No-one does,” he said. “No-one today.” He swung back to the railing. “And few enough, before…”
“I don’t understand,” she said.
“I wrote that song,” he said expressionlessly. “It wasn’t very popular. In fact, the only one who liked it was Martin.”
Suddenly she understood what had upset him so much. “And Martin became a dragon…”
He looked at her, anguished. “Could it be? Has he been trapped and tortured there for almost six hundred years?” He beat his hands against the railing. “If only I had known!”
“What could you have done?” she asked softly.
“I don’t know! Something, anything!” He sagged against the railing. “I have failed him so badly!” His body shook with suppressed sobs.
“Hush now,” she said, instinctively stepping closer and holding him. “You couldn’t have known. But now that Shadow is here, you have a chance to help him.”
“Shadow…” He looked up at her. “But what is Shadow?”
She let him go and turned to look over the City. “I think I’m beginning to understand,” she said slowly. “I’m making some assumptions, but…” She shrugged. “I’m assuming that Martin was pretty good at magic.”
“I’m assuming that when he defeated Dagon he somehow became trapped in the form of the dragon, and was captured on the planes of Oblivion. Perhaps over years of torture he became able to… project himself from his body.” She caught Lark’s incredulous look. “I don’t know, I’m guessing, okay?”
“Yes, all right,” Lark said.
“I think Shadow was one of the Dremora torturing him… and he took over Shadow’s body.”
“Then why doesn’t he know who he is?” Lark asked.
“Perhaps he didn’t really take Shadow over,” she mused. “He may just be able to influence or motivate him, or something.” She sighed. “There is clearly a link between them.”
“True,” Lark conceded. “Go on.”
“Well, that’s it, actually.” She smiled weakly. “I guess he made Shadow come look for you, and that’s where we are right now.”
Lark thought for a moment. “So, Shadow could break free of his control and revert to being a vicious Dremora at any time…”
She shuddered. “I suppose so, but…”
“I don’t want Shadow to be evil,” she said softly. “I like him.”
“You like Martin,” Lark cautioned. “If you’re right, and I think you are.”
She sighed deeply. “I guess.”
It was Lark’s turn to lay a sympathetic hand on her arm. “Don’t worry about it, Lume. We certainly don’t know enough yet to tell what will happen.” He smiled. “Come on, there’s a lot of things I need to find out. Do you know of anyone who collects old artefacts?”
“Sure,” she said. “I’ll go look in my database…”
Part 2: Preparations
He was floating in a black void, surrounded by swirling lights and sounds. He tried to focus on the lights but they blurred and moved away, so he gave up after a while. The sounds came and went and returned until he recognised the voice.
“He’s out cold,” Lark said. “Shadow? Can you hear me?”
A moment passed during which Shadow tried to respond but could not find the energy.
“I’d better heal him,” Lark continued.
The thought of being healed galvanised him from his stupor. “No!” he exclaimed, clutching at Lark’s shirt. “Please, don’t!”
“What? Why not?”
Shadow struggled to sit up, and Lark helped him after a moment’s hesitation.
“The torture,” Shadow gasped. “It was… much worse, this time.”
“I can see that,” Lark said, looking at Shadow’s myriad wounds. “Which is why you need healing so urgently.”
“No!” Shadow could feel his limbs trembling at the thought. “Don’t you see? You healed me this morning, and it made them angry. It was worse because you healed me!”
“But…” Lark hesitated. “They can’t see you, can they?”
“They see the dragon,” Shadow said weakly, wanting to lie back down.
“Oh my…” Lume said, walking into view. “Lark, when you heal Shadow you heal the dragon too! What happens to the one, happens to the other!”
Lark was shaking his head. “That should be impossible. There isn’t enough energy in my spell to heal both Shadow and a dragon.”
Shadow suddenly knew something about that. “It’s the energy potential caused by the difference between the planes of existence,” he explained.
Lark and Lume regarded him curiously. “What do you mean?” Lark asked.
“The realms of Oblivion are on a lower plane of existence than this one,” Shadow said. “So a spell that goes through a conduit from here to there gains power about ten-fold.”
“That makes sense,” Lume said, but Lark was frowning.
“How do you know this?”
“I just…” Shadow was at a loss. The knowledge had just come to him. “I just know, all of a sudden.”
Lark gave Lume a significant look. “Martin would know such things,” he said. “Do you suppose the dragon can hear us through you, Shadow?”
Shadow tried shrugging but he hurt too much. “I don’t know… Yes, Lark,” he continued in another tone of voice.
“Martin?!” Lark exclaimed. “Is this for real?”
There was a moment’s pause. “I can’t do this for long, Lark. It is unfortunately very real, my friend. And I hate to involve you in my problem but it is important to more than just me that I escape.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Lark said. “Of course I want to help you; I don’t care why.”
“Thank you,” Martin/Shadow said simply. “Lark, you need to find the Key of Akatosh. It is the only thing that can free me.”
“Very well,” Lark said. “Tell me quickly: Is Shadow dangerous?”
“Shadow is not what he appears to be,” Martin/Shadow said. “He doesn’t come from the realms of Oblivion at all, but from a dimension far removed from here. He responded to my call for help. The dream you had, Lark – he had it too. But he stayed to help me. You could say he is still in the dream.”
“I would have stayed if I could,” Lark said, feeling guilty.
“I know, my friend,” Martin/Shadow said. “I have to stop now… Find the Key. Shadow will guide you to me when you have it.”
“Martin!” Lark cried when the voice stopped.
Shadow sighed. “He’s gone,” he said softly. “I understand a lot of things now.”
“So do I,” Lark said bitterly. “I can just look at you to see how my friend must look – yet I can do nothing to help either of you without making it worse.” He turned and walked out, unable to stand it any longer.
Shadow lay back, feeling sorry for Lark.
He looked up at Lume. “Yes?”
“Is there anything I can do to help, that won’t make things worse?” she asked.
“Anything that isn’t a magic spell,” he said. “I want to help the dragon too, but healing us both just isn’t worth it.”
“I understand,” she said. “I can clean up your wounds and give you something for the pain if you want…”
“I’d appreciate that,” he said softly.
“Don’t go anywhere,” she said, making for the door. “I’ll be right back.”
Lark sat in his office, torn between going back and talking with Shadow in the hopes that Martin will come through again, or finding out everything he could about the Key of Akatosh. Logic won out in the end: If he found the Key and freed Martin, there would be no problem. And Martin had told him what to do.
He picked up the phone and made a call to an old acquaintance, getting his secretary as usual. “Hello, may I speak to Mr. Hassildor?” he asked.
“Who may I say is calling?”
“Tell him it’s Lark,” Lark said patiently. Hassildor was even more reclusive than himself.
After a few moments the erstwhile Count of Skingrad spoke.
“Good day, Lark. What can I do for you?”
“Janus, I have need of your inestimable knowledge of ancient artefacts and magic,” he plunged straight in.
“You say that every time,” Hassildor complained.
“I’ve said it once before. Once!” Lark said. “Come on, old friend. Aren’t you curious?”
“I don’t know, old chap,” the vampire Count said. “I find everything very tedious these days.
Curiosity has no meaning when one knows everything that can possibly happen given the circumstances.”
Still as arrogant as ever, Lark thought. “Fine, you can tell me what I’m calling about. If you’re right, perhaps you’ll still help me. If you’re wrong, you’ll have the pleasure of encountering something new.”
“It’s obvious, dear Lark,” Hassildor said. “You want to find out what the Akaviri are up to.
I’ve told you before it’s no use to try and infiltrate an agent there. You’ll just have to pay for information.”
Lark shook his head. Politics seemed so shallow and far removed from the reality of his life right now. “No,” he said a little smugly. “That’s not why I called.”
“Indeed?” Hassildor affected polite surprise. “Pray tell, then.”
“I have need of two things,” Lark said. “First, I am looking for an artefact known as the Key of Akatosh. And I also need something that can cast a constant shield around the bearer.
Something quite strong, if possible.”
“Interesting,” Hassildor said. “Why?”
“Why do you need these things?”
Lark sighed. “I’m not telling you over the phone. If you want to find out, you’d better come and see.”
“I may just do that,” Hassildor said.
“So, can you help me find these artefacts?”
“Yes, to the second, but I’ll have to find out about the first,” the vampire said.
“You have a shield?” Lark could not keep the excitement from his voice. “How soon can you get here?”
“Oh, in a few hours,” came the reply.
“Wonderful,” Lark said. “Thanks Janus. I’ll tell the guards to expect you.”
“Yes, do that,” Hassildor chuckled. “I wouldn’t want to hurt them.” He broke the connection before Lark could come up with a response to that.
Lark sat back, feeling better. His idea might not work, but at least he was trying. And
Hassildor was an old and very powerful mage; one of the handful left in Tamriel. His advice could be very useful. Pity it was such a chore to drag it out of him at times.
You’re lucky,” Lume said, cleaning Shadow’s wounds. “None of these are serious.”
“They’re not meant to be,” Shadow said tolerantly, feeling a bit mellow after drinking the pain medication. “They are meant to hurt, not kill.”
“Oh,” she said. “I can’t imagine anyone doing something like this on purpose.”
“That’s because you’re a nice person,” he smiled.
She looked down, embarrassed. “So… have you remembered anything of where you came from?”
“Sort of,” he replied, frowning. “It’s like a dream, and I’m awake now and can’t quite remember the details. But it’s a cool and dark place with lots of water and trees. I like to think it’s a peaceful place, but I have the feeling there are dangers in the darkness.”
“Is that why your skin is so dark?” she wondered. “To hide from the dangers?”
He smiled, showing white teeth. “Perhaps… or maybe I am one of the dangers.”
“I don’t think so,” she said staunchly. “You chose to help Martin; that means you’re a nice person too.”
“Lume,” he chuckled. “You’re such an optimist. But that’s a good thing, I think… What does your name mean?” he asked, going off on a tangent.
“It means ‘glowing light’ or something,” she said. “My parents were a bit too lyrical at my birth.”
“No,” he said. “I can see it. They chose a very apt name for you.”
“Oh sure,” she said a bit sarcastically.
“I mean it,” Shadow insisted, reaching out and taking her hand. “Will you light my way through darkness?”
“Um, that depends on what you mean,” she said, extracting her hand.
He shook his head. “I’ve offended you. I’m sorry!”
“No, I’m not offended,” she denied. “But what did you mean?”
“I simply asked if you would be my friend,” he said softly.
She smiled at him. “That, I would do gladly, friend.”
He sighed as if in relief. “Then, can I ask you to stay with me as I sleep? Perhaps you will keep away the nightmares…”
She nodded. “Rest easy, Shadow. I’ll be here.”
In the early evening the sound of a landing helicopter heralded the arrival of Janus Hassildor, vampire and legitimate Count of Skingrad. Lark watched from his window as Hassildor disembarked and ducked away from the ‘copter to avoid the still turning blades.
He stopped to speak with Lark’s security guard, and Lark grinned to notice that he still carried himself with an attitude of nobility, expecting respect and instant obedience hundreds of years after Tamriel’s feudal system had been replaced by a democracy.
Lark sometimes wondered if Hassildor did it on purpose to disconcert people or if the attitude was so ingrained that he was not even aware of it. In any case, Hassildor still lived in style, and apart from not actually living in Castle Skingrad, might as well still be the Count of the place, since he had never been much for socialising and his staff had run Skingrad in his name.
Lark went down to the entrance hall to meet him. “Janus, nice to see you,” he greeted, shooing away security guards.
“I see you’ve finally converted the place to use electricity,” Hassildor said, looking around disdainfully.
Lark sighed. So it was like that again, was it. Every time he had to go through a mock battle of wits with the man, before they could move on to the true purpose of their meetings. Lark supposed Hassildor did it to provide his unquestionably sharp intellect with some entertainment, but it could be annoying to put up with. Still, Hassildor could call the shots while he held the information that Lark needed.
“Not any old electricity,” Lark therefore enthused. “I’ve got a nuclear power station in the basement. Want to see?”
Hassildor stared at him. “Don’t you know that radioactivity makes vampire teeth fall out?”
“Of course,” Lark said. “That’s the final stage in my treatment, or so my doctor tells me.
Speaking of treatment, how’s yours coming along?”
Hassildor sniffed. “Your doctor is a quack, Lark, to prescribe such ridiculous treatments.
Mine is a genius – did I tell you he had me soaking in a mud bath for days to cure the skin condition?”
Lark grinned at him. “You’re as crazy as ever, I’m glad to see.”
Hassildor chuckled. “You’re the only one who still plays along, Lark. Old vampires are such a bore in most cases.”
“That they are,” Lark agreed. “Can I get you something? Wine, milk, blood?”
“I’m trying to quit,” Hassildor said, smiling. “Some wine would be nice.”
As they walked to the study, Lark quickly told Hassildor about his dreams and his unusual visitor.
“You never met Martin, did you?” he asked as they sat down with their glasses.
“No,” Hassildor said. “I did meet his foot-pad… the Champion. Useful chap.”
Lark smiled. Trust Hassildor not to be impressed with the heroics of the Champion of
Cyrodiil. “Anyway, Martin is trapped in Oblivion, and we need the Key of Akatosh to free him.
Do you have any information about it?”
Hassildor shook his head. “I left some messages but I have nothing concrete yet. You might want this now, though.” He stood up and unbuckled his belt, removing it and handing it to
Lark. “I made it myself, long ago.”
Lark took the belt. It tingled beneath his fingers, betraying the presence of enchantment.
“What exactly does it do?” he asked, fingering the finely tooled leather.
“It casts a constant shield effect of about 20%,” Hassildor said. “Enough to deflect arrows, punches and most blades.”
“Excellent,” Lark said with satisfaction. “How long will it last?”
“It’s fully charged,” Hassildor said. “A couple of months. It’s the least I could do for my old friend Lark. Will you give it to Shadow?”
“Yes,” Lark said. “If Martin is right and spells gain power ten-fold through the conduit, then he should have a constant effect shield of about 200% while Shadow wears it.”
“A formidable obstacle,” Hassildor agreed. “This is actually a very good idea, Lark. If all goes to plan, that is. Theoretically the dragon should be completely safe within that shield, because they will not be able to to dispel it without access to the belt itself.”
“That’s what I’m hoping,” Lark said. “So I can heal Shadow and keep both of them safe from then onwards.”
“Impressive,” Hassildor grinned. “You are at least not slowing down in old age.”
“Meaning you are?” Lark teased. “Perhaps you should go lie in that mud bath again for a while…”
Lume sat beside the sleeping Shadow, watching him breathe. Every now and then his breathing would get agitated and he would start tossing on his bed. Lume would then reach out and place her hand on his forehead, whispering “You’re safe, it’s just a dream,” and he would subside and sleep quietly again.
She pondered the strange things that had suddenly intruded into her previously routine life.
She had found out that her boss was a vampire; that magic was real and actually worked; that in a horrible place called Oblivion, a noble man was trapped in the form of a dragon and tortured daily; that this aptly named Shadow was suffering to help the dragon.
She wondered what it was that she felt for Shadow. Compassion, certainly, but also admiration. She thought that he was incredibly brave, but she was realistic enough to understand that he was just dealing with a situation he had no control over. Still, he was handling it with quiet dignity despite the terrible pain he was enduring. A dignity that was worthy of admiration.
She was not quite ready to admit to herself that she thought he was very handsome, despite being scarred and so unusual-looking.
She was so engrossed in this train of thought that she was startled when the door opened.
She quickly snatched her hand off Shadow’s arm and turned to face Lark, who was showing another man into the room. The newcomer was a tall, dark-haired gentleman, elegantly dressed.
He looked at her and smiled knowingly, as if he knew what she had been thinking about.
She blushed. “Ah, he’s sleeping now,” she stammered.
Lark smiled at her. “You’re doing great, thanks Lume.” He gestured to his guest. “This is Janus Hassildor. Janus, my personal aide, Lume.”
Hassildor executed a courtly bow. “Charmed.”
Lume nodded in confusion.
“Just so there are no surprises later,” Lark said. “Janus is a vampire too, Lume. But he’s almost civilised these days,” he grinned. “You have nothing to fear.”
Hassildor snorted. “I was civilised and well-respected long before you were born, whelp,” he said absently, looking at Shadow’s sleeping form. “Most remarkable. You say he’s not from Oblivion?”
“Apparently not,” Lark said, dropping the teasing. “But he bears a striking resemblance to the Dremora race.”
“Apart from that black skin,” Hassildor agreed. “Are you going to wake him?”
“He’s been struggling to sleep!” Lume protested.
“I know,” Lark said. “But I want to help him as soon as possible.” He gently shook Shadow’s arm. “Shadow? I’m sorry to wake you…”
Shadow groaned, covering his face with an arm. “What is it?” he asked finally.
“I have something that may help,” Lark said.
Shadow heaved a deep breath and struggled to sit upright. With Lume and Lark helping him, he managed it and noticed Hassildor standing there. “Who are you?” he asked.
“Janus Hassildor, at your service,” Hassildor said.
Shadow merely blinked at him.
“Janus brought you this, Shadow,” Lark said, holding out the belt. “It casts a constant shield on the wearer.”
“A shield,” Shadow said. “Do you think that will help?”
“It should,” Lark replied. “It will be a very strong shield for Martin; he should be perfectly safe if you wear it.”
“I don’t know about this,” Shadow said. “Won’t the presence of a shield just motivate them to use stronger weapons and magic to torture him?”
“I’m hoping a 200% shield will keep anything they have off him,” Lark said. “Do you know what he thinks about this? Can you tell?”
Shadow tried to reach for the presence of the dragon, but could sense nothing but exhaustion. “I think he’s sleeping,” he said finally.
Lark sighed. “Look, I certainly don’t want to expose either you or Martin to even more pain and suffering, but if I do nothing, the pain will surely continue. If the shield works, you’ll be spared that, and you’ll be able to function while we look for the Key. What do you say?”
After a long moment, Shadow nodded. “All right, I’ll try it.”
“Good,” Lark smiled in relief. “Let me help you put it on.”
With a few grunts of pain they got the belt strapped around Shadow’s waist.
“How can you tell if it’s working?” Lume asked when nothing seemed to happen.
“Try to hit him,” Hassildor suggested.
“I’ll do no such thing!” she exclaimed, shocked.
“It’s okay,” Shadow said. “You don’t have to hit hard, just try it.”
“If you say so,” she said dubiously, taking a mild swing at him. Before her hand reached him, it seemed to slip off something in the air and she missed hitting him. “Wow,” she breathed. “It works!”
“Of course,” Hassildor said. “I made it myself.”
“It’s perfect,” Lark said sincerely. “How can I repay you?”
“I’ll think of something,” Hassildor grinned. “Something suitably expensive.”
Lark rolled his eyes. “Of course.” He turned back to Shadow. “Can I heal you now? The shield should prevent further injury to either of you.”
Shadow nodded. “You might as well complete the experiment.”
“Very well,” Lark said and invoked the spell.
When the bright light had faded, all Shadow’s wounds were merely scars, and he sighed in relief. “Thank you,” he said. “I hope you won’t have to do this again soon.”
“You and me both, my friend,” Lark smiled. “Now, let’s all get some proper rest. We’ll be back in the morning to see how it goes.”
Lark rose early the next morning. He was anxious to see if his plan would work, and would not even contemplate the consequences if it did not. Before he left his room he quickly grabbed some spare clothes, and then went to the room where they had put Shadow the previous day.
Carefully opening the door, he was amused to find Lume already there, watching Shadow sleep.
“Were you here all night?” he whispered.
She nodded. “I promised I would stay with him.”
“Did you get any sleep?” he asked, concerned.
“A bit,” she said and yawned.
He shook his head at this. “Go on, go get some rest. We’ve a few hours before we’ll know.”
Noticing her reluctance, he added, “I’ll stay with him, don’t worry.”
“All right,” she yawned again. “I’ll see you later.”
Lark took her place at Shadow’s side as she left. He studied Shadow closely, noting the strong, chiselled features and the crooked, clever lips. No wonder Lume was so fascinated, he thought. Looking past the superficial similarities, there was no way one could mistake Shadow’s noble visage for that of a Dremora. He wondered what Shadow’s race was called, and where they made their home.
Shadow stirred and woke up.
“Good morning,” Lark said cheerfully. “How are you feeling?”
Shadow stood up and stretched. “Well enough, for now,” he said wryly. “Let’s hope it remains that way.”
“Yes,” Lark agreed. “Would you like to get clean?”
Shadow looked at himself and was obviously shocked at the state he was in. Lark’s spell had healed him but dried streaks of blood remained where the wounds had been. “I’d like that,” he said in reply.
“Come on,” Lark said. “I’ll show you the bathing room.” Leading the way, he told Shadow that in addition to the normal facilities in all the quarters, Cloud Ruler also had a special bathing room consisting of a heated swimming pool and a number of mineral baths fed by hot springs.
“It’s kind of funny to think of these hot springs existing in the coldest part of Cyrodiil,” he chatted as they made their way into the basement.
“You must really love bathing,” Shadow said, looking with awe at the pools of steaming water.
“It seemed like a waste to let the water just run down the mountain to cool off along the way,” Lark said. “Here, I brought you some swimming trunks, spare clothing and towels. I’ll get your own stuff cleaned. Meanwhile, enjoy. I’ll be back in half an hour.”
Shadow nodded in thanks. “I really appreciate this, Lark.”
“You’re welcome,” Lark smiled. “If you need anything, use the phone over there.” He pointed to a wall-mounted phone. “Just pick it up and talk, someone will let me know.” With that, he left Shadow to bathe in privacy.
Shadow plunged into the pool, revelling in the feeling of water moving over his skin without causing him pain. He came up for air and smoothed the water and wet strands of hair from his face. At that moment the door opened and Hassildor walked in, stopping short when he saw Shadow in the pool.
“I beg your pardon,” he said. “I didn’t know someone was in here.”
Shadow noticed Hassildor was carrying a towel. Since it was not a private bathroom he did not feel it was right for him to monopolise the place. “No, come in,” he invited. “I don’t mind.”
Hassildor looked surprised but came in. “I always visit Lark’s ‘nuclear power station’ when
I’m here,” he said as he removed his dressing gown and slippers and got into the water.
“His what?” Shadow asked, confused.
Hassildor laughed. “Just a private joke,” he explained. “Lark and I play these silly little games to keep ourselves amused. The latest is that he has a nuclear power station in the basement, so this must be it.”
“What’s a nuclear power station?” Shadow asked, as confused as ever.
“Of course, you wouldn’t know,” Hassildor apologised. “A power station is something that generates the energy we use to create light,” he gestured to the lighting fixtures, “and to power all our technological gadgets.”
Shadow nodded. He had noticed the lights but circumstances had not been optimal to inquire about them. “I expect there are a lot of things I don’t know about.”
“Well, you have no need to,” Hassildor said. “What is it like, where you come from?”
“I can’t seem to remember much,” Shadow said. “As I told Lume, it’s like I’m trying to remember a dream, and the best I can get are impressions. But I don’t think it’s even remotely similar to your world.”
Hassildor frowned thoughtfully. “Didn’t Martin say you were still in the dream?”
“Yes,” Shadow said. “But I’m not sure what he meant. Am I sleeping in my world and none of this is real?”
Hassildor smiled. “It’s real enough, I’ll wager. But the debate is always about the nature of reality.”
Shadow shrugged. “I’ll leave the debate to the philosophers,” he said, hauling himself from the pool. “I’d rather get some breakfast and face whatever may come on a full stomach, dream or not.” He started towelling himself dry.
“You have an admirable positive attitude,” Hassildor remarked, joining him.
“Well, if it’s a dream, what can I do about it?” Shadow asked. “Nothing. And if it’s real, it must be important, so I will hold out and complete whatever I’m meant to do.”
“Admirable,” Hassildor nodded. “As I said.”
“How long has Martin been trapped?” Lark wondered as they were eating breakfast. “I mean, I can’t believe it’s been five and a half centuries.”
“Why not?” Hassildor asked, buttering toast.
“Well, I had a strange experience when I visited his statue, very long ago,” Lark said. “When
I touched the statue I was filled with a feeling of joy and contentment. At the time, I hoped it signified that Martin was in a better place. I can’t believe that would have been the case had he been in this situation.” He looked inquiringly at Shadow. “Any ideas?”
Shadow ‘reached’ for the dragon. It was a matter of imagining himself next to the dragon and once again hearing him speak in his mind. “He’s only been there since you’ve been getting the dreams,” he said after a moment.
“About a month,” Lark said. “Where was he before?”
“I just get the impression of some place bright,” Shadow said. “I don’t think he wants to talk, the torture session must be about to begin.”
They all regarded him seriously. Lume sat up straight from where she had been lying over the table with her head propped up on her arm. Hassildor rested his chin on his clasped hands and waited patiently to see what would happen. Lark unexpectedly extended his hand to
Shadow, who grasped it gratefully and braced himself for the pain.
Minutes ticked by and nothing happened. All of a sudden, Shadow could ‘see’ through the dragon’s eyes. A throng of Daedric creatures were bombarding the dragon with spells and physical weapons. All of them missed. Every so often a deflected fireball or lightning strike would hit amongst the creatures, causing carnage and confusion.
“They can’t get through!” he laughed in triumph. He was on his feet; Lark was clapping him on his back and laughing; Hassildor was pumping his hand up and down and somehow, he was embracing Lume and swinging her up into the air. When all had settled down, he made a point of congratulating Hassildor. “It’s amazing how the shield just deflects everything!”
Hassildor cleared his throat modestly. “It’s a spell of my own design,” he said. “In stead of trying to absorb and dissipate the energy of the offensive spell or attack, the enchantment simply ensures that it never actually connects. It works on the principle of quantum mechanics…” He laughed. “Never mind, it’s too technical!”
“So it’s not really a shield at all,” Lume realised. “You should call it a deflector.”
Hassildor smiled broadly. “For you, dear lady, anything.”
Lume blushed, saw that she was still hugging Shadow’s arm and blushed even more as she extricated herself. “So what’s next?” she asked to change the unspoken subject.
“The Key,” Lark answered and Shadow emphatically agreed.
“I’d better check in with my secretary,” Hassildor said.
“I’ll get some agents working on it,” Lark said.
“I’ll go see what I can find, too,” Lume said. “Shadow, do you want to see my computer?”
Lark and Hassildor laughed at her, but as Shadow eagerly agreed, she did not mind a bit.
“This is the seat of power,” Lume joked as she rolled her chair up to her desk. Shadow gingerly sat down on a second chair, grabbing for safety when it rolled on the tiled floor.
“Really?” he asked after he had achieved stability.
“No,” she replied with a mischievous grin. “But I like to pretend it is.”
Shadow smiled absently as he looked at the strange contraption on the desk. “So what’s this?”
“Well,” she hesitated. “It’s like a huge library…”
He indicated that he knew what a library was.
Encouraged, she continued. “This computer allows me to access all the information in the library without having to go to the physical books.”
He did not really understand but nodded anyway because she was so earnest. “Show me?” he asked.
“Of course,” she said. “See, I type in my query here…” The word ‘Dremora’ appeared on the screen as she tapped knobs with letters on them. “See, there it is on the screen. Now I just run the query…” She did something with another device. “And there we go, lots of results.”
The screen was indeed now filled with text. “Why Dremora?” he asked.
“Oh,” she shrugged. “Just curious because Lark said you look like one.”
“Do I?” he wondered. “What do they look like?”
She did something on the computer. “Let’s see.”
A picture appeared on the screen, obviously a hand-drawn sketch. It portrayed a vicious- looking creature with dark, purplish-brown skin. Long black horns curled through its hair and over its head. Its face was twisted into a hateful snarl. It was wearing fearsome red-and-black armour and was wielding a cruel sword.
They looked at the picture for a long, quiet moment. Shadow, recognising the torturers from Oblivion, felt horrified to realise that these people associated him with the Dremora. Lume just thought the creature looked terrifying.
“Please say I don’t look like that to you,” Shadow said softly.
“No!” she said vehemently. “No, not at all,” she continued more calmly. “You are gentle and noble and…” She broke off and tapped a key. The picture disappeared. “It’s obvious you are nothing like that,” she said finally.
“Thank you,” he said, touched. “You and Lark have been wonderful, trusting me the way you do.”
“I knew I could, the first time I saw you,” she said confidently. “And Lark, well, he’s very quick with people.”
“Yes,” Shadow agreed. He felt like hugging her for that vote of confidence but was not sure what her reaction would be, so he changed the subject. “Can you find the Key?”
“Just a moment,” she said, working quickly. But although she tried various queries and different phrases, she got no results. Finally she sighed in frustration. “Does it have another name?”
“I don’t know,” Shadow said. “Martin didn’t say anything else, you were there.”
“Can’t you ask him?”
“I’ll try,” he said, concentrating. After a while he could ‘see’ the dragon was still safe within the shield – a fact of which he was well aware – and he also suddenly ‘knew’ more about the Key.
“It’s also known as the Key of Time,” he said.
“Good,” she said. “I’ll try that.” But even with the new information she was unable to find anything. “I give up,” she said at last. “Perhaps those old vampire guys can come up with something. After all, they actually lived when this Key was a common item or something.”
Shadow, who had become increasingly despondent at the lack of results, perked up. “I hope you’re right,” he said. “Let’s go ask them.”
“In a minute,” she said. “I just want to check my messages.” What she read had her staring in wide-eyed shock at the screen. “Oh dear,” she murmured. “This is bad.” She stood up abruptly and tugged on Shadow’s arm. “Come on, I need to speak with Lark.”
Shadow followed meekly as she pulled him along at a near run. He did not know what was going on but suspected that it concerned himself and Martin somehow.
Lark looked up, surprised when Lume walked into his office without knocking.
“Have you seen the news?” she asked without preamble. Behind her, Shadow lifted his hands in bewilderment.
“No,” Lark said calmly, wondering what could have agitated his normally placid aide. “What’s going on?”
Something very strange is happening all over Nirn,” she said. “They’re describing ‘pockets’ where people seem to get caught in time.”
“What do you mean?” Larked asked as her statement could be understood in at least two ways. “Caught in time for what?”
She made a sound of disgust, mostly at her inability to express herself clearly. “They are getting stuck where they are and can’t move on,” she tried to explain. “Hundreds of cases have been reported and more are appearing as we speak.”
Lark frowned, trying to comprehend the strange concept. “Physically stuck?”
“Yes,” she said. “Like they’re frozen or petrified in amber or something.”
“And you think… what?” Lark wondered.
“I don’t know what to think,” she threw her hands into the air. “All of this is completely impossible. Vampires, dragons, magic… all of it!” She heard the hysteria in her voice and took a deep breath. “I’m sorry. What’s more is, I can’t find a single thing to tell us where this Key of Akatosh or Time could possibly be!”
“Time?” Lark asked, his attention caught.
“Yes, Shadow asked Martin if it had another name,” she replied.
Lark met Shadow’s eyes over her head. “And he said it’s called the Key of Time? Quite a coincidence, don’t you think?”
Shadow shook his head. “No coincidence, I’d say.”
Lume twisted around to look at him. “What are you… oh, time!” she realized. “Could it be?”
“Martin did say that more was at stake than just his own liberty,” Lark mused. “I’m beginning to think this is much bigger than we thought.”
“Then the Key should provide the solution to both Martin’s problem as well as whatever is happening to Nirn,” Lume said.
“But you couldn’t find it,” Shadow said, depressed.
“No clue?” Lark asked, raising an eyebrow.
She sighed dejectedly. “Nothing at all. I had hoped that you or your friend might have found something.”
“If anyone can, it’s Hassildor,” Lark smiled. “Let’s not despair just yet.”
“Yes, sir,” Lark said, holding the telephone away from his ear as the voice on the other end took on an even shriller tone. “No sir, I have no idea what the cause of these effects is. My best people are working on it right now.” He listened patiently for a while. “Am I to understand I can commandeer any resources needed… yes, sir… global emergency… Of course, sir, you’ll be the first to know. Thank you… yes… goodbye, sir.” He put down the phone and gave a long- suffering sigh. “That was the President,” he told his fascinated audience.
“Nothing,” Hassildor said, his face uncharacteristically drawn with worry.
The reports of the strange phenomena kept coming in from all over Nirn, and it was becoming apparent that, for all that it was a slow and quiet invasion, it was an invasion nonetheless. More and more people were getting stuck in time (or space). People around them could interact with them; they could even communicate, but they could not move from where they were. It was only a matter of time before everyone on the planet was affected.
“I have tried all of my contacts,” he continued. “None of them has even heard of an artefact called the Key of Akatosh or the Key of Time. If it once existed, the knowledge is now lost.” He sighed. “I’m sorry, Lark.”
“It’s not your fault,” Lark said, feeling Hassildor’s disappointment all too keenly himself.
“Thank you for trying.”
Lume took a cheese stick from the bowl in front of her and nibbled on the end. “The problem is that we don’t even know what kind of artefact it is,” she said after swallowing. “I mean, you can call anything a key, and it might not be something that opens an actual lock, right?”
Lark nodded slowly. “You’re right, it could be anything.”
Beside Lume, Shadow stirred. “Perhaps…”
Everyone looked expectantly at him.
“It might not be an artefact at all,” he said slowly.
“What else could it be?” Hassildor asked testily. He had already spent days trying to track down the Key and did not relish the prospect of starting again.
Shadow understood Hassildor’s frustration, but he felt a growing urgency to be moving somewhere or doing something. The imposed waiting while Hassildor, Lark and Lume plied their sources of knowledge was wearing his nerves thin, thinking that one of them might get caught at any time.
“What about a spell?” Lume asked while Shadow was still contemplating Hassildor’s question.
“I don’t think…” Hassildor began but Shadow got a shaft of excitement from Martin at that moment.
“Martin agrees,” Shadow interrupted.
“Really?” Lark regarded him with bright eyes. “I wish Martin would speak to us directly.”
“You know how hard it is for him,” Shadow started, but sensed that Martin was willing. “But he’ll try.” He held himself passive and a few moments later had the strange experience again of hearing someone speaking with his mouth. Even his voice sounded different.
Lark smiled involuntarily. “Hello Martin.” He leaned forward as if that could bring him closer to Martin. “I’ll be quick. Do you know what’s going on with the world?”
Martin gave a mirthless chuckle. “Only that I’m stuck in one of those things,” he said. “I was sent to investigate the phenomenon and got caught.”
Lark, Lume and Hassildor stared at each other in astonishment.
“I thought the Daedra had captured you,” Lark said finally.
“No,” Martin said. “They found me and made the most of my helplessness. By the way, thank you for the shield,” he said in heartfelt tones.
“You’re welcome,” Lark said. “So this Key we have to find might be a spell?”
“I’m not sure,” Martin replied after a moment. “But it’s the only remaining option.”
“But where will we find it?” Hassildor demanded.
“I think you might already know, Count Hassildor,” Martin said.
“Martin,” Lark protested. “Can’t you just tell us?”
It took a long moment before Martin responded, and then his voice was noticeably weaker.
“I don’t know where to look NOW,” he said. “But the Imperial Library held much information…”
“It was destroyed!” Lark said. “Martin?” But there was no response.
Shadow took a deep breath. “Sorry, that’s all.” He felt lightheaded after the exchange. “I think he’s unconscious.”
Lark banged his hand on the table in frustration, then hung his head in apology as it made
Lume jump. “I’m sorry. I just don’t know how we’re going to find the way to learn a spell from a library that’s been destroyed for over four hundred years! The place doesn’t even exist anymore!”
“Well,” Hassildor said reluctantly. “Not everything was destroyed.”
Lark turned to look at him. “You know something,” he said, beginning to relax.
“I know an awful lot!” Hassildor snapped. Lark just grinned at him until he smiled and shook his head. “I do know this: Before the Imperial City was sacked, an Elder Scroll was stolen from the Imperial Library.”
“Impossible,” Lark said. “Isn’t it?”
“It was a daring feat of utmost skill,” Hassildor said. “Someone from the Thieves Guild got in, and out again with an Elder Scroll.”
“Okay,” Lark said. “So an Elder Scroll might have survived. But where do we find it now?”
“Ah, but I know who had it stolen,” Hassildor said.
“My esteemed colleague, Count Umbranox,” Hassildor revealed.
“The Count of Anvil? My father used to work for him,” Lark said, surprised. “Why would he steal an Elder Scroll?”
Hassildor grinned. “Funny you should say that.” He kept on chuckling for a while. “No, it’s not important,” he said finally. “What is important is that I inherited his library.”
“You’re joking!” Lark said. “You’ve had it all this time?”
Hassildor shrugged ruefully. “I didn’t know it was relevant to our current problems. Besides, we still don’t know if it will be of any help.”
“It must be,” Lark said. “It’s our last hope, in my opinion. How soon can you get it?”
“I can leave right now if you have a helicopter and a pilot available,” Hassildor said agreeably.
“I’ll go arrange it,” Lume said and quickly left.
Lark stood up. “Wonderful! I’m glad we’re getting somewhere at last!”
Shadow heartily agreed.
“Now wait a minute,” Lark said as Hassildor prepared to unroll the antique scroll. “Weren’t these things supposed to turn you blind when you looked at them?”
“Only with prolonged study,” Hassildor assured him. “I’ve been taking short looks for centuries and there is nothing wrong with my eyesight.”
“Are you sure?” Lark asked, a devilish gleam in his own eyes as he pointed to Hassildor’s feet so that Lume and Shadow could notice the mismatched socks.
Hassildor aimed a mock blow at him. “You insisted on utmost haste,” he said with exasperation. “Stop wasting time now.”
“You’re right, I’m sorry,” Lark said. “Go on, unroll it.”
Hassildor carefully unrolled the scroll, which was creaking with age. As he spread it gently open on the table, everyone leaned forward eagerly.
After a moment Lume spoke. “I can’t read a single thing.”
“Neither can I,” Lark muttered, looking at the strange diagrams and incomprehensible script.
“Shadow, does anything look familiar?”
Shadow had to reply in the negative. “I also sense only confusion from Martin,” he added.
Lark nodded. “He never had the opportunity to study the Elder Scrolls.” He looked at Hassildor who was patiently waiting. “I hope you can make sense of it.”
“Perhaps a bit more than you can,” Hassildor said. “The Elder Scrolls are very magical. With study, one can access levels upon levels of information on this one scroll.”
“Can you see anything about the Key?” Lark asked.
“Give me a minute,” Hassildor said as he started to read.
As time passed the others drifted away. Lume and Shadow went to sit at a corner table where Lume showed him a map of modern Tamriel. Lark left to report their progress to his TBI colleagues. Later he came back, followed by his kitchen staff carrying trays of food for lunch.
They ate, talking together in low voices so as not to disturb Hassildor who had not so much as budged from the table with the scroll since he had started.
Sunset had deepened into dusk by the time that he finally stopped. He got up, stretched and came over to where Lark sat, grabbing some snacks along the way. “I think I have it,” he said between bites. “There is a spell called ‘Master of Time’ which seems to deal with managing or influencing time.” He accepted a glass of juice that Lume handed him. “Thank you, my dear. The spell is quite complex, Lark. Do you want to try and learn it yourself?”
Lark shook his head regretfully. “I never was much good with any but the normal spells,” he said. “You’ve been a great help, my friend, but I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to become even more involved. You’re the only one who can learn the spell and cast it.”
Hassildor rolled his eyes. “I thought I was involved already.”
“I wasn’t planning on making you go to Oblivion,” Lark said. “But it looks as if we’ll have no other choice.”
“It will be an interesting experience,” Hassildor said. “Don’t fret, Lark. I was going to insist on going with you anyway.”
“It just proves you’re crazy,” Lark smiled. “So it will be you, me and Shadow.”
“And me!” Lume said indignantly.
The two vampires immediately began protesting but Shadow was strangely quiet, she noticed. When she could get a word in edgewise, she made the most of it. “I am going with you, you can’t stop me,” she said implacably.
“What will you do there?” Lark asked reasonably. “Shadow is the guide, Janus is the mage with the spell…”
“And what about you?” she interrupted impudently.
“And Martin specifically asked for me,” Lark completed his sentence. “You were never mentioned.”
“It’s not fair!” she said. “I have a right to go, I was in from the start!”
“It will be too dangerous, Lume,” Lark maintained. “I can’t allow it.”
“I would like her along,” Shadow said suddenly.
Lark gave him a piercing stare. “Why?”
“I don’t know,” Shadow said. “But I have a feeling that she should go.”
“Did Martin say so?”
“Yes,” Shadow lied, knowing that Lark would never believe his own feelings but would unquestioningly accept Martin’s. “She could be important.”
“Oh, very well,” Lark sighed. “You can go, Lume.”
She flashed him a brilliant smile. “You won’t regret it.”
Lark scowled at her. “Janus will need a day or so to master the spell. You have that much time to master self defence and some kind of weapon, otherwise I’m leaving you behind, no matter what anyone says.”
“Yes sir,” she said meekly.
“I’ll teach her self defence,” Shadow volunteered unexpectedly. “If I can also get some weapons training at the same time.”
Lark referred them to Rufus, the captain of his security team, and watched bemused as they left side by side. “What a time for budding romance,” he sighed, turning back to watch Hassildor studying.
Part 3: Mission
It was three days before Hassildor declared himself ready. In that time Shadow had learned to shoot with automatic weapons, but he had also insisted on practising with a katana, at which he proved to be quite adept.
Lume had demonstrated even to Lark’s sceptical satisfaction that the fencing and unarmed combat she had practised at university were still fresh in her mind. She could hold her own with a sword against Shadow and Rufus, and took them by surprise by using some sneaky tricks borrowed from unarmed combat to swing the odds in her favour even when her opponent outweighed her. She could also shoot well enough that Lark finally admitted grudgingly that she would not be a liability on the mission.
Lark had pulled every string in his considerable arsenal and got them outfitted with the latest in armour, specially designed to be nearly invisible. Covered with ‘intelligent’ fabric, the armour took on the colour of its surroundings, allowing the wearer to blend in like a chameleon.
Lark found it ironic that technology now provided the same function as a simple Chameleon spell once did.
He also requisitioned a number of enchanted items from museum collections. Getting the items was only a problem in the cases where the museum staff were already caught in time bubbles, but Lark’s agents soon became adept at picking display case locks.
When Hassildor appeared on the afternoon of the third day, everything was prepared. Lark called his team together and handed out uniforms, armour and jewellery.
“This enhances your speed and agility,” he said, giving Lume a ring. “You’re already quick; wearing this you should be able to avoid anything aimed your way.”
“Awesome,” Lume breathed.
To Shadow he gave an amulet. “You already have a shield, and you look like you can take care of yourself in a fight, so I’m giving you something to enhance marksmanship.”
Shadow accepted it, grinning. “You’ve seen my shooting range results.”
Lark smiled. “You need all the help you can get.”
“Nothing shiny for me?” Hassildor asked when Lark just gave him a uniform and armour.
“I’m sure you have everything you need,” Lark said, eyeing the rings already on Hassildor’s fingers.
“True,” the vampire Count grinned. “So, when do we leave?”
“Now,” Shadow said, eager to get going.
“We have to keep something in mind,” Lark cautioned. “When we get to Oblivion, Martin’s shield will be reduced to 20%.”
“Actually, it will be closer to 10% then,” Hassildor interrupted. “Shared between the two of them.”
“Of course,” Lark said. “So we’d better time it so that we get there when Martin is left alone.
That will also help us out: less fighting to do.”
Shadow shook his head. “I don’t think we have to worry too much about that.” At Lark’s enquiring look, he explained. “They’ve not been so eager to attack Martin for the last two days.
Martin thinks they they’re discouraged by their lack of success, but also that they have other things to worry about.”
“Same as here, Shadow said shortly, glancing at Rufus who had gotten caught on the stairs that morning.
“Ah,” Hassildor said. “That brings me to my question. Should I practice the spell on Rufus here, or will we wait until we get to Oblivion to see if it works?”
“By all means, practice,” Lark said, wondering why he had not thought of that.
Hassildor nodded, said some strange words and made a curious gesture. A glowing ball of light enveloped him, and nothing else happened.
“Um, isn’t he supposed to do it to Rufus?” Lume asked softly.
Hassildor glanced around, irritated. “I’m open to suggestions,” he said. “This spell is apparently not meant to be cast at a target. Now what?”
Lark smothered a smile, for it was indeed not funny if they could not get the spell to work.
“Try touching Rufus,” he suggested. “See what happens.”
Hassildor walked to where the guard captain stood on the stairs, the glowing light trailing behind him, then catching up when he stopped moving.
Rufus watched with wide eyes as Hassildor reached out with a glowing hand and gripped him on the shoulder. “Hey, I can move!” he cried, demonstrating by swinging his arms.
Hassildor let go and Rufus froze in place again. “Darn it.”
Hassildor paused for a moment. “I wonder…”
He touched Rufus’ shoulder again and said a strange word. The light flared up and everyone blinked. When they opened their eyes again the light was completely gone and Rufus was free.
He grabbed Hassildor’s hand and shook it. “Thank you, sir!”
“Don’t mention it,” Hassildor said, turning back to Lark. “Well, it works.”
“Great,” said Lark. “Very well, can you go around Nirn and unfreeze everyone, please? It should take a year or so.” When Hassildor just glared at him, he sobered. “Obviously that’s not an option. We will go free Martin, because he has something to do with this, and then we will try to find a solution to this problem.”
“Right!” Lume said, fired up. Shadow nodded.
“So, everyone gear up, we’ll leave at dusk,” Lark said decisively.
They all took their bundles and left to get ready.
“Aren’t you afraid?” Shadow asked softly as he watched Lume filling her backpack with provisions.
She flashed him a quick look. “Of course not, are you?”
“Yes,” he said simply, causing her to stop and look at him closely.
“What of?” she asked.
“I fear what will happen once we have freed Martin.”
“I’m afraid that I will wake up,” he said slowly.
She could think of nothing to say to that. “I’m afraid I won’t know what to do… if something attacks me,” she admitted.
“You will know and act,” he assured her. “You’re well-trained.”
“But I have never done anything like this…”
“You can stay behind,” he said. “I would like you to be safe.”
“No, I’m coming with you,” she said, squaring her shoulders. “If you can face your fear and move to meet it, then so can I.”
“Then we’ll face our fears together,” he said.
“Where to?” Lark asked Shadow, as they climbed into the helicopter.
“Back to the cave, I think,” Shadow replied. “But I’m not sure I can find it again from the air.”
“A cave near Chorrol?” Lark asked. “History has a way of repeating, my friend. I think I know the place.”
He gave instructions to the pilot who lifted the ‘copter from the pad and banked away towards Chorrol. Beneath them the twinkling lights of Cyrodiil City stretched out as far as the eye could see.
“Things sure have changed a lot,” Hassildor said, voicing Lark’s very thought.
“I can’t say I miss the monsters and bandits and evil vampire clans,” Lark replied.
“Not to mention the vampire hunters,” Hassildor added. “Civilisation is indeed more comfortable.”
“If a bit dull,” Lark smiled.
“It’s not dull at the moment,” Hassildor said, yawning to prove his lie. “Don’t worry, I’ll wake up when the action starts.”
“I hope so,” Lark said. He looked into the back of the ‘copter where Lume was holding Shadow’s hand – both hands. He was about to make a sarcastic remark when he noticed that Shadow was trembling and seemed to be a pale shade of grey rather than his usual midnight black. “What’s the matter?” Lark called over the engine noise.
“He’s never flown before,” Lume yelled back. “Tell the pilot to stop doing acrobatics with this thing.”
The pilot was flying perfectly steadily, but Lark could understand Shadow’s apprehension.
“It’s not far now,” he yelled in reassurance. Lume flashed him a grin and went back to giving Shadow lots of attention. Lark suspected – perhaps unfairly – that she was glad of the chance.
“I should have thought of this,” he said to Hassildor.
“You’ve been thinking of a lot of things,” Hassildor excused him. “Besides, I would not have been happy to walk to Chorrol just because our guide doesn’t know modern transport.”
Lark laughed. “How about riding a horse?”
“I like modern technology,” Hassildor said. “You are welcome to ride a horse or walk. I’ll fly; it’s much more dignified for a person of my status.”
“Unknown eccentric recluse?” Lark asked innocently, then had to fend off a vengeful vampire for a second. “I yield, I yield,” he laughed, then quieted. “There it is.”
The helicopter landed in a nearby parking lot, and they disembarked, carrying their weapons and packs, to stare at the track leading up through the brush to the cave.
“Well, let’s go,” Shadow said, shouldering his pack. Checking to see if everyone was ready, he resolutely led the way.
It was as dark as night in the cave.
“Torches, everyone,” Lark said, switching on his own. Thinking back he could hardly believe he had once lived in this cave.
“Torches won’t help you for long,” Shadow warned as he took the lead into the depths.
“Why not?” Lark wanted to know. The whole thing confused him as he knew every inch of the cave and it did not go down very deep. It certainly did not have a portal to Oblivion in it.
“I can’t really explain it,” Shadow said. “But we won’t be here for long. In fact,” he stopped walking and waited for them to catch up. “I’d better lead you from here on.” He held out his hand and Lark took it after a moment. “Lume, you take Lark’s hand… yes, and Hassildor, you… fine, let’s go.”
They trooped after him like a group of toddlers on an outing. Within a few steps Hassildor’s torch – no-one else had a hand free to hold one – began to grow dim. He slapped it against his thigh to no avail.
“Batteries must be going,” he muttered.
“No,” Shadow said. “Put it away; it will be darkness from here on.”
“Can you see?” Lark asked curiously as Shadow led them without hesitation through the dark.
“No,” Shadow replied. “But I know where I’m going.”
They could not tell how long it lasted, that walk through blackness. There was a firm, smooth surface beneath their feet; they never stumbled. They could feel the pressure of another’s hand in theirs, and they could hear each other’s voices; that was all. Lark and Hassildor took to teasing each other again, and Lume smiled at their antics, but Shadow just kept moving onwards, towards a destination he knew and a destiny he feared.
“I can see something,” Lume said, peering intently. After a while she recognised the vague shape as Lark, just an arm length ahead of her.
“Yes,” Shadow said. “We’re moving into Oblivion. I recommend caution and stealth from now on.”
They all quieted and watched as the landscape solidified around them. A glowering red sky bathed everything in lurid light, and cruel black rocks jutted every which way into the air.
Hideous towers dotted the land between pools and streams of molten rock.
Finally Shadow stopped. “You can let go now,” he said softly. “You’ll need your hands. If we move quickly we may get to Martin without being noticed.”
“Shouldn’t we wait until dark?” Lark asked.
“There is no night here,” Shadow said. “But Martin says it’s quieter now.”
Lark nodded in agreement and they moved on, walking carefully along a trail that skirted the edge of a river of lava. The heat was intense but their armour shielded them from most of the discomfort.
The trail took them along the river for a while, and then Shadow left it and cut across a rocky slope to the right. He halted on the crest, giving them a chance to catch their breath and spy out the lay of the land.
“Look, over there,” he said softly, pointing to a group of Dremora. Everyone ducked behind the rocks, fearful of being seen. They carefully watched the Dremora for a few minutes, and in that time none of the creatures moved at all.
“They’re caught,” Shadow said finally.
Hassildor grinned. “It couldn’t have happened to nicer people.”
“It’s a large group to get stuck,” Lark said. “It seems to be worse here.”
“Well, I’m here to help,” Hassildor said. “Should I go over there and free them?”
He raised his hands in surrender as Lark threatened to choke him. They were so intent on their scuffle that neither noticed that a Dremora had sneaked up behind them. Shadow, planning a route past the group down below, did not see him either.
It was Lume who noticed the creature; who saw it cast a spell; who made a spectacular leap – aided by the ring she wore – and pushed Hassildor out of the way just as the lightning bolt would have struck him. She rolled back to her feet and shot the Dremora before any of the others had even moved. The Dremora toppled slowly to the ground and lay still. She stared for a moment at the creature she had killed, then walked away blindly.
Hassildor picked himself up. “Good thing she came along,” he remarked, dusting off his armour.
“Yes,” Shadow said. “But what will it cost her?” He followed her to where she leaned against a rock. “Are you all right?” he asked.
She turned to him and let him hold her for a while. Finally she moved. “I’m fine now,” she said. “I’ve never killed…”
“I know,” he said. “But you acted when it was necessary. I am proud of you.”
She smiled bravely. “I faced my fear.”
“You did,” he said, giving her a quick hug. “Come on, we have to move on.”
They walked back to Lark and Hassildor. Lark came to meet them, obviously embarrassed.
“Thank you, Lume,” he said. “You did great.”
She stopped. “Don’t talk to me! You’re the one who said I would be a liability on this ‘mission’, and then you two come here and act like a couple of kids! I’m just glad I could do something, otherwise you would have had no-one to cast your precious spell!”
Hassildor lifted up his hand to draw attention to the enchanted rings he wore. “In point of fact…” he started.
“Shut up, Janus,” Lark hissed at him. Looking back at Lume he hung his head. “You’re right, Lume. We acted irresponsibly and I apologise. I’ve underestimated you and I’m glad you came along.” He put every ounce of sincerity into his apology, hoping it would mollify her. He certainly did not want discord in the team. He nudged Hassildor. “Apologise.”
Hassildor sighed. “Oh, very well. I’m sorry too, Lume. And thank you for saving me from getting a nasty shock.”
Lark shook his head. Even he would not fall for Hassildor’s attempt.
“Men,” Lume sighed. “What did I expect?” she asked rhetorically. “Are we all done? Then let’s go find Martin and get this over with.”
“Do it now,” Lark urged, keeping a nervous eye on the crowd of frozen Dremora surrounding the prone dragon.
Hassildor gave a decisive nod and started the invocation while Lume and Shadow also kept watch. They had skirted around an astounding number of frozen Daedric creatures, but there were enough still on the prowl that the journey had been anything but uneventful. Standing now at the head of the dragon – it was hard to think of it as Martin – they all wanted to get away as soon as possible.
Hassildor finished his chanting and the glowing light surrounded him again. He stepped forward, laid his hand on the dragon’s immense snout and spoke the final command. The light flared.
The dragon lifted its head and Shadow spoke up. “He says he can move.”
“What about the shackles?” Lume asked suddenly, pointing at the chains that still bound the dragon.
Shadow smiled. “He says not to worry, just wait a moment.”
The dragon began to shimmer like something seen through heat waves. The shimmering increased until all they could see was a blur, and then the blur refocused until a man remained standing in the dragon’s place. He wore a simple grey robe, and as he walked forward the shackles slipped off his hands and feet and he was free.
“Martin,” Lark whispered. “I didn’t really believe it.” He stood as if rooted to the ground, staring at his long lost friend until Martin came and embraced him.
“Thank you, my friend,” he murmured, patting Lark on the back. “We have to get moving,” he then said, taking charge. “This place is not safe; already the Daedra are coming to investigate.” He pointed to a large contingent coming towards them.
Hassildor and Lume grabbed at their weapons, but Martin stopped them. “It’s no use fighting. I can get us away if you’ll trust me.”
Hassildor grinned. “We came all this way to free you, Your Majesty. Of course we trust you.”
Martin looked startled at Hassildor’s use of his title, but let it pass. “I’m going to shift back to dragon form. When I’m done, get on my back, all of you. Oh,” he added. “Count Hassildor, when you’re all on my back, cast your spell again, but keep it active – that way we’ll be protected from the time phenomenon which is rampant in these parts.”
Hassildor nodded his understanding and Martin blurred back to dragon shape. They scrambled up his enormous folded wing and unto his back. Lark sat in front, then Hassildor,
Lume and Shadow. Hassildor started the invocation even as Martin launched himself into the air with a powerful push of his legs; then his great wings beat down and they were flying.
Beneath them the Daedric creatures howled but could only watch in frustration as their prey escaped. Hassildor cast the spell and the glowing light surrounded them all as Martin flew onwards, past towers and volcanoes, to a far black silhouette of high mountains against the red sky.
Lark was grinning madly; high on the joy of seeing Martin again as well as the thrill of flying on a dragon. Hassildor for once did not look bored. Lume could not decide between being terrified or astounded, so she settled for looking back to see how Shadow was doing. He was clinging to the dragon’s back with his eyes squeezed tightly shut, intent on just surviving one more inexplicable experience in a long string of events he had no control over.
Martin settled on a wide ledge high in the black mountains, and his passengers slid off his back. As they were rubbing sore muscles from sitting in unaccustomed positions, he changed back to his human form.
“Thanks for the rescue,” he said when they all just looked at him. “I feel as if I know you all…
Lark, it has been too long.”
Lark merely nodded.
“Count Hassildor,” Martin continued. “Thank you for finding and learning the spell. It may be the one hope we still have.”
Hassildor grinned, but his face was showing lines of fatigue due to still having to keep the spell active. “Glad to help.”
“I will help you maintain the spell,” Martin promised. He turned to Lume. “You must be
Lume,” he said. “I have seen you through Shadow’s eyes. Thank you for coming to help me.”
Lume regarded him steadily, having found confidence in herself on the journey. “It’s nice to finally meet you,” she said. “I’m just sorry that my people have forgotten you.”
He smiled. “I’m not surprised. I always tried to live a normal life, and such are not noteworthy.”
“Still,” she started to protest but he had turned away. She subsided as he faced Shadow.
“Thank you most of all, my friend,” Martin said. “You have suffered so much to free me. I have nothing to give you, but I can send you home now if you wish.”
Shadow stared at him for a moment, then looked at Lume as if asking for advice.
She felt her insides clench in fear of losing him, but forced herself to show nothing. “If you want to go home…” she said, wanting him to stay but unwilling to influence him either way.
Shadow looked down. “I can’t remember home,” he muttered. After a moment he looked
Martin in the eyes. “I’ll stay,” he said decisively. “You may still need me.”
Martin nodded and reached out to grip Shadow’s arm in appreciation. “Still you offer more,” he said softly.”But we may indeed need you. We have a dangerous road ahead of us yet.”
“Can you tell us what’s going on?” Lark asked. “And how you came to be here?” He paused.
“And, where have you been for so long? I though you had died.”
Martin smiled. “Let’s sit down and relax for a while, then. It’s a long story.” As everyone settled down he made sure he sat next to Hassildor, and placed his hand on Hassildor’s arm. “I can help you with the spell,” he explained. Whatever he did was not visible but Hassildor took a deep breath and relaxed as if he were refreshed somehow.
“Thank you, Your Majesty,” he said.
“I am just Martin,” Martin said gently.
“You are a Septim,” Hassildor said. “I knew your father, very well. He would have been proud of what you accomplished.”
Martin inclined his head in acceptance. “My father knew, as do I, that no man can escape his destiny. I was born to face Mehrunes Dagon; all my life and training had lead up to that event, and I was willing to sacrifice everything to save Tamriel from the Daedra. I fully expected to die, but when I had prevailed, and was waiting for death, I was given a choice.”
“A choice?” Lark asked. “Who by?”
“Akatosh, whose avatar I had become,” Martin said and they gaped at him in astonishment.
“Yes, my friends. I was given the chance to go to Aetherium for my deeds. I joined my father and his fathers in service to the Nine.” He smiled. “I cannot describe to you a place of perfect beauty and light, because you cannot comprehend it. Time has no meaning there; neither has death or sorrow or regret. It is far removed from everything that happens in Mundus – your plane of existence – but it is still connected to the reality of our universe. So when we became aware of the strange time phenomenon in Oblivion, we knew that if it was left unchecked, it would in the end overtake us all. I volunteered to come and see how it manifested here, but I did not expect to get caught in it myself.” He drew to a close with a wry smile. “Which is how we all now come to be here.”
“Right,” said Lark. “What’s next?”
“Yeah,” Lume said. “How do we stop this time bubble thing? We don’t even know what it is or what is causing it.”
“I know some things about it,” Martin said. “Whatever is causing this is outside of Aurbis – our universe. At the same time, there is something that may be involved, buried in the depths of Nirn. This sounds confusing.” He took a deep breath and tried again. “When Akatosh came into being, he shed some of his scales and they became the heart of Nirn.” He noticed incredulous looks. “What?”
“His scales?” Lume asked.
Martin realized with a sense of shock that his audience did not truly believe in the Nine anymore. The history of how Nirn was created and Nine that fashioned it had been demoted to fanciful legends, with no basis in truth. He sighed deeply. “You’re going to have to either believe that Akatosh, the dragon god of time, exists… or you’re just going to have to come along without understanding,” he said. “Akatosh truly is a dragon, and when he came into being, time started. His scales at the heart of Nirn anchors Aurbis in the flow of time. I think something is now interfering with that anchor, which causes the effects we’ve observed.”
Lume shook her head as if to clear it. “Oh, this is so weird. But I’ll try to keep an open mind.”
“It’s strange to me too,” Lark said. “It’s as if we’ve forgotten all that we knew to be true, with the coming of technology.”
“Don’t blame the technology,” Hassildor protested. “It’s the philosophers who argued away the existence of Aetherium, Oblivion and the Nine.” He snorted. “If you can’t see it or touch it, it isn’t real,” he mimicked. “Meanwhile I could cast spells that would make their hair stand up straight, but that would draw too much attention.” He sighed. “So one adapts and talks along with current thinking and eventually, one forgets.”
“Well,” Shadow said slowly, having listened quietly for a while. “You now know that Oblivion exists – you’re in it. And Aetherium exists, because otherwise Martin could not now be here. I would go on that and assume that Akatosh exists as well, especially since I’ve seen Martin become a dragon and I’ve flown on his back. At this time there is very little that I will not believe.”
Lark grinned. “Well said. So, how do we find the scales? Will it do any good to go to them if the interference comes from outside? And what can possibly interfere from outside? How can there be anything outside the universe?” He laughed. “Oh dear, I’ve just asked enough questions to keep the philosophers busy for years!”
Martin joined in the laughter. “You never used to be this curious,” he said. “As for the questions – I can take us to the scales. I don’t know what we can accomplish there, but I have a feeling that that should be our next step. And outside this universe are countless other universes, like grains of sand on a beach. Who knows what else could cast an eye on our little corner of infinity?”
“Now you’ve lost me,” Lark complained.
“You’re right here,” Martin teased.
“But where is here?” Lark asked in mock despair. “My poor head can’t hold such vastnesses.”
“Then look in your heart,” Martin said softly, and they all nodded in understanding.
“Not to be insensitive,” Hassildor said after a moment during which they all pondered infinity. “But where do we go from here? And for how long will I have to maintain this spell?”
“We must go back to Tamriel,” Martin said. “We need to get some supplies before we go on to Morrowind. I’m afraid you’ll have to maintain the spell constantly until we have eliminated the problem. We can’t risk you getting caught and unable to free yourself.” He touched
Hassildor’s arm again. “There, that should help for a while.” Hassildor nodded, relieved. “Just remind me when I forget,” Martin instructed the others.
“Back to Tamriel,” Lark said. “The way we came?”
“No,” Martin smiled. “The way is anywhere I want it to be. Is everybody ready? Then let’s go.”
He held out his hand, and Lark grasped it. As before they made a chain: Following Lark was Lume, Shadow and finally Hassildor. Martin led them along the ledge and within a few steps it got dark as before.
“Why can’t we see?” Lume complained as they walked.
“Because we are between planes of existence,” Martin said. “There is no light here. Technically, there is nothing to breathe here, either, but the magic takes care of that.”
“What magic?” Shadow asked. “When I came through before…”
“I opened the conduit through you,” Martin said. “If you had tried, you could have done anything I can do.” They heard him chuckle. “I suppose you still can. Do you want to turn into a dragon?”
“Not particularly,” Shadow said. “But I wanted to ask you to tell me about where I came from, and why I can’t remember it.”
There was a long silence before Martin answered. “Well,” he said. “This is a complicated issue, and I hope the answer won’t upset you…”
“I need to know,” Shadow said simply. “What am I?”
“You are a summoned soul,” Martin said softly. “In past ages, practitioners of magic could trap souls of slain beings into crystal lattices called soul gems, which were used to enchant items such as the belt you’re wearing. Many such gems were never used, leaving the souls trapped in limbo for centuries. Somehow, when I cast my dream-call for help, you responded, so I summoned you from where you were trapped, into this body, made to resemble the creatures of Oblivion so that you could pass through them easily.”
“But I seem to remember trees, and water…” Shadow said.
“That would be from your past life,” Martin explained.
“And when you said you could send me ‘home’?” Shadow asked, suddenly suspicious.
“Would you have sent me back to eternal imprisonment?”
“No, my friend,” Martin sighed. “I would release you to experience the beauty of Aetherium, even as I long to return to it myself.”
Shadow was silent while he thought about this. “I think that would be nice,” he said finally.
“Thank you for telling me. I’m not upset; I’m relieved to understand my origins.”
“I’m glad to hear that,” Martin said, still leading them on through darkness.
“Your answer might not have upset Shadow,” Lume muttered. “But it sure upset me.”
Part 4: Revelation
Martin banked to the right and glided in a slow spiral down into the gaping maw of Red Mountain. The huge volcano – which dominated most of the island of Vvardenfell – had been dormant for many centuries, ever since the Nerevarine had exterminated Dagoth Ur somewhere in the caverns below. When he reached the bottom of the crater, Martin back-winged and landed, blowing up clouds of ash and dust from the crater floor.
Amidst coughing and sneezing, his passengers got off and he transformed back to human form. “Sorry about that,” he grinned as three pairs of eyes glared at him out of soot-streaked faces. Only Shadow looked no different.
“It will wash off,” Lark said. “I hope.” He looked at the scenery. “This is a dismal place.” The crater floor was indeed depressingly devoid of life, with heat-blasted rocks, ash and cinders the only things to see. Here and there pools of sulfurous water bubbled, making the air nigh unbreathable. “Now what?”
“Now we look for a way down,” Martin said. “The scales are somewhere far below us; I can sense them.”
“So can I,” Shadow said, surprised. “They’re in a large cavern.”
“Yes,” Martin agreed. “It won’t be easy to reach.”
They found a tunnel leading downwards, almost hidden from sight beneath a large overhang. It was a tight squeeze to get in, and they had to push their backpacks ahead of them, or pull them behind, just to get through the first crack. Daylight faded almost as soon as they were through, and they donned helmets fitted with headlamps. Lark had procured everything from climbing gear to wet suits when Martin had told him they would be crawling through the bowels of the planet in search of their next objective.
At first the tunnels were as ugly as the outside landscape – lava tubes littered with broken rock and ash – but as they ventured deeper, the surfaces became polished until they were walking on iridescent volcanic glass. Their reflections followed them, skittering like mis-formed ghosts within the murky depths of the glass-like walls.
After several hours of walking, crawling, slithering, back-tracking and searching, they were all exhausted, and settled down to rest in an opalescent bubble that glowed with all the colours of the rainbow as their torches played on the walls.
Eating a meal of dehydrated rations, they all felt sorry for Hassildor who could not go to sleep, for fear of losing control of the spell. Martin helped him to regain magicka and fatigue levels, but could not supply him with much-needed rest. They finally decided to sleep in shifts so that someone would keep Hassildor company and help him stay awake. Lark took the first watch as Shadow, Lume and Martin gratefully crawled into their sleeping bags.
Shadow dreamed of tall trees on the bank of a stream winding through rolling green hills. He was creeping quietly through the undergrowth, on the trail of a deer that he was hunting. He held an elven bow in his hand, but had no arrow nocked, as he did not intend to harm the deer. He simply wanted to see if he could get close enough to get the deer in his sights; that was satisfaction enough for him.
He was close to his target and intent on moving as carefully as possible, when a sudden tingle on the back of his hands and his arms betrayed the working of magic. He fell back with a startled exclamation as the air shimmered and a figure materialized right in front of him.
“For Lord Dagon!” a rough voice shouted and a blade swept down at him.
He rolled away, desperately trying to gain his feet; trying to loosen his sword from its scabbard – just to see another attacker materialize almost on top of him. He had only a moment before the cruel weapons cut down and ended his life. Then there was a peculiar sense of being sucked into something small, and then…
“Shadow?” Someone shook him awake. “You’re dreaming.”
He struggled to get free of the sleeping bag, his heart racing. He could recall perfectly the feeling of being trapped, and he still could not get loose. Then the bag finally fell away and he jumped up, poised to fight – only to see Martin and Hassildor watching him with concern, while
Lume and Lark were still sleeping quietly on the floor. He calmed himself down with an effort.
“What’s the matter?” Martin asked when Shadow just stared at him.
“I’ve remembered who I am,” Shadow replied slowly. “Or, who I used to be, before those assassins got to me.” He looked at Hassildor. “You used to bounce me on your knee, ‘Uncle Janus'”
Hassildor stared at him in incomprehension. “On my knee? But…”
“I am Ebel Septim, third son of Uriel Septim,” Shadow said. “I visited Skingrad often with my father when I was little.”
“You’re my brother?” Martin asked, amazed.
“It would seem so,” Shadow said, looking ruefully at his midnight skin. “I don’t suppose there is any family resemblance.”
“There is something… in the lines of your face,” Hassildor said, looking at him closely. “This is astounding. You survived all this time trapped in a soul gem?”
“Fortunately I don’t recall the time passing,” Shadow said.
“So this is why is was so easy to summon you,” Martin mused. “We’re already linked by blood.” He stepped forward and embraced Shadow. “I never thought I would meet a brother,” he said, releasing him. “I was an orphan; so I thought – brought up as an only child. And when I found out who I was, my father and brothers had already been slain…”
“But didn’t you say you joined Father in Aetherium?” Shadow asked.
“Father is there,” Martin agreed. “But none of his sons, besides myself, managed to go there.”
“Then they too, are trapped like I had been,” Shadow exclaimed. “We have to free them!”
“We will find them,” Martin promised.
Shadow nodded, looking at Lark and Lume, still sleeping on the ground. “Don’t tell them yet,” he said. “It’s hard enough for Lume as is it.”
“As you wish,” Martin said. “We’d better wake them and get going anyway.”
They stood in a cathedral-like cavern, looking with awe at the scene before them. The cavern floor and vaulted ceiling were covered in stalagmites and stalactites, ranging in size from the finest filigree to immense pillars fading up into the darkness. In the center of the cavern floor, a pedestal of golden rock rose up, and above that floated a glowing globe that bathed the cavern in shades of multi-coloured light. Having struggled for almost two days to reach this spot, they stood transfixed as they stared at the globe of light.
Finally Martin spoke. “This is it, my friends,”
“Very pretty,” said Lume, and sat down on a boulder. She yawned. “I’m sorry, I’m too tired to be impressed.”
“So am I,” Hassildor said, following her example.
Lark shook his head at them. “This is the most amazing thing I have ever seen.”
“It seems to be flawed,” Shadow pointed out. The surface of the globe was indeed dull and dark in several spots. “Do you think that’s the cause of the time phenomenon?”
“I can’t think what else it could be,” Martin said. “It’s as if something is smothering it.”
“So, what do we do about it” Lark asked. “It’s huge, we can’t even reach there.”
“I could fly there,” Martin said.
“Okay,” said Lark. “Let’s go.”
“No,” Martin said. “I’m not risking any of you. I’ll go alone.”
“Now wait just a minute!” Everyone protested but Shadow’s exclamation was the most vehement. “What do you plan to do when you get there?”
“I don’t know,” Martin admitted. “I think I’ll have to concentrate on burning away the flaws as I merge with the light.”
“You mean you will die!” Lark cried. “I won’t allow it. You have sacrificed enough.”
Martin smiled at him. “Dear Lark, I can’t die, but I can return to Aetherium. And that is what I long to do more than anything. There is nothing for me in Mundus, you know that.”
Lark subsided, hurt – in ways he could not describe – to realize that Martin would not be staying. And yet, he understood the longing to be home, and Martin was right; he did not have a home on the mortal plane anymore. He nodded reluctantly. “I shall miss you, my friend.”
“And I, you,” Martin said. “But you know it is necessary.”
“Actually, no,” said Shadow. Everyone looked at him in surprise. “If you do this, and you fail… we will have no-one left to figure out how to stop this problem.”
“What are you saying?” Martin asked.
“I will go,” Shadow said. “You have the knowledge to try again if I should fail. I do not. But I can do what you can do, if you show me how.”
Martin considered the suggestion, but Lume jumped to her feet. “You’re not going to let him, are you?” she cried. “You’ve been using him from the start! Don’t make him do your work for you!”
Martin hung his head at her accusation, knowing it was true and feeling the guilt for the suffering he had caused his brother.
Shadow intervened, grabbing hold of Lume’s hand and squeezing it. “Hush, Lume,” he said, and to her surprise, she did. “Don’t feel bad, brother,” he told Martin. “It is true you used me to escape, but you also freed me. And the cause is just and of utmost importance. I am of the
Dragon blood, same as you. I know my responsibility and I will not seek to avoid my destiny.”
“Brother?” Lark asked.
“Yes,” Shadow said. “I am Ebel Septim, son of Uriel Septim.”
“I played for you, once,” Lark said after a dumbfounded moment. “At the palace.”
Shadow smiled. “I remember that, sort of. You sang a song of hope, didn’t you?”
“I did,” Lark said.
“I would like to hear it again,” Shadow said. Lume looked at him with eyes like pools of deep water. “Before I go,” he continued.
“I don’t want you to go,” she said softly, tears welling up. “I thought…”
“I know,” he said gently. “But it has to be. I am facing my fear, remember?”
She nodded, and swallowed to get her voice under control. “I will be brave for you.”
He hugged her close. “Good girl.” He turned to Lark. “Will you sing for me, Lark?”
“I don’t have my lute,” Lark said. “And I haven’t sung for so long…”
“You had a fine voice, as I recall,” Hassildor said, and Shadow nodded in agreement.
“Very well,” Lark said. After a moment he started singing. His voice soared through the cavern as if a choir sang with him, and the words lifted their spirits and showed them a bright future in spite of darkness.
“The sun still rises every day
And the brightly glowing dawn
With all her doors unopened
Lights my never ending way
The steep and rocky upward slope
Of that long and winding road
Redefines with every step
My unblemished sense of hope
Rainy days and rainy nights
Purifies the smoky air
To show my wond’ring eyes a feast
Of new and far beguiling sights
As I see the endless bay
All of nature seems to rise
To join me on my journey
To that long-awaited joyful day
Then I recall that all my days
Had left me stranded here and now
But still my steadfast sense of hope
Will lead me on to brighter ways.”
As his voice faded away, none of them were left unmoved.
“Thank you,” Shadow said huskily. “Goodbye my friends. May we meet again in Aetherium.”
Lark grasped his hand. “I wish I had time to know you better.”
Shadow smiled. “You have been a good friend.”
He shook hands with Hassildor, wiped the tears from Lume’s face and embraced her one last time, and then he faced Martin. “Promise me to find my brothers,” he said, and Martin nodded. “Right, show me what to do.” As before, the knowledge came to him through the link between Martin and himself. He took a deep breath, stretched, felt his body expand, and became a dragon.
The others watched, entranced, as he took to the air; a creature of light and fire, air and movement – he glowed like the rising sun. From shadow to light, the change was the unveiling of his soul. What had been hidden by borrowed flesh was revealed to be a light surpassing that of the globe that he now approached.
As he came close to the globe, rays of light began to shine through the dull patches on the surface. The light intensified until it shone like the heart of a star, and the dragon merged and became one with it. It became so bright that they had to close their eyes. A single note, pure as a bell, rang out through the cavern, and the light subsided. When they opened their eyes it was to behold the globe, its surface now flawless and golden. There was a slight hum from the continuing note, still echoing through the cavern, and a sense of rightness filled their hearts.
“He did it,” Martin said. “The flaw is repaired; the flow of time is restored.”
Hassildor heaved a great sigh and let the spell dissipate. “That was… beautiful,” he said with wonder.
Lume was crying and Lark went to comfort her. She clung to him. “It’s not fair,” she sobbed.
“No, it isn’t,” he said. “But it’s what he wanted.”
The idea of heroically sacrificing oneself was not enough to console her, and the memory of the golden dragon just brought her to fresh tears.
It was a quietly triumphant but suitably subdued group that finally emerged from the tunnels to look at the blasted crater landscape. For Lume the lack of beauty seemed appropriate, but Lark was subtly disappointed because of the unreasonable feeling that the world should look different now that they had solved the problem.
Martin transformed to dragon shape, and they could not help comparing him with Shadow’s magnificent final form. Alike and yet different, Martin’s immense frame seemed more substantial than Shadow’s had been, and he lacked the intense glow, looking as a consequence more real and present.
They mounted and he took off, once again blowing up ashes with the beating of his wings.
Then they were airborne and lifting over the rim of the volcano to stare down over the Bitter Coast to the Inner Sea on the horizon. He flew a straight course from Red Mountain to Cloud Ruler, passing over Skyrim and crossing the Jerall Mountains from the north.
Several hours later he landed in the courtyard of Cloud Ruler, to the consternation of Lark’s security guards. They stormed out, weapons at the ready, to battle the mythological beast, only to stop in wonder when they saw Lark and Lume waving at them. The three passengers slid off and Martin resumed human form, at which most of the guards abdicated thought and settled for staring open-mouthed as the four people conversed.
“This is it, my friends,” Martin said. “Thank you for your help.”
“You’re really leaving?” Lark asked.
“I am,” Martin confirmed. “My duty is now in Aetherium, I have no purpose here.”
“What about your brothers?” Lume asked.
“They will be found,” Martin said. “But it will take time. Perhaps, in Aetherium, a way can be devised to locate them.”
“So we won’t see you again,” Lark stated.
“Not unless you come to join me,” Martin smiled. “You know, I am glad that your modern medication can remove the symptoms of your disease, but I am saddened because it keeps you fettered to the mortal plane.” He included Hassildor in his gaze. “You both have done Tamriel great service; it is sad that you won’t let yourselves reap the reward.”
“So, should we kill ourselves?” Hassildor asked facetiously.
Martin shook his head. “That wouldn’t be right either. So I’m afraid this is farewell.” He shook Hassildor’s hand, kissed Lume on the cheek and embraced Lark. “Goodbye.” They watched mutely as he stepped back and faded away.
“At least I know he’s happy there,” Lark sighed, turning to walk through the lane of trees to the entrance. Lume slipped her arm through his and Hassildor trailed along.
“Do you think things will be back to normal now?” she wondered.
“Until the next inexplicable phenomenon hits us, I’m sure,” he smiled. “I’ll have to promote you; you’ve been a great help.”
“What? And have me do more of your work?” she asked in mock outrage. “Rather give me a bonus and a long vacation.”
“Done,” he laughed.
“And what of my reward?” Hassildor asked from behind.
“What can I give the man who has everything?” Lark said, only half in jest.
“The chance to go on a new adventure,” an unexpected voice answered.
They turned in surprise to see an unfamiliar young man approaching through the trees. He was tall and well-built, with golden hair and piercing blue eyes. A smile played over crooked, clever lips.
Lume felt her knees grow weak as she looked at him. She removed her arm from Lark’s and approached the stranger. “I know you,” she whispered, and he smiled widely.
“That’s because you illuminate the truth,” he said, reaching out and touching her cheek.
“Shadow?” Lark asked incredulously, finally recognising through long-lost memories the face of the third Septim son. “Or, Ebel, I should say.”
“Yes, Lark,” he said. “I’ve come to hand out rewards.” He reached into a pocket and pulled out two rings, which he handed to Lark and Hassildor. “These will transport you to Aetherium,” he said. They gasped in surprise. “It was deemed fair that you should have the means to go where you deserve without having to destroy yourselves. But be sure that you are ready to go, because coming back to the mortal plane is difficult and not to be attempted except in utmost need.” They nodded speechlessly.
He turned to Lume and looked at her for so long that she became embarrassed. “And me?” she asked. “What is my reward?”
He grinned at her. “Me, if you’ll have me.”
She gaped at him for a moment. “You’re kidding, right?”
He looked at Lark for help, unsure if she was happy or angry or surprised. Lark nodded encouragingly, so he took heart. “No,” he said. “Even in the brightness of Aetherium, my life would be dark without my Lume. So they let me come back to you.”
Any doubts about her feelings disappeared when she threw herself into his arms.
“Yes sir,” Lark said, doodling patiently on a piece of paper as he listened. “Well, I’ve been informed that the phenomenon was due to the effect of entropy in the universe, but with the help of beings from Aetherium, the Heart of Nirn has been re-energised and should hold good for many millennia.” He drew rays of light shooting from a center point. “Yes sir, Aetherium is really real. So is Oblivion… yes, I know that is a lot to swallow. You don’t have to if you don’t want to.” The voice rose in volume. “No sir, I’m not trying to be funny… One more thing, Mr. President. I regret that I will be resigning from my position as director of the TBI’s information branch… Yes, I have a replacement. He’s well qualified for the post. It’s in his genes, I believe.
His code-name is Shadow.”
They were standing on the balustrade looking out over the City. Shadow stood behind Lume, his arms wrapped around her.
“This is perfect,” she sighed contentedly. “Do you think they’re happy?” she asked, referring to Lark and Hassildor who had finally left the mortal plane that morning.
“I am certain of it,” he confirmed. “It’s a wonderful place… but it doesn’t have you,” he added.
“Good thing, then, that they didn’t want me,” she smiled.
“Two dirty old vampires?” he said, shocked. “Not if I had any say in the matter.”
“Luckily, you did,” she said, snuggling deeper into his embrace. They stood in silence for a while. “What of your brothers?”
“That will be one of my tasks here,” he said. “I don’t suppose the government will mind very much if I use the TBI’s new recruits to look for soul gems. It can be a training exercise.”
She laughed. “I think that’s a good idea. What is your other task?”
“Re-establish the Septim bloodline,” he murmured into her ear.
She twisted round to face him. Seeing the tenderness in his eyes, she hugged him tightly.
“Oh Shadow, I’ll be glad to help!”
The sun set and millions of lights lit up the valley below, and the stars shone up above, but the brightest light in his eyes was Lume.
If Zigo had known what he was, he might have known what to do with his life. But that was the whole problem: no-one had a clue. He was found abandoned on the steps of Bruma Chapel, snugly wrapped and packed up in an old shoe box. His absconding parents had left him a name, written on a tag around his neck, and an inheritance in the form of a golden amulet of obvious antiquity.
Zigo Sunnysto thus became a ward of the Order of Talos, who did their best to see to his needs and to educate the boy. As he grew, he realised that he was different from other people. There was no way to hide his short stature, and no point in hiding his wings.
They were the finest of gossamer, translucent and shining in all the colours of the rainbow.
Spread wide, they were twice as wide as his outspread arms, with a fine net of capillaries visible if one looked closely. He could fold them neatly to lie flat on his back, and, wearing specially modified shirts, he had no problem with flight.
Flight! Zigo loved to fly. When he was still small (not that he ever got very big), he used to flit about the rafters of the chapel, playing in the sunlight pouring through the enormous stained glass windows. The monks finally put him to work washing the windows and dusting the hard- to-reach places. Zigo did not mind the work. He was grateful for a chance to pay his way.
One day a lady visited the chapel. She was carrying a small bundle in her arms, and at her side walked a tall man, proudly but supportive. Zigo watched from a rafter as they presented their child at the altar, gripped with an intense, and surprising, longing to be part of that ceremony – to have someone caring for him the same way they cared for each other.
Old Brother Althius, the attending priest, brought out the register for the couple to sign.
“You need two witnesses,” he said apologetically. “I can stand as one, but…”
The couple looked around in consternation. Then the man laughed. “I’ll find someone outside,” he said and turned to go.
Zigo did not even think about it. He simply fell off the rafter and glided. “I can help,” he offered as he came to a soft landing in front of the man, who gaped at him in astonishment.
“Ah, young Zigo,” Brother Althius exclaimed. “Yes, you’re old enough now to do quite well.” “Really?” the man asked, as his lady came to stand by his side.
“Yes, sir,” Zigo said staunchly. “I’ve been a ward of the Order for sixteen years.” The man’s eyebrows rose, but he merely gave a small bow. “My thanks, then.”
They all turned back to the huge old book and Zigo duly witnessed the fact that Hope, daughter of Ebel and Lume Septim, had been presented at the chapel of Talos.
He gazed in awe at the tiny features of the baby, who was sleeping through the whole procedure, safe in her mother’s arms. “She’s beautiful,” he whispered, and Lume graced him with a lovely smile for that.
Then the Septims gravely shook his hand and thanked him and the priest, and left the chapel. As the door opened, the sounds of morning rush hour poured in, only to be cut off and banned from the peaceful chapel as the door swung shut again.
Zigo sighed, glad to have been part of the ceremony after all, and sad because he had not really been a part; rather an outsider needed for a moment, and then cast back into his lonely life.
That night, as he replayed the events of the day in his mind, he suddenly realised what had been nagging at his subconscious for hours. The name, Septim… Had Talos not been the Emperor Tiber Septim? Zigo had been told the history of the chapel often enough. But it must just be a coincidence; there were no Emperors any more. Perhaps these people had changed their name to Septim for some reason. Zigo shrugged, pulled the covers higher over his shoulders as a chill breeze sneaked in under his door, and fell into a dreamless sleep.
“What an extraordinary child that was,” Lume said that night. “I’ve never seen anything like him, have you?”
Her husband Ebel, also known as Shadow, shook his head. “No, I can’t begin to think what he is. Those wings!”
“A mutation?” she wondered.
“I’ve never heard of such a perfect mutation,” Shadow said after a moment. “Nothing so amazing. It’s strange that I’ve never heard of him, living in the chapel for so long.”
It was indeed strange, because Shadow, as head of the TBI’s Intelligence Section, eventually got reports on his desk of everything strange and noteworthy in the country.
Lume nodded. “But you know, I’m kind of glad the scientists haven’t discovered him. Can you imagine the life he would have if they were testing him and experimenting to find out how he came to be that way?”
“You’re right, my dear,” Shadow said, hugging her close. “I wouldn’t wish that on anyone, least of all such an amazing young man.”
The next morning Shadow discreetly tried to find out about young Zigo, but apart from the fact that he was a foundling, he could turn up nothing. Since it seemed that Zigo was safe and happy at the chapel, Shadow decided to not to interfere with the young one’s life there.
On the seventeenth anniversary of the day he had been found, Brother Althius presented Zigo with a golden amulet. “You had this with you when we found you,” he explained as Zigo examined the intricate patterns on the amulet. “I know you’ve not said much about it, my boy, but you must be curious about your origins.”
Zigo nodded, tearing his gaze away from the fascinating amulet. “I am, of course, Brother Althius. Do you know anything else about me?”
The old priest shook his head sadly. “I do not, but I believe that you will find what you need to know, eventually.”
“Find? You mean I will have to go look, out there?” He cast a wary look towards the door of the chapel. It was a startling thing to consider – he had almost never been outside. His size and his strangeness were both deterrents to venturing into the chaotic world outside the chapel.
“It’s true, you will have to leave here if you want to find your destiny,” Brother Althius said sympathetically. “But remember, you can always come back.” He looked down kindly at Zigo’s upturned face. The boy’s head barely came up to his shoulder. “The world outside is a dangerous and unpredictable place, but I think you will be fine.”
Zigo slipped the amulet’s chain over his head, and it swung down to hang on his chest as if it had always been there. Suddenly he believed Brother Althius. He would go out into the world, he would find his destiny, and he would be fine.
The crowd hushed as the lights dimmed. Music swelled as a group of acrobats trotted onto the circular stage. Then spotlights turned on and the group started their act. Working in fantastic synchronisation, they dived through turning hoops, landing and rolling back to their feet only to jump and tumble in even more acrobatic feats.
As a finale, they built a pyramid, standing on each other’s shoulders. Using a small seesaw, two of the group launched the others into the air, where they would flip over before landing on top of the growing living pyramid. When all but the two launchers where standing on the swaying structure, there was still a vacant spot right at the top. The launchers looked around, and unexpectedly motioned to a young man sitting in the front row to join them on the stage.
He refused, and they went on asking until the crowd started shouting encouragements. He finally agreed, and, seemingly reluctantly, ascended the stage.
With lots of miming and exaggerated the sign language, the launchers explained to the young man that he should step on one end of the seesaw, and then make a complicated flip and tumble, and then land on top of the pyramid. Looking very sceptical, he climbed on the seesaw. The music swelled ominously as the two tumblers climbed on the scaffold. The crowd held its collective breath as the tumblers jumped from the scaffold onto to the seesaw’s other end. The youth shot into the air, high, too high! The crowd gasped in horror as he shot over the pyramid, and then gasped again in complete astonishment as glittery wings unfolded and he flew. He made a wide turn over their heads before coming back and neatly landing on top of the pyramid. Then, mischievously, he stuck his tongue out at the two acrobats down below.
To thunderous applause the pyramid disbanded, tumblers jumping down, rolling and landing and coming back to their feet. Above them the extraordinary youth still hovered, until they all stood in a circle along the edge of the stage. Then he gently glided down and landed in the centre of the circle.
“Ladies and Gentlemen,” the ringmaster boomed out. “The Cyrodiil Tumblers… and Zigo Sunnysto!”
Zigo made his bows with the rest of the group, then folded his wings and dropped down a hatch that opened in the stage floor. He pushed past stagehands and props and made his way to the dressing room, where half the performing crew were gathered around a monitor, watching the action.
“Great job, kid,” Paulo the contortionist said, giving Zigo a slap on the shoulder that had him reeling. As the others echoed Paulo’s praise, Zigo made another bow, and smiling modestly, grabbed his bag and left. He exited with the crowd, catching a bus downtown to his apartment.
On the way he reflected that he had been with the circus long enough – five years – that they should not call him “kid” anymore. Especially not Paulo, who was two years younger than Zigo. But his size just made everyone treat him like a teen. Take the apartment, for example. He paid the rent, but had to share with someone of “adult” stature simply to be left in peace. So he provided lodging for visiting members of the Order, who were at least peaceful company when they were there. Zigo’s latest guest, Brother Lex, worked at a local homeless shelter and only came in for a shower and a nap once a day. Zigo saw very little of him.
Five years out in the world had, as Brother Althius had predicted, not been too bad after all.
For sure, Zigo had had some bad moments in the beginning, but he always seemed to get through them unscathed. People noticed his size, and most assumed he was a teenager. And although they saw his wings, and even saw him fly, no-one ever said anything about it. His circus act was a prime example. During each show the crowd went wild when he flew, but no review in any newspaper every mentioned it.
Something acted to keep him anonymous, and Zigo had decided that it must have something to do with the amulet that he always wore. Without it, he felt vulnerable, while he had no such qualms when it rested on his skin. Somehow, it gave him confidence, while also protecting him from the notice of people. Zigo accepted such help as the legacy of his unknown parents and was grateful for it, as life would have been a lot more complicated without it.
But, even though he had a well-paying job at the circus, and even though he could get around well enough in Cyrodiil City, he still had no idea what his destiny could be, and what he was supposed to do with his life. And let’s face it: he was the loneliest creature on the planet, the only one of his kind. Zigo trudged into his lonely apartment, dumped his bag, slumped down on the couch and moped.
When Hope was very small, her Daddy would tell her stories of her uncle Martin who could turn into a dragon, and of her two missing uncles that her Daddy was looking for. She never could understand why her Daddy was looking for her uncles in shiny rocks, but most evenings he would bring home a handful of rocks and study them for hours on end. That was just the way it was.
Then when she was bigger, she found out that her uncles had somehow been trapped inside some of those rocks – soul gems, her Daddy called them. And that had happened very long ago so no-one knew which gems her uncles were in. When she played in the garden at Cloud Ruler she always checked every pebble, but she never found even one soul gem.
It made her sad, to think her Daddy had been looking for so long and he could not find them, so she decided to be very good and learn all her lessons well so that she could one day help him, like the other people that worked for him. She learned about history and geography and how to use her computer. She loved maps, and would look at the place names and wonder what it would be like to live there. She learned about the many races that made up the population of Tamriel, and about their legends and their beliefs. She loved to learn everything she could.
On her eighth birthday, Shadow and Lume took Hope to see the circus. They all enjoyed the clowns and the contortionist and the man on the bicycle. The girl with the skipping rope made Hope decide that she wanted to learn skipping as soon as she got home. Then the tumblers began their act and they all watched amazed as they jumped and rolled. But the flying boy was the most wonderful thing Hope had ever seen.
“There’s Zigo!” Shadow said, astounded once more even though he expected it. “Yes,” Lume said. “I wonder if he would remember us.”
“Do you know him, Daddy?” Hope asked, jumping up and down. Zigo had landed and was bowing to the applause. “Can we go see him, Daddy, please?”
Shadow laughed and Lume shrugged. “We can try, I suppose.”
As the crowd filed out, they made their way to the stage entrance where Shadow knocked. “Could we please speak to Zigo?” he asked when the door was opened at a crack. “He might remember us from Bruma Chapel.”
The still-made-up face stretched in comic disbelief. “Bruma Chapel? You’ve got to be kidding! I’ll ask, I’ll ask,” he relented and closed the door again. A few minutes later the door opened. “Okay, come on in. Mind the balloons!”
They had to pick their way carefully as the passage was strewn with hundreds of balloons and streamers. “It’s for tomorrow’s show,” their grease-painted guide explained. “This way, and there you are.” He indicated a door, nodded at their thanks and disappeared into the room opposite, which was filled with costumes, props and equipment. Hope let out a sigh of wonder at this chance to see behind-the-scenes at the circus. Then Shadow knocked politely and opened the door.
Hope bounded inside and came up short when she realized the ‘flying boy’ was not a boy at all. “I’m sorry,” she said and stepped back to stand behind her mother.
Zigo smiled at her. “Is this young Hope?” he asked. “How time flies!” “You remembered us?” Lume asked.
“Of course,” Zigo said. “I actually recognised you in the audience tonight, so I’m glad you came to say hello.”
Shadow was shaking his head. “One meeting and eight years later you recognise us in a crowd. I could wish my agents were so observant.”
“You must have made a good impression on me,” Zigo laughed. “Now let me look at the little lady… She’s still as beautiful as when I saw her last.” He winked at Lume. “She must get that from her mother.”
Shadow laughed. “I agree.”
“Can you really fly?” Hope asked shyly.
“Why, do you think it’s just a circus trick?” he asked in return.
“No, I saw your beautiful wings…” She stepped around him. “Those wings!”
Zigo spread them, a bit nonplussed. No-one ever talked about his wings. And here the little girl and her parents stood examining them, commenting on the colours and the fine veins and the span… something was different about these people. He stood for a while and then folded his wings back, uncomfortable with all the attention.
Shadow stepped back immediately. “We’ve kept you long enough. Thanks for seeing us; it’s made Hope’s day.”
“But,” he protested, not wanting them to leave.
Lume laid a hand on his arm. “Won’t you come visit us, Zigo? If you want to…”
“I’d love to,” Zigo answered before he even thought about it.
“We’re at Cloud Ruler, just north-west of Bruma,” Shadow said. “Just ask for Shadow or Lume at the gate, any time.”
“I will,” Zigo said. “Wasn’t your name Ebel, though?” “Good memory, too,” Shadow muttered. “It’s a long story.”
“Daddy tells good stories,” Hope told Zigo earnestly. “About dragons and stars and caves
“Then I will certainly come hear them,” Zigo assured her. “I like good stories.”
With that they said goodbye and left, Hope daintily skipping over balloons on her way out.
Zigo watched and waved when they turned to look back from the door. Then he took his bag and left for home, a bounce in his step and a strange excitement in his heart. He could not think why, but he felt happy.
Zigo struggled for almost two weeks against the urge to go and visit the Septims. It made no sense to go, he told himself. He would just be a curiosity and the whole thing would be awkward. It was not as if they had anything in common with him except those few shared moments. Common sense dictated that he keep to himself and not complicate life with forced friendships.
Then a letter arrived for him at the circus, a letter from Hope, which read: “Dear Zigo, when are you coming? I want to show you my castle!” Zigo gave in at that point and common sense got demoted to the back of his mind. Even so, he could not go immediately or even the next day. The circus had several shows a day and he could not get off very easily. He had to point out to the manager that he had never missed a show in all the years he had been with them, and that there were surely applicable labour laws, before he was grudgingly allowed a few days off.
A taxi dropped him in a cul-de-sac at the foot of a long uphill-winding road, closed off by a security gate. A guard came to ask his business when he approached.
“I was told to ask for Shadow or Lume,” Zigo said. “I’m Zigo Sunnysto.”
The guard consulted a notebook, and then called for confirmation in his two-way radio. He opened the gate. “It’s a long walk up,” he said. “We don’t normally get guests on foot.”
“Don’t worry,” Zigo smiled. “I don’t mind.” He walked through as was proper. “Thanks.” The guard closed the gate and Zigo walked until the guard had gone back into the guardhouse.
Then, grinning, he flew the rest of the way.
The road ended at another gate, standing open. A long flight of steps led even higher until Zigo emerged in a garden filled with trees and flowers. Walkways extended around the garden to form battlements overlooking the city. Through the trees, Zigo could see the front porch and roof of a large house, built in the ancient Akaviri style. He walked up to the door and knocked, already feeling awkward.
A very old man, bent with age almost to Zigo’s level, opened the door and let him in. “Master Zigo,” he greeted. “I am Garvian, the butler.” He showed Zigo into a huge central room. “Please wait here for a moment.” With that he disappeared through a doorway leaving Zigo to look around.
The room was cleverly divided with furniture and screens into three distinct areas. Nearest to the entrance was a comfortable reading area with bookshelves and seating. On the opposite side there were more chairs, arranged around a large television screen mounted on the wall.
Further back was a huge old fireplace and in front of that was a large dining table as well as more places to sit. It looked as if a small army could comfortably fit in the place.
Zigo idly looked at the books, the television and all the chairs. Nothing happened and he felt more and more as if he had made a mistake in coming. “Why am I here?” he muttered to himself.
“Because you need to be,” a voice answered.
He turned around to see Shadow approaching. “I beg your pardon?” “Don’t you feel it?” Shadow asked. “There’s something about you…” “Sure,” Zigo laughed sarcastically.
“I’m not referring to your wings or anything obvious,” Shadow said. “But we need you to be here, we all felt it.”
Zigo frowned. “I don’t know about me, but you people sure are different.” Shadow smiled. “That we are. Come along upstairs, Lume is in the living room.” “This isn’t the living room?” Zigo asked, indicating the huge room.
“No, this is… well originally it was the mess hall, I suppose. It’s too big to be cosy so we use it for receptions and things, but we have our own private apartment too,” Shadow explained,
leading Zigo through a door and up some stairs. “The place used to be much smaller, of course. They added to the original structure through the centuries. The other wing contains the offices and staff quarters; this side is all ours.”
“It’s very nice,” Zigo said, not knowing what else to say. And it really was nice, neatly decorated with minimalist art and Akaviri-style screens and wall hangings. The living room looked friendly and inviting. So did Lume, who rose when they entered and then startled Zigo by hugging him like an old friend.
“You’ve finally come,” she said. “I’m so glad.”
“Um, thanks,” Zigo said as she released him. “Where’s Hope?”
“Still in school,” Lume said. “She’ll be back in a little while. Do you want anything to drink?
I’m going to make some tea for Shadow and myself.”
“Just some water, please,” Zigo said. Shadow sat down and motioned to Zigo to do the same as Lume left for the kitchen. “I’m sorry, Shadow,” Zigo started. “But I am feeling very confused. Why are you treating me like this? We don’t know each other.”
“Well, apart from simple hospitality to a guest,” Shadow said. “Lume and I have tried to keep an eye on how you’re doing ever since we met you that day. I’m sorry that we didn’t get back in touch sooner, but we didn’t realize how lonely you were.”
Zigo went from feeling awed that someone cared, to being angry that they dared to analyse him. “What do you care if I’m lonely?” he snapped. “I get along fine on my own.”
Shadow sighed. “I know you do. But tell me honestly; is there anyone you know that you can unconditionally call your friend, being the way you are? No, don’t get angry at me,” he forestalled Zigo’s outburst. “I don’t know how you do it, Zigo, but there are no records of you anywhere. People see you, but they don’t notice you. I’m surprised that you could even get the circus job, but perhaps they think it’s just a trick. The fact is that we may be the only people in the country who know you for what you are.”
“How do you know all this?” Zigo asked with a sigh of his own.
“It’s my job to know things,” Shadow replied. “And there’s nothing to know about you, according to everyone I’ve asked. But personally I know differently, so there’s a discrepancy between the world view and my own. And I think for you, stuck in the world view, it must be very lonely.”
“And why is it that you know differently?”
“It’s the Dragon blood,” Lume said from the door, carrying in a tray and putting it on the table. “The Septims can see what other people can’t.”
Zigo gaped at her for a moment before turning to look carefully at Shadow. “Dragon blood?
Who are you?”
“It’s a very long story,” Shadow said. “But yes, I really am descended from the Emperor’s bloodline.”
“And Lume?” Zigo asked. “Surely she’s not of Dragon blood either?”
“That is Lume’s special gift,” Shadow said. “She illuminates the truth.” Husband and wife looked at each other so tenderly that Zigo looked away, embarrassed.
“Sorry Zigo,” Lume apologised. “We just remembered part of Shadow’s long story. Here’s your water.”
“Thanks,” he said. “So you’re saying that you can ignore my amulet?” “What amulet?” Shadow asked, sitting up.
“This one,” Zigo said, pulling it out from under his shirt. “Apparently I had it with me when they found me on the chapel steps. The priests gave it to me when I turned seventeen. I think it’s what makes people not notice me.”
“Can I look at it?” Shadow held out his hand.
“Sure.” Zigo slipped it over his head and handed it over, feeling more vulnerable immediately. “That’s another thing. I think it boosts my confidence or something. I feel naked without it.”
Shadow studied the amulet closely. It was fashioned from finely worked gold with peculiar whorls and patterns woven around a greyish central stone. “I wish Hassildor was here,” he said to Lume. “He’d be more use than I am. I’m no expert on magical items,” he continued, speaking to Zigo. “But whatever this amulet does, I don’t think it has any constant effect on yourself or anyone near you. As far as I can tell, the enchantment will allow you to cast certain spells, but it isn’t active at the moment.”
Zigo did not understand much of that. “You mean it isn’t the amulet doing all that stuff?” “I don’t think so,” Shadow said.
“Then what is?”
“You are,” Lume said. “Consider that we had never heard of you living in the chapel for sixteen years. That was even before you got the amulet. And you had confidence enough, then.” She winked at him. “I’ll never forget how you fell out of the air that morning, just when we needed you.”
Zigo was shaking his head. “I really don’t understand any of this. Magic? What’s that? I certainly can’t do any.”
“Does it really matter?” Lume asked gently. “You do what you need to in order to survive, instinctively. And perhaps your instinct is telling you to trust us, and that is why we can see what a special person you are.” She sat down on the arm of Shadow’s chair and the two of them looked benignly at Zigo as he thought this through.
“I guess so,” he said finally. “So what’ll I do with the amulet?”
“Keep it,” Shadow said, handing it back. “It’s a good place to start looking for leads to where you come from, wouldn’t you think?”
“I couldn’t find any leads so far,” Zigo sighed. “There has never been anything like me in the books.”
“That doesn’t mean they don’t exist,” Lume said. “Perhaps they all have the same abilities you have so no-one made any mention of them.”
“Then they’re still around, somewhere,” Shadow said. “Would you allow me to help you find your people?”
“I never thought I might have people, you know,” Zigo said. “I would appreciate any help you can give me.”
“Good,” Shadow said. “And here comes the heir to the Septim throne now,” as thundering footsteps came up the stairs and down the hall.
“Zigo!” Hope yelled. “You came!”
Zigo found himself taken on a whirlwind tour of Cloud Ruler, starting with Hope’s cluttered room, then down to the sauna and swimming room in the basement, then outside around the battlements and finally up a boulder, onto a wall and up onto the roof of the great building.
Hope led him to the highest part where they both sat down and looked out over what seemed to be the entire continent.
“This is my favourite place in the whole world,” Hope said. “I can see why,” Zigo replied. “It’s marvellous.”
“I’ve never shown this to anyone else.” “Not even your mom?” he wondered.
Hope giggled. “She wouldn’t climb up here, silly! Dad might, he can do anything.”
“So why haven’t you shown him?”
“Maybe I will, some day,” she said, stretching. “But today I wanted to show you.”
“I’m honoured,” he said, meaning it. It was a novel feeling, being accepted by this family.
Strange but nice. They sat for a while in companionable silence, watching the shadows lengthen as the sun went down behind the snow-covered peaks. “Well, I’ve got to get going now,” he said finally. “I still have to go back home.”
“Aren’t you staying over?” she asked. “I thought you would.” “I don’t know about that,” he said.
“Let’s ask my parents,” she suggested, and led the way back over the roof and down to ground level.
It did not take much persuasion from Shadow and Lume to convince him to stay over. They spent the early evening playing games and asking riddles. After dinner he told them about life in the circus and Shadow started telling him bits of his long story, which seemed to be a history lesson more that anything else. Hope fell asleep on Lume’s lap, and Shadow carried her to bed. Later they showed Zigo to his room and said goodnight.
As he lay there thinking of the day, he realised that he had finally relaxed and felt perfectly comfortable in their company. Just as he fell asleep he thought he heard someone call his name but sleep claimed him before he could decide if it was real or not. It was much quieter at night in Cloud Ruler than in the city so Zigo slept very well.
Over the next few months Zigo became a frequent visitor at Cloud Ruler. For the first time ever he felt as if he had a family, albeit an adopted one, and considered his time there as a wish come true. Although Shadow could not find any information about Zigo’s people, Zigo was content to be patient until something came up. Meanwhile it provided an excuse to spend time at Cloud Ruler, where he felt more and more at home.
Then the circus went on tour through the provinces and of course Zigo went along.
Spending two weeks at each tour stop turned it into a four-month trip. Zigo loved seeing the new places and took photos like any tourist to show to Hope when he got back home.
It was during the last week of the tour that the trouble started. The first incident occurred while he was walking back to the hotel after an evening show. The sky was cloudless and he was admiring the stars, more visible in a small town than in the City, when he suddenly heard a voice clearly saying “Hail, Zigo!” He looked around but there was no-one near him. After that he heard his name spoken everywhere, incessantly. Close by or further away, he could tell by the loudness. Far away it was a constant whispering rustle, while close by he heard voices of differing tone and timbre. It was driving him mad, but there was nothing he could do about it. It did not help to stuff plugs in his ears, either. He just had to endure and hope it would go away once he got home.
When Zigo stumbled into his apartment, exhausted by frayed nerves, he was glad to notice that the voices seemed softer and further away. He gratefully slept a few hours until an insistent calling woke him. It nagged at him, subliminally. He tried turning over and pulling the pillow over his head but it was no use. Grumbling, he finally got up and dressed. It was 3am.
“Now what?” he muttered.
The call came again, stronger, so he opened the window and flew out into the night. It drew him north, to the mountains, so it was not too much of a surprise when he landed on the roof of Cloud Ruler just as dawn broke. His arrival was met by a positive clamour of voices greeting him, but he sensed that the author of the call that drew him was yet further on. He could, however, not fly another stroke. He was too tired. So he sat on Hope’s favourite spot and watched the sunrise.
Below him he could hear movement in the house as the staff arrived. The Septims did not make use of private servants, but Cloud Ruler was much more than just a residence. It housed an entire branch of the TBI and had a staff complement of almost a hundred people. Most of them stayed in and around the Bruma area and arrived early each morning for their day’s work.
But all that was irrelevant now. He sat on the roof and wished with all his heart that someone would come fetch him off it, because he was not sure he could make it on his own. And after a while, against all odds, Shadow’s head appeared over the rim of the roof.
“Zigo?” he asked, squinting against the sunlight. “It’s the strangest thing. I thought you would be up here… why are you up here?” He climbed all the way up and came to sit next to Zigo.
“I think I’m losing my mind,” Zigo whispered. “Tell me,” Shadow said simply.
So Zigo told him about the voices. “They never give me a moment’s peace,” he concluded. “What lies over there?” he asked, pointing weakly northwards.
“More mountains,” Shadow said. “And then Skyrim, you know that.” He rubbed his face with his hands, feeling inadequate.
“This is closer than Skyrim,” Zigo said softly. “But I can’t… I can’t go there now. I’ve never
flown so far before.”
“You flew all the way from your apartment? That’s almost from the west coast!” Shadow exclaimed. “No wonder you’re beat. Come inside and have some breakfast.”
“But the calling…” Zigo protested.
“Whatever it is can wait until you have rested and eaten,” Shadow said decisively. “Come on down.”
He helped Zigo get down from the roof, supporting him when he faltered. As they rounded the corner of the building and entered the main garden, the voices picked up in intensity and excitement until Zigo could stand it no longer.
“Shut up!” he yelled. “Just shut up!”
The clamour faded with a distinct sense of embarrassment. Zigo looked around in astonishment, meeting Shadow’s concerned eyes. “They’ve stopped. I don’t believe it.”
Shadow stifled his own reaction. “I’m glad, Zigo. Now come on in.”
Enjoying the first respite he had had in over a week, Zigo allowed Lume and Shadow to fuss over him. They fed him and put him to bed like a small child, and for once he did not mind at all.
Zigo left Cloud Ruler before Hope got home from school, not wanting to worry her. Shadow and Lume saw him off from the battlements as he flew northwards, following the call that still came to him even though the other voices had faded to a mere whisper. The air turned colder as he flew higher to cross the mountains, and he wondered if he would be able to go very far in
such conditions. But the sense of distance decreased and the call became ever stronger so he carried on.
He finally saw a huge old fir tree, growing high above the tree-line on an exposed mountain ridge, standing magnificently against the elements in defiance of all natural laws. He felt something twist inside him as he looked at the tree, and was filled at once with both great joy and great sadness. He landed on the ridge and walked the last few steps to the tree, looking up through the branches at the sunlight beyond. Then he placed his hand on the trunk.
“Hail Zigo,” the Tree said in a great rustle that expanded to contain all the trees in the world. “We have waited long for you.” Seemingly from the trunk, three winged individuals appeared. Although they were short, they filled Zigo with awe as he looked into their eyes and saw the wisdom of ages reflected there.
It was a very thoughtful but quietly elated Zigo that entered Cloud Ruler late that afternoon. He had spent hours in communion with the Council of the Tree, and understood his place in the scheme of things much better now.
“Well, the good news is that I am not crazy,” he told his hosts. “We never thought you were,” Lume said.
“I did,” he responded. “But in the end, all I heard were the voices of my people greeting me.
I’m a bit of a celebrity, it seems.”
“Your people?” Lume and Shadow asked simultaneously.
“Yes,” he smiled. “Apparently my people are of a race that has been obsessively shy through the millennia. They tend the trees of this world, and they can become invisible to escape detection.”
“Sort of like dryads?” Hope asked from where she sat at the table building a puzzle. “I read about them in story books.”
“Perhaps these dryads were based on my people, I don’t know,” Zigo replied. “My race is known as the Elwen.”
“Why did they abandon you?” Shadow wondered.
Zigo grinned. “I was chosen to become an ambassador of my people to the rest of the world.
They felt it would be easier for me to communicate with “big folk” if I had grown up amongst them. When I turned twenty-five last week, I finally came of age to them and they all started talking to me, but I couldn’t see them.” He pulled the amulet out. “This thing was supposed to give me spells to help me with that, but I never had any magic training – who does, these days? – and they never considered that in their plan.”
“Amazing,” Shadow said. “But why do they want an ambassador now, if they had been happy to remain unknown all this time?”
“I’ll show you,” Zigo said. “Come outside for a bit.” He led them all to the battlements where they looked out over the City. In the deepening dusk the lights spread out as far as the eye could see. “Look at that,” Zigo said. “Every day the City expands, and more trees are cut down.
Unknowingly, the “big folk” are pushing my people out of their homeland, forcing them up into the mountain valleys where there are still wild trees remaining. Oh,” he held up a hand. “They live in your gardens, of course, but the fact is that their entire race is being smothered by progress. They’re not saying you should stop, but they do want a say in how it proceeds from now on.”
“I see your point,” Shadow said. “But I’m afraid that just the one of you is not going to persuade anyone.”
“I know that,” Zigo said. “They’ll stop being so painfully shy once I’ve done some promo work.”
“How will you manage that if no-one notices you?” Lume asked.
“Yeah, well,” he smiled. “You were right about that. I can switch the effect on and off as needed. It’s an innate ability all Elwen have. The main thing will be to get used to being noticed.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Shadow said. “We’ll break the news slowly to the world. I’m not in charge of Information for nothing.”
“I was hoping you would say that,” Zigo said. “Let me try something, though.” He walked amongst the trees in the garden and concentrated, sending a mental as well as vocal call. “Come on out, guys. These big folk would love to get to know you.”
After a few moments the Septims saw someone slide down from a branch to the ground, followed shortly by five others, dressed in coarse homespun tunics, decorated with flowers and leaves. They clustered around Zigo, keeping wary eyes on Shadow and Lume who towered above them.
Hope, being shorter, soon joined them. “Have you always been here?” she asked.
After a moment one spoke up. “For as long as these trees have grown here, yes. I watched you growing up.” He winked at her. “I’m Nelvor.”
“Was it you who sang lullabies to me when I fell asleep in the garden?”
“That was my wife, Caela,” he said, pulling the small winged woman closer. “She always said you are the sweetest child she knows.”
“Oh, thank you,” Hope said. She turned around to face Shadow. “Daddy, if Zigo came to live with big folk to learn about us, shouldn’t one of us go to live with them too?”
Shadow considered the question gravely before answering. “That is a very good idea,” he finally said. “What do you think, Zigo?”
Zigo nodded. “It would certainly help with mutual understanding.” “Can I do it, Daddy?” Hope asked.
“I’m not letting you go off for the next several years,” Lume protested.
Zigo laughed. “It won’t come to that, Lume. She could interact well enough with them right here. And perhaps you could bring some more kids here, too.”
“I have no objections, then,” she said and Shadow nodded too. “But all this is going to take time and I’m getting hungry. Can I offer dinner to you all?” She indicated the Elwen still standing around Zigo.
They quickly conferred and then all but Nelvor and Caela disappeared. “They said thank you but they would rather wait for another time,” Nelvor told Lume. “But we would be happy to join you.”
“Then be welcome,” Shadow said and led the way into the house.
Zigo followed, silently marvelling at the turn his life had taken. He now knew what he was, and what to do with his life. He had people, and friends, and a destiny to fulfil. It would not be easy, there would be many obstacles, but the future would be interesting and rewarding, and worth living.
There was a knock on the door, and Shadow looked up expectantly. One of his agents entered, carrying a package.
“This just arrived from the Elwen Ambassador’s office, sir,” he said, placing the package on Shadow’s desk.
Shadow thanked him and he left. Shadow carefully unstuck the wrapping to reveal a box with a note taped to the top.
Dear Shadow, it read.
I’m sorry I can’t be there to give this to you personally, but as you know I’m travelling all over the place these days and I didn’t want you to wait any longer. My people found these in an old crater; it looks like some old building somehow fell from the sky centuries ago. Perhaps they are the ones you’ve been seeking.
Hoping to see you soon, Zigo
Shadow opened the box and contemplated the two scarred soul gems lying there. They glowed with an inner light, indicating that they contained souls, but were they the right ones? He reached into his pocket and drew out a plain golden ring – given to him in Aetherium – and slipped it on his finger. Taking a deep breath, he touched the ring to a gem and hoped…