Note: Special thanks to KatikaCreations for the valuable feedback she provided! Special thanks also to Atiyatortilla, for finding the original draft of this story (which I'd lost) and sending it to me.
The caravanner studied the silt strider's exposed brain with watchful eyes. She raised her right hand, hesitated for a moment, and then pressed her index and middle fingers into a whorl on the organ's gray and rubbery surface.
The partially hollowed shell shook as the silt strider's keening moan echoed across the wastes. Its tower-tall legs stretched, the passenger compartment tilting subtly to the left as the creature changed course. Heedless, the robed Dunmer pilgrims gathered at the back of the shell kept up their droning prayer to some Tribunal saint.
Huddled in a thick green cloak, Daria took stock of her situation: she was riding an enormous bug through the endless ash desert; her family had no idea where she was; and she was doing it as the traveling companion of her history teacher, Sera Dimartani.
Former history teacher, she corrected. Dimartani sat next to her, knees up to his nose, his long and lean body contorted to fit into the cramped passenger space.
“If you’re WONDERING,” he said, “the pilgrims are asking St. RORIS and VELOTH for a safe journey.”
“Which saint handles comfortable journeys? Because I want to make a point to not thank him.”
Dimartani made a sound halfway between a grunt and a laugh. “COMFORT is something you Imperials worry about. NOT us Dunmer!”
“Having seen High Town, I’m not sure I’d agree with that statement.”
“Which is WHY I’m glad to finally put BALMORA behind me!”
Dimartani grinned and thrust his fist into the air only to bang it against the shell. The caravanner hissed and shot him a dirty look.
He cringed. “Uh, SORRY! I am merely ENTHUSIASTIC that we are on our way to Ald'ruhn.”
Daria reached out and pressed her hands against the carapace for balance as she slowly stood up, the leathery surface beneath her shifting with the motion of the silt strider's six legs. Cautious steps took her to the open-air segment in the middle, which offered a view of the outdoors.
Cold gray skies merged with the sea of ash spreading all around them. Enormous hills of soot and cinders rose like waves frozen mid-crest, broken by basalt promontories and the blackened skeletons of petrified trees. Storm-crowned and fire-sheathed, Red Mountain burned to the east, its fuming slopes girdled by the gleaming blue band of the Ghostfence.
She had to admit she liked the view. Stark and uncompromising. A land that didn't care about social niceties, unscarred by farms or plantations.
But that didn’t mean it was safe for her. Going to Ald’ruhn was only the most recent in a series of very stupid decisions…
“Jeez, Daria! I don’t know where your stupid bug-shell hat is! It’s not something I’d even wear, so why would I steal it?” Quinn demanded.
“As part of your mad attempt to monopolize all fashion?”
“For your information, I’d only monopolize the good fashion!” She made an exasperated squeal and stormed out of the room. Daria glared at Quinn’s retreating form and then stepped over to her sister’s side of the room for a more thorough look.
“Daria, what’s going on?” her mother asked from the doorframe, arms crossed and eyes suspicious.
“If you don’t mind,” Daria said, “I’m trying to get something done.”
“Those hats cost maybe a septim a piece, you can buy a new one on the way to Jane’s house.”
“That’s not the point!”
“Daria, what’s the matter with you?”
Daria knelt to look under Quinn’s bed. “Maybe I’m tired of putting up with Quinn’s crap.”
“I didn’t even do anything mom, Daria’s just going crazy!” Quinn called out from downstairs.
“Hm, I think I see what’s happening,” mom said. “You’re upset about Jane leaving, aren’t you.”
“Why would I be? Aside from her being the only friend I’ve ever had,” Daria said, and saying that fact out loud made it hurt all over again. She groped beneath Quinn's bed, not entirely surprised that she found nothing.
“I know it’s hard. But she won’t be that far away.”
“Two days’ travel is pretty damn far.” Flustered and fed up, Daria stood back up. No point in searching for the hat at this point.
“Just make the most of this trip with her, Daria. It’s not fair to her for you to carry that attitude with you. This is a good opportunity for Jane, and you should be happy for her.”
The distant call of a silt strider—not the one she rode—awoke Daria the next day.
Pushing her aching body upright, she took her glasses out of her chitin carrying case and put them on. How long had she been out? The sun gleamed wan and distant through hazy gray clouds, still in the east though not far from noon. She must've slept through the morning.
Dimartani stood next to her, watching their surroundings with his bad eye bulging and his teeth locked into a rictus grin. It was the closest he ever came to looking happy. Daria stuck her head out of the gap in the shell.
They’d almost reached the city of Ald’ruhn. She did a double-take when she saw the palace at the north end, its form a bulbous white dome swelling out of the desert like some enormous mushroom. Not fungus, though. In actuality, the city-sized husk of a much-too-large and thankfully long-dead giant crab where the Redoran lords made their homes.
A line of silt striders walked at the head of a dust cloud to the north, their legs so tall and skinny that they seemed ready to topple yet they kept marching all the same. The call must have come from one of them.
Ald’ruhn was a world away from Balmora. Balmora's builders had laid it out in the neat straight lines befitting a Hlaalu entrepôt. Easy to enter, easy to leave. Ald'ruhn, on the other hand, existed in circles, each group of buildings like a social clique at school with faces turned to each other and backs to the world. Not easy to enter and probably not easy to leave. Around the city ran a white and winding wall punctuated by towers that looked like forlorn bones sticking out of the ash.
Again, she reminded herself of the ways of Great House Redoran. Honor-bound. Traditional. Communal. She wondered if they realized just how well their city's layout advertised that.
“We’re HERE!” Dimartani said. “I NEVER thought they’d take me back, Daria.”
The old Dunmer turned to look at her, the hard lines of his face softening. Tears stood in his red eyes. “And I OWE that to you!”
“Don’t get too excited,” Daria warned. “Great House Redoran only said they’d reconsider your case.” She felt like her mother dealing with a naïve client who had no idea how much legal trouble they were actually in.
“ALWAYS truthful and to the point!” Dimartani walked back to the little space the two of them had made for themselves next to the caravanner.
“I BELIEVE I have a good case,” he said. “I have paid off my debts through HONORABLE work. As honorable as you can get in Balmora, anyway. My sponsors also seemed IMPRESSED that I saved your life.”
Daria sat down next to him. The moan of cold desert winds echoed within the shell. “But you didn’t mention that I was an outlander.”
Dimartani pressed his lips together and looked down at the leathery floor. “Morrowind has CHANGED, Daria. Even Redoran has changed. There are OUTLANDERS within Redoran, now. VERY FEW—but some.”
“My point’s more that your sponsors might expect me to be a Dunmer and won’t react well when they see I’m an Imperial. And what did you tell them you saved me from? Did that lowly thug become a herd of rampaging kagouti in your retelling?”
Dimartani drew himself up, his odd eye quivering in its socket. “I would NEVER lie about the kill.” Then he relaxed. “I am CONFIDENT that they will take my previous service into account. I DO appreciate your help on this matter.”
“I’m always happy to help as long as it doesn’t cost me anything.”
He laughed. “Your ACTIONS belie your words! You did not NEED to help Synda—some might argue that you should have let her DIE.”
“A momentary lapse of judgment,” she muttered, wrapping her cloak more tightly around her body. Gods, it was cold.
“Morrowind does not forgive lapses!”
“Right. Which is why you’re betting everything in the hopes that Great House Redoran forgives you.”
Dimartani grimaced. “Uh, FAIR POINT, I guess.”
The silt strider let out a piercing wail that shook the entire shell. Around them, the other passengers collected their bags, and the pilgrims uttered prayers of thanks for the safe journey.
She leaned over for another look outside, but this time she turned her gaze down to the trackless gray beneath the silt strider. Nothing but dust and ash for miles.
It’d be so easy to disappear in a place like this.
She wondered why that idea appealed to her so much.
At least it felt good to be on solid ground again.
The noontime sun shone clear and cold over the ash-strewn plaza by the strider port. The sour smell that hovered over Balmora was present in Ald'ruhn as well, drier and tinged with brimstone. Outlander merchants, fewer than Daria had expected, pitched their wares in shadows of enormous pillbug-shaped buildings made of gray adobe. They sold the same things portside merchants sold back home: scrib jerky, stale bread, cheap charms, and trinkets.
“I NEED to make my presence known,” Dimartani said.
“How much money do you have?” Daria asked.
He moved his shoulders in a flippant shrug. “I’m a REDORAN! Not some HLAALU bean-counter!”
“Maybe the Hlaalu paying attention to that kind of thing is why they’re doing so much better.”
Dimartani swiveled his head so that his bulging eye stared right at her. “WHY are you so concerned?”
“Well, Aldr’uhn is in the middle of the desert. I didn’t observe any farms or egg mines, and not much seems to grow here. Likewise, that big line of silt striders with cargo strapped to their thoraxes tells me that this place imports food, which means it’ll be more expensive. And if food’s more expensive, so is everything else.”
He laughed. “That’s why I LIKE you, Daria! You actually PAY ATTENTION, unlike the rest of those ingrate adolescents from whom I’ve so recently EXTRICATED myself. Yes, things WILL be more expensive here—but that’s not the POINT.”
“It becomes the point awfully fast once you get hungry.”
“We won’t have to WORRY about food so long as I make my case.”
“It cost me 110 to get here,” Daria said, “and they’ll probably gouge me more if I head back home without a Dunmer traveling companion. So I’d say I need to save at least 150, which means I don’t have much spending money.”
“Don’t WORRY. If they turn me DOWN, you can go back as soon as you’d like.” Dimartani didn’t sound angry about it—just accepting.
Daria had to admit that the rigors of travel had put her in a foul mood. Or fouler than usual, anyway. Regardless, Dimartani had saved her life, and she had agreed to vouch for him.
What’s more, she didn’t want to go back just yet. Her parents expected her to be gone for a week helping Jane move to Vivec. Coming home that early meant explaining things she’d rather not explain.
Jane’s last words to Daria—probably her very last—burned red and painful in her memory.
Dust swirled around her booted feet as she walked through the plaza. She noted some larger buildings with the familiar guild logos. Almost everyone around the strider port was an outlander like her. Beyond the city walls and to the south stood the obligatory imperial fort. Its blocky gray towers blended into the ashen surroundings.
Daria followed Dimartani up a set of wide, shallow steps flanked by weather-worn stones and black-red scathecraw succulents. All at once, the outlanders vanished, replaced by Dunmer speaking in rough and whispery voices that sounded like dry winds. No finery in this place; the residents all wore colorless homespun tunics or dresses, each patched and mended many times over.
But the attitude made the real difference. Balmora was a place of business that welcomed coin above anything else. Ald’ruhn, on the other hand, didn’t seem to welcome anybody. The local Dunmer sometimes cast suspicious glares at Daria and Dimartani, and other times ignored them.
“HERE WE ARE!” he announced, his strident voice breaking out from the crowd’s susurration. He pointed to the circle of huts to his right. “The HOME of Clan Hadrubal! MY clan!”
“I see. And how can you distinguish this from dozen identical neighborhoods we just passed?”
He snorted. “That’s how I know you’re an OUTLANDER!”
“Maybe you haven’t noticed, but the people here don’t seem too comfortable with you, either.”
“That’s what I’m trying to FIX! Follow me! ONCE more into the breach!”
He strode into the circle. Five old Dunmer men stood together in the center, chatting and smoking pipes that gave off the peppery aroma of burnt tanna root. An elderly woman sat in front of one of the houses, mending a banner marked by interlinked green and black Daedric letters, while around her a few kids tossed an inflated bladder to each other.
One of the old men stepped away from the group, his eyes widening when he saw Dimartani. Daria’s former history teacher knelt in the dust before him.
“HONORED UNCLE!” he said. “It is I—Andril DIMARTANI of House Redroan, Named Kin of Clan HADRUBAL, Keeper of Hadrubal’s Stories, Warrior of the Water-Marches in Times PAST and of the Ashlands in Times More RECENT, Humble SERVANT to Serjo Llendu! I have returned from exile with YOUR blessing!”
The old Dunmer stared at him and stroked his wispy white beard.
“Yes, nephew. Serjo Llendu did approve your second chance—but I must confess that we all sort of hoped that your silt strider had gotten lost.” His red eyes focused on Daria, and his lips tightened in disgust.
“And that goes double now that you’ve brought a foreigner into our midst.”
Even though two dozen people had crowded into a windowless gray hut with room for maybe half that number, the Dunmer still found a way to make sure Daria didn’t get too close to any of them.
She sat cross-legged on the dusty floor. Darkness lay heavy in the home’s egg-shaped interior, relieved only by the sullen red light of a combination hearth and stove in the center. Dunmer sat on the floor or leaned against the walls, old and young alike, the glow of the sooty flames revealing the sharp contours of their faces.
It was only a little past noon, but Daria felt like she sat at a campfire beneath a moonless night sky, with nothing but shadow and ash around her.
Jane would have loved to paint something like this, she thought, and again heard those final words.
“Why do you even wish to return, Andril?” his uncle said. The old man, whose name was Velo Dimartani, stood near the hearth-stove. A shining green carapace that might’ve come from some overlarge centipede weighed down his narrow shoulders, placed there earlier by some youths. Daria guessed that it symbolized some kind of authority.
“Because I have made amends!” Dimartani stood before his uncle, his head ever so slightly bowed. “I have PAID off my debts, and I did so honorably.”
“Through marketplace haggling?” Velo asked, to bitter laughter around the room.
Dimartani shook his head. “I worked as a TEACHER and in the Fighters Guild. The SAME kind of work I once did here!”
“I can confirm this—” Daria started to say, only to suck in her words once the twenty to thirty pairs of red eyes all stared at her at once. She didn’t look away—she knew better than to show fear.
She recalled Dimartani’s warning to her when she embarked with him. That he didn’t mind backtalk but that most Redoran avenged insult with blood.
“What sorts of things did you teach? What kinds of battle did you wage?” Velo pressed.
“I taught history! Not the SECRETS of our clan—but the truths of MORROWIND. And the Empire. As for my time in the FIGHTERS Guild, I protected the weak.”
“Yes. Like this outlander,” Velo said, snarling the last word and gesturing to Daria.
“Gee, thanks,” Daria muttered.
“You did not mention that you saved an outlander girl in your missive,” Velo continued. “A key omission, I would say.”
“Andril’s clearly been tainted by the Hlaalu and their Empire-loving ways,” a woman scoffed.
Dimartani licked his lips, his eyes going back and forth. “My INTENT was not to deceive. Daria is brave and FORTHRIGHT in her own way.”
Forthright, sure, Daria thought. Brave? Doubtful. Brave meant being strong enough to do the right thing.
“So you claim. Serjo Llendu only granted you permission to return, but the decision on whether or not to take you rests with me, the hetman of Clan Hadrubal.”
He sighed, stepping closer to Dimartani. “You had so much promise in your youth, Andril. I did not even hesitate to give you my family’s name—you had earned a place at our campfire by sword and by deed.”
“It was the greatest HONOR of my life!” Dimartani said. His red eyes glistened with tears.
“Yet you repay this honor by gambling away our funds?” The uncle sighed. “The thrill of casting bones was all it took?” He put his hands on Dimartani’s shoulders. “My sister imparted unto you the secrets of our clan and lineage. We trusted you to be our storyteller! But how can we ever trust you again?”
“It has been YEARS since I last gambled! I CUT that vice from my life! With EXTREME prejudice!”
“Words, Andril. Mere words. Yet you always put too much stock into words. Those ridiculous books you valued!”
Dimartani shook his head. “A YOUTHFUL error! Now I understand that it is ACTIONS that matter. I beg you: give me a CHANCE to prove my worth!”
Daria scowled. Yeah, who needed books? Books just got in the way of bashing in people’s heads for some artificial notion of honor.
Then again, she’d lived her life by the written word, and what had that gotten her? Isolation, dwindling opportunities, and a front-row seat to Redoran family court.
“What say you?” Velo asked, suddenly stopping and spreading his arms, looking to the crowd.
A chorus of yes’s and no’s erupted from the crowd.
“Andril served us well,” an older man said. “He told our stories with skill!”
“He should have said he’d saved an outlander!” the woman from earlier disagreed. “Him hiding it proves he’s become a Hlaalu in spirit.”
“Daria is NOT just another outlander! She has shown, uh, INTELLECTUAL courage and MORAL strength,” Dimartani protested.
Oh gods, Daria thought. What moral strength? She’d ended up compromising on just about every moral stand she’d ever attempted.
“Need I REMIND you,” Dimartani continued, “that outlanders have joined Great House Redoran? BLOOD does not matter. I have no blood relation to ANY of you—it was through DEED that I joined Clan Hadrubal!”
More murmurs around the crowd. Some of the harder expressions seemed to soften. The uncle watched and nodded.
“Very well, Andril. I shall set a task upon you.”
“THANK YOU!” Dimartani exclaimed, his voice breaking. “I will NOT disappoint!”
“The darkness within Red Mountain has not lain idle during your exile. As we speak, Great House Redoran prepares its hosts to meet the forces of the Sharmat.”
Daria’s ears perked up at this. His words sounded like war, but how could there be war unless the Empire allowed it?
“Clan Hadrubal is small, but we will do our duty. You recall our lookout post, many miles to the east?”
“Yes,” Dimartani said, with a nod.
“You will go to it and ensure that it is safe.”
Then his uncle turned on his heels and pointed at Daria. “And she must go with you, so that we may see if she is as brave as you claim.”
“I’m not going,” Daria said, for the hundredth time that evening.
She and Dimartani sat in the common room of the Rat in the Pot, an outlander cornerclub just as seedy as its name suggested. Traders, drifters, and ne’er-do-wells brought in the stench that came from long journeys without bathing access, and what looked like years of grime covered the curving adobe walls. More raucous sounds came from the basement, where they’d have to try and sleep that night.
Dimartani sighed. “Daria, I know that this was unEXPECTED. But I did save your life!”
“So you only saved my life to extract a favor from me later on?”
“NO! I did it because it was the RIGHT thing to do! But everything depends on this mission. Without it, I have NO future!”
Daria took a swig from her mazte jug. “Sera Dimartani, I am grateful. But I’m not any kind of fighter, nor do I care about proving my bravery to a bunch of xenophobes. I won’t have any future if I get killed trying to help you.”
“I cannot PROMISE your safety. But the RISK, I think, is low—there isn’t much in the Ashlands. Here’s what I can promise: should we encounter danger, I will DEFEND you to the best of my ability! Which, as you KNOW, is considerable.”
Daria ducked just in time to avoid a jug being hurled through the air. It shattered against the wall and a brawl broke out at the next table.
Killing one street thug didn’t exactly prove Dimartani to be any kind of great warrior.
“Please CONSIDER it!” he begged, leaning forward.
“Fine, give me tonight to think about it. I’ll have an answer by morning.”
But she’d already decided the answer was no.
To Daria, Jane’s apartment always conjured thoughts of warmth, coziness, and—above all else—clutter.
But that clutter was gone when she visited the place on the eve of Jane’s departure, the room bare save for the bench, the mattress, the triolith, and the few hide bags holding the belongings she’d be taking with her to Vivec.
“So, all this time, there was actually a floor under all that mess,” Daria said.
“You can see why I tried to keep it hidden.”
“A humble adobe floor is clearly too good for a social climber like yourself.”
“Yeah!” Jane pointed at herself with her thumb. “From now on, I only accept adobe made from spa mud.”
She was joking, Daria knew. But somehow it didn’t feel like a joke. “Too good to be trodden upon by common boots like mine,” Daria said.
“Come on, Daria, you’ll always have a place.” Jane stretched her arms, as if enjoying the space for the very first time in her life. “I still can’t believe it. You know, in this sick, sad world of ours, it’s almost shocking when hard work actually pays off.”
“Don’t look get too pleased with yourself,” Daria said. “You still relied on some good old-fashioned nepotism courtesy of Tomal Sloan.”
Jane smiled and clapped her on the shoulder. “And courtesy of you!”
“I mean it, Daria. Every step of the way, you helped me out. I couldn’t have gotten this job without you.”
Daria blushed. This horrible job. And Jane was so damned happy about it.
“Come on, let’s go downstairs. J’dash is prepping dinner, and if we’re lucky, Trent will serenade us. I think he discovered a new chord.”
Jane took Daria by the wrist and led her out of the apartment, enthusiastic in a way Daria had never seen before.
It took Daria a minute to realize she was awake.
Smoky darkness pressed down on her, the foul air thick in her mouth and nostrils. One thing was for sure: Redoran architecture didn’t prioritize good ventilation any better than Hlaalu architecture. Early morning’s pale light shone through the narrow resin windows around the chamber. In the bedroll next to hers, Dimartani muttered something about victory and then snorted.
How the hell had she ended up here? Sleeping in a sketchy cornerclub in an unfriendly city, debating whether she wanted to help her former history teacher regain his lost honor. Not exactly a typical situation for her. But it hadn’t been a typical week.
Sooner or later, everyone hated her. The kids back in Stirk had at least been direct enough to do it upfront. Something about her—Daria herself—corroded goodwill. Once, she’d told herself that she was just too smart, that all those weird books she read put her forever above the common crowd. A fine and lonely thing to believe.
She didn’t buy it anymore. No, there were plenty of smart people. Jolda, Tomal, Jane—hell, even Quinn. Not always smart in the same ways, but still smart.
Daria’s problem was that she saw the world for what it was: a lump of rock fought over by ambulatory sacks of meat and blood. And those sacks of meat and blood would do anything to dominate their fellow sacks of meat and blood. All the talk of empires and nations and faiths just added a little narrative pizzazz to a bleak and hopeless truth.
She hated it. Sometimes, it seemed like others hated it, too. But deep down, they ended up indulging the same as anyone else.
So, one by one, they turned on her. Jane had pretended to be above it all, but deep down she only wanted to clamber her way to the top like everyone else. Armand (and presumably Jolda) hadn’t wanted to admit that the Imperial Archeological Society was just a way for the emperor to grab more neat weapons. And when Daria reminded these perfectly intelligent, supposedly ethical people, about this fact, they reacted the way people always did.
How soon until mom and dad gave up on her?
The simple option was to return home early, with no adequate explanation as to why. Wouldn’t be too hard to come up with a fib, she supposed. Say Jane got too busy. But she didn’t want to talk about Jane, or of their aborted trip to Vivec, or about anything.
Plus, sooner or later mom would find out about what Daria had said to Armand. Maybe it’d be a relief to end the charade. Just have mom get sick of her—the way she inevitably would.
Alternately, she could simply hang out in Ald’ruhn for a few days. Hang out doing what? Dodging thrown vessels in the Rat in the Pot? Finding out just how xenophobic the Inner City could get?
“Sera Dimartani?” she whispered.
He snorted. “Huh?”
“I’ve decided I’ll go with you.”
Dimartani was silent for a moment. “Thank you,” he muttered. His snoring resumed immediately after.
Daria walked until every cell in her body screamed at her to stop. Then, out of spite, she walked some more.
Flecks of ash drifted down from the cold and leaden skies. She tasted smoke with every breath, the sulfur stink that sometimes wafted over Balmora thick and ubiquitous in this dead valley. The overwhelming grayness leeched away every hue.
Dimartani led the way, garbed in a thick cloak and a battered chitin cuirass he’d brought with him from Balmora, a Nord-style spear strapped to his back. For her part, Daria wore no armor and had left her dad’s short sword at home. Thus, Dimartani had traded in one of his old books to get a crude chitin dagger which she now wore on her belt.
“This knife is NOT an optimal weapon for you, Daria!” he’d fumed upon seeing it.
“What? It’s not sufficiently honorable?”
He snorted and shook his head. “With your MINISCULE build, your best option is to keep enemies at a DISTANCE. And as far away from your GLASSES as possible.”
Dimartani made a good point.
They’d left Ald’ruhn a little after dawn and had marched ever since. They heard only the crunch of dust beneath their feet and the gusts that sometimes howled out across the cinders. Clouds concealed Red Mountain that day, but she felt its presence all the same, the volcano standing over the wasteland like some primeval god surveying his domain.
Time all but vanished. Morning and noon were consumed by the same endless gray. Dark clouds sometimes filled the sky so that she was sure night had fallen, only for them to dissipate and give way to the same dreary half-light from before.
Maybe, Daria thought, they’d been marching for days or years. Maybe the Wheel of Aurbis turned around them as they walked, crushing empires and kingdoms and giving rise to new ones, none of which mattered in this place where nothing ruled or ever could rule. The idea gave her some comfort as she plodded on. All those games people played, all the networking and scheming—all for naught. Here, she could be free of their nonsense.
Only a steady and gradual darkening made Daria realize that night was, in fact stealing over the land. Dimartani had realized this too, and found a place to camp atop an ashen hill marked by an immense black boulder worn smooth over the eons. They used the big rock as a shelter against the intermittent winds and then laid out their bedrolls. No campfire that night; everything in the Ashlands that could be burned already had been.
Exhaustion claimed Daria the moment she sat down. She wanted to fall into the ash and sleep for a year or two, but knew it’d be better to eat something first. Reaching into her pack, she took out a stick of scrib jerky. Salted bug meat didn't make for the most appetizing dinner, but she had no other option. Holding up the grayish strip, Daria wondered how it could come from the same larva that was so delicious when properly prepared.
She bit in. Clenching her teeth to get a good grip, she pulled the jerky as hard as she could. It tore with a loud snap. The dried bug flesh in her mouth sucked up her saliva, her tongue suddenly as parched as the ash around her. Bit by bit she wore it down, her cracked lips soon begging for a swig of water.
They ate and drank in silence as the gray world around them turned black.
“Back in Ald’ruhn,” Daria said, upon finishing, “you said you weren’t related to your clan.”
“That’s correct! Among my people, kinship is defined by DEED, not by blood. I EARNED my way into my uncle’s family through service. My biological parents were… strange, TWISTED people!”
“I guess I approve of earning your way in. Not sure I’m as keen on their anti-intellectualism.”
“The Redoran live in the past. SOMETIMES to their detriment.”
“Why go back to them? You’re a learned man. There’d be better options for you in other places, I’m sure.”
“Heh! You THINK like a Hlaalu, Daria.”
“Keep talking like that, and I’m marching back to Ald’ruhn,” she said, glowering at him. Not that she could really see him any longer.
“But it’s TRUE! Your FIRST thought is how I could enrich myself. That is NOT how we do things. For the Redoran, there is no life without service to one’s community. We DUNMER were once a mighty people who traversed an entire continent to preserve our ways! We have become WEAK. The other great houses are selfish and lazy, relying on SLAVES or suckling at the Empire’s teats or BOTH! Great House Redoran holds to the OLD WAYS. But we are alone.”
“So, again, why go back?”
“Because I would rather DIE for honor than live for myself.”
Basically, Dimartani still played the same song and dance as everyone else, only with a slightly purer motivation. But she knew arguing with him would be a bad idea, and she was too tired to do that anyway.
Daria looked up. No moons or stars shone in the ash-blotted sky, the darkness around her absolute and almost tangible. Spending a night in the Ashlands probably wasn’t too different from being dead.
Resting her head on her pillow, she fell asleep within moments.
Daria awoke to a bone-deep ache running through her entire body. Gray grit covered her face, her hands, and her clothes. Everything smelled and tasted like ash.
The one bright spot: she was too tired to worry about the situation with Jane.
They broke camp early and continued across the wastes, Red Mountain’s silhouette looming ever larger in the east. Dimartani said that they’d likely reach the outpost by late morning, which Daria accepted with gratitude. The soles of her feet felt like they’d split open if she walked much longer.
“There’s the outpost!” Dimartani finally proclaimed, pointing ahead and to the left.
Daria’s gaze followed his finger, and she frowned. All she saw was a rocky hill with a big dead beetle on top of it. Then she remembered Ald’ruhn.
“Is that another shell fort?”
“An ASTUTE observation! We rely on SHELLS since it is too taxing for us to bring stone out here. We lack the EMPIRE’S resources.”
It was still some distance, and the hill was steep. Daria kept hiking, small stones rattling like bones as they rolled past her feet. A hot and prickly wind blew from the east, further drying her eyes and mouth. A movement to her right caught her eye and she turned her head for a better look. Birds, she realized. Three, to be specific, all of them big and leathery and flying toward her.
“Dimartani—” she started.
“CLIFF RACERS!” he roared.
“The ancestral FOES of the Dunmer! ONE of our ancestral foes, anyway. We have a LOT of ancestral foes.”
They flew closer, great ugly things with sharp beaks and green-gray skin. One opened its beak to emit a sharp caw that echoed over the desert.
Daria gulped and took out her dagger, the weapon feeling too small and flimsy to be useful. She held her glasses in place with her free hand. If she lost those here…
“What should I do?”
The cliff racers picked up speed, their great beaks pointed down like a rain of falling javelins. Daria suddenly imagined one stabbing into her chest.
“STAY CLOSE! They’ll try to separate us. DO NOT LET THEM!”
Each second brought them closer. Gods, they were huge, each racer with a wingspan wider than Dimartani was tall. How the hell was she supposed to fight them with a dagger?
Fortunately, she had a few other tricks up her sleeve.
A barrier of violet light sprang up around Daria as she summoned an arcane shield. The racers cried in jeering response, beaks opening to reveal needle-like teeth.
She stepped back on trembling legs. This was suicide. Her shield wasn’t that strong, she’d never even get close enough to hurt one of those things. All it’d take was one strong bite or flick of the tail—
“Screw it,” she muttered through chattering teeth. She called the magic and it seeped into her body, muscles tightening as she boosted her speed and strength.
“COME AND GET ME YOU FLYING BASTARDS!” Dimartani roared. He jabbed the air with his spear, a maddened glint in his eyes.
Great, she thought, he’d finally flipped. A second later she realized he hadn’t—he was making himself a target.
The cliff racers dove in for the kill, shrieking like demons.
Daria yelped as the first racer swooped over their heads. The thing stank of rotting flesh. Dimartani grabbed Daria and pulled her to the side. The second racer’s sharp beak plunged through the air where she'd been standing. The first two racers wheeled around them. Dimartani thrust his spear at the nearest, missing by inches.
A shadow passed over Daria as the third racer plummeted toward her. She threw herself on the ground. Air whooshed as it hurtled by. Scrambling to her feet, her glasses askew and her dagger in hand, she saw it turn around for another pass.
How the hell was she supposed to hit the monster? Put simply, the cliff racer was big. She wasn’t. It’d pick up too much momentum for her to have any chance of stopping—
Dodge you idiot! her brain screamed.
Daria leapt to her right. The tip of its wing hit her shield and sent ripples through the glowing membrane. She lashed out with her knife, but the blade only cut air.
Dimartani yelled. She only had time for a quick look and caught the blood streaming down his body. And somehow, she’d gotten very far away from him. Just like he’d warned her not to do.
Daria tightened her grip. Her racer was herding her. Better to stay close to Dimartani—or would that just distract him and doom them both?
Don’t think, she told herself. But wasn’t it always better to think? That’s how she figured out patterns, formulated strategies. Intuition alone—
It was upon her.
Daria ducked under its leathery body. Quickened by her spell, she jabbed at the cliff racer. Her blade hit something soft and thick. Blood gleamed on the tip of her blade. She’d nicked it, for whatever that was worth.
Reaction was what mattered here. What would Kavon do? she wondered. Probably something stupid. Okay, Kavon wasn’t the best example. What would Maiko do? He was in the legion, so whatever he was trained to. Maybe get to a more defensive position?
She shook her head. There she was, thinking again. And the cliff racer wasn’t done with her.
Daria called the magic once more. A burning spark formed in the palm of her free hand. Closer and closer the racer flew, its eyes hungry. She held her breath. The timing had to be perfect…
She released the spark. The spell fizzled out before it finished. She had time for a single blistering curse before the racer crashed into her shield. The purple light distorted and vanished as Daria tumbled into the ash.
The racer’s raucous cry echoed in her ears as it flew up and away. She grabbed her dagger with both hands.
It dove toward her, shrieking in victory.
Daria lunged. Blood spurted onto her hands. The racer’s weight pressed against her as the small blade dug into its flesh. Its plumed tail snap like a whip. A terrific force slammed into her chest and flung her away. Her glasses flew off.
Air rushed out of her lungs when she hit the ground face first. She groped blindly for the dagger, the world around her an incomprehensible gray blur. The racer’s exultant call sounded out through the foul air. Blind though she was, she sensed the shadow passing over her body.
This was it, she realized.
“I’m sorry, Jane,” she whispered. Drool fell from her lips.
Then she heard footsteps. A running silhouette flashed across her vision. Dimartani yelled. The racer screeched. Two bodies collided.
Daria went limp and knew no more.
The little campfire that Dimartani had built inside the outpost wasn’t exactly cozy, but Daria was in no state to be picky.
Her body ached. No major damage, at least, but she couldn’t move without hurting. She was filthy, too, ash dusting her hair and smeared onto her skin. At least she was safe. At least the outpost still had some firewood left by the previous occupants.
Winds howled outside, and she was glad for the protection provided by the hollowed-out shell. Grateful too that Dimartani had saved her and even managed to find her glasses. It looked like she owed him yet again.
She lay in her bedroll next to the flames, the warmth soothing her cold and aching limbs. Dimartani sat opposite from her, the firelight playing along the edges of his craggy visage.
“If you decide to STAY in Ald'ruhn for a while,” he said, “I could TEACH you a bit more about self-defense. But you’ll have to switch to SPEARS! I don’t know what your father was THINKING teaching you how to use blades.”
“He was thinking his daughters wouldn’t do much fighting.”
“Imperial SOFTNESS! The world is not as safe as you think, as proven by even a CURSORY study of Tamriel’s history.”
“Anyway,” Daria continued, “I’m not planning to stay in Ald’ruhn. My parents only gave me a week’s vacation.”
He laughed. “Daria, I’ve been a TEACHER for ten years. I can tell when a student is lying to me. And I KNOW you aren’t here on vacation.”
Daria sighed. No reason to keep up the facade, she supposed. Not after what they’d been through. “What gave it away? Other than the fact no one in their right mind would vacation in the Ashlands.”
“When we met, you had the DEMEANOR of someone who wanted to get out of town,” he said. “Was it more trouble with SYNDA?”
She watched the flames twist and snap in the ashen darkness. “No, not Synda. This has to do with Jane.”
“She’s CLEVERER than most,” he said, his voice a bit softer. “I KNOW you two are close.”
“She’s my best friend. Hell, she’s my only friend. Or at least she was. Maybe you noticed that she hasn’t been in school for a while.”
“I did. Sera DEFOE told me that Jane now devotes herself to work.”
“Yup. Too busy trying to get commissions to spend time studying. And then she got a full-time job…”
Trent dozed in front of the hearth and J’dash had already retired for the night. Daria sat at the same uneven wooden table where she’d had her first real Morrowind meal, almost two years ago. On the other side, Jane took the sujamma flask and filled her cup with the amber liquid before passing the flask over to Daria.
“That’s gonna be it for me," Jane said. "As much as I’d love to drink the night away, we probably don’t want to ride a silt strider while hungover.”
Daria shrugged, not acknowledging the flask. She hated how happy everyone seemed to be. “Riding one of those bugs is bound to be unpleasant, so why not go all the way?”
Jane sipped her cup and then put it down. “What’s bothering you, Daria? You’ve been pretty quiet tonight.”
“As opposed to my normally ebullient persona?”
“There’s charmingly dour and then there’s whatever’s been going on with you. So what’s going on?”
Daria stared down at her empty cup as tension boiled inside her. Why the hell did she have to keep pretending that everything was so great? Her best friend was leaving—and for nothing more than a better job.
“Jane, have you ever noticed that the defining aspect of Imperial—and by extension, Hlaalu—culture seems to be about getting ahead by any means? Regardless of what that means for others?”
“You know, I never thought I’d say this, but maybe you do need to lay off the books. It’s my going-away party, Daria, not some discussion seminar on the Empire’s social problems.”
“As part of the Empire, we can’t really escape those problems.” She looked up from her cup and leveled with Jane. “Especially since you’re the one who’s decided to devote your whole life to painting some noble you’ve never met.”
“Wait—that’s what this is about?”
“Don’t you remember Natalinos? What a disaster he turned out to be?”
“Would have fooled me. You have no idea what this person is like, but you’re uprooting yourself to serve her.”
Jane shook her head and held up her hands, palms forward. “Wait, hold on! First of all, I only got this job because of you.”
“If I’d know what it would’ve required, I wouldn’t have told you about it.”
“Daria, this is my big break! Yes, Natalinos was a jerk but I can’t just shut myself away. You have parents who put food on the table. I don’t.”
“But you do have friends who’ll support you. In Balmora, at least.”
“Yeah, well, maybe I’d like to support myself. You’ve done a lot for me, Daria, but I can’t keep doing what I’m doing now. It’s been really hard these past few months. J’dash is getting old—I can’t count on my next landlord being as nice.”
“Or maybe, like everyone else at Drenlyn, working for Serjo Olerlo is just something you’re doing to impress others.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” Jane demanded.
Might as well get this over with, Daria thought. "Isn’t it obvious? The whole point of Drenlyn Academy is to abase yourself before the nobility. To be another good servant in hopes of getting some table scraps thrown your way. It looks like you were a pretty good student, after all."
Jane stared at her. “That’s what you think? Daria, have you paid any attention to my life over the past year? How hard I’ve worked? I don’t have it easy the way you do! If flattering some aristocratic moron puts food on the table, I’ll do it! Because that’s the kind of world we live in.”
“I guess you’re pretty comfortable with that.”
“You know what?” Jane said. “I am. Maybe the only reason you’re mad that I’m on my way up is that you hate the idea of your poor little friend standing on her own for once. Because being a good servant to get some table scraps? That sounds a lot like what I’ve been doing for you!”
Daria pushed the chair back from the table and stood up, her heart pounding. She opened her mouth to say something, to really cut Jane apart.
Instead she stalked away, face red and burning and her hands gripped into quivering fists as she cut through the junk shop and out into the cold nighttime streets.
“… I didn’t want to go home and explain what had happened, so I spent the night at the Lucky Lockup. I ran into you the next morning, and you know what happened from there.”
Retelling the tale to Dimartani hadn’t hurt too much, at least. Saying it out loud though, hearing Jane’s words through her mouth—Daria understood why Jane had given up on her.
Maybe the reason everyone ended up hating her had less to do with her insight, and more to do with her being an imminently hateful person.
“EVERY friendship has its quarrels, Daria,” he said.
“Every friendship sooner or later comes to an end.”
He tossed another log—probably the last in the cache they’d found—into the fire and the flames surged up.
“Jane is NOT someone I know very well. But if you are TRULY contrite, I suspect she will forgive you.”
“Maybe,” Daria said. “It’s more than that though. On some level, she was right. I am part of the system. Frankly, I benefit from it more than most.”
“You need to THINK of it from Jane’s perspective. I don’t think she CARES about that as much as you do.”
“Maybe she should care,” Daria said. “I hate that she has to do this to get ahead.”
She missed the Jane who so deftly navigated Balmora’s complexities, always able to take Daria along for the ride. Still hard to imagine her devoting years of her life to painting the same spoiled noble over and over again.
Spoiled. That adjective applied perfectly well to Daria so far as Jane was concerned.
“FRIENDSHIP is a stronger thing in Great House Redoran. We do not grasp for LUCRE the way the Hlaalu do! Our bonds are forged only by our deeds. And only broken by the same,” he added, sighing.
“Do you think your clan will take you back?”
“I hope so,” he said. “I do not think that a HLAALU would be willing to give me a second chance. At least not if MONEY was involved.”
“If you don’t mind my asking, how did you get into gambling?”
He growled, and she could just see his teeth clenching together. “My GAMBLING years were a stressful time in my life, Daria. I TOO had quarreled with a close friend. He was… MORE than a friend if you take my meaning.”
Daria propped herself up on one elbow. “I think I do.”
He breathed a sigh of relief. “I was not SURE how the Imperials felt about such things. Here, there is no stigma to such relations so long as they are FLEETING and between younger Dunmer. But all Dunmer are expected to start families. Mer lack the FECUNDITY of Men and Beastfolk, so we must all contribute to the new generation.”
“Attitudes in Cyrodiil tend to be more flexible,” Daria said. “Did you ever think about moving?”
“HA! There’s that IMPERIAL attitude again. No, we were both sworn to Great House Redoran. We LOVED each other—but we also love our service. You can see the difficulty.”
“Seems like another case of the system forcing you to make a choice.”
“It is my DUTY to make the right ONE!” he proclaimed, his voice quavering. “It is not wrong for the SYSTEM to expect much of us. Survival in Morrowind has never been guaranteed—as I think today’s events have AMPLY demonstrated.”
Daria let her head settle back down on her pillow. “Do you know where your old boyfriend is?”
Dimartani shook his head. “No. All that matters is that I restore my REPUTATION so that I can again serve as a warrior and as a teacher. But I have proven that I am still willing to fight and, if necessary, DIE for my clan and house.” He grinned. “You have PROVEN yourself as well, Daria! I salute you for that.”
Then he rested his back against the dusty shell, his face lost in darkness as the flames slowly died down.
Hard as it was to believe, Ald’ruhn’s bleak sprawl of gray huts looked welcoming after the Ashlands.
They’d made better time on the return journey, arriving within sight of the city at sundown. It was night when they finally reached the gates, and Dimartani said it’d be best to sleep at the Rat in the Pot and wait until morning to palaver with his uncle.
Waking early, they ate a quick meal and set out. More than anything, Daria wanted to scrub herself pink, get rid of the accumulated grime clinging to every inch of her body. But baths in Ald’ruhn cost a lot, and she needed enough for the ride back. Her best bet was to take a quick trip to a Balmora bathhouse before she returned home.
A procession of Dunmer marched out from the big crab shell in the Inner City. The leader wore polished ebony armor, and his scarified countenance was set in a permanent scowl. Those around him were garbed in fine armor or thick robes colored in patterned red and purple of dark hues. Jewelry and signs of office rested on their heads and hands, while armored guards marched alongside them. Commoners stood at attention, like legion troopers saluting a general.
“What’s the occasion?” Daria asked.
Dimartani’s head was bowed, and she followed suit upon seeing him.
“The FAMILY of Serjo Venim, the Archmagister of Great House Redoran!”
“I see. Did they all earn their place through deed?”
“We still have NOBLES, Daria. But Serjo Venim’s children will NOT have a free ride.”
“But I’m guessing they will have a lot of advantages, judging by how everyone salutes them.”
And by the splendor they displayed. These were not people who took orders. She’d never seen the Dunmer of Hlaalu kowtow to their aristocrats in quite that fashion.
“Such is the WAY of things. Serjo VENIM has led us well through these trying times. May ALMSIVI preserve his path!”
They watched until the procession reached the temple, a domed building all but identical to its counterpart in Balmora, before resuming their walk. Velo Dimartani already stood outside his hut, seated on a stool and smoking a bone pipe. A few younger Dunmer sat in the dust around him, deep in conversation. His eyes widened as Dimartani knelt before him.
“HONORED UNCLE!” Dimartani bellowed. “I have RETURNED from your task. The outpost still stands. We were attacked by three cliff racers. Daria ACQUITTED herself admirably.”
She blushed and hoped that Clan Hadrubal didn’t see. No, she really hadn’t acquitted herself.
“Hm,” Velo said, taking the pipe out of his mouth and exhaling a cloud of tanna smoke. “Faster than I expected.”
“We did NOT delay. The outpost only had some firewood. We used it to RECOVER from the rigors—”
“You what?” Velo’s eyes suddenly bulged.
Dimartani paused. “We found some FIREWOOD. Daria had been INJURED, and I thought a fire would be best.”
“I did not say you could use the firewood.”
“Did you even know there was firewood there?” Daria demanded.
Velo shook his head. “That’s not the point! Again, Andril, you showed carelessness with the clan’s property!”
“Forgive me, uncle! But I HAD to help my companion! That’s a warrior’s DUTY!”
“Not to mention common decency,” Daria muttered under her breath. She wanted to yell it at the hateful old man, but voicing her opinion might jeopardize Dimartani’s reinstatement.
“We had hoped your exile would teach you virtue, Andril. But you still behave selfishly!”
“Selfishly? I was HELPING another!”
“You used our resources to aid one who is not known to us!” Velo sighed. “Gravely disappointing.”
“I—” Dimartani looked up, eyes going between his uncle and Daria. Then he bowed his head again. “I IMPLORE your forgiveness! Please give me ANOTHER chance.”
The old Dunmer stroked his chin. “Go you to Clan Dlera. The hetman is a friend of mine, and I know he has need of a warrior. Dlera too serves Serjo Llendu. Perform well, and perhaps he will hear your case.”
A trembling Dimartani nodded. “I will. Thank you, uncle.”
“Do not call me uncle any longer. Clan Hadrubal has moved beyond you, Andril. You can still earn your name—but it will not be here. Do you understand why you were exiled?”
“It is because we trusted you with our secrets. And you have shown you cannot be trusted. Great House Redoran needs warriors, yes, but it needs loyalty even more. You may become a warrior again, and perhaps you will find redemption in death. You will never be a teacher.”
Dimartani knelt for a while longer, his body shaking. He finally got to his feet, bowed, and turned away from his former uncle. Tears streamed from his eyes.
A frigid wind blew as Daria gathered her things. It was noon, and the strider to Balmora had just reached the port. A forlorn Dimartani stood next to her.
“PLEASE! Do not call me that anymore, Daria. I have LOST the right to the name. My original surname is Golthyn.”
“Okay. Sera Golthyn, may I speak frankly?”
His lips turned up in a mirthless smile.
“I’ve NEVER known you to do otherwise.”
“You risked your life to help Clan Hadrubal, and they got angry that you used some old firewood for its intended purpose. They never planned to take you back.”
She’d said it as plainly as she could. Above, the caravanner announced that his strider was ready for boarding.
“Perhaps you are right,” Golthyn admitted.
“Great. If you ask me, you should find your old boyfriend. If he’s anything like you, I’m sure he’s also sick of this nonsense.”
Golthyn chuckled sadly. “He IS like me, so I KNOW he is not. I FAILED my clan, Daria. They are under no obligation to take me back.”
“Even after you completed their task?”
He sighed, looking like her dad did when he had to explain something painful and difficult. “This isn’t like some HLAALU contract. We Redoran are not transactional. No, I failed to ANTICIPATE my uncle’s expectations.”
“So, if we were to do it again, you wouldn’t have burned the firewood? You’d have let me stay cold when I was injured and exhausted?”
“NO. I would have done the EXACT same thing. And I would accept my punishment again.”
Daria blinked. “That doesn’t make sense. You know you did the right thing—”
“I risked my HONOR to help you. As such, I must ACCEPT the consequences. Whatever they may be. Any Redoran WARRIOR would do the same.”
Another gust hit Daria and she drew her cloak tighter around her. Whatever Dimartani’s eccentricities, he stood by what he said. He would light the fire again and accept the punishment again. All without bearing any rancor to her or his jackass uncle.
“This isn’t the sort of thing I say lightly, but you might be too good for this world, Sera Golthyn.”
“I have failed. But I would rather DIE failing Redoran than live serving Hlaalu.”
Passengers already stepped onto the silt strider. She’d have to move quickly to get her space.
“Drenlyn Academy will be a lot less interesting without you around. If nothing else, I liked how you annoyed a lot of my peers and teachers.”
“HA! Keep them on their TOES for me, Daria. Another thing.”
“Jane will probably forgive you. GIVE her a chance.”
“Why should she? I’m part of the problem.”
“EVERYONE is part of the problem, Daria. But we can STRIVE to do better.”
He’d keep on doing it, too. Even when it ended with him dead, trying to do some basic job for a community that cared nothing for him.
“I guess so,” Daria said. “I hope things work out for you, Sera Golthyn. Of all the teachers in Drenlyn, you annoyed me the least.”
He grinned. “You are SLIGHTLY less aggravating than your spoiled peers!”
She looked at him for a while longer, trying to fix his features in her memory. Then she turned away and walked up the ramp, not exactly ready to go home but no longer able to stay.