Beyond the Depths of Madness - Chapter I: A New Threat

My name is Eris Dimetrius. I am a senior member of the Skyrim branch of the Imperial Investigative Division, SIID. Today is the 21st of Rain's Hand, 4E571. I had been dispatched to the town of Winterhold in Winterhold Hold on the 11th of Rain's Hand 4E571, in response to the town's failure to meet communication routine with the Empire's local subsidiary and its appointed commander as had been agreed upon after the conclusion of the Stormcloak rebellions of 4E201 to 4E232. It had previously been established that a letter had to be sent monthly from Winterhold and its College to the city of Solitude with detailed reports of local occurrences as well as breakthroughs in arcane sciences. After appointed Imperial Commander Lucius Pallas had not been receiving letters twice in a row, and a courier sent to deliver a letter of his own failed to return and report back, he appointed me as responsible investigator and I was sent into the area of Winterhold. 

 

The next nine days, which I can only describe as intensely disturbing and traumatic, I spent in the town and its college to uncover what had happened. This is my report.

 

The town of Winterhold had never been a bustling metropolis, even after its large-scale restoration in 4E417. The town borders had been extended outwards somewhat so that it touched the snowy mountain pass it was closest to. But even so, I was not particularly alarmed when I got off the carriage on the 11th of Rain's Hand, seeing no immediate signs of occupation. The blizzard was once again dense, causing slight burns in my exposed face and obscuring my view - not atypical for the region. This also meant that I could barely see the outlines of the town's edge in the distance.

 

The driver of the carriage did not stall for long and made off not a minute after I disembarked on my mission. "Blizzard's scarin' the beasts and freezin' my ass off. I stay here too long the wagon's gonna take damage. Wood's easily burst'n out here with what all the cold 'n the ice y'know", he said to me, turned and rode the way back that we had come, following in his own tracks.

I watched his silhouette fade to nothing in the storm before I turned around to approach the town. He is still declared missing.

 

I waded through the knee-deep, fresh layer of powdery snow, getting my brown IID coat and dark, leather-reinforced wool trousers cold and covered in white. The boots fortunately held off the moisture that usually comes from thawing so my feet stayed dry as I drew closer to the gate and the protective wall of wooden logs and coarsely hewn stone. The gate was open and no guards were in sight. From the looks of it, said gate had not been operated in quite some time. Seizing this opportunity I made for the town proper and soon found myself within its walls. As soon as I got surrounded by houses, dwellings and stores the blizzard was suddenly not so bad anymore and the frigid feeling of frozen skin began to subside gradually. Before I proceeded I made sure that my gear was in order.

 

The Gladius, hanging from my left hip. A double-edged shortsword designed for slashing and thrusting in close quarters. Its design dates back to 4E198 when IID legend Thorus Blackward used it during the Atebid Crisis and it proved to be highly durable against unprecedented adversity. Ever since, this custom sword design has become a staple of the IID.

On the inside of my coat, a design that can also be traced back to Blackward, hung suspended the Cumulus, an improved version of the original Cloudbreaker that Blackward was also said to have used to destroy demons the size of castles. While the tales may have been exaggerated a bit, its usefulness cannot be denied. The Cumulus is a more portable,  lighter version that uses improved construction mechanisms. The iron balls are now contained in tiny metal chambers together with the explosive, alchemical compound. These little chambers are put into the barrel from the top. The barrel can hold up to three projectiles which made using it less of a difficulty in our modern times. As such, its ammunition is also more portable and less clumsy to handle.

In a pocket sewn into the coat there was also a magical means to defend myself - an ASG-T3, short for Assault Soul Gem Type 3, a specially developed kind of soul gem that works in the same way staves and wands do but was easier to handle and usable also by non-magical individuals. The Type 3 variant is capable of projecting forth fire, frost and lightning. It draws the magicka that it uses from one's own reserves as well as from nearby, natural magicka sources such as Ayleid stones, magic wells or institutions of magical learning such as the College I was about to investigate.

 

Among my other possessions were three life potions, a water skin and some provisions to keep me afloat for some time. I went ravenous later.

 

Having properly inspected the gear that I carried around, affirming myself of its adequate condition, I set foot into the town and had a look around. From what Winterhold used to be over a century ago are only but traces left. Sans the College itself, which hadn't changed ever since it was built. They did properly repair the bridge however, and made it safer to get across. Other than that the old town maps are all but outdated. 

The original town, or what was left of it back in the day, had been made a town square in between the Frozen Hearth and the Jarl's house. From it led a road southward about a few hundred meters. Numerous new houses for all kinds of purposes had been constructed along the new road and its small branches, allowing for population growth and the town's increased significance as a place to live in and settle down.

 

Upon my arrival I soon noticed that some of the newer houses were in a certain degree of disrepair from the outside. Nothing too worrisome, but odd, given the circumstances. Even stranger was the absence of the populace outside. It was about midday and in any normal town you'd have probably seen folks working on something, making improvements to their houses, smithing. Instead, the town seemed almost deserted. Off to my right there was a small dwelling, a candle could be observed burning if one looked through the window closest to the entrance. I approached the house and knocked at the door carefully. No answer. I knocked a second, a third and a fourth time. Still nothing. The burning candle upset me however, and I got suspicious that someone might be hiding inside. So I slowly opened the door, only producing a faint creak, stepped in and silently closed it behind me.

 

The difference in temperature was remarkable and I felt the need to open my coat to let some warmth radiate off my body. I snuck around the nearest corner and espied the burning candle on the windowsill. The bright, flickering flame had something enchanting to it and I couldn't help but stare at it for a moment, getting carried away. When I regained my senses I was surprised to hear the door shut loudly and slow, heavy steps made their way into the house. Unable to conceal my presence, I revealed myself to the homeowner. 

"Investigator Dimetrius, SIID. I have a few questions for you sir", I told the shambling form that I assumed to be an elderly man. Judging from his heavy clothing and footwear as well as the axe in his hand, he must have been a lumber coming back from a hike, probably to retrieve hooks and ropes to transport the felled logs to town. 

 

"Do you know of anything out of the ordinary lately? The Empire sent me here after the Jarl failed to file the regular letters to Commander Pallas. I didn't see anyone outside just then, so…", but he cut me off before I could finish what I was saying.

"I don't believe your authority reaches far enough to enter houses that aren't yours.", I heard his raspy voice berate me for what he understood as breaking and entering. I pressed for him to answer my question but he would only stare at me in contempt. I let out a sigh and turned to leave the house through the front door when I heard a whirring noise behind me. I instinctively dodged to the side. Thereafter I saw him stumble toward the door with a scream of rage, axe raised. The lumbering tool got stuck in the wood and the enraged villager let go of it and quickly approached me.

 

Appeasing him with words had no effect as he lunged at me as soon as he got close enough. I jumped back, avoiding him another time. He lost his footing and fell face first on the wooden floor. The man's breathing was heavy and fast and his moans full of anger. Thereupon he managed to grab my ankle in a moment of personal unawareness and I was flung to the ground. Using my arms I shielded the back of my head from the fall and I immediately made efforts to get up and draw my blade. I realised that it was impossible to apprehend him normally so I hit his forehead in self-defence with the hilt until he was knocked unconscious. After the confrontation I sheathed the Gladius and scoured the immediate area for a means to tie up the perpetrator. I needed him arrested for later questioning should I find more clues or evidence as to what was going on. A rope hung conveniently from a nearby shelf, lying on top a few hooks that loosened and littered the floor as I pulled it out. I bound him in his unconscious state and left him where he was. 

 

Approaching the door, I heard voices coming from afar. "Must be more villagers returning. I hope they're a little friendlier than this guy", I thought and threw a distrustful look towards the bound aggressor. I opened the entrance door and had a look at the commotion outside. I now saw many men and women in simple, yet adequately fashioned linen and wool clothing, some wore robes, others leather armour. They spoke but in the noise I couldn't understand much. Off to my left, near the entrance gate that was now wide open, I saw two more men as they dragged behind themselves a rather big contraption that looked suspiciously like a horse carriage. But without horses. I was about to approach them when the two limp heads of the missing animals came into view through the dense mist. I let out a gasp which in turn attracted the attention of a few villagers that were passing by. During this moment, time stood still. One of them raised his arm, pointed his finger and shouted: "Outsider!".

 

Immediately, everyone dropped what they were doing - including the two men dragging the carriage, causing it to fall and break, revealing a rolling, humanoid shape as it fell into the snow and got buried by half a dead horse that slithered right after it. It took a few seconds for everyone to register I was there. And then all fell into chaos.

 

Left and right I watched as angry hands armed themselves and arms raised with sickles, hatchets, hammers, picks, torches, plows and even a few swords among them. Commands were exchanged loudly, fingers were pointed in multiple directions and before long, the mob set itself into motion. Eerily well coordinated for an attack on a single outsider. As the first knife came my way, tip first, and burrowed itself into the door behind me, I knew it was best to get back inside to protect myself from potential harm. Little did I know that's what they were going for. 

I shut the door and flipped a bookshelf close to me in order to make it inaccessible for the angry mob. Soon after, I saw a variety of tools shattering windows while others were carrying a ladder quickly in my direction. I made for the stairs when behind me, I heard fabric snap and rip. The villager I had apprehended earlier somehow managed to free himself. I avoided the direct confrontation and ran upstairs to look for a way out. 

 

In the attic, I noticed a number of diseased-looking corpses, rotted beyond recognition, suspended from the ceiling. "What IS this place?" I caught myself asking aloud. As a response to my horrified exclamation, a few urns flew into the attic from the two windows the roof was outfitted with, spilling a dark ooze. Then a torch came flying and I knew what that substance was. Quickly, the entire attic caught fire. They tried to burn down the entire house - with me in it. I sped down the stairs again only to discover that the ground floor had also been set ablaze, along with the angry villager who hated me so much. In a last-ditch effort to bring me down, he rushed at me and tried to light me on fire as well by embracing me. I ducked, jumped forward and rolled out of his way. He stumbled, fell on the stairs and was suddenly out cold or dead.

 

Looking through the fire I witnessed as an army of people had gathered in front of the house, ready to impale me should I try to escape through the front door or one of the windows. Next to the stairs to the attic, however, were also stairs that led downwards, presumably into a cellar. I wasted no time and made for the cellar in my desperate attempt to escape a fiery death. As the crackling behind me got quieter, the overall area got darker. There were no torches anywhere so I had to feel myself forward. It was almost silent so I didn't suspect any enemies crossing my path. In the pitch dark I felt for an exit of some sort. My hands touched something soft and sticky, then stone again. As my eyes adjusted, I saw a faint glimmer come from above my head after I've walked a few steps on unsure footing. I touched it and felt two handles. With as much strength as I could muster, I pushed and two metal doors swung open, letting me outside. I looked back and beheld a mound of decaying corpses. I reeled from the shock but managed to climb outside and crawl away from the house to hide in some nearby shrubbery. I vomited onto the earth in front of me.

 

I caught my breath and listened for the voices of the madmen who wandered the town. They were still convinced that I was trapped inside the house. Then a great clamour happened and the building collapsed in on itself. As the roof came down, it pulled everything else to the ground with it. The crashing of stone and wood droned out all other sounds and I was deaf for a few seconds. From within the debris I saw the burnt, injured face of the angry villager. He opened his eyes one last time but before he could scream, a wooden beam crushed his head for good. Covered in his blood from the impact I began to hyperventilate and fell unconscious. 

 

I awoke to an ill wind of smoke and burnt flesh. Night had fallen and the freezing cold beckoned me to get up and seek shelter. The shattered body of the elderly man lay there still and no-one had made any efforts to clean up the burnt down building. Carefully I crawled out from under the bushes and had a look around. The town was once again devoid of life. But now I knew I couldn't just go snooping around in people's houses like that. I had to go and return to Solitude for reinforcements as I saw myself unable to handle the threat all alone, but the Divines would not have it that way.

 

-

 

I approached the gate that led out of town. I had to get back to the city to request support and take care of the overly aggressive population in Winterhold. I needed to report the most immediate findings as soon as possible. To my dismay however, I found the gate sealed by debris and bodies. There was no way I could climb up the heap of dirt and dregs and land safely thereafter, not to mention the slippery, frozen bits that would have me slip down the way I came. The path was blocked off, so I had to find a different route out of town. 

Unfortunately, the only other way out that I knew of involved jumping from the bridge to the College into the icy waters below. There was too low aprobability of survival.

 

It was hopeless. "Since I am trapped here anyway", I thought, "I might as well continue the investigation, however careful." It seemed as if the residents of Winterhold had developed a particular hate for outsiders. I had to stick to the shadows and not get spotted, lest I alarm everyone again. And I was not prepared to fight a small army.

Skulking in the dark like filthy vampire scum I slithered along the cold, hard earth and frozen dirt. But I knew that the townspeople believed that I had perished in the burnt-out ruins of the house. This made it easier on my mind as I didn't have to fear any patrols looking for me. Instead, not a soul was in sight, all the windows were dark as if everyone was fast asleep. 

 

I required shelter, a place to stay so that I would not freeze to death out in the open. I crept along the houses, sticking to their walls and in the shadows to avoid detection. After I passed a few intact windows I suddenly lost my grip and fell backwards through an opening. I landed in an abandoned, run-down building not far from the Jarl's long house. Nobody lived there. It was almost completely free of furniture save for a chair and a rug. I intended to try and sleep inside its walls, so I grabbed the rug, pulling it out of view of the broken window. To my surprise I revealed a trap door that previously lay hidden underneath the rug. I concluded that it was probably for the better if I entered the house's basement rather than running the risk of being discovered at dawn by a passer-by so I turned the trap door's handle, pulled it up and opened the gateway to a deep darkness that lay slumbering below. For unbeknownst to me at the time, I chose to sleep right next to evil.

 

I possessed no torches and I didn't want to risk setting my only viable shelter on fire using the ASG, so I closed the trap door above me and confronted the impenetrable darkness. I once again felt my way forward, passing some indefinable furniture, a few objects that I assumed to be documents of some kind, a set of what felt like glass phials holding something inside as well as a bottle of some kind. Had I been just a little less careful, and had the phials shattered, I would have ensured my demise. I was cognizant of these fragile items though, and managed to slowly feel and grasp my way down to the floor, to lie down and rest. I didn't know what should unfold from there on out, but I had a feeling that I was going to need all the strength that I could get.

 

My eyes grew heavier by the minute as soon as I allowed myself so much as a minute amount of rest. After the ordeal with the angry villager, the mob and the burning house, passing out did nothing for my body and mind to recuperate. Instead, it had to fight off the elements as I lay in the bushes out in the cold and when I regained consciousness I had to be on my guard constantly. But as soon as I felt somewhat safe, hidden away in a pitch black corner for no-one to see or hear, I succumbed to the sheer exhaustion that the journey had brought me so far and I could not fight back against the weight of impending slumber. My eyes shut themselves almost without my consent and before I drifted off to sleep, my thoughts rested on the simple but pressing question: What happened to Winterhold?

 

I awoke the next day to darkness. It was difficult to really become awake because of the lack of light. I fought against the drowsiness and opened the trap door just a little bit to allow in some light and to listen for any movements outside. I didn't want to get caught, at least not right away, so I took utmost care and opened the trap door inch by inch, constantly listening for anything out of the ordinary. A strenuous task that demanded a lot of mental resources. After a while I was sure that nobody was in the immediate area so I slowly opened the hatch fully. The cold breeze of the typical Winterhold air played around my cheeks and nose as I breathed it in. The cold stung in my lungs before it reached body temperature and I exhaled a small cloud of mist that dissipated shortly after. I let my head poke out, spying out the broken window, straining my ears for anything at all. But there was only the wind and the slight crackling of fresh snow slowly melting in the sun's rays.

 

I turned my head and examined my abode from the night before. I saw a chair, a desk and the papers and phials I felt earlier. Unfortunately the papers were illegible, probably due to neglect. The phials, however, were occupied by a strange substance. I didn't know what it was then. But I chose to let the small containers stay in the safety of the little room that I had been spending the night in. I climbed out of the small enclosure and closed the hatch before covering it up with the rug once more to remain inconspicuous. It was at this time I felt the gnawing hunger setting in. I hadn't eaten in well over a day so it was time to consume some of the food I brought before I continued my investigation. 

 

I inspected the area and saw that I was not far from the Jarl's long house. Only two houses stood in between me and my next destination. I snuck around a few corners, unaware that I left footprints in the fresh snow, and gradually closed the distance between me and the Jarl's place. Along the way I encountered no villagers or guards. As if all of them had gone to a secret meeting place, nobody was to be seen on the streets, in the windows or stores. Not even footprints in the snow. When I stood directly next to the door to the Jarl's house, I readied my Cumulus in case I needed to put someone down immediately. I turned the handle, gave the door a slight push and it swung open slowly and gently, enough so that I was able to slip through and close the door behind me again. Inside, a surreal sight unfolded before me.

 

Inside the cold fireplaces in front of the Jarl's throne lay charred bodies. On the two flights of stairs to the left and right of the throne sat five unmoving corpses each whilst several more hung from the ceiling in perfect stillness. The stench was almost unbearable as decomposition must have set in days ago. Among the corpses I spotted one that wasn't quite as rotten as the others. I slowly tiptoed closer to it and turned it around, revealing itself to be the lifeless body of the driver of the horse carriage. I contained a shocked gasp in order to not rouse any more people believed dead for I had trouble telling who was among the living and who wasn't. I feverishly looked around for any sign of life but all bodies kept still. Cumulus at the ready I approached the limply sitting figure of the Jarl, apparently sleeping in his throne. And then I made the single greatest mistake of waking him.

 

I placed my hand on his shoulder and tried to shake him awake. "Jarl!", I whispered. "Wake up! We need to leave! I've come to rescue you!". A moment later he woke, slowly raising his head to take a look at me. I took a step back as his eyes met mine. Two jet-black orbs stared at me as foul teeth snarled and oozed dark slime, gathering below the Jarl's chin as a small puddle on the ground. 

"You should not have come", his deep voice told me. "You were better off dying in the recent house fire". His snarl turned into a grin. "But since you're here… you might as well become one of us". 

His joints cracked noisily when he moved. He pushed himself up from the throne and took a few steps forward. I noticed that his entire body appeared to be crawling with something, writhing within.

"Bow down to our might and give yourself to Lord Marcus - or die and be reborn a slave to our will".

 

With these words, long, muscular tentacles came forth from under his cloak and grew towards the bodies that sat upon the stairs. Some grew along the walls to take hold of the hanging corpses until all was enveloped in pulsating biomatter. With a quick movement, the Jarl caused all of the tendrils to pierce the flesh of the corpses and retract quickly thereafter. About 15 to 20 dead men and women fell over only for them to rise again - all under the Jarl's control as would become apparent very soon. 

"Destroy her", he commanded and sunk back into his throne. A protective layer of root-like tentacles formed around it, preventing me from attacking him head-on. I was forced to dispose of his combat force first. 

 

I suppressed the urge to run for the door and exit the house. Outside I would have probably met more trouble. Besides, I had nowhere to run to. I couldn't leave Winterhold and escape. I had to stand my ground. Fortunately for me, what ever had been driven into those corpses was not particularly strong. Perhaps because it had only just been administered.

The puppets stumbled forth, groping at me with their diseased hands. Before it got too crowded I fired a few well-placed shots, putting down three of them in quick succession. With their heads split open, they went limp and some strange fluid exited their bodies.

I reloaded the Cumulus' barrel and fired the next couple of shots, bringing down another three. After these, the true extent of whatever power I was fighting became apparent. 

 

The more of the horrid monsters I dropped, the faster and more agile the others became. It was like the polar opposite of a hive. In time, I chose to conserve my ammunition and instead chose to keep fighting using the Gladius. 

Meanwhile the mindless drones had developed some sort of melee fighting style, sending kicks and punches flying my way. I deflected most of the attacks with the blade. Sometimes an opponent staggered after the deflection, making themselves open for retaliation by my hand. It was a bloody, filthy business, disposing of these creatures. But it had to be done, otherwise I would have died.

I had my share of close encounters with claws and teeth and managed to evade some of the attacks by merely a hand's breadth. I am a trained fighter but those fetid creatures gave me serious trouble.

 

As soon as the last of them were put to their (hopefully) eternal rest I breathed a sigh of relief. The battle was finally over and the tension loosened. I forgot the Jarl.

 

I panted and walked slowly around the room, reloading the Cumulus, wiping the foul sludge off the Gladius' blade and crudely cleaned my protective coat. Then I heard something move just off to the side, a shadow emerging in the corner of my eye. I looked on in awe as the towering monstrosity I had afore known as the Jarl rose from his throne, more than double his former size. The hulking figure stepped forward and swiped at me with his enormous limbs. He managed to catch me once and I was hurled towards a nearby wall. I rolled to the side just in time as his huge arm came down, leaving a big dent in the floor. I evaded a few more attacks. From within the whirlwind that I was as I danced around, dodging and rolling out of harm's way, the Gladius emerged and cut off his left arm.

 

The ground quaked as the severed limb fell. But it did nothing to weaken the former Jarl - instead, a mass of rather muscular tentacles replaced it. Like a pack of feral snakes they lunged at me, cornered me. They were too numerous in order to properly keep track of so a few of them slipped my attention and swiftly pulled at my ankles, causing me to dangle upside-down in front of the monster. I wildly slashed about with the sword and only saw blood splatters and pieces of flesh flying about. In my panic I lost my hold of the hilt and it fell to the floor, stuck in the wooden planks below. I was now mostly defenseless. This prompted two more tentacles to wrap around my throat. As the air got less and less and the grip tightened I felt for the Cumulus and the ASG inside my coat. The first weapon I found was the gem. I channeled what magical power I had left to send a blinding flash of lightning on its way. The Jarl started for a second and involuntarily let go of me. I fell and hit my head on a loose floorboard but recovered quickly in the heat of battle. As long as the Jarl was out of commission, I felt for the Cumulus, armed it, took aim and pulled the trigger.

 

Three rounds burst forth to meet the Jarl's head. The first projectile killed him. The second split his face. The third went right through and split the remainder of the head. But the fight was not over yet. Breaking through the flesh of the blood-squirting neck was a… thing I had never seen before. A hideous mutation of worm, snake and a durzog's maw with fangs, teeth and pulsating, skinless flesh, oozing a steaming crimson slime, erratically flinging itself around. It bit the air with its flexible body of gaping mouths and bladed tongues. An unknown creature from the depths of madness came forth to rend and consume me. It stumbled forward slowly and threatened to back me into a corner - but an idea struck me square in the head. I took out the soul gem once more and lit the fireplace closest to the throne. I lured the beast to it, using myself as bait and almost losing a limb or two to the biting something that had suddenly assumed control of the deceased body. Then, once I got close enough to the Gladius that still waited for me to retrieve it, I pulled it out and threw it at the creature's legs.

Something was cut and it was forced onto its knees. I used this momentum, dashed behind it and delivered a final blow. A solid kick sent it falling forward, into the fire, and I watched as it squirmed and burned.

 

The battle was finally over. I had walked into a death trap, expected to bring down even the best of fighters, but emerged triumphantly over superior adversity. Now I saw myself once again in the undesirable position of having to evacuate a burning building. I looked out a front window and saw that, to my luck, there were no villagers in sight. I exited the long house quickly and hid behind a nearby dwelling in case the fire would attract attention. When the outer walls and ceiling of the Jarl's long house caught fire, the pillar of smoke grew thicker, I saw a mass of people surface from within the College grounds. I had to stay undetected so I chose to instead hunker down behind a few snow-covered trees some distance away to observe what would happen. And as I sat there, a continuous influx of residents filled the area - many more than there appeared to be living space it seemed.

 

I looked to my new destination, the College. I looked back to the mass of villagers crowding the area. And I thought: "Now what?".

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