Four souls in a wooden dinghy were all that remained of the Order of the Lamp.
A far cry from the days of the Mages Guild, when thousands clashed with Mannimarco’s necromancers and undead. Or even during the Great War, when my father and I lead a 4-score knights across the western provinces, mitigating magical atrocities from both the Thalmor Battlemages and the Emperor’s Shadow Legion.
I shivered as a midnight wind blew across Halcyon Lake, wrapping my short robe around myself tighter. The dinghy was all we could get our hands on with such notice, and given that damn near every Ayleid spirit in the province was flocking to the sunken Ayleid city in the center of the lake, it was understandable that none of the captains in Evermore were willing to take us. A pillar of neon blue light rose high above the crumbling city, casting dull reflections off of the marble architecture. Ghostly spirits of all shapes and sizes flowed past us, both above and below the water, before joining a swirling vortex of luminous wisps above the ruin. They didn’t seem to pay us any mind, but I had one hand resting on the handle of my silver axe just in case.
“Ah. Here we are,” muttered Calindil from the front of the boat, thrusting his finger at a page of his aged tome and turning it towards me. Even at this hour, I was still able to make out the faded letters and illustrations between the moonlight and the ethereal glow over the lake. I quickly scanned the page for any information of value. “The Ayleids called this place Bisnensel,” continued Calindil. “Supposedly it was founded by King Dynar in the First Era.”
“It still doesn’t give us any clues as to what in Julianos’ name is going on here,” I said, scowling. Calindil frowned and looked away in frustration. With his centuries of experience and his Altmer pride, he was used to having all the answers.
“Could the Daedra have something to do with it?” asked Teldryn, taking a brief break from rowing to catch his breath. The Dunmer mercenary was a new addition to our group, and was doing his best to make himself useful. “The Daedra worshippers here are even more wretched than in Morrowind. Maybe it’s one of your summoning days.”
“No, no, I don’t think that’s it at all,” interjected Marie. Her dark cropped hair and hood obscured her face completely as she rummaged through her satchel of potions, the glass phials clinking together as she fished for the right one. “Necromancers don’t need motivation from the Daedra to do something foolish. Besides, Molag Bal’s summoning day was weeks ago.”
Calindil and I glanced back at each other in a moment of realisation. Marie might be young, but she’d picked up on things very quickly.
I looked up and lowered my hood, trying to get a better look at the ruins.
“It’s not Molag Bal’s summoning day, no. It’s Meridia’s.”
Teldryn carefully guided the dinghy through the outskirts of the sunken city, using the partially submerged buildings to hide us from watchful eyes. The density and height of the ancient structures, interconnected by a lattice of crumbling bridges, seemed to only increase as we approached the pillar of light in the center. Barnacles and algae gathered around the waterline, unfazed by the storm of spirits overhead. I could see Marie eyeing off the barnacles to add to her collection of alchemical reagents. A disapproving look was all it took for her to focus back on scanning the ruins for signs of danger.
“There’s someone up ahead,” whispered Calindil, the soft purple energy of his detection spell writhing in his right hand. “Make that two someones.”
I held up a fist, motioning for Teldryn to stop. I caught a glimpse of a pair of figures on a nearby rooftop, silhouetted against the glow of the spirits. Teldryn smoothly guided the boat behind a nearby wall, bringing it to rest against a leaning staircase. I raised my hood and stepped out onto the stairs, creeping to the top to get a better view.
“What’s your call, Palatinus?”
I hated it when Calindil called me that. It was the title for the leader of a chapter of Lamp Knights, which I technically was. Though I somehow doubt a Dunmer mercenary, Redguard apprentice and Altmer outlaw was what Vanus Galerion had in mind when he founded the order.
I studied our surroundings for an approach, my eyes following the deteriorating staircase over a bridge towards the building where the sentries were posted.
“We’ll take them down from a distance before they have a chance to alert anyone. I want a prisoner, otherwise we’re still sailing blind into this maelstrom.”
Marie pulled a pair of vials from her bandolier, one a vibrant deep blue and the other a swirling, toxic green. “I think I have just the thing.”
I gave a nod and motioned for her to go ahead. She downed the blue vial and conjured a shimmering Daedric bow, pulling a pair of ghostly arrows from her quiver. She crept carefully up the leaning staircase at a low crouch, the rest of them following close behind. She dipped one arrow in the green vial, nocked the other, and took aim at her target. The translucent projectile sailed over the rooftops and took her target in the throat, sending them tumbling into the waters below. The other sentry barely had time to reach for their sword as Marie’s second arrow punctured his thigh, freezing his body like a statue.
Unable to control his balance, his rigid body toppled over onto the stone beneath. A flicker of pride crossed Calindil’s face as Marie dismissed her weapon. He’d been training her in mystic bindings recently, and the bow had proved uniquely suited to her skills in the alchemical arts. His expression faded briefly to one of frustration, however. As much as he hated to admit it, the worsening magical wound in his left arm prevented him using it for even the simplest tasks, let alone shooting a bound bow.
The four of us rushed up the rest of the staircase and across the narrow bridge, and properly restrained our new prisoner with a pair of magical manacles. I forced them against a nearby wall before the paralysis wore off, and we surrounded them in a rough semicircle . Teldryn tore back the prisoner’s hood to reveal a young Bosmer, likely no older than 20 years. He wore a dark suit of boiled leathers, inscribed and embossed with swirling avian motifs. One on hip he wore a sword of similar style, and a diamond-shaped crystal emitting a soft golden light hung from his neck. Before we could start asking questions, he began cursing at us in some foreign tongue.
I put my hand on my axe and stared down the prisoner. Even with the four of us surrounding him, it only seemed to strengthen his resolve.
“Any idea what he’s saying?” I inquired to the rest of the group. “He doesn’t look like any cultist I’ve seen in these parts before.”
Calindil put a hand on his chin, trying to focus on what the prisoner was saying. “I think it’s some dialect of Ayleidoon, but I can’t quite make out the words,” he puzzled. “It would explain the designs on his armour, too.”
A moment of silence passed between us and the prisoner, pierced by Teldryn’s distinctive Dunmer drawl. “I think I’ve seen this before. In Black Marsh.” Teldryn placed a hand on the pommel of his katana and paced around us, gesticulating with his other hand. “Some fanatics calling themselves the Revivalists, trying to reinstitute the rule of the Ayleids. I suppose it makes sense with all the chaos of late,” he surmised with a shrug.
“And what were they doing in Black Marsh?” I wondered aloud. If we weren’t going to get anything in the common tongue out of him, at least Teldryn’s story might provide some insight.
In the blink of an eye, Teldryn’s katana left its sheath and severed the chain holding the Revivalist’s crystal, and he deftly snatched it out of the air before it hit the ground. The prisoner’s face distorted with rage and he began cursing again. “They were looking for these. Ayleid memory crystals.” Teldryn held the crystal at arm’s length, and it quickly became apparent why. “They subject themselves to the influence of the crystals for so long, that they become the person who’s memories were stored inside. And turn quite mad in the process.”
I pondered on what to do with this poor soul while others looked on expectantly. Marie usually agreed with me, but Calindil often thought I was too lenient with my judgements. He knew better than to say anything however. Teldryn usually tried to distance himself from such discussions; I was the one paying his fee after all.
I telekinetically grabbed the crystal from Teldryn and smashed it into the wall next to the prisoner, then launched his sword from its sheath into the water. I almost thought I saw relief on the Bosmer’s face upon the destruction of the crystal. “You’re free to go. But if I see you causing trouble again, you’ll suffer a much worse fate. Understand?”
The elf nodded, and I removed his restraints. Before we had a chance to see where he ran, a burst of light and a sound like peal of thunder emanated from the center of the ruins. The glowing pillar had intensified, and I almost had to shield my eyes from it.
“Uh, guys?” said Marie, four iridescent purple vials in her hands. “We should probably get a move on.”
The four of us advanced through the ruin at pace, hidden from the remaining sentries and any curious spirits by Marie’s invisibility potions. We soon reached the central structure at the apex of the city, the only one untouched by the waters of Halcyon Lake. It appeared to be a temple of some kind, almost in pristine condition compared to the rest of Bisnensel. From there, I could see the spirits flowing in from Ayleid ruins all over High Rock. Some of them marched in ghostly columns, while others soared high above. It reminded me of stories I’d heard of the aurora in Skyrim.
The inner sanctum of the temple was a massive circular amphitheatre with a raised dais in the center. Decorative archways inlaid with glowing crystals lined the outside of the temple, and a winged statue of Meridia kept vigil on the far side. The pillar of light we had seen descended into a radiant fist-sized crystal, hovering over an Ayleid Well on the dais. Despite its size, the crystal bathed the temple in a kaleidoscope of colours as it reflected off of the polished stone and crystal inlays. We were well and truly in the eye of the storm.
Standing before the well was a tall Altmer woman, an exquisite staff and sword of Ayleid make held high above her. She wore regalia fit for royalty. On her head was an intricately detailed open helm of lustrous moonstone, bearing a pair of backswept horns. A collar of similar make covered her neck and shoulders atop a shimmering robe of black and silver. Her long silver hair was billowing from the magickal energy emanating from the well.
“I recognise some of those items,” whispered Calindil. “The Crown of Nenalata, the sword, and the staff. All symbols of authority for the Ayleids.”
“Maybe she’s using them to command the spirits?” surmised Marie. “Summoning them here for this ritual.”
I took a moment to summon my courage. The amount of power she was commanding indicated she was a mage of considerable skill. I knew it wasn’t going to be an easy battle.
“Whatever it is, there’s enough power at work here to threaten the entire province. This ends here.”
I drew my axe and cast a spell of protection, breaking the invisibility offered by Marie’s potion, and the others followed suit. I’d like to think we all looked very heroic, standing on the steps of the amphitheater. Calindil in his dark coat and half-cloak covering his left arm, twirling a bound sword effortlessly in his other hand. Marie in her hood, doublet, knee-length skirt and hose, bound bow by her side and a handful of vials at the ready. Teldryn in his sculpted chitin armour, wreathed in a cloak of magical flames, hand on his katana and ready to strike at a moment’s notice. And I in my short robe, complete with blue Palatinus’ sash and hood, my engraved silver axe catching the light as I pointed it towards the Revivalists’ Queen.
“Halt, mage!” I bellowed, with all the conviction I could muster. “By order of the Knights of the Lamp, cease your spell and identify yourself!”
The beam of light dimmed slightly as she whirled around, fury in her golden Altmeri eyes. Uh oh.
“You SLAVES and TRAITORS would DARE interrupt ME?”
Her voice boomed throughout the amphitheatre. It sounded multilayered, almost alien, as if someone else was speaking through her.
“Your kind has NO claim to this sacred temple. Abandon this place, or suffer the consequences.” There was a disturbing emphasis on the ‘suffer’ part.
From this close proximity I had a better view of the ritual itself. It appeared that the Ayleid Well was being used as a conduit to convert the animus of the spirits into raw magicka, and funnel it into the radiant crystal. I shuddered to think of what the Revivalists were planning on doing with it when they were finished.
“As you wish,” I responded, brandishing my axe. “But we’re not leaving without that crystal.”
Now we had the Queen’s full attention. She channeled magicka into her staff, and the quartz-like crystal at its tip radiated a bright white light. She swept the staff in a wide arc in front of her, and a phalanx of a dozen towering soldiers in gleaming golden mail appeared in its wake, weapons and spells at the ready. Aurorans.
I caught a smirk from Calindil in the corner of my eye. Daedra were his speciality.
I barely managed to raise my ward in time as the Aurorans launched a barrage of lightning bolts towards us, impacting upon the barrier in flares of blinding white and swirling blue. By the time I had recovered, two of the Daedra were already bearing down upon me, double-bladed axes in hand. My companions had scattered under the Aurorans’ assault, and a pair were bearing down on each of them as well. The remaining four clustered around the Revivalists’ Queen, protecting her with towering shields as she continued the ritual.
I raised my axe above my right shoulder, prepared to strike at a moment’s notice, and extended my spellcasting hand forward to attack or defend. I dropped into a wide stance just as the first Auroran rushed in. They hefted their axe in a two handed grip and wound up for a blow that would be able to split me clean in two. Channeling a paralysis spell into my fore and middle fingers, I thrust them into the Auroran’s chest before they could release the swing, rendering them completely defenseless for a precious few moments. I followed up with an attack of my own, and pivoted to put my whole body into the blow. The Auroran erupted in a blaze of golden light as I buried my weapon in their left shoulder, smashing through the mail armour. The second Auroran did not hesitate to take advantage of their fellow’s demise, coming in with another massive blow from behind. I barely managed to step out of the way as their axe smashed into the floor of the amphitheatre, spreading electricity-charged fissures across the stone surface.
We both backed off and faced off against each other. Now that the Auroran was aware of my capabilities, I think they were inclined to plan their next attack a little more carefully.
I took the opportunity to quickly glance around the temple at my companions. Calindil had already made short work of his assailants, his bound blade banishing the Aurorans back to the Coloured Rooms with the lightest cut. Teldryn’s opponents seemed to be wary of the Dunmer’s aura of flames, the trio circling each other and looking for an advantage.
One quickly presented itself as a ghostly arrow struck one of the Aurorans in the back, sending them staggering into range of both Teldryn’s flame cloak and his blade. Another flash illuminated the temple as his katana left its sheath in a smooth arc, cleaving through the Auroran’s midsection. He continued to press the attack, raining down a hail of blows on the other Daedra.
While Marie’s arrow may have provided Teldryn with an opportunity, it was not without consequences. I winced as her remaining Auroran pursuer launched a crackling blast of lightning, striking her in the chest and sending her flying against a nearby pillar. Calindil wasn’t close enough to reach her before the Auroran could finish her off, and Teldryn and I had our own problems to deal with. But I had to do something.
I rushed at the Auroran in front of me, trying to batter my way through their defenses before it was too late. The Daedra went on the defensive, using the broad surface of the double-bladed axe to block my blows. In my haste I miscalculated one of my swings, and the Auroran hooked my axe on the edge of their own. A quick shove of the heavy weapon was all it took to wrench mine from my grasp, sending it clattering onto the floor, out of reach.
I would still have a few seconds before the next blow came. Marie, however, didn’t have such a luxury. My only choice was to rely on my protection spell.
Marie regained her senses and looked up at the hulking Daedra, panic in her eyes as they raised their axe for the killing blow. I focused for a brief moment and channeled magicka through both my hands into a ray of destructive energy. The beam cast a dull red shadow over the luminous blue in its path as it spiraled towards its target, striking the Auroran’s weapon and reducing it to ash and scrap metal mid-swing. Fueled by what could only be described as a rush of adrenaline, Marie leapt to her feet and threaded an arrow through the Auroran’s visor before the ruined axe could clatter to the floor. Another explosion of light.
Unfortunately for me, it was now far too late to properly defend myself from a diagonal cut soaring towards side as if in slow motion. I did my best to prepare myself physically and mentally, and positioned my body to roll with the blow. At the last second, Teldryn’s katana burst through the Auroran’s chest, coated in metallic flecks of golden light. The Daedra disintegrated, and Teldryn flicked the residue off his blade. His expression was unreadable behind that chitin mask of his, but we gave each other a nod. I was safe, for now at least.
I took a few deep breaths to collect myself, and pulled my axe back to my hand with a telekinesis spell. The others regrouped around me, Marie quaffing one of her healing potions. Just four more Aurorans. Then the Queen.
I knew - from both books and experience - that Aurorans were resistant to magick, shock spells most of all. And between their shields and armour, they weren’t going to be easy to take down. They did have one weakness though. Their charge.
On my command, Marie began launching arrows as fast as she could at the Queen, forcing the Aurorans to clump together to properly protect her. Teldryn and I bombarded their shield wall with all manner of destructive spells. My frost spells and Teldryn’s fire blended together in a cacophony of energy, sound and light, perfectly blinding the Aurorans from the real threat. Calindil’s banishment spell.
With a complex gesture, a vortex of violet energy sprung from Calindil’s hand and shot towards the Aurorans, bursting against their shields. A portal, whirling with prismatic colours, suddenly opened above the Daedra, banishing them back to the Coloured Rooms from whence they came.
While the Revivalist Queen had been untouched by the banishment spell, she was now truly enraged at the fall of her servants. I gave her one last chance to stand down.
“Four on one, lady. It’s over!” I shouted over the low hum of the ritual. It seemed like it was still growing in intensity, the temple now virtually vibrating with magickal power.
She simply raised her sword skyward in response, the moonstone blade shining in the blue light, calling spirits from the ritual to her side. We all braced as wave upon wave of ghostly Ayleid warriors appeared and charged towards us. I called upon my reserves of magicka, channeling the healing arts to create a circle of blue-gold light to surround us just in time.
The undead warriors flowed around and encircled us, repulsed by the circle’s power, and we slowly advanced through the oncoming horde. I maintained the protective circle for what felt like minutes, while the others struck at any of the spirits that managed to break through. When we finally reached the dias, my magicka had been well and truly spent. My arms and hands burned with residual energy, unable to continue maintaining the spell, but at least the circle would still linger for some time. I only hoped we could stop the ritual and banish the spirits before then.
The Queen had laid down her staff and now wielded her sword in both hands. She and her blade both glowed with the well’s power, surrounded by white ethereal flames. Nobody wasted time with more words; we all knew nobody was willing to back down.
Calindil was the first to attack. The rapid series of cuts, thrusts and feints that passed between them was almost too fast to follow. All of Calindil’s skill and finesse couldn’t make up for the Queen’s superior speed however, and he was soon worn down by a series of quick strikes. The Queen’s blade went straight through his protection spells, and his wounds glowed with magickal white embers.
Before she could land a killing blow however, she had Teldryn to contend with while Marie tended to the worst of Calindil’s wounds. He rushed into the fray, his dark ebony katana flying from its scabbard to meet the Queen’s shining moonstone sword. Bright sparks, both magical and otherwise, flew in a series of brief but tempestuous clashes. Teldryn’s attacks were precise and calculated, managing to land a number of strikes, but not without receiving a few of his own. Unlike Teldryn, his opponent hardly seemed to notice her injuries. Teldryn was forced onto the defensive, parrying blows blows left and right, as her fervorous assault continued unabated. With no opening for an attack of his own, he had to create one.
He lowered his guard dodged back for a moment, evading a wide slash. Before the Queen had recovered, Teldryn charged in, shoulder first, forcing her off her footing, and pirouetted to wind up for a finishing blow. I could see the Queen recovering faster than anyone could have expected, altering her stance to intercept Teldryn’s attack before it could land. Teldryn had far too much momentum at this point to stop himself.
My protection spell had long since expired and I still had only the smallest reserves of magicka remaining, but at this point it was either Teldryn dies, or maybe I do. I rushed towards the pair and tackled Teldryn out of the way just in time, an otherwise mortal blow from the Queen instead opening a long wound in his side. I rolled back to my feet when we landed, raising my axe into a guard position.
Thanks to what was no doubt a combination of training and magickal enhancements, the Queen was too strong and too fast to be bested by even master swordsmen like Calindil and Teldryn. If I was going to make it out of this one, I would have to try something a little more unconventional.
Before I had time to think, she was already upon me, her sword singing as it cut through the air. We circled for a moment before she began making long lunges and sweeping cuts, her superior reach pushing me off balance. I normally relied on my ward spells for defense in situations like these, but I would only be able to block an attack or two from her enchanted blade in my state.
Now there was an idea.
I repositioned myself to have my back to the Ayleid well in the center of the room, brimming with the power of both the spirits and starlight. I threw myself into the Queen’s next blow, ward raised, the force of the ward shattering sending me staggering up the stairs. I blocked her backswing with a second ward, the last of my magicka ebbing away, and forcing me onto my back against the well itself.
I felt the power contained in the well fill my reservoir of magicka. Perfect.
The Queen’s next blow was a soaring overhead cut, aimed squarely at the side of my neck. I managed to catch the blade in the crook between the spike of my axe and the blade itself, twisting my grip to lock it in place. As we battled for control of the clinched weapons I summoned a bound sword in my offhand, standing and plunging it into her chest.
The others looked on in amazement as the Revivalists’ Queen collapsed. Her Crown tumbled from her head, bouncing down the stairs of the dais before coming to rest with a thud that belied its weight.
Without the continuing ritual to hold them at Bisnensel, the spirits soon lost interest in the ruin and began to disperse.
Catching my breath, I grabbed the Crown by one of the horns and held it up to the fading light, admiring the exceptional craftsmanship. Calindil’s hand grasped the other horn, still bent over in pain. Meanwhile Marie was still treating the worst of Teldryn’s injury.
“Give me the Crown,” muttered Calindil. His voice was hoarse, but I could tell by his tone he was serious.
“Are you mad?” I shot back, keeping my grip firmly on the Crown. “It’s over. These artifacts need to be locked up so they can’t harm anyone again.”
Calindil looked me dead in the eyes. “That’s exactly why I need them.” He gestured to the fallen staff and sword on the dais. “We could complete the ritual. Finish sealing the souls within the crystal. Nothing’s stopping someone from trying this again, otherwise.”
I put a hand on my chin and considered his proposal. I suppose it made sense, but I still didn’t like it.
“Isn’t that necromancy?” Marie probed, concerned.
Teldryn propped himself up on an elbow and groaned. His armour had been removed so that Marie could properly examine his wound. “Necromancy isn’t strictly illegal in these parts,” he interjected. “Besides, despite what the Synod might tell you, there’s nothing intrinsically evil about the Art. Like any form of magic, it can be used for good or evil ends.”
“Need I remind you,” I snarled, “that the Order of the Lamp has been fighting against necromancy and its practitioners for literally thousands of years?” I gave the Crown a sharp tug.
“If we’re going to get technical here, this ritual falls under the purview of Mysticism.” Calindil’s patronising tone positively dripped with sarcasm. “Make your decision, Palatinus. The further away these lost souls get, the longer this is going to take.”
Well thanks for reading! I'm hoping to make this a roughly 3-part series as a backstory for a build I have in the works. This is why as you may have noticed I've been particular about not revealing the protagonist's name or gender.
This is the first time I've done something like this in 5 years (if not longer) so any feedback is appreciated!
Also, many thanks to Prime and Fiskill on the Discord for helping me out with proofreading.