It was almost dawn by the time the four of us in our little boat made it back to Evermore. With Teldryn and Calindil still recovering from their injuries, it was my turn to do the rowing. We were all well and truly exhausted by the time we arrived at the docks, but it was still another half-day’s ride to the Hall of the Lamp, nestled in the hills between Evermore and Wayrest. There was little argument around my proposal to rest at one of the local inns for the morning, and then head back home before sundown.
Only the sounds of creaking timber accompanied us as we made our way from the docks into the city proper. The streets were practically abandoned at this hour, with nobody but a few tired guards outside in the dead of night. I did my best to conceal the contents of the pack over my shoulder. The Crown of Nenalata and the charged Revivalists’ crystal jostled inside, alongside the Queen’s longsword, wrapped in cloth, which protruded from the top of the bag. New additions for the vault underneath our Hall.
We soon reached the Anchor’s Point Inn, a two-story establishment at the northern end of town. The white-washed walls shone in the dim lantern light of the streets, bearing an eerie similarity to the stone architecture of Bisnensel.
I knocked on the locked door to the inn and was greeted almost immediately by a bleary-eyed Orc. His doublet was undone and his breath carried the stench of more than a few tankards of beer. Must have been a long night.
“Good evening, Borul,” I said, stifling a yawn. Peering inside I could see some of the other regulars were still awake as well. “You shouldn’t have waited up for us.”
Borul was an old friend of the Order. It’s not the first time we’d made use of his inn on the way to or from duties in the region. He must have guessed we would be in town with all the commotion during the night.
“Well,” he responded, gruffly. “I think half of Evermore has lost more than their fair share of sleep with all those spirits roaming around.” He looked past me at the state of my companions, their clothes and armour battered and bloodstained. “Guessing it’s dealt with?”
“We wouldn’t be standing here if it wasn’t.” The Orc looked visibly relieved. “But we shouldn’t dwell on such grim things.”
I pulled a small purse from my satchel, and the clink of coins within briefly caught the attention of a few of the customers. “I’ll need a room for the four of us and a hot meal in the morning. I think forty Septims should suffice?”
Borul let out a low chuckle, cutting through the dour mood of the common room.
“After what you’ve done, it’s on the house.”
We received quiet, respectful nods from many of the patrons as we threaded our way through the common room up to our lodgings. On one hand, I didn’t like taking advantage of his hospitality like this. On the other, as much as I hated to admit it, the Order was in dire straits. Ever since the Thalmor arrived in High Rock and instituted the New Hegemony, the local lords no longer came to us with rewards for dealing with problems of a magical nature. It was even more difficult to find new recruits. At least the common folk still held us in high esteem.
I carefully placed my pack containing the artifacts we’d recovered in the trunk at the base of my bed, sealing it with magic and warding it with destructive runes. Peering at the glow from the Revivalists’ crystal, I couldn’t help but wonder if I had done the right thing allowing Calindil to complete the ritual. Sure, nobody would be able to abuse those ancient souls again once we worked out how to safely destroy the crystal, but I worried that I or one of my companions would be tempted to use its power before then. Were we become the very thing we sought to destroy?
I thought back to the time when Father was the head of the Order, and Calindil’s stories of his fathers before him. They always sounded so level-headed and sure of their convictions, though at that moment I was feeling anything but. I wondered what they would make of me now.
Sleep did not come quickly that night.
I dreamt of a day with Father in the Great War.
A red desert sun shone through pillars of smoke over Hallin’s Stand in northern Hammerfell. The streets were lined with crumbling buildings and scorched corpses. I sat on a fallen pillar, trying to avoid looking at it all. I was barely sixteen years of age at the time; I’d never seen or smelled anything quite like it in my life.
When Father had heard that the Emperor’s Shadow Legion was deploying to take back the city from its Thalmor occupiers, Calindil had urged him to rally the Order and join them. Not to fight alongside the Empire or the Thalmor, but to shield the populace from the inevitable fallout of a pitched battle between hundreds of zealous battlemages. Calindil knew from past experience what could happen to those people.
Now in the aftermath of the battle, the Legion had pursued the Thalmor further south and left us to clean up the mess. Father and Calindil were assigning the remaining dozen or so Lamp Knights to tend to the injured civilians and soldiers and prevent any further damage to the city. Calindil had been second in command of the Order since the early years of the Fourth Era, when my great-grandfather first saved him during the Night of Green Fire. He’d always been a skilled mage, and a good teacher, but sometimes his pragmatism didn’t quite align with the Order’s principles. That same pragmatism did make him an excellent advisor, however.
Father saw me looking over and approached, leaving Calindil in charge of the knights. His brilliant blue Palatinus’ sash was a stark contrast against the dour surroundings and the dull green of my novice sash. He took a seat next to me on the pillar.
“How are you holding up?” he asked, concern in his voice.
“I’m fine,” I replied. I couldn’t quite bring myself to meet his eyes. “Nothing a bit of magic couldn’t fix.”
“You know that’s not what I was talking about.” His voice had taken on a stern tone. “What you did to that soldier in the alleyway. Who taught you that?”
“Master Calindil showed me. I’m sorry, I was afraid, and I panicked-”
“I’m not here to chastise you, little lamp.” Father placed a comforting hand on my shoulder. “Magic may just be a tool, but the Dark Practice is another matter entirely. Calindil educated you about necromancy so that you can understand and defeat its practitioners, not join them.”
“It’s my fault. I wish he’d never taught me.” I was fighting back tears.
“No, the blame is mine,” Father replied. “I shouldn’t have brought you into this war.” He looked off into the distance. “You did well today nonetheless. I’m proud of you; I think you’ll make a great Palatinus one day.”
I looked up and smiled.
“Just remember, little lamp, the brightest lights can cast the darkest shadows.”
I awoke greeted by soft sunlight and the sounds of the busy marketplace outside trickling through the room’s window; the day was already well underway. I quickly glanced over to the trunk containing our collection of artifacts, and breathed a sigh of relief when I saw the wards and runes intact. I could still sense the power of the crystal at the corners of my mind.
Marie was the only other one still in the room, the contents of her potion satchel spread across her bed. She must have sensed my eyes on the back of her head.
“Just going over what we used last night,” she said, without turning around. “I’ll need to buy some more ingredients before we leave town.”
“Good morning to you as well,” I replied dryly, donning my robes for the day. I caught the scent of fresh baking from downstairs. “Where are the others?”
“Calindil said he was heading to the College of Whispers chapter house. Didn’t say what for though.” Her tone indicated she was just as curious about this visit as I was.
“Probably wanting to know more about what went down last night,” I surmised. “I just hope he doesn’t take too long.”
“I’m guessing Teldryn is still downstairs, though. ‘Sampling’ the local brews no doubt.”
That definitely sounded like him.
I headed back down to the common area and headed to join Teldryn at the bar. Things were looking much more lively than last night, with other patrons starting to trickle in for their midday meal. The light filtering in through the open doors and windows cast the timber room in a warm glow.
Borul ducked into the kitchen as I approached and emerged with a hot pie, placing it in front of me.
“Teldryn hasn’t told me much, but if any of it is true, I think you’ll need this.” Borul’s cheerful expression shifted to one of concern as I dug in to the pastry, however. “Had some nobleman pass through earlier today looking for the Lamp Knights. Wants you to meet him up at the palace. Sounded pretty important.”
Involvement from the nobility usually meant more gold or more complications. These days it was often the latter.
“No rest for the wicked, hmm?” Teldryn smirked to himself, downing another mouthful of ale.
“You’re not wrong,” I sighed, a mix of amusement and frustration. “Thanks for the pie, Borul, and the news.” I stood, grabbing the pie to go, and addressed Teldryn with a stern tone. “Go and watch the room for a while. Marie needs to buy some more ingredients for us.”
He downed the last of his ale and presented the tankard to Borul. “One more for the road, friend?”
I slipped a few coins into the tip jar as Borul turned to refill the tankard.
The Evermore Palace was situated at the highest point of the city. Banners of the Aldmeri Dominion and New Hegemony draped from the dark stone battlements, the golden embellishments gleaming in the midday sun. Today, it seemed that the regular guards and the gate were joined by a pair of Altmeri knights. The crimson tabard of the New Hegemony hung over their shining armour, contrasting against the purple colours and rough steel of the regular palace guards. No doubt part of the escort of this important nobleman.
“Halt!” came a sharp shout from one of the Hegemony knights. They approached each with a hand on their sword pommels hanging from their belts; like the rest of their equipment, it was also gilded. “What is your purpose in the palace?”
“I’m the Palatinus of the Lamp Knights,” I responded, quizzically. I would I have thought my robes and sash identified me well enough. “I heard there was a particular nobleman here expecting me.”
“You are correct,” said the knight, sneering down his nose at me. “The Vicereeve is expecting you.” He turned to one of the gate guards. “You, guardsman. Search this ‘visitor’ for weapons.”
The guardsman looked at me, back to the knight, and back to me. I simply shrugged; he was clearly as unimpressed by the Altmer’s display of authority as I was. He gave me a quick pat down before turning me over to the pair of knights. “They’re clean, sir.”
“Very good, soldier. Now, this way, please.”
The Hegemony knights marched me through the palace grounds, one in front and one behind. I felt more like a prisoner than a noble’s guest. I wasn’t sure who that display at the gate was supposed to intimidate or impress. I remained confident; I knew I could bind a blade and armour myself before those Altmer would be able to draw steel. I wondered if they could say the same.
Weaving our way through the palace gardens to the eastern wall, we eventually reached a small courtyard ringed by four more Hegemony knights. A small table stood in the center, surrounded by an immaculately trimmed hedge and beds of colourful flowers. At the table sat what appeared to be a middle-aged man in a short checkered black, red and gold coat, though I couldn’t see his face. Beside him was a beautiful Altmeri woman in similar garb, and a trio of fine silver goblets and matching wine decanter rested on the table between them.
“The Palatinus of the Order of the Lamp!” announced my escort. The man signaled for me to enter with a simple gesture, and the knights stepped aside to make way. I could barely hear the hubbub of the rest of the city in the courtyard; the chirps of bird calls and the slight rasp of metal on metal from the knights’ articulated armour were the only sounds accompanying me as I approached the table. A perfect spot for a private meeting, or a trap.
“Please,” said the woman, motioning to a third seat at the table. “Join us.”
I cautiously approached, extending my mundane and magical senses to scan for any signs of foul play. I focused as the cocktail of the garden’s floral scent, the earthy aroma of the wine, and the woman’s sweet perfume threatened to overwhelm my heightened senses. Aside from a dozen magical trinkets between the nobles and the knights, I didn’t sense any more immediate dangers. Finally taking my seat, I was anxious to learn the identity of the nobleman who had requested my presence.
The man opposite me was a Breton, his strong features creased with age, framed by graying chin-length hair and a bushy beard. I couldn’t help but match his grin.
“Jean Estard?” I asked, surprised.
His grin widened. “The one and only.”
“By the Divines, you’ve aged terribly.”
A flicker of outrage briefly crossed the woman’s face as Jean let out a hearty chuckle; a sight uncannily similar to the Revivalist Queen the previous night. Her expression quickly returned to the practiced smile of an experienced courtier however, though my escort wasn’t able to contain himself.
“You will address the Vicereeve by his proper title, and you will show him the proper respect!” He took a step towards the table, his hand once again on his sword hilt.
I contained my surprise as Jean shooed the knight away. I hadn’t expected a Breton to be part of the Hegemony hierarchy.
“That’s quite enough, Sir Arkiel,” he said, with no shortage of contempt. I got the impression it wasn’t the first time this Sir Arkiel had overstepped. “The Palatinus and I must speak in private. Leave us.” He turned to the woman, placing his hand over hers. “You too, dear. I’ll meet you in my chambers later?”
She simply planted a kiss on his cheek and strode away with the rest of the knights, her shoulder-length silver hair swaying with each step.
Jean visibly relaxed, leaning back in his chair as he watched her go. “Kinlady Carwen Direnni. Beautiful, isn’t she?”
“Whatever you say, Vicereeve Estard.” I rolled my eyes at him, matching my sarcastic tone. I couldn’t quite get the image of the Revivalist Queen from my head. Could she too have been one of the Direnni?
He responded with a sharp jab to my shoulder. “Come now, old friend. Let’s dispense with the pleasantries, shall we? What’s it been, five, ten years?”
It was true that we had been friends, once. Close friends even. Back when the Lamp Knights were a well-respected order, before the Great War, we used to see each other frequently at official occasions. After the war, it was in dark taverns more often than not. I suppose we’d drifted apart when our respective responsibilities to the Order and the province took precedence.
But in my books, friends don’t lure friends to social calls under false pretences to be shaken down by henchmen.
“Last I heard, you were still Castellan at Daggerfall Castle,” I said, trying to hide my suspicion. I had decided to play along for the time being. “And now you’re rubbing shoulders with the Hegemony’s elite?”
“More than just shoulders, my friend!” I poured us each a goblet of wine as Jean continued. “Carwen and I have been together for almost a year now. King Direnni’s started marrying off his relatives to the local rulers. You can’t deny that he's been good to the province.”
He took a hefty swig from the goblet, and I followed suit. Jean had always been a talker. Sometimes what he was really asking was hidden between the lines.
“You know, I heard a bit of what happened last night. Sounds like you and your friends are heroes!” He raised his goblet towards me. “Whatever happened to that crystal you found?”
Now that was curious. We hadn’t told anyone about the crystal yet.
“Oh, Calindil and I destroyed it,” I lied. Jean’s expression didn’t slip. “I don’t think anyone’s fit to wield something with that sort of power.”
Jean quickly changed the subject. Too quickly. I couldn’t tell if he had bought my lie or not. “You ever consider settling down? You’ll need someone to succeed you one day, and I don’t remember you having any children.” I cocked an eyebrow at him. “You’ve had a good run, but you and your friend Calindil are, well, getting on a bit.”
“I can’t just retire, Jean,” I replied. Now he was getting on my nerves. “The people here count on us for protection. I don’t remember the last time the nobility dealt with a cult of necromancers, a court of vampires enslaving a village or a band of rogue warlocks.”
“You’ll have ample opportunity to take a break,” he replied, almost triumphantly. “King Direnni has brought in this fellow from Alinor, Volnaro, to be his Battlemage. He’s been recruiting mages and knights from all over to Balfiera, building his new Adamant Order to protect the province from magick and monsters.”
Finally, some information I could use. That certainly explained why we had trouble finding recruits of late. The name Volnaro sounded almost familiar as well; perhaps Calindil had mentioned him before?
“Besides,” he persisted, “you used to tell me about all the artifacts hidden away in your father’s vault. I’m sure Volnaro would be happy to take good care of them once you’ve retired. You won’t be able to protect them forever.”
Now I saw where this was going.
“I’m honored, Estard, that you’ve come all this way and invited me to the palace to deliver threats,” I said, allowing my anger to bubble to the surface. “I’ve seen first hand what Thalmor battlemages have done with some of these objects, let alone their lackeys, so I think I’ll keep them.”
“I’m not retiring, and I don’t want anything to do with this new Order of yours. I thought we were friends, Estard. Doesn’t a Thalmor Battlemage from Alinor building an army around the Adamantine Tower sound a little suspicious to you?”
At this point I was almost as surprised by my outburst as Estard was.
“Or has King Direnni bought your loyalty along with the rest of you noble sycophants with a fancy title and one of his second cousins?”
“You know what?” I shouted over him, standing with a jolt. “It doesn’t matter. If Volnaro or any of his cronies start causing trouble, I’ll gladly deal with them like any other dangerous mage.”
It was time to leave before I did anything I was going to regret.
“Guards!” shouted Estard. The half-dozen Hegemony knights from earlier marched out, swords drawn, and blocked my escape. In response, I cloaked myself in a vicious magickal whirlwind and conjured a pair of shimmering Daedric blades. The nearby flower beds were nearly flattened by the gale, and the table and chairs, along with Estard, were sent flying. As he tried to scramble to safety, it was clear that he had become more accustomed to the pleasures and privileges of the court than anything else.
I pointed one blade towards the knights and lowered the other towards Estard.
“Six against one, Palatinus,” said Sir Arkiel, stepping forward. It sounded like he was looking forward to this almost as much as I was.
“Let me go,” I said menacingly, shifting my stance to face both swords towards the approaching knight. “I wouldn’t want to hurt you any more than absolutely necessary.”
After doing battle with the Aurorans last night, this almost seemed simple. Despite the odds, they were no doubt overconfident, and it looked like their armour was mostly ceremonial.
The knights halted their advance, waiting for an order from their lord.
“Let them go!” he shouted, repeating himself before Sir Arkiel could interrupt again. “Let them go.”
I'm overwhelmed with the positive response from my first chapter and hope I can continue to meet (or exceed!) expectations going forward. As always I'm eager to hear your feedback so I can make the next one even better.
Thanks to Kendrix and once more Fiskill for helping me out with proofreading!