It was perhaps the most harrowing moment Nephethys had ever endured. And the following days had been no less difficult. Even the preceding minutes before they reached the top of the mountain were plagued with uncertainty and discontent. When Nephethys happened upon Shthelith after such a long time, she immediately threw herself at the elf in utter contempt. There were no warm greetings nor even a warning. A fierce battle ensued - but she was lucky. Shthelith had recognised her by her legs that were occasionally visible through her garb. If he hadn't, he might have just killed her and thrown her body into the crimson sea. But he knew whom he was up against and instead chose to just wait it out. The dunmer's journey had been long and tiresome and he firmly believed that Nephethys must take a break from the fight sooner or later. Shthelith also recognised the robe she wore for a Harvester ceremonial garb. It told him two things: firstly, that she was very capable against uneven odds and secondly, that she had been through a lot. She would collapse soon, if he knew her well enough.
As Shthelith predicted, Nephethys couldn't keep up her relentless assault forever. He was still very much surprised at how capable she still was even without food, water and sleep. Her determination was absolute and her powers had been growing steadily. "Just as I envision'd", the elf thought. After all, he made it his agenda to introduce the tormented Dunmer to the powers of his world. "She will be in tune soon", he whispered to himself, satisfied with his work. Shthelith needed strong allies like Nephethys to breach the gates of Bendicia and reach its inner sanctum. And Thorus? To Shthelith, Thorus seemed like a liability during the first few days of their travels. That was, of course, until the blood elf saw firsthand how efficient he worked despite lacking any notable powers whatsoever. He, too, was worth looking for. And that was part of Shthelith's mission as well.
When he saw a black robe walk the sea towards the mountain, he had already feared the worst. Harvesters. Above ground. Walking on blood. He was very relieved that it was actually Nephethys who donned the garb and he couldn't help but feel a little proud of her, having survived an encounter with such a monster and the collapse of the Cove. Shthelith saw her walk to shore and the ground bled below her. She was radiating energy but she lacked the means to control all of it so much just dissipated into the surrounding air, visible as quaking ripples. An all but impressive display of power, even if much of it could not be harnessed. But Shthelith saw that the wellspring of said power was in Nephethys herself and not brought in from an outside source.
Under the assumption she'd recognise him he revealed himself to her, calling out over some distance, getting her attention. Only he didn't wholly expect having to dodge a barrage of magical arrows when he did. Soon, her assault ceased and Nephethys, tired beyond her limits, resigned from fighting. The fact that Shthelith didn't really fight back but just chose to avoid her blows as best he could meant to her that he would probably not capitalize on her weakened state. And he didn't. He needed her help, after all.
Attempts at communication from his side failed spectacularly, however, as Nephethys just sat on the ground, being incredibly cross. She knew what his people had done and, Brotherhood assassin or not, had some sense of justice. She used to murder without question but the Brotherhood didn't commit genocide by any means. In her mind, the Aímamer, and by extension Shthelith, had a lot to atone for.
Nephethys wasn't really able to resist any longer so Shthelith did the only sensible thing in this instance - he dragged her on the ground behind him. It took a full elf's length for the dunmer to get up and free herself from Shthelith's hand.
"Enough!", she groaned. "I'm coming. Just know that there are many, many things you will have to clear up before I'll help you any further."
Nephethys didn't even look him in the eyes or gave him the proper respect and talk directly to him. Her face turned away from him completely in utter disgust as she demanded answers to all the questions she had had after her vision in the cove ended. Why the merfolk were attacked and their civilisation brought down in the way that it happened.
Shthelith had a sneaking suspicion that the road ahead wouldn't be easy for either of the two. Both physically and emotionally. But his being a native to this strange land, Shthelith knew of a secluded hiding spot relatively close by wherein they could tend to their wounds and discuss further steps.
"Come, then", he said softly. "I mean no harm. Thous't given me mistrust for reasons thou art yet to reveal. I shall guide thee to the safe confines of a nearby hidden dwelling, buried in the mountain. We may discuss whatever is on thy mind there."
The entrance to the small, enclosed space he had designated the hiding spot lay in the rock face of the mountain. Hidden amidst boulders immovable, he gesticulated to make them move aside quietly. A hole was revealed. Something caused it to emit light and its warmth beckoned the two of them inside. The elf was quick to seal the entrance behind them to avoid possible incursions. He helped Nephethys onto a smaller boulder that had been ambiguously cut into a vague approximation of a stool. Without another word or question, he closed Nephethys' wounds in mere moments. A few incantations here and some delicate hand movements there. In this moment, Nephethys realised two things. Firstly, that he truly meant no harm. She attacked him first whereas he didn't even so much as retaliate. Now he was tending to her injuries from journeys past without expecting anything from her in return. Second, however, was that Shthelith was no ordinary hæmomancer. He was an artist.
Her bewildered eyes bore witness to his elaborate movements. From the flesh and blood he twisted threads. They got woven into soft fabric, seamlessly integrated into Nephethys' flesh. It was no mere healing magic. His reconstruction of the body was free from scars and all the signs of prior wounds. It was perfect. Each fibre of her body fell into place with surgical precision. And just like that, it was done. Relieved of all pain, Nephethys could not resist and fell fast asleep. The pressure upon her body had been lifted. And in her sleep, he surreptitiously weaved in seals of magical purport. Embedded in her very flesh now were runes of power.
"May thy strength rise, fledgling", he whispered.
"Ah, thou'rt awake", Shthelith noticed. Behind him, cloth shuffled and the idle breath of sleep grew slowly more conscious, heavier, faster. "Now, there is no cause for alarm. Thy injuries have been mended and thou shoulds't feel better the longer thou'rt awake. I understand thous't a desire for talking? Prithee, indulge". He turned and saw Nephethys slowly assuming an upright posture. For how small she felt, the garb she wore seemed almost silly. It was cut down to size but bits of it were still indicative of its former owner. She hesitated. Was it really worth shaking up the relationship with such a powerful ally? Then again, Shthelith could have killed her easily if he had desired it but instead chose to keep her alive. Why would he react any different now? Nephethys took a few deep breaths, at the end of which she resolved to politely ask him about the matter which troubled her so.
"Why did you kill the Shithirsians?", she blurted out nervously. Shthelith's eyes widened but quickly, he regained his composure as Nephethys tried to conceal her shame in what she had just said. "Well,", he began, "I did not do any such thing. Regrettably, 'tis true that my people waged war. And perhaps Shthelith lied about it. But not with ill intent. Understand this: The war happen'd several generations ago. I had no hand in it. The remains of my people only had to deal with what came thereafter. Their numbers had been substantially cull'd on both sides. Now, elves and merfolk live so isolated from each other that their bonds never recover'd."
He shrugged as he said this. "I didn't want thee to believe me a murderer from the first moment. How could I tell thee of my lineage's wrongdoings?".
"I would've assumed the worst", Nephethys realised. "Maybe I would never have trusted you fully." The regret grew only greater as it became apparent that the entire civilisation of the merfolk may have been lost during the collapse. "But so were the harvesters", Shthelith interjected.
"Harvesters?" Nephethys asked but understood quickly whom he was referring to. Her slender fingers felt the robes she was wearing.
"I see thous't understood. Verily, a pressing threat hath been vanquish'd. As my gaze fell unto thee, forwhy I beheld thy walking on water from afar, I had already fear'd the worst."
The elf explained that the Harvesters would have likely taken up what available space there was to live on the overworld by sheer numbers. Unimaginable what would have happened then.
"From what I've seen down in their caverns, I can hardly imagine how this world might have been transformed for the worse. And that's saying something", she scoffed.
"Indeed", Shthelith acknowledged. "It is hard to tell what it was that eventually caus'd the collapse. But methinks this was Thorus' doing, mylady", he added. "From all that I know, the seal hidden beneath the waves lay someplace at the epicentre of the collapse. I viewed it from some ways up the mountain. If my observation is truthful then the seal hath been dislodged and subsequently taken."
These words struck Nephethys like a bolt of lightning, straight to the heart. Thorus could still be alive? Perhaps he was lucky enough to avoid getting crushed after all. With all the perils that she had endured, her mangled body was scarcely able to remember him - or anything else of note for that matter. For a time it was just survival on her mind. She narrowly escaped death several times over and had completely forgotten that Thorus might still be out there, somewhere.
"We need to look for him then, don't we?" she quivered.
"Yes, yes. But we must not make haste and choose our path carefully. Think whence he might have gone. Fortune's blessing be, he might even have made it onto this here land close to the mountain. I postulate, we shall start looking by making our way to Hema's Peak".
Nephethys was still in the middle of recovery. Yes, the blood elf may have mended her injuries but the procedure was incredibly draining. She slept most of the time while Shthelith was in charge of keeping the little hideaway clean and tidy, provide the occasional scrap of food and water and oversee Nephethys' process of healing. She dozed off mostly after a few hours of being awake and so, the two of them spent about two days away from the evils of the world. Shthelith listened with worry as screams of various sources echoed throughout the eternal twilight of the ever gleaming sun in the cloudy sky. He hadn't been to Hema's Peak in literal ages and thus retained no knowledge of what dwelt up there on the spiky ridges. He wasn't afraid but he was keenly aware of the probable dangers.
When Nephethys awoke after her snoozing recovery period, she found herself feeling rather invigorated as opposed to prior days. Something within her stirred and boiled. It grew and manifested itself as a pleasant sensation of both physical and mental empowerment. She felt stronger and more aware than ever before and, therefore, believed that truly, Shthelith knew his craft unlike any other contemporaries.
She was alone in the cave, pacing around as she eagerly awaited Shthelith's return from whichever place he had gone off to. Sure enough, the wall shifted and the blood elf stood in the entryway, a bloodied bag over his shoulders.
"Ah, thous't made it, at last! Please, do tell: dost thou feel any different?" he enthusiastically pried as soon as he saw her up on her feet.
"I… yes. I feel strong and powerful and… where have you been?" she asked in return, not really satisfying Shthelith's query at all. He put the cloth bag on the ground and a stain formed where it sat. His gesture implied that he was out on the hunt. What he had been hunting he dared not tell. Suffice it to say, he never revealed the contents of the bag and would, in future conversations, whenever the topic was brought up, cleverly skirt around giving an actual, meaningful answer as to what kind of meat Nephethys had eaten during her time spent out of commission. Neither of the two felt content with the answers given but both accepted that this was how it was going to be.
"A more pressing matter", Shthelith interjected, "now that thou hast recover'd, may we resume our search for lost Thorus? If my assumptions are correct even slightly, we are press'd for time mylady".
The search for "lost Thorus" aside, Nephethys was severely irritated by the way in which Shthelith had adopted the behaviour of calling her "mylady" half the time. It began soon after his mending was done and she viewed it as a form of apology or honour of him to call her that. To strengthen the presently good relations, perhaps. This didn't help the case, however, and she was tempted to scold him for this inappropriate title.
"I am not your lady", she commanded with vigour in her voice, surprised herself at how much force it now held. "Please don't call me that", she then spoke in a softer tone, aware of how rude she must have been.
"Yes, of course. I express my regrets", Shthelith replied, a little disheartened. "May we then?" he inquired, his hand held in front of Nephethys in a well-meaning gesture. She took his hand and he gently tugged at her arm. His other hand meanwhile motioned in a needlessly complicated circular pattern and the rock face opened up. A ray of light from the outside world was cast onto the dunmer and the dry breeze of air that was both hot and cold at the same time brought her right back. This was the harsh and unforgiving world of the painting.
Throughout their travels, Shthelith and Nephethys were nothing if not crafty. As opposed to Shthelith's 'mystery meat', Nephethys preferred to hunt four-legged beasts instead. Around the foot of the mountain lived a breed of scavengers Shthelith referred to as scroungers. Smaller and much less intimidating than their colossal brethren in the wastes of the former Aímeri capital, they proved to be easy prey for the duo of blood mages. Nephethys was able to try out whatever spells she could envision on the hapless animals that were more akin to juvenile sabrecats than anything else. She was unaware of this but the population of scroungers was driven to near extinction around the foot of the mountain in her wake.
Nephethys felt confident in her abilities. So did Shthelith and thus, he entertained the idea that he might look for untainted water to drink whilst she would take care of gathering enough food for the toilsome journey up the mountain. The leering Hema's Peak was nothing to be taken lightly, after all. When all was said and done, the duo would meet at the only beaten path that led up the mountain. Stocked up with provisions, they felt ready for whatever lay ahead.
They finally decided to work their way up the jagged slopes but were stopped in their tracks as Nephethys covered her nose, having trouble to contain her retching. A strong wind blew from the other side of the mountains and carried forth the stench of blood and rot. Moist gusts tainted her nostrils to an execrable degree so that even past the mountain she would occasionally complain about foul odour. The putrid humidity laid itself upon what bits of exposed skin there were. Her white hair became sticky. Insects began swarming around the two. The fact that each little crevice was infested with carrion eating insects to the point of them just pouring out of what openings there were didn't help. Crawling and flying and buzzing everywhere.
The two of them tried to ignore the unpleasant company to the very best of their ability. However, these creatures were just slightly larger than what dwelt in her homeland of Tamriel. Just large enough to be a major nuisance that could become downright life threatening when on the steeper parts of the mountain where 'footing' was a term only loosely applicable to the terrain. When efforts were made to swat away the pests, Nephethys and Shthelith more often than not found themselves imbalanced on the ground that was both sticky and slippery. The pungent smell of the area only worsened the conditions. The climb was exhausting enough as it was but with the ubiquitous rotten smell, the two elves could barely breathe in spite of the raw, physical labour required to climb the mountain.
"That's odd, look", Nephethys said to Shthelith and pointed towards an abandoned hut surrounded by a few severely mangled corpses. Half-eaten, half-torn, they bade ill for what was to come. If the wounds inflicted upon them were any indication, a beast of tremendous power and size must have come through. Even worse, if Thorus was indeed still alive and had come this way, it might be following him. The chances of finding him alive were becoming slim.
"Oh by Sithis, please be still alive", she whispered to herself, just outside Shthelith's earshot. The blood elf, on the other hand, was rather confident and retained a positive attitude towards the search and rescue efforts.
"Even if we may find him deceased, as long as his body is intact I might restore him", Shthelith proclaimed. "Even if it is damaged, I may mend parts of it to a healthy degree.", he added and gestured towards Nephethys' now non-existent scars and former wounds.
The Dunmer understood that he was absolutely capable of healing a person to the point of utmost vitality. She did, however, doubt his abilities could bring back the dead, although she didn't voice her concerns in order to not having to think or talk about it. She harboured no belief in that regard and arguing over whether or not this was a solid possibility was too draining a task to undertake. She quietly nodded and just hoped Thorus might not have died. The path ahead was littered with many corpses, further discouraging Nephethys. The two of them were left with the belief that some unknown terror must have made its way up the mountain. The evidence was clear, as more huts lay abandoned and relatively fresh body parts were strewn about. If Thorus had made his way up the mountain as well, they believed that, for a lack of his corpse, he must be running from whatever entity mauled the few people that had lived among the mountains.
The sense of urgency prompted the two to hasten as much as they could without slipping and tumbling to their deaths. Before long, they reached an area that was the epitome of such a death pit.
"Shthelith", Nephethys pronounced as she looked down an especially steep and rocky slope, "I believe I've found the monster". She pointed at the impaled remains of a scavenger's upper body. It had died not too long ago as evidenced by the still unstaunched flow of blood which told Nephethys that whomever it was following had escaped. She desperately hoped it to be Thorus. She hadn't seen him in a very long time and hope for his survival was what kept her alive in those hours. During the last few hundred steps towards the top, there was nothing else she could think about. In a way, Thorus' sword had cut away all the other worries and concerns, leaving only him in her mind.
Nephethys started running and there was nothing that Shthelith could do about it. Before he could even so much as drop a comment on the circumstance of the animal's apparent demise she already hastened up what inclines there were still left to climb. Convinced that she was on Thorus' trail she was relentless as she was resourceful when it came to traversing the sharp rocks. Bloody fountains shot with high pressure from her palms whenever she needed to quickly correct her course as she jumped and maneuvered around boulders, rock walls and pointy pillars jutting out from the ground that had lost its beaten path long ago. Said fountains left small craters behind that would leak blood. Debris was sent flying as she ran, jumped and flew over the uneven terrain.
Shthelith had his fair share of troubles with keeping up. The Dunmer's pace was outrageously quick for the danger it posed but in order not to stay behind, he took the risk and tried similar maneuvers. Most of them were successfully pulled off but in a few instances, Shthelith had to correct his path so vigorously, he was on the brink of causing a landslide from high up the mountain as his magical bolts with which he propelled himself through the air dislodged so much material that a few boulders parted ways with the rock mass and violently rolled towards the plains below. When he did finally catch up to her he beheld a woman frozen in place with utter disbelief.
"What, by the void of Sithis and the five children of the Night Mother, is this thing doing up here?"
A single question indignantly aspirated from her strained lungs and seemed to hover in place for a moment as she let the concurrent impressions of wonder and terror sink in. A heavily armoured dæmon with a single horn protruding from its forehead stood before a gargantuan basin filled with heavenly blood that ran from above the clouds into it. Like a very large chalice that would moisten every vampire's mouth. It was constantly overflowing, too, so that a never ending stream of crimson stained the entirety of Hema's Peak. In Nephethys' mind, this right there would have deserved the title of "Red Mountain".
Meanwhile, the pungent stench had become nigh intolerable for its sickly sweetness. With blood in various stages of drying being omnipresent it was no wonder that the iron-y taste in her mouth would make her sick. She was a murderer but certainly no vampire.
Shthelith picked up on the apparent notion that his companion had seen the creature before. "Thous't seen it once already?". Nephethys nodded and explained how it had stalked her in the cove, nearly smothering her before it let go in the last moment. "I made efforts to evade it ever since. It seems that the dæmon, too, escaped the collapse. But what is it doing here?"
A realisation soon rose in her that this creature might not only have killed and partially devoured all the other elves that littered the lower parts of the Peak. It might even have killed and devoured Thorus himself. Nephethys was ready to get even with the monster and prepared herself for combat. Just then, Shthelith stopped her in her tracks. "Watch!"
The dæmon's shape began to resonate strangely with the corrupting power of the basin. The blood in it began boiling. Searing hot bubbles burst and stained the surrounding ground even further. A nameless terror arose from within the basin. It slowly formed itself from its contents, becoming more humanoid in the process. A vague thing of deep, red blood about as tall as two Altmer wizards stood before the horned fiend. A motion of its dripping claw was enough and the very fabric of the dæmon was torn apart. And with it, large patches of skin. As the guardian of Hema's Peak built itself from the dæmon's armour it suddenly dawned on Nephethys that the skinless humanoid that was left behind had to be Thorus. Of course! He survived the collapse and wore hemerite armour that must have been improving itself over time. A wave of emotions, too complex for the situation at hand, washed over her. She wasn't really able to concentrate on all of it. Nephethys beckoned Shthelith with a quick motion to follow and ran to rescue Thorus, no matter how futile any of it seemed. But she was too late.
As Shthelith and Nephethys stood a few arm's lengths behind the skinned and scalped Thorus, the guardian of the Peak molded its limb into a deadly weapon akin to a sickle and decapitated him with a quick slash. The spinning head came off and violently hit the ground. His body fell limp into the bloody mud.
Nephethys sank to her knees, screaming. She had never had such emotions before. In her mind, Thorus was not destined to die - especially not in so gruesome a fashion. She had thought it impossible for the better part of her journey and even long after they had lost each other, or so she thought at the time, that he might ever perish. If anyone was to survive this madness then it was him. But she witnessed his death firsthand and was unable to prevent it.
Shthelith, on the other hand, wasted no time and rushed towards the body. He quickly collected the head and dragged the body behind himself. "Help me!" he commanded from afar as the thing from the basin climbed out and started chasing after the blood elf. Nephethys was awoken from her trauma not by his yell but by the corpse theft. There was no time to object however, and in blind trust she threw herself at the gargantuan monster of blood and rock. She knew that she was only supposed to hold it off for as long as it took Shthelith to do whatever he needed to do. Regardless, she did her best to destroy it.
She was enraged, yes. But somehow, she found that her powers were more easily controlled than before. Her rage didn't just dissipate into thin air anymore. She channeled that emotion and translated it into latent energy that would fuel her magic. Spears and arrows were conjured and thrown, knives were dreamt up by the thousands and sent towards the murderer of her Thorus. Pikes were made to erupt from the ground wherever it stood, to wherever it leapt. There was no escape. But the guardian of Hema's Peak felt neither pain nor fear. It realised the damage it received and retaliated accordingly as several projectiles with vaguely blade-like shapes were flung forward. Half of them were blocked by a forcefield, the other half swatted away by whips and blades.
Said whips protruded from where her arm met the torso, making for a bizarre sight. Two extra limbs supported her assault on the crimson horror. The dæmon clawed at her and she did her very best to avoid the blades that appeared to be made of hardened blood.
"How can everything be made from blood?".
The thought crossed her mind as the malleable material formed itself and a scythe-like limb swept across the sky. The air around the blade wept red as it raced towards the dunmer's neck. The tentacles deflected the attack and were dismembered instead. The decision was made to no longer evade its attacks on foot and through her power, Nephethys began to float above the ground. In mid-air, mobility was the least of her issues. Several successive strikes of the horrendous scythe thing cut the air and sliced the space but none could hit the elegant elf as she almost playfully flew around the towering behemoth of blood, bone and stone, circling it like prey. All of a sudden, the thing understood that the tables had been turned. The stalwart guardian felt that it might be no match for its assailant after all and flung itself at Nephethys full force.
Its foul body sprouted tentacles, muscle-bone amalgamations, blades and other, less definable limbs and attacked every cardinal direction at once. An oversaturation of maws littered the parts of its fetid surface that were yet empty. A true horror made flesh. Several appendages worked surprisingly well as legs which propelled it forward with uncanny speed. But the levitating dark elf stayed unimpressed and dodged around the monster. Projectiles of various kinds materialised themselves in front of her just by thinking about them. And with these thoughts she directed her terrible assault at the thing that threatened to soon become one giant mouth with a hundred arms and legs. Lances and spears, knives and daggers, arrows and bolts rained down on the sorry blob of flesh and teeth. They tore it apart bit by bit.
In the end, a great, red geyser bloated the creature until it burst. Nephethys was unscathed save for a few minor bruises that were easily healed and the ground was covered in layers of filth. She was proud of her work and floated over the blood soaked battlefield. After she had made sure that nothing would emerge from the remains ever again she darted down the mountain in pursuit of Shthelith - the talented healer who held the skinless remains of Thorus Blackward in his hands.