I turned around, ready to tell of my newfound revelation pertaining to the strange pages, only to find that most of the volumes that had been present fell to dust as Shthelith's relentless trying had transformed the shelves into small deserts of book powder. Nephethys had aided him of course and so, an entire library's worth of knowledge disappeared. Only a handful of books would remain. But they soon disintegrated as well when we tried to open them up. The only thing that remained intact was what looked like a small map of the area.
None of the squares or rectangles drawn on it sported any description. Although, judging from the general layout as it was depicted, the three of us must have been to the room on the right that came after the first square that I deduced to have been representing the foyer due to its conspicuous placement of the recognizable Y-shaped stairs.
The map told us also the location of the other rooms we had spied earlier, but also revealed how intricately hidden the various entrances to secret compartments of the burg were.
The leftmost square on the drawing I assumed to be what I proclaimed was a dining hall. Following this logic, there was drawn a rectangle perpendicular to the foyer representing the roofed bridge, thereafter came a set of more angular shapes, five in total of which their placement in conjunction with the castle's outside gave away that at least three of them must be the spires that were visible from afar, in between the branches and leaves of the forest. At the end of it sat one, huge hall. Perhaps a throne room?
But there were other, more curious markings scrawled upon the fragile paper that had gone soft with age. There was a circle drawn in the corners of both the library and the dining hall that at first glance evoked the appearance of a snail's house.
Directly attached to these were rectangles drawn with darker hues. By way of keen observation I believed then that the circles were meant to depict spiral staircases. The darker rectangles, on the other hand, had to have been subterranean chambers. This was further reinforced by the idea that I could not fathom how these rooms, especially this large in size, could have been visible from the fort's exterior if above ground.
"A cellar, perhaps a dungeon of some kind?", Nephethys' inquisitive voice was underlined by a stern expression as I laid my theories bare. I was wholly convinced: this was the castle's layout.
"I believe so, yes", I replied with a nod, encircling the shadowed shape closest to our assumed position.
"What is this, then?". Nephethys pointed at a darkened area that I had previously taken for a decorative frame to emphasize the importance of the grand room. But as I perused the parchment more thoroughly, I noticed a tunnel that connected this queer, dark space to one of the watchtowers, far in the back.
"Either this is a narrow tunnel that runs around the great chamber or…", I suspended my thought to imagine the immense proportions we were dealing with.
"Or it is a gargantuan, underground area."
The library we were situated in was quite big for a room of its ilk. Comparable in size to the ground floor of the average Cheydinhal house. However, the subterranean space in question was about ten times that order of magnitude if our estimates were correct. In other words, half a town could be placed down there - minus the roads, trees and wells, of course.
"Belike it is this burg's gaol down ther?", Shthelith stated. "Verily, methinks such a thing necessitateth a grand space as is portray'd", he then added.
I surveyed the quality of the paper to ascertain as to whether or not a certain robustness was a part of its features. I fondled the page and folded it whereafter I made it vanish inside my coat, sure it would not break.
"I'll take this with me in case some reference is needed later", I proclaimed before I proposed that we examine the corner to the far right of the room. After all, there should have been a staircase there, leading down.
The three of us rummaged through yet more unstable volumes that quickly disintegrated. We had to shove a chair and table aside to reveal a trap door.
Cleverly concealed amidst the floorboards was an opening, shut tight by old, rusted hinges and an antique padlock. Shthelith's and my efforts to pull it open turned out to be in vain, as the hatch would not budge. Mockingly, it sat there, denying us ingress. Nephethys on the other hand, having been the strong, crafty Dunmer girl that she was, made use of her tools and stomped on both lock and door until the entire construct fell apart. It tumbled downward for about three seconds before a loud thud announced its arrival below.
Together, we set out to explore this castle until we would find the object of our search. Of that I already retained a sharp, visual idea.
We descended the rungs that were more like crudely cut outcroppings embedded within a cave wall into the darkness beneath our feet. The trip didn't take particularly long, much like the Chapel of Sárka. But after my feet connected to the ground of that dank room I would immediately regret my decision. Plagued by mephitic vapours were we, struggling to keep our heartburn and overall nausea in check and their consequences at bay.
The stench of incredibly old blood, dried, stale and rotting, in conjunction with an overall air of death made my saliva grow thick and heavy, viscous and sickly sweet. I chose to spit it out rather than trying gulp it down. My friends suffered through a similar experience as we felt our way forward the first few meters. Shthelith conjured an illuminating flame in front of him to guide our way.
"Wasn't there supposed to be a staircase?", Nephethys finally asked. I shrugged and explained to her that I had no idea of the symbols used in extradimensional cultures. Notwithstanding our unexpected lack of knowledge we pressed on and saw that we moved along an odorless corridor that made a left at its far end, possibly to lead into the main room that the three of us expected.
The almost diseased cobblestone leaked greenish secretions from within its joints and the mossy fractals within its coarse surface.
The light of the torch spell got reflected off a slippery-looking film that had developed on the wooden support beams embedded within the walls. Drops of the slightly oily substance accumulated in small pools beneath the rafters that hung above our heads.
I inadvertently slipped and almost fell to the slimy floor had it not been for the blood elf who prevented my fall. He stabilised my footing, grabbing around my chest and clinging to some of my cloth.
Albeit of rotted appearance, this space seemed to have been infested by a different kind of rot that was quite hard to directly take note of. When we finally reached the proper entrance into the main room, we were educated about the nature of the omnipresent foulness and the peculiar rot that was present there.
"By the gods…", Nephethys aspirated. The sound of dripping water was clearly distinguishable - and all the more maddening for it. My feverish cough interrupted the morbid soundscape for a moment as I viewed the prodigious number of lined up, naked, bleeding bodies.
Buckets underneath their heads. The source of the infernal sound that rapturously writhed inside my brain. The countless, empty sockets glared at us in disbelief from the black void that surrounded them. Tongueless mouths formed voiceless words. Tearless sobs converged with quiet groans.
The stench of blood was detestable. But why was it collected in this manner? And whence came it from? The inhabitants of the nearby woods village appeared to be entirely bloodless. In this dank, moist chamber, the racial features of the unfortunate victims were too hard to determine.
We slowly slithered in betwixt them and beheld barrels stacked on top of each other. I inferred that this must have been some form of wine cellar in the past. Now, only crimson water was stored here. Lacking any new revelations, the three of us turned to leave.
Distant steps prompted us to delay our exit somewhat. We chose to conceal ourselves behind the barrels to spy upon the intruder. The spell was extinguished, the blackness devoured all once again. Part of it got smothered under the oppressive radiance of a sick torch when a remarkably dressed man carrying it entered the room.
His attire told of nobility, if a bit sullied and worn. Silken gloves laid the fiery stick on the ground next to the entrance. It cast just enough light to make the first line of tortured souls visible. A finely sewn, green dress approached the hanging bodies. Sturdy boots came to a halt in front of one of the buckets. The figure then proceeded to cover its opening with a lid that slid in place and sealed the container with a reassuring click. He bound a rope to the bucket and would hoist it along his back over his shoulders.
Only at that moment did I realise that the body he had taken the bucket from had not bled for a while. But notwithstanding its lack of blood, it still breathed and suffered inexplicably.
Meanwhile, the sinister nobleman trod towards the torch, picked it up and left us in almost perfect darkness again. We stayed hidden for awhile longer, listening to the clamour the man produced as he went up the ladder with his heavy load in tow.
The noise died down and Nephethys, Shthelith and I made for the exit. Whoever this man was must have had some connexion to the Undead King.
Intent on following him, we rushed, as silently as possible, towards the ladder and ascended. Alas, we came too late, the mysterious figure already out of sight. Everywhere we looked, we could not find him. He just disappeared.
That strange noble must have passed by the library as evidenced by the trail of blood that was left. But the traces ebbed shortly after the library and his disappearance left us utterly clueless. We were left no choice but to explore further. To plumb the depths of a murky castle.
The next, logical choice was the dining room to the left of the staircase but after a thorough investigation we found that it yielded nothing of value to us. We noticed also that the map I had obtained seemed to be at least partly false. According to it, there should have been a spiral staircase or a ladder in that room. It was missing entirely. But I was certain there were other means of accessing the underground chamber that was depicted on the paper I held.
The central road to and across the bridge remained as the last, possible path that we hadn't explored yet. We were surprised to find that the door to it was unlocked.
The soft creaking of old wood and rusted hinges accompanied it as it swung open.
As we went over that bridge, we found that it had gotten dark. Night must have fallen, for we saw only dark skies illuminated by a moonless light that made our artificial torch obsolete.
Truly, the details of the surrounding landscape were entirely obscured. In betwixt the great pillars that sustained its roof of stone I saw only empty space and a metal railing to prevent any curious souls from falling into the woods below.
But there was something strange about it as we crossed the bridge. It took a while before I noticed it. Finally, I discovered to my horror that, looking down, there weren't actually any woods for someone to fall into.
Only a gaping void that threatened to consume us. A cold, lingering blackness. The same kind of blackness, in fact, as the broken rose window of the Chapel of Sárka had held.
"There should be trees down there!". Nephethys nervously cried out. "Where, by Oblivion, are we?!". Her eyes bulged just enough so that they seemed uncannily big as she said this. Observant as I was, I noticed the increasing pulsing her tissue in between her collar bones was displaying. She attempted to hide it, but having stepped into a place so unlike the world of Nirn that we know so well frightened her on a much more profound level than was readily apparent at first glance.
"This… it cannot be. This void. Is it… is this the darkness?". An unmistakable snort of sticky mucus announced big, round tears to run off her cheeks only to freeze mid-fall.
"The Darkness of Sithis. Have I pledged my soul to a place like… like this? I don't want to be trapped in eternal nothingness!".
Her nervous breakdown was only seconds away, I felt it. The sheer hopelessness, laid bare in an uncaring void that did neither laugh at nor comfort the despairing Dunmer.
Her kneecaps crashed against the floor as despondence claimed her. Moments later, she stood on her blades again, her face wet in the wake of sorrow. "What have I done to myself?".
"We will find a way to renounce your oath, I'm sure of it", I intervened, "But for now, we must focus on leaving the world we are trapped in. Take my hand, I will wipe away your fears". Her tears dried on my skin and a more determined, albeit subconsciously worried, expression returned to her face.
"You're right. I can't afford to not escape before I concern myself with my Brotherhood past. But promise to help me in finding a way to escape the clutches of darkness as well."
I nodded. "Of course!", I said. If I had known that this would never come to pass, by the Divines, I don't know what I would have done.
"Blood elf! Where are we?".
She demanded answers. As did I. But Shthelith was only an inhabitant of that world, not its creator. Nevertheless, he provided an answer that was at least in part satisfying.
"Some gates, be they windows or doors, doth appear to be hex'd. Look not in bewilderment as I say, they are transform'd. Ye and I, we stepp'd into the dæmoniac domain of the abyss whence that glass dæmon came and where many a terror lieth".
The vista was as awesome as it was terrifying. If we were indeed transported to this darkest of places it would explain that feeling that suddenly rushed through my veins. It was… it is maddening to even try to think of a way in which to convey it. Like a rotting cold that emerged from my chest and covered the entirety of my body. Like a nauseous breeze, an emptiness that sought to fill itself with my soul.
The oscillatory discrepancies and inconveniences I had hitherto experienced in certain places paled in comparison to the repelling, uninviting air that would strain every fibre of my body, telling it to leave at the earliest opportunity.
The only thought that continuously boiled within my brain was: I should not be here.
Should a place like this even exist? What is it? I lacked any answers to this question. However, I knew for certain that I had a strong desire to leave. Yet, so stunned was I, so captivated by the otherworldliness, that the simple act of moving myself forward proved fiendishly impossible.
Off in the nebulous distance, a thing arrested my attention. Standing between the supporting pillars I looked. Far beyond where I stood, an amorphous cloud moved back and forth. Weird appendages and an overall shapeless appearance characterized the thing. It was partly transparent which permitted me to view a red, pulsating mass underneath its greyish exterior. The closer it floated, the less comprehensible it became. Before long, my mind reeled with countless eyes, mouths, tendrils and other, more foreign extremities. My vision gradually darkened. I received a push from behind and lost consciousness.
I regained my senses sitting with my back against a wall in another room. To either side towered my companions, inquisitively eyeing me up and down. My vision sharpened and I saw a grand hall before me. This must be the big room beyond that infernal bridge I saw on the map, I reminisced briefly.
"You fainted", Nephethys explained in response to my thoroughly confused face.
"Indeed! Thou hast mumbled of a tenebrous being mere seconds afore. What was it thou hast laid thine eyes upon?", Shthelith pried as if he already knew what I was going to reply. Notwithstanding my curious suspicion, I answered.
"It was… formless, yet of clear outline. Its existence seemed to be ambiguous. As if the very premise of its presence was a topic for debate. A converging something of eyes and tendrils and other limbs and so… so…".
The harder I focused on this vague afterimage of a memory, the more it slipped from my mind what it was that I tried to describe. Finally, I resigned. "I can't remember".
"The denizens of the dankest reaches may be unfathomable. But thou didst glimpse it. Thy friend and I, we were oblivious. We could not see, yet thou could. Remarkable.". Shthelith looked on in amazement.
Did I see something that was invisible to my companions? If so, why? And what did I see? Each new revelation held many more questions than answers. But I had no time for contemplation of the unknowable. We had to make haste if we were to ever leave this accursed world.
Ready hands helped me to my feet and when I stood again, I examined the hall that lay beyond the bridge. It was not unlike the foyer, albeit twice its size. A surprisingly well maintained carpet, defying the general air of antiquity, stretched from the entrance to the center, assumed a circular shape as it wound around a water fountain, and went on past it to stop right under the set of doors on the opposite side.
To my relief, the tall, stained glass windows shewed the outside world rather than a nameless abyss of outer spheres.
However, I was alarmed at the amount of knightly statues that lined the walls, filled the empty spaces in betwixt windows or guarded the carpet circumjacent to the fountain. I prayed to the Divines that none may come alive. I was unsure of success in battle against this many.
The hall was lit by two round chandeliers that hung from a flat ceiling. Aside from the, hopefully decorative, statues, the most notable features were three wooden doors, two of which led to the adjacent watch towers on the left and right. The remaining door led to the largest overground chamber of the entire structure if my map was any indication. I believed this to be the throne room.
Rather than dashing right for it, I instead spied a small opening in the floor to my left. Upon closer inspection, it revealed itself to be the missing, spiral staircase that was wrongly placed on the map.
Again, there were many ways to go but we would collectively decide that venturing down the narrowly winding stairs would be best. Aside from the promise of treasure or other, more useful, items, according to the plan I held we were to encounter no other exits or entrances inside the underground space. And this circumstance made our task easier to bear, if only for the premise of not having to explore even more rooms.
We left the grand hall unattended for the moment, still hoping that the men and women of stone would not suddenly spring to life as their brethren did in the foyer.
As we arrived in the chamber below, it was, again, quite dark at first. But in the oppressive murk I believed I saw the outline of an occupied torch sconce. Quick to ignite the flame, I tinged the area a yellowish orange as copious amounts of racks, locked, glass cases, chests and tables appeared to display weaponry of a most interesting sort.
Whereas Nirnic folk would normally resort to various, different metals, or perhaps the bones of particularly resilient beasts, the inhabitants of this world relied on stone as their element of choice instead. In spite of its brittle premise, from afar it was already clear that this was by no means an ordinary type of mineral. In fact, all of the carvings and architectural ornaments appeared to have been fashioned from that material. Including, of course, all of the arms and armour contained inside this chamber which I could with absolute certainty call an armoury.
"Hemerite…", the blood elf mumbled. "All of these here arms are forg'd from a mineral call'd hemerite. 'tis quite the unique substance found within deep layers of the earth. It hath a dark crimson hue when observ'd in natural deposits but if bak'd and form'd by the hands of a capable blacksmith its shade goeth grey. Don't let thyself be cut by one of these," he pointed at a short sword, "as it consumeth thy blood upon incision to nurture itself. Whomever Smith hath long ago crafted these, they could have done unspeakable things to my kin".
Curious, I went ahead and carefully touched some of the armour pieces. Gently letting my palm get a feel for the surface of this foreign material. It was surprisingly smooth to the touch and incredibly lightweight.
"Make no mistake, Thorus. The golems we fought were chiseled from actual stone, not hemerite. It doth explain the heaviness of their weapons".
Shthelith went on to say that this hemerite mineral had two outstanding properties. For one, it could drain its victim of blood by sucking it up like a sponge. Its second, unique property was it not beinh heavy at all despite being obviously a kind of stone and highly resistant to damage. Shthelith told me that is because of the way it is treated during the crafting process.
"The semi-fluid the mineral holdeth within doth escape while smithing, draining colour and weight".
I pondered long and hard but eventually made up my mind. Several minutes of fitting later and atop my hitherto tattered appearance there now lay remarkably durable stone plates.
In spite of its nature, I could move freely and easily. I wouldn't give up my gladius, but I added a small hemerite dagger to my tiny arsenal of weapons.
Finally cast in armour, I, along with my companions, made my way out of the armoury, up the spiralling steps and back into the hall. From there we planned to go straight ahead and confront the King. But as we emerged from beneath the earth and stone, we found that the poses and positions of all the statues were off.