I felt the dirty moisture of an autumn rain upon my cheek. Ice cold drops that dislodged themselves from the wet film on my skin as I moved my head up into the air. I lay on the side, the floor of rough stone drenched in ground water and filthy puddles that must have been pushed up from underground. The mists of time obscured my memory and it took longer than usual until I was cured of the haze that I was in. I had trouble remembering just how I got there.
I scanned my surroundings to find that I appeared to be in a holding cell of sorts. My vision was a little blurry still, so I couldn't quite make out what was on the other side of the hall behind the metal bars that prohibited egress. Little by little, I began piecing together the last couple of moments prior to my awakening.
Broad, obtuse sander marks on the ground before the cell door. Bloodstains on the metal bars. Scratch marks on the floor inside the cell. Loose fragments of the event that unfolded here came back to me. I got imprisoned shortly after leaving the armoury. They dragged me there. I tried fighting back. To no avail. But curiously, I remembered vague details of them having to drag themselves in a way. They threw me into the cell. I attempted to get up quickly and rush to the door, clawing my way forward on the wet stone. I was too late. A strike to remove my hand from the bars sent me tumbling backwards. I looked at it and saw that I was bleeding. The armour it was clad in, shattered. Shards of tempered hemerite had burrowed themselves into my flesh and as the realisation came, so did the pain.
A burning sensation ate through the fingers. Blood was still leaking in long, half-coagulated threads and I witnessed some of the muscle blackening. Crimson leakage turned into black secretions that ran down my wrist as I held the afflicted hand over my head to view it at a different angle. Terrified, I began trembling, unsure what to do. Should I touch it? Try to staunch the flow with a piece of cloth? Remove the limb?
I screamed involuntarily. Panicked, I hyperventilated and stood up to shamble around in search of an exit. "Divines help me!", I cried out.
Just then, it was over.
The pain subsided, the flow of mucus ebbed. I was left with a hand of necrotic flesh and segmented plates of dark grey hemerite that coated the surface up to the wrist. The severe disfigurement continued in my palm that was stained with a circular indentation in the little stone segments.
My lower arm was overgrown with this material and merged almost seamlessly with the remaining sleeve of hemerite armour. Had I become a malformed beast? An abomination fit only for being slaughtered? Was I part of this world now?
Afraid and angered I clenched my fist and hurled it towards the cell door. In the same moment, I saw Nephethys approaching my holding area and subsequently watched as the dislodged and bruised construct of bars and hinges flew past her and crashed into a nearby wall.
As the dust settled and the view cleared up, the silhouette of the Dunmer, clearly on a voyage to save me from my doom, gazed bewilderedly through the cloud of pulverised stone.
"Did you just… you? Did you just throw a door in my general direction?".
I apologized deeply. "I didn't see you coming, I had no intention to-". She cut me off. "How did you do that?".
Well, I didn't know. I told her of my most recently contracted affliction and how it warped my left hand into a hideous mutation of foul meat and grey stone. I hypothesised that my newly acquired, physical developments must have stood in direct connexion to the altered properties inflicted to me by merging flesh and hemerite.
"I suppose you and I have more in common now", I mused, jokingly. Nephethys was still stunned by my bodily anomaly and sought to examine it later in more detail. "Firstly, however", she proclaimed, "we must locate the blood elf. We owe it to him to retrieve him from his prison". I agreed. He helped us immeasurably in the past days as we traveled through the inhospitable lands. We didn't only owe it to him but also needed Shthelith to guide us.
Wielding new strength and power, we set out to look for our friend in need.
The layout of the place that we assumed to be a prison was maze-like and confusing. A dense concatenation of narrow corridors packed with half-rotten holding cells, decaying corpses and rows of cold metal that kept the dead company. A complex string of rooms and sudden twists and turns in the hallways added to our perturbation as we tried to make sense of the architecture surrounding us.
After a tiring walk through the prison we finally heard a noise that sounded vaguely like a person.
We followed what we believed to be a voice, confident that it had to have been Shthelith. A quiet humming, accompanied by metallic clanking and light steps, echoed amidst the maze of bars and cells that Nephethys and I desperately tried to get through. At length, an opening revealed itself to us and the humming became louder, clearer. And foreign.
My heart stopped for but a moment as I could clearly hear that the voice in question did not belong to our red eyed friend. Someone else was here with us. An inmate? A guard? Someone else was here with us. And I had a feeling that they knew we were, too.
My dread-driven sweat appeared to reveal my position as the noise of its drops hitting the stone floor let the voice go silent. A terrible anticipation grew to unbearable heights. My fingertips were burning with the increased blood flow and the expectation to get assaulted around every other corner. More torturous, still, was the fact that it just didn't happen.
The silence just kept on going. I was still on edge. I didn't trust anything in this realm. Neither did Nephethys. However, she took the rising suspense exceptionally well considering her usual troubles.
With my lover in tow, it was virtually impossible to move forward without attracting some kind of attention. Turns out that sneaking with osseous blades for legs isn't all that quiet. Her Dark Brotherhood days were done, I thought. Even if she hadn't decided to renounce her oath in the face of the nothingness of the void that would await her soul. I hoped that it wasn't too late to spend the aetherial eternity with her.
We cautiously moved forward, ready for anything. And as we did, I fancied I heard an echo sometimes. Whenever Nephethys would tread upon the hard ground, it was as if some of her steps landed twice. A bone echo, if you will.
I couldn't explain this phenomenon up until a few minutes later when one of the bone rattling occurred when we were standing still to reorient ourselves. A sound from an outside source! But what was it?
At length, we came to yet another opening that led us to a wider space than all the other corridors. A welcome change of pace after the labyrinthine, winding hallways upon hallways of metal bars, floors coated with blood that had dried long ago. Cells filled with skeletons or the remains thereof. Countless, small spaces to hold people captive at the barest, minimum space in order for them to lie down. Even more cells of half that size, forcing the captive to stand upright. I realised how lucky I was to have had a cell of big enough size for at least two men.
From what I could gather, there was no telling of how many people might have suffered critical exhaustion due to having to stand or kneel for days or even weeks at a time. In a way, this subterranean prison was the most cruel of its ilk I had ever laid eyes upon. Built to house probably over two hundred inmates in the least tolerable conditions. Like cattle, waiting to be slaughtered.
Just then I saw a set of cells occupied by the rotting corpses of quadrupedal deformities. Were they not designed for men but for beasts?
I was pulled out of my daydreams by a peculiar noise the likes of which were all too similar to the familiar tapping of Nephethys' legs. But somehow it sounded hollow and alienated to a degree from what I was accustomed to. As if two empty skulls crashed together, in the distance.
And out of the forest of steel that stretched its unyielding branches from floor to ceiling emerged the figure that I identified as being the source of these strange sounds.
A man in a robe, a shattered skull, sewn together with metal wiring, perching atop his own as both crown and mask. A stained apron fashioned from leather hid a belt that contained tools and instruments of sinister purpose. From his right hip dangled the skulls I was hearing and I asked myself just for how long this madman stalked us. Did he know where we were all along? Circling us like prey to his perverse hunger?
His toolkit made sense in the context of the location. Scissors of abnormal size, long knives and fiendishly extended saws. Thick needles. A cleaver. In many ways no more than a butcher. But for us.
The amalgamation of sounds produced by his attire was sickening. Every facet of it told a story more terrible than the next. The robe dragged itself on the ground for how heavy it was with the cold crimson of bygone victims. His red eyes clearly identified him as an Aímamer and yet he resided in the domain of a race that was, by all accounts, enemy to the blood elves? Was he a traitor or a captive? Or was there a time the races got along and only in the last hundred years did the conflict emerge?
He tossed an oversized saw like the most degenerate tribes of the Bosmer launched their tomahawks in the wilderness of depravity. He missed only just but I could tell that I shall never know his true identity for he wasn't fond of speaking. Just then the second saw came our way. Nephethys and I avoided the spinning blade before it burrowed itself into the metal bars of a nearby holding cell. A thing made for the singular purpose of tearing through bone, huge and particularly unwieldy in the hands of a layman.
Nephethys jumped forward and I followed shortly after. I felt comfortable in my hemerite armour. Confident. Gladius in my right and dagger in my left, I was ready to battle this foe.
Nephethys' assault got deflected by the blade of a large knife the robed figure produced from somewhere underneath his coat. Just how many weapons he carried I was uncertain. Meanwhile, I attempted an attack as his back was turned to me. With lightning reflexes he swirled around and disarmed my right hand. Distracted, he watched my sword fly. I seized this momentum and drove the hemerite dagger deep into his side.
A surge of vitality rushed through me as the dagger sucked up his blood and bestowed its life unto me. In the chaos I let go of its hilt and with it, my last weapon was stuck in his flesh. Even so, the executioner readied himself for black retribution. He removed the dagger from his body as it desperately tried to cling to his sticky, red blood, but failed, falling to the floor leaving a dark puddle. I could smell the sickly sweet iron emanating from his wound as it beckoned me. A sensation I've never felt before threatened to overpower my hapless self.
I fought valiantly against the urge to… to what, exactly? My left hand throbbed, my brain steeped in primordial excitement commanded me to rush forth, to exsanguinate this fiend. Is this what being a vampire feels like? But I didn't intend to orally consume it. I just wanted to come into contact with his blood. I could barely react quick enough to narrowly avoid a knife that was coming for my face. During my efforts to defend myself, Nephethys recovered and attempted another attack.
She flung herself like a cartwheel across the room. A viable strategy for groups of less attentive targets, it proved to be foreseeable by our adversary who stepped to the side, swirled around me and pushed me into harm's way. Nephethys noticed that in her path of destruction now stood I and tried to stop. She was unsuccessful, however, and I saw furious swords of bone descend upon me. As the most natural gesture, I covered my face with my hands and prayed.
The robed figure watched us in amusement, having tricked us into annihilation. However, even I was utterly unprepared for my survival. A loud noise, the pressure of contact, shocked gasps. I witnessed the agile dark elf fly over me as her legs connected to my head. I inadvertently pushed her away with much force to avoid harm. In response, she was flung across the room and flew behind me. Like a cat, she landed on her fours without further injury, albeit stricken with surprise as much as I was.
But there was not really time to wonder for the robed fiend came at us with his deadly instruments. So far the only things he had said were incoherent grunts and angry moans and never real words. And an angry moan it was that announced the next blade to cut through the air with a whirring noise. Out of options, I put trust in what had saved me a second prior and motioned forward to halt the knife. All the more shocked was I that the tip penetrated my hand and the hot blood was immediately consumed by the hemerite that had infested my arm. The wound closed and the weapon fell apart.
Admittedly, I half expected my plan to work. However, I had not predicted this outcome and neither had my enemy. Dazed and confused, he stared blankly into the dent that he made in my palm from behind his mask.
"He… righ…! How hah uh buh oh awh wi-ih ee!"
With the greatest of difficulty, the man said these words that I could not understand. And yet, I had the feeling he sought to tell me something important. But his inability to properly articulate himself meant that I should remain puzzled.
From behind Nephethys approached quickly. The recognisable sound of her legs drew closer until, at last, she stood in front of the masked man who didn't even attempt to oppose us. Not any longer. He just looked at me and stood there. A fierce punch of Nephethys' fist shattered the skull he wore as a mask. The crimson-eyed elf stumbled backwards and lay on the floor. His eyes told of resignation. And indeed, his life was forfeit, for a swift kick split his head in two. And with a smile, the elf bled out.
"He stopped attacking so suddenly", I remarked as I rubbed my chin with my untainted hand. "What was he saying?"
"It doesn't matter", Nephethys intervened. "He is dead now. For all we know, he was the jailer and the key to our freedom. Maybe he tried to lure us into a false sense of security."
I acknowledged her statement and moved on, but I couldn't shake the feeling that there was a message hidden in this brief but meaningful conversation.
I collected my weapons from the nearby environment and sheathed the two blades into their scabbards. Thereafter, the two of us searched the body that lay dead on the floor. Sure enough, we found a ring of keys among his many possessions. He appeared to have been a curious character, even for aímeri standards. He held on to various bones, scraps of cloth and many a tool to dismember things.
A more thorough inspection of his attire revealed that his apron was fashioned from human or elven skin. The pores were clearly visible. But the very last detail we noticed was in his split head. For therein we discovered a mouth without tongue. A voice, robbed of its most crucial muscle.
I froze in contemplation for a moment. I tried to piece together his story. Why he was in this dungeon, as armed as he was but without tongue to speak. Why he stopped opposing me after he saw what I was capable of. I couldn't help but think that this torturer must have been a prisoner in there himself, in a way.
Nevertheless, we had to find our friend and as such, time for thorough thought was limited. We had to escape this dungeon. Thankfully, I retrieved the key ring.
On this ring there was a staggering multitude of probable keys. It appeared as if every cell had its individual key instead of there being a master key as was common in Cyrodiilic jails. While I could see why one would design a dungeon with lots of cells this way, for this system was quite secure, it was exceptionally unwieldy.
A key ring that could be used as a weapon for its many metal appendages and its imposing weight. To prevent all of those keys from forming a ring that would cover the entirety of the key ring itself, there were a few metal chains attached that had more keys dangling from them. The more I looked at it, the more it began to assume the appearance of a dream catcher. But I was sure that, with some ingenuity, one could fashion from it a metal whip.
Keys in hand, we explored further into the unplumbed depths of this castle. The dungeon was as big as it was confusing because all its corridors looked so similar to each other. Metal bars, cells of varying sizes and shapes to accommodate for the form of different living things. We wandered aimlessly, Nephethys and I, having lost our sense of direction. Just then, a moan somewhere.
Nephethys and I came to a sort of crossroads within the underground structure. Looking right there lay situated the desired means of egress by in the shape of a stone arc and a flight of stairs that led upwards. To our left we found a few more cells. In the furthest, there sat a despondent blood elf waiting on his release. The two of us couldn't help but smile at our discovery.
"Shthelith!", the two of us cried out. "Shthelith! We've come to get you out of here!". In an instant, the ragged elf looked up at us with a familiar glow in his eyes. His will to go on had not yet ebbed - all the more reason to get him out of there. We needed strong minds after all.
This undertaking should prove much more time consuming than initially anticipated. The obscene amount of keys meant that we'd probably have to try each one.
The fact that the exit was right behind us and in Shthelith's view didn't help. If anything it shewed us what we could not yet attain. Before long, I observed a system in the distribution of keys, however. To the main ring there were attached four chains that carried innumerable keys - presumably one for each cell. One chain corresponded to one row of cells in the dungeon which meant that all of those could be ruled out, leaving but the ones attached to the main ring.
As I was looking for the correct key to insert into the keyhole in the half rusted cell door that Shthelith was kept in, the three of us noticed noises and movement coming from a floor above.
"Perhaps the thrice-damned statuettes wand'reth thither whence our destination lieth", Shthelith remarked angrily. Seems even the hitherto so calm and collected Aímamer had his reserve broken bit by bit that time.
As the rumblings above our heads continued I had finally found the right key to open the door. Just then I heard the clap of skin on skin and Nephethys looked at me in a profound disappointment as she retracted her palm from her forehead.
"You realise you could have simply ripped that door from its hinges? Like you did with your own before I found you?".
Of course. I had strength now. I totally forgot that I would have been physically able to tear that door apart.
Nevertheless, no harm was done to the metal bars and as the keys on the key ring swung silently in front of the cell, my companions and I made our way to the exit and climbed the stairs towards the ghastly noises from above.
On the way up, Shthelith asked me about my new powers and how I acquired them.
"The manner in which I received these powers were of only the most brutal and unpleasant nature, I assure you", I said. "It involved a mighty stone fist, a few metal bars and a crushed hand on my part". I went on to tell him that, to my understanding, the hemerite burrowed into my flesh, took root and became a permanent addition to my body's ecosystem.
As I explained that it also became apparent that the hemerite - or the effect thereof - spread very slowly across the surface of my skin. Like little veins of stone trying to mask their presence as an infection.
The longer I stared at it the more it seemed as if that teeming mass of bloodthirsty rock that embedded itself into my fabric lived its very own life. A life full of concerns, worries and business to take care of.
"An unprecedented merging of flesh and rock. Thou be careful, Thorus, lest it consumeth thee. Hemerite doth hunger for bodies such as thine. Strong, able and filled with exotic blood".
Exotic blood? Upon inquiry the blood elf told me that exotic blood is what his folk calls the blood of extradimensional beings such as me or Nephethys. "Such delicacies a rarity be. Belike it an alliance with thee forgeth, for better or worse, so that it may indulge in thy blood, granting thee astonishing might in return. If thou'st the strength, thou wilt bend it to thy will".
The curious elf seemed to know more about what exactly it was that happened to me than he would let on. I couldn't force him to spew forth his knowledge, of course. Afore I was permitted to continue my onslaught of questions in regards to the matter, we reached a critical point in our travels - the door to the outside. We were close to the dungeon's exit and perhaps the mighty king who ruled these rotten lands.
A small push was sufficient for the wooden construct to give way, to reveal to us the path we should be henceforth destined to traverse. The first beams of light made their way through the small fissure betwixt door and frame. The stairs behind us now clearly visible, had they before been wreathed in darkness, told the story of far too many prisoners of the kingdom. Innumerable indentations and scratches on the stone steps. Traces of dried skin, coagulated blood and leftovers of bones from the most terrible, abrasive burns had eaten into the edges.
We averted our sore eyes from the gruesome sight and instead looked ahead in hopes of finding solace in new revelations. We allowed the battered door to open fully as light flooded the room. The brightness was blinding at first, and only with difficulty could I make out any shapes. I squinted for a while. Then the eyes adjusted. And from where I stood a crimson trail was smudged about. I followed it with my eyes until I beheld in awe.
The throne. The King. And his child.