Until the last, I had not known the tragedy that had befallen the kingdom that the three of us had trespassed upon. The reason behind all the rot and decay. I only knew that it stood in connexion to the seal of bone that Nephethys, Shthelith and I sought to acquire when we stepped into the woods, through the hamlet before the castle. And on our journey we saw many things, terrifying and unspeakable but none as bizarre as the sight that revealed itself before us in the throne room.
We had asked ourselves just what that infernal steward, if indeed that person served their duty as such, needed a bucket of drained blood for. Why he had gone through the trouble of carrying it up a ladder under the most arduous circumstances. And to our perturbation we found the answer.
Following our egress from the dungeons below, the three of us emerged from a side door of the ginormous throne room that was several times greater than its purpose required. To our right there was the heavy double door that led to the smaller room in between the throne room and the bridge that floated in the void.
Along a blue carpet to the left we saw the two ornate thrones whereupon sat the undead king and his daughter next to him. Around them a vast space that was occupied by an array of various statues that stood against the walls. Carved pillars that assumed the likenesses of knights and guardians created a tangible distance between the tall windows that stopped only short of the high ceiling.
Many torn tapestries, cracked bricks and partly overgrown floor attested the decay of a palace that truly must have been luxurious during its time. But most of the embellishments and decorative features had dissolved, leaving only dust and stains on the carpet. Much like the village around the castle and the forest around the village, yes, even the hungering badlands around the forest, this place was in ruins.
Even so, the rotting royalty persisted and the only two remaining members of a once noble family remained in what time reduced to an oversized sarcophagus.
To look at these two was to gaze at misfortune and dead dreams. The king sat on his throne, tired, pale, grizzled. An unkempt beard around dry lips under white, heavy eyes stared an empty stare at our appearance. He was alive still but barely breathing. And although I could tell that he noticed us, he seemed to ignore our presence.
His daughter on the other hand appeared genuinely dead. Only on close inspection could I spot a minute breathing. She was a frail and shrivelled girl. Famished, thin, draped in a white tunic. Long, black hair kept most of her body hidden. But this was by no means our main point of focus.
Above the girl, from the ceiling and suspended by chains, there hung the half-dead corpses of four men. Upside down, with their hairless, teetering heads just above hers. From them, red streams of crimson connected the girl to them, flowing towards her. "Blood magic", Shthelith whispered quietly, acknowledging the queerness of seeing hemomancy around a people who would normally fight against it.
Then, an illusive figure stepped out of the shadows. We had not noticed someone concealing themselves amidst this bizarrery but recognised this man as the nobly dressed steward who carried the blood from the cellar to the surface earlier.
"Hither you went without knowing a thing of our fate, travelers", the figure spoke. "And yet, you possess the impertinence to disturb these sacred halls. Do you not see? The cure for our people is at hand! To deliver us from this pestilential curse."
He gestured towards the girl who, despite receiving this supposed cure, looked more dead than alive.
"Through research and application of the kind of magic we used to despise, we brought her back from the brink of death."
"You mean she looked even worse?", Nephethys burst out, raising an eyebrow in surprise.
"Silence!". The king raised his thundering voice. A feeble man in brittle armour that had lost its former glory rose from the throne. Embedded in his chest plate, a circular stone plate of all too familiar appearance. The seal of bone, there was no doubt about it.
"You do not have permission to speak about my daughter", his shaking voice boomed, "Not a filthy outworlder like you. You do not know the lengths my folk had to go to to find a cure for this accursed hex laid over our people! The torture we've endured, the measures we took. You know nothing of pain. But speak again, and I shall introduce you to it".
He threatened an already furious Nephethys which was perhaps one of his worst choices in life, all things considered.
"I know nothing of pain?". Nephethys burst out in tears for but a moment before the freshly formed pearls of salty water evaporated on a skin burning with indescribable rage. Her dunmeri eyes began to glow red hot in the dim light of the opulent throne room. Her chest rose and fell, and rose and fell again, faster and faster until her clutched fists threatened to whiten her knuckles to the point of tearing her skin apart.
Quivering hands drew the blades that should decapitate the aged, squeamish King just a second later. He didn't even get to draw his stone sword before he began to crumble to dust like the ruins themselves, leaving not even blood on her blade. Only his armour remained and with it, the seal of bone.
This was rather underwhelming, I quietly thought to myself. I've gotten used to real opposition whenever we pursued any particular goal. The scavengers in the wastes, the high priestess Sárka, the Stained Glass Dæmon. Even the lost blood elf in the dungeons put up more of a fight than this presumed king. And yet, I was painfully unaware of the fact that he wasn't really the greatest threat in the room. Nor were the statues he had prepared, indubitably, to assault us. But he didn't get to command them once more.
Even the steward, who appeared strong and capable, grew a terrified look on his face. He anticipated disaster and left the throne room as quickly as he was able to. The daughter, in her throne, remained seated, however. How could she even get up and leave? I thought.
In a flash, her eyelids creaked open, blistering, dried skin flakes flew everywhere. Remains from centuries of dehydration. White eyes lined with pulsating, red blood vessels stared at us in contempt. No pupils in irises from which we could have drawn any hint of her true emotions or intentions but her ferocious expression told us all we needed to know. "The seal, quick!", Nephethys commanded. I ran over to the kingly dust pile and retrieved the heavy stone coin from its cuirass. It clicked as I did and the world as I had known it ended.
It took a while for our eyes to process as a sudden flash of white clouded our view. Little by little the mist settled and the castle we stood in a moment ago had undergone drastic changes in the short period of time that we weren't permitted to see.
The majority of the walls and ceiling had crumbled away to reveal a jetty black sky, darker than the lead heavens we had become used to. Through gaping holes in the walls it was revealed that the castle itself appeared to float in total nothingness. As if some spell ripped it from our dimension into the next worst thing. Perhaps an elaborate hoax to fool us into submission by despair? However my gut feeling told me everything to understand that I was in a place that should not have existed.
"Curses!", Nephethys shouted. "Are we in the Darkness again? I won't falter this time. We need to seek the gate and leave this place lest it consumes us!".
"Thou'rt correct", Shthelith chimed in. "Methinks the seal either upheld an illusion or created it. But such power…". The blood elf tried to explain our current state of affairs by inferring that the seal was somehow enchanted to either reveal the truth or hide it from us. To confuse "All ye who taketh the stone" and lead them to their inevitable doom. Either this or the source of the nightmare was the girl herself.
With all of this commotion going on between us we barely noticed, if at all, the cracking knuckles and falling dust that came from the daughter's throne. Steps of bare feet against cold stone echoed through our minds as we turned to find a pale, famished, naked woman of unfamiliar race standing before us. Her long, black hair covered a great deal of her unmentionables for its length grew past even the thighs. The dead yet seeing eyes stared at us with a hatred so pure that the staring, pupil- and iris-lacking eye by itself was enough to inspire fear in our hearts. There she stood, covered in the blood of the kingdom's people that she drank to stay alive. An abomination worthy of killing.
The fact that all of us were alive to leave the castle after what had happened in the throne room can be attested to both superior power of will and dumb luck. How had we survived the incursion of terror of such a phantastical scale? How were we still sane enough to continue with our journey? Had all of this even been real?
Even today I ask my quill and ink this same question for it is truly hard to believe. But I fear the more I remember the events, the more they solidify in my wobbly, unsteady mind and I have to accept their truth. And I have to accept many more truths that I've yet to come to terms with.
Indeed, it should come as no surprise that our little group had to battle itself out of that situation. However, this conflict was unique for two reasons. For one, before us stood a foe even the Imperial army would have struggled against. The other factor was that we did not have all the time in the world to kill this fiend as Nephethys quickly noticed that we didn't float in empty space - we were flung towards an even greater darkness that had by that time already consumed the horizon. There was no telling what would happen to us should we enter whatever that thing was so we made haste to assess the situation.
Meanwhile, the girl herself began to levitate off the ground, her impossibly long hair growing even longer, braiding itself together, solidifying in thick strands of dark grey flesh. More and more of these tendrils emerged from her head, flailing about to reveal her punished, tortured body that should be dead by all that I've learned about humanoid anatomy.
Soon enough, her meager body weight was easily supported by her innumerable appendages of necrotic muscle that was yet strangely alive with a magic blacker than any found on Nirn. She rose several meters above our heads and looked down at us like the importless worms that we were.
The gangrenous tentacles shot forward like a wave of black water on the high seas at night to submerge us in pain and suffering. Nephethys was the first to cut herself free, disturbing the order in the flesh. Shthelith and I followed shortly after, climbing out of the rot around us.
The ground quaked and up through the stone floor came the long, dead arms from her head. Debris threatened to graze our skin and suddenly I wasn't so sure of the bodily protection of my hemerite armour anymore. I concentrated on evading the black, meaty pillars that came from below and overlooked a tentacle that came for me in a sideways swiping motion. I got hit in my guts, appropriately compressed by the kinetic forces of the impact and flung about to crash into a nearby wall just short of a hole in said wall that would have left me falling into the abyss.
The stone behind me crumbled and gave way to the gaping void that almost consumed me as I watched the evasion attempts of my fellows against this onslaught of darkness.
The battlefield, infested with a terrible scourge the three of us had severe trouble hurting at all. Shthelith tried to "tame" the wild appendages with his blood magic for he beforehand cleverly observed hemomancy having been used to sustain the girl's state of being. At the same time, a dunmeri whirlwind of rage plowed through the black ocean of undulating hair-flesh, spraying cut parts everywhere. The grey blood of the tendrils wasn't even visible on Nephethys' tender skin and with unparalleled elegance the dark elf danced her deadly dance of murder against all opposition. And yet, it was not enough.
Blood magic proved to be entirely ineffective against the things and Shthelith was quickly taught to keep his distance as he avoided swift swipes. Nephethys, on the other hand, fought well. Tirelessly she cut down wave after wave of this evil but it kept coming regardless.
The girl seemed to be unbothered by our feeble attempts at retaliation and callously struck each of us down, punishing us for our sins, for theft and murder. Each time we got up again to fight back but our stamina was limited and my breath began to run short after a while. I looked up at her, how concentrated she was to control the tentacles. But my tired body appeared to have caught her attention as I sat down in exhaustion while the raging flesh all around me oppressed my companions who still fought valiantly.
Up from the chaos, a tendril then rose, its tip slowly approaching. I looked directly at it and even though the threat was unmistakable, I kept still. I stood under its spell. Then it touched my forehead. Very gently it set itself on it and I suddenly felt a deep and sharp pain that I cannot describe. It felt like dying. The loss of my own life as well as that of my loved ones combined, drifting forever in darkness.
All of a sudden I saw my old house again. When before I stood on a hill to view it from afar, stood I now directly before the smouldering ruins of what death I had brought upon my family. None had remained. All of them charred to pieces of coal or skinless corpses. Yet, the cellar remained and my terrors emerged from it. Shadowy things from another realm to haunt my existence. The messengers of my guilt.
"I repent!", I remember myself crying, "I repent! I am being punished for my deeds and rightfully so", I said. "I beg your forgiveness!".
As I came to my knees I saw the world around me shatter, the dark silhouettes crumbling to dust. The house dissipated and I was in the warped throne room again, the severed end of a tentacle before me on the ground. I saw my own reflection in the puddle of oily blood. Next to me the face of Nephethys who saved me from this hallucinatory assault.
There was no time to exchange words of gratitude, for whatever it was my two friends had done during my spiritual absence angered the girl greatly. She let out a screech as we drifted ever closer towards the dark horizon. Her whipping appendages compromised the integrity of the throne room, the pure rage threatening to destroy the very ground we stood on. All over her pallid skin eyes had emerged that looked just like hers, glaring in all directions at once.
A prolonged stay was impossible but the exit door was blocked by her and her unrelenting extremities.
"You", her broken voice then announced. "I will take all of you defilers into the abyss with me."
With these words, she lifted as many of her arms as she could and let them crash down. Shthelith, Nephethys and I nearly got crushed but found ourselves stumbling instead from the shockwave.
"There, the door!", I then shouted. The King's daughter must have retracted those tendrils to add to her destructive ensemble.
Once more the ceiling darkened with her pulsating tubes of flesh as they readied themselves to grind the stone under our feet. Her last act of revenge against us who so boldly murdered her father. Upon their descent we narrowly averted our deaths but I knew that one more test of durability like that would have the floor crumbling.
Together, we carried ourselves towards the exit as the horror lifted her talons one last time.
"No! No! Murderers! Nooo!", she cried as we opened the door. In that moment, the ground beneath our feet shattered from the impact of a thousand muscular arms and the three of us made it past the threshold. I turned around and saw the grandiose throne room get devoured by the yawning blackness.
Thereafter we made our way back into our reality, past the infernal bridge with the Seal of Bone in hand and a feeling of victory in our hearts. But a certain emptiness did not betray a bitter aftertaste that accompanied our triumph.
As we exited the castle that had held us prisoner for so long, we were met with a curious vista. There had afore been a rotting forest of twisted foliage, half-dead corpses squirming and foul mists melting the air we breathed. However, upon our return from the damned burg we viewed a lush copse populated by hitherto unseen flora.
Juicy, green grass grew on the tormented earth where our feet had left marks in the sludge and ooze before. The bent trees straightened somewhat and suddenly carried red and blue leaves and purple flowers. Some specimens even bore large fruit. Together, they cast a protecting shadow over the woods, blotting out the sky. Bushes and little green mounds formed from collapsed houses, a new archetype of landscape.
Flowerbeds dotted the grassy floor. They shone in versatile colours. With petals of red, yellow, white or a very rare pearl and a pistil oozing mostly crimson and azure. An strange scent emanated off of the flowers and I found it exceedingly difficult to resist. Despite all this beauty however, I soon noticed a crucial detail to be missing. As amidst the freshly formed flowers and green, grassy glades there were missing the remains of those who would inhabit these lands. All of the corpses, living or not, had vanished. Nothing remained of the proud, human civilisation and their superior craftsmanship. A race of masons and carpenters, magic deniers and in conflict with the sinister elves who would propagate their gory gospel.
The three of us wandered down the path that led from the castle entrance to a clearing populated by healthy greenery and colourful plant life. The layout of the place was strikingly familiar until I realised that it was that very spot the small part of the hamlet once stood that we came through earlier. The original means of ingress we had taken - a melting house overcome with mould of which the wood was as soft as cotton as a result of tragic deformities - was blocked off. It appeared to have "grown shut". However, the once thick shrubbery that had been plagued by thorns and indestructible roots earlier was now clear.
"Magnificent!", Shthelith exclaimed, "the curse appeareth to have been lifted. Ye work was good". Nephethys pointed up to a large nothing next to the castle bridge.
"Wasn't there supposed to be a huge throne room and a few watchtowers?", she asked nervously, for the events that had transpired were truly difficult to grasp and understand. But it was gone, along with what I assumed to be its "shadow version". Just how this trans-dimensional disappearance of space worked, I had no clue.
The absence of an entire wing of this structure unsettled the Dunmer deeply. Had we fallen into that bottomless pit we would have been gone as well to whatever place it vanished to.
To rid myself of these grim thoughts I turned towards one of the colourful flowerbeds. I hadn't seen a proper flower, or any plant for that matter, in days at that point. Or was it weeks? You see, time becomes irrelevant when the colour of the sky never changes. This will be the first flower I'll smell in weeks! I remember myself thinking when I went near the beautiful arrangement of petals and grass. I wonder what they smell like I thought as I began to kneel down to inspect their olfactory qualities. The Hemerite armour had by then become very comfortable to wear, like a second hide fused to my skin, so I had no trouble bending down to get on the ground. But as I did, I noticed the grass curiously bending towards my knees.
I thought nothing of it. And after all, I couldn't feel the grass because my armour was nigh impenetrable, especially at the knees and shin guards. I had no way of knowing that nature herself intended to warn me.
I placed my nose directly above a blossoming flower with white petals. The crimson nectar was clearly visible. I inhaled, expecting a sweet smell but instead, my nostrils were assaulted by terrible putrefaction and rot. I instantly turned my head away from the pistil but I needed to know more and touched the petals. They were hard yet strangely flexible. Then the pistil opened and revealed not typical ovaries. Instead, an ooze reservoir encased in small teeth was visible.
"These are no ordinary flowers", I mumbled. "They are corpses".
Nephethys, Shthelith and I inspected the flowerbed closely and saw that each of the flowers blossomed with an opened pistil. However not every flower was the same, for there were specimens outfitted with red and soft petals, yellow petals that slowly melted or the very rare pearl that appeared to be as hard as granite. Likewise, there were two types of pistils - one with crimson ooze that would reveal a mouth of sorts; one with azure blue ooze that revealed an eye in the center that darted back and forth.
"What is this madness?", Nephethys whispered with unsteady voice. We had escaped one nightmare only to happen upon another. As Nephethys attempted to get down to the ground in order to examine the queer blossoms she cried out. Her hand with which she intended to support herself on the grass had been stung. The grass itself bent towards her skin and her blood could be seen on its tips.
All of us looked at each other in response and we couldn't help but look around. Everywhere around us was grass. Flowers that would open and release vile steam, leaves of trees that would begin to drop indefinable liquids. And we suddenly decided that we didn't want to know what it was that the fruits contained.
"Don't. Fall.", I then said slowly. Almost paralysed by the ubiquitous threat of impalement we crept towards the only exit. We stood in the center of what used to be a small plaza of the village. Directly in front of us was the now overgrown path to the castle. Next to the great castle walls on the left hand side ran a second path that led into a small arrangement of shrubbery and bushes, out of the village.
Behind us was the barred off mound. A solid wall of roots and ivy. There were visible faint hints of a doorframe and windows but nothing one could feasibly traverse.
We walked on nervous feet and soft knees under thick branches and moist foliage. If we had been more oblivious in respect to the coat of needles under our boots we would have just walked. Instead, every step was taken with the utmost caution accompanied by a scrutinising look above us to avoid any fruits that may or may not dislodge from a tree.
Said fruits were rather huge. Elliptical in outline and a very light beige/rose in colour, they hung at least twenty to twenty-five pertans tall from the 400 pertan tall trees. They looked incredibly heavy compared to the branches that would support them. As if any slight disturbance could cause them to fall.
Based on our previous findings in this new environment we intended to not disturb the forest any further and be on our way.
However, our oncoming destination would be no more promising. On our way through the thicket, Shthelith instructed us whence that path led and what our next item of interest would be.
"Hither this way thou shalt meet the crimson sea and the cove that lay at a beach most foul. Ther thou may'st discov'r terrors from the abysses that surround the main land. It is said the cove leadeth to a world beneath the sea. Ther lieth the seal of flesh or so they say. Buried beneath the deepest fathoms. And this is whence our path shall take us. We require only the strength to follow it."
Upon inquiry, Shthelith told me more about the cove and its inhabitants.
"I've never seen it for myself. But my kin went on pilgrimage in elder days. It's quite possible ye meet a few of my kind. As for the oder things that lurketh…", he paused to think and then continued. "I know of queer merfolk that dwelleth in the moist caverns below and great creatures that liveth in the sea."
Just then I recalled the unusual skeleton of a thing that appeared to be equal parts man and fish somewhere in the dry desert and asked myself if we should meet their living counterparts. And if they could be reasoned with or not. As I mentioned them Shthelith explained that the curious merfolk has rarely ever been seen by his kind, alluding to the existence of an underwater society.
Supposedly a path ran through the forest with some acclivity to terminate in a barren hill overlooking the beaches, the sea and the various cave entrances into the wet underworld. From there we would have to climb down a steep incline with razor sharp rocks and possible, carnivorous insects living on the underside of a few stones. A few crude structures, erected by the merfolk, were said to stand in places of importance or special entrances into the subterranean tunnel system.
In order to get there the three of us had to follow a narrow road through the dense woods lined with corpse blossoms (the name we gave the ill flowers) and sharp grass. To either side stood tree after tree after tree, a good number of them carrying those strange fruits high up in the sky just below the tree tops that prevented any real daylight to reach the shadowy ground we trod.
The journey to the hill Shthelith mentioned proved to be blissfully uneventful notwithstanding the devious plant life all around, above and below us. As we finally reached our destination past branches that almost seemed to try and hold us back from leaving the forest we beheld a scenery most disastrous. Yet, we had no time to contemplate our decision in respect to entering the cove for behind us, the fruits began to fall to the ground and the noises they made were enough to convince us to leave.