There have been but few things in my time as head of the IID that burned themselves into my memory. I remember one such case of a pregnant, Imperial woman who had been hung naked from a tree like a fruit. Her unborn was forced outside to dangle just below her on the umbilical cord. "Two people hanged for the price of one!", I remember him saying triumphantly as he laughed in my face. That day I found the true evil that lurks within men. A part of me hoped to find the bandit chief in question, a man feared across many counties and holds, possessed by malignant spirits or even the Daedra themselves. But no, this was just who he was. Some men are born this way. And it was usually men like me to find and persecute them.
I also remember, however, that I violated protocol on that day. For the very first time no less. My men had the ruffians and outlaws at dagger's point as I moved towards their arrogant leader. He knew that it was merely my duty to put him and his ragtag band of brigands in chains to deliver the lot to the nearest county jail. But I had already decided that this man deserved a different kind of punishment. Conveniently, the bandit's smithy was still blazing and I wasted no time to push the leader's head into the fires with my sword's lledge. His screams couldn't bring back the two he had so gruesomely executed. But they were satisfactory enough for me. Thereafter I ordered my men to kill the rest and filed a report for "Resistance against agents of his majesty, The Emperor" and never spoke of it again.
The reason I was remembering this case in particular was because Nephethys, Shthelith and I stood at the outermost perimeter, the divide betwixt the forest and the coast. To our left, we saw the fruits fall from the branches and violently explode from whence came grotesque things crawling towards us that were not entirely unlike the dead woman and her fetus in appearance. To our right the beach of blood and brimstone, teeming with insects the size of newborn guars among the sharp rocks that led to an infernal sea. Far out in the distance I spied a maw as great as Masser devouring the horizon as another, equally as monstrous, fin got pushed underwater. Several holes in the ground amongst the stones and a few fetishes of probably religious purport marked the entrances into the underworld. The three of us had to fight either way but there was only one way forward.
To slip the attention of the monstrosities from the forest, we decided that it was tactically more beneficial to only have to deal with one group of foes at once. I was the first who took the plunge and slithered down the slope towards the beach. My hemerite armour protected me from injuries by the rocky floor, however the ginormous insects were another problem entirely. After I arrived at the beach I roused about a hundred of these things from their sleep.
Chitin armour as thick as a finger, six legs and sclerotic elytra of an arm's length buzzed loudly around me. These beasts had maws not with teeth but with glands that produced a corrosive substance to liquefy any solid matter for them to drink. In my case, I was the prey and had my fair share of troubles to avoid the caustic spit. Meanwhile, Nephethys chose her own path down and through the field of razor sharp edges for her "legs" couldn't be truly harmed for obvious reasons. Shthelith on the other hand cumbersomely jumped and hopped about, right after Nephethys, to avoid grievous flesh wounds. His magic was useless to him if there was no blood to manipulate.
But I was yet again wrong about the blood elf. He was much more capable than I thought. To an unsettling degree, even. Shthelith arrived just beside Nephethys on the beach near the coast of the crimson sea as swathes of thirsty insects swarmed us. Nephethys and I did all we could to swat them away, cut them down but it was no use. Shthelith just stood there and gestured about. He then silently recited a prayer in his language and suddenly, a shadow darkened the sky.
The sea rose in a giant, bent column over our heads and came down swirling like a whirlwind. Shthelith broke out in wild incantations and lifted his hands. The blind eyes in his sockets appeared to vibrate as we found ourselves in the center of an aquatic nightmare. Partly transparent blood twisted and wound in a maelstrom of foetor. Through the waters I could make out the silhouettes of strange hybrid creatures and otherworldly species of fish and amphibians that were trapped in Shthelith's spell. With each passing second, more and more of the insects got pulled into the water all around us until there were none left. With another spoken word, the elf commanded the eye of the dead seas to retreat into the deep fathoms from whence it was summoned - and it took all life trapped inside with it.
Left were only the horrible stench and pools of blood all over the rocky beach. Just as if a bloody massacre had taken place where we stood. In both awe and shock I gazed at our saviour. His competence was undeniable. Within Shthelith there slumbered grandiose power waiting to be unleashed. He indubitably saw our puzzled expressions and gave an answer to a question we didn't get to ask.
"Blood magicke! Hemomancy. Thou may'st call it such. Lo, the primordial might a capable wizard calleth forth when fate giveth the chance. Thou must know, Thorus, that blood magicke increaseth its pow'r with a greater presence of blood. A hundred soldiers are nothing in the face of a blood mage who knoweth his craft. A sea of blood becometh a wellspring of unlimited destruction."
The implications I drew from his explanation were terrifying. However, it also explained the odour and the way the leftovers behaved on land. Before long, we stepped upon a somewhat sticky crust of dark red material that coated a good bit of our surroundings in response to Shthelith's spell. Now I knew that I had some of the most powerful allies on my side. With both Dunmer and Aímamer, Atebid could be destroyed and the great city of Bendicia taken.
With that army of adversaries out of the way, we finally set foot into unfamiliar terrain. The many holes in the ground were 90 degree drops into a pelagic netherworld of uncertain depth. It didn't occur to me then that the waterspout the blood elf conjured might have attracted unwanted attention. If there was indeed life down there in the dank, musty depths they surely must have felt something shaking the sea over their heads. In our obliviousness, we looked for a suitable entrance into the unknown caverns that the blood elves called the Cove.
There were naked holes in the stone floor but also some that had a small hut built above them. Others still sported aforementioned, religious fetishes on a pedestal in front of such a stone hut.
"If thou chooses the right entrance belike it is that we survive", Shthelith said. Apparently, the different holes all marked different entrances into the underworld depending on the purpose of one's visit. "A grand system of caves and tunnels doth exist beneath our feet. Shthelith wouldn't know whither to go. Maybe thy intuition bringeth us thither. Delivereth us to the Seal."
He proposed I make the first step. This was perhaps the first time I questioned his true motives. I was no stupid man. I was fully capable of nuanced understanding. As such, I realised that a fall into perilous grounds would probably not kill me for my armour was unusually strong and curiously capable of deflecting even the most terrible of blows. If it wasn't, I would have died to the girl in the throne room when one of her tentacles crashed into my chest and threw me into a far off wall. Due to my uncommon, corporeal resilience, I became a test subject for things involving physical harm. On the other hand, it was quite practical to know that my body was not easily broken anymore. All I ever had to worry about was my head for the armour lacked a helmet or mask.
I carefully surveyed the choices laid out before me and ruled out all the holes without any significant features. I didn't feel comfortable with them as I feared they might lead nowhere. I favoured the ones that had the fetishes stand perched atop their pedestals before them. If these are entrances into some religiously motivated underbelly of the land they must be at least safe enough to traverse, I figured.
The little statues seemed to portray extraordinary things I had trouble recognising. Were they lifeforms, items, weapons, symbols? I couldn't tell. Sometimes I fancied I saw teeth and tails, sometimes strange swords or gemstones that all swirled together as one thing. There were eyes and mouths but also pillars and gates all as one entity. I hoped with all my heart these were no gods that the merfolk revered.
Among them, one statuette in particular stood out. It was of a metal gleaming in strange opalescence - dark blue hues mingled with rainbows arranged in disturbingly angular, repeating patterns. Metallic, gleaming squares grew from a central shape that must have, at one point, been a cube. It was of unparalleled purity and looked entirely natural so that there was nothing artificial about it.
I reached out to touch it, as all humans do out of curiosity, and retracted my hand thereafter quickly as strange vibrations prohibited my interactions with it. The object sung a tune in a foreign wavelength, or so Shthelith explained, and did not permit outside interference unless great amounts of power were used to change the wavelength of the wielder. However, we could pass by the object freely and I decided the three of us should go down that hole to explore what it hid.
We stood circumjacent to the abyss before us, at the precipice to the underworld. A horrible stench filled the air as clouds of foulness rose from within. They lived there, in the rot and cold expanses of the hungry caverns below. Just how we'd get down was another question. I could drop myself down and put my trust in the suit of armour that I wore to protect me from the impact. Unless there were devious traps laid out for unsuspecting prey such as us.
Nephethys could surely stick her leg blades into the stone walls to slowly clamour downward. And Shthelith proposed he'd sample some of the nearby sea and use it to float down the hole - the way he suspected the locals to do it as well.
I was the first to go and so, I focused my mind on my hand to hold me in place as I tried to climb down the hole instead of letting myself fall. I knew I could use a hook, a needle or a pick to hold on to the surrounding walls and secretly wished for such an object. In that moment, my hand that had been crushed in the jail before, now fused with the bloodthirsty stone, transmuted into a sharp and pointy object, not unlike a traditional meat hook, its make of flesh, bone and hemerite. Even I myself could only just bear to look at this hideous mutation. As I felt a deep repulsion towards the thing that I've created, the object morphed back into the hand that I was used to and the magic was over as quickly as it had begun.
"You never cease to surprise, Thorus. How did you do that?", I remember Nephethys asking with an appropriate amount of wonder. I could only shake my head in disbelief. I didn't know. The existence of transmutation magic had never occurred to me, neither did I know how one would learn or even master such an art. I tried again to focus on my hand while I conjured up an image in my mind of such a classical meat hook to see as to whether or not my thoughts could actively influence the outcome. A few moments later and there it was, albeit a little disturbing to view. An abject amalgamation of sinew, bone and blood in various states of matter shaped itself to form a hook where my hand used to be.
I looked at my other hand with an equal amount of concentration and, surprisingly, managed to do the same to it although it was not the affected hand that first received the blow that would merge stone with flesh. Had the hemerite in my blood begun to infect my whole body? Shthelith beheld this gory spectacle of transmutation with glee as the second hook formed itself from hardened muscle and purulent meat. The sight was enough to make my skin crawl but with a change of thoughts I was able to change the form of my extremities at will.
"A most curious power thou'st been given. By chance no less! Who could have foreseen? Thorus. Thou'rt a blood mage now. If of a less incorporeal sort. A shapeshifter thou hast become thru the sacred stones of my ancestors. A blessing of divine purport doth come over thee and thou wilt find more uses for thy new abilities in due time."
Shthelith prophesied limitless power if I would manage to master the tools that fate had bestowed upon me. Now I was able to, in the truest sense of the word, shape my flesh.
My newfound capabilities as a shapeshifter proved to be invaluable to our pursuits. Whereas Shthelith and Nephethys had a relatively easy time traveling downward through the hole, I would have had my difficulties if not for the hooks that I morphed my hands into. I wasn't yet able to fully control how and in what manner the things that I envisioned would manifest themselves on my body, however. Notwithstanding a certain lack of control I made my way down the abyss swiftly and without any complications. Although I must say that hacking into the wet rock was quite painful as I had not been fully able to shield my naked flesh from the outside world.
A hemerite armour does not look dissimilar to a 4th Era Daedric armour minus most of the downwards-pointing hook-blades and dangerous embellishments upon the ebony plating. What made both types of armour so alike was the fact that both used blood as a special ingredient in their manufacturing process. However, whereas Daedric armour usually required a somewhat ritualistic use of Daedric hearts (be it from Dremora or another humanoid species or from the various beasts that inhabit the astral planes), hemerite required to be completely and utterly soaked in blood prior to smelting and shaping it. And then the smith must work quickly lest it hardens and becomes nigh unbreakable. Once hardened, the piece can never be smelted again.
Due to the crimson essence in the crafting of these types of armour they do look similar to each other. Hemerite by itself is as black as ebony which adds to the list of similarities. The way a finished piece of armour looks is entirely up to the blacksmith who forged it and many pieces look different because of the haste with which the crafter must work before the material becomes solid.
Only in my case, the material became malleable post forging because of several factors that I never truly understood. All I remember is that it had to do with the way my blood resonated with the world at large and what veins had merged with parts of the rock and at which time and how much blood could nurture it until I awoke. I am certain that there are metaphysical formulae that could explain the back and forth of different forces but throughout my entire time in those forsaken realms, I never came across such scientific documents.
But that was of no concern to me. I knew that I was now able to bend my physical form to my will and, with practice, could possibly unleash doom upon my enemies. These new tools were the reason I reached the bottom of the hole in the first place. And while regret slowly gained purchase as I drew closer to the ground, I was thankful that I could even reach this far. If I ever intended to leave the Painted World, I had no choice but to go forward.
Nephethys and Shthelith were quick to follow me to the bottom. While the large, cylindrical opening that led to the caverns was pitch black, a natural luminescence inhabited the caves proper. We stood in a large, circular antechamber that had in its center what I would describe as a deep pool or well. Probably for the merfolk to dive into when they flung themselves down the hole from the beach. The outlines of the pool, that was just as round in shape as the vestibule we were in, were adorned with alien markings in a script I've never seen before. From the pool ran a straight, narrow tunnel into dimly lit rooms of unknowable contents.
Even from up above, when one stood at the edge of the earthen aperture, one's olfactory senses almost melted with the overwhelming reek of strange kinds of decomposed fish, meat and other organic materials. But the further I crawled down, the less bearable it got. Moist air, thick with rot so that I felt a wet film gather upon the skin of my face. It was somehow worse than the insides of a digesting shredmound, that most damnable of all parasitic life forms I had the misfortune of coming across. The caverns below were warm - as was the sea - to account for the crimson liquid all around. And the inherent warmth was probably the most unsettling feature of this new area.
The ubiquity of blood in the cove didn't help that and it tempted the avid hemomancer to haughtiness and arrogance. An unlimited supply of power at one's fingertips. But Shthelith knew better than to become careless. As he put it:
"Albeit my magicke yearneth to be used utterly at the presence of this much blood I must contain myself. I am not invincible. The merfolk knoweth my kind well and hath develop'd techniques to repel invaders such as myself. Prithee be careful. I am no more stronger than ye are."
What these countermeasures looked like Shthelith didn't know. But rumours in his hometown had it that with each passing decade, the merfolk got more skilled at hunting and killing the blood elves that would trespass upon their sacred grounds. It had always been a war for territory.
The Aímamer went on pilgrimage to the crimson sea to pray to their various, blood-related deities and hone their abilities of hemomancy. The beaches were a frequently used proving ground for new spells and different ways to use this school of magic that is seldom even mentioned on Nirn. However, more often than not did the practicing elves desecrate the hallowed sites and shrines the merfolk built and defiled them with complete disregard for the sacred statuettes and religious huts. This did inevitably lead to a conflict that would last a few hundred years and reached its climax apparently only twenty or so years before Nephethys and I were thrust through the painting. At that point in time, the merfolk had battled the blood elves for long enough to know them in and out so Shthelith, even if empowered by all of the blood in the moist caverns, was as much prey to the merfolk as we were.
Elves haven't been seen around those parts in over two centuries but there we were, with a blood elf in tow.
"Your race did wage a lot of war against this world's people, didn't they?", Nephethys asked.
"Oh, well, the other races did ne'er appreciate our customs. In the end, we were condemn'd frivolous and unnatural. The humans and the merfolk sought our end. They could not accept our ways and would wage war after war. We prevail'd. But our great city lieth curs'd, our hamlets in ruins. My kin, doom'd to wander a wasteland. For this reason I strive to unmake the spell that bindeth Bendicia to an accurs'd existence. Many a place fell to the darkness as ye have seen and travers'd thyselves. And I seek to undo the critical imbalance in time, space and magicke. Thereby ye may return to your home dimension ye call Nirn and heal these barren wastes, rid them of their decay."
Shthelith implied that the three seals might not only unlock the gates to the great city that had been sealed off decades ago. They may also imbue its walls with new power to dispel the various curses that plague the hungering and diseased lands around it. In a way, Bendicia was vital to the entire world. "As long as it is diseas'd, the land will be also. Like a gangrenous heart that striketh down a body foul with illness".
To an extent, the land lived and breathed through the central temple in the city's heart, he told us. We walked a bit further down the corridor, dodging stalactites and blood drops, as Shthelith told us more about Bendicia.
"In elder days, it is told, the grand city, a shining beacon in the center of the world, shone in the rays of a golden sun. Long ago, the three races of humans, merfolk and my kin, the elves, liv'd as equals within Bendicia's walls. One district for each race, arrang'd in a circle around the great temple. Each race chose one representative that bore the seal of their people."
"The Seal of Bone for the humans, who work'd hard to tend to the earth, forest and plains. The Seal of Blood for the merfolk, who inhabited the netherworld beneath the crimson sea and kept it pure for eternity. And lastly, the Seal of Flesh, bestow'd upon the elves who dwelleth in the mountains, keeping their essence conceal'd to outsiders."
He paused. I could see the worry in his eyes as he reminisced about the stories he got told and now relayed to us. "A traitor from long ago, one of my kind, murder'd the keepers of the seals and hex'd them with a devious spell. They lock'd the gates to the city with them and everyone inside died a slow and painful death. Thereafter the wars against the elves began and the traitor was never caught. Now, so many centuries later, the seals found their way back into their rightful places. But the hexes that lieth upon them would forever doom those that sought to protect it."
"It is said that the undead roameth the lifeless halls of Bendicia. And that the lands that formerly protected the seals were no more than twisted death traps now. Haunted by the malformed remains of their people."
Nephethys and I took a moment to let the information sink in. If the stories were right then we trod unhallowed grounds. Just as Shthelith finished his tale, the three of us entered another chamber.
A shipwreck of unknown make was visible to our left, sunken beneath the waves and pulled down into the caves by one of the impossibly big creatures that live in the sea above. A dead crew was still floating about in the subterranean waters. One of many human vessels, Shthelith explained, that tried to find the limits of the damned oceans and failed spectacularly. None of the brave mariners ever came back from their voyages. And the cove would forever be their grave and consume them.
We marched forward on the slippery floor, past queerly pulsating corals and eyed barnacles that had made the shipwreck their home. Weird, stone idols were carved into the wall to our right. I attempted to examine the carved art when I got interrupted by a most unscrupulous visitor with fins, scales, and a particular taste for the flesh of men.