"Chdla! Ldil, md!". Those were the first words I heard the scaly monstrosity regurgitate after it had slithered towards us. I can't even begin to emphasise how hideous this foul creature from the depths truly was. A bastard of man, fish and eel amongst other, not Nirnic things now stood before me supported by its large and muscular tail. It wore no clothes so it permitted me to view each individual scale and fin that it possessed and ascertain its gender. The female hybrid held a spear of impressive length and probable sharpness in her hands which were themselves outfitted with talons and webbing betwixt the fingers. The rest of the body was covered in fins - the lower and upper arms, the back and tail as well as the sides. Even her noseless, predatory face sported fins on its cheeks.
Her face was particularly unsightly. Unblinking eyes of a sickly greenish yellow with no pupils stared in our direction. We had no way of telling whom she was staring at but my gut told me that I had been chosen as her first target. Her jaw unhinged in a threatening gesture and display of power as rows upon rows of flesh-rending fangs revealed themselves through her cruel grin when she presumably prepared for her next meal. The blue-grey skin stretched as her maw was agape with a thick, dripping tongue lusting for the sweet, irony taste of fresh meat that had only just been torn from a body whose heart was still beating. But make no mistake. She wasn't a mere animal, driven by unquenchable hunger like so many creatures before her. She was capable of profound thought and strategy. And that was what made her so dangerous.
She slithered along the cavernous walls and met our wonder with her oblong spear. I managed to deflect the blade with my arm but suffered some severe force that imbalanced my stance. On my knees, I watched Nephethys rush to my aid and assault the fish-woman just in time before her vile claws could reach out to me. Our adversary was surprisingly quick - an ill omen, considering that a large portion of their civilisation dwells below the water's surface. The creature expertly evaded Nephethys' strike but was unprepared for Shthelith and his blood magic. From the surrounding pools he drew his strength to summon a storm of hardened needles and rending waves. The scales of this mix breed monster held fast and swallowed the needles. However, the waves broke them and blue blood soaked the soil we stood upon.
Another elegant movement of his hand and Shthelith's spell transformed into a giant scythe's blade. His arms came down in a diagonal motion and the lower body, from the waist down, got separated from the torso. A clean cut that spilled even more blood, blue like the Lake Rumare around the Imperial City that I knew so well.
"Be careful not to consume the monster's blood for thine magicke!", Shthelith warned me, "it is pure poison to thee". Blood magic only truly works if you take up some of its essence within you. Over the years of warfrare against the blood elves, the merfolk evolved countermeasures that would allow their dead brethren to serve in battle far beyond their demise. Their spilled blood would poison the Aímeri forces and brought ruin to them. That's how the merfolk had won the war and drove back their enemies. Shthelith knew this however, and was able to avoid attracting the blue blood of the fish men. But it was all too easy to mistakenly take in some of it.
"Keep away from the merfolk, Thorus. Thy armour consumeth blood on touch. Let it consume not the blue blood of poison lest thou'rt in mortal danger", he then told me. I got advised to only engage these fiends with my dagger or sword as they weren't directly connected to my body and therefore posed no threat to my health.
Meanwhile, the ugly thing from the blood sea lay squirming on the ground, bleeding out swiftly. "Wgah'nagl fhtagn" she spat at us.
"They are capable of understanding and speaking our language but they choose not to", Shthelith casually explained. "What an arrogant species", Nephethys postulated. "Worse than the Altmer", I jokingly infixed and educed a smile from the beautiful dark elf. Just then the merwoman screamed "Ph'nglui mglw'nafh! Fhtagn!" before she drew her last breath through the gills on her neck and the eyes turned a pale, muddy white as her body collapsed and a pile of flesh and scales lay scattered on the cavernous floor.
Shthelith washed away the poisonous blood of the thing with another wave of his hand for safety reasons. Diluted in the ocean above us, their venom becomes ineffective and is dissolved.
"A possible strategy to battle them would be to surround oneself with ocean water then. Which means fighting them engulfed in their element is both beneficial as it is dangerous", I concluded and tried to find the optimal way of defeating these monsters. One was easy to kill in a group of three. On land. But submerged with possibly ten or twenty, the battle becomes lopsided.
While Nephethys and Shthelith would discuss probable battle strategies against this new threat, I examined the walls of the chamber we were in more thoroughly for I had been rudely interrupted before.
To my right there lay the corpse of the thing and above it the mural I meant to take a closer look at before. This wasn't your standard, old-age relief with crudely hewn shapes. It was art. Finely drawn strokes in the cave wall created a three-dimensional image of striking quality and beauty. They must have invented tools that cut stone like butter.
The engraving I studied shewed a battle scene wherein the merfolk slew a pointy-eared people, spilling their blood all over. The next relief then depicted the triumph over the elven invaders. A pile of aímeri bodies, atop which rested warriors of the fish-man-hybrids with their spears held up high. The third and last image looked like the beaches outside, with their small huts and quaint, religious structures strewn about.
"War, triumph, peace", Shthelith commented. "The masons of the merfolk engrav'd these images in their domain to celebrate their victory. Shthelith wond'reth if they might carve another. After we took the seal from them". His disdain for the reeking monsters was clearly noticeable. "I'm sure they will. Unless we kill them all", Nephethys piped as she looked at the murals. But we made sure that, in time, we'd be part of the history of the merfolk forever.
We had left the corpse and murals behind and traveled through a dense concatenation of small chambers lacking any salient features as well as aqueducts and tunnels, the latter of which more often than not too narrow to be traversed in full, upright posture. The naturally formed pathways were usually high enough so that the three of us could at the very least stand. But there were others that had clearly been dug or cut out of the solid rock by the merfolk to allow for a certain interconnectedness that made it easier for them to slither through the hollowed-out ground. These were much too narrow for humans or elves and forced us to crawl flat on our stomachs.
"What is this unbearable smell?", Nephethys exclaimed. "The fish men marketh their tunnels with specific, bodily fluids and combinations thereof. Others who passeth these ways are then able to discern their purpose through their skin.", the blood elf explained. Normally, the fish men don't communicate to each other by talking. They use body odour, gestures and countenance which was the reason why we didn't hear them writhe their way through the rocks. In case of the body odour, they could "taste" a smell with their skin by touching a surface. They do have a language with which they can speak but it is reserved for writing and understanding the written word.
However, after a while Shthelith noted that it was outright abnormally quiet. Even if the half-eels didn't talk much to their own we had ought to at least pick up on some noise.
The worst about these narrow tubes was the fact that, at any moment, one of those creatures could cross our path in the web of hewn rock. In these conditions it was impossible to defend ourselves so we always anticipated to be assaulted. But to our surprise, we saw not one of them.
A couple meters further we had to stop for a moment and catch our breath. The moist air felt horribly thick and depleted. The rotten stench made matters worse and so we had to pause for just a few seconds.
We sat there, in an oppressively constricting tunnel with barely any air to breathe and barely any light to see - in complete silence. A silence so perfect that disturbing it felt like blasphemy to me. The mere act of moving, heresy. The silence was loud after a while. Conflictingly, it was the loudest noise I ever heard. It droned in my ears as it kept getting faster and faster. My heart pounding, my skin perspiring some oily substance underneath the armoured layers. The tunnel stretched to infinite lengths and pulled the three of us further apart. Then a noise broke the spell and delivered me back to reality. The sound of running water.
Upon waking from this terrible daydream my head burned with pain from the inside. Shthelith and Nephethys both looked as harrowed as I felt but we had no choice other than to keep going, to some time reach a less narrow chamber wherein we could breathe and rest. Soon we discovered that the sound of water we had heard must have been relatively nearby as our bodies began to get wet and the smell of the crimson sea crept alongside us, racing us to the nearest exit. We hastened from opening to opening but the water kept rising, pouring in from every orifice of what I had by that time already assumed to be some living organism intent on digesting us alive.
Notwithstanding my armour's innate ability to soak up and consume blood, the water level rose regardless. Even hemerite had its limits and couldn't drink an entire ocean. We then crawled through ever more liquid until swimming became easier than crawling. We swam until diving became a necessity. Shthelith, as a very proficient hæmomancer, didn't really have a problem with the situation. He created an air bubble around his head that was big enough to support Nephethys' as well. I, on the other hand, had been left behind somewhat by the increased weight of my hemerite armour.
I saw the two of them drift away as I was completely submerged in the foul-smelling crimson water. It burned in my eyes, blinding me for the time being. I held my breath all the way to the outermost breaking point. I felt the sensation of approaching doom as my mouth and nose longed for air that I couldn't give them. Unable to contain the impulse any longer, I took the first of my fatal breaths beneath the dragging waves. An urge to cough, vomit and let more of the fluid in at the same time. Severe chest pain hit while my body got even heavier from the lungs that would fill themselves up. Nervously convulsing muscles, uncontrollable spasms as a vain effort of my body to get the water out of its system.
Quivering hands and feet, my heart not beating but merely shaking in place. And suddenly the unique condition of hememia took its course. Throughout my blood vessels there occurred strong pains followed by an even more painful release and I could only guess at all the holes it punched in my flesh. I tried to scream but inhaling only meant more agony. Tears tried to form but were suppressed. I didn't even feel half the collisions my body made with the cave walls during my episode within the smothering darkness.
All this terror played out in less than two minutes. Describing it takes me right back. My throat immediately swells with the crippling sensation of drowning in what was mostly blood. Excuse if my handwriting becomes a little less legible at this point but reliving the experience isn't particularly easy.
As I drifted along, suffering the Divines know how many broken bones, my consciousness was getting closer to failing me. A desire to close my eyes and an overwhelming tiredness commanded my body to enjoy the peace and painless stillness of death. The delirium became the only thing my brain was capable of constituting. Vivid hallucinations of my innermost fears became solid, prehensile figures that stretched out their vile claws in the darkness. I call them the shadow men. And they have visited me a few times during my life already. But this time, the shadow men approached with murderous intent. Their callous, ethereal hands tried to smother me in my feverish coma as the water filled up even the tiniest nooks in my body. And when the abyss reached out from below to drag my soul into the void an unexpected surge of agony set me ablaze with purgatorial anguish.
Through the bloody baptism, I was reborn.
I cannot imagine a greater pain, both physically and mentally, than the pain that I've endured during this harrowing episode in the dank, flooded canals of the cove. A pain so thorough, so meticulous in touching even the remotest regions of one's fleshspace, that every fibre that exists within the body aches white hot like a smouldering iron on exposed skin. So purging and overarchingly cleansing that nothing remains where this fire once flared. Nothing but the realisation that there is nothing, neither in this world nor in another, that could even compare to the kathartic torture that it caused. It was in this moment of involuntary metamorphosis wherein I achieved my own apotheosis. I was no mere man in armour any longer.
The first thing I noticed was the hemerite plating that forcibly merged with my skin, my flesh and my bones. Pieces of it broke free and moved around my whole body in ever thinner layers and reconstructed themselves around my internal organs until I was saturated with this material that had turned from a rigid stone substance to a much more flexible thing that could writhe inside me and attach itself to anything and everything. It grew like a plant and would soon cover my entire body, even my head. It grew some form of helmet around it. After this was done, it made everything exit my body as quickly as it could.
Water, mucus, food, stomach acid, urine, excrement - everything besides my and its blood got expelled through every orifice and pore with incredible pressure and thrown into the waters around me. And just like that, I could breathe under my new helmet.
My first impulse was breathing in as much air as I could and scream the wildest, loudest, most deranged howl that ever exited my throat. I almost went insane during that process. Had I not been in that land for such an extended period of time and witnessed so many things I could barely comprehend I might have gone mad. Thankfully however, I retained my mind in a working state. Not ideal, but it kept me from going crazy. It still does.
While I screamed, my injuries that I've sustained healed themselves. Broken bones were mended, torn tissue was repaired and reinforced. More and more did I get the impression that I was being sewn to the armour, that it and I were becoming unified.
After a while I felt myself again. The pain began to ebb and even my conscious thought returned. And so I drifted, getting carried away by the rushing waters.
I can't exactly tell where I woke up. The chamber was dark, moist and cold. Things dripped from the ceiling. I still had trouble to fully understand what transformation had just taken place. I only knew that I lay there in full armour. Yet, it felt less like that and more like an extension of my own skin at that point. It kept me warm and protected inside its hull.
The good news were that I could finally stand upright again. The cavern was big enough to support a grown, male Imperial. Albeit I was Imperial no longer. I became something else. A dæmon beyond redemption cast in crimson. I couldn't even tell what I looked like for I had no mirroring surface nearby. I was afraid to look.
To relinquish these thoughts I concentrated on moving forward. The room that I woke up in possessed only one exit so I didn't have many choices on where to go. But that also told me that I had been carried by the stream through that opening. Who knows how far?
Immediately, Nephethys and Shthelith came to mind. They were able to save themselves and probably emerged someplace else. But where? And where was I in relation to them? And where did all the water go? In a quest for answers, I set off to explore the caves on my own. It turned out that the narrow tunnels we had to crawl through were not always straight. To get out of the chamber I had to climb my way up into unknown heights. How deep was I?
A fleeting fear of depths passed by, went as quickly as it came. My new armour made the smothering sensation of having rock envelop the body more bearable and injury-free. In fact, I found that climbing had become much easier as a certain fleet-footedness became apparent. Whatever the hemerite had done to my body had strengthened it.
I climbed the steep tunnel upwards to get to higher ground. Upwards is always good, for even if one stays underground longer it at least doesn't go further down. It was a while before I reached the next, bigger chamber that allowed me to stand again. And therein I saw the reason for the ubiquitous quietude.
The circular room was quite large, with some sort of round well in the middle embedded in the floor and a set of stairs at the far end that led to a rock layer above my head. Said layer protruded from the wall about two meters to allow persons to traverse it. Above the small well in the middle hung a cage, suspended on thick chains, from the ceiling.
And all of it was covered in corpses.
Left, right, in front, above and below there lay the dead merfolk in their own pools of poisonous, blue blood. For some odd reason was the vista of blue, torn flesh more sickening than the bright red Nirnic folk had - probably because I've gotten used to seeing that sight already. I took a few steps forward and battled my way through the moist cloud of fetidness that hung in the air from the resident humidity and present rot of the bodies.
To my left I espied a doorway that led to another chamber and not a tunnel. The relief was very brief though, for my ears picked up on a queer murmur that came from that opening. Very hushed at first but its increasing volume told me that something was on its way. I hid myself behind a wall and waited for the visitor to arrive.
I had previously been dependant on Shthelith's overall knowledge of the land to explain to me each horror we came across in just enough detail as to suffice for us to effectively engage it in combat - or avoid whatever threat crossed our path entirely. Only in that moment did I realise how much I depended on Shthelith and his wisdom. Because when it floated through the entrance, I instinctively turned around to face the blood elf to extract some information, some useful tidbit, anything out of him. Alas, I was alone and had to face this horror on my own.
A blue, fleshy sphere with tentacles hanging from its underside and three eyes in front, pulsating, writhing and groaning, flew gently by and examined its surroundings. It appeared to be skinless and its noises were maddening. Listening to its moans and partly suppressed cries was unbearable to me. I still hear it when I remember. I hear it in my dreams, too. Sometimes, the shadow men adopt an aspect of these horrid nightmares and just stand there to scream at me from the darkness. Sometimes, they rise screaming from the burning house, pointing their black fingers at me with zealous accusations of murder and arson.
Fortunately, none had intruded during that moment and my hallucinatory episode had ended with my transformation so that my mind could focus on the spherical thing before me.
I had no knowledge about that creature, no semblance of how it would behave and what it would do should it sense my presence. On top of that I had no idea what I was capable of as well. So I was forced to think for myself. To examine the crime scene. A skill I almost forgot I had.
The amount of corpses suggested a massacre took place in the room. The lack of any marks on the floor ruled out that some of the bodies were moved post mortem. The lack of footprints suggests that either, one of their own murdered all of them (for they had no feet) or that it was any other entity lacking feet. The dense concentration of bodies coupled with the myriads of bodily injuries also refutes some natural disaster. Closer examination shewed strange impact wounds on the bodies. Not unlike those caused by the Cloudbreaker, but smaller. Either way, all evidence pointed towards that flying, polypous thing being the perpetrator. If not for immediately obvious reasons, then for the fact that it remained amongst so many dead. My conclusion: This thing was dangerous and I'd do best avoiding any confrontation.
I hunkered down behind some stone outcroppings and waited for it to go away so that I could move freely. I still retained no sense of my position, especially in altitude, so I needed a clear path and all the strength I had left if I intended to get out of these caves alive. I didn't feel particularly fatigued at the time but I was convinced that I would drift off to days of sleep if given the chance. I could not possibly go on much longer.
In time it flew elsewhere and I waited one more agonising minute until I was sure it was truly gone before I set off. I snuck around the corner and followed its trail of blue blood. I wondered, then, if that thing was in any way biologically related to the merfolk for they seemed to sport a few similarities.
It floated slowly along narrow passages that still allowed me to stand. It was rather dark everywhere so I had to watch my head if I didn't want a stalactite to crash into it. Silently I snuck behind it. With some distance, of course. It never noticed me and I am sure now that I probably could have killed it but somehow, I didn't want to take that risk. On the other hand, there was no diverging path in the anthracite rock that I could take to not be in its vicinity any longer so killing the flesh sphere would have probably been the better call.
I was following it because there was no other choice at first. But I soon witnessed other openings into the chaotic tunnel network that would have led me to a different place. But I began to get curious about where the whining, howling thing was headed. Just then, a mumbling appeared off in the distance and the little meat orb and me were going down that path. A few winding tunnels later and we disembogued into a great, subterranean hall that had multiple exits, one on each wall, four if one included the hole we came from.
The thing floated off to the left without noticing I was there. The noises got louder and my gut told me that I made a wrong decision somewhere down the line.
It hovered through a doorway and I almost followed but managed to stop myself just in time. For the chamber beyond was densely populated with the floating, spherical flesh sacks - in blue and red.