The pillar had all but vanished into the ground. But before I could explore this newly accessible area I had to deal with the situation at hand first. A robed figure was approaching from some distance away. It clearly wasn't Nephethys. I was already getting my hopes up for Shthelith. To finally see a familiar face again. On top of this, because of my partly broken helmet I was able to speak and be heard so I could explain to him my misery. I waved at him and called out to him, for I truly believed to have happened upon my friend in a time of need. My excitement was dampened when I witnessed the robed figure rise up, supported by undulating columns of blood magic.
The figure stretched out its arms to either side and motioned towards me, calling forth rippling waves that shot through the corridor like oversized whips. I got thrown around the small chamber I was in by force of impact. However, the blood mage didn't expect that I was wearing hemerite armour. For the weapons they used against me nurtured the stone, enabling it to restore itself. To my dismay also the helmet. I was able to speak no longer but that was a small price to pay for escaping with my life. I dared not fight this enemy. For even if my armour couldn't be broken, my body underneath it could suffer damage from the might of kinetic forces. Given enough time, sooner or later I could die and I was not going to risk that.
After I got up from being whipped around and saw myself confronted with great, arrow-like projectiles that flew my way I resolved to make a run for it and headed down the stairs. I heard violent splashes from above on my descent but the mage did not come after me. At the base of the spiral staircase burned a single torch. It lit a narrow path towards a set of double doors twice my size. Chiselled from the rock found in these parts but fashioned in the likeness of traditional doors, with a metal handle each. I wondered what I would find behind this gate. And whether or not whatever I found was guarded by something I could handle. I grabbed the handles and pushed. A loud yawning echoed through the caves as the doors slid open. When I was able to squeeze through, and did, I saw a great altar of magnificent size.
Hidden so deep below the surface that the thought of a sky seemed almost comical, so deep, in fact, that I wasn't sure if I ever got to see the light of day again, there lay a giant shrine. And I realised that this was the place the Seal of Blood was hidden. Nobody bothered to position guards here because nobody thought that anyone would ever happen upon it. To get there, a most life threatening journey had to be overcome. In a way, the cove was its guardian. And I was the first to reach its prize.
The shrine consisted of a set of black stairs leading up to a stone table and altar. To either side there were pillars that supported the construction. And floating above the altar was a round, golden, metal object. It depicted a crude image of a heart and a drop. What magic held it in place I didn't know. The Seal of Blood was ready for the taking. Finally, after such a long time wandering aimlessly through the halls of death.
I reached out to it, laid my fingers around the smoothly polished edges. I felt some incredible resistance as I tried to take it. The spell that held it in place also didn't want to give it up all that easily. With superior strength provided to me by the hemerite I was finally able to get a hold of the seal. I absentmindedly stashed it away - where to? It was at this point at which the control over the armour deepened and I discovered that I could shape my body to an extent as to allow for the safe storage of items such as the seal. I should have taken the strong magic spell that kept the seal in place as a warning. For a few seconds later the earth was trembling and the giant structure threatened to crumble. I was in danger of getting buried alive all of a sudden. I turned and sped towards the staircase. After a mad dash up the stairs I found the path behind me blocked with rubble. A tomb for a probable thief, had I been any slower. This did not solve the problem altogether, for it seemed that a great number of the deepest tunnels depended on the stability that the spell gave them. The walls shook and dirt and stones came raining down on me as the rock shifted in place to find a way out of its chaotic state. With no magic to support the aeons old tunnels, everything was going to collapse. I had to act quickly.
Layers of rock upon rock broke apart by the lack of a force that held them together. Tunnels collapsed into other tunnels and the rubble soon swallowed a large space. However, having survived these first few moments, I was now able to climb the mound of loosened, black stone upwards. I got some altitude and reached the mound's top that connected to a hallway of sorts. There was no other way for me to go. Just then I thought of Shthelith and Nephethys and what might become of them. If they'll survive or not. But there wasn't a lot of time to think because a terrible reality suddenly became very clear to me. If the lower levels crumbled to nothing, so will everything else.
If the upper tunnel systems lost their support from the lower stratum, the entire cove will crash down and be drowned by the sea. I absolutely had to make sure I found a way out of there before the entirety of it collapsed. I didn't have much time left. And once again my thoughts rested solely on Nephethys and her safety. Can she make it back to the surface in time? A limping dark elf barely able to defend herself? Even if I get buried alive under debris and blood I might survive because of my superior protection. But she? My thoughts raced, the scenarios I envisioned grew more grim by the minute, all the possible ways in which she could meet her all too probable end flashed in front of my eyes.
A falling boulder pulled me out of my feverish daydreams. The great noise with which it brought down several levels of tunnels and earth, crushing a number of the ghastly flesh spheres under its weight, made me aware of my most immediate problems again. On the other hand, several collapsed passages led up to the upper levels and closer to the surface. I remember that we entered through a steep hole. There weren't any stairs or ladders out of the cove but if mountains of crumbled stone gave me a chance at escape I would gladly take it.
For the entire duration of my escape there was really no question as to where I should go. I followed the only path that was traversable and ran in the direction of those tunnels that were still open. The disaster that took place all around made most of the decisions. I only had to be quick enough not to fall behind lest I get crushed.
On my way out I passed by a few of the flesh orbs who tried to attack me. I made the conscious decision to avoid combat if at all possible and left them to their fate. Looking around, I even saw some of the merfolk again as they hurried in multiple directions, presumably in order to get away and swim into the sea. I saw many die on their way when the ceilings came down and yet another layer of stone fell.
My footing was unsure as well. Beneath my feet the ground shifted and was unstable. I always tried to be faster than the quaking earth I was still trapped in. I didn't even know where I was going.
But soon a ray of light emerged from above and it was clear that I must have been closer than ever to the surface. The surface! After an eternity underground I finally beheld the light of day once more. Even the leaden skies of this dimension of terror were welcome at this point. A touch of humanity in me was restored after this light nurtured my hope for survival and a future.
A future without Nephethys, however. I had not seen her during my escape. Since from my perspective this was the only path that had opened I didn't truly infer that other tunnels could have existed as well. So when the stone above me finally gave way and crumbled, and the crimson water of that ghastly, putrescent sea came rushing in, flooding the collapsed earth, I finally climbed up to the surface, saving myself narrowly by running and jumping towards a patch of dirt just past the border to a beach. I presumed Nephethys to be dead. I didn't know about Shthelith, but if that blood mage hadn't somehow evolved a way to fend off multiple tons of rock falling his way, he probably perished as well. And so I emerged from tragedy and disaster - all alone. But in possession of two of the three seals.
Behind me, the solid ground fell apart completely and the foul waters gained purchase, swallowing the beach of stone adjacent to the dirt I stood on whole. Nothing remained of the cove, it seemed. Looking toward the horizon also revealed that I found myself at the other end of the ocean. Far into the distance I saw a forest with trees carrying big fruit. I could only just make out the slope the three of us must have been sliding down. But instead of a stone beach home to a few, small buildings and religious monuments, there was nothing but the sea left. There was no turning back. If I intended to go anywhere near the Aímeri hamlet, Bendicia or the cave Nephethys and I emerged from so long ago, I had no choice but to traverse the inhospitable mountain region known to Shthelith as Hema's Peak.
When I looked up to the looming mountains, a sense of dread crept up my spine. For the first time since my arrival I was completely alone to face the harsh wilderness of the wastes of the Painted World. Yes, I may have gotten more experienced, was in possession of superior armour protection and advanced weapon capabilities. But I was alone. And I wasn't ready to handle this reality. Neither was I ready to handle my own reality, being deformed and molded beyond recognition, shaped into a grotesque beast with still no way to reverse the effect.
I was left alone with myself. Previously there was some support. But no-one witnessed my transformation, so even if I happened upon one of either two they'd probably try to put me down. And I asked myself: What have I become? Will I ever be human again?
If it hadn't been for the two seals I possessed I would probably have stopped trying to escape the place. But I've come that far, I needed to at least try and retrieve the last seal in order to recite the ancient word - a scroll that I luckily kept safe throughout our travels ever since we slew the Stained Glass Dæmon. Without it, escape was impossible. It was fate that I had been the one to keep the artifacts throughout our journey. I was the last surviving member of my group as fsr as I was concerned, and the sliver of hope those artifacts provided was enough to keep my despair at bay for just a while longer. At least until all hope would vanish.
There was the tiniest of chances that I might get to see my beloved Tamriel again. The magnificent Imperial City that is dwarfed by the monumentality of Bendicia, the Lake Rumare that is nothing compared to the crimson sea. There was no escaping it. So long as I was there, even my hopeful thoughts of home turned into despondent fears of never getting back. But I had to carry on, no matter the cost.
By myself, I set out to retrieve the Seal of Flesh, the very last seal that would enable me to enter the abandoned city and travel through a portal back to my dimension. I crossed the dry ground near a slope that slowly led up the jagged mountains. But of all regions I've hitherto seen, the mountains were the worst.
Some time ago, Shthelith had told us about the seals and about the fact that an offshoot of the Aímeri people inhabited the mountains. That particular breed of blood elves was tasked with the guarding of the Seal of Flesh, up on Hema's Peak. As opposed to the other two seals, I had an exact location of the last object I needed to acquire. The only trouble was getting to said object.
The lands were of terrible terrain, barely traversable, if at all, and infested with feral tribesmen of the degenerated Aímamer that lived there. They were supposed to keep safe the seal but over time their animal instincts got the best of them. But there was also a different threat roaming the mountains.
It was not too long upon my travels up the spiky slopes when the first crudely fashioned huts of the feral elves came into view. A lot of mistakes were made in regards to the civilisation I call the Feral Elves.
My helmet still wouldn't let me control it, but I nonetheless wanted to enter the strange huts in order to find a few people that hadn't turned into monsters yet. And since they were blood mages, maybe they knew a thing or two about my armour and how to control it. Maybe I didn't even have to explain myself to them. Who knows what horrors they've seen already. So I stepped in front of the door and knocked. It took a while for slouching footsteps to be heard approaching the door.
"Han'thkul ma'ahteh klat?", a voice from inside asked suspiciously. I didn't know what to tell him, so I resorted to saying "I'm a friend of Shthelith!".
"Shthelith m'nthkep! Silthgnd, ahtgthel. AAAAA!"
The feral elf behind the door screamed and cast it open with enough force to shatter parts of it. The madman attacked me on sight and a large hatchet came my way. I avoided this attack, focused on my left hand to mold it into a sharp blade and retaliate swiftly and without mercy. Now that I was alone I couldn't afford to half-heartedly defend myself. I struck to kill from that point forward.
The body of the tribesman was cut in half. Guts spilled out but the uncommonly resilient creature would proceed to crawl in my direction as it bled heavily. He dragged behind him parts of his organs that got severed and a broad stroke of blood was upon the earth where he went. With a well-placed stomp of my foot I ended him. His head crushed underneath my heel.
The residents of the other three little huts got roused by the death noises. Doors were flung wide open and bewildered Ferals looked on in consternation at the dead body. Five elves, 2 men and 3 women, readied their weapons and tools. Sickles, knives and stakes were held up as they advanced in my direction. Wearing naught but rags, their almost naked bodies were not prepared to deal with a hemerite dæmon such as myself.
I turned my right arm into a stake myself and managed to impale the first girl before she got too close. This small window of opportunity was enough for the rest of them to drive their metal tools deep into my flesh, past even the armour. I knew I was stronger than them but I didn't anticipate the superior craftsmanship with which their tools had been created.
I cried out in pain and fought back. A quick swipe with my left was enough to de decapitate the two men. Cleanly cut wounds oozed their blood onto the surviving two women who screamed in terror at my hideous deeds.
The younger of the two was furious. She conjured up some energy inside one of her palms and sent a force my way. I was sent flying and, had I been knocked back any further, I would have fallen off the edge of a cliff into the sea on the right hand side and into an untraversable mass of stone spikes to the left. She lost no time to go after me quickly and attempt to roll me down the slope to my doom. But instead, I grabbed her wrist, slightly squishing it with the intense strength that I still had trouble controlling, and threw her over my head into the death pit.
She didn't even get to scream before she was dead. About ten spikes protruded from her twitching body as she drew her last breath.
The last woman standing trembled with fear. She knew the end was upon her. On the razor sharp slopes of the mountain pass, there was no escape. The only way she could go was further up but her feeble escape attempt was stopped after just a few steps. I was faster, stronger. Hungrier.
My prey was quickly incapacitated. A cut into both ankles left her almost immobile. She tried to crawl away but I couldn't let that happen. I couldn't afford to leave any witnesses. I placed my armoured foot onto her back. The spine cracked and crunched after I put in more weight.
Then, all I can remember is myself clawing my way into her flesh and somehow consuming it. When my consciousness returned to me once more I saw desecrated bodies around me. I had no idea how this had come to pass but I was relieved of hunger and felt a rush of excitement flow through me. And yet, I asked myself: "Was this me? Did I do this?".
More and more I had the feeling that I began to lose the grip on things. As if the hemerite that had fused with my body somehow gained a degree of control over it.
Now I needed the strength and mental capacity to turn this parasitic relationship around. I was happy enough, however, that I held fast the way I did. But I've gained some understanding of the hemerite's inner workings. Apparently it was a living thing rather than just a material to work with. Whatever it was, I was bound to it. And so I needed to understand and respect it.
With this revelation I left the festering corpses behind and continued my ascent to what should become the ghastliest of threats thus far. For I did not know it then, but I would soon come face to face with a horror so pure, so unrelenting, I nearly lost the meager remains of my mind to it.