The campfire crackled softly and bestowed warmth upon him who chose to sit by its side. He had lit it moments afore. The winds were cold so close to Bruma and the nights have been getting longer since the Cursewood had appeared. A small tent with a thin roll of straw, bits of fur and some salvaged armour parts were the only thing that kept him company throughout his travels. Looking to survive and not suffer yet another death at the hands of a lost soul roaming the land.
After he had sat down something felt distinctly wrong about everything. He was at first unable to figure out what it was so he thought long and hard about the answer to this seemingly impossible question. He asked himself all the relevant questions he could ask. "Where am I? My camp near Bruma." But the feeling persisted. "Why am I here? Because my previous encampment in Moranda down the orange road was destroyed by a horde of undead." But it still wasn't enough. "How did I get here? I fled battle and went further up north on the orange road. What do I have left for food? A few meat chunks and some vegetables. Where am I headed? Bruma. Why? To see if anyone is still alive or at least sane. I… wait. What… what's my name?" And then it clicked.
"Who am I? What were I called again? I… I am… I am…" and just as the memory threatened to slip, he pronounced: "Valt." That is what he had been called last. His last name, however, had long faded to obscurity.
Valt slowly calmed himself after the growing panic had taken some hold but was ultimately vanquished by his memory. His troubled breathing soothed and the warm fire provided some further abatement from the worries. Holding his hands against the fire calmed him in a way. It helped him focus his mind more clearly and recover from a long and strenuous day. Valt let out a deep sigh. He was relieved that he hadn't yet forgotten who he was but the sigh was all the more directed at a looming shadow on the horizon. The great Cursewood that stood in the center of the Imperial City. Greater in size than even the White Gold Tower was that it had replaced when it appeared from deep beneath the soil. Ever since, Valt did his best to avoid getting too close to the city's county. Taking long detours to travel from place to place. It did cost him time and resources but if the worst came to pass, he had all the time in the world.
No moon was visible through the overcast sky that night. When it was time to sleep, Valt extinguished the fire and swaddled himself up in that bedroll. Sleeping in armour was a little unwieldy and he was locked in place for most of the night. But undressing meant running major risks he wasn't willing to take. His consciousness drifted away and the world blackened. He woke up from a harsh wind blowing away his tent the next morning. He got up fast enough to prevent any major damage to the bedroll but there was no retrieving the tent. It was already too far gone down the road. It would probably surprise and trap one of the lost or some undead, doing Valt one last service before being torn to shreds.
The surrounding cold was nothing to be too afraid of. It was uncomfortable at worst and not deadly, provided he didn't go running around the mountains naked. Not that he had a lot of strength for running senselessly up steep slopes, anyway. But the air was just freezing enough to cause him to inadvertently cover himself with his arms. He crept forward, up the road until the smouldering walls of the town came into view. "Ahh…". He let out a knowing, expectant but ultimately crushed breath. "Not you too", he thought. Gentle clouds of smoke rose into the air. Too small to be seen from a larger distance but unmistakable from up close. The remnants of what had been reduced to cold ash, he presumed. His hand clenched around the hilt of his sword as he approached the gates.
The roughed up iron of his gauntlets touched the wood and Valt gave the large doors a push. They crumbled open in response. The heap of half-rotten wood took some energy out of him to climb over but sure enough, he found himself in the center of the town with only a few souls around. In the corners of some dilapidated buildings he espied a couple of crouching figures that were beyond saving. Out of the corner of his eye, Valt noticed movement. He turned left to see a very famished looking person stumble towards him with a broken sword, wailing incomprehensible gibberish as he wildly swung the dull blade in Valt's direction. Valt guarded the strikes with his own sword that he had just drawn but found himself being taken off balance by the sheer ferocity of the attack. One. Then two. A few well placed slashes sufficed to put the aggressor down. Valt watched the corpse slowly dissolve into dust but he knew that Bruma hadn't seen the last of that one.
"Scupius came back one too many times", a disembodied voice scraped from behind. "Has given us few survivors trouble ever since. Someone has to take care of him every few days when he manages to break his confinement. But it's only worsening the condition". Valt turned toward the voice. "You haven't had any recent memory losses, have you?" the man in the brown leather coat and hat asked suspiciously. "No Gerbrandt, I haven't. But thanks for your concern".
"How is your sister doing? Has she come back from Chorrol yet?", Gerbrandt asked. Valt was suddenly rooted to the spot. "No, she didn't", he replied. After all, Valt would have known if a woman had come by, wouldn't he? He involuntarily felt for his bedroll as he thought this.
"Curious. She's been gone for days now. You might just have to go look for her. Well, at least you know she didn't just get killed, heh heh", Gerbrandt remarked with a smirk.
As far as Valt could remember, his last visit to Bruma had been about two weeks and a half ago. He did remember someone else that he knew who stayed at Bruma and inferred that to be his sister. But he had a hard time picturing her. Something was clouding his thoughts.
"You're probably right", Valt then said. And in his mind he believed traveling to Chorrol would be a good idea. Being on the road meant not running into lost souls in the city streets. And that meant safety. He would have to enter the city in the end but travel was always good. However, Valt chose to stay in Bruma for the time being. He needed to stock up on supplies and was short one tent that needed replacing.
"Are Lera and Arnulf still alright? I am in need of a few items". Valt hoped he said the correct names in the right context as he said this.
"Yes, they've been holding on quite well, given their circumstances. You can find them up the stairs and off to the left in the first two shacks."
Valt nodded in acknowledgement and headed Lera's way first. From the outside, the house was relatively intact. A few minor holes here and there and only a single broken window cut the facade short of being somewhat nice looking. The door handle didn't break off as Valt pushed it down and entered the house.
A strong, leathery scent playfully wrought itself inside his nostrils upon entry. Following Valt's ingress was a female voice whose owner had picked up on the noise he made.
"Who's there?", she asked. "I'm not asking twice".
"It's me, Valt! Remember me?"
"Of course I remember you. I'm still human after all. Come in."
As Valt stepped towards the counter, Lera's face paled and her eyes grew wide. "By the White Gold Tower, Valt! What happened to you?"
It was at that moment that he took off his gauntlets for the first time in… days? Weeks? His skin was a pale blue-purple hue and strongly wrinkled at the joints. Rather thin limbs quivered for a moment. When did he die the last time? He tried to remember for a few seconds but Lera cut him off.
"Valt? Valt! Are you listening? Take the gem already, I can't see you like this."
She handed him a black soul gem, vibrating with the energy of someone else's life force, captured in pristine condition.
Valt laid his fragile fingers around the stone. A dark radiance engulfed his hands and flowed into him. And from within, flesh and skin began to surface and regenerate. A moment later, Valt looked human again, his mind focused and clear from the haze of undeath. He suddenly remembered many things his undead self had trouble recalling. Melfia, his sister. There she was in his mind, clear as day! He joyously reminisced about their travels together. About the trip to Chorrol. And then he stopped breathing to quench the tears that threatened to escape his eyes. For he now also remembered his most recent trip to Chorrol. And how his undead sibling had murdered him in cold blood. The next thing he remembered was sitting by the campfire. He also remembered some parts of Melfia's old armour that he had salvaged along the way as he picked them off the road.
Disheartened, Valt stared into the nothingness for a while. Lera was already used to reactions such as these.
"Valt?", she said softly to his ear.
"It's alright again. I just…", he replied. "Remembered something important, haven't you?".
"Yes. Yes, I have. I need a tent please. Four big sticks, a long rope and some leather also do the trick if you're out of actual tents. Mine made off with the wind this morning."
Lera turned around and looked at her stock. Regrettably, neither tents nor sticks were around. "Hold on", she said as she shuffled into the backroom of the house. The noise of wood clashing with wood and something rather thin being flung through the air emanated from the empty door frame that Valt had witnessed the merchant disappear into. Lera returned, under her arm a newly fashioned tent. It didn't look too luxurious but it would do.
"That's 20 shards, then", she finally said with a smile. Valt reached for his backpack and bedroll he carried and dislodged 20 shards and some change from a pocket.
"I've never seen you pay anyone with these", Valt remarked as he handed over the payment. "What do you even do with them?".
"I'm figuring out a way to create whole soul gems from them again. It's like brewing very potent potions using old world currency back in the day", Lera said and stashed the crystalline fragments into her hip pouch for later use. "Not that many alchemists back then knew the art", she added and looked very content upon the finished business.
Valt gave her an approving nod and saw himself out. Once again bracing the cold of Bruma that was now far more aggressive that Valt had attained his humanity once more. His face turned red quickly and the feeling vanished from his fingers as he hurried inside the next house on his list. The scent of dried meat and stale vegetables hung in the air. It was a dense atmosphere of admittedly rather old foods, but they were, in all likelihood, still good to eat. Valt examined the room and found it to be stocked with varieties of meat and overdue produce. He preferred to shop for leafy greens, blueberries or fruits. If meat it had to be, he avoided the longer meat strings and instead chose the smaller chunks. He felt better eating those.
Valt waited fir a few minutes before calling the shopkeeper's name. "Arnulf! I'm here to make a purchase! Arnulf?", he called and, sure enough, slow steps approached from deeper inside the house.
Now that he thought of it, Arnulf's interior did look particularly untidy. Contents of shelves were in utter disarray, not to mention the apparent staleness of the produce. Times were hard, he thought.
From the back, a figure appeared, slightly hunched over with crooked gait. To his despair, Arnulf lifted his head and Valt stared into the black eyes of a rotting man who he used to be on good terms with. An ominous wail told Valt and the rest of the town everything they needed to know. Arnulf was beyond saving. So Valt drew his blade once more from its sheath and struck down the once gentle, old man with ease before he, too, dissolved into dust.
"I wonder where you will wake up?", Valt mused. Once again in quiet lament, he paced around the now unowned shop and stuffed as many provisions into his bag as he could carry. He irredeemably pillaged the counter for soul gem shards and made off, hoping that none of the townsfolk would stop him.
His last destination for the day was the local inn. Its name that was once presumably presented on a sign hanging above its entrance had faded. The imprints on the wood long since eroded. The door was still in reasonable condition and held off the cold from the harsh weather. Valt quickly made his way inside. "I haven't been human in Bruma for a long time", he reminisced. Once the door behind him fell into its lock, he sought a table near the lit hearth, warming himself. The innkeeper, an undead woman they only called Kegs, for she had forgotten her true name some time ago, was busy drying a mug when Valt sat down. Valt tried to avoid her empty, black stare to the best of his ability. He knew that he was no different at times but being in the presence of undeath still unsettled him after all this time.
The aged, withering features of the woman frightened him deeply. Even if she was quite the affable character. Valt always feared that one day, she may lash out at him senselessly. Like an animal. He breathed deeply as he thought of the many lost souls he had encountered along his own journeys to and fro.
All the people who used to be someone long, long ago. Who used to have family and lives that they lived. Worst were the children. The more recent the turning had been, the more frightened they usually were. They could not understand what terrible affliction had gotten a hold of them. Or why the ancient legends of the realms of the gods - if there existed such a thing - were utter lies. Or why their mothers and fathers turned into beasts after a substantial period of alienation. Every lost soul of inferior height weighed heavily upon his very own.
"Hey, I remember you", Kegs broke Valt's chain of thought. "You're Wood, aren't you? What can I do for you?"
"Valt. I need a warm room. And maybe some beverage if you've any left", he answered her coarsely grinding voice.
"Yes, indeed. There's some beer left in the back. Oh and the key to the intact chamber is 50 shards. Some extra for the work I put in to keep it the way it is." Kegs grinned.
Valt didn't hesitate and produced 70 gem fragments from one of his pouches. "May they imbue you with peace", he said as he gave the shards to Kegs. The pointy-eared woman thanked him by setting down a filled stein and a rusted key on his table moments later. The beer was a bit dull in taste but otherwise fulfilled its intoxicating purpose. His shards were too precious a resource to use for such lowly demands. He drank up and wasted no time in getting to his room.
It was impossible to miss because every other door was littered with cracks and holes through which blew ill winds. The broken floorboards at last led him to his eventual resting place. He would make the trip to Chorrol regardless. Valt's resolve was strong and his will was to discover what became of Melfia, maybe make some efforts to try and save her soul before she was too lost to retrieve. His room, therefore, was used as a place to reorganise himself, oversee his possessions, count his items and tend to his weapons and armour. And, ultimately, to sleep in a bed that wasn't as uncomfortable as sleeping under a tent on the road.
Valt entered his room and immediately put aside his armour. With this weight finally lifted off his shoulders he could think even more clearly. He would go on to plan an at least semi-safe route to Chorrol and its county, factoring in some potential detours if some of the old lost hotspots became active again - there was no need to run unnecessary risks. He would review what food he had and how long he could stave off the hunger to survive long enough to even reach his destination in the first place. Again, factoring in all the potential detours. Lastly, he would light the fire and let the warmth fill the room before he made himself comfortable in the bed that was his for the entirety of this day and about half of the next. He chose to sleep a restful sleep now and resolved to plan the remainder of his oncoming venture for the morning of the next day.
He imagined a world free of the affliction that plagued him so before he fell asleep.