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Chapter 1

The air in the Morgendorffer house had grown stifling.

Maybe it was the rising heat of late spring, made humid by vapors from the Odai River and the swamps of the Bitter Coast. Maybe it was mom's sullen disappointment as she dwelled on her eldest daughter's latest networking failure. Maybe it was just the inevitable result of four people crammed into a single home.

Regardless of the reason, Daria craved any opportunity to escape, even if it meant another dreary day at Drenlyn Academy.

She took her time ambling down the sour-smelling riverside markets that resounded with the sharp cracks of food vendors breaking open the shells of cooked scribs. Her booted feet tramped through shallow puddles and circumnavigated the deeper ones as the yellow sun shone rich and bright in skies cleared by last night's rain.

At least she was out. Things hadn't gone well since her episode with the Mages Guild. Part of her was wondering if they'd ever go well again.

Daria reached the Drenlyn grounds before most. A few early risers swapped gossip in the shadow of the courtyard's big emperor parasol. Deciding that chatting with average Drenlyn students was an ordeal she just didn't need, Daria made a beeline for the library. Nothing repelled the popular crowd quite like books.

Safely ensconced within the library's dusty interior, Daria walked over to the far shelf, wondering if she wanted to tackle something new or lose herself in the familiar. She raised her right hand, fingers hovering over the spine of Feyfolken.

"Hey."

The feminine Dunmer voice made her think of Synda, and Daria jumped back in panic. Then she realized it was Jane, who stood in a nook between the bookshelf and the wall. Daria exhaled and adjusted her glasses.

"Just out of curiosity, is there a reason you're trying to scare me to death?" she asked as her pounding heart settled back into a normal beat.

"Well I almost got scared to death this morning so I thought I'd share the experience," Jane said.

"Your generosity is a beacon to us all." Daria noted the tightness in her friend's voice. Hard to see in the room's thick shadows, but something in Jane's stance made her look ready to bolt. "What happened?"

"Oh, the usual Labor Town shenanigans," she said, finishing with a little sigh. "It's not that big of a deal really—not like I actually got hurt. So yeah, I was on my merry way here when a huge barrel—" she spread her hands wide, "—fell from a second story balcony and landed where I'd been walking a second earlier. I felt the air whoosh by."

Daria's heart froze for a moment, her mind reeling at the news. Morrowind without Jane...

Daria gulped, not letting her consternation show. Good old Imperial stiff upper lip.

"What was in the barrel?" she asked, not sure what to say.

Jane blinked a few times. "Uh, cheap booze since you're so curious. Meaning it was heavy. If I'd been just one second slower that thing would have hit me square on the head." Her lips attempted a smile. "And I'd be about as smart as Briltasi."

"You'd be smarter than her even with a serious head wound."

"And a lot deader." Jane leaned back against the wall.

"For what it's worth, I am glad you're still among the living. Even if that means you have to deal with the annoyances that brings."

Daria waited, sensing that Jane was searching for a witty comeback. She wanted to hear that inexhaustible Jane confidence, one that took the worst society threw at her and turned it back on them with style and aplomb.

But Jane stayed silent for a long time. "Yeah, me too. Puts things into perspective. Like maybe someone was finally watching out for me."

"How do you mean?"

"I mean that maybe all those temple visits finally paid off."

Jane rarely mentioned her religion. It wasn't as if she was shy about poking fun at the Tribunal Temple's corruption and pompousness. But at the core of it all, she still believed.

Daria still didn't know why Jane believed something so ridiculous. Three gods that were once mortals? If those gods were real, why was Morrowind under the Empire's rule? Shouldn't living god-kings be enough to ensure Morrowind's independence? Every Imperial knew that the gods of Morrowind were nothing more than Dunmer priests in layers of makeup and weighed down by tawdry jewelry, reciting absurd aphorisms to the adoring masses.

Jane should know that.

But Daria knew better than to press her luck on this issue.

"Uh, good?"

"Maybe I'm just telling that to make myself feel better. I should get to Mistress Defoe's. Talk to you later?"

"Sure."

Jane righted herself and walked out of the library, leaving Daria with the dusty tomes.

*********

Jane's confidence returned by the end of the day. Daria walked home (as slowly as possible) confident that life had gone back to its normal state of tolerable disappointment. She spent the evening in forced socialization with the rest of the family, her fingers struggling to pluck the notes of old Colovian songs from the out-of-tune family lyre as dad bellowed out the words.

She kept hoping that the guards would shut them down for disturbing the peace, but no such luck.

She and Jane met at the Lucky Lockup after school the next day where they shared scrib jerky and mazte.

"No other close calls?" Daria asked, before lifting her clay cup and taking a swig.

"Not beyond listening to my brother trying to play sea shanties," Jane said, with a shrug. "But I did decide on something."

"Would that something be earplugs?"

"No, though those might be handy. Do you know about the Pilgrimages of the Seven Graces?"

"I read about it. That's where Dunmer pilgrims visit seven Tribunal shrines to pay their respects, right?"

"Should've guessed you'd know. Anyway, I think it's time for me to go on a pilgrimage."

Daria straightened up in her chair. Jane had said it totally casually but Daria recognized the certainty in her friend's voice.

"Uh, okay. You're doing the whole thing?" Daria tried to remember the details. The shrines were scattered across Vvardenfell. It'd take weeks to visit them all. "How would you manage that with all your commissions?"

Jane held up a hand. "I'm too poor and foreign to do the whole thing. No, for me it'll be the Pilgrimage of One Close-by and Relatively Convenient Grace. But that's better than nothing."

Daria relaxed a bit, though she still took another drink. The last thing she wanted was to be without Jane for a month or more. "I guess that's pretty reasonable."

"Yeah, reasonable," Jane said, her gaze going from Daria to the worn surface of the corkbulb-wood table. "A good pious Dunmer would just say to hell with their livelihood and visit all seven shrines. Religion's a pretty big deal here. That's the nice thing about being a dirty outlander. The locals don't expect as much from you."

Easy for you to say, Daria thought. Mom still hadn't given up on the idea of Daria joining some guild or company.

Jane kept her eyes the table, looking vaguely defeated. Then she raised her head and smiled. "Lucky for me, Trent's heading over to Pelagiad in a few days. There's a fair there he wants to play at. He's been there before, and he said there's a little boat that takes pilgrims up to the Shrine of Humility. Figure I'll tag along with him and then strike out to pay my humble respects."

Daria frowned. "On your own?"

"Should be safe enough. The shrine's in the Ascadian Isles. Not much there except green hills and wide roads."

"And the slave labor that Great House Hlaalu doesn't like to admit having. How long will this trip take?"

"About a week."

A week. An entire week when Daria would have no means of escape other than the academy—and plenty of the days ahead were scheduled to be spent helping in mom's home office, slowly roasting under her judgmental gaze and voice.

Jane smiled. "Aw, Daria, are you that worried about me?"

"I'm worried about myself. Things aren't great at home right now."

"No reason you couldn't join us." Jane grinned. "Ooh, you'd get to spend some time with Trent!"

Daria blushed. "Uh, well, if I do go it'd mostly be to escape."

"Right. Escape into my brother's arms."

"Escape out of my damn house!" Daria shook her head. "It's a moot point, anyway. My parents would never approve something like that."

"Maybe you could tell your mom that you're trying to learn more about Dunmer culture. She's always trying to get you to be more involved, right?"

"To her, more involved means sucking up to some parasitic guild so that I can contribute to the Morgendorffer coffers and maybe net her a few more clients." Daria leaned back in her chair. "In other words, I'd much rather travel you with you—"

"And Trent!"

"—then be stuck here."

"You just have to talk your mom into it. Maybe you inherited her lawyerly talent for debate!"

Daria sighed. "Even if I did, she still has formal training. The only experience I have comes from arguing with Quinn. But my sanity's on the line if I have to stay here much longer, so I'll give it a shot."

"Hey, at least if go insane you won't have to attend Drenlyn anymore."

"Tempting, but I'd rather deal with annoying instructors than be moved to some dark cell."

A joke, but it didn't really feel like one. Daria needed to get out.

Chapter 2

Daria returned home to find mom pacing in her office and clutching a stack of parchments.

"Honestly! Why is it so hard for my clients to understand that bribery is against Imperial law?"

"Because so many of the Empire's best and brightest still accept bribery?" Daria said, as she walked past. She noted that the votive candles at the household shrine to Julianos, Imperial god of law and reasoning and everything else in mom's career, had gone out.

"Yes, but you'd think the Empire's officials would at least encourage a certain level of subtlety for such things. Civilized people bribe each other with investment opportunities, not bags of coins!"

"Uh, did you know that the candles went out?" Daria asked.

Helen looked up from the papers. "Oh, for goodness' sake! Daria, would you re-light them? I'll say a prayer later but I really need to get through this paperwork."

Sitting down at her desk, mom grabbed a quill from the inkwell and began writing.

"Truly an impressive example of Imperial piety," Daria said, as she took the tinder set from the altar. Flames soon crowned the green wax candles.

Daria had been raised to believe in the Empire's Nine Divines, and how for all the Empire's statecraft and military might its true strength rested on the simple faith of its innumerable farmers, tradesmen, and soldiers. She'd read a few atheistic tracts during a rebellious period but now accepted that gods of some kind had to exist, and that even if they didn't, rejecting them didn't make much sense from the perspective of her personal risk-reward ratio.

Most Imperials treated the Divines like a holy favor service. Given that the Empire thrived (or had at least treaded water for the past few decades), Daria supposed that meant the Nine Divines were okay with that. Mom always got worshipful before a big case but was otherwise all business. Julianos might be the source of law and wisdom but Helen Morgendorffer had done all the work of putting that into practice.

Dinner turned out to be scrib pie that dad had bought on the way home. Daria ate in silence while she built up her nerve, anticipating her parents' objections. She imagined their reactions and came up with imagined responses to those reactions, her mind spinning off dozens of branching conversations between bites.

Finally, she decided just to go for it. She put her tin fork down on the plate, a steaming insect chunk still skewered on the tines.

"Jane's going on a trip to Pelagiad with her brother. She asked me if I could join them."

Her parents and sister all looked up from their plates.

"Pelagiad's a few days from here," mom said. "Why is Jane going?"

"Trent's a musician and he's going to play at some kind of trade fair over there."

Quinn rolled her eyes. "Daria, you're not supposed to date bards who play at fairs! You date the ones who play for noble families. Not," she added, as mom and dad briefly turned their attentions to her, "that I know anything about dating bards. But it's just common sense!"

"I'm not dating him!" Daria protested, hoping that the blush creeping into her cheeks wasn't too obvious. "The only reason I'm going is to keep Jane company."

"But why's Jane going?" mom asked.

For a moment, Daria thought about lying and saying Jane had a commission in Pelagiad. Yet she saw all of the world's hypocrisy in her mother's interrogating gaze, and decided she was tired of it.

"Jane's going on a pilgrimage to a shrine near Pelagiad."

"That's great!" dad said. "Good to see you showing some piety, kiddo! You know, the Nine Divines reward those who are faithful." He pointed at her when he said that, as if dispensing some jocular fatherly wisdom.

Now for the big moment. "It's not an Imperial Cult shrine," Daria said. "It's for Morrowind's gods."

Dad dropped his fork. "Young lady! In this house—"

"Daria, are you planning on worshipping at this shrine?" mom said, leaning forward over her plate. She had that look that said she didn't yet believe the worst, but wanted to be sure.

"I wouldn't let her do it, mom," Quinn said. "You have that big case coming up, remember? It wouldn't look good in Julianos's eyes if your eldest daughter was off doing whatever for Morrowind's gods."

Daria sighed. "Jane's going to be the one worshipping there, not me. I'm just keeping her company."

"I believe you, Daria," mom said. "You've complained about the Tribunal Temple before. Just like you've complained about every institution," she added, with an almost mournful tone.

"You call them complaints, I call them valid criticisms."

Jake squinted. "So you're still with the Nine Divines?" 

"Yes, dad."

"Great!" He turned his focus back to his pie.

"Is Trent an experienced traveler?" mom asked.

"He's been all over western Vvardenfell."

Mom leaned back in her chair. "I do applaud you going out to see the world. Too much of your knowledge is secondhand and there's a reason the courts prefer firsthand accounts."

Daria clenched her teeth. The last thing she wanted was a lecture on why traveling with Jane was a good thing. She already thought it was a good thing!

"So it's settled?" Daria said, bracing herself for the worst.

"Not so fast. What about your work at Drenlyn?"

"Please. A trained monkey could finish most of those assignments. Whatever I miss I'll be able to make up."

"Very well. But my big case is coming up and I don't want to risk our family seeming impious. Divine disfavor is the last thing I need right now."

"Why would Julianos be bothered? Jane's the one worshipping false gods. Not me." Somehow, saying that didn't really sit right with Daria. Still, it was true—anyone could see the Tribunal was a sham.

"Yes, but it doesn't look good for an Imperial girl to get too close to an alien faith." Mom's eyes turned up to the ceiling, her expression calculating.

Annoyed, Daria crossed her arms. "Do you want me to re-light the votive candles a few more times?"

Mom's expression brightened. "Here's an idea. There's an Imperial Cult shrine in Pelagiad. I'll give you some incense and you can take it to the cult altar and burn it. Make sure you do whatever obeisances and rituals the priest tells you to do."

Daria supposed that was wise. More importantly, it was easy. "All right."

"Great! Now I can net the benefits of a pilgrimage without leaving the office. I think this will be an exciting trip for you, Daria!"

Daria scowled. Nothing soured an adventure quite like parental approval.

*********

Daria lingered in the dining room for a bit, reading by the light of the setting sun. She preferred the cold and rain of winter, but the longer days at least meant more time spent in books without also cutting into the candle budget.

"Hey there, Daria!" dad said.

Daria didn't look up from Marobar Sul's The Importance of Where, but she prepped herself mentally. Things always went bad just when they started to seem good.

"Hey," she said.

"I know Jane's a good kid, and I'm sure Trent is too," he said.

"What's the problem?"

"No problem! Just that traveling the great outdoors can be a little dangerous." Dad pulled out a chair and sat at the table across from her, an oblong wooden box under his arm.

She looked up at him. "Like I said, Trent's no stranger to living rough. And it's not like the Ascadian Isles are especially threatening."

"Right. Well, I know it might be a shock to you, but old dad's been around a bit."

"I know. Your Fighters Guild days."

Dad gulped. "Yeah. My dad didn't think I was man enough so he—well, that doesn't matter now." He took a deep breath and placed the box on the table. It clinked. "I know you don't like sparring anymore," Jake said. "Too dorky for a cool kid like you to do with a parent."

"It's more that I don't really see the need to militarize child-rearing. At least not until the Empire finds something else to conquer," Daria said. It had been ages since she'd thought about sparring the way they used to, back on Stirk.

Her, Quinn, and dad would head out to the rocky chaparral above the docks with their training swords in hand, first made of wood, then of blunted metal. He'd always turn it into a game—Jake the pirate king who threatened Stirk, or Jake the wounded knight who needed his brave daughters to fight in his stead. How he guided their arms and watched their stances, Quinn whining all the while about how she wanted to be back inside with her dolls and Daria grinning and asking dad how to kill an opponent as brutally as possible. And he'd give a sad smile and say the most important thing was for Daria to be safe, but if she really had to take someone out it was best done quick—

Daria blinked, her eyes watering. Probably from the volcanic dust drifting down from Red Mountain.

Jake opened the box. Inside lay an iron blade, short and sharp, without adornment.

The book almost slipped from Daria's hands. This was the real thing. 

"This is what I started out with," dad said. "It's about the same length and weight as your old trainer, so you should feel right at home!"

"Dad, I've never been in a real fight before." Daria tensed up. Was he really that worried? Talking about killing imaginary foes was one thing, but would she have the fortitude to actually use this?

"I think it's better that you have it just in case. I know things aren't as dangerous now as they were when I was a kid—and thank the Nine Divines for that! Pick it up."

Daria hesitated before putting the book down and reaching out, her right hand slowly closing on the hilt. She lifted it from the box, its weight sending a tingle of familiarity up her arm.

Jake frowned. "With your build you might be better off with a spear of some kind. But this is all I have, and I like to think I did a pretty good job of training you girls!"

"Quinn probably unlearned it all to make more room for fashion." Daria raised the blade to the light. The iron was too dark to reflect the sunlight.

"Heh, oh I'm sure your sister still remembers a bit. It's muscle memory, and that kind of thing doesn't go away. Anyway, I don't think you'll have to use this but I want you to take it with you."

Daria placed it back in the box and met her dad's gaze. It was one of the rare moments where he just seemed like the gentle man who'd seen too many bloody things in his youth.

"Thanks, dad."

"Great, kiddo! How about we get up early tomorrow and practice some swordsmanship! Er, wait, I mean swords-woman-ship! Yeah!"

"Under one condition: don't pretend to be a brigand or injured knight or try to make it some elaborate story."

Jake looked puzzled. "I guess I could pretend to be something more local. An Ashlander, maybe?"

"Just be a dad training his daughter in the art of combat."

He grinned. "Can do! See you then."

"See you."

Dad got up and left. Daria returned to her book but found it hard to concentrate. She realized she was about to leave Balmora and explore Morrowind. Admittedly, she'd be exploring one of the safest parts of Morrowind. But travel meant danger.

Dad lending her his old sword was proof of that.

Chapter 3

Daria spent the last night before the trip with Jane and Trent in their apartment. Bellies warm with drinks from the South Wall Cornerclub, they gathered on the balcony while Red Mountain puffed smoke into the hot night air. Leaning against the balcony wall, Daria felt the world open up once again.

The three of them awoke early and stood at Balmora's gate as dawn's light fumed in the east. The ground shook as a silt strider disembarked, its towering segmented legs slow but sure as they walked along the Odai's banks.

"Last chance to make sure we got everything we need," Trent said, his eyes on the horizon. "Food and water?"

"Check," Jane said. She crouched on the ground, packs open around her.

"Cash?"

"Not as much as I'd like, but check."

"Potions?"

"We've got three healing, three stamina, and a couple curative."

Trent scratched his head. "Sounds good to me. Let's go."

"Wait! We also have bedrolls, toiletries, walking sticks—"

"Whatever, Jane. I've got a good feeling about this trip. I trust my gut."

"Your gut might end up outside your body if we don't prepare well." Jane sighed and continued checking.

Daria smiled at Trent's feigned indifference. A guy like him had to know everything there was about excursions, but he didn't let it worry him. Jane didn't travel much so she was probably almost as nervous as Daria, which explained how fussy she was being.

"Okay, looks like we Llayns have everything we need. Daria?" Jane asked.

Daria had already tallied up her personal supplies. The sword rested in a scabbard attached to her belt. She'd spent plenty of time practicing under dad's tutelage. Also in her pack was a pouch of spices and wood shavings from the Gold Coast destined to be burned on Pelagiad's altar. A pilgrimage within a pilgrimage.

"I'm ready," she said, leaning on the rugged walking stick she'd brought.

They made good time through the rocky highlands around Balmora. By noon they passed the squat keep of Legion Fort Moonmoth, the structure looking like a stone monster vainly trying to hide in the foothills. Jokes and comments kept them entertained, Daria and Jane doing the heavy lifting while Trent occasionally chimed in, a relaxed smile on his handsome face.

Maybe, Daria thought, this was the life meant for her. Something free from the vagaries of guild or company, where she followed her own beliefs with those she trusted most. As her skinny legs struggled up the hillsides, all the Empire felt within her grasp.

They passed through a gap in the jagged ridge east of Balmora and reached the desolation of the Foyada Mamea. Daria knew it by reputation as one of the enormous lava-forged gullies, called foyadas, stretching forth like stony arteries from Red Mountain's heart.

She gaped a bit at the sheer bleakness, the foyada a black stony gullet going for leagues up and downhill. Petrified trees clung to the foyada's sides, their stiff and scraggly limbs like the fingers of burned corpses. The ground possessed a smooth and glassy quality. Molten rock had melted away the hard edges.

She shivered in spite of the heat. Probably didn't hurt to get another reminder that Vvardenfell was essentially one enormous volcano, quiet but still very much alive. Imperial geologists classified it as being of low risk for eruption.

Low risk didn't mean no risk.

The party stayed silent as it traversed the open-air lava tube. On occasion they heard the clicking sounds of squat black beetles crawling across the rocky ground. Going downhill should've been easy but sharp pebbles kept finding their way into Daria's boots. Simply keeping her balance on the tilted ground poised another challenge, and each awkward step sent another rush of tiny stones tumbling down the slopes. Ash entered her lungs and provoked coughing fits. Weariness made the sword on her belt weigh as much as an anvil.

The late afternoon sun's steady heat brutalized them further. Daria felt like her thick hair was cooking her scalp. Sweat poured down her face and plastered the ash and grime against her skin. Worst of all, her glasses threatened to slip down her nose.

Losing another pair was not an option, so she held her glasses with one hand and gripped her walking stick with the other. Jane and Trent were already some distance ahead, tiny figures in the foyada's enormity. Jane stopped and looked back, then said something to Trent, who also stopped. Daria gritted her teeth. A hike shouldn't be so overwhelming.

But she felt pretty overwhelmed.

"You doing okay, Daria?" Jane asked as Daria got closer, her query echoing down the igneous gully.

"I'm fine."

"You're looking pretty red. Think you got some sunburn there."

Daria stopped, putting all her weight on the walking stick as sweat dripped down her neck. She let her long hair fall over her face, not wanting Trent to see how much of a mess she looked.

"Lousy half-Nordic heritage," Daria muttered.

Jane chuckled. "Hey, look on the bright side—if we're ever in Skyrim you'll be prancing through the snow while me and Trent get frostbite."

"Frostbite doesn't sound that bad right now," Daria said.

"Hey, Trent, maybe we should call it a day? It's getting late."

"I'm cool with that," Trent said. "We got plenty of time anyway. You're doing pretty good for an Imperial kid, Daria."

Daria's blush rivaled her sunburn at the comment. Gods, she did look like a little kid stumbling along after her elders. She was half tempted to hike up to Red Mountain and throw herself in the first lava vent.

"Yeah, you're doing fine," Jane said, her tone consoling. "Don't sweat it."

"Too late."

*********

They made camp in a small copse of dead trees, the wood long-since turned to stone. Daria still coughed in the dry and dusty air, but the evening was at least cooler. The setting sun crept beneath the ridge, its dying light rendering the world in red and black.

She sat a mere foot away from Trent, who played a slow and contemplative tune on his lute, the notes warbling against the glassy ridges.

Firewood had been too heavy to carry and there was nothing in the foyada to burn, but Daria and Jane had pooled their resources to buy a few cheap tallow candles. The first one burned steady as they dined on cold scrib jerkey and lukewarm water. Daria resisted the urge to dump the water-skin's contents on her filthy face. She'd never wanted a bath so badly.

"When we get back," Daria said, "remind me to tell Quinn there's a big cosmetics fair in Foyada Mamea."

"Ooh, I hear soot is really in this year," Jane said. She yawned a moment later. "I think I'm going to turn in. You guys can stay up for a bit. Get some private time." She winked at Daria, who scowled in return. Jane laughed before getting up and walking over to their packs.

Shadows deepened as sunset gave way to evening. Both moons rose in the sky, the bloated red orb of Masser and the smaller shining sphere of Secunda, which some sources claimed the Second Empire had once held in its dominion many ages ago. Daria squinted for a better look at Secunda's pock-marked surface the way she used to as a child, wondering if she'd spot the forts and cities built by Imperials past. Like always, she failed to find any hint of long-lost Tatterdemalion.

A sudden gust of wind struck right to her bone and she gasped in shock. The temperature had plummeted. Instinctively, she scooted closer to Trent. He played on, his music attended only by Daria and the star-crowned moons far above.

"Uh, you play really well," Daria said, hearing her awkwardness in her echo.

"Thanks."

She hoped he'd put an arm around her. For warmth, if nothing else. Instead, he kept playing.

"Why won't you go to the shrine with Jane?" Daria asked.

"'Cause I'm going to play at the fair."

"Oh, right," Daria said, embarrassed at having forgot.

"Anyway, shrines aren't really my thing. Way I see it, gods will do whatever they want. And I'm okay with that. But I'm not going to thank them for it."

"That sounds sensible."

"Exactly," Trent said.

Daria looked up at the night sky. "Jane's one of the most perceptive people I've ever met. So why can't she see through the Tribunal's lies? Most of the people in the temple think she's as much of a foreigner as I am."

Trent was silent for a bit. "It's from when we were kids. We lost the house pretty soon after mom and dad moved back to the Imperial City. They said they'd take care of it, but they never did. I was older so I tried to make coin any way I could. Only way I could help Jane was making sure she stayed in the Balmora temple. Knew she'd get food and a warm bed there, at least."

Daria nodded, thinking guiltily of her own fortunate upbringing.

"Anyway," Trent continued, "she must've liked some of what the priests said."

"I guess I can see that. It's just hard to believe she'd be so blinkered. Any idiot can see that the so-called Tribunal gods are just mortals wearing more cosmetics than even my sister would feel comfortable with."

"Uh, careful where you say that," Trent said, glancing around. "Anyway, Janey's not hurting anyone. If believing in something helps you get through the day, I say go for it."

"What if believing in a certain something involves denying facts and logic? Or propping up a corrupt institution?"

Trent just shrugged and tuned his lute. Daria could just see the angular tattoos on the left side of his face, like some kind of ancient script.

"What do those tattoos mean? I know a lot of Dunmer use them to show where they were born, and to whom, but I wouldn't be able to recognize any symbols."

"Heh. I got these a long time ago, back when I was still trying to fit in. I know better, now."

"So what do they say?" Daria pressed.

"That I'm a poor outlander who wants to look cool." He laughed for a bit, his attempt ending in a hoarse choking fit. "You can't just get any kind of tattoo you want in Morrowind. Not if you're a Dunmer, anyway. When I got inked, the tattooist told me what I could show. He didn't give me many choices."

Trent shook his head. "If I ever leave Morrowind for good, I'm going to get some really crazy tattoos that say exactly what I want them to say."

Daria tried to imagine what that might be. "Uh, yeah. That'd be cool." Inwardly, she winced at the thought. Pain didn't bother him, though. How could it, after what he'd been through? Trent would probably smile through the process, make some joke to the artist and move on when it was done, always free, always sure. She sighed.

"Is it okay if I listen to you play?" Exhaustion beckoned her to sleep and the cold air numbed her limbs but she wanted to stay out just a little longer. Get a little closer to Trent, to this man who rose above the absurdities around him.

"Fine by me. Just make sure you get enough sleep. We'll be going over easier ground tomorrow but there's still a lot of walking to do."

"I'll be okay," Daria said. She inched closer so that only a hair's breadth separated them. She wanted to grab him so badly but held herself back—wouldn't be appropriate. Would seem weird. She was a pale reflection of her sister at the best of times, and was bedraggled and filthy to boot. But she'd stay close so that if Trent changed his mind he could hold her close.

And even if he didn't she could at least hear his music.

In the silence of Red Mountain's shadow, Trent played on.

*********

Exhausted in her bedroll, Jane had just been about to drift off to sleep when she heard Daria and Trent starting to talk. She smiled—it was so fun to put Daria on the spot. Still, she liked seeing the change that came over her friend whenever Trent came by. That maybe for all her smarts and otherworldly confidence, Daria was still a mortal girl with a crush. 

"Jane's one of the most perceptive people I've ever met," Daria said, her monotone voice amplified by the foyada. 

That was nice to hear.

"So why can't she see through the Tribunal's lies? Most of the people in the temple think she's as much of a foreigner as I am."

The words hit straight to the core. And the longer Jane listened, the more it hurt. The Tribunal gods were the gods of her people. Her gods. Maybe they hadn't given her much but they'd never run away. When she was alone in her apartment, hungry and tired, she'd say the same prayers her ancestors uttered and feel their warmth for a fleeting moment. Why couldn't Daria understand that?

Blinking back tears, Jane tried to sleep.

Chapter 4

Daria awoke with her entire body feeling like an enormous ache covered in dirt. At this point, she'd have been happy to deal with mom's judgmental aura if it meant a long bath, a soft bed, and a hot meal. Stiff muscles slowed her movements as she crawled out of her bedroll and sat down for a cold breakfast of scrib jerky. Trent looked a little worse for the wear but otherwise the same. Jane stayed silent through breakfast, her expression guarded.

They reached the Acsadian Isles at midmorning. Daria gasped at the sight: miles and miles of green meadows sprawling from the foyada to the sea. Clear streams tumbled down from the foothills to feed mirror-bright Lake Amaya whose waters shone in the sun. Leafy trees grew side-by-side with graceful emperor parasols and other fungi, limbs and caps alike shading the broad roads. Netch herds drifted above the swards, their blue membranes as bright as mosaic glass.

"It's beautiful," Daria said, too quietly for the others to hear. But like so many things, she knew it was only skin-deep. The Ascadian Isles were the breadbasket of Morrowind's Vvardenfell District. A lot of her food came from the region's farms and plantations.

And at least some of that food was harvested by forced labor.

The road split not long after they descended the foothills, one branch going east and the other going west, both hugging the shores of Lake Amaya.

"Hey, Janey. I think we can get to the shrine faster if we go east. Don't know if there'll be a boat waiting there, though," Trent said.

"Trying to get rid of me? I'm tempted but I'll go with you to Pelagiad like we planned." Jane crossed her arms, her voice icy.

Daria felt suddenly uneasy, like the way she used to feel before one of the big fights her parents used to have when she was younger—mom dropping hints that something was wrong, dad sensing a problem but unable to figure out exactly what had happened. Now she was in dad's shoes.

"I said 'we' could get to the shrine faster going east. Not just you. You think I'm going to abandon you out here?" Trent reached out as if to pat Jane's shoulder, but she stepped away.

"That's not all I heard you say," Jane responded.

Daria sucked in her breath.

Trent blinked. "Huh?"

Jane turned to face both of them. "That little conversation you and Daria had last night? How I'm blinkered, how the Tribunal's just a bunch of Dunmer playing divine dress-up? Yeah, I was still awake when you said all that. I know you don't care about it, Trent, but I was hoping you—" she pointed at Daria "—respected my religion!"

Best to be calm. Daria straightened her stance. Maybe this was the best time to do it. "Jane, don't you think it's a little convenient that your deities look like regular Dunmer in gold paint? And how the Tribunal doesn't seem to actually do very much? History's full of mortals passing themselves off as gods. What's more likely: that a bunch of Mer actually underwent apotheosis? Or that this whole thing is a story the powers-that-be tell in order to keep the tithe money coming in?"

Trent frantically shook his head and waved his arms. What was his problem? Didn't he basically agree? Anyway, Jane was smart. She'd figure it out. She only needed some prompting.

Jane gave a bitter little laugh. "That's all it ever is to you, huh? Everything's a big scam. You can tell me whatever you want, Daria. I'll still believe. The gods were there for me before I ever met you, and they'll be there for me when you're gone."

Daria's heart rate quickened, a long-dormant sense of panic rising in her chest. Jane turned away. Daria first thought she'd strike east out on her own, but she instead kept walking the western road to Pelagiad, at a good pace ahead of the other two. 

"Jane—"

Trent walked over to Daria. "Whoa."

"I don't get it. I know she's smart enough to see this," Daria said.

"That's not how it works. It's like I said last night—she's not hurting anyone, so just let her be."

"I was letting her be until she decided to go on the offensive!"

Trent sighed. "Let's keep going. She needs some time to cool down."

Daria hoped he was right.

*********

Daria glumly put one foot in front of the other as she plodded to Pelagiad, with bigger things to think about than the natural beauty of the Ascadian Isles. Over and over again she ruminated on the events leading up the confrontation with Jane. First of all, Jane had been eavesdropping. Second, Daria was right about the Tribunal. The Dunmer "gods" were mortal grifters.

Jane had to know. She saw through all the rest of the crap, so why was this so hard? Pure stubbornness on her part? The temple supported Morrowind's deeply xenophobic society, one dedicated to maintaining slavery and keeping people like Jane at arm's length. Why did she buy into it?

Or was Daria the problem? It's not like her own faith was much better. The Empire only provided law and order at sword point. Its companies and nobles ripped wealth from the earth and adorned the capital's palaces with their thefts. The Imperial Cult propped up a society founded on conquest and war—and Daria was going to burn incense to its gods to help mom win a legal case.

No wonder Jane was mad. But that didn't mean Jane was right about the Tribunal Temple, either.

"I should've just stayed home," Daria muttered.

Pelagiad came into view just before dusk. It was an Empire town—more specifically, a town designed to look like a hamlet in High Rock or northwestern Cyrodiil, with neat cross-timbered houses capped by sharply peaked slate roofs. Humans were everywhere, the faces of pink and brown a shock after Balmora's gray crowds. She spotted only a few Dunmer, all with western clothes and manners.

The place didn't fit in but didn't need to. The Empire intended Pelagiad as a show of power: they had willed that a western town exist in the Ascadian Isles, and the Empire's will always became reality. Surreal reminders of its location abounded all the same, from the reptilian pack guars being guided down cobblestone streets to the graceful emperor parasols along the lakeshore. The reassuring mass of Fort Pelagiad stood at the center of it all, the Empire's ruby banner flying from each tower.

Trent guided them to a place called the Halfway Tavern, or more specifically the field of tents being set up behind it in preparation for the Free Farmers Fair.

"Is there a reason we're standing in a manure-ridden field when a perfectly nice tavern is just a few steps away?" Daria asked.

"Because we're too real to stay in some phony tavern," Trent said, with a chuckle. "Right, Jane?"

"If by too real you mean too poor, then yes," Jane said, her voice taut with frustration.

Trent looked briefly disappointed. "There won't be any spare rooms at the tavern, anyway. Most of the folks here are sleeping outdoors," he said, gesturing at the attendees setting up bedrolls and hammocks.

The Halfway Tavern had at least set up a few bathing tents. Daria used the women's, the waters already murky from previous bathers. She didn't feel much cleaner by the end but she'd at least washed off the foyada's ash.

She'd be getting another dose of it on the way back.

Daria got dressed and returned to the fairground which the Halfway's publican was using as an overflow parlor. Servers tramped through the mud carrying big wooden mugs full of frothy beer offered at prices much higher than was reasonable. Trent and Jane sat on crates in the tavern's shadow, next to a tall and powerfully-built young Imperial with long flowing brown hair.

"Hey, this is Iesse," Trent said, pointing to the Imperial. "We work together sometimes."

Iesse raised a hand in greeting, his face placid. "Hey."

"Hi," Daria said.

Daria sat next to Jane, the hurt still visible on her face.

"Are you going to the shrine tomorrow?" Daria asked Jane, her own words sounding like they came from somewhere far away.

"Uh huh."

And after that, nothing. Daria bought a beer from the server and drank without really tasting it. She didn't want to think about what waited for her in Balmora if things didn't work themselves out. Maybe she'd spend the rest of her life laboring at her mother's office, going slowly insane while Quinn rose the ranks in some big guild or company. 

They slept under the canvas of a big pavilion, the fly-ridden space filled with snores from peddlers, jugglers, and other visitors. Morning came and Daria stepped outside to find Trent tuning his lute as a Breton herdsman guided a pack of guars through the fairground.

Maybe now would be a good time to do her mom's errand.

"Trent, I'm going to go to Fort Pelagiad to burn some incense."

Trent looked up from his strings. "Huh?"

"My mom thinks that if I burn incense to the god of law, it'll help her win a legal case. It's part of the great Imperial tradition of masking bribery as religious devotion."

"Oh." Trent went back to his lute.

"Uh, where's Jane?"

"Don't know."

"She still seems pretty mad."

"Nothing you can do about it, Daria. Just let her have her space. She'll figure something out."

"Dammit, Trent!" came Jane's voice.

Daria looked to see her friend cutting through the crowd, the glum frustration replaced by hot anger. Trent put the instrument aside as if in resigned expectation.

"What's the matter?" he asked.

"You told me I could get a ferry to the Shrine of Humility here!" Jane clenched her fists.

"I'm pretty sure you can."

"No, you can't! There's no ferry!"

He scratched his head. "But there are tons of boats."

"Yeah, tons of fishing boats!"

"Huh. I guess I just assumed—"

Jane kept going. "And why the hell would people here have a ferry to a Dunmer shrine? How many Dunmer have you actually seen in Pelagiad besides us?"

Trent was silent for a moment. "I saw at least four, Janey."

"Well unless those four decided to run and operate a ferry all on their own, I'm out of luck."

Daria spoke up. "Can you get one of the fishing boats to take you?"

"I tried. No one wants to go that far out of their way. One of them seemed interested but changed his mind once he found out where I was going. Didn't want to ruin his relationship with the Nine Divines by ferrying some filthy pagan like me." Her voice broke for a moment, then she swallowed and hung her head in defeat.

Trent didn't bother doing anything more than look uneasy. Daria thought back to Trent's cavalier attitude toward packing. She'd viewed it as confidence but seeing him at that moment showed it as something else. He didn't know what the hell he was doing, and Jane had suffered that for years. This was another disappointment in a life full of them.

"Jane, you said one of the fishing boat captains was willing to travel?" Daria asked.

"Not if it's to help someone from the wrong religion."

"I'm part of his religion, at least nominally." Daria patted the incense pouch in her coat. "And I think I might know how to convince him."

Chapter 5

The docks of Pelagiad lay some distance away from the town proper. Small wooden boats, a few with sails but most without, bobbed amidst the segmented marshmerrow stalks growing thick and wild along the sandy shores.

"Which boat is it?" Daria asked.

"The little boat with the oversized sail," Jane said, pointing to a small vessel that looked like it might be carried aloft by a strong wind. "Boatman's name is Severius."

"Let's see if I can convince Severius to let us on that littoral mishap waiting to happen."

"Wait a minute. Why are you helping me, Daria? Is this some ploy to get back in my good graces?"

Daria almost said yes. It'd be easy to brush the whole thing off as a joke. But she didn't think Jane was in the mood for a joke.

"That's part of it. But to be honest, I did some thinking and honestly, I'm kind of impressed. Most of the religion I've seen is about doing a god a favor in hopes of getting a favor back, like what my mom expected me to do with this incense. Seeing you go so far out of your way just to say thanks to your god is kind of new to me. I won't pretend to believe that the Tribunal is for real. But I do think that what you're doing is for real. And it's not often I see that."

Jane took a moment to process the information. "Okay, veiled apology accepted."

"Thanks. I shouldn't have been so dismissive of you," Daria said.

"Yeah, you shouldn't have. But at least you're making up for it."

"Save your praise for if I actually talk the boatman into this. If Quinn were here she'd have him around her finger in a minute but I lack her charm, a fact that I've amply demonstrated several times on this journey."

"Charm's overrated. It gets creepy after a while, anyway."

"Then there's something we can agree on."

Severius was a wiry Imperial with steel-gray hair. He stood up from his deck as Daria and Jane approached, his gnarled face scrunching up in disapproval.

"I already told you I want no part of your pagan rituals!" he yelled.

"No one's asking you to participate in any pagan rituals," Daria said.

Severius looked her up and down for a moment, his expression distrustful. "You're an Imperial. What do you have to do with this?"

Daria took a deep breath and tried to imagine what Quinn would do. Comment on how nice the boat was? Say something cute about fisherman fashion? This was going to be harder than she thought.

"You object to taking my friend because you fear it would upset the Nine Divines, correct?" Daria asked.

"Aye. I won't help a false faith."

"Yet the Nine Divines and the Empire permit religious freedom."

He crossed his arms and somehow looked even flintier than before. "I don't know anything about that. But I know my gods are mine and that her gods aren't." He jabbed an index finger at Jane.

Daria re-calculated her approach. "Well, you and I both honor the Nine Divines. What if I gave you something you could give to them as an offering?"

"Like what?"

Daria took the incense pouch out of her pack and opened it. She held it close, making sure he'd get a good whiff of the stuff. "This is incense from the holy gardens of the Imperial City. I was going to burn it on the altar to ensure that my business ventures stay successful. But I promised to help my friend. I propose that you take us to the Shrine of Humility. In return, I'll give you this incense so you can offer it to the Divine of your choosing and for whatever boon you need."

Severius mulled it over, his grimy fingers stroking his chin. "Hmm, from the Imperial City, you say?"

"Yes," Daria lied.

"I have been meaning to show my devotions. An offering to Zenithar might be what I need to turn things around." He looked out at the lake. "Very well. I won't take you directly to the shrine, but I'll take you near enough that you can walk the rest of the way. I'm still charging travel fare!"

"We'll need a ride back, as well," Daria said.

"I'll take you there and wait for you until the morning. Good fishing waters in the north lake so I can make use of the time. But if you aren't back by then, I'm off."

Daria looked at Jane. "Okay with you?"

"Sure. I don't mind a bit of walking. You have everything you need?"

Daria had taken her pack in anticipation of this. "I think I do."

*********

The last and longest part of Daria's journey to Morrowind had been on a leaky sea cog called the Sea Grizzly, run by the absent-minded Captain Potts. She remembered it as a nautical hell utterly without privacy or quiet. Somehow, Severius's boat managed to be even worse.

Her stomach lurched into her throat as a sudden gust tipped the boat to the side. She stifled her groan but pressed her arms against her gut to quell her growing nausea. A strong wind at least carried them quickly through the waters. It carried a storm as well, ominous gray clouds following close behind them.

Severius pointed at the shore ahead. "That's where I'm letting you off. Go north and you'll see the road to the shrine. Once you do, head east. Move quick and you'll reach it before dark."

"Thanks," Jane said. She seemed to be bearing the boat's rigors better than Daria.

Severius landed the boat a few feet from the lakeshore. Daria and Jane waded through the frigid knee-deep waters and onto the beach, where tubular off-white mucksponges grew in profusion among the sand and reeds.

"We're not going to escape that storm," Jane said, looking back at the encroaching clouds.

"Of course we aren't. Nothing's gone right this entire trip. Why should they start going right now?"

"Always the optimist."

Daria walked alongside Jane as they treaded through the tall green grass. The reached the road minutes later and turned east as Severius had said. To the north, green hills pressed up against the foyada's black volcanic ridge.

A question arose in Daria's mind. "Why did you stay with me and Trent at the fork in the road? Back when we first reached the Ascadian Isles?" she asked. "You could've gone east and already paid your respects by now."

"Guess I didn't feel like walking here on my own." She gave a joyless laugh. "It's like I said, Daria. I'm not very good at this whole Dunmer thing. I played it safe like an Imperial would. My faith's not that deep."

"Being practical doesn't mean your faith is any less."

"Maybe. Feels sort of like I'm selling out though. Like if I really believed the gods had my back I wouldn't worry about it so much." The sky darkened as she spoke, clouds shrouding the sun's light.

They walked in silence for a while. Fiercer winds picked up from the lake and hurled a few cold raindrops their way. Daria tightened her coat, its fabric a bit too thin for this sort of weather.

"Daria, I was thinking about what you said, with the temple being part of a corrupt system."

Daria stayed silent. She didn't want to withdraw the statement. Because it was true. Morrowind's system was corrupt. The Empire being just as corrupt didn't let Morrowind off the hook.

"Yeah?" she finally said.

"I agree with you! I mean, it's not like I can't see what goes on here. Morrowind's a really messed up place. There's slavery, corruption, and the Great Houses are all terrible in different ways. And yeah, the Tribunal Temple is a part of that.

"But even if the temple isn't that great, I always felt like the gods were watching out for people like me. No one really cared about the Dunmer. We always had to take care of ourselves. The Altmer, the Nords, and the Dwemer all persecuted us. And I get it. If the Dunmer gods were real, why would they let the Empire take over? Thing is, I think that maybe they wanted the Empire here to teach the Dunmer some humility. Remind us that we're not all that great, that we're not better than anyone else. That maybe there's room for some crazy mixed-up kid like me."

Raindrops fell faster as Jane spoke. The dirt road softened into mud beneath their feet and Lake Amaya churned in the distance. Daria shivered and raised a hand to hold onto her glasses.

"Since you're being honest with me," Daria began, "I'll admit I'm not even sure if gods are a thing. It seems to me that if the Nine Divines are all that powerful, then they have a responsibility to fix what's wrong in the world. From what I've seen, they're just another tool that the rich use to get richer."

"Wow, really?"

"A few days ago I'd have said I did believe. This journey got me thinking. But even if there aren't any gods, I respect what you're doing."

"You never felt any kind of holy presence?" Jane asked, raising her voice to be heard over the rain.

"No. Mom and dad made me spend a lot of time in the Temple of Kynareth in Stirk, but it just seemed like a lot of tedious rituals and stained glass. You?"

Jane laughed. "Kind of. I'm not sure it actually happened, though."

"How do you mean?"

"This was when I was a kid, not long after we lost the old house. I'd been on the streets for a few days and Trent dropped me off at the temple in Balmora. I didn't know where my brother went. I think I thought he'd gone off to join my parents and I'd be stuck in Balmora by myself. There I was, maybe nine years old, cold and hungry and alone in a huge crowd of people who all smelled pretty awful and were really keen on weird music and chanting.

"They put us in this big room that had an ash drawing of the Tribunal gods, all three of them together. I knew who they were but they looked like monsters to me. I kept wondering when the hell these priests were going to actually feed us. 

"And that's when the image of Vivec moved his head and looked right at me. I heard his voice in my head. Something like: 'I know you're bored, Jane. I'll tell you a little secret: I find it pretty boring, myself. But they need the magic words to be happy, so I indulge them. Be kind to them, Jane. They can't always see the world the way you and I see it.' And he smiled, this bright smile like things would get better.

"Then he went back to being an image. But I felt like the luckiest kid in the world. A living god had reached out to me and told me I was okay. I know it's crazy. And there's a good chance I just imagined the whole thing. But I still remember it as if it happened. I know that Vivec was a mortal who made himself a god so he could help the Dunmer. He helped me. And maybe someday I can be strong and help someone else who really needs me."

Daria took a moment to process all this. It had to be a dream or a hallucination. But who could blame her given those circumstances? She remembered Trent's comment: if Jane wasn't hurting anyone, why should Daria care what she believed?

"Does being strong for someone else entail you becoming a god?" Daria asked. She wasn't even sure if she was joking or not.

"Nah, becoming a god's too much effort. I'd rather just win over a rich patron who likes my original art."

"That's quite an attitude to take to the Shrine of Humility."

"Hey, that just shows how badly I needed this pilgrimage! But don't worry, if I get what I want I'll find a few worthy souls to share the wealth with." She looked to Daria. "Like you."

Daria smiled. "And mom says I never network."

The rain intensified and the wind roared as the two girls kept walking toward the shrine. Rain streaked the lenses of Daria's glasses and she tried to peer over the rims, but the world beyond was little more than a damp blur.

A strange and warbling pierced through the noise of the storm. It sounded like nothing Daria had ever heard—animalistic yet somehow suggestive of a more human rage. The cry repeated, louder than before.

"Did you hear that?" Jane asked, her voice taut.

"I wish I hadn't. What is it?" Daria asked.

"I think it's a nix hound."

Daria stopped in her tracks, suddenly conscious of just how small and soft she really was in the strange land. She knew about nix hounds. Scavengers and opportunists, usually, but also known to attack travelers. Especially if there were a bunch of them. "How many?"

"If it's just one we might be able to scare it off," Jane said, stepping close to her friend. "If it's more than that..."

Still holding on to her glasses with one hand, Daria's grasped the handle of her father's sword with the other.

Chapter 6

Rain crashed down around them, steady and overwhelming. Daria wanted to believe she'd only imagined the howl.

Then it came again, louder and closer than before. 

"Jane, if you've ever secretly gotten extensive weapons or magic training, now would be a great time to show it," Daria said. She tightened her grip on the sheathed sword even as her arm trembled. Her breaths came quick and sharp.

"I have a knife. I can cut up a scrib with it. As long as it's already dead."

Daria wiped her glasses with her soaked sleeve, revealing her rain-lashed surroundings for a few blurry moments before more drops obscured her vision

The nix hound howled anew. Daria drew her sword, the weapon absurdly heavy in her little hand. No way would she be able to use the weapon. Water dripped down the blade and handle, making it slippery.

"It's there!" Jane cried.

"I can't see a damn thing!"

"A bit to your left, up on the hill. It's watching us."

Daria cleared her lenses again. Through the smear of water she glimpsed the nix hound. It looked like a lean and leathery dog with a mosquito's head, complete with an enormous proboscis. The creature stared back at them through bulging red compound eyes.

What had dad said? His warnings and advice turned to vapor in the face of a real threat. Failure here meant pain, very possibly meant death. Daria pressed her teeth together and planted her feet wide on the muddy ground, the wet earth already threatening to pull out from under her.

"It's moving!" Jane shouted.

Daria pulled back her sword arm. Quick, decisive thrusts, she remembered, and hoped she looked in the right direction. How close was it? Something splashed near her—Jane's feet? The hound's claws?

A shadow burst through the rain.

Air rushed out of Daria's lungs as the nix hound hit her with what felt like a meteor's force. She fell backward into the mud, her world a jumble of howls and thrashing muscle. She stabbed with frantic abandon, not knowing if she struck earth or flesh.

"I can't get close—" came Jane's voice.

Crushing weight pressed onto Daria and she tried to wiggle free. Bulbous eyes looked into her own. It reared back for a strike and she moved her head to the left. The nix hound's proboscis plunged into the ground where her head had been a moment before.

She stabbed again. The sword point hit something thick and dense.

"Get off her!" Jane shouted.

Daria still struggled. Sharp pain flared on her right side. She imagined her innards spilling out onto the ground. This was it, she realized.

Suddenly the weight lifted. A trembling howl echoed in her ears, fading into the rain.

She lay there in the puddle for a few moments, her entire body shaking.

"Jane? Am I dead?"

"No. Here, let's get you out of the road."

Jane's grabbed her arms and helped her up. Daria followed along as pain pulsed through her torso.

"How bad is it?" Daria asked. She could still walk, at least.

"Can't tell in all the rain but your guts aren't spilling out, so that's probably a good sign. Assuming you like your guts."

"I have a good working relationship with them."

Jane guided Daria to a seated position at the base of a big beige mushroom. 

"I think you saved my life," Daria said, still numb as she leaned back on the spongy stalk. She wondered how her dad had managed to do this when he was her age. He'd never gotten that far in the Fighters Guild but he'd done a bit of bloody work for them.

No wonder he never talked about it.

"The way I see it, we saved each other's," Jane said. "You skewered that nix hound pretty good."

"I did?" Daria realized she'd left her sword in the mud. "Dammit, my sword's still there."

"Leave it for now, let's take a look at your wound." Jane took the lapels of Daria's coat to start removing it, but Daria waved her off.

"I can do this," she said, only for a sudden wave of pain to bowl her over once she tried extricating her arms from the sleeves. "Okay, maybe not."

Jane took off the coat and lifted Daria's shirt along her right side. She whistled.

"That doesn't sound promising," Daria said.

"I'm just thinking about the cool scar you'll get from this. It's a flesh wound, so nothing we can't fix."

Jane rummaged through her pack and took out a tiny tin canister and handed it to Daria. She opened it up and drank the bittersweet sludge inside. Exhaling, she rested her head against the stalk as the potion jumpstarted her natural regenerative ability.

"Feel better?" Jane asked.

"Getting there."

"Okay. Once you're up to it we can go back to the boat. I don't—"

"Wait," Daria interrupted. "The shrine can't be much farther."

"Are you sure you're up for it?"

Was she? Daria thought for a moment. More than anything else she wanted to lie down in a warm bed and sleep for a full week. But she'd already given up so much on this journey—her comfort, her security, her own tenuous faith.

No reason to not go all the way.

"We've already gone this far, and it's unlikely we'll get attacked again. Besides, I'm already caked in mud and wracked with self-doubt. I wouldn't look out of place in the Shrine of Humility."

"Are you positive?" Jane lowered her voice, their eyes locked.

"Yes."

Jane nodded. "Okay. Thanks."

They waited a bit longer for Daria to recuperate before retrieving her sword and setting off. The rain slackened to a drizzle as they marched, cold and soaked to the bone. Water sloshed in Daria's boots and she knew she'd end up with blisters before this was all over.

Daria looked for any buildings that might house the shrine but it was Jane who found the landmark, a humble triolith to the left of the road not that different from the household shrines in Balmora. Set among mossy stones and flanked by violet willow anthers, it'd have been easy for a traveler to overlook.

"This is it?" Daria asked.

"The Tribunal Temple usually isn't that big on display. Plus, it'd be kind of weird to have some huge temple for a shrine to humility."

Daria thought back to the grand temples she'd seen in Cyrodiil while traveling to Morrowind. As far as the Imperial Cult was concerned, humility was best expressed through enormous edifices of white marble and gem-encrusted relics.

Jane continued. "So back in the day, there was a farmer whose guar had died. The poor guy couldn't harvest his crops without it. Lord Vivec, who wasn't a god yet, found him and helped out."

And now that he was a god, did Vivec help farmers struggling with poor harvests? Daria wondered. The impoverished multitudes suggested otherwise. But she said nothing.

"That was good of him," Daria said, not trusting herself to go farther.

"Yeah. It was."

Jane bowed her head and took slow steps toward the shrine. She drew a small bundle of wet cloth from her coat and knelt in front of the shrine, reverently placing the bundle on the wet earth. Daria could just hear Jane's quiet words.

"Thank you for your humility, Lord Vivec. I shall neither strut nor preen in vanity, but shall know and give thanks for my place in the greater world."

Jane genuflected, heedless of the storm. She'd risked life and limb, sacrificed time and scant resources. She'd expected no reward and had received none, but showed no regret for her efforts.

Daria wasn't sure if she believed in a god. But she knew she believed in faith.

*********

Severius delivered Daria and Jane to Pelagiad by noon the next day, the skies clear and the air warm after the storm. Daria gave him the incense and headed to the Halfway Tavern for a bath and a full meal.

Evening found the pair sitting next to a bonfire on the fairgrounds. The cool night air still thrummed with the sounds of commerce as farmers haggled over last-minute deals. Mammalian, reptilian, and invertebrate cattle all added their sounds to the medley.

"I should've gone with you," Trent said, staring into the flames. "I know how to deal with nix hounds."

"No harm, no foul," Jane said. "Besides, Daria got a neat new accessory! Show him your scar!"

Daria smiled. "I'd rather people appreciate me for my deep psychological scars. Physical scars are so passé in comparison."

"Come on, think of the fashion trends you can start back in Balmora!"

"That'd be a losing proposition. Quinn has a much higher pain tolerance than I do."

Trent shook his head. "You guys joke about it but that scared me. Nix hounds shouldn't be on pilgrimage routes."

"The ordinators can't keep their eyes on everything," Jane said.

Iesse sauntered up to them at that moment, a small pouch in his right hand. "Hey, Trent," he said. "I just got a great deal on some incense from the Imperial City!"

Daria's ears perked up at the word. "Incense?" she asked.

"Yeah. I'm gonna take it home and put it around my place. Girls really dig it."

"Where exactly did you get this incense?" 

"Some boat captain was selling it."

"Was his name Severius?"

Iesse blinked. "Yeah. How did you know?"

Daria sighed. On the plus side, it looked like she might have a chance to fulfill her mom's request after all.

The End

Episode 6: The Artist's I | Table of Contents | Episode 8: Hate Actually

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  • HAHA, punchline in the end was great. 

    A very well-written chapter and what I liked the most about it was that Daria was a complete jerk. It takes literary balls to make a character unlikeable sometimes and you do it in this chapter. What an ignorant little know it all. Glad Jane got pissed off and Daria had to make amends. The ending was a little quick for my taste, though, and Daria, in essence, sacrifices nothing, even getting Jane to agree, and getting to do what she needed to do for her mother, but I liked that I didn't like her in this chapter. And part of me not liking her extends to things working out for her in the end.  She got the Tribunal Lore very wrong and I'm glad she had her assumptions. Readers familiar with the Tribunal will notice that right away. Though, haha, any Ashlanders present would've been all smiles. 

    Jane's description of the image of Vivec was very cool and I'm with her, not a hallucination. :D It makes sense, however, that a lack of religious piety would be the hallmark of what's to come. Rynandor alludes to it as well in Straag. 

    • Heh, I did want to make the reader a bit annoyed at Daria. While I think the series' overall tends to be a bit more sympathetic to the Empire, it's quite clear that the Imperials know-it-all tendencies are a problem, and a source of genuine grievance for others.

      Fair point on it being a little too easy. I didn't want to spend too long on the matter though, since I try to keep these stories under 25 pages. And I'm glad you enjoyed Jane's vision. Whether real or hallucinatory, it's in-character for Vivec.

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