The Places You're Not Supposed to Visit - Chapter II

VI

 

Before I speak about my experiences pertaining to the rescue of the three students of the Institute of the Water's Wisdom, who ventured into the depths of the ancient Agea Relle in response to my "wrongdoings", let me clearly state that I had no idea what I was dealing with. 

I couldn't have been less prepared for the oncoming events and my foolish belief in what knowledge I had hitherto attained would grind my resolve to a fine powder, carried away as a gentle mist along the twisted paths of that damnable Crypt. 

 

In order to assure the survival of the missing students as well as my own, Headmaster Flendel loosened a few restrictions in respect to the materials and resources I was permitted to exploit to my favour. For one, I was now permitted to go to and loiter about in places I wasn't usually allowed to visit, including the armoury, the arcane forge, the backrooms of the library, the storage compartments and, of course, the depths themselves. 

Additionally, any acquisition of materials from any of these places was, for the duration of my mission as given to me by Flendel, not counted as theft and therefore not punished. This freedom aided me greatly in my preparations and, ultimately, helped me to get where I am now.

 

Needless to say I took as many things as I could carry, taking into account the possibility of an unconscious body over my shoulder. I had calculated the probability of a person fainting in the face of terror beforehand and was sure that I had to carry or drag along at least one of them if I intended to save them. And I did. The reputation of the Institute was at stake. And so was the entirety of my future for I wanted to become a renowned scholar myself, perhaps even teach others if all went well.

I did become a scholar in the end, as you can without a doubt perceive, if not by the traditional means of professional progression within the previously established scope of opportunities. Suffice it to say I had to fight hard in order to receive any recognition at all.

 

Among the variety of items that I took along were highly potent invisibility potions, restorative tinctures, a shortsword forged of silver (for a greater blade would have impeded my movement due to my squeamish strength), a mithril chainmail under my coat and the knowledge I gained through perusal of several, rare texts that, albeit not fully understood, gave me some insight into the entity that had plagued my trans-dimensional travels thus far.

Armed with more mind than matter I set out to retrieve the missing subjects from their self-imposed imprisonment in betwixt the layers of reality. 

 

The narrow tunnel they had dug through the barricades soon disembogued into the familiar interior I had acquainted myself with rather well. The most salient features I instantly recognised which gave me a sense of direction I had had been missing in the two previous voyages. I remembered that the majority of the intact, beautiful buttresses were in the earlier parts of the structure, most of the stone women holding various magickal items. The sarcophagi began somewhat later and would form a smooth gradient between the two types of decoration. Therein lay some caskets of superior, Altmeri craftsmanship framed by the female pillars that further devolved into little spires around the entombments. 

 

The further I went, the more graves appeared. However, this, too, should soon change once more to receive the addition of furniture with many different purposes. Bookshelves and long ago dried-up, alchemical laboratories now dotted the many, cavernous halls. And I remembered these as well, for I passed them by on my first venture before I got interrupted by the infernal hungers of Oblivion. It was at this point whence I first lost my way and stumbled into the strange dimension in which I suspected the students to be. But as well as I remembered the layout of the structure, nothing could have prepared me for the next turn I took.

 

I had not been chased by Daedric terrors this time so I kept my blade sheathed and used the peace to explore my surroundings more consciously. Turns out the senses are less clouded when one isn't being chased around. I came to a crossroads that branched off into different paths. One appeared to lead into some form of ancient habitation, another led into a dark, many-pillared corridor bursting with embellishments upon its walls. Straight ahead there lay a dead end with a door which I speculated to hide an enclosed space such as a storage room based on the fact that I hadn't seen one thus far. 

 

For the sake of tying up loose ends I decided to investigate the heavy looking door at the far end of the hallway in front of me. A sturdy construct of studded wood, securely fastened with what I suspected to be rusted iron hinges that were bolted to the age old bricks. This brick wall, built into the dank caverns, deliberately separated the room that lay behind from the remainder of the subterranean expanses. A slight draft of air piped through the cracks in and underneath the robust door. The echo thereof wound itself around the corridor, bouncing off walls and ceiling. A howl of a bygone age, the reminiscence of greater things than the ruins I beheld. 

 

The cold handle felt almost lukewarm against my frostbitten fingers. Only then did I realise just how freezing it was down there. And as I pressed on the curiously soundless handle to push open the door, I knew why.

 

VII

 

Previously, I was under the impression that the various, spacial dimensions in any given place always visually represented said place the way it used to be the very moment before one would cross the event horizon, the threshold of space. In most instances, this is absolutely the case and laymen can't tell the difference. Then again, in most instances, this phenomenon occurs for about half a second so it is fiendishly hard to tell if something had changed. 

However, sometimes there is a wholly different element at play. One that sets the anomaly I am referring to apart from interdimensional travel via sigil stones and portals. For past the heavy, wooden door that opened so silently lay no ruins. Instead, a brightly lit, furnished and intact storage room presented itself to me.

 

Confused, I instantly turned around in an effort to assess the situation. I found that, curiously, the entire structure suddenly seemed strangely occupied. Many of the carved pillars now held welkynd torches. Chandeliers of varla stones hung from the high ceiling. A few burning candles accentuated the gloomier corners of the place. I turned around and around and beheld ever more things that must have freshly appeared. Clean tables with intact scrolls, firm books well ordered on sturdy shelves. Even half-eaten meals were left on metallic plates of greyish colour. 

 

Suddenly, I realised that before me had to have been the old Agea Relle. At a point in time where it hadn't yet fallen victim to disaster and decay or monstrous dæmons. And there it was, plain as day, that the infernally twisting fabric of reality was weaving time as much as it had hitherto woven space. And I had to ask myself where in time I had been on the first few voyages I undertook. 

And I profoundly wondered where in time I was then. I found no means to alleviate this issue however, as all legible Altmeri script gave no details as to day, month or era that I so impetuously walked through. And all books and scrolls present were curiously illegible in the same fashion as my personal notes were on my first trip to the forbidden parts of the Institute. 

 

What I utterly failed to carry along were quill, ink and paper. As such I was not able to directly record my findings. Nevertheless I received insight into what the place I called the Institute really was like all that time ago. And how much of its former treasures it was bereaved of, how many of the former murals, statues and artifacts were reduced to dust.

Just then I wondered if it would be possible to carry over an item from that time back to my very own and what this would do to it.

Heretofore I only speculated on dimensional liminality, spacial instability but never did I take temporal disfigurement into account.

 

In response to this rather unexpected development I stalled not and proceeded to dislodge one welkynd stone from its sconce to stash it away in my pouch. I just had to see what literal time travel would do to this object.

 

Carefully I proceeded down the hallway that I had previously traversed - albeit at a different time. My overwhelming fascination with the environment completely overshadowed the eerie sense of solitude I should have gotten. For although the halls were brightly lit and the meals on the plates half-eaten, there was no one there. Not a mer or man nor cat nor lizard. No beasts, no game, no fauna at all. The perfect illusion of bustling life began to crumble. I was alone. Alone in a temporal cross section of three dimensional space that shewed me nothing but shadows from the past.

 

Oppressive silence once again laid its tender fingers around my throat. I felt choked as I tried to breathe the depleting air in a foreign layer of reality. I began to see what I can only describe as delusional constructs of my mind that started to roam about. Humanoid silhouettes populated the densely packed caverns. At first, I thought that these were the literal shadows of the past, displaying some sort of a reenactment of their bygone everyday lives until they floated around. Some merged into greater ones, gradually transforming into a huge, black mass of the thing I had acquainted myself with weeks ago. I turned and ran for my life.

 

I made haste. Soundless steps carried me further from the encroaching dark. I managed to drink one of the invisibility potions and watched myself disappear completely but the entity pursued me all the same. Oh, my foolish belief in preparedness! It never was my physical self that the thing would pursue. Past gleaming stones and glittering baubles of an age long gone I slipped in hopes of prolonging my life and not fall victim to a viscous void. The invisibility got dispelled by the strange force of whatever attempted to capture me.

 

A screech of indefinable origin made itself manifest in this lost region of time and space, before reality folded in on itself. 

I can barely describe the visuals of this annihilation. Behind me, in front of me in the distance, in the narrow corridors that ran in-between, walls and floors and ceilings began to break, snap and crunch, getting pressed against each other with præternatural force. Condensed into an ever tinier point, the entire architecture collapsed and the hungry darkness, the wraith of the past - it grew interminably.

And then there she was, bright as Secunda against a blackened night sky. A woman clad in the usual Institute garments. Silver skin met golden hair beneath a filthy robe of what used to be the finest fabric attainable. Aimlessly she wandered here, in this unspace of transient existence. 

 

Her hollow gaze met my eyes and I watched as life returned to her dry orbs. She had lost her way and fell to despair. Now it was my duty to prevent she fall to the terrible maw of nothingness. I ran past and clutched her hand. There was no time for formalities. I pulled her along without knowing her name. In my mind I called her Secunda - and I still remember her as such. She was mute with terror and despair but I asked her the most pressing question: "Where are the others?".

 

Her eyes widened, tears bursting out of them, running down her face in thick streams. "I don't know", she aspirated as we both ran and took turns rapidly to avoid getting crushed by the hostile environment. Her breath was fast, her nose clotted so she had to breathe her mouth dry as we tried to flee from imminent doom. "They just… vanished. And then I… I stepped into the light and couldn't find an exit", she explained, holding onto her breath only just. Secunda iterated further that her companions appeared to melt away into the void before she found herself alone. 

 

In that moment, I somehow felt a temporary plane shift occur nearby. It's a phenomenon I named and described in my scriptures. It is directly linked to what I had been investigating and to what held those three, poor souls prisoner. In its simplest form, a plane shift provokes the temporary bridging of dimensional gaps, limited to a certain, unstable area. Basically a portal to and fro the pocket dimensions that seem to exist everywhere. An experienced and sufficiently sensitive mage can feel these as they appear for the entire magicka around that area changes flow direction, spin intensity and resonance frequency as long as that rift stays open. 

 

I saw the opportunity immediately and realised that I had this sensation before when I fled the darkness and ended up in the arms of the guards who would bring the entire affair to Flendel's attention. I pulled the unfamiliar girl I named Secunda along into the direction I felt the sensation from. I instinctively knew that it could provide salvation. A few steps later and it came into view. The shuffling and spiralling of reality. For the first time I was to behold the grace of the thing I so desperately tried to bring about. And now it was there, within reach, right before my eyes.

 

I tugged the girl I named Secunda along, hurried with her in tow towards the warping space straight ahead when suddenly, I lost grip of her hand. I turned and saw her fall face first to the ground. Rushing to her aid, I took her arm and pulled, trying to pull her up again so we might escape. Seconds later, I viewed the face of stark horror. I am unable to describe the look of her eyes, her expression of pure fear as I tried to pull her to me. 

The lone foot that had solemnly betrayed her was stuck in the folding, contorting rooms behind her. The black mist was gone, nowhere to be seen, but instead the place itself now turned against us. She was stuck and I didn't have the strength to sever her connexion to it. 

 

I held her hand as the most inhuman screams emanated from her, threatening to shatter her vocal cords. In the back I saw what agony drove her to this madness. Her flesh and bones were reduced to scraps of gore, little by little, as the winding spaces folded in on themselves. She was trapped and flailed about. Piercing pleas for help drilled through my skull and into my conscience. I did everything in my power to prevent her death. I tried to cut off her leg with the silver sword. And although its edge was sharp enough to cut her flesh, was it yet too dull to cleave her bones. And as the space folded I lost the sword to it.

Her fingers clawed with otherworldly strength into my skin. Her nails drew my blood as they tried to hold on. All the while, her lower body got crushed under the immense power of what destroyed this pocket of space. The legs bent unnaturally until the bones snapped and the muscles tore, folded flat on top of each other, again and again like stacks of dried leather under the hot sun of the Alik'r desert. 

 

The screaming got ever more strident until finally, her voice was no more, resigned to her compromised, bodily integrity and uncommon overexertion of the now blistered throat. A cacophony of wild wheezing and crimson gurgling spewed blood all over my garb as her upper body contracted under the impossible pressure before breaking. The last I saw of the girl I named Secunda was the lower arm with hand I held still after the ordeal was over and the force of continuous pulling threw me backwards into the shifting anomaly whereby I returned to my own dimension.

 

VIII

 

I was not prepared for that. I was young, then. And I am confident that, taking these days' experience into account, I would have recovered from that incident far more quickly. Alas, I had yet to make these experiences and so, I just sat there. Dazed, reeling, on the very precipice of mental oblivion. My tremulous hands still holding on to the final piece of the girl. The eerie silence got intermittently disturbed by my sudden inhaling of air for I forgot to breathe amidst all the chaos in my head.

 

A tiny pool of blood formed beneath the open flesh wound. The dark red water trickled down and filled the fractals in the ground. I was drenched in the sticky substance. It hardened in places and peeled off my skin where it did. Coagulated drops formed at the edges where the concentration of blood wasn't heavy enough for it to get pulled downwards. 

I was coated in smudges. Filthy, with a rotten stench of iron and decay. 

 

It took a while until I regained my senses. It felt like the world around me "popped" into existence when I awoke from my shock-induced stasis. A deep breath, in and out, the present putrefaction notwithstanding, announced the return of my more conscious self. The tremors gradually ebbed and the scientist in me began to come back. A wave of new, scholarly resolve washed over me and I decided that I could not leave this last bit of remains in those catacombs. I had to take the arm back to the surface. If not for my sake, at least the family could conduct a proper passing ceremony to mourn.

 

I made some room in my pouch and applied one of the restorative tinctures to a few wounds I had contracted in the last few moments. Chafed skin on my arms and face got mended with ease at the hands of the alchemical mixture. Even the deep cuts from the fingernails healed fully upon application of the light-green cream. The slight burning of the injuries ceased and my previously frozen joints moved properly again. 

The freed space was now occupied by the severed limb. A piece of cloth around the elbow to staunch the flow of blood into the pouch. I didn't want my resources to be sullied, after all.

 

Slowly, I left the spot I had been sitting in. There were still traces from the recent accident. Fragments of bone and sinew surrounded the tiny, red puddle. Smears on the walls. And the echoes in my mind that would never stop. 

I cleared my head of thoughts and focused on my goal. There were still two students to find, after all. If I could at least bring them back. Previously I saw this as an opportunity to deepen my understanding of the prevalent anomaly but all it did was confuse me.

I struggled to understand just how it entered different layers of time. And how it erased itself. 

 

I did not possess the necessary mental acuity at the time to come up with any valid hypothesis. What began as an adventure to experience that distortion in space once more became a nightmarish fight for survival. Sure, I carried provisions. But they were intended to last a day. Two days if I stretched my rations to some degree. However, the labyrinthine corridors and maze-like hallways held me deep within their grasp. Escape seemed impossible for I had no point of reference. I didn't know where I was and where that place was in relation to anything. There was architecture I hadn't seen before, unfamiliar markings on the walls. 

 

Had I gone deeper? I couldn't quite tell. All I knew with certainty was that I hadn't seen this part before. In the spirit of science and discovery I tried as best I could to indulge and forget my fate for now. 

The place I ended up in after the portal behind me collapsed appeared to be burial grounds at first. Unsurprising, considering the depth I must have been. But there was something queer there, too. Forwhy it may have been a place of funeral and mourning, several shrines and suspicious tables indicated otherwise. 

The true purpose of that region was made clear when I laid eyes upon a very special type of gem righteous folk rarely get to see. More unsavory practitioners of certain techniques are in closer connexion to these.

 

On a circular table, next to a small, anthracite pile of void salts atop a blueish shimmering Altmeri rune, there lay a jetty black crystal. A gem of pure, solid night that seemed to devour the surrounding light. A black soul gem, I thought. However, it was different and set itself apart from those I knew. Traditionally, a black soul gem was composed of a regular, great soul gem tainted with the blight of the Necromancer's Moon, blackened by dark magick and forever plagued. Mostly dark grey in hue, light reflected off its surface to give it a lilac shimmer.

The one before me, though, was just black. It was so dark that, at first glance, it was as if I viewed a flat object such as a piece of paper. In whatever way I turned it, even if I could feel its form I could not make out its true dimensions with my eyes. 

 

Suddenly I realised that I must have stumbled upon the lair of a necromancer of old. Perhaps the old wizards of Agea Relle used these depths to conduct their blasphemous rituals. By what means these special, black gems could have come about defied my thither acquired knowledge. There was a force inside of it that frightened me. Even so, I chose to take it with me regardless. Who knows what it might be good for should I ever be able to leave these caverns?

And as I stashed it away in my pouch, another object made itself comfortable within my palm. A bland crystal that lost its former gleam, with cracked sides and rough edges, a base of a metal alloy rich in ornamentals. It was the welkynd stone.

 

I let go of the darker-than-black bauble and produced from my pouch the welkynd stone I had brought back from my unforeseen travel back in time. It almost crumbled in my hand. An interesting discovery, for it told me that objects I bring back from these forlorn realities don't magickally duplicate - they stay the same. But I fear I may or may not have caused a temporary disturbance elsewhere because of this.

To get these thoughts out of my mind I set the gem down onto the ground, leaving it in the depths. I had no use for an artifact without power. Its antiquity made it useless to me. And perhaps it had already been used at another time.

 

I put the stone down and inadvertently disturbed a layer of very old dust as my robe flowed in the movement. The obscuring dirt coating faded and revealed beneath the powerless crystal a magick seal of unknown make. 

Never before had I seen this design. Two circles, one large and one smaller in diameter, formed as one and contained glyphs of foreign origin. Strangely curved and swirling lines stood in stark contrast to the overall ubiquitous Altmeri script that decorated walls and tapestries. In its center was drawn an eye, surrounded by more angular glyphs that did look to belong to the others.

 

I began to question the true origins and the original purpose of Agea Relle and what all of this meant when my pouch began to faintly vibrate, humming a tune of unique resonance. Singing in tune with a strange song I couldn't understand. The glyphs beneath my feet started moving; the outer circle to the right, the inner circle to the left. The pouch shook violently until I identified the source of the surge of power: the black gem. 

I took it out again and it was drawn towards the moving circle of strange, unidentifiable symbols. In mid-air it floated when a dark light emerged from it. The light made a pillar and stood as prehensile darkness in the room. And from it I could hear unnerving sounds.

 

Grey mists dispersed and shewed through the black lustre a vitreous world of crystal spires and glass floor. In the distance, a humanoid shadow knelt before a cyclopean, obsidian obelisk that towered high into the leaden sky. Rays of eternal twilight refracted in the grand monolith. Hands folded in prayer to a god that didn't rule in that realm, the figure sat still in front of the structure.

 

I involuntarily reached out to this window into another world. My fingertips touched the edge of the pillar of light and got submerged in energy. In shock, I retracted my arm when it dawned on me: I just created a portal into a soul gem!

In light of this new revelation I did the most risky thing I could. I entered the portal. With no clear way back than the promise that the connexion would not falter I trod unprecedented grounds.

 

IX

 

I dived into the light, submerging myself in the energy of a portal I could only suspect the true destination of based on the visuals the pillar had given me before. And I began to question not only Agea Relle's true purpose - I also began to ask myself how many ways to bridge gaps into other planes of existence there truly were. 

Had I hitherto believed in "Liminal Bridges" being the prime work of reference for any scholar interested in interdimensional travel, did I now get the impression that, with my experiences, I could formulate a postulate in respect to the magickal effects of antediluvian, arcane techniques and the effects of abandoned, latent energy in an environment. 

 

But I had no time to concern myself with such cogitations at that moment for I smoothly slipped through the surface into the realm of the black soul gem. The sound of crunching little glass shards announced my advent into these strange lands. The air was incredibly thin and light, chilling and breathing in felt as if a thousand little knives cut into the lungs. 

And truly, I surfaced at the very spot that I was permitted to view through the lens of the gateway, staring into the direction of the gargantuan obelisk and its worshipper. Behind me a magickal window into the ruins I came from. 

 

To reassure myself I stuck my hand inside and saw that I could leave that place if I so desired. Of course, I had no knowledge as to its stability if unsupervised from the outside, if it would stay open all by itself. But I felt a sense of urgency the second I set foot into the glass wastes of the gem's inside so I did not intend to spend more time than I had to - as much as I wanted to explore.

 

With cautious steps to prevent myself from tripping or slipping I made my way to the one landmark that dominated the landscape. The figure noticed my approach and turned its head but kept kneeling. As I drew closer I fancied I recognised the garb this shadow wore. The closer I got, the better I could examine the silhouette. 

Their skin appeared to be black and half transparent. Crystals sprouted up from underneath the hair and coat. 

 

As I neared the obelisk, a voice made itself heard. "Leave this place, lest you become part of it". The male voice emanated from the kneeling shadow. "I was as curious as you were. After I lost my companions I stumbled upon that infernal, black stone. And I made the mistake of taking the plunge and staying here for too long. The gateway behind me closed and since then, I am here. Slowly wasting away, becoming one of the many crystals that dot this landscape".

 

A closer look at the still intact parts of his garb revealed his affiliation with the Institute. He was one of the missing students, trapped in a soul gem among many other inert souls. I let my gaze wander the limitless horizon and beheld an army of vitreous irregularities in the smooth surfaces. Are all of these lost souls? I heard myself think in my own head.

"Yes", the youth answered. "There are no secrets here. I hear your thoughts as clearly as you do".

Overwhelmed, I did the only sensible thing I could think of. I grabbed his hand and tried to take him with me but he only shook his head. With his right hand he pointed down at the ground. To my shock, I discovered that his kneeling legs were already fused to the floor. The transformation had already begun.

"It is already too late for me. Leave as long as you still can", he commanded and aimed his already blackening index finger towards the shrinking portal.

 

I lost no time and hurried to escape. I jumped through and fell onto the other side. I bruised my face but that was a low price to pay in exchange for my freedom. Behind me the portal closed and the black soul gem hit the ground, rolling gently off the magick circle. 

I watched the glyphs stop spinning, the light fading. Before long all was still yet again.

An epiphany struck me square in the head and I scoured the area for some means of documentation. I needed paper and a piece of coal. I had no hope of acquiring any ink down there since I suspected that, if there had been any, it must have dried long ago. 

 

Shoving away phials, pebbles and enchanting utensils from the nearby tables I finally found the writing instruments I looked for. A dried, aged and thoroughly wrinkled piece of paper from a scroll of which the contents had become forever illegible and that would, over the following days, fade away into oblivion. It served as my improvised canvas for the charcoal in my hand to draw upon. If I intended to drive my research forward, even in light of such incredibly grim circumstances, I needed to document this. And so I drew and scrawled and scribbled, black marks of powdered, charred wood on my hands and forehead until the paper was ready. 

 

I had, with as much detail as I was able to supply taking my limited skills with drawing instruments into account, copied the magick seal on the ground for further study and analysis. Not only was the discovery of it invaluable for my research, I also needed to know more about it, its history and whence the glyphs originated from. Whoever knew of this power probably stood in contact to a thing or person whom I suppose might have been fluid in the language that was used.

I rolled the hastily scribbled scroll together and picked up the black soul gem, putting both of them in my pouch in the hopes of not triggering any other major disaster.

 

Admittedly, I was a bit nervous carrying both of these items around together for I could not tell as to whether or not the crudely drawn magick seal on the parchment could interact with the gem in any way. Today, of course, I know that it doesn't work quite as easily. Back then I had lost my trust in the everyday things I previously viewed as harmless and mundane. I was terribly insecure following those events as my perspective got steadily warped and distorted. 

I really didn't know what to expect. After traveling through time and impossible places I believed that anything could happen. Understandable, I suppose. After all, I didn't even get the time necessary to come to terms with the situation at large.

 

But there was yet hope. For even though I had lost the girl I never knew and the young man who fell to the crystalline shadows, I did carry what remained of them and their memories. And I also knew that there still remained one missing student of the Institute to be found. One to possibly bring back alive. This knowledge fed my resolve to carry on in spite of the ordeal I had already been forced to endure. Lesser men might have given up but I had so many things in my mind that I wanted to still do, so giving up was never an option.

I was not particularly brave, mind you. But I was curious enough to brace the unknown even in the face of death. I just had to know. The secrets beckoned so sweetly that I foolishly disregarded each and every warning along my ruinous path. A path that should lead me to even greater peril.

 

X

 

Skulking in the darkness of the caverns was burdensome. But it was not the darkness alone that kept me on edge - there came together several, critical factors that made the region I traversed particularly inhospitable and undesirable as a location for any sort of travel.

For one, there was an abundance of corpses. Inside or outside of sarcophagi, in the walls, on the floor, hanging from the ceiling. The deeper I went, the more bodies appeared. While it may be a necromancer's paradise, I had the sneaking suspicion that those dank reaches may not have been used for necromancy. At least this wasn't the sole purpose of the crumbling mausoleum I had set foot in as was evidenced by the presence of those special glyph circles of the ilk I had crudely documented before in specially designed stone pedestals beside greater concentrations of bodies.

 

The ubiquity of death and putrefaction in conjunction with the frightening implications of the excess of the strange magick seals notwithstanding the absence of soul gems to use them with painted a queer picture of alienation from what I was wont to believe or know about the civilisations I thought I was familiar with. 

An Altmeri death cult that gained access to the planes of soul gems? Closer examination of the dead that lay scattered everywhere revealed that all of them were merish in origin - if not outright Altmer. This led me to believe that whoever was in charge of these depths intended to capture and seal away all of those Altmer inside of soul gems without killing them directly, using the portals as a possible way back. It didn't make a lot of sense but this was the only explanation I had at the time.

 

Mounds of rock and bones concealed a few deadly drops that hid themselves in the treacherous floor. Holes with darkness protruding from them I almost fell into every once in a while, attributed to the low visibility of anything and everything. Some of which sported broken ladders. There was an even deeper layer to this. I had already trouble estimating just how far down I was. 

After all, I just emerged here after I fell through a shifting, shuffling anomaly in mid-air from a dimension I could barely comprehend. To say that I was utterly lost would be an understatement. I had absolutely no idea where I was. 

 

As the time down there passed, I began to lose all sense of direction or time or place. Each corner I turned looked just like the last, every hole I stared down into contained the same abyss. I knew not whence I came, where the exit was. It was just too dark to see clearly. The only things that were visible against the darkness were the holes in the ground, for they were even darker.

Finally I rested, exhausted from the labyrinth. Natural stone pillars stretched from floor to ceiling amidst the increasing amount of holes. A forest of ice cold rock surrounded me. I carried myself a little further and noticed that the many corpses that had hitherto occupied the scenery were nowhere to be found. Only stone and holes and darkness. 

 

In a last-ditch effort I conjured one more light to see if there was a path I could follow out of this maze. The match was struck, the flame was lit and a face, frightened out of its mind, appeared before me, pushing me away. I slipped and fell headfirst into one of the ominous holes. The fearful figure tripped on a nearby stone outcropping shortly after they tried to flee and fell into the abyss as well.

I could not scream for I felt such fear that I was mute. I heard the other person scream as I fell until a very unpleasant noise silenced the wails of the poor soul. And I fell deeper and deeper, into a cold embrace.

 

Something happened. I was blind and cold. I stopped falling and instead floated in the viscous void I had been floating in before. There was nothing, only the silence of my deafened ears. I heard my own breathing, my own heartbeat. Where did I go? 

I remembered the fall and the demise of whom I theorised to be the last missing student. After they died I stopped falling and started to gently float about in the blackness. 

Then I knew. I had slipped in between dimensions again, right after they had died. Their exitus was my salvation. 

 

My heart raced. I suddenly understood what had happened and I knew I had to get out. I survived the viscous void once and resurfaced somewhere within the Institute. But I had nary a recollection of all the events that led thither.

It felt like waking from a dream to find yourself within a nightmare. I struggled and kicked and tried to shout - for naught. All my efforts did was to deepen my sorrow as fluid leaked into my lungs. It flooded my body until I thought I'd drown. This is it, then, I heard my mind think. But just as I accepted my fate, a force disturbed the murky waters that threatened to swallow me whole. Raucous rumbling, swirling movement and quaking ocean shattered the chains that bound me. And just like that, I woke, drenched, not far from the guarded entrance I had taken into the depths.

 

XI

 

An inexplicable mass of opaque water spread in the narrow tunnel I had crawled through to get inside the forbidden parts of Agea Relle. It washed over me, it cleansed ancient dust off the floor that I laid upon, coughing heavily, gasping for air, struggling intensely to evacuate what was left of this fluid from my respiratory system.

I involuntarily stained the stones beneath me with the contents of my stomach as it emptied itself to prevent further harm. There was no telling of how much water I must have accidentally swallowed as I tried to free myself from the clutches of an abyssal sea.

 

I was drenched but even this could not wash away the blood of the girl. Nor did it destroy my belongings. Just as if it tried only to kill me without leaving many traces of itself. As if it had some degree of sentience or at least thinking. Perhaps it was the darkness that pursued me whenever I trod those grounds. 

I recovered from the shock of having been almost drowned and clumsily crawled out of the little aperture that separated the depths from the rest of the Institute. I was careful not to damage my pouch or the contents therein. They were of the utmost importance. 

 

Halfway through the opening, the guards already grabbed my coat and pulled me out, helping me to my feet. Their faces spoke volumes but none possessed the courage to inquire about the details of my harrowing journey. They instantly understood, however, that my mission must have been less than successful judging from my ragged appearance and the lack of any companions. 

One of the knights pointed towards the blood stains on my robe and asked: "Whose…?".

"Mine", I lied, cutting him off. "Just… take me to Flendel. We have something to discuss, I'm afraid".

 

With the two knights of the Order in tow I ascended the many steps of the numerous staircases. Some followed straight and angular designs whereas others were curiously wound, not quite spiralling upwards or downwards either. The architects of this monumental structure, that went several orders of magnitude deeper than any of us knew, were as ingenious as they appeared to be mad.

After some time I again arrived at the door to Headmaster Flendel's quarters at the top of the highest reaching tower in the Institute. The sight of his door filled me with a deep respect but also with worry, for I had no good news to bring back to my contractor. The knights left me alone and returned to their posts. I knocked at the door.

 

Flendel's expression was that of shock, wonder and disappointment. His mouth agape and his sharp eyebrows raised, it took a while until he could voice any question at all.

"What by Oblivion happened to you?", he asked. "And I suppose the absence of other students in similar condition means that…". He stopped and covered his mouth with his slender, grey fingers in thought. 

 

I opened my pouch and produced from it the coarsely bandaged arm of the girl. "This is what's left", I heard myself whisper. A tear made its way from my eye to my chin. "Of the girl", I finished. 

My hands began to shake and Flendel took away the burden of the arm from me before it could escape my unsteady grasp. 

"And the others?", he inquired, arm still in hand.

I told him the entire story, my entire ordeal and what it meant for the Institute as a whole.

 

I relayed to Flendel how I ended up in a space that was back in time. How I met the girl and how she, then, met her demise. 

I told him of my findings in the mausoleum within some of the deepest reaches of that infernal abyss. Of the magick seals and the soul gem which I shewed to him. I explained what these things did without telling him that I copied the strange glyphs so that I might keep my parchment. I told of how I inadvertently disturbed the seal and opened a portal before I handed him the gem.

 

Through touch alone, Flendel knew what immense power slumbered within. I iterated upon the mounds of dried corpses and the many humanoid shapes I observed along the horizon of the gem's inside. And of the young man who knelt there.

"You went inside of the gem?", Flendel asked bewilderedly. He could not truly believe it but he had to trust my story regardless. And he realised that he held in his hands the equivalent of a small civilisation's worth of souls, possibly. And what remained of the second student.

 

Flendel made sure to properly confiscate the great, black stone for further analysis. Then he turned to me, expectantly. "And the last one?".

I began to talk about the last portion of my travels. About the darkness and the underworld I found myself in. How I endlessly wandered betwixt pillars of rock until I met the one whom I was looking for. And how the tragic tale concluded as the two of us fell and only one would hit the ground. And I drifted back into the world I knew by means I have yet to understand completely. 

 

We sat in silence for a while, Flendel and I. His eyes raced back and forth and back again as he contemplated the information I had just given him. He inhaled and exhaled strongly and shook his head. His hands pressed against his eyes and his tired gaze met mine. 

"I'd suggest you return to your quarters. I have a lot to take care of. Thank you for your services. I… will provide compensation as soon as we'll meet again."

He sighed.

"Now leave me be. I have letters to write and reports to file. Thank you again."

 

With these words, our esteemed headmaster bid me farewell and sent me back to my room whither I went without asking questions. 

My garb had dried in the meantime. When I finally returned to my room I put my pouch next to the bed that I would lay and rest upon. A dreamless sleep would engulf me as soon as my head touched the pillow.

A few days went by but I did not leave my room. I was afraid I could attract the attention of any students in mourning over their lost friends. Or worse.

 

Instead, I would spend my time with analysis and the proper reconstruction of the magick seal that was already beginning to vanish as coal is quite a fickle material when it comes to documentation. 

Meticulously I would make every effort to adequately depict what I had seen down below on a fresh paper using ink. Accuracy was important if I intended to use it in later studies. If I did sloppy work I might as well quit. Magick needs precision, after all.

 

The restoration process was arduous but necessary. After days of painful drawing and writing down entire paragraphs pertaining to the nature and shapes of the glyphs used,  my work was done. The seal was complete with all its symbols of which I took various notes, comparing them to other glyphs and alphabets that I knew in an effort to gain more insight into the inner workings of this exotic type of magick.

I wrote down anything I could remember of my experience, made a sketch of the soul gem I used and tried to figure out what forces were at play here.

And yet, there was so much more to think about. The time travel phenomenon to one of those lifeless dimensions as well as the way in which the fabric of reality would collapse. I filled many pages after all that had up to that point happened. And that was the right choice, forwhy one day, there was a knock at my door just as I wanted to make an attempt at coming up with a solid hypothesis. 

It was Headmaster Flendel.

 

"Mr. Gautier", he began, "over these past few days I have stood in close contact with the Magistrate. It was my duty as this institution's leading figure to discuss the matter of the missing students with them. I'm afraid to tell you that they have been less than pleased with what I had to tell."

"They have issued an investigation into the things you have found and brought back. Since you haven't left your quarters in a while it is understandable that you missed it. I did everything in my power to keep the Magistrate away from your person as to not incite more ill reminiscence. However, they have come to a conclusion today which I received by mail. The letter contained precise instructions that I must follow if I intend to keep this place of learning alive".

 

"The letter reads thusly:

 

By order of the Magistrate:

The student Robert Gautier needs to take responsibility for his actions. His improvidence led to the untimely demise of three of his own and opened the doors to a realm of danger beneath a densely populated area. There is no telling of how profound the resulting consequences may become. Thus, the Magistrate deems it appropriate to permanently restrict Mr. Gautier's access to the institution. 

 

Furthermore, Headmaster Alven Flendel is to immediately instruct Mr. Gautier to leave the Institute of the Water's Wisdom within the next two (2) days and take his personal belongings with him. Failure to follow this order will result in the temporary or permanent shutdown of the Institute of the Water's Wisdom and Headmaster Alven Flendel's immediate retirement from his position as headmaster of this or any other magical institution now or in the future.

 

-The Magistrate"

 

 

"I am sorry, Mr. Gautier. I have to expel you from the Institute. Please, pack your things and leave within the next two days. If you fail to leave in time, an escort of knights will assist you in exiting this institution".

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