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

XII

 

In retrospect, I should have probably never defied the laws and regulations of the Institute. Some horrible deaths could have been prevented and who knows? Perhaps I could have grown into a proficient teacher myself by now. Or became a scholar with some reputation whose knowledge is sought after by many kingdoms. But if this was the case, none of the groundbreaking revelations I have to relay would have been discovered. Any lesser wizard than I would have been consumed by Agea Relle's depths and so, all of those secrets would have never made it to the surface.

 

I do deeply regret, however, that I had been forcibly removed from the Institute of the Water's Wisdom by the Magistrate.

Oh yes, the Magistrate.

 

They are a more recently formed elite group of witches, wizards, mages and enchanters who came together from all over Tamriel during the Fourth Era after the Dragon Crisis. 

As the Crypt of Hearts got restored into a place of study, other places had sprung up all over the continent as well. At one time there were over three hundred different, little institutions - from the small household who engaged in cheerful backyard teaching to the grandiose Institute and others of its ilk, there was no limit to how big or small these places could be. 

 

In response to the overwhelming amount of self-proclaimed teachers, a conglomerate of court wizards, warlocks and hardened veteran mages from all provinces (even Orsinium, if you count it as such) came together in High Rock in the then freshly restored Crypt of Hearts to discuss the matter and find a solution to a problem that began to foreshadow itself on the horizon. 

Due to their high ranking positions within the various, continental monarchies, these mages held some power and were granted political authority over the world of magickal teaching institutions. 

The results were laws that the ruling parties of the provinces needed to agree upon. These laws were highly specific but had since then shaped the world of magick teaching.

 

The very first step the newly founded Magistrate took was to cull the many places of learning to more manageable numbers. The first law they presented concerned itself with the minimum size of the institution and staff in question. To quote their official pamphlet, it stated:

 

"A probable institution intended for the learning and teaching of theoretical and applied magic, tonal architecture, enchanting, the doctrine of souls, Thu'um theory, mythomathematics, alchemy amongst other topics of arcanely relevant fields must fulfill all of the following prerequisites:

 

 

  • It must possess a floorspace of at least 12.800 square pertans
  • It must possess at least two storeys above ground level for habitation
  • It must possess at least one storey below ground level for storage of arcane and alchemical items; said space is required to be inaccessible to apprentices
  • It must possess at least one designated space for magical practice with a floorspace of at least 4.000 square pertans 
  • It must be occupied by no less than 5 experienced mages at all times who pose as teachers and managers of the institution in question; the mages in question are required to possess experience of at least expert rank of all traditional schools of magic
  • Every institution is required to choose and appoint a headmaster, arch mage or an otherwise magically competent practitioner as headmaster, arch mage or an equivalent position of authority to lead the institution in question; said headmasters are bound by the jurisdictional influence of the Magistrate."

 

 

This is but one of the many laws the Magistrate conceived of - but it was also the most important at its time. This law single-handedly erased countless of these "schools" and led to the development of bigger schools and universities instead. The small bands of tiny mage conglomerates needed to come together in order to build a school. This simultaneously made the matter more manageable and raised the quality of the things being taught, so the Magistrate wasn't all bad.

 

But this Magistrate was also responsible for my involuntary discontinuation of studying magick at the Institute. It was founded in the Institute and held special jurisdictional power over Alven Flendel. If push comes to shove, the Magistrate can shove.

And so it was that I got expelled and had to make my fortune elsewhere. There was nothing Flendel could do for me if he intended to keep his occupation. And I held no grudge against him. How could I? He was just following orders like everyone else.

 

I had two days to gather my belongings and leave the Institute's premises. If I didn't want a small squadron of armed and armoured knights to "assist" me in exiting the Institute, of course. 

I knew that I did not intend to make my removal any more forceful than it already was, so I made haste to cram everything I owned into the few bags I had.

Available were a pouch, a knapsack and the space that I had to carry items on my person. Not much, considering the immense number of papers I filled with my notes, theories, revelations, analyses and more. Already two books' worth of the written word just from my personal notes. Additionally I needed to carry various, alchemical experiments I had done during actual classes, volumes of basic arcane knowledge, clothes, ingredients, food.

 

It was fiendishly difficult to leave with everything that I owned so I left the books I brought thither in my old room to make space for my notes. I also abandoned the concoctions I brewed as well as the Institute robe. This enabled me to carry some additional food to whichever place the Divines would guide me.

Not that the Nine did have any part in my business. It is more like Daedra to meddle in the affairs of mortals, albeit I sometimes mused that one of the Aedra was at least in part responsible for my survival. Today I know that this is entirely impossible though.

 

Before long I found myself at the gates of the Institute of the Water's Wisdom, formerly Crypt of Hearts, formerly Agea Relle, and wondered whither I should go.

To return to the estate of my family was out of the question. Charitable people they may be, they'd still view my failure with disdain. This venerable lineage did not exactly permit social blemishes. I acted in an unruly and childish manner wherefore I lost the grace of my family whether I told them or not. Prematurely returning to the Gautier Estate would be less than preferable. 

So I did the only thing a sensible, lone mage could do: search for vacant ruins and set up camp.

 

I cleverly snuck out not through the entrance that lay on the High Rock side of the Institute. Instead I exited through the other entrance located past Skyrim's border. I couldn't really return to North Point and my family would have found me if I stayed in High Rock. Flendel had no doubt sent a letter to the Gautier Estate to notify them of my removal. So there was no place I wished to go in my home province.

Skyrim was the most immediately reachable province from the Institute. The great double doors disembogued into the Skyrim hold known as the Reach with its great city of stone against a mighty mountain ridge.

 

XIII

 

The Reach was, as would soon become apparent, less than ideal a region to occupy and dwell in. There were several, rather inconvenient circumstances that all came together to make it a very inhospitable place to call home.

For one, there was a regionally active, politically problematical group called the Forsworn. A hold-spanning tribe of utter barbarians believed to be led by the even more despicable hagravens, the second big problem. And although their ritualistic briarhearts and the frequent camps were a great source of alchemical items as well as magickal oddities, so were these people quite lethal to be around and best avoided.

 

Truth be told, the only somewhat safe place in the Reach was the great city of Markarth. But even then did one constantly run the risk of being arbitrarily persecuted for a crime one didn't commit just so that there was another slave to work in the Cidhna mine. Corruption and lopsided politics were the norm within the city limits and the hold as a whole. The Jarl possessed only limited power which was itself mostly limited to Understone Keep. Outside the partly subterranean castle, the Silver Bloods were the real rulers.

Combined with the oppressive fear of Markarth's populace of the Forsworn tribes outside, and possible Forsworn agents that destabilised the government and social infrastructure from within, the grandiose city of stone was one of the worst places one could choose to spend their time in.

 

The only redeeming factor for Markarth was its Dwemeri heritage and Calcelmo, a great Altmer scholar and expert on the field of Dwemer studies, who researches the lost race of Tamriel even today in the bowels of Understone Keep. Curiously, he always seemed unimpressed by all the commotion outside his quarters down by the ruins.

I've met him a couple of times in later years after my unique field of study became somewhat established and I struggle to understand why he is particularly unbothered by the reachmen and the Silver Bloods.

Perhaps he is a mightier mage than he would let on. Or maybe he is not important enough of a political target to expect any real harm.

 

After I crossed the border to Skyrim I knew that I should depart from the Reach as quickly as possible. I carried too much research with me to die or get robbed. Research that was too valuable to be measured in Septims. Taking into account what conclusions I reached because of it, its value is phantastical.

I made my way from the hold's border to the city of Markarth quickly to avoid complications. I feared for my life every step of the way which was part of the reason for my almost irrational haste. But I knew better than to loiter about beneath the white branches of a juniper tree and rest, only to become a target for resident savages and black-feathered witches. I came prepared. 

 

Back at the Institute, I chose wisely to add "Tamrielic Zoology and Anthropology" to my fields of study, which conveniently included some specimens found predominantly in and around Skyrim such as the hagravens or the ravenous Falmer that would surely lie in wait and prey on me once I tried to enter any underground structure. Volumes such as "Cats of Skyrim", "The "Madmen" of the Reach", "The Wispmother" and the various entries in Herbane's Bestiary. All of these were of course nothing compared to actual experience out in the field. But I never suspected to find myself in Skyrim in the first place, especially not under such circumstances. 

 

Inside Markarth's borders was not much safer than outside. However, most travelers who spent less than a few days in the city or merchants who would not visit the place on a regular basis were largely left alone by all the political noise that was clouding everyone's judgment and mind. Not every stranger was an agent, not every outsider potentially dangerous or harmful. Even the narrow-minded folk of the city of stone realised that. 

Even so, I chose a short stay. Dusk had already begun to fall when I reached the city gates and travel by carriage wasn't safe enough during nighttime which made me opt to stay the night in the Silver Blood Inn. The Reach was already littered with hazards during the day. There was no need to take any chances during the night. A warm mead, stew and some meat from the market kept my hunger and thirst at bay for the time being and even the stone bed promised a restful sleep - although I didn't truly understand how exactly it intended to provide such.

 

The night was rough and the bed didn't really help that. Don't misunderstand; it was strangely comfortable - for a boulder, that is - but the lethal mix of homesickness, lost honour and the great unknown I now faced were quite tough. I had been to queer dimensions, sure. But they were based on the places I already knew, were they not? I had to flee my home to find myself in a hostile place. I felt deeply unwelcome. Stares of profound disdain and looks of ambiguous motivation came from the glassy eyes of half-drunk patrons. They accompanied my every step into insecure bed chambers and I wasn't all that convinced the door to my temporary quarters would hold fast should a sneak thief try its lock.

Worse still was the commotion from inside the inn that was all too typical for an establishment of its kind. Yet I felt the various guests shouted in a deliberately noisy manner to disturb my already troubled sleep. My fear for molestation turned out to be unwarranted however, and the next morning I was able to leave the city unimpeded.

 

I headed straight for the horse carriage that appeared to be occupied at all times of day. Stranger yet was the fact that it seemed to wait just for me. Perhaps it was my imagination or pure coincidence but during my stay in Skyrim I've never seen any carriages on the many roads of the icy province. Or maybe the Skyrim folk just didn't travel much.

"Stranger.", the burly man on the wooden seat dryly greeted me from above. "I can take you to any of Skyrim's capitals. For a price."

I acquiesced to the conditions of payment in Septims and asked him about the different holds to find a suitable place for habitation. I needed to procure a more permanent means of shelter that wasn't too close to prying eyes for I intended to continue my research inside Skyrim's borders. 

 

"Well", the man on the carriage inhaled, "northeast o' 'ere lies the City o' Solitude in Haafingar. Skyrim's capital and seat o' the High King and his military in the Blue Palace and Castle Dour, respectively. There ain't too much goin' on with what the Imperial soldiers an' all but for non-Stormcloaks it's probably the safest place in the province!"

"Haafingar itself features many pleasant views on the forest and rivers an' there runs a swift road between Solitude and Dragon Bridge. Aside from the two places, most people travel to Haafingar fer dealings with the East Empire Company down at the docks. I've never been to the warehouse meself but other travelers told me to avoid it if possible. The EEC warehouse is apparently home to cutpurses, thieves, smugglers and even more unsavory folk from what I've heard."

 

"Very close to Solitude, a little to the southeast on the map, lies Morthal. A hold o' cold swamp land. Difficult to traverse on foot and quite treacherous with the tall grass and pools of muddy water. The landscape doesn't have much to offer aside from moist air, fog and some trees. The citizens there are especially superstitious in regards to the dark arts and can come off as a little rough and somewhat distrustful. But once they get to know ya they can be real charmers."

"From the barren waste that is Morthal runs a road to Dawnstar in The Pale. Halfway lies the Stonechills mine. If yer feelin' particularly adventurous ye can try and scour for leftovers. But beware of what lurks in the shadows. Many a traveler was never seen again after they've entered the mine."

"Dawnstar's a cold place. The citizens are usually in conflict with a certain dweller and proprietor of some kind of museum. But if ya stay away from all o' that commotion and keep yer thoughts to yer self it'll be fine. I happen to know the owner o' 

Windpeak Inn. Serves the best dishes in all o' Skyrim, far as I'm concerned. But ya should see fer yer self, really."

 

"But if yer up for a colder, quieter place, Winterhold's gotcha cover'd. Most carriages don't even voluntarily go there because the frigid weather by itself is all sorts o' trouble."

Upon the mention of a quiet place many people seem to avoid purely because of the harsh climate, I began to listen attentively.

"The horses tend to get spook'd by white shadows in the icy gusts whenever I'm unlucky enough to drive into a blizzard. Makes me skin crawl but it's a good source'a some extra Septims. But that's just the tip of the iceberg." He chuckled. "Heh, iceberg…" I looked queerly at him to suggest he continue his speech in the manner that I was accustomed to and he went on without much hesitation, albeit a bit hurt due to our differences in humour.

"A-anyway, as I was sayin', lots'a trouble for us drivers up there. The wood of our wheels 'n wagons tends to take huge hits from all the ice, bending and cracking after prolonged exposure. 'Tis why ye never see a carriage ready at Winterhold. The wood just ain't sturdy enough to withstand the cold for longer than a few days. But folks never wan'ta go there much anyways. There's nothin' there after all. Half the town got swallowed by the great collapse a long time ago and half o' the oder half is in ruins. The few hardy people who remain'd are grumpy at best. The innkeeper's a friendly fellow, however."

"If ya head'n up there ye best not showin' off any o' that magic o' yours. Winterholders're suspicious o' them mages. It ain't no coincidence the College of Winterhold lies next to the destroyed part o' town I tell ye. Everyone knows that. But if ya need some magic knowledge, the College is yer place. Just don't tell anyone about it. The surrounding lands are but cover'd in ice and snow. So if ye brave the elements, beware."

"Rumour has it that there's the remains of a sunken fort to be discover'd somewhere in the hold. Some say Shalidor himself built it! But it is lost to history, now. The only remaining structure erected by Shalidor would be the Labyrinthian in Hjaalmarch southeast of Morthal. Anoder secluded place - if y'know how to find it."

 

The burly man on the carriage prepared himself to speak yet more about the different holds and their capitals but I raised my hand to motion him to hold his breath. 

"I need you to tell me more about this Labyrinthian you just mentioned. What is it?".

"I dunno, really. Some half-forgotten magic place that's mostly reduced to ruins these days. But ye might yet find treasure o'er there, still. They say the great Shalidor, first arch mage, constructed a great labyrinth atop the ruins of an old city from the dragon age. No idea if the stories're true. But if I know one thing it's that old ruins usually harbour great riches. Ye should perhaps take a look. However, I can't take ye there directly as there's no solid road leadin' to that place. Better ask around in Morthal for directions. All I know is that it lies high up on the mountains southeast o' Morthal. Shall I take ye there?"

A secluded place, up in the mountains where it's so cold most people actively avoid going there and an abandoned, magical ruin no less? This had to be my next destination as it was the ideal place for a scholar of my talents.

"Yes", I then said, "take me to Morthal. I'll take it from there."

Coin changed owners and I climbed up the wooden wagon, off to the town of Morthal on my quest to find the legendary Labyrinthian. 

 

XIV

 

The way was longer than expected and after a wild ride over rough rock surfaces and holes, even though we kept to the road, I arrived at dusk in the town of Morthal. From Markarth, we took the road southeast, past Reachwater Rock and Bilegulch Mine. We emerged at a crossroads and took the road that led further up northwest. When we arrived at Rorikstead, we headed north until we passed a Bridge, following the road west into a semicircle that would eventually loop back east for us to go straight to Morthal. I thanked my driver before hopping off to enter the town's borders.

From what I could see during the ride, the Hjaalmarch appeared to be paradoxically less hospitable than the Reach notwithstanding the lack of political insurgents and anthropomorphic abominations. The cold and foggy swamps were filled with insects despite the low temperatures and the moist air was gelid and difficult to get used to. But I didn't come to Morthal to live there. I came to Morthal to find my next place of power.

 

Places of power are usually described as locations with a lot of latent and/or clearly present, magickal energy that can be manipulated in a few ways. From applying outside force to taking energy away directly via complex techniques. Such places can be very old burial sites such as Ayleid ruins, but also objects with a direct connexion to the cosmos like the standing stones that dot Skyrim's landscape. However, the kind of place I was looking for had to possess another quality entirely. For the purposes of my queer studies, a rich history of magick usage by as many different people as possible was imperative - and Labyrinthian proved to be the perfect location for these studies. If any of the old stories are to be believed, Labyrinthian was much more than Shalidor's maze.

 

My first destination was the local tavern. Not only were I in need of something warm to eat and quench my thirst. A bed was also in order for the hour was late and the sun hung low over the horizon, ready to disappear beyond the sea. I stepped in from the moist cold and a friendly Redguard with a brightly lit face greeted me. 

"Welcome to the Moorside Inn, traveler!"

The inn was mostly vacant but I figured that not many people would go out of their way of visiting this half-sunken town deep in the marshes. I circled around the large, crackling fireplace that was placed right in the center of the room - a thing typical of most smaller inns in Skyrim - and approached the counter. 

The heat in my back dried the fabric on my body and the woman asked me what I'll be having.

"A venison stew, a warm mead, some water and a bed for the night", I said. After a few calculations, she demanded 18 Septims total. "Water's free", she said, smiling.

I paid her 20 Septims for her troubles and inquired about local rumours surrounding Labyrinthian to spark up a conversation. 

 

"Labyrinthian? No more than ruins on a hill if you ask me. But rumour has it a rogue mage has made it his home. I wouldn't know what anyone would want with the place, though. After the Dragon Crisis it is all but a pile of dust and debris. If there was anything valuable in there I'm sure it's been taken. Why do you ask anyway? You're not planning to go there yourself, are you?"

I shrugged and said "Oh, no, I'm just curious about local legendry is all. Besides, I heard the great Shalidor climbed the mountain and built a maze there. Is this true? How would one even get up there? All I saw on my way here was a steep incline and sharp rocks.", I replied, cleverly concealing my true motives.

"There runs an offshoot path up the mountain just south from here, marked by stone stairs and walkways at the foot of the mountain. However, I recommend not to try and reach the ancient structure. Word is it's infested with ice trolls and packs of wolves hunt on the road. The way isn't safe for travelers. A mage such as Shalidor would have no trouble, however. Mages of his kind usually fight much stronger prey. I'm sorry for prying, but you really don't intend to go there, right? I just want to make sure."

I shook my head in response. "I do not intend to visit a place that dangerous. I'm just passing through here and thought I'd ask about the interesting landmarks of the hold before I'm on my way tomorrow." I tried my utmost to remain as inconspicuous as possible. I didn't want anyone to follow me and possibly cause trouble.

 

"Ah, then I'm reassured. So, where are you heading, then? Falkreath? The Rift? Can't imagine you'd like to travel to the even colder holds such as Winterhold."

I chuckled. "Well, what do you know. Winterhold is exactly where I'm headed! To study magic, of course. The hold may be rather inhospitable but I'm sure the College is all warm and cosy."

"You're probably right. Then I wish you luck at the College.", she closed. I had my meal and something to drink while the Redguard woman began to clean the counter. But most importantly, I had all the directions I needed to get to Labyrinthian. The threat of trolls and wolves did little to deter me. I would find a way to deal with these. I had a few offensive spells in my repertoire and, if I remembered correctly, trolls were seriously afraid of fire. Casting a few fireballs shouldn't be too difficult. 

 

I finished my meal and entered the room I rented for the night. The sun had already disappeared behind the horizon and the constellations now ruled supreme in the starry vault. A faint glimmer of Masser lit up the room that I should rest in. The bed was built of a simple wood frame and a mattress of hay in a linen sack. Draped over it, a roughly sewn blanket that would try its best to keep me warm. I made no use of the end table upon which sat an unlit candle. Likewise, the cupboard would also see no use that night as I didn't want to leave my belongings out in the open. I neatly tucked them in under the bedstead and laid myself to rest to get up early the next morning and leave before the innkeeper could notice that I'm gone.

As my weary eyes closed from the long journey I found I could open them no longer. At least not with an effort I deemed worth the trouble. So I drifted off to sleep in sweet anticipation of my goal.

 

Suddenly I came to and saw that I was in complete and utter darkness. I sat upright in the bed and tried to make sense of my surroundings. That, however, proved to be rather difficult for there were no discernible shapes in sight. A featureless black surrounded me like the hungry inside of a mouth. The only thing that differentiated itself from it was a faint noise way out in the distance. Like a gentle yet pressing whisper, I felt that it was calling me. Or perhaps it wasn't, it's difficult to remember this. A few very sharp, whispered sounds lined themselves up to form a familiar word I fancied I have heard before.

From the darkness, something appeared to rise that was just as shadowy. Only a humming outline of dancing air told of its presence. I had to squint to see it clearly, after which I inhaled in shock. Either the thing was small and relatively nearby - or truly far away and monstrously large. Its many silhouettes spread across the empty space as I speculated on its size when it became clear that it must have been gargantuan, yet far enough away. 

 

The whispers got increasingly louder and the word they said clearer. As I strained my ears to discern what was said I also realised that I had seen the thing before elsewhere. In the shortest unit of time imaginable, a host of thoughts poured like an uncontrollable cataract into my brain, threatening to drown it. 

Firstly, I recognised the undulating dark in the distance as the same that I came across during my interdimensional travels in the Institute of the Water's Wisdom. Moreover, the whisper had by that point reached the clarity that I needed to understand the word on a subconscious level, as no throat of neither man, mer nor beast could be able to produce that sound. Fthnsthul. Over and over again, this one combination of sounds to form a word no tongue knew. I remember having recorded it once only to have it resurface in my own reality as a jumbled mess of seemingly random glyphs nobody could read. But what did it mean?

Yet again I floated in this black nothingness as I had two times before. However, this time my body and spirit did not fail me and I was in complete control over my thoughts and actions. I dreamed. And it was in my dreams that it desired to trap me and seal me away. It never said anything to me to convey its agenda. I just knew.

 

Of course it was not without fear that I was made aware of my situation. I looked on in both horror and awe as the darkness that was just as dank as the jetty black abyss I was surrounded by closed in. 

Perhaps the most terrifying part was that I had no point of reference, no horizon to orient myself at and no relation as to the actual size of distances, heights and depths. This made it impossible for me to say with absolute certainty how far away the almost invisible tendril was that crept towards me. It was there that I wondered if the realm of dream is its own plane of existence and exists not purely in our heads whenever our consciousness leaves its physical containment. For if it was, I was in way greater trouble than I wanted to admit to myself.

I could not afford to panic. Even in the shadow of death I calmed myself - breathing in and out slowly to focus what magick was available to me in my state. Curiously, I found that my pool of magicka that I had control over appeared to be several times that of my waking mind. I was confused but didn't worry about the details of my nocturnal adventure too much. If it meant that I was more powerful by a few orders of magnitude - so be it.

 

I focused all of the magicka that I could to try and break out of the dream. It turns out that the sleep-induced paralysis one experiences in deep sleep doesn't get cured as easily as magickal paralysis. And when the elongated shadow of an evil most foul finally reached my face and almost touched the tip of my nose, I did the only sensible thing. I created a sphere of fire around myself to try and ward it off. If I couldn't escape, the least I could try is defend myself. 

I let the burning sphere around me grow in size and levitate with me off the ground. My bed was reduced to ashes in the process. I felt that all I had to do was motion with my fingers, hands and arms to create fiery appendages that lashed out at my enemy. I moved ever so slightly to steer my red hot orb to either side, to front and back. I set the ground beneath me on fire, and as it raged, I felt in control again. 

Not only my magickal potential seemed heightened - my expertise with which I would wield it did, too. From my fingertips, I let pillars of flame appear before me and the dark entity was burned. I looked down and saw the smouldering floor whereupon an idea struck my mind. If there is a floor, I thought, there might be walls and a ceiling. With the burning flames I could perhaps get a grasp on the spatial dimensions of where I was.

 

I lost no time and grew a flaming pillar as tall as I could until somewhere high above me, the flames spread out in a circle around the pillar - they collided with something solid. That must have been at least 500 pertans of height. 

I continued my assault and conjured a fire spear to either side to see if I could set any walls ablaze. And indeed, I could. About 1000 pertans to either side in distance were solid blockades that would not permit me to view what lay beyond. In the meantime, the entity that I burned a few moments ago became angry from what I could tell. It was just as if it actively tried to hold me captive where I was.

During my stay at the Institute it must've burrowed into my mind and construct these pitch black barriers around my astral shape. There was no other way it could have possibly exhibited such a level of control over my subconscious during my sleep. As such, I began to suspect that behind this cage must have been something most peculiar. 

Driven by my desire to be free from this horror, to glance past the obscuring darkness, I concentrated on gathering as much energy as my altered, astral state of being would permit and with a flash, a hot, white light emerged from my hands and torched the area. 

Everything was set ablaze while I comfortably floated inside the fire sphere. The darkness aflame, little, charred flakes of it began to rain down. An all-consuming fire raged around me and as everything collapsed, the blinding flares of the fires I created robbed me of my sight and the world ended.

 

XV

 

I awoke with a loud gasp in the center of a semicircle of people. The Redguard woman as well as four strangers stood around me with puzzled expressions on their faces. I took a few moments to get a grasp on things and as my fuzzy vision cleared up, saw that I lay on a blackened floor surrounded by charred walls and scorched interior. The furniture got reduced to ashes, however my personal belongings as well as my robe were still intact. Thank the Divines my research is safe, I remember myself thinking. But this lasted only for but a moment before the oppressive stares of the people around me gave me a profound uneasiness. I felt I was welcome no longer.

 

"Headed for Winterhold, eh?", the Redguard woman groused. "Suits you right. You mages are nothing but trouble! You'd do well to leave Morthal ad hoc, lest a dagger's point meets your throat, filthy outsider. Begone!"

I didn't get to explain myself. Truth be told I didn't even know what I would've told her. That I had a dream in which I conjured a flaming orb around myself to battle a formless dæmon? I doubt the Morthalians would have believed me. In their eyes I was one of those wizards who the inhabitants of Skyrim generally had no love for. Mostly because of the Nords who despised magic users, especially elves; even more so after the white gold concordat that gave elves some degree of power over Skyrim and the Nords. Outlawed Talos worship was by far not the worst consequence that emerged from this conflict. General distrust towards elves and mages in general had become common and although the amount of magic schools was uncontrollable prior to the formation of the Magistrate, people like me were scorned regardless. 

 

Betrayal was suddenly far more widespread than ever before. Wizards accused their own kind of being Thalmor agents and sometimes public executions were held to appease a roused townsfolk. When the Magistrate was brought into existence after the Dragon Crisis however, such practices were banned - at least on the basis of suspicion. Which was precisely the reason as to why the Redguard woman could only threaten me. But if she acted on those threats she could have been persecuted for murder. 

In following years, the Magistrate released an official pamphlet that would detail the conditions under which a person may suffer incarceration to prevent witch hunts and false accusations:

 

"Any person, Man, Mer, Beast or an otherwise equally treated representative of any given race, may not be persecuted and/or suffer incarceration; be it temporary or permanent, and the consequences associated with prolonged captivity in conditions that are customary for holding criminals of any kind, purely on the basis of assumption.

Furthermore are any actions involving punishment in any form; be it a fine measured in a given amount of Septims, seizure of personal belongings, torture in both physical and mental form, banishment, execution or soul entrapment, as well as any other kind of action that is used as punishment in any given province and their respective sub-provinces in accordance with local customs, against suspects without solid and clear evidence, hereby declared illegal and liable for punishment depending on the severity of the case.

 

As a result is any criminal activity in general, and use of magical help in committing crime especially, to be reported to the locally authoritative agencies to ensure an objective view on any possible case of lawbreaking and the stipulation of the degree of punishment. 

Moreover is the act of false accusation of any wrongdoings in general, and accusation of the involvement of the accused suspect with locally problematical and/or scorned or illegal organisations and groups especially, to be punished depending on the severity of the case in accordance with local customs. 

 

Finally is the persecution of individuals on the basis of geographical or political origin, race, gender, sexuality,  outward appearance, religious affiliation*, profession**, political views***, traditions**** and other reasons not punishable by law by default in a given province and its respective sub-provinces invalid and petition for release must be provided immediately. Moreover are any official investigations against persons burdened by such impeachment to be halted and discontinued.

 

*discerned are solely worship of the Divines and Daedric entities as a group, not singular Aedra or Daedra in particular 

 

**provided the profession in question does not involve acts punishable by law; such professions include but are not limited to: Thieves, Bandits, Assassins, Smugglers

 

***unless these views include the practice of actions punishable by law 

 

****unless these traditions violate active law"

 

This law had been put into place to control the flow of punishment in the lands and to protect the innocent from those who would seek to destroy them for one reason or another. In my case, it helped me to stay alive. The inhabitants would surely have killed me if the law wasn't on my side. But as it was, they did not even bother to put me into custody as none had witnessed what had happened. 

Nonetheless, I wasn't welcome anymore albeit I was quite confused, too. I collected my things and left, never to return again. Even if I stood under legal protection I would not risk to sleep another night at the Moorside Inn. None can be framed for murder if there are no witnesses. Moreover, I was fairly sure the innkeeper would not let me have a stay at their tavern anyway.

 

As I threw my bag over my shoulder that had so curiously not been charred like the entirety of the room and its furniture, I glanced at the contempt in the eyes of the townsfolk. Certainly, they must have thought I was involved in the practices of the black arts in one way or another. Not that pyromancy, no matter how advanced, could be condemned as inherently malignant. But word has it the loquacious countryfolk knows no better than to gloat, gawk and slander at the first sign of irregular behaviour or appearance. And no law can prohibit prejudice. 

However, the thing that most concerned me were not, by any stretch of the imagination, the queer geezers or my apparent lack of shelter. The greatest amount of attention rested on the riddle of my dream and what it meant. For it was quite the physical experience indeed, even if on the astral plane. I wondered if this, too, was an access point into a world we've yet to truly discover. A liminal bridge, brought about by a sleeping mind and its dreams. Dreaminal Bridge, I mused and failed to contain a slight chuckle that visibly infuriated the onlookers that had gathered around me. I didn't blame them. They must have thought I'd gloat over the situation myself.

 

I knew that I had yet another task set before me. For one, I intended to travel to fabled Labyrinthian in order to study its secrets and, perhaps most importantly, find some shelter. The rations I had on my person would last me a few days so I wasn't all too concerned about starvation. Besides, from what I understood, the way to my destination wasn't too far off - not more than a day at most. However, my other task was a little more intriguing. I had to investigate my dreams.

Doing this was only possible with a roof over my head and a place to rest so it was inevitably intertwined with finding Labyrinthian and its secrets. And I had yet to find a reliable method to access my dreams in the way that I did that night in the inn. This accident occurred out of nowhere and I lacked any clear indicators of what could have brought this event about. All I had was a burnt room and hateful citizens.

 

The way south was a tricky path of puddles and overgrown mud with fiendishly soft earth that caused me to stumble quite a few times. The presence of deathbell was ill-boding. My knowledge of alchemy was limited but I feared the bell's toxin could find its way into the ubiquitous mist that dominated the climate. Not to mention the onslaught of insects that sought to get drunk on my blood. Before long, I exited the treacherous swamp land however, and as I could breathe again, free from the ice cold mists that hung so low in this region, an incline came into view that matched the description the Redguard woman had given me before.

At the foot of the mountain straight ahead, somewhat in the distance with a small patch of swamp land remaining betwixt it and myself, there ran an inconspicuous path marked by stone walkways and ascending stairs. At this point I should have probably worried about said stairs and whether or not they are covered in a thin layer of ice or traces of gelid water due to the icy vapours. More so should I have worried about the ice trolls that were said to inhabit the area. But my excitement for discovery got the better of me and so I went forward without a second thought.

 

I wasn't prepared for the diabolical smoothness of the ice sheets that covered the stairs which caused me to first lose my footing entirely before I fell up the stairs only to slip and tumble down again to find that I had made no progress whatsoever aside from the pain from multiple, solid edges of stone. My second attempt at climbing the stairs proved to be more successful. With unsure footing, I commenced a weird dance of tremulous knees and strained feet in order to keep my balance as I slowly ascended. At this point I hypothesised that the architects of this structure must have lived in a more temperate environment because they failed to build railings on either side of the slippery stone steps.

To my delight, past a certain point the steps were traversable without the fear of sliding down or up any of them for their apparent lack of frozen liquid covering them. 

 

My ascent was drastically improved but halted again when I saw what I could only describe as barbaric. The ruins of Labyrinthian already came somewhat into view when beheaded troll corpses crossed my path. Pools of dried blood at their open necks and throats, their skulls impaled on pikes of wood stuck into the ground with the occasional, lit torch in between each of the rotting heads. The decomposition process was already underway so the corpses were older than a few days. The cold usually preserves bodies quite well but the spot in which I stood was unusually warm. Possibly because of the torches that formed a full circle with the disembodied heads of the dead ice trolls. This was no amateur work. The rumours were therefore true - there hid a mage of some proportion in the ruins ahead. And they knew how to defend themselves.

I suspected this to be the work of a proficient pyromancer. To ice trolls (and trolls in general), the deadliest kind of enemy. These hulking creatures are fairly easy to set ablaze and even the frostier variant suffers greatly from the heat of a crackling flame. Even if its pelt doesn't catch fire as easily as that of their plainer brethren from several hundred pertans further down the slopes in the valleys and tundras of the province. This also meant that I probably would have to deal with a destruction wizard, of whom I could only speculate they weren't hostile to me once I reached my destination. The warding circle they constructed was specifically for ice trolls and not bandits, after all.

 

A few minutes later and I found myself on the premises of the mysterious place we called Labyrinthian. The crumbling, frozen walls and its towering statues made for an imposing appearance. I did not yet know, but I felt that the old stories about this place were true. I couldn't quite place that emotion but it was that of familiarity mixed with some amount of certainty that this place lived up to its many legends.

There were buildings, huts of stone and roofless ruins. And there was this air around the place that was so peculiar. I believe I've never breathed similar air again. The moment I set foot in Labyrinthian I knew that I had what I was looking for - and all the many conditions that a place must meet found themselves there a thousandfold. 

I was elated to stand in the place where the great Shalidor once stood to erect his labyrinth, where the dragon cult once dwelt to offer themselves to the Dov. But whereas most other adventurers, scholars or outlaws were looking for powerful artifacts, magickal items of importance or mighty trinkets, I was specifically looking for artifacts that were. In the Institute I learned that, in order to be able to conduct experiments and further my studies in this unplumbed field of magick it was imperative that the location in question possessed a rich history with the majority of the place still intact. After all, a forgotten place cannot be inhabited by the zeitgeist of another time if said place doesn't exist anymore.

 

I was about to finally contain my sheer limitless amazement and commence studying and exploring. Chief among my earlier pursuits in Labyrinthian was it to find a robust and intact hut to stay the night in. I would surely find material to sufficiently insulate myself from the unforgiving cold, although I presaged the requisiteness of constructing a functioning door to isolate myself from the outside world and its many, many dangers. As I set out to survey the ruins of Labyrinthian I was surprised by a singular occurrence - a makeshift door bolted to one of the small houses. I stopped dead in my tracks and remembered the warding circle of deceased ice trolls on the stairs that led up to the Labyrinthian proper and realised: the mage, whoever he was, must have had the same idea and chose to, at least temporarily, inhabit the place.

 

At first I entertained the idea of sneaking inside the small habitat and take it for myself by murdering its owner in cold blood. Too soon did I realise I wasn't really capable of such an act and I was ill-equipped for battle. A simple dagger that was more of a last-resort-thing than a real weapon was nary a contest for an experienced destruction mage. Not that I knew how to reliably handle a blade in the first place. It was more peace of mind, really.

As I stood in the cold and thought about my situation and what to do, snowflakes gently floated down from the heavens to coat everything in a glistening white. The most immediately noticeable quality of freshly fallen snow, as is generally known, is the unmistakable crunching sound that it gives off once tread upon. And this noise precisely ripped me out of my thoughts when it suddenly appeared behind me.

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