They called Sadrith Mora a city, but it looked more like a fungal nightmare that had erupted and grown until it covered half of the rocky island it claimed as its home.
Daria wasn’t sure she liked the place, exactly. But it was certainly memorable.
The monstrous sadrith spire of Tel Naga stood in the center of the city, resembling less a single mushroom and more a maddened cluster of fleshy pods held together in a tower-like framework of enormous tendrils that reached up to grasp the reddening sky. From this axis extended the dozens or maybe hundreds of smaller creepers that attached themselves to the hollowed-out growths that served as homes and shops. And still the city grew—she’d already passed by Sadrith Mora’s incipient suburbs, fields of pallid flesh where budding new structures bunched together like loathsome grapes, soon to swell into a habitable state.
Cold ocean gusts carried the smell of salt, mixing it with the heavy, musky odor of growth and decay that pervaded the suspended marketplaces and shadowed walkways. Stranger still were the sounds: no seabirds cawed in Sadrith Mora. Instead, the steady drone of fat winged insects buzzing over the water.
Outlanders like herself weren’t exactly rare in Sadrith Mora, but neither were they as common as in Balmora. She recalled the words of the Imperial soldier at Wolverine Hall.
“Just remember, miss: the emperor’s very far away from Sadrith Mora. So watch your step.”
A particularly fierce wind battered her, and she tightened her coat. It was late summer but felt more like autumn. She still wasn’t sure she’d made a wise choice in coming here—but she’d already made her play and had to see it through to the end.
Most of Sadrith Mora’s homes and shops clustered along a circular path winding around the city. Squat mushrooms hung from the great tendrils arching overhead, each small hut connected to the ground by smaller creepers to which people had nailed crude steps for access. The place buzzed with activity: traders hawked fish and mushrooms to the late afternoon crowd heading home from the docks. Everyone wore ragged, hardy clothes—the Empire’s finery had no place here. The sun set behind Red Mountain to the west, the dying light and the volcanic glow turning the horizon bloody. It’d be dark soon, and the black storm clouds that had been drifting south all day had just about reached the city.
She’d been wandering for hours asking people if they knew where to find Johanna. The guards, with their weird cephalopod-shaped helmets, insulted her. Regular people shrugged.
“It’s a big city,” they’d always say. They weren’t wrong.
Daria had hoped that Johanna’s high station and enormous girth would have made her stand out. But if the woman still lived in Sadrith Mora, she apparently kept a low profile.
Another gust of wind hit her, this one carrying a few cold flecks of rain. Thunder roared from somewhere not far away.
Johanna hadn’t given Daria much to work with. One thing she’d said stuck in Daria’s mind:
“The Telvanni respect talent and power!”
They certainly didn’t respect etiquette, judging by how the day had gone so far.
Sadrith Mora didn’t have neighborhoods the way Balmora did. There was just the wizard tower of Tel Naga and then everything else. House-pods grew wherever creepers extended, sometimes in bunches, sometimes alone. The city wasn’t planned—it had just happened.
Looking at the hard-faced shopkeepers around her, she finally accepted that asking politely would not help her.
“Hey!” she shouted. “Where the hell’s Johanna! I need to talk to her!”
Daria shouted as loudly as she could, not an easy task with the winds howling around her. She spread her arms and walked about, bellowing her question into the faces of merchants and stevedores.
Gods, she felt stupid, and she was glad it was too dark for them to see how red her face was.
“Someone, tell me where she is!”
“Hey!” came a rough voice. “What are you shouting about?”
The speaker was an old Imperial with skinned tanned almost to leather. He strode toward her with swift, angry steps.
“What, are you deaf?” Daria said. “I said Johanna. I need to find her!”
“That ain’t our problem, so stop hassling us!”
“I’ll stop if you tell me where Johanna is. Hey! I’m looking for Johanna!” she screamed in the face of a Bosmer basket merchant.
“How the hell should I know where Johanna is?” the basket-seller protested. “Hey, Novilus, do you know who Johanna is? The crazy chick’s screaming about her,” he complained to the fishhook seller in the stall next to him.
“Wait, Johanna?” the fishhook-seller, a middle-aged Imperial woman, asked. She looked to Daria. “You mean the big Nord woman, right? Who works for Telvanni?”
“That’s right,” Daria said.
The woman gave an exasperated sigh. “If I tell you, will you shut up?”
“It’s the only way I’ll shut up.”
“Alright, fine. Johanna lives by the Gateway Inn, has a big old pod with a green lantern outside. She doesn’t like visitors though.”
“Don’t worry, she’s expecting me. Thank you,” Daria said.
She’d already hiked past the Gateway Inn a few times, so she walked clockwise on the road to get back there. The rain intensified as she did, big cold drops splashing on the stone with loud plops. She quickened her pace and tightened her coat, the last of the day’s light little more than a sullen ember far to the west.
It didn’t take long to find the house the fishhook-seller had described, a big shapeless mass with a lit green resin lantern hanging outside the door. The rain fell faster, soaking her clothes.
She walked up the stairs and knocked on the big round door, its surface engraved with spiraling glyphs. Jagged lightning lit the black northern sky, and thunder pealed. Daria questioned herself: was this really worth it? Had that woman been telling the truth about this being Johanna’s place? Or was this simply some trick to get rid of her?
Still nothing. Shrieking winds blew frigid rain into her face and hair, and she shivered uncontrollably beneath her coat. She knocked again.
If this failed, she’d have to spend the night at the inn—which the people at Wolverine Hall had warned her not to do.
Footsteps sounded out on the other side, heavy ones. A latch turned and the door opened, revealing Johanna’s massive form. Her dark, deep-set eyes peered suspiciously at Daria for a few moments before a slow smile spread across her craggy face.
“You know, I wasn’t rightly sure I’d ever see you again,” Johanna said.
The interior of Johanna’s house was drier than Daria expected a mushroom’s insides to be. The two of them stood within a spacious ovoid room of mottled fungal flesh. Strands of harder growth wound along the walls, holding up the structure’s soft weight. Some had been shaped into rib-like protrusions that acted as stairs to a second floor.
Amidst the strangeness were the signs of a more quotidian life: rugs, chairs, tables, and bookshelves. There was no hearth for a fire, and light came from lanterns of paper and resin hanging from the support strands. The air smelled of mushrooms, but was at least warm.
“That makes two of us,” Daria replied.
“Make yourself at home,” Johanna said, taking a seat in a big, upholstered chair. Daria sat down on a narrow stool next to the wooden counter.
Johanna continued. “I don’t think much of where I came from, but this house still runs on good old-fashioned Skyrim hospitality.” She barked out a harsh laugh. “As long as the guests behave themselves that is! Link! Get down here!”
An Altmer boy of about thirteen years of age poked his head over the railing on the second floor. “On my way, ma’am,” he said, in a voice that suggested he'd rather do anything else.
“Link’s my apprentice,” Johanna drawled. “Link! Daria here is our guest for a while. Make her feel at home, would you?”
Link nodded. “Kresh tea or lichen tea?”
“Lichen,” Johanna ordered. “Best thing on a cold night like this.”
“Wait, lichen?” Daria exclaimed.
Johanna made a dismissive wave. “It’s better than it sounds. Link’s not the sharpest apprentice a wizard ever had, but he’s a fine tea-brewer.”
Link nodded and reached behind a wooden counter and took out what looked like a smaller version of the water pump in the Morgendorffer home. Adjusting it in his hands, he drew it back and then thrust it into the wall. He grabbed a small metal pot and placed it under the pump, and then turned a wheel on the device. Water poured out of the pump’s opening until he turned the wheel again and removed the device.
“What just happened?” Daria asked.
“I got water for your tea,” Link said. He sighed, clearly frustrated by her question. “The sadrith mushroom absorbs seawater and desalinates it. To desalinate something is to—”
“Remove the salt,” Daria finished.
“Okay, so you’re not completely stupid. Good job.” He faked a ghastly smile and gave her a thumbs-up.
Daria glared at the kid.
Johanna guffawed. Then she scowled. “Show our guest some respect, Link!”
He sighed again. “Yes, ma’am. We can tap into the water anytime we want. It’s a good deal as long as you don’t mind all your drinks tasting like mushrooms. But hey, what can you expect from Morrowind?”
With the cauldron now full, he hung it from a metal stand on top of the counter. His golden face took on a look of intense concentration and he gestured beneath the vessel. White flame sprang to life under the metal, floating above the counter’s surface and burning bright without any fuel.
“Here in Sadrith Mora, you do everything by magic if you can,” Johanna said. “Anyway, tell me about yourself, girlie! You sail all the way here from Balmora?”
“No, that’s far too much effort. A friend of mine in the Mage Guild owed me a favor, so I talked her into giving me a relay pass and used that to teleport here.”
Said friend had been Amelia. The pass was good for two teleportation sessions, so she could still get back to Balmora via the guild office in Wolverine Hall, the lonely storm-lashed imperial outpost that claimed to keep an eye on Sadrith Mora.
“Huh, guess the guild is useful for that. Of course, when you get to my level, you don’t need to rely on no relays! Plenty of other spells that'll take you where you need to go.”
“Which brings me to why I’m here,” Daria said. “Last year, I saved your life.”
Link snorted. Johanna just nodded. “That you did. I haven’t forgotten I owe you for that.”
“I’ve been training myself in magic, but it’s been pretty slow-going. I need you to teach me.”
“Maybe,” Link said, his eyes on the cauldron, “you should leave the magic to professionals.”
“I’d never give the Mages Guild that level of satisfaction,” Daria said.
Link laughed. “Guess you have a point there.”
Johanna drummed her fingers on the arm of her chair. “Teach you, huh? Technically, I ain’t supposed to teach non-Telvanni.”
Daria crossed her arms. “Technically, I’m not supposed to be learning from a Telvanni.”
It felt weird to talk that way to someone who could obliterate her without a further thought and almost certainly get away with doing so. But Daria knew Johanna didn’t respect fear, so she had to be direct.
Johanna guffawed and slapped her knee. “That’s why I like this girl, Link! She’s got spirit! Okay, well I ain’t afraid of breaking the rules. But teaching magic is no small thing. It takes time.”
“I only have a week,” Daria said. “I told my parents I’d be attending the Young Citizens for a Better Empire meeting in Pelagiad this weekend, and talked one of my friends into vouching for me.”
Said friend being Jolda. Mom had been a little suspicious about Daria wanting to attend the YCBE, but she’d sold it to mom as being an excuse to get the hell out of the house for a while.
The sound of thunder rolled over the house, muffled by the thick layers of fungus around them. Daria could barely hear the patter of raindrops on the roof.
Johanna shook her head. “I’m a woman of my word, but there just ain’t no way I can teach you much in a week.”
“I don’t need a lot,” Daria said. Steam rose from the cauldron and the water started to bubble as Link muttered something and gestured. “I just want to sharpen my understanding of alteration. And to learn a bit of destruction.”
“Girl’s got a right to defend herself. Especially in a world like this one. Now, you understand I won’t be able to make you some kind of master wizard in week,” Johanna said, her eyes intent.
“I just want to cast spells more reliably. Once I do that, I can work on it myself.”
“All right, Daria, that can be arranged. Now you understand that, since you’re my student, you’re going to have to help me out some, the way Link does?”
Daria recalled some of her mom’s lawyerly advice. “First, tell me exactly what that entails. My understanding was that you owed me. Not the other way around.”
She scowled, the lines on her face seeming to deepen. “I’m not some Hlaalu who’ll trick with a fancy contract, girl! But simmer down, I’m just asking for a little help around the house and around town. It’ll be how you learn magic.”
“Finally, I can fulfill my dreams of being Morrowind’s premier sorcerer-custodian," Daria said.
“Sorcerer-custodian is basically my job,” Link said, pouring the water into a pair of clay cups. “It sucks. But I don’t want any competition.”
“You always gotta start small, Daria,” Johanna said.
“I still want to know exactly what you’ll have me do before I agree to anything,” Daria said, and imagined her mother nodding proudly at her firmness.
“I mean chores! Even a rich gal like you has chores, right? Clean things, beat the spores out of the tapestries, and whatnot?”
Daria thought about it for a moment. “Fine. But if I’m asked to do anything dangerous or overly unethical, I’m walking. Of course, you won’t have to teach me any further if that happens.”
Link brought the cups over, handing one to Johanna and another to Daria. Accepting it, she held it out so the steam didn’t fog her glasses. Strands of glistening black lichen floated on the surface of the drink.
“Remember,” Link said, speaking with an exaggerated slowness, “you have to let the lichen settle. Otherwise, you’re just drinking hot water.”
“What a useful clarification,” Daria said. “For I have been living in a cave for the past eighteen years and have never before consumed tea.”
“You’ve been living in a cave with nothing to do but practice and your magic still sucks? Pathetic,” Link replied.
“On the contrary, I’ve been quite busy being lazy.”
Johanna laughed until she was red in the face. “Oh, this is going to be fun! It’s been so boring here these past few months.”
“That’s because you never let me do anything,” Link muttered.
“You mind yourself, Link!” Johanna snarled, and then shook her head. “That’s the trouble with Altmer apprentices—they always think they’re smarter than you.”
The whole setup was weird. Johanna seemed to want Link to rebel but slammed down on the boy whenever he did.
Daria took a cautious sniff and the tea’s earthy, oily scent wafted into her nostrils. She’d told Jane about her plan—and her earlier run-in with Great House Telvanni—and Jane said in no uncertain terms that going to Sadrith Mora was a stupid and dangerous idea. She was right.
But Daria suspected it’d be just as stupid and dangerous to stay defenseless in a place like Morrowind. Johanna, for all her faults, offered the best bet of changing that.
“Rise and shine!”
Her eyes gummy with sleep, Daria blinked a few times when she heard Johanna shout from somewhere above. She turned in her bedroll just in time to see the sorceress, clad in a dark shirt and baggy pants, raise her heavy arms and float off the ground, going over the railing to make a slow, circular descent to the first floor. As light as a feather in spite of her size, she smiled as she surveyed her domain.
Link already tended to a pot filled with what smelled like fish stew. Daria had slept right through his preparations—no surprise, considering how tired she still was. She’d spent the night in the parlor.
Johanna took the first serving of the stew, declaring it excellent. Soon, they all sat around the counter to eat. Johanna used a spoon for her breakfast, while Daria and Link sipped from bowls made from some kind of mollusk shell. It did taste good, Daria had to admit. Salty and savory with a hint of spice.
“Well,” Johanna said, “this morning I’m headed over to pay Master Neloth a visit. I want this place to spotless when I come back, you hear? So, Link?”
“Yes, ma’am?” he said, his voice flat.
“Show Daria how to do housekeeping.”
“I know how to take care of a house,” Daria said. “Like parents the world over, mine use me for cheap labor.”
But Johanna just laughed. “You know how to take care of some adobe house sure, but not a living one. Do what Link tells you and you’ll be fine.”
Johanna left soon after breakfast. Bright sunlight and the smell of the sea poured in the moment she opened the big round door. Daria had lost all track of time in the dim, windowless house-pod.
She was just about to follow Johanna out to get a breath of fresh air when the door slammed shut in her face. A little embarrassed, Daria stepped back to regain her composure.
“Get used to it,” Link said.
“As a veteran of the Tamrielic educational system, or what passes for it, I already am.”
Daria pondered her situation for a bit. Link wasn’t friendly—but he seemed honest. “You clearly don’t like Johanna,” she asked. “So why do you work as her apprentice?”
Link put a lid on the stewpot, presumably saving its contents for lunch. “Let me ask you a question: why do you do the stuff you’re told to do?”
“In the cases when I do, it’s usually because it’s not really worth the effort to rebel.”
Link nodded. “Exactly. I don’t really like Johanna, but she teaches me magic in exchange for grunt work. And I have to put up with her crap if I’m ever going to get powerful enough to bend kings and nations to my will.”
“It’s always nice to see a young person set their sights so high,” Daria said.
Link smirked. “That’s what I like about Great House Telvanni. You go big or die. And if you die, you at least get to leave a magic-mangled corpse.”
“Whatever it takes to entertain the local morticians,” Daria said.
He chuckled, and suddenly she felt a bit more at ease with the kid.
Link then took out a big carving knife from behind the counter. “Okay,” he said, “I have to show you how to take care of things here. Lift up that tapestry,” he said, pointing to a purple one with marked with abstract designs.
Daria grabbed the corner and pulled it up. A mass of yellow growths had accumulated like snot on the wall behind it, and she gagged at the sight.
“Yeah, you gotta cut those off. Caring for a house-pod is like caring for a pet—except it’s not cute and doesn’t give a crap about you.”
“Got it. So more like a dealing with a person.”
Link made a so-so gesture with his left hand. “Kind of, but I’m pretty sure the house-pod is smarter than most people.”
Daria nodded. “The house-pod hasn’t yet asked me my opinion on what color gloves to wear to a noble’s party, so it’s already better than people in my book.”
Under Link’s supervision, Daria spent the morning shaving off the house’s unwanted growths, and then checking for leftover spores. It was slimy work, but ultimately not that much harder to adapt to than Morrowind’s bug-based cuisine had been.
Johanna returned late in the afternoon and retreated to her second story bedroom until Link finished preparing dinner, which turned out to be fried cod and boiled hackle-lo leaf. It reminded Daria of the kinds of meals dad used to prepare back on Stirk, which often involved fish of some sort, but much better.
Only after that did Johanna summon Daria for training, instructing her to cast shield. As usual, Daria fumbled on the first and second tries.
“Hold up. You’re taking way too long to cast this spell. It oughtta be like that!” Johanna snapped for emphasis.
“Just don’t ask me to time it to music,” Daria said.
“What are you thinking when you’re drawing the energies?”
“Uh, I imagine the Aetherius shining into Mundus and build it from there—”
“No, no, no,” Johanna said, waving her hand. “You got it all wrong. What you have to do is put all that into a single thought.”
“I have no idea what you mean.”
“Come on! You’re smart, ain’t ya? When you think of the Empire, do you think about all its provinces and holds and clans and whatnot? No, you just think ‘Empire’ and let that word do all the work! You gotta come up with something like when casting spells.”
Daria nodded. She had to admit Johanna had explained that pretty well. So how best to sum up the drawing of Aetherius and using it to implement change in the physical world? The complex arcane process had informed so much of the world’s history, and defied easy categorization.
“Screw it,” Daria whispered.
In that utterance, the power surged around her hands and promptly fizzled out.
“Well,” Daria said, “at least it looks like I can fail a lot faster than before.”
Johanna stayed in the next day, but directed Daria and Link to go out and pick up some reagents from the marketplaces.
“It’s a gorgeous morning and you oughtta be enjoying it outside. Spend too much time in these pods and mushrooms start growing in your brain!”
“If that’s the case,” Daria said, “shouldn’t you spend it outside as well?”
“Don’t you backtalk me!”
It was, in fact, a beautiful day. A vast oceanic exhalation, cold and pure, blew away the fetid mushroom smell that hung over the entire city, and wispy puffball clouds drifted in the bright blue sky. From where she stood, Daria could see past the bulk of the Gateway Inn to the fleshy docks through which Tel Naga drank the sea.
“Okay, I know my way around here, so I’ll handle things,” Link said. “There’s no reason for you to even be on this trip, so you can go wherever.”
“Is there a bookstore?” Daria asked. She knew Amelia had gone the extra mile to get the guild relay pass, and wanted to buy something for her.
“Not really. Wizards own all the books here and they only share with other wizards. Not like most of the clowns down here can read,” he said, gesturing to some of the dockworkers.
“Yes, I hate it when people living on the brink of penury don’t take the time to learn how to read.”
“Maybe if they did, they wouldn’t be poor,” Link said.
Daria gave him a hard look, but he’d already gone ahead. She weighed the pros and cons of exploring the city on her own. It probably wouldn’t be too hard to find her way back—the Gateway Inn was a local landmark.
Instead, she followed the kid and wondered how he came to be here. His mannerisms suggested either a Cyrodiilic Altmer or at least someone who’d left Summerset at an early age. Link didn’t sound like an Altmer name to her, but she had to admit she didn’t know much about their naming conventions.
“Like I said, Daria,” he called out, looking straight ahead, “I really don’t care if you go somewhere else.”
By the tone of his voice, he’d probably prefer it.
“Don’t mind me,” Daria said. “I’m just tagging along until I find something interesting.”
“In this city? Good luck. It’s all crappy shops and beggars.”
Quinn, Daria decided, would go stir-crazy in a place like Sadrith Mora. Or, possibly, bring it into the world of fashion and upend Telvanni society in so doing.
They reached a marketplace spread out beneath the shadow of a monstrous sadrith tendril coiled into a corkscrew, the trunk-like surface laden with beige-and-white polypores. The smell of fresh-cut herbs peppered the air, so that entering the place felt like walking into a gargantuan salad. Merchants occupied driftwood stalls beneath mats of woven reeds that had been nailed to the tendril, their counters laden with piles of salts, kresh fibers, flowers, and various lichens.
Link marched up to one of the stands and started negotiating. Daria looked around, half-searching for something Amelia might like. She hadn’t gone far when she came across the first of the slave pods.
It hung like a gourd from the tendril’s underside, not big enough for a person to stand in and the entrance blocked by wooden bars. A Khajiit sat inside. Her beige fur had been combed and trimmed, but the tautness of her limbs and the wideness of her golden eyes announced her terror to the world.
As Daria looked further, she saw dozens and dozens of identical pods. Almost all held Khajiit and Argonians, but she saw a few humans as well, even a luckless Dunmer: all living people reduced to commodities, to be used by their Telvanni masters for brute labor or experimentation.
What was the point of the Empire if it didn’t use its power to end this atrocity? She wanted to look away, blot it out and go back to Balmora. But she made herself look. It wasn’t as if the Hlaalu didn’t do the same thing behind closed doors. Telvanni was just more honest about it.
The slave market announcer showed off an Argonian prisoner to a young Breton woman in fine clothes. The corruption didn’t stay with the Dunmer; slaves farmed the saltrice and mined the ebony that made its way all over the continent, and citizens’ taxes funded the infrastructure that supported it.
Finally, she turned away. An overwhelming sense of bitterness washed over her. The market hadn’t been a surprise, exactly—she’d always known Morrowind had slaves. Living in Balmora made it easy to forget. The city was a showcase to impress Imperials like herself, so the Hlaalu kept the darkest aspects of their rule out of sight.
Daria walked out of the marketplace’s shade and toward the water’s edge. It was early, and the sun had not yet crested over the fungal mountain of Tel Naga, and the tower’s shadow still chilled the western part of the city. She sat on a flat rock and watched the cold tide crash onto the stony beach, trying to lose herself in its steady rhythm.
She stayed there until the sun peeked over the upper spires of Tel Naga. Feeling utterly useless, she stood up and walked back to the marketplace, wondering if Link had already gone back to Johanna’s house.
“Where the hell have you been?” came Link’s voice, his words strained.
She turned to see him seated on the ground, his back against the sadrith tendril and blood streaming from his nose.
Daria jogged over to Link and knelt next to him. The flesh around his left eye was already swelling up, the bruise a bold black against his golden skin.
“Who did this to you?” Daria demanded.
“Uvarin, a Dunmer bastard, who’s the apprentice of Narvith, yet another Dunmer bastard.”
“Here? In the marketplace? Those guards should have done something!” Even the laziest Hlaalu guards would step in for a marketplace brawl in Balmora.
Link snorted in contempt. “Because they don’t care. Not for fistfights anyway. Anyway, I hid Johanna’s herbs beneath a rock once I saw Uvarin coming, so he didn’t steal anything important.” He patted the pouch on his belt.
“I’ll see what I can do to help, but my restoration magic isn’t the best,” Daria said.
“I’m sorry I wasn’t there,” she said.
He scoffed. “What would you have done? You can’t cast spells and you weigh like ninety pounds soaking wet. It doesn’t matter, I still got the herbs.”
Gods, this kid had attitude. “What would Johanna have done to you if you’d lost them?”
Link shrugged, and then winced. “Yelled at me.”
“And you’re okay with that?”
“Where do I go if I’m not? Back to Summerset? Yeah, right. Give me a few minutes and we can get the hell out of this marketplace and go back inside. Johanna can take her fresh air and shove it for all I care.”
Daria sat next to him. Altmer tended to be tall and willowy, the most graceful of an already graceful race. Link had the slenderness but was short even for his age. Part of her wanted to reach out and put an arm over his shoulders, to tell him it was okay. Except it wasn’t okay, not really. Saying it wouldn’t make it so.
“I’ve been beaten up before,” Daria admitted. “It was another girl named Synda. She didn’t hit me herself, but she hired a few thugs to do it.”
Link nodded. “Did you get back at her?”
“Not exactly. I saved her life, actually.”
“That was stupid.”
“So I was told. I wasn’t trying to save her. It was more of an accident.”
“She’ll probably try to hurt you again. Basic rule of life: if you get killed, it’s your own damn fault for not protecting yourself.”
“I see,” Daria said. “So, by that logic, it’s your own fault you got beaten up?”
“Yup,” he said, without hesitation.
His casual acceptance sent a chill through Daria.
“Doesn’t matter,” he said. “Come on, we’re wasting time.”
He tried to push himself up from the rock but lost his balance. Daria caught him just in time, and was surprised by how much he weighed.
“I’m fine!” he yelled, so loud she almost let go in surprise. Instead, she held on and pulled up until sure he could stand under his own power. Then he pulled free. “I don’t need your damn help!”
Daria drew back. “Okay. I’ll let you faceplant next time. Since it’s your fault anyway.”
She regretted saying that almost immediately.
He stormed away, his shoulders bunched up and his hands balled into fists.
Johanna was gone when Daria got back to the house. She heard Link muttering something on the second floor, where he had a small room that budded off Johanna’s. She elected to leave him alone. Enough to know that he was safe.
Daria tried reading The Last Scabbard of Akrash, which she’d brought with her from Balmora, but her mind refused to settle. She wanted to talk to Jane. Sitting back in her chair, she tried to picture her friend.
“So, what’s eating your soul today?” she imagined Jane asking.
“Oh, the usual: confronting the corruption of the world and my own complicity in the same, while also trying to learn from someone I don’t trust.”
“You know, the real me did tell you not to go Sadrith Mora,” Jane’s voice pointed out.
“Don’t ever tell the real you that I admitted this, but in some ways you’re a lot smarter than me.”
“I’m imaginary, I can’t tell Jane anything. What’s the deal with this Link kid?”
“Hard to say. I’m perversely impressed to finally meet someone more alienated than me.”
Then Daria sighed and put the book down on her lap. “Alienated? Oh, who am I kidding? I basically fit in at this point, considering all the friendships I leveraged to get to Sadrith Mora in the first place.”
She imagined Jane wagging a finger. “Don’t forget the friendly advice you ignored, Little Miss Popularity.”
“Thirteen-year-old-me would call me a sellout. I guess that’s why Link gets to me. I was the same way his age: already convinced the world hated me and figuring I might as well give them a good reason. But I had family to fall back on. And eventually, you.”
Jane gave a florid bow in her mind’s eye. “I do what I can. So what are you going to do with Link?”
“Beats me. Realistically, there’s not any way I can help. I’ll only be here three more days.”
“Who the hell are you talking to?” Link demanded.
Daria flinched and then blushed. Imaginary conversations always tended to be vivid for her, to the point that she sometimes started whispering the lines. Link stared at her from over the railing.
“I’m practicing conjuration by chatting with all my daedric pals,” she said. “They say hi.”
“Tell them I wish they didn’t stink so much when Johanna summoned them.”
“You guys really need to focus more on trans-dimensional hygiene,” she said to her imaginary audience. She glanced back up at Link, wanting to ask if he still hurt, if she could help him in any way. But he’d hate being reminded of it.
She knew this because she’d hate it too.
“Any idea when Johanna’s coming back?” she asked.
“Beats me. I’m done with my chores so I don’t have crap to do.”
Daria nodded. “If you want to read something, I brought a spare book.”
“What is it?”
“The Axe Man. It’s about a Morag Tong hitman.”
Link looked like he was weighing his options for a bit. “Cool. I’ll take a look.”
Daria reached into her bag and removed the thin volume as he made his way down the stairs. She held the book out for him and he took it, sitting on a cushion as he cracked open the grisly account. Soon, the house was silent except for the turning of pages.
By Sundas evening, Daria could successfully cast her spells almost half the time. Successes and failures at least came a lot faster.
Daria wasn’t sure how she felt about Johanna. No one who succeeded in Sadrith Mora could be entirely trustworthy, in her opinion. But the woman knew her stuff. She taught Daria how to better focus the energies. Casual imagination wasn’t enough—to change the world, one had to know it, to precisely envision the change and its effects. She taught her a few new spells, simple ones that made for easy practice.
That evening, her itinerary included some basic spells of destruction.
Daria almost yelped the first time she’d formed a burning spark in her hands, after a dozen failed attempts. Johanna only laughed.
“Hell of a thing isn’t it? To hold that kind of power.”
“Considering the heat of that spark, it’s probably best not to hold on for too long.”
Johanna bellowed with laughter. “Fire’s my favorite. But I got this rule about not teaching it indoors.”
“It probably is a little soon to redecorate,” Daria said. Link laughed from behind the counter, where he was preparing another one of his surprisingly tasty fish stews.
She gave him a quick smile. They’d reached an accord. Part of Daria hoped that she could do for him what Jane had done for her. But she knew she was fooling herself: she wouldn’t be there long enough to have any kind of impact.
In the end, it was probably just a selfish attempt to feel good about herself. To pretend to address a personal problem because the big social ones remained beyond her reach.
“The good news,” Johanna announced, “is that the three of us have a field trip tomorrow.”
“Do you always have to tell me this the day before? Is it that hard to give me a couple days’ warning?” Link fumed. “Ma’am,” he added.
“You mind your manners, boy! Anyway, Master Neloth gave me the job today, so I didn’t know about it until this afternoon. There’s a beached ship not far to the west, and Master Neloth’s got word that it has some kind of amulet on board. He wants it, which means it’s my job to get it.”
“Great, another fetch quest,” Link said with a sigh.
“Wait,” Daria said. “Is this even legal? Who owns the ship?”
Johanna scoffed. “This is Master Neloth’s territory, ain’t it? That means it’s his wreck, and we’d be breaking local law by refusing his request.”
“How is a request legally obliging?” Daria asked.
“You’ve got a lot to learn about Telvanni ways, Daria. Anyway, get a good night’s rest, because we’re setting off early tomorrow. If you’re good, I’ll even teach you how to blast someone with lightning.”
The day of the voyage dawned gray but calm. After a breakfast of cold cod, Daria followed Johanna and Link out onto the serpentine docks. Thick mists obscured the seas around the island, and Daria again wondered how experienced a mariner Johanna was. The sorceress had told her not to worry, but she couldn’t help it. Daria’s childhood in Stirk had been safe—but she remembered the bereaved left behind by ships that had set off on mornings like this one and never returned.
She’d assumed that Johanna had hired a boat and a crew for the trip. It turned out she’d only hired a stout rowboat that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Cyrodiil. Johanna stared at the seat between the oars and raised her arms. Motes of yellow light swirled around her heavy hands and a fountain of illumination erupted from the vessel. The glare cleared a moment later to reveal a brutish figure of carved ice sitting between the oars. Daria recognized it as an atronach—an elemental being of formidable power native to the planes of Oblivion. The kind of thing that’d easily freeze, fry, or zap a human depending on its element.
And in this case, it was doing grunt work at Johanna’s bidding.
“Never hire help when you can summon it,” Johanna said, stepping onto the boat with a surprisingly dainty motion and sitting down on the back seat. A strange and acrid odor emanated from the atronach, only partially mitigated by the open air. That must have been what Link meant when he complained about the smell of Daedra.
“And the bindings of conjuration are a lot tougher than some fancy Hlaalu contract,” Johanna added.
“I’m not sure that the people who break those contracts would agree,” Daria said.
“Yeah, well if the contract was so tough they wouldn’t have broken it to begin with! Now get on board, both of you! Link, at the front, you’ll be my eyes for this.”
Link took position at the prow and Daria crouched down just behind him, shivering from the atronach’s proximity. Its presence sucked the warmth out of the air, and she was glad she’d worn multiple layers.
The rope untied itself from the berth at Johanna’s command, and Link pulled it into the boat before pushing off with the mightiest heave his spindly body could muster. The atronach’s crystalline hands closed around the oar handles and began to row, frigid mist falling from its joints with each movement.
They coursed west beneath roiling gray clouds, the black sea still for miles around them. The morning mist thinned to reveal rocky islands jutting out from the waves in endless profusions to the north and south. Most were bare save for scraps of lichen clinging to the damp stone, but others were crowned by fungal thickets of lurid pinks and yellows, their creepers extending into the ocean as if to one day to seize all the isles. Further west loomed the dour silhouette of Red Mountain and the vast pall of smoke above its caldera.
Somewhere beyond that lay Balmora, and all the comforts of home. But it might as well have been a million miles away so far as Daria was concerned.
A cold rain soon fell from the dark skies. Johanna grunted and waved her hand. A dome of hazy violet force appeared above their heads to block the precipitation.
“I see the wreck,” Link said, pointing forward.
Daria squinted to see through the veil of the rain. The remains of a merchantman lay ahead, stretched supine on the rocks of a small island and with a gaping hole on its starboard side.
“Here we are!” Johanna announced. “Icy here will keep rowing around the island—it ain’t a big one, so that shouldn’t be a problem. Now, I’ll take first look to see if there’s anything too nasty for you two lurking in the wreck. Once I give the signal, you both follow me inside. You know what spells to use.”
“What’s the signal?” Daria asked.
But Johanna had already risen up from the boat, her immense form encapsulated by a shield as she sped off through the air toward the wreck.
“Well, it looks like I can add wrecking to my CV of dubiously legal activities,” Daria said.
Link looked at her for a moment and then chuckled. “All the more reason to move to Sadrith Mora. We don’t worry about that junk here.”
He gestured over to the ruined vessel. “I came here in the hold of a ship like that.”
“From Summerset?” Daria asked.
“Yeah. Got here… four years ago? Four years sounds right.”
Daria processed the information. What the hell had happened to Link that’d drive him to go across Tamriel when he was a kid? She didn’t know a whole lot about Summerset—it and Black Marsh were probably the only provinces shrouded in more mystery and misinformation than Morrowind.
But she suspected he wouldn’t want to answer questions.
“I’m from Stirk,” Daria said. She’d lost sight of Johanna, but figured the woman would return with a signal when she was ready. “It’s a sunny little island off of Cyrodiil’s Gold Coast, a region known for good weather and people who are greedy, hypocritical, and superficial. Kind of like Morrowind, except for the good weather.”
“Why’d you go here?”
“It wasn’t up to me,” Daria said. “My mom thought there’d be more opportunity for a lawyer in Balmora, so the rest of us had to follow along. Balmora is a more interesting place than Stirk, at least.”
Link’s face darkened. “They kicked me out of Summerset because I’m deformed.”
Daria wasn’t sure she’d heard correctly. “Wait, what? You look fine to me.”
He gave an exasperated sigh. “That’s because you’re Imperial. I’m Altmer. By Altmer standards, I’m deformed!”
Daria was at a loss. Link looked like a perfectly normal Altmer kid—physically normal, anyway.
Link kept going. “My mom and dad spent tons trying to make sure I look exactly like my dad,” he fumed, an edge creeping into his voice. “’Cause dad looked like his dad, and his dad before him, all the way to Aldmeris. But, oh, wait!” He gasped and feigned a look of shock. “My nose is too rounded! And my brow too low!”
He was shouting now, red creeping into his golden cheeks. “Can’t have that! Can’t have a hideous monster embarrassing you in front of all your friends! So better send him to Tamriel and let the Empire take care of him! Which they didn’t!”
Link slumped in his seat, breathing heavily. “That’s why I’m in Sadrith Mora. Because here, no one cares how you look. They only care about your power. Someday, I’ll have enough power to become a wizard lord. When that happens, I can do whatever I want. And no one will be able to stop me.”
Daria said nothing. Link heaved, his entire body quivering. Rain drummed on the faintly glowing hemisphere above them as the atronach kept rowing.
“That doesn’t help!” Link shouted. Then he shook his head. “Don’t ask me about this stuff, okay?”
“Shut up, there’s Johanna’s signal!” He made a wild gesture to the wreck, where a plume of flame had suddenly spouted above the cabin. “We have a job to do, so let’s just do it.”
Link stood up and gestured at his feet. Violet light surged around his body and he stepped out onto the waves as if they were solid ground. The boy wavered for a moment, took a cautious step, and marched forward.
Johanna had earlier taught Daria a walk on water spell. She breathed in, called the magic, and imagined the sea's surface being as firm as steel. Nerving herself, she put an exploratory foot outside of the boat’s confines, pressing her booted toes on the water. It gave slightly, but bounced back as her rewrite of reality affirmed itself.
So far, so good.
The atronach hadn’t stopped rowing, so she’d just have to jump in. Not giving herself time to doubt, she did. She landed on waves and currents made solid by her magic but still very much in motion. Like having a rug pulled out from beneath her, the flowing surface wrenched her off-balance and she fell. Her glasses slipped off—a bit of copper flying through the air.
She lunged as she fell. Metal and glass brushed against her palm and she closed her fingers. Then she hit the water and lay prone atop the waves, the ocean moving beneath her like some immense beast. Rain poured down on her, soaking her clothes.
Daria breathed a sigh of relief upon feeling the slippery glasses still in her hand. She put them back on and lay on the churning waters for a moment to regain her composure. Only then did she stand up and make her way to the looming wreck.
“It’s somewhere here,” Link muttered.
Daria and Link stood in the ship’s ruined hull, ankle-deep in frigid seawater. Rain crashed down on the rotting deck above, rivulets of water pouring into the gutted hold and out again through the ragged wound in its side. Broken crates and ruptured grain sacks lay submerged, and all through the space echoed the clicks of dozens of tiny crabs. The magic light around Link’s hand only seemed to accentuate the darkness pressing in on them.
“Remember!” Johanna called from above. “Think like a Telvanni!”
“In other words, try and figure out how I can twist this to my advantage?” Daria said.
“That’s just called thinking,” Link replied. He'd calmed down from his outburst, perhaps distracted by the job at hand.
White light briefly flashed in the darkness as he cast a spell. “Think I zeroed in on it,” Link said, pointing to a broken heap of crates precariously balanced toward the prow.
“Okay. I might be able to use telekinesis on this,” Daria said. She had to be careful, though—it was a big heap, and not much kept it in place. Removing the wrong one would send it all crashing down on them.
“Start from the top—”
“I know!” Daria said. “I’m not much of a magician but I do understand basic physics.”
“Sure didn’t look like it when you stepped off the boat!” Link said.
Daria ignored him and focused on the spellcasting. The first attempt fizzled, but the next one worked. She imagined the junk at the top scooped together and lifted.
And so it was.
Depositing it in the briny waters filling up the aft, she again cast telekinesis to move some more. She really was getting better at this. Link took the next batch. Working in turns they cleared the obstacle.
A sailor's remains lay beneath. The slimy flesh clinging to the bones roiled with the motions of crabs and seaworms, their pale bodies gleaming in Link’s arcane light. The amulet lay in the ruined hand.
“Gross!” Link exclaimed. “Dare you to pick it up.”
Daria swallowed her gorge. “Is it safe? No curses or sorceries around that?”
“It’s safe,” came Johanna’s voice. She floated above the deck but sounded like she was right next to Daria—more magic at work, she suspected.
“Fine.” She strode over to the body and tried not to look at the scavengers further reducing it. The wreck couldn’t have been that old if some of the bodies still had flesh. Reaching down in one bold movement, she grabbed the amulet and held it aloft.
“Come and get it! Still has the piquant odor of rotting corpse! Perfect for friends and loved ones!” she announced.
Link doubled over laughing.
“Good work! Simple stuff, really, but useful lessons for the likes of you,” Johanna said. Still encapsulated in her shield and completely dry, she floated down into the hold with a thuggish smile on her face. She held out her hand, and Daria gave her the amulet.
They made their way out of the ship and onto the rocks. The rowboat was coming around again, the atronach’s icy mist visible even at a distance. The rain slackened, the drops fewer and farther between. Daria noticed a few specks of mud (or worse) clinging to her lenses and took her glasses off to clean them as best she could with her soaked coat.
She realized her mistake the moment she put them back on. The specks weren’t mud but two figures zooming over the choppy waters, floating the same way Johanna did. Wizards.
“Oh dear,” Johanna said. “Looks like we have company. I’m betting its my old friend Narvith, here to pay us a visit. And take credit for my work.”
“If Narvith’s here, Uvarin must be with him,” Link said. “I still owe him for that beating he gave me.”
“Yes, you do,” Johanna agreed.
“Is it too late to run away?” Daria asked.
Narvith and Uvarin looked so similar to each other that Daria wondered if they might be related. Both of them were lean and cruel-looking Dunmer with heads of thick auburn hair. Narvith was middle-aged with a sharply cut beard, while Uvarin was maybe a bit younger than Daria, his face clean-shaven though marked by tattoos.
“What’s this, Johanna? Gathered another apprentice?” Narvith asked, pointing to Daria. He and Uvarin still floated above the rocky surface. Link eyed them apprehensively.
Johanna chuckled. “Oh, no, she’s just a friend visiting from Helnim. I owed her favor—and repaid it.”
Daria appreciated Johanna’s lie—if this guy ever looked for her, he’d go to Helnim instead of Balmora.
“I’d worry about being outnumbered,” Narvith said, “but given the quality of your apprentices, I’d say this is still stacked in my favor.”
“It’s not my apprentices you need to worry about, Narvith. I’m guessing you want to steal the amulet?”
“Yes. I heard about your mission—I have ears everywhere.”
Daria stepped back. The Telvanni way ensured this would end in bloodshed of some kind. Her paltry magic had no place here. Link was just a kid, but he stared at Uvarin with all the boiling hatred born from a lifetime of injury.
She had no idea what to do. Nowhere to run. Hiding in the hull wouldn’t keep her safe for long. Her life might well depend on how well Johanna and Link defended themselves.
Which, she supposed, meant she had to help.
Daria had seen people die. But she’d never killed anyone.
Narvith struck first. A jagged bolt of lightning jumped from his palm and struck Johanna’s shield with an ear-rending crack. A moment later and Uvarin threw a sphere of flame down at Link. The young Altmer leapt out of the way as the sphere detonated on the slick rocks.
Daria focused on Uvarin. He floated six feet above the ground. Maybe, if the shield was weak, Daria could dispel it—but she hadn’t really studied the right school for that. Nonetheless, she gathered her energies, hoping Uvarin wouldn’t land on his head, but knowing that the apprentice posed a danger for as long as he lived…
Link raised his hand, first. A surge of white light engulfed his arm and jumped to the Uvarin’s shield, shattering it. The Dunmer apprentice fell and hit the ground. He recovered in an instant, launching another blast of flame at Link.
A storm of lightning, fire, and frost raged above their heads as Johanna and Narvith unleashed their spells on each other. Daria focused on the fight occurring on the ground. Uvarin never let up. His hands shaped fire into burning spheres that he lobbed at his target, one after the other.
Somehow, Link kept dodging. The flicker of the shield around him reminded Daria to cast her own shield. It fizzled out when she tried. Another fireball flew. It hit Link and burst. Flames washed over his shield and the magic broke. He fell.
Uvarin laughed. This time, Daria knew, he’d strike to kill.
She grabbed a wet rock at her feet and charged. She called magic as if on instinct. The spell quickened her speed so that she zoomed across the beach. She ran up close to the distracted Uvarin and slammed the rock into his side. Something snapped inside his chest and he screamed in pain.
The combination of her speed and the wet stone beneath her feet made it impossible for Daria to stay balanced. She slipped and fell, pain shooting through her hip and left leg where they hit the ground. At least her glasses stayed on that time. Flashes of arcane lightning hued the sky a ghastly white.
Daria tried to right herself but lost her grip and fell again. Uvarin had dropped to one knee, clutching his side. She’d really hurt him. Link stood on his feet again, apparently unharmed.
Navrith passed over her head. Bolts of electricity followed the mage as he fled. Johanna, still aloft in her bubble of force, pursued for a few moments before turning back around.
Uvarin wailed and cursed. He gestured at the approaching Johanna, but no spell came to his aid. She crooked her finger and he stiffened in place, as if paralyzed.
Link ambled toward his rival, a grin on his face.
“Well, Link. I believe this boy’s been causing you problems,” Johanna said.
“Wait!” Daria cried. She tried to get up, but the pain in her hip brought her down. She’d fallen hard.
She tried again. “Wait! You already beat him! He’s a kid—”
Link pointed at Uvarin. The lightning from his fingertip lit up the entire beach.
Rain still poured by the time Johanna’s boat returned to Sadrith Mora in the mid-afternoon. She abjured the atronach once they reached the docks. They disembarked, Johanna with a look of satisfaction while Link stayed stone-faced. Daria limped behind them, her leg still stiff from the fall.
“If it’s all the same to you,” Daria said, “I think I’ll go back to Balmora today.”
Johanna arched a skeptical eyebrow. “It’s a long walk to Wolverine Hall. You are improving as a mage. Nothing compared to me—not even much compared to Link. But better than before.”
“Which means I got what I wanted. I need to go home.”
Go home to where nobody knew that she’d been an accessory to a killing. She imagined her mother giving the defense.
“Narvith had initiated combat,” she imagined mom saying, “so by Tamrielic law, Daria was simply defending herself and her companions. Yes, killing Uvarin may have been in bad form, but the assaulted party is under no legal obligation to be merciful.”
The thought made her sick.
Johanna at least didn’t bother Daria as she gathered up her things. She simply watched with a knowing and faintly amused look in her eyes.
“I guess I owe you some thanks for the lesson,” Daria said. “So, uh, thanks. Consider the favor repaid.”
“Uh huh. You keep practicing, Daria. It’s a mean world out there.”
“Don’t I know it.”
Shouldering her backpack, she opened the door and set off on the fungus-draped main road around Sadrith Mora. If she walked quickly she’d reach Wolverine Hall by early evening. The relay to Balmora—where it’d still be late afternoon, and hopefully sunny—would be instantaneous.
And then to Jane’s. Daria couldn’t come back to her mom and dad smelling of seawater and with a limp in her step. It wasn’t a bad injury, but she needed some time to heal. Needed to tell someone what had happened. Jane wouldn’t gloat about being right.
Daria should have listened to her.
A door opened and shut behind Daria, followed by a patter of light footsteps.
“Hey!” Link caught up with her. “Are you mad at me?”
She heard the accusatory tone in his voice. “No,” she said.
“Yes, you are. I saw your look when I fried Uvarin. You know that if we let him live, he’d have killed me, right?”
Daria stopped. Next to them, an Orc dockworker guided a guar-pulled wagon full of spiny urchins and blue crabs down the street to the shellbreaker’s. She waited for the rumbling wagon to pass.
“I understand why you did it, Link. I’m not mad at you.” She gestured at the awful, living city around them. “I’m mad that they put you in this position.”
But he shook his head. “It’s the only position there is, Daria. You think Summerset’s any different? Or Balmora? It’s the same there! They just use fancy words and pretty pictures to hide it! Killing Uvarin felt good. I don’t have to be scared of him anymore.”
Daria nodded. “I believe you. And yeah, I know things aren’t great anywhere. Maybe I just wish they were a little better.”
Link shrugged. “If you want to change things, magic’s a way to do that. You could stay here and get more powerful. You annoy me a lot less than most people.”
“Thanks, but I can’t really see myself spending the rest of my life in a mushroom.”
“You don’t have to be in a sadrith. I don’t think, anyway. We can work something out. Change things up, like you want. Make the world better.”
“Has any Telvanni lord actually made the world a better place?” Daria asked.
“Maybe. There’s been a lot of Telvanni lords over the centuries. Don’t know what all of them did. Look, most places have all these stupid customs and laws that make it impossible to do anything. Here in Telvanni lands, you just need to be strong.”
“Do you remember how Narvith fled?” Daria asked. “He didn’t do anything to help Uvarin. Do you think Johanna would help you in that situation?”
“Probably not. It’d be her decision. It’s my job to be strong enough to not end up dead.”
“But you almost did. I’m the one who helped save you.”
He made an exasperated grunt. “What are you getting at? Yeah, I’ll be stronger on the defense next time. Yeah, you helped me. Thanks! I mean it! But in the end of the day, if I get killed, well, it’s my fault for being weak. That’s true anywhere. The Telvanni just admit it, is all.”
Daria saw what she was up against. “I don’t think I’m cut out for a life that vicious.”
“It’s not that bad. I’ll watch out for you, okay? I mean, as long as you’re also practicing and all that. It gets…”
He looked down at the ground. “It’s really lonely without anyone to talk to.”
Daria was silent for a moment. “I’m sorry, Link. Sadrith Mora isn’t the place for me.”
Link narrowed his eyes, and then spat on the ground. “Fine. Run away to Balmora. It’s not any better there.”
He turned around.
“Wait, Link!” she called.
The boy stopped and looked over his shoulder.
“Stay safe, okay?” she said.
Link eyed her for a moment. Then he turned his head and marched away.
Cold and shivering, the pain in her hip worse than before, Daria stayed to watch him go back into Johanna’s house. Once the door shut, she turned around and resumed the long hike to Wolverine Hall.