Chapter 24 The Beginning of the End
Snorri was dead. In the afternoon, Magnus and I had cremated him. We laid his body down on a bed of stones, and I lit the fire, made from what dried wood we could find. It saddened me to see him go, especially before what was surely yet to be the greatest battle of our entire adventure. Snorri lived for battle, like me. He would’ve wanted to die in a great fight, instead of at the hands of the Imperial traitor, Vailant. As Snorri burned, Magnus spoke to me of the traditions of Nordic warriors. He spoke of Kyne, goddess of warriors, and the grand afterlife that awaited those who died noble deaths in battle. He spoke of everything that Snorri had told me of in Tel Vos, except he didn’t mean a word of it.
I knew that Magnus did not believe in his native religion. I understood, since I didn’t believe in my own. He acted as though he did though. He spoke as if there was something after death that called out to those who most tempted it, like Snorri and I. It was fitting and I appreciated it, out of respect for Snorri if not for myself. I had always wondered what happened after death.
During the cremation, I realized that all the time I had spent in battle, in war, bounty hunting for the law or taking arms against it, had been partially out of looking for answers. Answers to why, where, and how, mostly. Different people always told different stories, each one with as much certainty as the next. I had never gotten too attached to any one belief. Thinking of Snorri as an example gave me a few of my own answers. As we stood silent and watched the sun set, Snorri’s flame soon becoming the only source of light, I understood that there was little about the death of a warrior that was lasting. Warriors would come and go forever, each one trying to be remembered in history as the greatest. Some would succeed; most would fail. But even the people whose stories echoed the loudest were still as dead as dead could be. Snorri had no legend behind his name, but he deserved no less from the afterlife than the greatest of heroes.
'If I am to die today, will honour matter? Will there be glory in my death?' I had wondered. I decided that nothing in the afterlife mattered until I was actually staring some divine deity in the face, awaiting punishment or reward for my actions. And until that moment was before me, I would let my actions represent me. I would enter Ald Daedroth, kill whoever opposed us, and if I were to die, then I would join Snorri in a warriors paradise, where wine flowed freely and elven wenches were plentiful.
“We’re heading in now,” I said to Prophiter. The four scars that my claws had created were still fresh on his face. They reminded me of my misplaced act of aggression. They also reminded me of my anger. For the last few days I had felt a vicious streak resurfacing in me. I had thought that the malice and sadism of my younger years had been replaced with wisdom and experience. But after I slashed at him, with every intention to kill, I realized that I had less control of it than I thought. Prophiter had said that all Khajiit loved to kill. He was wrong, but his words had truth to them. When I was younger, fighting in the wars, I had loved to kill. I did it as much for defending my country as I did for the sheer enjoyment of killing. Simply to hunt a weaker opponent and smell their fear as they died was all I needed to keep me going. Time and experience had humbled me, but my outburst showed me my own lack of control. What was worse, I had contradicted myself by attacking Prophiter. I blamed him for being inexperienced, but it turned out he was, perhaps, as experienced in battle as I.
“Right,” he replied. His attention seemed diverted, surely by what had taken place between us. I had found out that Prophiter was not the simple elf I had thought him to be. I didn’t understand how he had suddenly recalled such memories. I assumed that Snorri’s death must have triggered something within him. There was something else that I was curious about, though. I had previously expected that he was old enough to have served in the Five Years War, but he mentioned the Razing of Falinesti and the Occupation of Dune. Both of those events took place before I was even born. I knew that elves had a lifespan that exceeded the races of men and beasts, but Prophiter looked too young for it to be true.
“There is one thing I want to know,” I said to him, unsure of his thoughts. “Prophiter mentioned the Occupation of Dune. That siege took place sixty years ago. For one who seems so young, the elf speaks of experience.” Prophiter turned to me. I noticed then that he was different. What he had said about his past was real. I felt that when looking into his eyes, he stood more solid, as if I couldn’t knock him down if I tried.
“Dune? Yeah, I was there. Elves live long. By Bosmer standards, I never lied when I said I was young.”
“Tell me, how long has the elf lived?” I asked. Prophiter sighed, but gradually answered.
“I’m…heh.” He stopped and looked down, smirking. His bashfulness reminded me of his old, playful self. “You know, I hadn’t even thought about that until now. I guess I’m…about eighty.” He spoke slowly, as if the words were coming off his tongue as soon as they resurfaced in his mind. I didn’t respond; I was shocked. “I may be young for an elf, Xighden, but, trust me…I’m an old man.”
For one of such a pitiable stature, he suddenly gave off such an enduring presence. I was forced to attribute at least a small measure of respect to him. I felt as though in the coming battle the feeling would grow. It sparked my interest in another topic of our last conversation.
“So you’re a veteran of the border wars after all. And that’s why you hate Khajiit,” I said to him. He returned his steady stare to me.
“I don’t hate Khajiit. Not really, no. But I’ll never get over everything that happened in Elsweyr. I’ve seen too much of what Khajiit are capable of. They just…” He then stopped. I didn’t know whether it was because he didn’t want to express his angst, and if he just couldn’t put his memories into words. I did realize something though. It was a smell. Something that I’d smelled the entire time I’d traveled with him, fear. It was only then that it seemed significant. He hated Khajiit, but he hated himself as well for not being able to overcome his fear of us. I could smell the terror and I could sense the anger. We spoke of it no further.
Night had fallen and the three of us were as ready as we were going to be. We stood between two pillars that marked the entrance to the daedric ruins. Ahead of us lay a towering, scattered field of stone pillars and walls, each and every one intricately carved and coloured in black, grey, red, and purple. The ruins seemed to spread out over an area almost as large as the city of Balmora, except without any definite structure, designed more like a maze. I gazed up into the night’s sky, staring at the sister moons, Masser and Secunda. They waned. Waning moons birthed Cathay-raht. I wondered if it also ended them. “A good day to die,” I said aloud, as we entered the ruins.
The high walls were impossible to climb, even for me. We had to make our way through the maze, watching our backs for any daedra that would pursue us. I, having the best night vision, lead the way. We encountered several creatures along the way. Some were mere scamps: pinkish skinned, little, goblin-like daedra with sharp claws and nagging bites. Others were more formidable, such as the Winged Twilights: grey and black skinned, half-woman, half-bat, daedra with razor sharp talons and horrific screeches. They gave us quite a fight, given our close quarters and the limited vision of Prophiter and Magnus. We defeated them though, finally making our way to the huge, stone, ovular door. I firmly gripped the round, metal handle and heaved the heavy door open.
Inside the broken temple was a long hallway that sloped downhill by means of a flight of stairs. The hall was lit with a gloomy, yet sufficient luminescence that emanated from red, shoulder height candlesticks. As we descended the stairs, I noticed the carvings in the stone walls. Instead of the black and purple of the outside, the internal carvings shone with a pale blue. They were boldly designed and easy to notice, unlike the ones outside of the ruins. The exterior of Ald Daedroth appeared ages older than the interior, as if everything inside had been renewed. As my eyes ran along them, the symbols and glyphs seemed to pulsate, as if to a living heartbeat. There was a haze to the air that was slightly disorienting. It hurt my head to stare at the symbols. I could tell that Ald Daedroth had a presence connected to the daedra lords themselves.
We walked down the stairs, and I noticed more runes carved into the walls. They seemed to glow with a faint, blue light. Once again, it hurt to look at them. I felt a strain on my mind, making it hard to think clearly. I just thought of it as the evil of a place such as Ald Daedroth, and I tried to brush it off.
Soon, we came to a huge, open room. The ceiling was high, with tall, thick, pillars that connected the roof to the floor. Elevated cauldrons that held bright, burning flames lit the room. And in the center of the room, between four great pillars of stone, was the face of our anguish. The three of us stopped, standing side by side, and looked upon the wizard, Lemnos.
Majestically he sat, adorned with exquisite red robes and enchanted artifacts that shone like glimmering jewelry on his person. I could tell he had the usual height of a High Elf, even sitting. He was thin and gaunt, but his presence made him seem huge. His golden skin had a faint shimmer to it, which matched his pale blonde hair, tied back in a ponytail.
On either side of him stood a figure. To his left stood a female Wood Elf, geared up in light armor with a bow at her side. She had eyes as black and cold as any mer could have. Her hair was similar to Lemnos, light blonde and tied back. To Lemnos’ right was an armored individual. His full suit of Orcish armor covered every inch of his body from head to toe. Due to his stature, as well as his smell, I could tell he was an Orc. He wielded a great battle axe. A daedric battle axe that matched the one I had spotted in Doth Berossus’ home. My attention was caught on his daedric weapon, even as Lemnos began to speak.
“It gladdens me to see you all here,” the wizard said. His deep voice echoed off the walls of the large room in which we stood. “I’ve been eagerly awaiting your arrival.”
“Lemnos, you know why we’re here. Everything that you’ve orchestrated so far will end…now,” Magnus commandingly stated to him. The Nord stepped forward as he spoke, drawing his blade.
“Now now, Magnus. There will be time for that later. First we must talk.” From his seat he rose and walked towards us. He had no weapon drawn, so no one made a move. My tail swished with anticipation, but I refrained from attacking. As much as the ambition to kill the wizard had built up inside me, I was too curious to hear what he had to say. I wanted an explanation as much as Prophiter or Magnus did. “Yes, as I mentioned, I’ve been awaiting you all. But contrary to what you said, you do not know why you’re here.” None of us responded. Lemnos paced from side to side, taking a good long look at all three of us. Upon closer inspection, I noticed the deep yellow of his eyes and the dark rings underneath them. He looked ill, or as though he hadn’t slept in days. “You’ve all come here under the impression that you can stop me. I assure you that you’ve been mislead by your own foolish egos. I will fulfill the Father’s prophecy and unleash the power that he has bestowed on me!” Lemons announced boldly.
“Lemnos, what has overtaken you? The Father? Of whom do you speak?” Magus asked. Lemnos turned his attention directly to my Nord companion, and nearly burned a hole through him with the intensity of his eyes.
“The Father, Sheogorath, will have his plan fulfilled, with me as his general! You have played right into our scheme! Through his will you have been drawn here and I…I will finish you. You cannot fathom the power he has given me! Our armies will march across this and wipe out everyone. The Nerevarine, Dagoth Ur: they are nothing compared to the glory of Sheogorath!” Lemnos bellowed with fervor.
The more he spoke, the more apparent his insanity became. Madness had clearly overtaken him. Sheogorath was a dangerous and powerful being that I had very little understanding of. I knew that anything that was connected to Sheogorath, though, was connected with chaos and suffering.
The wizard then raised one hand to the air, and spoke words in the tongue of magicka. Purple bolts of lighting instantly leapt from his fingers and whipped all three of us. I collapsed to my knees. The High Elf backed away from us and gave life to another spell. Rifts in the floor began to form, and the whole room shook. Deep cracks appeared that threatened to engulf all of us. The numbness from Lemnos’ last attack had neutralized me, and I could not move in time to avoid the earth rift. As I struggled, sinking into one of the crevices, I saw Magnus fight through the lighting’s after effects and make his way for the wizard. “Lemnos!” he shouted, with his Nordic broadsword drawn.
I fell. Down about twenty feet I dropped, into what seemed like a cave. After I rose and took a quick look around, I realized that I was in a single chamber of what made up a set of tunnels below Ald Daedroth. It was dark, the only light source being a flickering flame that had fallen down during the earthquake. The cauldron-like pot had cracked open and its piles of wood and embers burned in a heap on the ground. It was after that I smelt the fire begin to singe the old cavern floor that I realized I was not alone. I also smelt the presence of someone: an Orc. I turned around behind me to see Lemnos’ bodyguard standing halfway in the shadows. He wielded the huge daedric battle-axe that I had eyed earlier. I pulled out my own weapon.
We both stood in a moment of silence. The Orc held his battle axe high, and kept his gaze upon me. I grew tense as ambition and adrenaline coursed through me. Everything that I had been searching for seemed to lead me to face the warrior that stood before me. Through all the long years, I hadn’t known what it was I was looking for. Money, fame, honour, power, and pride had all once been the treasures that drove me forward. I had also found every single one to be a disappointment. They were false treasures, things that gave me the push to keep going. I had sought answers, but I had never found any, or at least none to the important questions. But what stood before me, a warrior with no intention other than to destroy me, was the one thing that had always kept me going. In a way, Prophiter had been right about me. I was an animal; a man, but also an animal. I was only ever happy when the rush of battle embraced me. I loved to fight and I loved to kill. And so there I was, ready to do just what I was good at. I shifted into a grounded stance and prepared for the embrace of his blade. 'A good day to die.' I thought, as the Orc began to charge, his weapon raised.
I rushed forward with an equal burst of speed. Our axes met in a loud clash that sent us both bouncing back a few feet. There was no halt in the momentum, however. I jumped upon him, swinging my steel axe down diagonally. I swung again and again, hammering down an intense barrage of slashes. His wide, jet black blade managed to block every strike, though. From a partially downed position, he rose to his full height and kneed me in the gut. It was a direct hit, and much more effective than what I had thrown at him. I was winded, and gasped for air while ducking a wide horizontal swipe from his weapon.
Taking a few paces back, I gathered my fighting form and prepared for another rush. “The Orc is skilled,” I said to him. He gave no response. The pause was brief, as he charged again. I wasted no time in responding, by stomping both my feet down and using the “Eye of Fear” on him. I leaned forward and roared, baring my teeth in the fiercest way possible. He again gave no response, continuing his forward propulsion. My Khajiit ferocity had not affected him in the slightest, and what was worse, I had left myself open to his attack. He struck me with a shoulder charge. I was knocked back and down onto the earthen floor. From my facedown position, I heard his footsteps coming towards me. I rolled to the side, avoiding the slice that was made by his axe. Flipping up to my feet, I kicked the Orc right in the side of the face, before he even had a chance to pull his weapon from the ground. The blade of the daedric battle-axe stood upright, stuck in the ground, and with its owner was knocked back a few feet away from it.
As the Orcish warrior rose up from my last strike, I realized that my kick had knocked the helm right off his head. He faced me. I gasped when I saw his face. It was Umbra. It wasn’t actually him; Umbra was dead. His face was a mirror image of Umbra’s though.
The moment when Umbra’s mask had been torn off his dead body was instantly recalled in my mind. The intensity of that warrior was unparalleled. Umbra’s strength, skill and ferocity were what I had respected without doubt. And how Magnus and I had defeated him was also brought to my mind. We had defeated him shamelessly, in uneven combat and using magicka. I didn’t know if it was the energy of the ruins affecting me, but I felt as though the warrior was there for a reason. He was more than a henchman of Lemnos. As his eyes gazed upon me with a burning intensity, I felt Umbra’s powerful presence glowering down upon me. The moment produced a realization that echoed with potential.
The series of manipulated events that had brought me to Ald Daedroth were not about Lemnos. They were about me. I was the one who had found the Imperial documents that started everything. It was my combat experience that had kept us alive throughout the journey. I knew that I was worthy of being guided down such a path of destiny. The Orc began to run towards me. “Umbra,” I said aloud. My contemplation was interrupted by the beastman’s body crashing into mine, which slammed me into the rock wall behind me. Upon the fierce impact, my steel axe fell to the ground. I was snapped out of my lulled state in time to fully feel the impact of the blows to my abdomen. His punches were ferocious, and did not stop until I fell down to my knees. He delivered a strong backhand to my right cheek, which nearly knocked me out. I wouldn’t be denied my prize though. I would prove to him that I was worthy. “Umbra,” I repeated. I had to gasp just to speak. “I will…beat you this time. No magicka. Just our bodies…and our souls.”
The Orc’s blank demeanor stayed the same. He did not respond, but he did back towards his axe, still wedged firmly into the ground. He grabbed onto the weapon, my weapon. His fingers clenched on to what would be my weapon. My Umbra. I knew that the daedric axe wasn’t the true Umbra sword, but at the moment, it didn’t matter. The treasure that I sought wasn’t deep in the Masobi Lake outside Suran, it was right in front of me. My logic began to bend and blur and all my animalistic instincts took over. I hopped up off my knees and tackled him, invigorated with the desire to wield that axe. We both fell to the ground and rolled around, delivering blows to each others heads. I slashed at his throat with my claws, nearly spilling his blood. He was too strong though, and shoved me off him, ending our brutal grapple. I landed, inches away from the daedric battle axe. We both quickly eyed it, and each other, and made a move for it. I grabbed on, and began to uproot it.
He soon was right beside me though, his armor battered, but not broken, sweat and blood mixing into a brownish grime that covered his skin. I stood firm with my hands on the Umbra. Most of my armor had been torn off in our scrap. Only my bonemold leggings remained. My fur was wet with sweat and my muscles felt as though they were on fire. We both were locked in a struggle of pure might for possession of the weapon. We were eye to eye, with our hands seizing my Umbra’s hilt. I could taste his foul breath, exhaling in my face. I could smell nothing other than the odorous musk that had emanated from our struggle. I began to growl a deep Khajiit growl and he grunted in a way that only an Orc could.
In the midst of our contest of strength, of who would pull my Umbra from the ground first, I was knocked down quick and effectively. A headbutt was the cause, and it was delivered as fast as I could blink. I stumbled back and fell. My eyes blacked out slightly, as further delirium set in from the recent blow. My head lowered down to the ground and I felt victory slipping away from me. I closed my eyes.
“Xighden…awake creature.” A voice proclaimed in my mind. “Get yourself up and claim your treasure! Don’t let your Umbra be lost again!” The voice repeated. I opened my eyes. The room seemed to pulsate like the heart of a living organism. It was like when I had first entered the ruins. Whatever it was, it could not be silenced as it spoke in my head. The voice’s words became like hot, metal spines in my skull. I could not ignore them. “Creature! Get up!” It screamed.
With an energy that I could not trace, I rose to my feet and charged for the Orc. Only seconds had passed in my dreamlike state, but it had seemed like hours. He had locked onto my Umbra and had just begun to pull it from the ground. With two extended hands, I reached out and grabbed his face, my claws beginning to sink into his skin. I roared a savage bellow and forced his head down, towards my Umbra’s exposed blade. He fought with every ounce of energy he had, but it wasn’t enough to match mine. I pushed his face down, slowly but surely, until I had his throat touching the razor sharp blade. He pummeled my midsection with elbow strikes, but I didn’t let them break my grip. With a nearly choking screech that climaxed my assault, I shoved his head down the final few inches, severing it cleanly from his neck. His body jittered around on the floor, spewing out blood in all directions.
I gasped for clean air, but all I could taste and smell was the sweat and blood that we had produced. It was the taste of pure battle, and it soon was perfected with the smell of death. I shook, my muscles pulsating uncontrollably. I tried to still myself, but I could not. For minutes I stood, looking at my hands. They were the hands that had killed my enemy and won my Umbra.
And so glorious it was, soaked in Orc’s blood and as black as night. I pulled it from the ground and yelled in triumph. “Mine!” I began to laugh and smile. I fell back to the ground, laughing, not quite believing what I had accomplished. The blur of destiny, hate, victory and death were all momentarily negated in a moment of pure bliss.
After a few more passing minutes, the feeling subsided and I was alone. I sat in the empty cavern and relished the last seconds of my accomplishment. The cavern then shuddered with a loud boom. The sudden tremor caused me to immediately hop up to my feet, Umbra in hand. I remembered Magnus and Prophiter, and Lemnos. I knew they would be in danger. So I ran, to find them, to save them; whatever it was, it didn’t matter. The unbridled emotion of Ald Daedroth had overtaken me, and I was no longer myself. Somewhere in my battle, I had given in to the force that haunted the daedric ruins. I was working off of borrowed energy. I had either died or gone insane, and it was some external essence that kept me in one piece. Nevertheless, my motive was the same. I rushed down the rocky tunnel to save my friends, without knowledge of my condition.