Frost in Morrowind

Edward Frost's time in Morrowind has come to an end; but his struggles are recorded here for any to read. A year in the making, and spanning one hundred and fifty chapters… Violence, suspicion, loss, betrayal, revenge, power with a price, a fight for survival, ages-old mysteries... all thrust in the way of Edward Frost, a man simply trying to rebuild his life.

Chapter 1 can be found here.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Chapter 11: Cloak and dagger

As it turned out, my visit to Caius Cosades' hut was quite short. With his package in hand (a roll of parchment I had tried and failed to read - it was in some sort of code), I rapped sharply on his door. A moment later a bleary-eyed, grey-haired Imperial man poked his head out and squinted at my face, before noticing the package I held. His eyes flicked across its (also coded) label, and he opened the door the whole way.

"Oh - you're Edward Frost. Come in, I'm Caius."

The man was bare-chested, and his dim, single-room hut was quite muggy. A pall of odd-smelling smoke swirled about the room, collecting on the ceiling and making my head swim. I couldn't see where it had come from. Caius sat on the edge of his bed, reading the coded parchment I suddenly realised I wasn't holding anymore. After a moment he dropped it on the bed and looked up at me.

"Apparently the Emperor wants me to give you a job in the Blades. Do you know what the Blades are?" I shook my head. "In the simplest terms, we are spies: in the service of the Emperor. There are Blades operatives everywhere: wherever you find the Imperial Legion, and many places besides, you won't find the Blades; but they will be there." The half-naked man seated before me didn't look like a spy to me, though of course that was the whole point, I quickly reasoned. He went on: "Many people know that the Blades exist, but no-one claiming to be - or accused of being - an operative has ever been successfully linked to the Imperial government. I have to say firstly that you will not change this. Nothing we say in here will be repeated elsewhere, alright?" His tone was friendly but firm, though it was obvious to me that like Sellus Gravius at the Census and Excise office, Caius seemed eager to make a vaguely intimidating impression on me. Truly though, all he needed to do to ensure my service was to offer me money - and to really impress me all he needed to do was to prove that his talk of spies was more than just talk. In any case I assured him that I could keep a secret.

"But first I should ask you if you are willing to take orders from me. Although since the Emperor has ordered me to employ you, and you to serve me, and it is treason to refuse the Emperor, we both have a problem if you are not willing. So... do you think you could take orders from me?"

As I've mentioned before, I wanted a paid job - and there was no more stable employer than the Empire. I said yes. Caius stood and shook my hand, holding it for a moment in a tight grip.

"Good. Now, I am the Spymaster in these parts: the ranking Blades member - as far as I know," he grinned, "so you will report all Blades business to me." He released my hand, and I saw him glance at my bony fingers and weak wrist. That I had been through rough times recently was as obvious as the way my armour loosely flopped and flapped about as I moved, or the shape of bones visible through my skin. It would be some time before I had my health and my strength back: and Caius could tell. "Look, Frost, I can't send you on missions the way you are now. You obviously need some time to recover from your prison stay, and I'd like you to have some more training and field experience too. I can give you the names of some Blades members that can give you some training. You'll need to pay them for it, though, so here's some money to get you started."

Caius handed me a pouch of around two hundred septims, and recited a list of names and addresses. Most of the trainers were in Balmora; some even in the same street as the Spymaster. Caius also advised me to make as many friends and connections as I could: "It's good that you've joined the local Imperial Cult and the Mages Guild here, but a few more would be better." I started: I hadn't told him about joining anyone. I guessed that was some evidence that he was in fact a spy.

He quickly described some of the other powers on Vvardenfell for me: the guilds, the factions, the great houses, the religions, the criminal organisations. He also briefly detailed the interactions of the various powers, though it was mostly limited to who likes and dislikes who. For this I was grateful: my head was filled to bursting with information as it was. I left Caius to himself soon afterwards, with an assurance that I would return when I was stronger and better established on the island.

I was glad to be out of the muggy house and breathing in the cool evening air - especially two hundred septims richer. Right then I felt over my head in Caius Cosades' very presence. I had asked him if he knew why I had been released from prison in Cyrodiil and sent to Morrowind, but all he would say was that his orders did not include that information. I wasn't sure whether to believe him or not - he was (or claimed to be) a spy after all.

It was dusk when I returned to the Mages Guild, and after delivering the mushroom samples to Ajira and joining the guild for dinner, I went to bed.

I seemed to be fated to a life of broken sleep, for it felt as if I had barely drifted off when I was woken by a shriek from upstairs, followed by a sharp crack; the sort of sound made when someone teleported away somewhere. Heart pounding I leapt out of bed and scooped up my helmet, glad that I had ignored the other guild members' jibes about sleeping in my armour. I made my way quietly but quickly across the darkened main room, slowly and silently drawing my saber. I had reached the base of the ramp leading up to the guild entrance when time seemed to slow: the black-clothed assassin from the smuggler's cave stepped into view at the top of the ramp, blood dripping from one of his short blades. He began to advance down the ramp, twirling the wakizashi blades in a menacing flurry in front of him as he came. The intimidating motion spattered blood on the walls, ceiling and floor, and left someone of my limited skill with no easy way to attack him.

Still, the sloped corridor was narrow, and I hope to use this to my advantage. As the assassin drew near, I threw my back to one of the wooden supports along the right wall and swung out at his legs. He was forced to stop whirling his blades to push my weapon aside. I ducked and rolled across to the other wall to avoid his slicing counterattack. I had hoped his blade would catch in the wooden support, but he seemed ready for such a simple ruse, stopping his swing just short of the wall. Before I could react he twisted the sword around in his hand and whipped it across my chest in a painful backhanded blow, sending me staggering back to the base of the ramp. Soon we were embroiled in a fight just like our last: the assassin ducking or sidestepping my every swing while simultaneously reaching out and causing me several grievous wounds in a very short time.

I decided to try the spell I had learned from the Cult healer at the fort in Pelagiad the previous day. It was called 'Righteousness', and I had learned it in response to the fights in which I hadn't had time to cast offensive spells because I was too busy healing myself. It was a health-transference spell, and the name "Righteousness" seems like it was chosen to try to justify in some way the awful nature of the spell. Health-transference spells reopen any number of wounds the target has suffered during their life as their very health and wellbeing is drained and transferred to the caster. The severity of these wounds can exceed that of the original wound, so a ressurected childhood graze could flay skin and flesh from the victim.

I found that I didn't even have to touch him for the spell to work: as soon as I brought my hand close enough to him, bright arcs of light jumped from his body to my outstretched fingertips like lightning, and I immediately felt my wounds begin to close. In contrast, the black-garbed assassin had paused, his blades raised defensively as he looked down at his body. I lunged forward, concentrating the spell into my hand again and this time physically shoving him backwards. He swung both blades downwards as I did so, opening parallel cuts down my chest - but these closed up again directly as the spell took effect. The assassin had fallen to his knees, and was reaching out for me. Blood was seeping through the fine black mesh of his armour - seemingly all over his body - and running in trails down the ramp.

I backed away and he fell forward, coming to rest on his stomach at the foot of the ramp: also at my feet. Blood poured through his chain mask as he tried to push himself off the floor, arms shaking. I placed my hand on the man's back and discharged the spell one last time. He was dead in an instant, collapsing into the large pool of blood spreading across the floor. With that last casting I was fairly sure I had been fully healed, but I began to check myself over with shaking hands to be sure: the amount of adrenaline in my body made it hard to tell.

At that moment I heard one of the upstairs doors to the guild open, and then Ranis, wearing an angry scowl and accompanied by a couple of large town guards, was walking down the ramp to the bloody scene of the fight. She was bleeding - one hand held over a nasty cut to her midriff. Apparently she had been upstairs, unable to sleep, and had seen the assassin coming in the front door. She had teleported outside to the nearby temple, but not in time to escape entirely unhurt. By this time everyone else had woken up and gathered around, and it was only a matter of seconds before Ranis was restored to health by Sharn gra-Muzgob, the orc healer.

As Sharn went to work, Ranis gave me a long look over the orc's shoulder.

"Well, Associate." She said. "I know who's going to be cleaning up all this blood."

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Chapter 10: Errands

My introduction to the regulars of the Balmora Mages Guild that morning had earned me the nickname of "The Naked Breton". I wasn't convinced that Ranis hadn't staged the whole spectacle as a kind of unofficial initiation into the local guild, either. Most of the members seemed friendly enough, but the grand joke of waking up naked on the floor in front of them all certainly reinforced my position as the lowest ranking guild member there.

As embarassing as it had turned out to be, the process of forging links to the plane of magicka had been an apparent success. I could always physically feel when my magicka reserves were less than their maximum (a mage's 'maximum' magicka generally being understood as their magicka level after a refreshing sleep) - it is something akin to feeling tired. Ranis Athrys, the Balmora guild steward, asked me to cast a spell to test my new 'magicka threads'; a non-destructive one, considering we were indoors. I cast my water-walking spell (which has no visible effect when not standing in water), felt the usual tug at my magicka reserves, and after a moment noticed I could feel that my magicka levels were again at maximum. Apart from that I didn't feel very different than I had previously. I did feel as if I had a little difficulty concentrating: I kept drifting into short, vague daydreams.

After this test Ranis seemed satisfied that the threads had taken hold properly, and sent me to see Ajira, the khajiit apprentice alchemist, for some duties I could perform for the guild. Ranis explained that a combination of performing services for the guild and improving my casting skills would lead to promotion through the guild's ranks. Members of higher rank had access to spells and equipment (supplied by guild members) that lower-ranking members did not. This was quite apart from the goodwill afforded by helping members with their problems, and I knew that mages could be powerful friends.

I was also planning to take advantage of Ranis' offer of hospitality and continue to sleep at the guild, so feeling keen to earn my keep, I presented myself to Ajira to see what she would have me do.

"Ah, the naked breton wants something from us; a job maybe? There is something..." She trailed off, and I could see the nostrils in her cat-like muzzle flare. She was sniffing the air. "You have moon sugar in your pockets, Edward Frost. Nasty crystals; don't want to be caught with that. The guards don't understand." Ajira shook her head slowly. "Sell it to us: Ajira is an alchemist after all." The khajiit swished her tail back and forth, looking at me hopefully. I did as she wanted, and received a fair number of coins for the small pouches of sugar; Arille and I had been right about their value. As we made the transaction, Ajira told me that most khajiiti would be willing to trade for such things because of the general weakness most of the race has for them (and any other sweet thing). She said they usually either want it for themselves, know someone who does, or feel sympathy for khajiiti who one way or another have lost their lives to it. I didn't ask which category she fell into, and she didn't tell me. I did understand enough of alchemy to know that a purified substance like moon sugar would likely have many applications besides its main function as a narcotic. Perhaps being a studying alchemist, her intentions were in fact pure.

I kept the vials of skooma to myself: Arille had told me they were worth much more than the moon sugar. Since I was a lowly associate in the guild, Ajira would not have been able to offer me a worthwhile sum for them. I couldn't have expected her to make some kind of exception for me, either: it became clear that Ajira did not have a high opinion of me when she set me my first task as a guild member. Idly tapping the claws of one hand on a conspicuously blank piece of parchment, she asked me to collect samples of four different kinds of mushrooms so she could study them and write a report on their properties. Not only was it a menial errand, it was obvious it was to further her own place in the guild! I managed to keep my chagrin to myself and left for the silt strider I had seen at the south edge of Balmora. I figured that tasks that would aid my own (sorely needed) studies in magic would come in due time, and that I couldn't expect any different considering my position.

On my first day on Vvardenfell I had spent the afternoon hunting mudcrabs near Seyda Neen, and I had seen a number of mushrooms around the damp trees and rocks there. Ajira had also sent me in that general direction, so I took a silt strider to Seyda Neen, curious to see what the ride would be like. The 'caravaners' in charge of the striders hollow out a space in the upper part of the gigantic insect's body, at once providing a space for passengers and exposing a bundle of nerve endings that enabled them to control the creatures. The motion of the silt strider during the trip was anything but gentle, and the subtly gruesome sight of the caravaner prodding and pulling at the fleshy nerve endings made for an unpleasant journey. Seated in the hollow space in the strider's shell, I couldn't see anything but the clouds drifting overhead, either. At least it was faster than walking the distance between Balmora and Seyda Neen: I was able to to collect samples of the mushrooms Ajira wanted and arrive back in Balmora by late afternoon, in time to see the whole city bathed in the orange glow of a beautiful sunset.

From my vantage point on top of the tall platform that allows people to mount and disembark the silt striders (without resorting to rope ladders), I could see people all over Balmora leaving their places of work and heading for the taverns - or 'cornerclubs' as the locals called them. It reminded me of the package I had been asked to deliver to Caius Cosades. I had been directed to ask the owner of the South Wall cornerclub, one Bacola Closcius, where Cosades could be found. I asked directions to the South Wall cornerclub - and felt slightly foolish upon learning that it stood next the south wall of the city. As the recently arrived throng of customers at the cornerclub were all in the process of ordering their first drinks for the night, Bacola only spared me enough time to look me up and down once and give me Caius' address before turning back to the crowded bar.

On my way out I noticed a female khajiit watching me intently, and not looking away when it became obvious that I had seen her. I wanted to find Caius' home and be back at the Mages Guild before dark, though, so I decided not to head over to her corner to see what she wanted. I made a mental note of the distinctive markings on her fur, however, in case I saw her again in the future.

Besides not wishing to risk the dark alleyways of Balmora at night, I was also in a hurry because the idea of a paid job from this Caius Cosades still held a great appeal to me.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Chapter 9: Golden Thread

I woke with a start: Ranis Athrys, the Balmora Mages Guild steward, was prodding me in the ribs with a long silver forefinger. "Quick; get up. Follow me." She was whispering, throwing glances at the other guild members, all asleep in their bunks. I struggled out of bed and staggered up the stairs behind her to the front door, where I had met her the night before. She pointed at a worn great-chest in the corridor.

"That's the supply chest. All members can take what they wish. The new shipment arrived this morning, and it contains some... controversial items." Ranis handed me a pair of small packages; waterproof parchment tied with twine. "Take these. The apprentices Ajira and Galbedir are always fighting over something, and it's only their somewhat limited magicka reserves that allows the rest of us some small measure of peace. On the days they decide to compete through spells, they at least burn themselves out quickly. With those," she motioned for me to open the packages, "they would be free to annoy all day and night, not to mention probably reducing the place to a pile of ashes in the process."

The packages each contained a small bundle of golden, shimmering threads. They each appeared to be wound into a short loop, and as closely as I searched, I could not find where each thread began or ended. I instead discovered that each was hugely elastic, and sprang perfectly back into their original shape. I had never seen their like before.

"No-one in the Empire knew these existed until some time after Morrowind was settled by the Imperials." Ranis said. "The Telvanni - the native Dunmer great house dedicated to the magic arts - apparently kept them a perfect secret until recently. I'm sure you know - or have been taught - that the only quick way to restore one's magicka is by drinking expensive potions. Items can be enchanted (at great expense of course) to constantly regenerate a person's body, removing all effects of wounds and fatigue; but nothing is to be done about magicka." I nodded, still rubbing the sleep from my eyes and wondering where her small lecture was going. Just then she said something that certainly woke me up:

"This is not actually true."

When I did nothing but stare at her, Ranis continued: "Those are 'magicka threads'. They forge a direct link - a 'thread', so to speak - between a mage and what is thought to be the plane of magicka. The mage in question receives a constant replenishing flow of magicka, but must make certain sacrifices for this to happen. The transfer to the mage's body is disrupted easily by heavy materials and by the use of certain types of weapons." I must have looked even more bewildered than I had been up until that point, because she elaborated: "This is conveniently simplified into a mage choosing to give up the use of heavy armour, for example, and receiving a small constant trickle of magicka in return; or choosing to give up all armour altogether, plus the use of blunt and even ranged weapons, and receiving a veritable torrent of magicka: all the time. For each martial discipline given up, one thread is required. This clear delineation between the different armour and weapon disciplines and the corresponding gain in magicka regeneration and threads required leads me to believe that it is actually a mage's mental focus and state of mind that maintains a link to the plane of magicka at the expense of being able to wear plate mail, rather than some physical quality of one heavy material or another that interferes..."

My attention strayed from Ranis' suddenly intricate spontaneous lecture. I thought about the possibilities of having a virtually unlimited font of magicka to draw from every day. Every battle or expedition strategy I had ever heard pass a wizard's lips in some way involved the conservation of magicka reserves, and how many magicka restoration potions could be carried. If these threads worked as the guild steward said, I thought to myself, they could lead to a very different life.

Ranis was bringing her explanation to a close: "... so if you put on a piece of heavy armour, you would only have a short time before your concentration was broken - and so was that particular magicka thread." She stopped, seemingly waiting for me to say something.

Finally finding my voice, I asked: "Why are you giving these to me? They sound extremely powerful - I would have thought that you, or..."

She interrupted me: "Not everyone is suited to their use: for many, they simply do not work. Being a Breton, your natural affinity with magic should afford you some advantage in that regard. Others feel too uneasy about the unknown forces at work to take them up. Some people think that threads alter a person's entire body and mind; that a 'threaded' person looks the same, but is different." I gently stretched one of the threads, and held it beneath my nose. It didn't smell of anything. Ranis went on: "None of this is known for sure: much still needs to be learnt about them. To that end, I am only offering those to you if you let me study their effects on you."

I nodded. They sounded like the dream of any magic-user to me. "Yes. I'll do it. What do I do?"

Ranis smiled, and directed me to stand amongst some barrels and sacks in a small space next to the steps leading down to the underground rooms. "Good. Now, you'll need to take your clothes off." She sat down on the stairs across from the storage area, and watched me expectantly.

I could see why she had made me stand in the storage space: it took on the appearance of a changing area, only open on one side. I was understandably a little taken aback: "Hold on. I..."

"They won't take hold otherwise." The steward was shaking her head. "And I need to study the process of a thread taking hold. These are powerful, like you said - and expensive. I do not need to give them to you, Associate."

'Associate' was the lowest rank in the Mages Guild. I guessed that meant that I was really part of the guild. The steward of the guild was giving me an amazing gift; amazing power - something that could keep me alive in situations that would be the death of others. What was a little lost vanity? Once my last piece of clothing was on the floor, I looked to Ranis for instructions.

Her forehead crinkled slightly at the sight of my pale, thin body. "It looks like you've had a hard time. I was right in giving you this power. Weave one of the threads between the fingers of one of your hands, and concentrate on the martial discipline you wish to give up. Think about how it feels to wear that armour, or wield that weapon." Eyes closed, I did as she said, imagining myself bore down by huge plates of heavy armour, barely able to move. A tingling in my hand made me open my eyes to see what had happened. The thread had gone, but my hand was golden and shimmering. The golden light spread quickly up my arm and across my chest, the tingling feeling shifting alarmingly into a burning, and then into the most intense sensation of pins and needles I have ever felt. It really felt as if I was being stabbed all over: the shimmering light had covered almost my whole body. It encased my head and feet at the same time, and I was both blinded by golden light and left without any sensation but the unbearable pins and needles enveloping my body.

When it subsided I was lying face down on the tiles at Ranis' feet. I didn't feel very different, except for a sort of nagging sensation at the back of my mind. My hands at least looked the same as ever, too.

"How do you feel?" Ranis hadn't moved from her seat on the stairs. Getting to my feet I told her I felt alright now that it was done, and took up the second thread to weave it between the fingers of my other hand. I wanted to have the business done and behind me before I had the opportunity to think too much about how the first thread had felt. I was also cold and wanted to put my clothes back on. This time I thought of all the occasions I had tried to use a shortbow growing up, and how I had never really been able to work out how to aim them effectively. Spells from the college of Destruction would take the place of ranged weapons for me, I decided.

This time the shimmering light didn't spread up my arm, but rather snaked around it in a web of golden rivulets before encircling my neck, then abruptly shooting up my nose. For a moment I thought I would sneeze; then I passed out.

I woke to find I had fallen backwards into the clutter of objects in the storage space, apparently making a lot of noise as I did so, as it seemed every member of the Balmora Mages Guild was suddenly there, watching me with no little amusement. And that was my introduction to the regulars of the Balmora guild: waking up naked amongst a mess (of my own making) of foodstuffs and magical reagents.

"Well," I said, "it's good to know the only price for power here is my dignity".