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, September 16, 2005

Chapter 23: Thievery

My activities the following day reminded me again of my time growing up in the Imperial Cult orphanage.

Back at the Imperial Cult Shrine in Fort Moonmoth - near Balmora - the Cult healer had suggested asking for duties as an Almoner at the Imperial Chapel in Ebonheart. Initially I had baulked at the idea of doing such a thankless job, but when Iulus Truptor approached me during my visit to the Chapel and described the workings of a standard Almoner 'project' to me, I reconsidered. Each project was considered a separate task, and a member that performed a certain number of tasks would be considered for promotion through the ranks of the Imperial Cult. It was very similar to the structure of the Mages Guild, actually.

What really sold me on the job though was that for each Almoner project, I was sent out alone to a particular organisation with a fairly low collection target (one hundred septims), and - most importantly - without a logbook or other means of recording who donated what. This meant that I didn't have to put myself through the humiliation of begging for money: I could simply leave the Chapel for a while, and upon return use some of the money raised through my thefts to complete my Almoner project. Stealing from the rich and giving to the Cult was exactly what I used to do in my youth.

As a small ruse, it worked extremely well. I could at once feel as if I was repaying my debt to the Cult, while also helping a worthwhile cause, and advancing through the ranks. A number of outcomes through one effort.

The day progressed in a pattern like this: I would ask for an Almoner's project from Iulus Truptor, teleport to Balmora for a two hour longsword-training session with Rithleen, and then teleport back to the Imperial Chapel to give Truptor the money I had (as far as he knew) collected. Afterwards I would ask for another project and the process would repeat again.

For each project, I gave Iulus more money than he had asked for. He became so happy with me that by the end of the day, he had advanced me through four whole ranks in the Imperial Cult: from Layman, through Novice, Initiate, Acolyte, and then to Adept. He also rewarded me with a number of pieces of clothing that bore minor enchantments. I was quite taken with them at first: I had never before had the opportunity to even hold an enchanted item. The way in which I could instinctively feel what kind of enchantment was placed on each piece of clothing simply by holding it was fascinating; though it meant that I soon lost interest in them. Each item was enchanted so that it could periodically provide a slight, and temporary, boost in the wearer's ability to understand language and empathise with people. The clothes were more ceremonial than useful, basically.

Near the end of the day, Iulus Truptor told me had no more simple 'begging' Almoner's projects (though he didn't call them that, of course), but that he might have other work for me in a few days. I cast my Recall spell and teleported back to Balmora for one last training session with Rithleen before retiring for the night. The Redguard woman seemed a good trainer, and often said that everything she taught me had one aim in mind: to keep me alive. So I believed her when she told me that I was making good progress, but that I would benefit greatly by getting some experience in the field.

It was true that I had seen very little of the wilds of Vvardenfell; in fact, I had only seriously ventured outside the towns twice - and both times I had not strayed from the well-worn track. Rithleen gave me a few pieces of advice for getting some serious exercise and practice defending myself against wild creatures, while not getting myself killed in the process:

"Caius would be cross with me if you happened to end up the dinner of a family of cliff-racers, so please don't wander off into the deep, deep wilds. Be very wary of the Dwemer ruins: they're often haunted and patrolled by those blasted metal constructs - and you can't tell until you go inside. Also, if you should come across some Daedric ruins - big, spiky purple stones, crazy angles - run in the other direction, alright? There are things in those ruins that can turn you inside out or roast a person inside their armour." I was fast losing my enthusiasm for gaining some field experience. I asked her:

"Can you recommend somewhere I could go that won't get me cooked, turned inside out, or eaten?"

"The Bitter Coast. It's nearby, and home to mudcrabs, nix-hounds, netch, and the occasional tomb or smugglers' hideout. Nothing worse than that along there, really."

That did sound like a workable plan: for one thing, I knew where the Bitter Coast was and how to reach it - and also, if it was as pocked with smugglers' caves as everyone said, such an expedition could be a very lucrative. As an added bonus, theft from outlaws was actually approved of by polite society in Morrowind. I decided to prepare for an extended hike through the wild areas of the Bitter Coast.

So, that evening I bought a fair quantity of raw meat, and carried it and my new portable metal grill up the steep hill just to the north of Balmora. Once outside the city limits I set a fire, and searched about for some rocks to support the grill while I waited for the flames to get hot enough. I sat and cooked the meat I had bought, watching the sun set over Balmora. Dusk was well past by the time I had finished, and as I salted the pieces of meat and wrapped them in leaves, I found myself edging closer to the fire to ward off the encroaching chill of night. I hoped to have enough food to last me several days. Finally, before heading for bed, I refilled my water skins at the same public pump I had used to wash the bloody Dark Brotherhood armour.

Early the next morning I took a silt strider to Seyda Neen, intending to hike up the Bitter Coast to the west. On my way out of the village I ran into the altmer Eldafire, apparently returning from a morning swim, and thought to ask her if she knew Caryarel. Kaye had said that the thief might live somewhere along the Bitter Coast.

"Caryarel?" Eldafire frowned. "Yes, I know him. we sometimes see him here trying to get a good look inside the Census and Excise warehouse. Just the place his sort would very much like to see the inside of. He comes all the way from Gnaar Mok to case the building."

I thanked Eldafire for her help, and carried on into the wilderness. Silently I also thanked my good fortune at picking up such a good lead, and hoped that my luck would continue. Heavy fog and a maze of stinking swamps, slippery rocks and trees with winding, serpentine branches and roots made for heavy going. I found myself constantly backtracking and checking my map so I wouldn't get lost. After a while I gave up on the inland route and walked along the coast, keeping the Inner Sea to my left. Now and then I would cast my water-walking spell and run gingerly out onto the water a little way (water-walking is rather like walking on ice: it is quite slippery) to escape the swamp and get a better look at the shape of the coast.

Before too long I found the entrance to a tomb. It had the same kind of arched alcove over the rotting door as the Andan Tomb, only this one was marked as the 'Thelas Ancestral Tomb'. My curiosity once again getting the better of me, I ventured inside, donning my helmet and readying my shield and silver sword. I was right to be cautious, though it did me little good. At the opposite end of the first room I entered stood a skeletal guardian, a chipped and scored longbow hanging loosely at its side. I had encountered animated skeletons before, during my terrifying night in the necromancer's house - but for whatever reason, those undead monsters had left me more or less alone. This one did not.

With alarming speed, the skeletal guardian snapped the bow to the ready and let loose an arrow, striking me square in the chest. The arrow was tipped with some kind of fearful acidic poison: it melted instantly through the fibrous bonemold chest plate and buried itself near my shoulder, burning away the skin and flesh it touched - so that a second later it fell out, leaving a gaping, agonising wound. I couldn't even scream, the pain was so intense. A second arrow burned a hole right through my tower shield and nicked my armguard, this time thankfully only giving the skin of my arm a peripheral splash of acid.

Realising my armour was not going to help in the slightest against the skeletal archer, I dove forward, getting a stone plinth between myself and my attacker. There, I crouched down low and waited, laying my shield aside. As the skeleton rounded the corner of the plinth, I grabbed one of its dusty, bony ankles and yanked hard. It crashed to the ground, and before it could skitter away and rise to its feet, I threw myself upon it. My entire weight upon the undead creature, I could feel its bones cracking and breaking - yet still the skeleton flailed about, battering me with its arms and even trying to bite me. Without its deadly arrows the thing couldn't do me much harm, however, and I was able to lock my fingers into its rib cage and draw whatever force was sustaining it into my own body, using my Righteousness spell. Soon I was healed, and as the skeleton's bones began to shatter and crumble away under my weight, I cast a spell I had learnt only recently: 'Soul Trap'.

The skeleton broke into pieces and lay still, and I fancied I heard a brief rushing sound, and felt something twitch and shudder inside my pack.

I had recently learned a little more about soul gems from the Apprentice enchanter Galbedir, as the crystalline stones were used to enchant items. If a creature or spirit was destroyed shortly after having had Soul Trap cast upon it, its soul would jump to the nearest soul gem, and be held inside until put to some purpose by an enchanter (usually). Like other gemstones, soul gems are found in varying qualities, the finer, rarer examples being able to hold more powerful, deadly creatures. I had a small collection of soul gems in my pack, mostly stolen, but some supplied by the Mages Guild. Upon inspection, one of the smaller, 'petty' gems appeared to be repelling the other stones, and when I picked it up I could feel a force radiating out of it.

I was no enchanter - and had no intention of becoming one. By all accounts it was an incredibly difficult, tedious and frustrating business; though for these same reasons it was also a lucrative one. Soul gems containing trapped souls were purchased by enchanters for sizable amounts of money - and that was the reason for my interest in the matter.

I had stolen a creature's soul - for money. It was theft, just the same.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Chapter 22: The other side

I actually flew across the water to Ebonheart. From Vivec's Palace I could see the harbour of the Imperial settlement. Since I was still under the blessing of the Shrine of Daring, I was able to take full advantage of the magical capability of flight that it gave me and soar across the bay, instead of taking the long way around on foot. It was marvellous: flying low over the glistening water I was unafraid of the blessing wearing off unexpectedly, and was able to chase the breaking waves into Ebonheart's harbour.

Imperial guardsmen were everywhere in Ebonheart, and when I asked for Apelles Matius, one of them directed me to the battlements of the nearby Legion fort. Matius certainly looked the part of a high-ranking Imperial Legion officer new to his current posting: his striking armour was different to the other soldiers'. In fact, I couldn't recall ever before seeing a metal that gleamed so brightly in the sun. According to the Hlaalu guardsmen in Balmora, this was the man to ask for more information on the Dark Brotherhood. Needless to say perhaps, I was keen to see if anything could be done to prevent myself being hunted by deadly assassins. After introducing myself and telling Matius of my problem, I was faced with an obstacle that I should have expected: he did not believe me.

"Look, Mister Frost, the Dark Brotherhood are deadly. And no offense to you, but you look like you've ... seen better days. Yes, you're a breton - I can see - and you probably have some magical ability. But magic or no, if you were really attacked, I doubt you would be alive to tell me about it."

To convince him I described the armour and weaponry of the assassins in great detail (all the time wishing I had thought to bring a piece of the armour with me instead of selling it all). At that Matius seemed to change his mind - or at least doubt his conviction:

"Alright, alright. Stop." He frowned for a moment, staring at his feet, before giving a slight sigh. "Alright, if you have been attacked by the Dark Brotherhood, then it's likely you'll be attacked again; in which case it would be remiss of me not to help you. And by help, I mean I'll tell you what I know - I'm not about to head off on a Dark Brotherhood hunt with you; just so we're clear."

Matius indicated that I should follow him on his patrol. We began to walk along the battlements, the Legion officer gazing out to sea as he spoke.

"As it turns out I can't tell you much more than you've already heard: the nearest Dark Brotherhood base is on the mainland, in Mournhold - the capital city. Of course with the Blight, getting to the mainland is a little tricky." When he didn't elaborate further, instead staring thoughtfully into the sea, I had to ask:

"Uh - at the risk of sounding simple, what is the 'blight'?"

"Are you serious? The blight!" Matius frowned at me. "I've only been here a week, and yet I know about the... Alright. The volcano, Red Mountain, at the centre of Vvardenfell has been the source of blight storms for an age. These are like the ash storms that plague most of the island, only they carry diseases. Very, very bad diseases. Until recently the 'ghostfence' - I don't actually know what that is; you'll have to ask someone else - the 'ghostfence' has contained the blight storms and all the 'blighted' - or diseased - creatures in an area around the volcano. Now very recently, these blighted creatures have been cropping up everywhere on the island, and blight diseases are spreading. The Empire has quarantined Vvardenfell. No ships from the island are allowed to dock on the mainland."

At that, the Legion officer appeared to have an idea.

"They are still allowing teleportation - though 'allowing' might be the wrong word: it's not as if we can actually stop anyone teleporting to or from the island." He gave a grim smile. "Take Asciene Rane - over in the Grand Council Chambers - she'll magic almost anyone that asks over to Mournhold; though now she says she won't if they're sick, or have been out in the wild Ashlands recently. There's basically nothing we can do about someone as gifted in teleportation magic as her, anyway: one move to grab her and she'd vanish." He snapped his fingers. "Just like that."

Matius stared off into the middle distance, and murmured, seemingly half to himself:

"Can't grab her in her sleep, either: no-one knows where she goes at night..." After a moment he came out of his reverie and looked directly into my eyes. "Now, you won't repeat this to anyone, alright? We don't need a cavalcade of bodies blinking over to the mainland. We're trying for a proper quarantine, here." He rolled his eyes, shaking his head. I assured him I wouldn't spread word of the apparent transport service to Mournhold around, saying:

"Don't worry - I don't even know if I'll be going, yet." That was the truth. My every encounter with the Dark Brotherhood had been a close brush with death: and each time it had been a single assassin. I was not about to poke my nose into a potential nest of the vipers without feeling a lot better prepared than I did at that point. It was becoming apparent, too, that neither the Legion nor any of the local enforcement companies would be willing to help me; so for the meantime, I would just have to focus on my martial and magical studies and hope that I could withstand any further attacks.

Thanking Apelles Matius for his time, I carried on to the Imperial Cult Mission, my final destination for the day. Ranis Athrys had as good as ordered me to make the trip to the Mission to find someone who could teach me the 'Divine Intervention' spell. I intended to do as she said, but I also wanted to ask the priests if there was anything I could do to aid the Cult. I had not forgotten my debt to them.

The Mission in Ebonheart - also known as the Imperial Chapel - was built out of a steep, rocky promontory, with spectacular views to the west and south; out to sea. Stepping inside, I was immediately struck at how fine the furnishings were. Richly coloured rugs and tapestries lined the walls and floors, the furniture was all of high quality heavy wood, and the shelves were lined with fine books and other expensive items. It was a far cry from the sparse interiors of the Tribunal Temples - and from the Cult orphanage in which I was raised. Still, I suppose it was the headquarters of the Imperial Cult on Vvardenfell, and the presence of the Cult in most places on the island was limited to a single shrine and priest tucked away in a corner of a Legion fort. A place like the Imperial Chapel could be said to inspire confidence in the strength of the Cult.

Seated on one of the benches just inside the Mission was a lithe Redguard man. He laid aside the book he had been reading and rose to greet me, introducing himself as Kaye, the Shrine Sergeants' overseer. He came across as one of those young, devout men and women who believe themselves to be personable links between the 'common' citizen and the insular world of their religion: whereas most of those 'common' citizens see them as being quite stuffy and straight-laced.

Upon hearing that I had recently joined the Vvardenfell branch of the Cult and wished to offer my services, Kaye told me of an assignment he had for a Shrine Sergeant 'Layman' of the Cult.

"There's this Altmer, named Caryarel. We only see him in here if he's sick, or in trouble. This actually means that we see a lot of him, since he's often in trouble: he's a thief." As the Redguard spoke of Caryarel he looked as if he had bitten into something unpleasant. He obviously had little love for the shady Altmer. "We usually manage to keep a close enough eye on him, but when he was here recently being treated for swamp fever, someone must have been careless. After he left we noticed that a rare - and valuable - Chapel Limeware bowl was missing."

I thought I could see where this was going. Still, playing hired muscle on a mission to intimidate someone certainly seemed more appropriate for a Shrine Sergeant than it did for a Journeyman in the Mages Guild. Kaye went on, and soon confirmed my expectations:

"Your assignment is to find Caryarel and retrieve that Limeware bowl, if you can. Now I know what you're thinking: valuable though it may be, it's still just a bowl. The problem is that this bowl was a gift from a wealthy benefactor. We rely heavily on his donations to support many of our good works. If he should happen to visit and find his gift missing, the results could be disastrous." Kaye placed a hand on my shoulder - a friendly gesture, but it seemed somewhat contrived considering we had just met. "You'll have to do some detective work to find Caryarel; though I have a couple of clues to get you started. Swamp fever is carried by mudcrabs, and the only place they are found near here is along the Bitter Coast. You could ask other Altmer people along there - in such a sparsely populated area as the Bitter Coast, any Altmer there are probably a close-knit bunch."

I accepted the Shrine Sergeant assignment. Forming in my mind were the beginnings of a plan for dealing with these debt collection and intimidation tasks I had been given - both by Kaye and by Ranis Athrys.

Before teleporting back to the Mages Guild for a night of well-earned sleep, I spent the rest of the afternoon learning a couple of new spells from the priests. First, I had found that in the scorching sun of the southern Ascadian Isles, my 'Rest of Saint Merris' spell was not sufficient to keep me from overheating and becoming exhausted. So I eagerly replaced it with a more powerful - and more difficult - spell, which the priest simply called 'Stamina'. With that spell in my reportoire I felt confident that even wearing a full suit of armour, in the midday sun, on an uncommonly humid day - I would be able to run for hours without becoming tired.

And finally, I found someone who was able to teach me 'Divine Intervention'. In addition to providing an excellent safety net in case I ever found myself in some kind of danger I couldn't handle, the spell would make reporting back to the Imperial Cult headquarters a fast and very simple matter. Using a combination of my various teleportation spells and the services of Masalinie Merian, the guild-guide in Balmora, I could travel from virtually any point in the land to the Imperial Chapel in less than a minute. And that was only one example of the many places my teleportation spells could quickly take me - as soon as I became practised enough to cast them reliably, of course.

Slowly but surely, I was becoming better and better established on Vvardenfell - at least in the more civilised areas. I was soon to discover just how dangerous wandering off the beaten track could be.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Chapter 21: Drown

"Breathe the Waters of his Glory and the Way is Made Clear."

That was what the inscription on the Puzzle Canal triolith said. It seemed clear that this riddle held the secret to accessing the Shrine of Courtesy: and it looked like the secret was to drown oneself in the water of the Puzzle Canal. I stared at the clear, swirling water - and then at the shimmering wall of light blocking my path - for a long time. It was just too cruel. That couldn't be the answer to the puzzle! And the gods knew how terrible I was at riddles... perhaps I was missing something.

I cast Almsivi Intervention and was yanked through space to the entryway of the nearby High Fane Temple, blacking out briefly as I always did when teleporting. An Ordinator strode past, his intricate golden armour almost blinding in the midday sun. I would have thought that a dripping-wet man in full bonemold armour appearing out of thin air right next to you and floating a little way off the ground would have caused at least some surprise, but the Ordinator barely even glanced my way. I suppose he was a holy warrior, and being posted in such a hotspot for pilgrimages, he must have seen much stranger things than me on a daily basis.

He did pay at least passing attention to me as I stopped him to ask about the Puzzle Canal. I couldn't read his expression through the golden face of his helmet, but from what he said to me, he couldn't have been happy to speak to me. He grunted before he spoke:

"Another outlander with stars in his eyes over the living gods. You're all the same: you can part with your gold, and with your flying potions -" he indicated the blessing of temporary flight I had received from the Shrine of Daring by pulling me down to the pavings, then snorting as I bobbed helplessly back into the air again - "but you all wither and flinch when it comes to drowning yourself in the Canal." That at least confirmed my fears, but the Ordinator wasn't finished: "Listen: the boys and I - no, the MEN and I - we often go and drown ourselves in the Puzzle Canal at dawn to really wake ourselves up for a long day's patrol. It won't kill you - it just feels like it does. It's bracing, let me tell you."

I had absolutely no idea whether he was being serious or not - but I was sure he wore a mocking smile beneath the golden mask.

"And look, since I'm being so nice to you, I'll help you on your way back to the Canal." The Ordinator grabbed my ankle and whirled around on the spot a few times, drawing me into a dizzying spin. After gaining some speed he let me go, and I hurtled down the tunnel through the centre of the High Fane, directly towards the Puzzle Canal. Either I felt extraordinarily light to others when levitating, or the Ordinator was simply very strong - probably both, actually.

Back at the centre of the Puzzle Canal, I was resolved to go through with it. I had always been vulnerable to performing silly acts when challenged by others - even when that challenge was only implied. Besides, I reasoned that children raised to become priests or priestesses would also have to perform the Pilgrimages, and surely they would not be set a task that would kill them before they could become useful members of the Temple.

I planned to do it by floating on my back, just below the surface, and holding my breath until I fell unconscious. I knew I didn't have the willpower to do it any other way; and I wasn't ashamed of that, either: I considered it a good sign that I had great difficulty in bringing harm to myself. During my incarceration in that Imperial prison, many prisoners had come to lack that sense of self-preservation, and had died in the awful place.

And so I put my plan into action, watching the shimmering wall of light from beneath the clear water. I lost count of the number of attempts I made: it was the most difficult thing I had ever done. Eventually the light-headedness gained from repeatedly holding my breath until the last possible moment - followed by struggling desperately to the surface - prevailed, and I passed out.

At least I think I did. To me it seemed as if I merely closed my eyes against the dancing spots for a brief moment; but then the shimmering wall was gone! Pushing my way to the surface yet again, I made to take a deep breath, but found I had to cough up a great deal of water first. Weakly crawling up the steps to the platform holding the puzzle-triolith, I coughed and heaved painfully for a good while before I could regain my feet - or, bob back into the air again - to be more accurate.

When I did, I was surprised to see a stone bridge had appeared across the gap between the platform and the space in the wall where the shimmering field had once been. It felt solid enough - not a mere illusion. It didn't matter to me, at any rate: I flew across the bridge, into the dark space in the wall, and shortly found myself facing a statue. A red and black painted statue - or, maybe a suit of fearsome, stylised armour. Leaning in for a closer look, I almost jumped out of my skin when the 'statue' turned and spoke to me:

"It is not courteous to stare. And this is the Shrine of Courtesy." It indicated the triolith squatting in the dim torchlight. 'The Pilgrim's Path' had referred to a Dremora named 'Krazzt' that was bound to guard the Shrine of Courtesy; I realised that the strange talking suit of armour was in fact Krazzt. For that is all Dremora are - or how they are perceived by mortals on this plane, at least: animated suits of armour with nothing inside but the spirit of a Daedra. I had learnt at the Mages Guild that Dremora were summoned to this plane - usually temporarily, but sometimes permanently - and they brought with them powerful Daedric weapons and armour. They could not be killed, only banished back to Oblivion - and this was no mean feat: by all accounts they were very dangerous and deadly beings. I decided that being courteous to such a creature was probably a good idea, and I gave a bow before addressing the red light behind the eyeholes of the Daedric helmet:

"My apologies, Krazzt. I've never met a Dremora before." If Dremora had moods, I did not know - and I couldn't have read its expression even if they did. Krazzt's voice seemed to ease out of the holes and gaps in the Daedric armour:

"Well, now you have. And -" he pointed to the silver longswords strapped to my belt - "you've come properly armed, too. In fact, I see that you have two swords there, whereas I am unarmed." At that, Krazzt paused for a very long time. I waited, unsure if I was supposed to do something, or - "You are brave and gallant." Krazzt heaved a great sigh - it spoke as if reciting a speech it had delivered a thousand times: and resented each time. "Will you give me your longsword so that I might stand a chance against your might?"

"Oh - yes. Of course." I unstrapped one of the silver swords and handed it to the Dremora, hilt first. Krazzt took the blade without a word, stepping over to a large worn chest nearby that turned out to be full of silver swords. Dropping my gift among them with a clatter, Krazzt said:

"Thankyou. You have the grace of courtesy. You should read the inscription on the shrine to complete your pilgrimage. Now." It prompted, when I didn't step over to the triolith immediately. "Otherwise you'll have to come back. And we don't want that."

Upon reading the Grace of Courtesy as it was inscribed on the shrine, I felt a hum of Alteration magic go through me: I was able to recognise this blessing - it was similar to one of my own spells, in fact. I had been blessed with the temporary ability to breathe underwater. Perhaps it was intended as a sort of apology for the hellish experience of drowning oneself that pilgrims had to go through to access the shrine.

After thanking Krazzt I turned to go, but the animated armour called out to me:

"Pilgrim! Tell Vivec I'm bored - maybe he'll let me go." When I stared stupidly at the Dremora for a moment, mouth agape, it added: "That was a joke."

I gave Krazzt a weak smile, and floated out of the room. On my way out I could have sworn I head the Dremora mutter something that sounded like:

"Starry-eyed mortal."