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, November 25, 2005

Chapter 53: Light and Dark

I couldn't rest. The only shelter I found on my hike through the West Gash were several ancestral tombs - and all were too heavily haunted to risk spending the night in. There was one exception there: the Salothan Ancestral Tomb, the entrance to which I found a short distance from the remains of the three scrawny vampires I had slain. No poltergeists, skeletal guardians or angry spirits to mention.

The problem was that since it was the 'quietest' tomb I had seen in the area, and since I had encountered a group of vampires outside, I was led to believe that it was probably a vampire's lair. And I was certainly not going to sleep in a vampire's lair.

Sure enough, I was attacked by an athletic-looking female Nord vampire upon leaving the tomb. She leapt down from above the entrance, her Nordic battle axe whistling through the air in a vicious downward slash. It was very fortunate for me that I had happened to bend over to attempt to scratch my calf at that very moment (difficult while wearing full armour); for it meant that she sailed overhead, missing her target. If she had connected, the force of her blow would likely have split my helmet - and my head - in half.

Yelping in fright, I yanked my katana out of its sheath and went to the attack. She was definitely the strongest and most skilled vampire I had faced - but that wasn't saying much considering the wretched and deranged animals I had seen previously. In the end, it was I who took her head off.

I continued on, to the west, without stopping, for hours upon hours, until the sky behind me began to lighten; blue and orange taking the place of the black night. In the pre-dawn light I made out a river at the base of a steep embankment. Having studied my map of Vvardenfell earlier, I knew that that meant that Gnisis was close by: the Samsi River was the only one in the area, and ran in a rough crescent shape around the village. Squinting into the gloom ahead, across the river, confirmed it; I could make out the hulking, organic shapes of Redoran style buildings (like those in Maar Gan).

Staring across the river gorge caused me to miss what was happening more-or-less beneath my feet. A jolt of intense pain in each leg, one after the other, served to direct my attention downwards. The shaft of an arrow protruded from each of my thighs; they had gone up through the netch leather and underneath the adamantium plates. Before stumbling back from the edge of the gorge, I spotted my attackers: more vampires! I was beginning to think the West Gash was full of them!

Gritting my teeth, I wrenched both arrows out at the same time, and then sent my healing spell into the wounds. As I straightened up, the vampires - four of them - came over the lip of the embankment. I barely had time to ready my shield and blade before they were upon me. Luckily for me (since there were four of them), the creatures turned out to be just as deranged, weak and stick-thin as almost all the other vampires I had seen. And they were attacking me at dawn! They had to be insane or truly desperate - perhaps both.

The arrows had come from a Khajiiti vampire with a shortbow, and when the battle was joined he hung back to attempt to stick me from afar. I was able to keep the bodies of the other vampires between myself and his arrows, though - until every one was cut down but him. It was at that moment that the first rays of the sun peeked out from above the mountains to the east, catching the vampiric Khajiiti bowman in the eyes. The thing screamed and threw its hands up to protect its eyes, at the same time ducking down out of the sunlight. Wisps of smoke drifted up from the Khajiit's scalp, and even at my distance I caught the acrid smell of singed fur.

The blinded vampire made to escape back down the embankment, staggering wildly. I bounded after it and caught it by its filthy, matted tail; before dragging the kicking, thrashing creature up into the sunlight, raining slashing blows down upon it all the while.

Vicious, I know; but I could still remember the pain of his arrowheads buried in my legs. I left the burning bodies behind and made my way down to the river to wash away the blood and the cobwebs of a night without sleep. I hadn't actually landed a killing blow on any of the vampires, merely incapacitated them. The morning light finished them off.

There was an tomb on the river-bank, the 'Falas' Ancestral Tomb, according to the name on the doorway. Thinking that it was probably where the vampires had come from, I readied myself and went in. Like the Salothan Tomb, it was very quiet inside, and mostly empty. The deepest chamber was devoted to a single urn, with the name 'D. Bryant' painted on the side. It reminded me strongly of the tomb in which I found the 'Mentor's Ring'. Remembering that the urn there had been trapped, I used my Telekinesis spell to pop off the urn's stopper at a distance; just to err on the side of caution.

It turned out to be a wise decision: with a -bang-, harmful magics ran briefly up and down the urn. After they had died down, I peered into the urn, and then dug through the ashes inside with my (gloved) hand. The trouble I went to was worth it: I found a beautiful silver ring, inset with several rubies and inscribed with the name 'Denstagmer'. Moreover, I could sense powerful protective enchantments in the ring; when worn, it would ward against the elements: heat, cold, and electrical energy. It was much like my Elementward ring in that regard, only much more powerful, though unfortunately lacking any proof against insidious poisons.

Still, it was quite a find. I left the tomb with 'Denstagmer's Ring' tucked into a pouch at my waist, and set about crossing the shallow river.

My pocketwatch read seven o'clock when I arrived in Gnisis. I had travelled all through the night, and I was exhausted. Not physically - the enchantment in my 'Tireless' pants saw to that - but mentally; and no magic could relieve the heaviness in my eyelids. I made straight for the Temple. I just wanted to complete that stage of the pilgrimage and be done with it. I wanted to be in bed. Staying up through the entire night reminded me too closely of those terrifying nights growing up, when something had gone wrong on one of my 'excursions' onto private property, and I'd been forced to hide somewhere until dawn.

Along with the Shrine of Justice, Gnisis Temple held a religious artefact of great significance to the Tribunal faith: Vivec's Ash Mask. 'The Pilgrim's Path' told a story of a time deep in history, when Dagoth Ur (that name again) first entered Red Mountain and awakened it from dormancy: the beginning of the blight storms. Vivec was leading a group of refugees away from the ash and blight storms, and they rested in the place where Gnisis would later stand. Vivec awoke to find himself and his followers completely encased in a crust of ash, unable to move. He was (understandably) upset at being trapped, and his tears apparently dissolved the ash cast - or at least weakened it enough to allow him to free himself. From there he freed his followers, "breathed life back into them" (according to the book), and cured them of the blight.

Vivec's Ash Mask lay on a pedestal before me, a grainy, ash-coloured thing with holes for the eyes; much as I might have expected. I examined it from a respectful distance; an Ordinator, one of the Temple's holy warriors and guardsmen, was watching me closely. Turning away from the mask, I stepped up to the three-sided shrine, pulling the stopper from the 'Cure Common Disease' potion I had bought downstairs to offer at the shrine (I had no need to carry my own stock of the potions around, as I knew a spell that performed the same function). The shrine was different from the other shoulder-height trioliths I had encountered on my pilgrimage: it was a pillar, basically; with some detailing on its edges at around eye-level. It reminded me of the 'teleportation pillar' in Wolfen Castle, as a matter of fact.

I poured the potion onto one of the pillar's faces as I read the Grace of Justice (grooves had been carved into the stone floor to take the liquid from these offerings away). As I did this, I noticed bubbles forming in the stream, at a point roughly level with the bottom of the detailing on the pillar. Intrigued, I made a closer examination of the pillar, and soon found that by placing my hands on its surface, I could slide a panel on each face upwards. The detailing on the edges of the pillar actually acted as grooves for the panels.

Suddenly remembering the Ordinator, I cast him a guilty glance; my hands still on the sliding panels. He was still watching me, but made no move to stop what I was doing; so I assumed that he didn't mind... That or he had fallen asleep on his feet - I couldn't tell with the golden-masked helmets the Ordinators wore.

I slid the panels up, revealing a hidden compartment, containing another ash mask, propped up on a wooden stand. It looked just like the one on the pedestal behind me, though I assumed that being hidden, the one in the pillar was the genuine artefact... or not. I mean, who's to say? Perhaps neither of them was the actual Ash Mask of Vivec from the story in 'Pilgrim's Path'. I leaned in for a closer look, and at that point, the Ordinator did speak up:

"Careful there, outlander." He growled.

I understood his concerns clearly, and clasped my hands behind my back as I studied the mask. I would not touch it. Instead I found myself staring into the empty eye-holes of the ash mask as if hypnotised. I couldn't shake the feeling that there was something behind its empty eyes. As I stood there I became aware of a tickling, creeping sensation at the back of my eyes. It grew in intensity to a thrumming vibration that travelled from my head to my feet. My studies in the Restoration school of magic had progressed well enough for me to sense that powerful curative magic was sweeping through my body; strong enough to cure almost any disease or ailment known to man and mer.

My own fatal affliction was not really 'known' to man or mer, though (as far as I knew), and by the same token, it remained after the sweeping tide of curative magic had subsided. I had come to be able to sense the 'magicka leak' in my body (again through a greater understanding of the Restoration school); and it was still there.

There was something else, too. In my mind I could feel the 'presence' (for lack of a better word) of an entirely new spell: one that could cure virtually any 'Common' or 'Blight' disease in another being. Spells that cure blight diseases were notoriously difficult to learn - let alone master - but this new spell, that I somehow 'knew', just like my other spells, appeared incredibly simple in my mind. I just could not explain how (and I tried later to explain it to others in the Mages Guild); it felt almost instinctive.

Genuine or not, the hidden ash mask was powerful; there was no doubt about that. I slid the panels in the pillar closed again, and gave the Ordinator a respectful nod on my way out.

Koal Cave, where the 'Ruddy Man' part of the Pilgrimage of the Seven Graces took place, was supposed to be less than an hour's walk south from Gnisis, so I set out for it directly. It was the last shrine I had to visit on my pilgrimage; afterwards I could finally report back to a Temple official, and (hopefully) join the ranks proper of the Temple. More prominent in my mind, though, was that I could finally go home and get some long overdue sleep.

During the hike, I reflected further on the 'Ash Mask spell' I had learned. It had one odd drawback: I could cure others of blight disease, but not myself. I thought then, though, of the tendency of religious orders to place great emphasis on the importance of helping others - often at personal expense. Maybe that was it.

The Shrine of Valour was just inside Koal cave, which opened directly onto the Inner Sea. I could tell from the slick floor and the deep pool of water at the back of the cave that it would be partially submerged at high tide.

'The Pilgrim's Path' told some story of Vivec defeating 'Ruddy Man', the father of the dreugh (aquatic creatures with the tentacles of a squid, the torso and head of a man, and the pincer-like arms of a crab). There was some mention of negotiating for the use of the dreughs' red, leathery hides as armour for the Dunmer people, but I was too tired to give it much thought. In any case, the grey, sticky wax from a dreugh was the offering to be left at the shrine. I actually had a wad of the wax that had been in my pack for weeks, almost months: ever since I had first read 'The Pilgrim's Path' and set out on the pilgrimage.

Peeling it off the bottom of my pack was difficult, and left an unpleasantly greasy and sticky residue on my gloves. I stuck the wax to the base of the triolithic shrine and hastily recited the Grace of Valour. I could hear my bed calling.

In another moment I was gone.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Chapter 52: Life and Death

Following the Ghostfence around to the north was heavy going. The terrain was very rough, the direction I needed to travel necessitating a path that cut across a never-ending series of steep ridges and deep valleys. I made good use of my link to the plane of magicka, as I had to cast my Tinur's Hoptoad and Levitation spells almost constantly; in order to leap up what cliffs I could, and float slowly over what I couldn't. My 'Infallible' belt was invaluable for the times when I misjudged the distance of a jump, and was faced with a dizzying fall down to the bottom of a deep gully. The belt's enchantment meant that I had nothing to fear from such falls, but my stomach still lurched uncomfortably every time.

My plan was to hike along the Ghostfence, from Ghostgate to Maar Gan, a small village containing a Tribunal Temple shrine. This particular shrine was not part of the pilgrimage of the Seven Graces; that was not what I was going there for. Folms Mirel had told me that he had 'sensed' that the Falasmaryon propylon index was in the shrine: that it had been left there as an offering. Folms had basically asked me to steal from the Tribunal Temple, but since a propylon index was just a simple rock - unless you knew what to do with it - I didn't feel bad about doing as he asked.

I had to get to Maar Gan first, in any case. Looking back, I'm not sure why I didn't simply give up partway there, teleport to Ald'ruhn, and opt to take a silt strider instead. Perhaps the idea of reclining in the hollowed-out guts of a giant insect as it made its unsteady way through such rough territory put me off. So I made my way on foot, and it took much the rest of the day to reach Maar Gan.

Along the way I encountered what I at first took to be a bonewalker - a zombie - albeit one in much better condition than most of the wrecks of jutting bone and rotting flesh I had seen up to that point. It was possible to tell conclusively that it had once been a man, for example - and I could even see the tattered remnants of a pair of pants, fused to the flesh of his legs. I was certain he was undead: his skin had torn off in great patches, and both it and the swollen flesh underneath was a horrid grey colour. Everything about him was, in fact: he was caked with ash from head to foot; even his eyes had a grey film over them.

He... it - attacked me, flailing at me ineffectually with its arms; and I was forced to kill it. It was then that I found that the poor man had actually been alive - after a fashion: his blood was warm. It was then that I thought of the stomach-churning tales I had heard about the men that caught some disease travelling out near Red Mountain, and been driven insane by the sickness. 'Corprus' disease... incurable, apparently. These men would wander the inland wastes of the island, oblivious to everything around them; even the extensive swelling and disfigurement of their own flesh.

Looking at the deformed body laying before me, I knew that that was what had happened to the poor man. I wondered how long he had been wandering alone through the wastes - and if anything had still been going on in his mind through that time. I was glad that I had rinsed my mouth of the foul ash as soon as I had come back through the Ghostgate from the Blight-ridden Red Mountain region. I could scarcely imagine a worse fate than the one of the 'Corprus man' I had killed.

It was near five o'clock by my pocketwatch when I came over a rise and sighted the village through the flying dust of a moderate ash-storm. While not as peculiar as the giant, hollowed-out fungus dwellings of the Telvanni settlements, the architectural style of the buildings in Maar Gan was still quite alien. I had read somewhere that the style of native dwelling popular in the north-west Ashland region was inspired by the natural curves of the windswept landscape there, and by the giant native insects - the shells of silt striders, for example. I could see immediately why such a design was popular there; the organic curves let the strong winds of the Ashlands blow over the structures with little resistance, and left no place for flying ash and dust to collect.

A local directed me to the shrine, housed in one of the largest buildings in Maar Gan. The main chamber of the shrine was, oddly enough, dominated by a large boulder with an engraved plaque mounted on it. I guessed that it had some religious significance, but I was in a hurry, so I did not stop to examine it. Standing a little way from the boulder, and prompting me to instinctively start in shock, was an almost perfectly motionless Dremora. I would have mistaken it for an empty suit of Daedric armour, were it not for the light behind the eye-holes in the helmet, and the fact that it had turned its head to look at me when I entered.

A Dunmer priest stepped up to address me:

"Can I help you, sera?"

"Sera." I said in greetings, making a small bow. As my head was dipped, I took the opportunity to examine the cluster of offerings on the floor in front of the boulder. Sure enough, on a silver plate next to a pile of drakes was the propylon index. I just needed a way to get it... "Uh... yes," I said, straightening up, "I'm on the pilgrimage of the Seven Graces; I thought I'd stop here before pressing on to the shrine in Gnisis."

This was all true. Gnisis was some way west of Maar Gan, and was home to the Shrine of Justice; my next stop on the pilgrimage. The priest smiled.

"Certainly. If you'll walk this way," he indicated a side doorway leading off the main chamber, "you'll find prayer rooms downstairs."

I thanked him and headed down the stairs. Once out of sight, I cast my invisibility spell and crept back up to the doorway to survey the main room again. I had considered attempting a sleight of hand to steal the index; pocketing it as I left an offering of coins on the silver plate - but the Dremora (who I assumed had been summoned into service much like Krazzt, in the Puzzle Canal, had) was observing all that went on in the room too closely.

Instead, backing down the steps so that my eyes were level with the offerings in front of the boulder, I used my Telekinesis spell to pull the small stone index through the air to me. It happened so quickly, flashing across the room to my raised hand, that only someone actively looking for a tiny object zipping about of its own accord could have seen it.

To avoid raising suspicion by walking right out the front door again, when I obviously had not stopped to pray (as I had said I would), I found one of the prayer rooms and closed the door behind me. I spent a short while in there having an early evening meal before continuing on to Gnisis.

It was a mark of my own naivete, I think, that I assumed I could reach Gnisis before too late in the evening. By my map, most of the terrain between Maar Gan and Gnisis was in the 'West Gash' region, which was supposed to be mostly open grassland. I thought I could make good time and get there at some point before midnight.

Instead I found myself trudging across a seemingly endless expanse of springy, brown-green grass, well into the early hours of the morning. 'Grasslands' was right: there was almost nothing else there in the West Gash: grass, scattered boulders, and the occasional stand of dead, skeletal trees. The landscape itself was relaxing (in a way); especially after the barren Ashlands... but it was just that it seemed like it would never end!

I had obviously grossly misjudged the distance between the two towns - and yet I trudged on, for hours on end. It wasn't until later that it occurred to me, much to my own embarrassment, that I could simply have left a magical Mark somewhere along the way, and used the magic of the Wolfen ring to teleport home for the night - before casting Recall the next morning and continuing on from exactly where I left off. I was too used to having to preserve my Marked location at the Balmora Mages Guild so I could return home in an emergency (or when my business abroad was finished). Also, I was tired from the long day, and my mind was muddled.

So muddled, in fact, that when I spotted three man or mer-like shapes in the gloom near a copse of dead trees, I assumed that they were men or mer - rather than vampires. I was about to call out to them when they noticed my presence, and all turned at once to stare at me. It was then that I saw the other-worldly glow in their eyes and realised what they were. Suspecting that violence was about to ensue, I cast my Night-eye spell; and before my eyes the world was suddenly cast in a greenish, washed out light.

It was just in time, too: the vampire closest to me had a shortbow, and let off an arrow just as the Night-eye spell came into effect. Fortunately he was far enough away that I could simply step to the side and avoid his attack. I responded with my new 'Poisonbloom' spell; a thin green beam of light that leapt out from my forefinger and burst in a splash of acidic poison over the vampire. Some of the acid must have gone in the thing's eyes, as it began screaming and frantically rubbing at them - leaving me to safely close the distance between us.

Those three, like all the vampires I had seen up to that point, were weak, scrawny, and near-naked. I was beginning to wonder if any vampires at all were actually as forbidding and deadly as in the stories about them. The three vampires showed little sign of working together to overcome me; I suspected that once I, their (supposed) prey was in sight, they viewed each other more as rivals than anything else. They all looked to be starving.

I was rid of them easily, slicing at them with my glass katana until they could no longer stand, then cutting their heads off where they lay. I had come a long way in the art of war - and my newfound, apparently supernatural strength certainly helped.

Before moving on, I gathered up some of the highly prized 'vampire dust' they left behind into glass phials. I would sell it to an alchemist later on. It had been an odd sort of day: I had fought that 'Corprus man', who appeared dead but was alive; and a group of vampires - who appeared alive but were dead on the inside.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Chapter 51: From above - ashes

Early the following morning, I left Wolfen Castle in Falorn's care and set out to continue my pilgrimage of the Seven Graces. The Bosmer groundskeeper kindly helped me into my armour before I left: usually I had to struggle into it on my own, through creative use of my teeth and a nearby wall - to hold the pieces in place while I pulled the straps tight. Ancois, my new cook, prepared plenty of food for me that would keep well on an extended journey.

One problem with the castle's otherwise superb location was that there was no nearby source of fresh water (we had to have it brought in by the barrel, along with the other supplies); so I teleported to Balmora and filled my water-skins at one of the public pumps there. I intended to set off from Fort Moonmoth, just outside Balmora, in any case. Casting Divine Intervention on the streets of Balmora took me instantly to the Imperial Cult shrine at the fort.

It was a grey and dreary morning, just before dawn, and the rain drizzled down upon the Legion soldiers on watch in the fort. The soldiers were in a foul mood - probably just about to come off a long and cold night shift - and the men I passed barely acknowledged my presence. Just before I reached the main gates, on my way out, something happened that seemed to vastly improve the spirits of the soldiers on duty: the fort was attacked by vampires.

Now, most people would not be pleased at the sight of a pair of vampires dropping down out of the gloomy sky - and rightfully so - but these two were in a pitiful condition, much like the vampire I had killed in Caldera. One was an Argonian (I had never seen the teeth of one of the lizardfolk before, but this one certainly had them); and the other was a male Dunmer - both were scrawny and near naked. And their eyes! Vampires are generally regarded as having somewhat ... scary-looking eyes, but these two... the looks in their eyes made them appear quite crazed.

They had to be quite insane to attack an Imperial Legion fort near dawn, too: before I could get anywhere near the creatures, they were surrounded by every soldier on duty. I stopped halfway across the yard and watched the soldier's backs from a distance as their blades rose and fell. There were several terrible screams from the centre of the crush of Legion men, and a few rivulets of blood ran out from between their armoured feet. In a short moment the soldiers had dispersed, laughing, and all that was left of the vampires was a trampled pile of ashes, gradually mixing in the rain with the dirt and volcanic ash on the ground.

Frowning slightly, I left Fort Moonmoth for the nearby 'Foyada Mamaea'. 'Foyada' was the local word for a wide, deep groove carved out by flows of molten rock from the volcano, Red Mountain. The one near Balmora was called 'Mamaea', and, according to my map of the island, provided a long, uninterrupted and near-straight path from the region around Fort Moonmoth all the way to the Ghostgate.

The Ghostgate was the nearest landmark to the Shrine of Pride, one of the shrines included in the Seven Graces pilgrimage. Ald'ruhn was much closer to the Ghostgate - as the bird flies - than Balmora, and I could have gone from my castle to Ald'ruhn in a matter of moments by asking Masalinie to teleport me there. I chose the route up the Foyada instead because my map indicated that the terrain between Ald'ruhn and the Ghostgate was near impassable.

I also chose the longer route because Master Healer Synnolian had recommended that I get plenty of exercise to help ward off the ravages of age. This was not, he had told me, because exercise would have any specific effect on what was causing me to age at an accelerated pace; rather he said that plenty of exercise would make anyone live longer.

I made good time travelling up the Foyada, as I ran the whole way. I was aided by another piece of clothing I had had enchanted by Folms: a fine new pair of pants. I hadn't told anybody about them, mainly because I was too embarrassed to say out loud that I was the proud new owner of a pair of "magic pants". They were incredibly useful, though; enchanted to work in much the same fashion as my 'Stamina' spell. With my 'Tireless' pants (as I had called them, for obvious reasons) on, I could sprint as fast as I could all day long and never run out of breath. By the same token, any fighting would have to be heavy indeed before I began to feel fatigued.

This utility came at a price, though: something in the vicinity of forty-two thousand septims, to be specific. I was incredulous when Folms gave me his quote: how could it possibly cost that much? It took him some time to convince me that he was not abusing my trust... and in the end, their stupendous expense was another reason I kept my Tireless pants secret.

In any case, it was still morning when I arrived at the Ghostgate, the only point at which one could go through (as opposed to over) the very impressive 'Ghostfence'. The Ghostfence was a massively tall perimeter fence that surrounded the entire Red Mountain 'region'; the steep slopes around the crater of the active volcano. In the place of fenceposts were monumental pillars, and instead of crossbeams between the pillars were great walls of shimmering light: just like the shimmering wall that had initially blocked my progress in the Shrine of Courtesy.

This was hardly surprising given that the Tribunal Temple had built both structures. The Ghostfence (which apparently was built out of the bones of fallen warriors - one of the more fantastical rumours I had heard about it) was built to contain the disease-ridden 'Blight-storms' that spewed from Red Mountain's crater. The Temple taught that the Tribunal gods - Vivec, Almalexia and Sotha Sil - maintained the shimmering wall with their divine will. Looking at the sheer size of the Ghostfence, I could believe it.

The weather was still damp and misty, and the light fog made it impossible to see very far, but as I approached the Ghostgate I could see a deep red glow behind the fence. The unnatural red glow seemed to permeate everything back there, from the roiling ash storms on the slopes, all the way up to the dark drifting clouds above. The Ghostgate was comprised of twin domed towers, set either side of a dead-straight tunnel; out of which was drifting a light stream of ash. I ignored the towers: they were garrisons for 'Buoyant Armigers', travelling warriors of the Tribunal Temple; stationed there to defend the gate against the maddened, diseased creatures that tried to pass through from the Red Mountain side.

I just needed to pass through the tunnel myself; The Pilgrim's Path said that the Shrine of Pride was just inside the Ghostfence, up a short path to the right of the gate. The book also warned that it was one of the most dangerous shrines on the pilgrimage of the Seven Graces - though it did not say why, other than to give a vague warning to be wary of the minions of 'Dagoth Ur' - whatever or whoever that was.

There was a portcullis at either end of the tunnel, and cranks on either side of each portcullis to operate them. Once I had worked the crank and raised the first portcullis, I saw that, once the crank was released, the portcullis slowly began to descend of its own accord. I hurried through the tunnel and onto the slopes of Red Mountain.

It was a terrible place. A fierce gale was blowing, whipping the ash that permeated the region into a stinging frenzy, much worse than the ash storms I had seen in the Ashlands. And it reeked - the wind, I mean - of sulphur and death. It had to be one of the Blight-storms I had heard about. Light from (I assumed) exposed flows of molten lava further up the mountain filtered through the ash-clouds above, casting everything in a baleful, deep red glow.

Wrapping the scarf on my helmet around my nose and mouth, so I could proceed without inhaling too much dust, ash, and poisonous vapours, I leaned into the powerful wind and struggled up the steep slope. Fortunately, the directions to the shrine were accurate, and I found the triolithic stone in the lee of a rocky bluff; sheltered somewhat from the wind. As I approached the shrine I thought I could hear something through the howling wind; a shuffling, snorting sound, coming from the top of the bluff. Squinting through the flying ash and the low light revealed nothing, however; so I pressed on, up to the shrine.

The pilgrimage of the Seven Graces required that a soul gem be left at the Shrine of Pride, so I placed a blue, 'lesser' gem (of which I had an abundance) at the triolith's base, and recited the Grace inscribed on its faces. As I spoke the final word in the Grace of Pride, there was a flash before my eyes, and a shimmering field of soft light appeared in front of my face. Looking down I could see that it was covering my entire body; but as I watched, it moved away from my body and quickly smoothed out, until I was surrounded by a kind of... shell of light. It appeared much like the wall of light in the Ghostfence, only much fainter and easier to see through: it was very similar to the 'Shield' spells some magic-users employ in place of protective equipment or armour.

The 'Shield' blessing from the shrine was quite appropriate given its location on the slopes of Red Mountain. The shimmering field actually helped to keep out some of the ash and other refuse in the blowing gale. It soon became apparent, though, that the Shield effect would possibly be put to the test protecting against more than just blowing ash; as when I made to leave, I heard the noise at the top of the bluff again - this time much clearer.

Backing slowly away from the cliff, which was perhaps as tall as the lookout tower at Wolfen Castle, I squinted again through the gloom of the wild Blight-storm at the top of the stony bluff. There was something up there; a dark shape - or two - it was hard to tell - swaying back and forth in the buffeting wind. I saw the glint of a luminous pair of eyes, and realised that the creatures on the bluff - whatever they were - knew I was there, and were watching me.

For I became certain that there was more than one up there: several more of the dark shapes gathered along the bluff, as I watched with growing apprehension. Without knowing what I was facing, there was only one intelligent thing to do: run.

The force of the wind was behind me as I sprinted down the steep slope; in a few places it actually lifted me from my feet and carried me in great leaps away from the Shrine of Pride. I had come around a cluster of boulders and regained sight of the Ghostgate when I lost my footing; sliding through the thick layer of ash underfoot, all the way back to the portcullis gate.

Once I was back on the other side of the tunnel, I undid the helmet-scarf and rinsed out the foul-tasting ash that had managed to make it into my mouth, with a little water from my pack. I glanced back at the blasted landscape beyond the Ghostfence before moving on. I was glad to be out of there.