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, December 30, 2005

Chapter 68: Six and Seven

Hasphat Antabolis was not in the Fighters Guild training room when I returned. A guild member directed me to the nearby Eight Plates public house - where the weapons trainer was having his evening meal. The handsome Imperial man was not difficult to find in the crowded public house; he was sitting alone (though judging by the stares a couple of young women were giving him, probably not for long) at a table, elbows sticking out to the side as he sawed away at a sizeable slab of grilled meat.

I slid into the seat across from him. Hasphat glanced up, and said, with his mouth full:

"Hungwy?" I shrugged, but nodded. The trainer raised his hand to catch the attention of the Dunmer woman behind the bar, and with his mouth still full, called out: "More food over here!"

I waited until he had swallowed before placing the Dwemer puzzle box in the centre of the table. His eyes lit up.

"Ah - good. Very good! You got it... The food's on me, then." He gave a wide grin, momentarily abandoning his heaped plate to study the metal cube, turning it over and over in his hands. "Not too difficult, I hope?"

"I've had more pleasant afternoons." I said shortly. "They usually involved less broken ribs and spilt blood."

Hasphat looked me up and down briefly. There was little evidence of my rough expedition into Arkngthand, as I of course was fully healed; and my battered armour was currently with Ulfred, being repaired.

"Not... officials, I hope?" The trainer gave me a funny look - but I shook my head to dispel any notion that I had been discovered looting the ruin by Imperial officials, and had fought my way out.

"No. Looters - and those damned walking machines."

Hasphat looked a little sheepish, but gave a small smile regardless.

"Ah - well, I couldn't have known that anyone else would be there... though it seems fortunate you went no later than you did. In any case," he gestured with the puzzle box before putting it down and returning to his meal, not pausing to explain what the box did or why he wanted it; "I greatly appreciate this. And don't worry yourself: I'll tell you what I know about the Sixth House - I've even got some notes about it here somewhere that you can give to Caius." He patted down a few pockets before locating and fishing out a folded sheet of paper, which he tossed across to me.

My food arrived just then, and Hasphat proceeded to give me a small history lecture over dinner.

"Now, you know the five ruling Great Houses of Morrowind?" He began to count on his fingers. "Hlaalu, Redoran, Telvanni, Indoril and Dres. A long time ago - in the First Age - there used to be seven ruling houses - House Dagoth was the sixth of those houses; hence the name the 'Sixth House'. As a sidenote, House Dwemer was regarded as the seventh house."

Dagoth... that word again. For a moment I was at a loss as to where I had heard it before - but then I remembered: the 'guidebook' for the Tribunal Temple's Pilgrimage of the Seven Graces, 'The Pilgrim's Path', had said to beware the 'minions of Dagoth Ur' when inside the Ghostfence. Could these two things be related - or simply share the same name? I asked Hasphat; he seemed a bit put out of stride at the question.

"Yes, I was coming to that - hold on... Well, alright: 'Dagoth Ur' is another name for the Red Mountain region - as I understand it - so 'minions of Dagoth Ur' would likely be the blighted creatures found there." The trainer paused to gather his thoughts. "So... Houses Dagoth and Dwemer betrayed the other houses (some religious disagreement or other) and brought about the War of the First Council - which culminated in the 'Battle at Red Mountain'. In this battle, House Dagoth was eliminated. It is also thought that it was at this time that the Dwemer mysteriously disappeared."

Hasphat paused to take a couple of mouthfuls of his dinner. This gave me a chance to digest what he had told me so far. It was quite interesting, to tell the truth: I had previously been given the impression that the Dwemer were actually another race to the Dunmer - not simply one of the great ruling clans of the dark elves. (I was later to discover that this view of things was not strictly accurate either).

"Now -" Hasphat continued after taking a great swig of sujamma, "all members of House Dagoth were either killed or adopted into other houses, so House Dagoth is gone. Completely dead and finished thousands of years ago... makes me wonder why old Caius wants to know about it." The Imperial trainer gave me a wink. "Although come to think of it, the Temple says that the ancient, legendary evil beings that - apparently - live under Red Mountain are actually the original leaders of House Dagoth, if you can believe it. They maintain that some 'powerful, evil sorceries' are keeping them alive. The Temple says a lot of things, though."

The trainer pushed away his plate, finished, and leaned back in his seat, mug of sujamma in hand.

"So that's that - and that's more or less what I wrote in those notes there." He indicated the folded piece of paper he had given me. "Now, as to the Nerevarine; that's something I don't actually know much about..."

And he was right: everything he told me I had heard before, thought Hasphat underlined again how the Tribunal Temple persecuted 'heretics' who believed in the Nerevarine prophecies; something I knew firsthand after my experience with the false prophet in Suran. Hasphat finished by saying:

"... in any case, tell Caius that Sharn gra-Muzgob, over at the Mages Guild, would be a better person to ask about native faiths and superstitions: I only know the history."

I groaned internally, wishing he hadn't said that. Surely not Sharn gra-Muzgob, the Orcish healer who had considered her own sleep more important than coming to heal me after I had been mortally wounded by one of the Dark Brotherhood assassins! She was one of the most difficult, disagreeable people I had ever met. If Caius wanted me to get information out of her...

I thanked Hasphat for his help (though I did not much feel like it after the trouble he had put me through), and made my way across town to report back to the spymaster.

Caius looked at me over the top of Hasphat's notes.

"Yes, there's nothing about the Nerevarine here. You're saying he recommended Sharn gra-Muzgob?"

Involuntarily gritting my teeth, I nodded.

"Well, that's alright; I know Sharn. Very smart - for an Orc," he added, almost absent-mindedly. "She has a somewhat unhealthy interest in the dark arts, some would say, but she knows what she's talking about. Thankyou for this;" Caius gave the sheet of notes a flick with his finger; "this is good. However we do need more information on the Nerevarine, so I'll need you to go talk to Sharn. You would already know her anyway, correct? Same arrangement as with Hasphat: she'll probably have some silly errand for you to run - but do it - and find out what she knows."

I nodded, but my opinion of Sharn gra-Muzgob must have been plain on my face, for Caius grinned and said:

"Oh come now, she's not all that bad! I think you'll find she warms to you if she feels she's gotten something worthwhile out of you." He clapped me on the shoulder, and turned to file away Hasphat's notes on the Sixth House.

Whatever the spymaster's view of the cantankerous Orc, I would leave it for the morning. I had had enough aggravation for one day.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Chapter 67: Looting

Setting off on a beaten dirt path from the Moonmoth Legion fort, just outside Balmora, I skirted around a rocky hill and climbed the gradual slope to the great Dwemer bridge nearby. The ancient metal construction spanned the breadth of the Foyada Mamaea. I had seen the marvel of a bridge once before, passing underneath it as I hiked north up the Foyada to the Ghostgate. Whatever else the history books said about the Dwemer people, there was no denying that they were exceptional engineers. Rusted and pitted as the entirely metal bridge may have been, it was still sturdy and perfectly straight; not warped at all.

As I crossed the bridge I could tell that not all was as it should be at the Arkngthand ruin. The entrance was just a short way up the path from the other end of the bridge, but the approach was being guarded by a man in an iron breastplate. I could tell that he was old, even from halfway across the bridge; his shock of white hair appeared to gleam in the dim, overcast light. He watched me approach, looking quite uncomfortable, as if unsure how to respond to my presence.

He made a decision in that regard as soon as I came within hailing distance, waving his arms and conjuring a walking skeleton on the bridge in front of him. I was well-armed and -experienced enough to have little fear of the average skeletal guardian, but the old man's offensive magic proved more of a threat. The first bolt of magical fire whistled past my ear, and I moved to keep the skeleton between myself and my attacker. The sword-wielding revenant click-clacked across the metal bridge to meet me, and I sprinted towards it, hoping to close most of the distance between myself and the old man while I still had the skeleton as (admittedly meagre) cover.

Before I could bring my sword to bear on the undead thing, the second bolt hit the skeleton in the back, blasting it into a hundred or more small pieces. I leapt through the cloud of fire and bone-shards as if through a smokescreen, finding myself face-to-face with the white-haired man. Before either of us really knew it, I had cut him down.

Nothing he carried gave any indication as to who he might have been, but the manner in which I found him, and the cobbled-together state of his equipment led me to think that he was keeping watch while some 'friends' looked through the ruin; and that those friends were not there on official Imperial business. There was a metal crank a little way up the path from where the old man had been standing, which, with some exertion, proved to open the strange, rotating hemispherical door to the ruins.

Inside Arkngthand was deafening. Virtually all of the ruin (if it can truly be called that - it was in remarkably good condition) was made of the same ancient Dwemer metal, and the weight of the soil and rocks above the subterranean passages caused all the metal to creak and groan horribly against itself. It felt as if the sound had nowhere to go: that it would bounce off the harsh metal surfaces again and again, echoing forever in those dark chambers. It might not have been as bad if it was a constant, level groaning noise, but it wasn't: it was unpredictable, ever-changing, and simply very, very loud:

"Creak groan GROOOAAAN shudder screech crakcrakcrakcrak BANG!" And so it went. (Difficult to describe in words, but something to that effect). It constantly made me jump in mild shock.

Strangely enough, considering the number of underground Daedric ruins I had visited, I had never actually been inside a Dwemer ruin before. I wondered if they were all like Arkngthand: deafening, dark, and home to a mass of twisting, maze-like metal passages. Initially I had avoided them on the advice of - well, basically anyone who had something to say about Dwemer ruins - but later on, when I became more confident of my abilities and came to own better equipment, I had simply not passed anywhere near a ruin.

I wished I had: it was fascinating. The passages were cast in a dim orange light by a multitude of strange glowing rings, each suspended in a glass tube. Mysterious machines of grinding gears and hissing steam rattled away continuously, as they had done for centuries upon centuries. There was metal everywhere - where could it all have come from? It was employed as if metal was not a precious resource. It was easy to get the impression that the Dwemer people had made everything out of metal: I even saw metal cups and plates during my time in Arkngthand. Of course, any Dwemer items made of materials other than metal would have long rotted away, so...

In any case, I had little idea where to begin looking for the 'puzzle box' Hasphat Antabolis had asked for, and my search was soon complicated when I found that I had been right about other people being inside the ruins: looters. They were everywhere, ranging throughout the upper passages of the ruin, evidently looking to take anything that could be carried in one's arms. This made navigating the twisting corridors particularly hazardous, as the racket put up by the groaning metal meant that I was constantly turning a corner to literally bump right into one of the looters; neither of us could hear the other approach!

I killed many of the hostile looters as I searched; like the white-haired man outside, they gave me little choice. There was no way I could sneak past them; the bare corridors offered nowhere to hide. Invisibility magic was no good either; it would have been constantly disrupted by my search through every ancient barrel and strongbox I found. I spent the whole time twisting my head about to look over my shoulder, paranoid that someone would turn the corner behind me, unheard.

And so it was with raw nerves and a bloodied blade that I came to the first locked door I had seen that day. Judging by the greasy handprints that marred its dusty surface, particularly around a dark slot between the two halves of the circular door, one of the looters had attempted to pick the lock; without success. I felt a surge of hope; I had been close to giving up and returning to Hasphat to see if I could possibly do something else for him instead. I just could not find the puzzle box. I'd thought that a looter must have already found the box and escaped with it - probably well before I even arrived.

However, if they had not passed beyond that door, perhaps I would be lucky. With a jolt of alteration magic to the lock and a violent kick to the stubborn door, I was through.

On the other side, I was immediately set upon by one of the mechanical 'constructs' I had heard tell of: a clockwork spider. The thing scuttled forward with purpose, and, in a surprising flash of speed, attempted to stab me through the thighs with its two pointed front legs. The adamantium plates on my greaves caught both blows, and I was able to quickly smash the complicated mass of gears in the automaton's many 'knees' with my heavy Daedric sword. The clockwork spider was left to shudder helplessly on the spot; though it appeared to still be trying to attack me.

I was left no time to study the intriguing device, as at that moment a massive metal 'man' lumbered into view at the far end of the corridor. It too moved to the attack, without hesitation - wisps of steam trailing behind it. The thing towered above me, and looked vaguely similar to the pieces of Dwemer armour I had in my collection. I was wary of the large spiked ball at the end of one of its arms, and thought I had jumped back far enough to avoid its swing... but I did not foresee that the automaton could extend the ball from its arm - on a metal pole.

I was caught full in the chest and thrown back through the air. I landed on my feet, but the force of the swing meant that I still stumbled backwards, tripping over the broken clockwork spider. I fell to the ground with the now familiar agony of several broken ribs. Dropping my sword for a moment, I touched my hand gently to my chest and sent healing magic through my body, mending the bones almost instantly. As I scrambled to my feet, I frantically looked for weak spots on the approaching metal man - as I mentioned, however, the thing was built like a suit of armour - and there weren't many. At least, not on its front... perhaps behind.

At that point, fortune smiled on me and the metal man, too, tripped over the clockwork spider. I dashed around behind it before it could properly regain its footing, and sure enough, the intricate gears that made up its knees were exposed there to facilitate movement. I jammed the point of my Daedric sword into the gears as hard as I could and held on. As the massive automaton attempted to bend its leg to turn around, there was a horrid -screech-, following by a piercing -crack- as something inside the thing broke. It collapsed to the floor, unable to move - like the clockwork spider.

Unlike the smaller automaton, though, the metal man was still quite dangerous, lashing out with its extensible spiked-mace of an arm if I got too close. I was certainly not going to get a chance to examine it.

I searched through the lower parts of the ruin, but found nothing besides near-unbearable heat (the place appeared to be built over the top of an exposed flow of molten rock), nerve-wracking hostile spirits that I couldn't see, but had to listen for to defeat (just as difficult as it sounds - even more so if you take the constant screeching, groaning racket of the metal ruins into account), several precious gemstones, and a few useless scraps of metal. I was about to finally give up right there and teleport home when I remembered seeing a number of doors in the entrance chamber - whereas I had only passed through one.

Cursing my own carelessness, I raced back up through the twisting passages and stairways to the Arkngthand entrance; and just in time, as it turned out. The first door I tried led to a single room, and in it was the biggest looter I had seen that day: a very fat yet powerful-looking Cyrodiilic man. He wasted no time in attempting to hammer me into the wall with an iron mallet, but his girth became the end of him when I darted between a pair of exposed pipes: he was too large to follow. From there, I pelted him with Poisonbloom and Frostball spells until he stopped moving.

I counted myself as very lucky for arriving when I did: on a shelf in plain sight was the puzzle box. There was no doubt in my mind: it fit Hasphat's description exactly. I snatched it up and teleported back home for a steadying drink. The ever-present blanket of deafening noise in Arkngthand - and the danger this presented when passing through a place full of people (and other things) who would have killed me if they could - had been wearing away at my nerves for the whole duration of my visit. The invisible spirits had been the end of it; I was now in a rotten mood.

That was the other reason for a drink - to calm myself before visiting Hasphat Antabolis. I was not happy with him at all.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Chapter 66: This for that

"Look, I'm going to be honest with you: about your approach to these Dark Brotherhood attacks - or, rather - your lack of approach... I just have to say: stupid. Very, very dim." Caius Cosades shook his head gravely.

I was a little taken aback, and momentarily at a loss for what to say. The spymaster went on:

"I can understand not wanting to poke your nose into a nest of professional assassins who seem to have it in for you; probably quite sensible of you - at least initially - but really, you should have come to me straight away."

I gave a small sigh. There seemed little point in objecting to his manner: I had previously considered getting Cosades' opinion on the attacks, but the truth was that at the time, I simply didn't trust him. Now that he was demonstrating his resources as an Imperial Spymaster by showing how much he knew of my recent actions, I was more inclined to believe that he was who he claimed to be.

"You're probably right, Caius... but by the same token, I haven't been sitting back and waiting for another assassin to come after me; I've been training, and studying magic."

"Martial arts and sorcery... they have their place. I'm certainly glad to hear you've been learning such things; but what I'm talking about is in a realm outside acts of direct physical violence." The old Imperial man stood up and stretched. His muscles bulged as he moved, obvious even beneath the shirt he wore. He was patently a physically capable man himself, despite his years. He continued: "Information. I can help you. I know people in Mournhold; I'll make some inquiries. It's doubtful that I can find out why they're after you - the Dark Brotherhood is just as secretive as the Blades - let alone reach some kind of peaceful resolution, but I believe I can tip the scales in favour of you not winding up dead."

It was quite generous of him, considering I hadn't yet done a thing in service of the Blades.

"Well... thankyou!" I said. "I'll admit I had little idea how to ... approach the problem. I'd heard the nearest concentration of Dark Brotherhood was supposed to be in Mournhold somewhere, but not much else."

"You're quite welcome. I have to look after my interests, of course; such as you - you're no good to me dead. Speaking of which, I have some orders you can carry out while I get in touch with my contacts in Mournhold."

And there it was: no help for free. I wasn't complaining, though; it seemed fair enough to me. The matter of the Dark Brotherhood assassins had been a dark shadow in the back of my mind for far too long; that they hadn't paid me a visit in months made it worse, in some ways. Every night when I went to bed I had to fight back the creeping fear that that night might be the one: that I might not wake up again.

I motioned for Caius to give me his task.

"Right now I need information about two potentially related secret cults: the 'Nerevarine' and 'Sixth House' cults."

"The Nerevarine?" I interrupted him. "I've heard about that..." I told him about my dealing with the 'False Incarnate' Elvil Vidron, in Suran, and what little I had learned at the Temple about the Nerevarine prophecies.

The spymaster looked thoughtful at my tale of the False Incarnate, and appeared to be only half paying attention when he said:

"Yes, it seems like everyone is talking about the supposed reincarnation of this Indoril Nerevar." Caius rubbed his chin. "All I know about it, beyond what you just told me, is that these prophecies say that the Nerevarine will be an 'orphan and outcast', born on 'a certain day to uncertain parents'. The Sixth House cult is supposedly related in some way, but apart from that, all I've heard about them is that they're apparently behind ... certain strange events of late."

Caius sank back down onto his bed.

"In any case, your orders are to go see Hasphat Antabolis at the Fighters Guild here - he's an amateur local historian, of sorts - and ask him what he knows about the Nerevarine and Sixth House cults. He and I have an arrangement: we trade information for favours; so, with you being my proxy in this case, he'll probably have some job for you to do before he'll give us anything. And that's it. Clear enough?"

I hesitated. The old Imperial obviously wasn't telling me everything he knew... and I hated it, but I just had to ask:

"Yes, although... can I ask why you're collecting this information?"

A faint smile played across the spymaster's lips.

"Well... you're free to ask - but I'm not free to say; I'll put it that way."

I grunted, mildly frustrated. As I have mentioned before, I had a natural tendency to try to satisfy my curiosity; and if I couldn't, I was unhappy. At my obvious lack of enthusiasm, Caius added:

"Don't fret; I'm sure you'll do stellar work, and I'll be able to promote you soon enough. Then I'll be able to tell you things I know, and not just things I need." The Imperial motioned towards the door. "Now, off with you - I have some people to talk to if I'm going to find out anything about these nasty boys in black."

It only took several minutes to reach the Fighters Guild from Caius' hut - it was actually right next to the Mages Guild. I was glad to be out of the old Imperial man's presence: he had proven to be occasionally abrasive in his manners. I never knew when he was about to make some insulting, offhand comment. Well, at least he was mostly civil... and he had offered to help me with my Dark Brotherhood problem.

"So, you're with Caius, eh?" Hasphat Antabolis, an Imperial weapons trainer, looked me up and down. I did the same: he was hardly the stereotypical 'historian-type'. In fact, with his rich, straight, dark brown hair and strong features, he looked the kind that would have the young ladies of Balmora swooning. "What does the old man need this time?" His smile was disarming.

I filled the Imperial in on Caius' request. Hasphat nodded.

"Yes, he was right: I can help, and I will need something from you, first. Have you been inside a Dwemer ruin before?" Hasphat, who had been in the middle of an active training session when I came in, began running on the spot. "Caius may have told you this, but I like to study history: mainly local Morrowind history and the Dwemer. There are some Dwemer ruins just outside Balmora, called 'Arkngthand'. Inside is a small artefact I want to study: a 'puzzle box'. It's a metal cube, about the size of your fist, with a circular design and other symbols on the side. If you can bring that cube back for me, I can help you."

I glanced at the Imperial's students, a short distance away. They were talking amongst themselves, and appeared to not be listening. As I have mentioned before, dealing in Dwemer artefacts was illegal; and so I knew the reason behind Hasphat sending me to the nearby ruin.

"You know this thing is there - you know exactly where it is, and yet you haven't fetched it yourself..." I narrowed my eyes at him. "You want me to run the risk of being caught looting a Dwemer ruin - rather than you - is that it?"

Hasphat gave an infuriating grin.

"You're a sharp one, Frost... which means you should have little trouble."

Again I found myself before a Cyrodiilic man with a somewhat galling manner, and again I could do little but sigh. Of course I had my own small collection of Dwemer armour pieces in my 'museum' - but then I had recovered those from smugglers and bandits - and I had bought an expensive permit so I could count myself as exempt from unwanted 'official' interest in the matter. That was a little different from directly sifting through a prohibited historical site and stealing what I found. I rubbed my chin, thinking it through. If the worst potential outcome should befall me and I was caught, I could probably plead ignorance of the 'specific allowances' of my permit, or somesuch...

I shook the irksome thoughts off and, now in a decidedly foul mood, accepted Hasphat's terms. Dancing around self-serving Imperial laws on a fetch-and-carry mission seemed like such a waste of (my very precious) time, but I would do it anyway...

I sighed again. I had my reasons.