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, January 06, 2006

Chapter 71: City of Light

Caius Cosades had hinted strongly that I would need to slaughter the Dark Brotherhood cell in Mournhold if I wished to be free of their attacks. I did not enjoy killing, but at the same time I felt little mercy for those black-garbed assassins who terrorised me in my early days on Vvardenfell - or for whomever it was that had hired them. Attacking another, unprovoked... moreover, planning ahead of time to kill a particular person - these things were unforgivable.

Sitting in the Wolfen castle mess hall after my late lunch, I became too anxious thinking about storming the assassin's hideout to be able to leave it until the following morning. Gathering up my pack and my equipment, I cast Divine Intervention and was drawn through space to the doorstep of the Imperial Chapel in Ebonheart. This was quite convenient: the entrance to the Grand Council Chambers - wherein I could apparently find Asciene Rane - was only several strides away.

Asciene Rane made for a kindly figure. She mentioned the quarantine of Vvardenfell, and how worried they were about the Blight spreading to the mainland; making me swear that all my clothes and equipment had been washed thoroughly since my last visit to the Ashlands (which they had - after my bloody visit to Arkngthand, to be specific). I noticed as we talked that she was studying my face closely, obviously looking for symptoms of Blight disease. She also made me tell her why I wanted to go to the mainland so badly; but when I told her she seemed genuinely concerned, and agreed straight away to teleport me across the Inner Sea to Morrowind's capital city.

I found myself standing in a deep-green, elegant, yet relatively bare room, with a robed Argonian who I assumed to be Effe-Tei (the person Asciene said to talk to if I wanted to be teleported back to Vvardenfell), and someone in a full suit of armour. The armour was curious: it looked to be made of steel that had been painted or treated somehow to give it a dusky-pink, almost red colour.

I gave the Argonian a simple nod as I passed (I had no need of his services since I could, of course, teleport home on my own), and made to do the same with the armoured man; but he turned out to be a member of the King's Royal Guard, and stopped me to ask why I had materialised in the Royal Palace. Like Asciene Rane, he seemed concerned over the potential introduction of Blight diseases - unlike Asciene, however, he appeared determined to keep me out of Mournhold. I had to cast a Charm spell on him to persuade him that I was not carrying any diseases, and I was only in Mournhold to visit the Great Bazaar.

Once under the influence of the spell he was quite agreeable; he even gave me directions to the Great Bazaar. His directions may have consisted only of the word 'east', but he didn't have to tell me that - and it was enough, in the end.

The Royal Palace, home to the king of Morrowind (I didn't even know Morrowind had a king until that day), ran a square-shaped circuit around a paved courtyard. It was in that courtyard that I first stepped into the sweltering, humid Mournhold air. It was different to Vvardenfell - the air felt fresher and somehow more vital: it was raining when I stepped out of the palace, and if the vibrant green of the many plants was any indication, this was a common occurrence in the city. The fragrance of a staggering array of alien flowers permeated the courtyard, a smell so powerful it felt like a physical thing when it entered my nose.

All in all it made for a pleasant change from the mostly arid landscape of Vvardenfell - except for the draining, muggy heat. Even the rain was no relief: the raindrops themselves were warm.

There were no eastern exits from the Palace courtyard, only huge double-doors leading north and south. I chose the southern pair leading to a plaza of unbelievable size, signposted as the 'Plaza Brindisi Dorom'. It's not an exaggeration to say that the plaza could hold most of Balmora. In actuality it was mostly empty; home to sprawling lawns, and a range of monuments, statues, and fountains. It looked to be a favoured place for walks and - on days with more favourable weather - picnics (for those with time for such things). On that rainy day, however, the plaza was nearly devoid of people. For a moment I thought I saw someone in a far-off corner of the plaza with a marked lack of clothing, but they soon moved behind a tree and out of my sight.

The only other figures in the plaza were Ordinators - I could tell at a glance. Their armour bore a distinctive similarity to the Ordinators of Vivec (the full-face-mask in particular was near-identical), but at the same time it was grander. It was also not gold, but silver - with the faintest purple tinge.

In the north-east wall of the Plaza Brindisi Dorom was a large door, leading to the Great Bazaar. The name was quite appropriate; like the plaza, the bazaar was on a grand scale, and comfortably spread out. Again, it was quite a contrast to the cramped and winding streets of most of the towns in Vvardenfell. I stopped by several shops, and, upon becoming involved in conversation with the shopkeepers, some of the interesting and unusual things I had seen so far in Mournhold were explained to me.

For one thing - and this actually came as something of a surprise to me - 'Mournhold' was not actually the name of the entire city I stood in (even though, confusingly, many people still referred to Mournhold as a city): it was the name of the holy district at the centre of that city. The city was called 'Almalexia', after the Tribunal goddess of the same name. It was the same as the holy city of Vivec in Vvardenfell, where the living god Vivec resided. I learned that - in a similar fashion - the living goddess Almalexia resided in the Mournhold Temple in the northern part of the district.

This was why everything in Mournhold was so massive and majestic: the whole district had been set aside and walled-off in order to better maintain it as a pristine and suitably striking dedication to the goddess Almalexia. At the time of my visit, passage between Mournhold and the rest of the city was prohibited; and the reason for this did not surprise me: there was concern over the curiously high number of people teleporting into the district from Vvardenfell when there was supposedly a quarantine in effect. This went further to explain the relatively empty streets and plazas of Mournhold than a simple wish to avoid the rain. I wondered if Asciene Rane knew how much of a problem she was creating with her unauthorised teleportation service.

Not that I was complaining, of course. Likely the only other way I could have reached the mainland was to water-walk across the Inner Sea: not a comfortable thought.

The stores in the Great Bazaar were better stocked than most I had seen in Vvardenfell, but nevertheless most of my equipment was better. I did come away with ten very expensive, high quality restorative potions, though. I was quite proficient at casting healing spells (with my lifestyle I had to be), but potions were indispensable as a fallback - for more than one reason. If, by some chance, my magicka reserves somehow ran dry (a very rare occurrence with my links to the plane of magicka), healing potions could very well save my life. The other main reason was that casting spells takes concentration, and the pain from serious wounds can be... distracting, to put it lightly.

Feeling better prepared and (again) gratified that the arms and armour I bore were of a higher quality than what was readily available to most people, I set about looking for an entrance to the sewers. The afternoon was wearing on and the light beginning to fade, so my intention was to at least make a start on my search for the Dark Brotherhood; but to return the following day to search in earnest.

I found a trapdoor down to the sewers at the edge of the Great Bazaar. As one would expect, the smell was unpleasant: though only near the places where water ran freely along or fell from an overhead outlet. Most of the (very spacious) sewer passages were actually drier than the rain-soaked streets above: it looked as if much of the sewer system no longer worked as it had been intended to. It was very dark there; the only illumination was from the occasional grated shaft leading to the surface, and - curiously - the odd flaming torch. I again relied on my Night-Eye spell to show me the way.

The ancient sewer tunnels gave way in many places to sunken passages of stone and packed dirt. Fortunately most of the flooded areas seemed free of waste from the city above, and I was able to swim through them without coming to smell awful for my trouble. The icy tunnels plunged down deep indeed: after an hour of exploration I began to encounter undead: several ghosts and a headless (yet no less deadly) animated skeleton with an axe.

Another hour had passed when I found a pair of very old, yet suspiciously well-oiled metal doors leading to a long and winding packed-dirt tunnel. A little way along the tunnel I froze: I could hear voices up ahead. With my invisibility spell in place, I crept closer, rounding a couple of corners before I spotted them: two men in black, looking about casually while engaged in conversation. They were obviously standing guard, and they were obviously Dark Brotherhood members.

I backed away before the invisibility spell could wear off, and made my way back to the other side of the old metal doors. There I found a suitably dark pool of shadows to leave a magical Mark. I would teleport back in the morning, well-rested and equipped for slaughter.

Then I would bring my business with the Dark Brotherhood to a close: for good or ill.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Chapter 70: Intent

My feelings regarding Ranis Athrys were complicated. As I have mentioned, I felt indebted to her for taking me in and letting me stay in the Mages Guild hall at a time when I was weak, poor, and hunted by Dark Brotherhood assassins. She also gifted me with two very powerful magicka threads that doubtless saved my life on many occasions. At the same time, however, she held her gifts and kindness over me to coerce me into doing her dirty work.

Her latest 'official task' ('official' denoting that it would be counted when considering me for promotion in the guild) was an assassination - and she made little attempt to couch her desire in pretty-sounding terms:

"I believe that Tashpi Ashibael, in Maar Gan, has been practicing necromancy. As I'm sure you can understand, Morrowind branches of the guild cannot tolerate necromancers... I'm afraid I'll have to ask you to kill her."

Her words struck me as false: if she had truly listened in on the conversation between Sharn gra-Muzgob and I that morning, during which the Orc had as good as admitted to being a practitioner of the dark arts, how could Ranis expect me to believe that her grounds for having this 'Tashpi Ashibael' killed were because she was a necromancer? The Steward had one in her own guild hall! Ranis read my hesitation correctly, as she often (and quite unnervingly) did:

"You're wondering why gra-Muzgob is still here." The Dunmer woman's gaze was piercing. "Well - I know what she's been studying. I obviously know what she asked you to do for her today." Her eyes strayed to my pack, which still held the skull Sharn had asked for. "But if Sharn gra-Muzgob is a necromancer, then I'm a naked Nord." She smirked. "She likes to study forbidden and taboo topics, but I've never known her to actually do anything with what she learns."

I was still unconvinced, and again this must have shown plainly on my face. Ranis became somewhat irritated:

"Look Frost, you've killed before. You've killed necromancers before! Find Tashpi Ashibael and kill her - if you wouldn't mind!"

In the end I told her that I would. I kept to myself my intention to ask around Maar Gan about the supposed necromancer first, to see what I was dealing with.

Sharn gra-Muzgob was pleased with the skull, and placed it carefully in a wooden chest near her desk.

"Perfect - thankyou." The Orc sat back down at her desk and rummaged through a mess of paper. "So. You wanted to know about the Nerevarine cult? It is an Ashlander cult. They believe that the long-dead hero General Indoril Nerevar will return as the 'Nerevarine', to honour ancient promises made to the Ashlander tribes. According to their legends, the Nerevarine will restore the traditional ancestor worship to the whole of Morrowind by 'casting down the false gods of the Tribunal'. Oh - they also say that the Nerevarine will drive the 'outlanders' from Morrowind. That would include the Empire, I guess." Sharn snorted. "They'd have their work cut out for them, if that's the case. The only reason the Temple hasn't stomped on the 'heretical' Nerevarine cult members is that they are so few and so widely scattered in the wilds that the Tribunal's finest are too lazy to chase after them. Not many Ashlanders left anymore."

The Orcish healer found what she was looking for - a few sheets of paper - and handed them to me, saying:

"There. Rather than repeat what I've already written, you can take those notes on the cult and read them yourself, yes? Or just give them to Caius - whatever you please. I need some space here now, though; so..."

I left her alone, and settled at a table across the hall's main chamber to look through the Orc's notes. I hadn't known that the Nerevarine cult was an Ashlander belief; I was (mildly) curious to see what else she knew. Sharn gra-Muzgob's notes were fairly extensive, and I won't bore you with the details (I only briefly skimmed through them myself), but a couple of things caught my interest.

One point was the promise Indoril Nerevar made to the Ashlanders: he said he would 'honour the Ancient Spirits and the Tribal law', and that he would 'come again to honour that promise'. He did not actually promise to drive the outlanders and Imperial invaders out of Morrowind, or to destroy the Tribunal gods; the Ashlanders merely chose to believe that doing such a thing would be necessary to honour his promise.

Another was the point that there was more than one prophecy regarding the Nerevarine, and that some of them were actually lost; apparently because Ashlanders passed their knowledge and history down from one generation to the next verbally: they never wrote them down. Some carelessness (or duplicity) along the way caused several of the Nerevarine prophecies to be lost.

Still, as I walked across to Cosades' hut, I couldn't help but wonder again why the spymaster wanted information on the Nerevarine cult - and on the Sixth House, for that matter. Sharn gra-Muzgob's notes did say that the Empire was also opposed to the cult: perhaps that was it; Caius was part of some concerted effort to put a stop to it.

Caius remained tight-lipped about his intentions, however, merely saying:

"Notes on the Nerevarine cult? Excellent. I think you've demonstrated that you can follow orders well enough - and," he grinned, "without getting distracted along the way. This," the old Imperial said, signing a sheet of paper, then folding and affixing a wax seal to it, "is my notification to my superior that I am promoting you to Blades Apprentice."

I was mildly surprised; I had actually forgotten my previous rank of 'Blades Associate'. In my mind, Caius was my superior and I followed his orders (in the context of Blades business); simple as that. As a matter of fact, I was unsure if my promotion would entail any noticeable change...

"Well - thankyou!" I gave a small bow. "What does this mean?"

The spymaster spread Sharn's notes out on his small table. He seemed anxious to read them.

"Apart from discounts for the services of the Blades trainers, it means I can give you more difficult and dangerous assignments. But right now, Mister Frost, I need to read these notes; and you need to deal with your friends in black. I've heard back from a contact in the King's Royal Guard in Mournhold."

I couldn't help myself:

"Do you know why they were trying to kill me?"

"Were trying to kill you? I'd imagine they still are; they're probably just finding it difficult to keep up with you when you're not in your fortified and guarded castle, with all the teleporting about you do! But in answer to your question," Caius said, shaking his head, "I'm afraid I don't know. All my contact could do was confirm that there is a Dark Brotherhood cell in Mournhold, and that it can be found somewhere in the catacombs under the city. He recommended searching the sewers under the Great Bazaar; most reports of the Dark Brotherhood come from that area." The spymaster paused. "He also recommended that anyone actually looking for the Dark Brotherhood should take a strike force with them. But then," Caius clapped me on the arm, "he doesn't know you, or the things you've done."

"For my part," the grey-haired Imperial continued, "I recommend that you get yourself over to Mournhold as soon as possible - no, forget that - I recommend that you go today or tomorrow, and give those boys in black a talking to. Do you know Asciene Rane, in the Grand Council Chambers in Ebonheart?"

I nodded.

"Yes: a Legion officer... Apelles Matius, told me about her teleportation service to the mainland."

At Matius' name, Caius gave me a strange look.

"Young Matius told you, did he? Hmm..." He frowned for a moment, as if in thought. "Well, in any case, feel free to stop by later to talk strategy; but for now, get out of here and let me read. I'll likely have some new orders for you once you've finished your business in Mournhold."

I left him to it, teleporting back home for a late lunch. A couple of the castle guards were in the mess hall for the same reason, but I ate in silence, pondering my Dark Brotherhood problem. There was no question in my mind that I had to do something about the threat of having my throat cut in my sleep. But what would I do? A strike team, the spymaster's contact had said... While I obviously had a retinue of guardsmen at my command, I had hired them to guard Wolfen castle; not assault a cell of legendary assassins.

At any rate, I had no clue about directing a squad in battle... and my offensive spells mostly had an explosive radius that would prove hazardous to any allies. Swallowing my lunch became more and more difficult, the more I thought about it.

I would have to go alone.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Chapter 69: Ulterior motives

"What?" Sharn gra-Muzgob grunted in irritation, looking up from her book. "What do you want, Frost?"

I decided to be direct - the Orc would likely lose interest and cease to listen to me, otherwise.

"Caius Cosades tells me he knows you. He asked me to get some information about the Nerevarine cult from you; apparently you're the person to talk to around here when it comes to local faiths and superstitions."

"Superstition. Yes." With a long, bent fingernail, Sharn tapped the open book she had been reading. "Lots of superstition here. Such as the dark elves' so-called hatred of necromancy. They put necromancers to death if they can! But then they summon their own ancestors back from the dead, to guard their tombs; their own homes, even! Sacred necromancy is good, but academic necromancy is evil. Hah! It's just superstition. They should just give up the act and admit they don't care; like the rest of the Empire."

Caius had mentioned Sharn gra-Muzgob's interest in the dark arts... that would be where her frustration came from, I'm sure. I glanced down at the open page she had indicated. It seemed to be part of a history of laws regarding necromancy in the Empire. The Orcish healer went on:

"Anyway... Caius. Yes. He and I have a satisfactory arrangement; he has been quite helpful with some of my studies." Sharn's attitude towards me had certainly changed when I dropped the spymaster's name. She was talking to me, for one thing. "And the Nerevarine cult? I do know a lot about it. So. You help me with my studies, Frost, and I'll help you with yours - just like good Mages Guild members should."

She gave a humourless half-smile, and continued without waiting for me to reply.

"I will need you to - quietly; for your benefit and mine - retrieve the skull of Llevule Andrano. It's in the Andrano Ancestral Tomb south of Pelagiad, just off the road."

I was not surprised at her request, but came to understand the reason for her unprovoked diatribe against the Dunmer people's attitude towards necromancy. Sharn gra-Muzgob was obviously a necromancer herself - or overly interested in becoming one. It did not serve to improve my opinion of her; I'll say that much... but I was interested to learn that the spirits and undead things that infested Dunmeri ancestral tombs were actually summoned there by the tombs' owners. I didn't know that.

The Orc gave me some more detailed instructions on how to find the Andrano tomb and identify the skull she wanted: she said that Llevule Andrano was an enchanter, and certain ritual markings had been carved into his skull on his death. I felt on the verge of objecting outright to Sharn's request, but then for my own part, it was not as if I hadn't stolen from tombs before. The 'Mentor's Ring' artefact on my finger was evidence enough of that. Stealing bodily remains was quite a different affair, however...

In the end I merely sighed (again), and agreed to her terms.

I was heading for the guild hall's front door when Ranis Athrys appeared from the upper stairwell and grabbed my arm.

"Hold a moment, Frost; I'd like you to do something for me." She paused, but did not let go of my arm. "I won't pretend: I was listening in on your conversation with Sharn. Talking to someone is a little unusual for her, so... it caught my interest." Magical eavesdropping was common practice in the guild hall - but still ill-mannered, in my opinion. Ranis continued: "Such things that Orc says."

Her expression was unreadable. I wondered how she felt about Sharn gra-Muzgob's comments on the Dunmer people and their traditions. In any case, I decided to ignore the Steward's questionable motives and behaviour, and asked her what she wanted. It had been a while since I had performed any tasks for the Mages Guild, and I still felt indebted for the many weeks Ranis had put me up in the hall's sleeping area.

"Since you're going to Pelagiad... are you going right now? Yes? Good. Since you're going that way anyway, I have someone that needs to be escorted to the Halfway Tavern there. Ask for 'Itermerel' at the Eight Plates. He's expecting someone from the Guild this morning. This can be your next official task for the Guild. Speaking of which..."

Ranis waved her free hand in the direction of the hall's main chamber, and the muted sounds of conversation - plus the not-so-muted sounds of Galbedir and Ajira locked in argument - abruptly stopped. Some kind of 'Silence' spell, I assumed. The Steward leaned in to whisper in my ear, tightening her grip on my arm.

"What I really want from you here, Frost, is Itermerel's research notes. Make no mistake: I don't care what you have to do - I don't care if he even makes it to Pelagiad - just get those notes!" She released my arm, and gave me a clap on the back in dismissal.

I stared at Ranis, shocked at her attitude. Her eyes widened in irritation when she saw I wasn't leaving.

"Go!" She exclaimed, with an exasperated wave of her hands. She stood with her arms crossed, watching me until I left. As the door closed behind me, I could hear that the voices of the other guild members were restored: there was much indignant shouting, and Ranis saying: "Sorry - my apologies everyone; I was trying a new spell..."

Itermerel, as I had expected by his name, was an Altmer; and as friendly and genteel as Ranis Athrys was unsettling and self-serving. He did seem to have an irrational fear of the unguarded roads between the towns, as he often asked me to walk on ahead to "keep a lookout". I could see why someone like that would want an escort to Pelagiad: there was no convenient transport to the inland village. No ships, of course - and caravaners didn't take their silt striders there, for some very important and ingrained reason that nevertheless escaped me. No teleportation services either... there was an Imperial Cult shrine in the fort there, but I suspected that the large Imperial Chapel in Ebonheart was in awkward proximity... I had never tried it, but Divine Intervention spells cast near Pelagiad would probably take one to Ebonheart, rather than the village.

What this amounted to was that we had a walk of several hours ahead of us: down the Foyada Mamaea and along the western shore of Lake Amaya. It wasn't too difficult to get Itermerel talking about his research: I just mentioned that I had heard his work was considered to be quite significant in some circles. I think he was glad to have something to occupy the time. He spoke at great length of his studies in the area of 'Oblivion Streams'; and even after listening to him for the final two hours of the hike, I still had no idea what Oblivion Streams actually were.

Still, it sounded as if it would be interesting if it were not so incomprehensible, and I asked lots of questions; mostly engineered to keep him talking. I had decided quite some time ago that I would do everything in my power to avoid carrying out any of the darker hints Ranis made when giving me assignments, and I was quite pleased when my (somewhat) feigned interest paid off. During the trip I noticed a roll of parchment sticking out of the leather satchel Itermerel carried at his side, and 'guessed' aloud that the pages contained his research notes.

When we finally reached the Halfway Tavern in Pelagiad, the Altmer paused before saying goodbye, looking thoughtful.

"I must thank you for seeing me here safely," he said, "and for listening to me babble on about my work. It's been some time since I've met a young one so interested in such things."

I saw my opportunity, replying:

"You're quite welcome. It all sounds very interesting, though I'm unsure how much of it I really understood!" I laughed. "It's difficult without seeing diagrams, I think."

At that, Itermerel did exactly as I had hoped, removing the roll of parchment from his satchel and handing it to me.

"Here: take this with my compliments. Don't worry; they're not my only notes on the subject - just a copy. I was going to give them to... ah, here she is now." The Altmer man waved to someone across the room. "I was going to give them to my friend over there, but I can make another copy later. No, no, it's quite alright: consider it a gift for escorting me here."

And it was as simple as that: appealing to his vanity. Itermerel departed presently to meet his friend, and I was left to skim through his research notes on Oblivion Streams. They were just as impenetrable as his lecture had been, but it was what Ranis wanted, so I rolled them up and secured them inside my pack.

Sharn gra-Muzgob's directions to the Andrano Ancestral Tomb were excellent, and I found the distinctive entryway without trouble. It was very similar to the errand I ran for Hasphat Antabolis, all told: I suspected that Sharn knew her way to the tomb (and doubtless many others) very well, but left it to others to run the risk of being caught or killed inside the tomb itself.

The tomb, while plunging much deeper into the ground and more heavily haunted (or perhaps I should say 'guarded') than others I had seen, was otherwise unremarkable. It was still cold, dangerous, unsettling and filled with eerie whispering, but the Andrano family tomb contained nothing I hadn't seen before. I found the skull of Llevule Andrano, adorned with swirling etchings, near the deepest part of the tomb.

After gingerly placing it in my pack, I teleported away, bound for Balmora to see if Ranis and Sharn gra-Muzgob were happy with my work. Still just an errand boy for the mages.

Or so it would seem to those looking on.