“Vestige, it’s time we meet. Come to the Harborage, a cave east of Daggerfall.”
The Prophet’s voice in Amelia’s head woke her from a peaceful sleep, and she groaned. “Do we have to meet now?”
“What was that?” Aresin mumbled, throwing an arm over her.
“Nothing. Go back to sleep.”
He snuggled closer and kissed her neck. “I’m awake now.”
“Don’t be.” He turned her over on her back, bent down and placed his mouth on hers, moaning softly as he drank her in. When they finally broke the kiss, he said, “I need to get up anyway. While I would love to stay here in bed with you all day, I have to train and get to my post.”
“Come train with me.”
She shook her head. “Not this morning. I smell coffee, so I think Kireina’s finally home. I’m going to catch up with her.” She got up and threw on a tunic and a pair of trousers while Aresin went to the wash basin and began to shave. “I’ll be out here,” she said as she left the bedroom.
Kireina was sitting in front of the fire with a huge mug in her hands. The Nord was blonde and pretty, half a head taller than Amelia with the solid musculature of a practiced warrior. She had come to High Rock on a mercenary job a couple of years ago and had stayed on. The child of two members of the Companions guild, she had practically grown up with a sword in her hand. While Amelia liked to fight, she also liked missions of intrigue or solving mysteries, but Kireina was all about the battle. That being said, she was the most pleasant-natured person Amelia knew. She guessed all that fighting blew off steam, because she had never seen Kireina angry. Her friend had secrets, though, secrets that Amelia kept religiously so as not to get them both killed.
Amelia went to the cookfire, where a metal pitcher warmed fresh coffee. She grabbed a mug, and using a rag so as not to burn her hands on the pitcher, she poured herself some of the hot brew and sat down next to the Nord. “You were gone for months,” she complained. “You don’t write, you don’t send flowers, I didn’t even know where you were.”
“I was in Hammerfell,” Kireina said with a Nordic accent, “escorting a dignitary to Sentinel. Then I spent a little time interacting with the local color, did a few missions for the captain of the guard.”
“How was it?”
“It was hot, and there was nothing to hunt except assassin beetles, snakes, and necromancers. What about you?”
Aresin emerged from the bedroom freshly cleaned and shaven and looking very handsome, and he came to Amelia’s side, where he took the coffee from her hand and took a sip.
“You want some?” she asked him. “There’s plenty.”
“Absolutely.” He grabbed a mug and poured himself some coffee. “Can I take your cup?”
“Just bring it back. You know how I am about that stuff. Aresin, this is Kireina.”
“Well met, Kireina. I’ve heard a lot about you.”
“I’m afraid I can’t say the same, Captain, but I have a feeling I’m going to.”
Aresin chuckled, then bent to kiss Amelia goodbye. “I’ll see you at the Lion later?”
“Sure. Have a good day,” she said as he headed for the door.
As soon as he was gone and the door was closed, Kireina said, “All right, spill it. What are you doing with the captain of the guard?”
“Quite a bit, actually,” she said with a wink. “But I have so much more to tell you, most of it bad.”
Amelia told her the story of how she was taken from her bedroll and sacrificed to Molag Bal, then woke up in Coldharbour without a soul. At first, the Nord didn’t believe her, but she understood plenty about dark magic, and as she listened to the tale, she grew paler.
“You’re serious,” she said finally.
“I heard rumors while I was traveling about a plot to merge Nirn and Coldharbour, but I thought they were just that—rumors. I was told about monstrous anchors that Molag Bal was sending down here along with all sorts of Daedra. I never saw one, mind you, but the stories I heard were horrendous.”
“I saw one of the anchors from the Coldharbour side. It was horrendous.”
“And now this Prophet is speaking in your head?”
Amelia nodded. “He’s in Daggerfall, apparently, or close by. I’m supposed to go see him.”
“Well, do you have any good news? There’s obviously Captain Aresin.”
“We met about a month ago when I stumbled upon a plot to assassinate King Casimir. It’s not serious, but it’s steady.”
“Serious or not, I’m happy for you. In this town, I’m not surprised about an assassination attempt. There is so much going on behind the scenes.”
“Do you know Roy? The one with the dog, Giblets. He was murdered, and I uncovered this scheme when I was investigating that. A group called the Bloodthorn Cult was behind it all.”
“Bloodthorns. Are you serious? Red, they worship Molag Bal.”
A great chill ran down Amelia’s spine. “How do you know that?”
“I picked it up someplace; I don’t remember where.”
“That’s just a little too coincidental. I wonder if Aresin knows that.”
“I would think he’d have told you if he did.”
“I haven’t told him about the sacrifice. He’s a practical man; I don’t know how he would handle the thought that I had been killed, stripped of my soul, and raised from the dead.”
“If this does get serious, you’ll have to tell him eventually.”
Amelia shook her head and took a sip of coffee. “I don’t think it will get serious. He’s married to his job, and honestly, so am I. But I like him.”
“I’m afraid to ask if anything else has happened.”
“Isn’t that enough?”
“More than enough. So you’re off to see this Prophet?”
“I am. You’re staying for a while, aren’t you?”
“Aye, I don’t have anything else right now. I hunted last night, so I’m content to stay home for now. Let’s go to the Rosy Lion for a pint later.”
Amelia got up and strapped on her swords, then grabbed her knapsack and headed out with a pretty good idea where the cave the Prophet had indicated was. Just to the east of town was a cavern with a wooden set into the hillside; she figured this was the Prophet’s Harborage. When she arrived at the cave, she knocked on the door, but there was no answer. She opened it cautiously and entered.
“Yes, Vestige,” the Prophet’s voice said. “This is the place.”
She navigated a winding, partially submerged path to a spacious room at the back, where the Prophet sat among a few pieces of furniture and, oddly, a bookcase. A warm fire burned in the center. Amelia wondered how in the world the Prophet had gotten here, furnished the place, and started a fire.
“Despite my blindness,” he said, as if reading her thoughts, “nay, because of it, my other senses have heightened. This place had the right smell about it.”
“Prophet, does anything you say ever make sense?”
With a chuckle, he said, “Occasionally.”
“Actually, I have a friend who probably would have said the same thing about the scent. So where do we go from here? When we met in Coldharbour, you spoke of my destiny.”
“Indeed, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Without an understanding of where we are bound, every road will lead us nowhere. And before we can understand our destination, we must speak of the past. I invite you to enter my mind and walk with me through visions of the past, so that you might understand the events that brought us here.”
“Enter your mind? How does that work?”
“Simply clear your mind, and I will pull you in. It will be painless, I assure you.”
Amelia breathed a bewildered sigh. “All this is so much to take.”
“I understand. But you must become accustomed to seeing and hearing the unexpected and inexplicable. You are strong; you will persevere.”
“All right. I guess I’m ready.”
He raised his hand toward her, and with a flash of light her vision blurred and she was in another place. It looked a lot like Coldharbour, with a jagged landscape and eerie blue light; but she supposed after living in Coldharbour as long as the Prophet did, it was bound to affect someone’s perceptions. She followed him down a long, gently sloping hill, listening to him narrate as he went.
“My part in this story began when I awoke on the steps of the Abbey of the Moth Priests, weak and near death with no memory of my prior life. The Moth Priests took pity on me and took me into their fold.”
“Who are the Moth Priests?” she asked.
“Men and women who have devoted their lives to the reading and interpretation of the Elder Scrolls.”
“I always heard they were unreadable.”
“They are, for most. It was in this abbey that I first set eyes on the Scrolls, and I pledged my life to their study. The Scrolls allowed me to glimpse the very fabric of reality, but each profound insight dimmed my vision and eventually left me permanently blinded to the light of the world.”
He stopped at the bottom of the hill between a dining room that just sat out in the middle of all the desolation and a circular platform where an Elder Scroll rotated over a large brazier. The Scroll was huge, and she wondered if the real ones were that big or if it was just the Prophet’s idea of one.
“The prophecies of the Elder Scrolls are a fluid, living thing,” he continued. “At many points throughout history, the actions of heroic mortals have rewritten them.”
“You’re saying the Elder Scrolls have something to do with me, aren’t you?”
“The Scrolls revealed to me that your destiny is intertwined with that of the Five Companions.”
“But I thought there were five hundred.”
“You are well read, Vestige.”
Amelia nodded. “My father made sure I was well educated.”
“But is not the army that accompanied Ysgramor from Atmora. These are five adventurers brought together for a single purpose. They sought out an ancient artifact called the Amulet of Kings in the hope of using it to persuade Akatosh to accept their leader as one of the Dragonborn.”
“Dragonborn? That sounds vaguely familiar, but I can’t remember what it means.”
“The Dragonborn are mortals with the blood of the dragon in their veins. It is said that only a Dragonborn can ignite the Eternal Dragonfires in the Imperial City.”
“So who was this leader?”
“Varen Aquilarios was the son of a Colovian duke who led the rebellion against Emperor Leovic and took the crown for himself. However, Varen was not Dragonborn, and in accordance with tradition, those who sit upon the Ruby Throne must be. But more about that later. Now it is time for you to become acquainted with the Five Companions.” He turned toward the dining room, where the ghostly figure of Lyris Titanborn appeared, followed by four others: two well-dressed Imperials, a robed Altmer who looked disturbingly familiar, and a Redguard with a long, full beard.
“The first companion, Lyris Titanborn, Daughter of Giants, was the mightiest warrior in service to the Emperor. She was chosen for her strength and spirit, and she was the Emperor’s personal bodyguard.
“Next is Abnur Tharn, Grand Chancellor of the Imperial Elder Council. A powerful battlemage and shrewd politician, Abnur was the patriarch of one of the most influential families in Tamriel, and his counsel had helped Varen seize the Imperial throne.
“The Redguard swordmaster, Sai Sahan, leader of the Imperial Dragonguard. While Lyris defended the Emperor, Sai Sahan was responsible for protecting the group as a whole.
“The Imperial Emperor, Varen Aquilarios, who attempted to light the Dragonfires and failed.
“And finally, Mannimarco the traitor. The King of Worms. The most powerful necromancer this world has ever known. And your executioner.”
“That’s quite a group,” Amelia muttered. “So Varen wanted to be Dragonborn because only a Dragonborn could really call himself Emperor?”
The Prophet nodded. “He conquered Cyrodiil and took the throne, but unless he became Dragonborn, he feared he would always be thought of as a pretender. “
“But how could the Amulet of Kings turn the Emperor into a Dragonborn?
“Mannimarco convinced Varen that the amulet could be used to perform a ritual that would rekindle the Dragonfires, pleasing Akatosh and prompting him to make Varen Dragonborn.”
“What happened when they performed the ritual?”
“Disaster. War and Pestilence. A world brought to its knees.” He motioned toward the platform where the Elder Scroll had spun. It was empty now except for the brazier. “Witness this ritual,” he instructed her.
* * *
The Five Companions gathered around the fire pit. “There it is,” said Aquilarios, “the Dragonfire brazier. Mannimarco, are you sure this will work?”
“It will work, my liege. The Amulet of Kings will rekindle the Dragonfires and ensure your place as Emperor.”
“This better work, Mannimarco,” Lyris sneered, “or you’ll find your neck at the business end of my axe.”
Abnur Tharn rolled his eyes. “My lord, I wonder if you might muzzle this half-giant pet of yours.”
“Enough, both of you!” Sai Sahan snapped.
“Abnur, begin the ritual,” said Varen. Abnur stepped forward and lit the brazier, and Varen lifted his hands and head. “By the lighting of the Dragonfires, I claim my rightful lineage! By the fires of creation, let me be reborn! By the will of Akatosh, I proclaim myself Dragonborn!”
But it wasn’t Varen who levitated in a nimbus of blinding light. It was Mannimarco. With a thunderous blast, the other four companions were thrown to the ground as the necromancer laughed maniacally. “Varen Aquilarios, you are no heir to Alessia, and you will pay for your sacrilege! The veil between Tamriel and Oblivion splits and is torn asunder!”
The sky opened above them and Abnur gasped, “What is happening?”
“What is the meaning of this?” Varen demanded as he struggled against invisible bonds. “Mannimarco, what have you done?”
“Gullible fools! My master, Molag Bal, is free to claim Tamriel as his own!”
“No! Akatosh, forgive me! Have mercy on our souls!”
* * *
The images on the platform faded out of view and Amelia turned toward the Prophet. “Mannimarco planned this all along,” she assumed.
“Indeed,” said the old man. “The ritual tore the veil between Nirn and Oblivion, allowing Mannimarco to begin stealing souls his master needed to power the Dark Anchors and initiate a planemeld.”
“How is that possible?”
“Akatosh gave Alessia the Amulet of Kings as a symbol of his covenant with Nirn. So long as the amulet remained in the care of Alessia’s heirs and the Dragonfires remained lit, Tamriel would be protected from the Daedra. Mannimarco tricked Varen into breaking the covenant, and the veil between Nirn and Oblivion was torn. The Elder Scrolls named this event the Soulburst. It gave Molag Bal the power to disconnect the souls of Nirn from their hosts.”
“Like me. So what happened to all these people? Lyris, I know, but what of the others?”
“Varen was lost. In the chaos of the moment, Sai Sahan took the Amulet of Kings and fled. To this day, Tharn remains Chancellor of the Elder Council, and his daughter Clivia serves as Empress Regent. But the true power remains in the hands of Mannimarco and his Worm Cult.”
“Wait, you’re saying Mannimarco rules Tamriel?”
“One thing still doesn’t make sense to me, though. How do you fit into all this?”
“When I discovered the truth about the Five Companions, I made subtle inquiries. Mannimarco got word of my interest, abducted me, and took me to Coldharbour, where I remained until you freed me.”
“They saw you as a threat.”
“The truth is always a threat to evil men.”
“If Tharn is still among the living, this wasn’t very long ago.”
“Only a few years, but it seems like an eternity. Walk with me, Vestige.”
He began to walk back up the hill, and Amelia followed. A Dark Anchor appeared before them, spinning in the air over the landscape, and she flinched back, but the Prophet didn’t falter.
He said, “Molag Bal’s Dark Anchors pierce the torn veil and seek to draw Nirn into the depths of Coldharbour. These terrible engines of destruction have been appearing all throughout Tamriel.”
“Actually, I heard that just this morning. I hoped it was just a rumor.”
“Alas, no. If the Lord of Brutality and Domination is successful, he will merge our world with his own in a terrible planemeld.”
“So it falls to us to stop him.”
“Indeed.” He stopped at the top of the hill. “History seems to have caught up with us. Are you ready to return to Tamriel?”
“Yes, I’m ready.”
He raised his hand, and in a flash of light she was back in the Harborage.
“You’ve given me a lot to think about, Prophet,” she said as soon as she was steady on her feet. “What’s our next move?”
“We must grow in strength and numbers. You will need more than the company of an old blind man to alter the course of history. We will assemble our own group of companions. The first, you have already met.”
“Yes. I must determine her position in Coldharbour so that we may mount a rescue. That will take time.”
“What should I do?”
“Mannimarco’s agents weave a web of lies and deceit. They pit the races of Tamriel against one another and divert their attention from the real threat. Seek out these agents wherever you can and expose their lies.”
“I understand. In fact, a group known as the Bloodthorn Cult, who worship Molag Bal, has made their presence known in Daggerfall. I’ll do my best to take them out.”
“Good, good.” He drew a quivering breath and said, “Forgive me. Bringing you into my mind seems to have taken a toll on me. I must rest.”
“I understand. Get some rest, and I assume you’ll . . . call me . . . when you have something.”
“Remain vigilant, Vestige.”
She left the old Moth Priest in the Harborage and went back to Daggerfall, her head reeling. He had said she would have to get used to this stuff, but how did one get used to the knowledge that she would have to prevent the Lord of Domination and Brutality from taking over the world?
Kireina wasn’t home when she arrived back at their room, and Amelia swore under her breath. She didn’t want to be alone right now. Maybe her friend was already at the Rosy Lion. She left the house and went to the inn, where she found the Nord drinking with a couple of the locals. Amelia ordered a cup of wine and sat down, spending the rest of the day engaging in small talk as best she could. Kireina mentioned once that she was unusually quiet, but there was nothing for it. There was too much on her mind, and it was too bizarre to get her head around. She needed something real, something tangible.
When Aresin walked into the pub just after sunset, she grabbed his hand. “Let’s go back to my place,” she said urgently.
“Everything all right?” he asked.
“Not really. Just come with me.”
She led him back to the apartment, and as soon as they were inside with the door closed, she turned and kissed him deeply and hotly. He moaned and wrapped his arms around her, guiding her toward the bedroom. They undressed each other as they went, and by the time they reached the bed they were mostly naked. Amelia pulled him down with her.
Aresin played his hands over her body, pausing to massage her breasts. She gasped as he brushed a thumb across her nipple and then covered it with his mouth, nibbling and running his tongue over it.
“I need you inside me,” she breathed.
“Please. I just need you to hold me.”
“Okay,” he said good-naturedly, moving on top of her and sliding into her.
Amelia held onto Aresin possessively as he moved in and out of her, her moans coming more audible as the intensity built between them and finally exploded. Tears began to stream down her cheeks as she came, and she buried her face on his shoulder, squeezing his buttocks and pulling him deeper into her. Aresin cried her name and arched his back as he released inside her. Then he collapsed in her arms.
Amelia continued to weep, and Aresin kissed the tears from her cheeks. “Hey, what’s wrong?” he whispered.
“Just a bad day,” she whimpered. “I just really needed the contact. I needed you.”
“Well, don’t cry; it’ll be okay.” He moved off of her and pulled her to him, and she laid her head on his chest as he held her close. “Do you want to talk about it?”
“It’s hard to explain. Just hold me for now.”
After a while she stopped crying and lay quietly for a long time, listening to Aresin’s heartbeat as he caressed her back and shoulders. She finally looked up at him and said, “Have you heard anything about Dark Anchors?”
Raising an eyebrow, he said, “Yes, but how have you heard?”
“Kireina said something, and I have another . . . acquaintance . . . who was talking about them. Apparently they’re popping up all over Tamriel.”
“Yes, and Daedra come them through by the dozens. In fact, one appeared on Glenumbra’s southeastern shore just a couple of days ago, not five miles from here. A handful of warriors managed to kill the Daedra and destroy the anchor, but I hear it was a major battle.” He ran his fingers through her hair. “Is this what’s gotten you so upset?”
“I don’t scare easily. But the things I heard today are . . . well, they’re overwhelming.”
“What else did you hear?”
“That they are anchors designed by Molag Bal to merge Nirn with Coldharbour.”
He stared at her mutely for a moment, not breathing, but he finally recovered and said, “This person, the one who told you that, do you trust them?”
“I do. I don’t believe he would lie to me.”
“Then Divines help us. I would say I’ll keep you safe, but I think you can take better care of yourself than I could.”
“You believe me, then?”
“Of course I believe you, and it scares the crap out of me. But I’m not one to live in fear, or to stand by and let something like this just go. I’ll ask around, maybe talk to the Mages Guild, and see if anybody can figure out a way to stop Molag Bal.”
Amelia didn’t think it was a good idea to tell him she was supposed to be the one to stop him. He wouldn’t understand.
He pulled her closer and laid a kiss on her head. “Is there anything I can do to make you feel better?”
“You did it,” she replied as she craned her neck and met his lips with hers.