Aresin and DuBois were understandably concerned about a werewolf in Daggerfall and promised to be more vigilant. They were also apologetic over their treatment of the homeless, but Amelia didn’t really expect them to change. Aresin was right: they had seen a lot in their time with the guard, and that could make a person jaded.
Over the next few weeks, Amelia saw less and less of Aresin. They were both busy with bandits and Bloodthorns, and she never really forgave him for his insensitivity toward the homeless. After a while, it got to where they rarely saw each other at all, except when discussing work. She supposed it was for the best. She liked Aresin, but there was too much going on in her life to let her feelings develop into love. Fortunately there was little tension between them, and they were civil and able to work with each other. They still woke up in bed together occasionally, usually when they had been drinking, but even that grew less often.
And then there was the Dark Anchor. The one Aresin had mentioned on the southeastern shore of Glenumbra kept opening back up, and they were out there at least once a week trying to keep the thing closed. The battles were harrowing, and sometimes Amelia would have nightmares about the terrifying anchors opening up on top of her and raining Daedra. But she kept on fighting. What else could she do?
She did have new toys to play with. Work had been lucrative lately, so she had invested in two new swords and had Camille Ashton, Daggerfall’s resident enchanter, put flame and shock enchantments on them. Camille had also worked miracles with a few new pieces of armor, and Amelia felt like a different woman, roving the countryside with superior weapons and better protection from the creatures Molag Bal kept throwing at her.
She was heading home after just such a battle when she passed a Wyress on the road. She was pretty, dark haired and gray eyed, wearing an animal-skin dress with bone embellishments. The witches of the Beldama Wyrd had been in the area trying to rid the local mill of forest creatures that had inexplicably turned hostile. Amelia had offered to help, but they had assured her that everything was well in hand, so she had left them to it. But today, the Wyress pulled her aside.
“You mentioned a willingness to help,” she said. “Does that offer still stand?”
“Of course. What do you need?”
“I’m Wyress Ileana.”
“You can call me Red.”
“Red, thank you. As you know, things are not well in our woods, but lately they have grown even worse. The Guardians have gone silent, and this corruption spreads.”
“Who are the Guardians?”
“Elemental spirits, one each for air, earth, and water. They’re the Ehlnofey, and they have been a part of the land since the dawn of Tamriel. They protect the land and used to guide us, but suddenly, nothing.”
“Why would they stop communicating like that?”
“We have no idea. We don’t know if we’ve angered them or if someone has done something to hurt them . . . there is a ritual to contact them, but it’s too dangerous for my sisters and me to perform.”
“Is it something I can do?”
“I don’t know; you’re not one of us, but we simply can’t fight the creatures, so we have to try something.”
“If this is too much—”
“No, no, not at all. I’m glad to help. It just seems like there are always creatures.”
“Indeed.” She pointed through the trees. “See the lurchers out there? The green monstrosities that look as though they’re made from rotting wood.”
They were hard to miss. They were dark green, bipedal, about seven feet tall with no heads to speak of; they just sort of ended at the shoulders. They were hollow, and a large, glowing circle rested in the center of their chests. “I see them. What are they?”
“They’re abominations of the Bloodthorns. They used to be spriggans, but the Bloodthorns have twisted and corrupted them. Gather their limbs—that’s the dangerous part—then burn them at the altar atop the nearby ruins.”
“Would you like for me to just kill the lurchers and so you can perform the ritual?”
“Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. The one who gathers the limbs must burn them. If it works, a guardian should appear, and hopefully we can find out what we’ve done, or what we need to do. Afterward, find me at the Vale of the Guardians, just north of here.”
“I can do that. Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it.”
She set out to fight the lurchers, which turned out to be among the easiest battles she’d had in days. They were indeed made of rotting wood, so they didn’t stand up well to her flame-enchanted sword. They weren’t easy by any means, and she took a couple of jarring blows from one or two of them, but she managed to get a fairly good stock of lurcher limbs to perform the ritual.
The ruins Ileana had mentioned were up a hill that was overgrown with the foul Bloodthorn vines, from which wafted a pungent yellow mist. Near the top of the hill stood a necromancer, with whom Amelia had a bloody fight. The necromancer wasn’t the problem; it was the zombie he raised that gave her trouble. She fought off the zombie as best she could, hacking at it and ducking out of the way when it vomited a disgusting green goo at her, but it was hard to kill. She finally managed to get around it and reach the necromancer, who was otherwise unarmed. He lobbed a couple of flame spells at her, but they were clearly not his strong suit and Amelia was able to dodge them and take his head off. When the necromancer fell, so did the zombie.
Farther up the hill, she found the altar, which was also overgrown with the vines, and put the limbs upon it; then with a well-placed jab from her flaming sword, she set them ablaze. Out of the fire rose a figure that looked like a female human, but it was made entirely of stone.
“Greetings, child. I am the Guardian of the Earth. We are the Ehlnofey, echoes of old voices, remnants of a time long ago. We nurture the land and guide the Wyrd. We have been waiting for someone to summon us. Angof the Gravesinger has imprisoned us, and we are cut off from the Wyrd. You must set us free.”
“How can I do that?”
“The first step is to cleanse the standing stones of Angof’s dark influence.”
“Where are these standing stones?”
“The Wyresses will know of what we speak. Protect the Wyrd while they destroy the corruption binding the stones. This will loosen Angof’s grip. From there, a ritual involving your spirit will bring about our release.”
“You will not be harmed during the ritual, but you must be the catalyst. Wyress Ileana will know what must be done.”
“I’ve been trying to learn more about Angof,” she told the stone spirit. “Is there anything you can tell me?”
“He is a tremor in the land, a poison in the water. He is Gravesinger, Reachmage, necromancer, and corrupter.”
“He’s a man? An elf? Something else?”
“He is man, but he is tainted by evil. You must stop him.”
“I’ll do whatever I can.”
The guardian faded from view, and Amelia went back down the hill. The vines were becoming more prominent in the woods, and they completely lined the road in some places. But when she reached the Vale of the Guardians, it seemed someone had placed a protective spell around the area. Flowers and healthy trees grew among lush green grass, and the warm sun streamed through the canopy above. It was beautiful.
Wyress Ileana was waiting in a small garden inside the vale. “I heard a whisper throughout the forest. Was it the guardians? Did they talk to you? Did they say what we’ve done?”
“You haven’t done anything, Ileana. Angof has them imprisoned.”
“Imprisoned! Our enemy is that powerful?”
“She said he was a gravesinger.”
“A gravesinger? Oh, no.”
“What is a gravesinger, exactly?”
“A gravesinger’s power goes beyond that of a simple necromancer. We must free the Guardians! But how?”
“The Guardian said to send your Wyrd to cleanse the standing stones.”
Ileana nodded. “Cleanse the stones of the choking vines, of course. I will send three of my sisters north to cleanse the stones, but they will need protection from the corrupted creatures that might attack them before they complete the spell.”
“I’ll go protect them, but the Guardian said this was only the first step. She said my spirit would be involved in another ritual and that you would know what to do next.”
“Did she say why it had to be you?”
Amelia shook her head in response.
“Perhaps they know something we don’t, then. They can be mysterious. We’ll need to sacrifice a spriggan—or better yet, a lurcher—to cleanse the ritual site first.” She took an amulet from around her neck and handed it to Amelia. She didn’t know what inside the small sack at the end of the leather string, but she could feel the power it radiated. It practically vibrated in her hands. “When the sisters are done, weaken a lurcher and use the amulet to take control of it. Just hold it toward the creature and utter the words, ‘Solo kiro na-cientho.’ Then lead it up the hill to us. We’ll do the rest.”
“‘Solo kiro na-cientho.’ Got it.”
Ileana called three of her sisters over and introduced Wyresses Ofelia, Madenn, and Shaelle. Together they made their way through the forest until they reached the first stone.
“See these vines?” said Ofelia. “Corruption runs through them and they choke the sacred stones. Soon they will tap into the stone’s magic and defile it completely. I need you to protect me while I cleanse the stone.”
“What about you two?” Amelia asked Madenn and Shaelle.
“Only one of us can cleanse a stone,” said Shaelle, “and it tires us out so that we can’t do any more. When Ofelia finishes here, she will go up the hill to join Ileana and we will go to the next stone, and so on.”
“I understand. All right, you two hide behind a tree or something. Just stay out of the way. Ofelia, I’m ready.”
“The protectors will be on us as soon as I begin the spell,” Ofelia warned. She raised her hands toward the stone and began chanting. Fire blazed forth from her hands, but before it could catch the vines, a Bloodthorn cultist leapt out from behind the stone and attacked.
Amelia engaged the cultist, taking him down with ease, but another one appeared seemingly out of nowhere and cast a spell that made her head swim. Before she could recover, her torso erupted in pain, and she came out of the haze to realize he had hit her with a fireball.
“Damn you!” she cried as she raised her hand to cast her own spell. This one pulled the life force from the cultist’s body, and he hung there like a ragdoll for a few seconds as the life transferred from his body to hers, affording her a small amount of healing in the process. Just as he began to recover, Amelia jabbed her shock sword into his belly and he keeled over, dead.
“It’s destroyed,” said Ofelia. “I’ll meet you at the ritual site after I’ve rested for a minute.”
“You’re injured,” said Madenn, walking up to Amelia. She reached into a pouch on her belt and produced a healing potion. “Here. Drink.”
Amelia accepted the potion and sighed with relief as the blisters on her torso faded away. In only a few moments, she was pain free. “Thanks,” she said earnestly. “Now, let’s go take care of the other two stones.”
Madenn cleansed her stone and Amelia protected her without injury, but she ended up needing more healing when defending Shaelle. One of the cultists bashed her on the head, and though she managed to finish him off, as soon as he was dead, she fainted. She awoke with her head in Shaelle’s lap, and the Wyress was holding a healing potion to her lips.
“I fear you have a concussion,” she said, “but this should help. As you already know, our healing potions are powerful.” She held the potion for Amelia as she drank.
Amelia tried to get up, but Shaelle pulled her down. “Sit for a moment, let it take effect. You’ll be no good to us if you pass out again.”
“You’re right, sorry.”
“No need to apologize. We are so grateful for your help. We could not have done this without you.”
They sat together next to the stone for half an hour or so until Amelia was feeling better, and then Shaelle made her way to the ritual site and she prepared to fight a lurcher. She found one nearby and used her Shadow Cloak spell to sneak up on it, then weakened it with a few swings of her flame sword. When it was struggling to stand, she held forth the amulet. “Solo kiro na-cientho!” she shouted.
A green mist swirled out of the amulet and surrounded the lurcher. It turned to her as if it were looking at her. It gave a little bow, then stood to full height and trembled as if it were a dog shaking water out of its fur.
“You coming with me, then?” she asked. It didn’t answer, of course, but it followed her when she started out. Every once in a while, it would stop and shiver, and the curiosity was killing her. Why did it do that? Ileana had said it was a corrupted spriggan. Maybe the shakes were the spriggan trying to reassert itself. She would probably never know.
They passed another lurcher on the way, and Amelia’s lurcher attacked it. She didn’t have to do anything as it ripped the other creature apart. When it was done, it looked at her as if for approval.
“Thanks,” she said simply. “Let’s go.”
They arrived at the top of the hill to find a ring of stones and a handful of Wyresses standing among them. Amelia led the lurcher to the center of the circle, where it immediately started to tremble. It fell to the ground and a mist rose out of it. The lurcher disintegrated, and a spriggan took its place.
“By my blood, the corruption is washed away,” the spriggan said weakly. Then she lay on the ground and perished.
“The sacrifice has made this holy place pure again,” Ileana told Amelia. “The poor spriggan spirit is finally free. We can begin the ritual to set the Guardians free whenever you are ready.”
“I’m ready,” said Amelia.
“Beldama! Sisters! Focus your power on Amelia. It’s time to break Angof’s hold on the Guardians.”
The Wyresses stood in a circle around Amelia and held their hands toward her. White light streamed from their fingers and engulfed her in warmth. There was a bit of a shock, but there was very little pain. Suddenly the light exploded all around her and dissipated, and the three Guardians hovered at the edge of the ring of standing stones.
Amelia already knew the Guardian of the Earth, whose stone countenance was more prominent in person. The others appeared female as well; the Guardian of the Water was made of ice, and the Guardian of the Air was little more than a specter.
“At last the chains of corruption fall away,” said the Guardian of the Earth. “We are free of Angof’s hold!”
The Guardian of the Air sneered, “And he will pay for this insult.”
“Champion of the Guardians, we are in your debt,” said the Guardian of the Water. “It is right that you should be the one to free us. You are mortal, yet you are not mortal. Angof has much to fear from you, as you have power he does not understand—power that you do not yet understand yourself. But his evil still flows through the land, and this must end quickly. There is more work for you.”
“I’ll do whatever is necessary.”
“Go to the Wyrd Tree and speak to Wyress Gwen. She will instruct you on what needs to be done.”
With that, the Guardians disappeared. Ileana walked over and handed Amelia a pouch of gold and a dagger. “It’s not much, but you should be rewarded for what you did today. The dagger steals life and may help you in your quest. If not, it should bring a good price.”
“Thank you, Ileana. I was glad to help, reward or no.” She didn’t say so, but it was better to get the reward.
“Come. Rest with us tonight and go to the Wyrd Tree in the morning. You’ve been injured today, and you must be tired.”
Amelia chuckled. “I am. I just realized I’m exhausted.”
* * *
There was a small, quiet celebration in the Vale of the Guardians that night, and the sisters almost made Amelia feel like a Wyress herself. They bestowed blessing after blessing upon her, fed her well, and gave her a soft, comfortable bed to sleep in. When she awoke the next morning, she broke her fast with them and thanked them graciously before heading north to the Wyrd Tree.
She met one of the Wyresses standing on a hillock surrounded by vines. She walked up behind her and said, “Excuse me.”
The witch jolted and turned around quickly. “What! Who . . . damn it all! The last person who snuck up on me got a sword in the gut for his trouble!”
“I didn’t sneak; I just walked up. Ileana sent me to help you. I’m supposed to speak to Wyress Gwen.”
“Sorry,” said the witch sheepishly. “Old habit. I was in the guard before I joined the Wyrd. I’m Gwen. You’re here to help? Lovely. The damn Bloodthorns have taken the Wyrd Tree. I’ve never seen magic like this. I don’t know what you can do, but I’m willing to try anything at this point.”
“Let’s just go about it bit by bit. What’s the first thing we can try?”
“Well, we have rituals we can use to try to cleanse the corruption, but we can’t get near the tree and the cultists stole our portal stones. We need those stones so that we can get to our enclave without being seen.”
“I’ll get your stones back. I’m assuming the cultists have them?”
“Yes. When you get the stones, go to the huts near the tree and open portals for the sisters. The incantation is, ‘Lo duf tienvay.’” She handed Amelia a smooth, round gem. “This is my portal stone. When the others have been taken care of, use mine to port me to the entrance of the tree.”
“‘Lo duf tienvay.’ All right, you stay here for now.”
Amelia walked through the glade where Gwen stood and out into a clearing where she could see the Wyrd Tree. She had seen it before, of course—it wasn’t all that far from where she grew up—but she could never get over its size. It was at least 200 feet tall and had to be half a mile in diameter, and its roots spread out for miles. The Wyresses lived inside and around the massive tree, and it was usually a place of incredible peace, but now the tree and its environs looked sick. The bark was a dull gray and the leaves had taken on the yellowish hue of the vines that choked its base. The appearance and the aura the tree put out gave her chills.
She engaged several cultists as she circled the tree, fighting with righteous anger at what they had done to this beautiful place. She couldn’t help wondering if she had become more attuned with the Wyrd the evening before with all the blessings the sisters bestowed on her. She certainly felt like she was part of the tree, and she fought like mad to save it. With only minor injuries, she took down several cultists and retrieved the portal stones. There were four shacks, one at each directional point on the map, and Amelia entered them and used the stones and incantation to open doorways for the Wyresses to come through and work their magic.
She finally used Wyress Gwen’s stone and brought her to the door of the tree. “What’s next?” she asked.
“Now we need to summon the Guardians. With their help, we can cleanse this place of Angof’s foul influence. But his cursed vines choke their totems and prevent them from getting near the tree. The vines around the totems, and the specters that guard them, must be destroyed.”
“Where do I find the totems?”
“The totem for the Guardian of the Air is up the hill to the north. The Guardian of the Earth, in the meadow to the east. The Guardian of the Water, in the swamps to the south, near the waterfall.”
“I’m off, then.”
Amelia trekked up a nearby hill and found the totem in a clearing behind a large rock formation. It was little more than a skull on a stick, but it radiated powerful magic. But the magic was . . . off, though, choked by the vine wrapping around the totem. She used her flame sword and chopped it at the base, and the vine disintegrated with a screech.
The Guardian of the Air appeared next to her. “Retribution must be swift,” she declared. “The Wyrd Tree must continue to reach for the sky; you must defeat the Corruption of Air. When I call, come to me and I’ll protect you.”
There was a sudden shriek behind her, and Amelia was yanked backward. She turned around to peer into the face of a specter with empty eyes and a gaping, toothless maw. It was cloaked in rags that flowed around it as if blown by an invisible wind, and a red light glowed around it as well. She swung her blades for all she was worth as the ghost cast life-stealing magic over her.
“The tide turns,” said the Guardian. “Come to me!”
Amelia retreated to the shelter of the Guardian, and though the spirit tried to jerk her back again, the Guardian held her fast, healing her and returning the life that was stolen from her. But she couldn’t fight it from behind the Guardian, so she had to charge forward once more. She finally managed to take the specter down, and she collapsed next to the totem, exhausted.
The Guardian of the Air drifted over to her and waved a hand, and Amelia instantly felt better. “You have done well,” said the Guardian, “but there is no time to rest. The totems of earth and water still stand corrupted. Go now.”
Amelia nodded and got up, then headed down the hill and east toward the meadow where the earth totem rested. She had to fight a lurcher and a Bloodthorn cultist on the way, but she persevered with grim determination. She was getting really tired of Angof and his Bloodthorns.
The fights at the earth and water totems were much the same as with the air totem, almost as if they were scripted. The Guardians protected her from the specters and healed each injury, and they continued to take away her physical exhaustion, but they couldn’t do anything about the mental weariness. She needed to rest, but they had to take the tree first.
After the totems were cleansed, Amelia met Wyress Gwen at the entrance.
“I can feel the oppressive weight of Angof’s corruption lifting!” Gwen exclaimed. “I sense the gratitude of the Guardians, but I also sense . . . fear. Angof’s vermin are afraid of you. The spirits of corruption have been destroyed, I take it?”
“Yes, they’re gone.”
“You’ve done well, Champion. There’s one more challenge we have to face.”
Gwen nodded. “We cleansed the land around the tree, but the corruption still festers in its heart. Angof’s last wraith rests within the tree and won’t be banished easily, but the Guardians will help you.”
Amelia sighed heavily. “All right. Here I go.” She opened the door and stepped into the heart of the Wyrd Tree.
In other circumstances, it would be a place of beauty. The heart of the tree was a great, arched chamber surrounded by huge roots, and light from an invisible source illuminated the chamber. A pool rested in the center, and delicate blue flowers grew on the banks among sacred stones. The Guardians were there, hovering just above the bank. But the vines also encircled the pool and wrapped around the roots, strangling the life out of them and casting deep shadows around the perimeter. The pool was murky and foul smelling, and yellow mist rose from the surface. And in the center floated Angof’s wraith. It looked like the other ones, cloaked, glowing red, radiating malice, but it was quite a bit bigger.
“Quickly!” said the Guardian of the Water. “Destroy this foulness! Set the Wyrd Tree free!”
Amelia didn’t care how big it was. It was time to end this. She charged the creature before it could pull her to itself, and she danced around it, swinging her blades and connecting with its rags time and again. It cast its life-sucking spell on her, though, and she tired quickly.
“To me!” called the Guardian of the Air. Amelia fell back to the Guardian, who protected her from the wraith’s onslaught long enough to heal her, and then she went back out.
She knew the only reason her energy held out was the assistance she was getting from the Guardians, but she put it to good use. Splashing through the water and wielding her swords with a speed she had never known, she hacked away at the wraith, taking one more break to be healed before wearing it down. It dissipated at last into a blast of red light.
But another specter filled the space, this one just a vision, a projection that could only be Angof himself. She stepped back to the protection of the Guardian of the Water, but as she looked at this vision, she realized that whatever he was—Gravesinger, Reachman, necromancer, tainted by evil—he was just a man. For all his power, he was just a man, and she could defeat him.
“Fool!” Angof snarled, “you have destroyed one of my slaves, but I have so many more.”
“And I’ll destroy them too,” Amelia retorted. “And you.”
Without another word, the vision vanished, as did the Guardians. Amelia was alone in the heart of the Wyrd Tree. She watched as the vines retreated from the roots, almost as though they were growing in reverse, and the water began to clear. Before long, it was as though the corruption had never existed. Amelia felt great relief, and her heart filled with joy.
Gwen stepped through the door and joined her. “It’s so beautiful!” she said. “Thanks to you, the Wyrd Tree has been restored.”
“I was just glad I could help.”
“Thank the Guardians you did! Although I was in the guard before, the Wyrd are not fighters and we were losing this battle. But you have won it for us.”
All of a sudden, Amelia’s euphoria fell away and exhaustion set in. Before she could respond to Wyress Gwen, her eyes rolled back in her head, and she collapsed into a dead faint.
* * *
She awoke in one of the huts outside the Wyrd Tree with Wyress Gwen sitting next to her cot. “You’re awake,” she acknowledged.
“How long was I out?”
“Two days. Your battles took a lot out of you, and you needed rest.”
“Thanks for taking care of me,” she said, sitting up.
Gwen handed her a bowl of stew. “Eat. Regain your strength.”
Amelia took the stew and spooned it into her mouth. It was delicious, and she was ravenous. When she was finished eating, she said, “So. What’s next?”
“A hunter, Gloria Fausta, came looking for help while you were asleep. I’m ashamed to say we turned her away, but as I said, none of us are fighters. But you might be able to help her.”
“Where did she go?”
“Aldcroft. She said werewolves had captured Camlorn and the duke had fled. Chamberlain Weller in Aldcroft should know more.”
Amelia sighed. “Couldn’t it be somewhere other than Aldcroft?”
“My hometown. And not a happy place for me. Still, I won’t abandon them if they’re in need.”
“Rest for a day or two; regain your strength before you head out. If you’re going to be fighting werewolves, you’ll need it.”
“Is there any chance you can get a message to Daggerfall? I have a friend who’s sort of a werewolf expert.”
“Just send a message to Kireina Skaarsgard. You can send it care of Aresin, Captain of the Guard; he’ll know where to find her.”
“It will be done today. But for now, you must rest.”
Amelia reached out and took Wyress Gwen’s hand. “Thank you for everything, Gwen.”
“No, Red. Thank you.”
Gwen left the hut and Amelia lay back on the cot. Aldcroft, ugh. Well, just because she was going there didn’t mean she had to see him. Who was she kidding? Of course it did. The village wasn’t that big. But she had come a long way since the last time, and she had no reason to be afraid anymore.
If that was so, why did the mere mention of her hometown give her chills?