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This is the autobiographical journal of Arvil Bren, a somewhat reluctant hero who has been placed on an unknown quest by powers that he barely knows exist. Follow his journey as it is updated daily, Monday through Friday, and enjoy! These are the most recent entries in Arvil Bren's third journal; Politics of the Redoran. His first journal can be found in its entirety here. His second journal, Trail of the Archmage can be found here.

Friday, April 13, 2012

So, things are a bit dusty around here.  More than a bit actually.  Apologies to those who apparently thought I had died.  I didn't, obviously.  I did fall off the internet for a year or two, and when I reappeared Arvil Bren's fate was pretty far from my mind.

During that time my son mentioned more than once that Arvil Bren seemed to be immortal.  He talked me into doing a search, and I was pretty much awed to find people still talking about Arvil Bren on various forums.  Those conversations seemed to always start with one person stumbling in here, then leading in some group of readers, a discussion of the complexities of navigating the story, then ending badly with laments that it was unfinished.  Oddly enough, someone even reformatted the whole thing into e-book format for downloading to Kindle things.  They also lamented about the abrupt non-ending.

So, I am doing two things.

First, I'm reformatting the existing story into a clear chronological order on a site well suited to the task called FanFiction.net.  You can find it here.  Good news is that I'm re-proofing and doing some minor editing during the transition, bad news might be that the story will no longer be illustrated.  Other possibly good news is that between FanFiction.net and a sister site called FictionPress.com access to everything I write on the web will be accessible to anyone interested.

Second, I'll be finishing Arvil's story.  No promise as to how long that will take, and definitely no promise to work on it with the single-mindedness that I had before, but I will get it done.  It won't be done here, or in single day updates.  You will see that the reformat is in forty day blocks and that's how the conclusion will be done.

I guess that's it.  FanFiction.net has a review function.  Drop a word to let me know Arvil does still have readers.

Cheers

Tim



Thursday, July 06, 2006

Comment Issues

I'm back. Haven't had time to get started with posting yet, but I have the next few posts laid out in my head. This morning I've been sidetracked with some problems in the comments area. I have no problem with 'advertising' other Morrowind journals, or Oblivion journals, etc...but... when you put links in the comments, or anything that is a long uninterrupted series of characters without a space for that matter, it blows up the word wrapping and screws up the formatting. So, here's the deal...I'm going to provide permanent linkage to my 'rivals' as long as they meet my criteria. All that means is that they have a history of three months or more of steady postings. So...instead of putting links in the comments please send me an e-mail with any recommendations you have and I'll get the link field set up.

Monday, June 19, 2006

59: The slowest house

With the backing of the Hlaalu confirmed I woke up this morning and again turned my eye to the east. Getting the Telvanni to agree on a direction and move in concert is like herding netch in a cyclone. I walked to Gnissis to see Baladas. In some ways I felt like I was starting from scratch, but at least I didn't have to fight a daedroth to get in to see him.

"We have been very busy Arvil Bren," he said. "I am really surprised at how much this council business has cut into my time. I hardly get any research done."

"There won't be any research done at all if Dagoth Ur's ash vampires take over your tower." Moon and Star tugged in its pouch, and I was sure that if I slipped it on my finger the glow would be blinding...and angry. "Baladas, the Hlaalu have confirmed me as Hortator. I need to get out in the Ashlands and get the support of the tribes. I don't really have much more time for games with your house."

"I understand," he said, "and so does Aryon, and Neloth. Working with Gothren is hopeless though. I know you want his power aligned against Dagoth Ur, but I don't think there is any solution to his obstruction but the Telvanni solution."

"Meaning kill him," I said to clarify.

"Yes."

"What about Therana?"

"That's another problem," he said.

"You said that she would listen to Neloth."

"She will, and she does...mostly. But she also listens to Gothren. She also listens to spiders."

"Spiders?"

"Yes. Spiders that only she can see. Spiders that she remembers would be more accurate I suppose."

The conversation was drifting. The ring was getting even more impatient, and I must admit that it was drawing me along. "Will I get her support or not?"

"You will if you ask for it."

"So if the rest of the council is united how can Gothren disagree?"

"He says that Therana is not competent to decide such an issue. True enough, really. Therana no longer really recognizes what the Hortator is. Her vote makes no difference, but she has powerful retainers that will be very useful against Dagoth Ur, otherwise I would have supported Trerayne Dalen's claim to Tel Branora."

"Trerayne Dalen? Who is that?" I asked.

"She is an Oathman of the house," he said. "She has gotten embroiled in a feud with Therana; a feud which Therana is completely ignoring, or perhaps is not even aware of. Dalen would certainly support you if she were elevated to Therana's seat on the council, and Aryon and I gave it some consideration. She just does not have enough to offer."

"Enough to offer? Now you sound like the Hlaalu, selling council seats at auction."

"I'm not talking about gold, Arvil Bren, I'm talking about power. She and her retainers do not have the power to take Tel Branora without help, they would be of little use against Dagoth Ur."

"Better something than nothing," I mused.

"True, and Therana herself is of no use at all; but her retainers are loyal not just to her, they are loyal to the house, and they are very strong. If Therana would allow it they would crush Dalen and her rag tag band. They will be very good to have on our side, but with the uproar in Tel Branora we aren't getting anywhere."

So I am once again at sea, rounding Vvardenfell on the Grytewake. This time I have no need for the guise of a trader. As claimant to the title of Hortator it is my responsibility to make peace between the conflicting factions in Tel Branora...one way or another.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

58: Redirection

Assuming the title of Hortator among the Hlaalu is much different than it was with the Redorans. I rose through the ranks of the Redorans, and the council knew me and I knew them. Athyn Sarethi and I worked together to change the direction of the house, with him taking leadership of the council at the same time I became the Hortator. This is a much greater challenge. I spent a very long day with the new council of the Hlaalu.

Initially, they seemed to think that their highest priority was the division of spoils from the estates of Orvas Dren and Yngling Half-Troll. I listened, which made them uncomfortable, but in short order their conversation became so heated that they apparently forgot I was there. I let them shout themselves out, and formed solutions of my own that none of them liked.

The foundation of Orvas Dren's wealth was the drug and slave trade. It was a lucrative business before, but under the Imperial embargo the profits exploded. I tried not to think about Ahnassi, and my numerous Khajiit friends.

At Dren's plantation the naturally narcotic moon sugar is refined into the irresistably addictive skooma. For centuries Dren has used the skooma to develop 'trading partners' among the Khajiit in Elsweyr. These hopelessly addicted Khajiit are turned against their own people, capturing victims from rival tribes and selling them into slavery. By keeping Elsweyr in a constant turmoil of rival warlords Dren maintained a steady supply of captives. Rather than stopping his business, which was already illegal, the Imperial embargo justified enormously inflated prices at both ends.

Of course, the council saw two major issues that needed to be immediately addressed. First, how were they going to divide the profits from this trade among themselves, hiding it in their own various ventures. Second, how were they going to take over management of the Camonna Tong, the muscle that kept the smuggling operation working. They were not happy with my solutions.

"Moon sugar can be refined into restoratives that boost the strength and speed of a warrior that are not addictive," I suggested from my corner. They all stopped talking and looked at me like I had invited a kagouti into the room...and it was probably smarter than me.

"Well, yes, we all know that Hortator," said Dram Bero eventually.

"Those restoratives would be far more beneficial to the war effort than any number of skooma addicted warlords in Elsweyr," I said, "warlords that are armed by Hlaalu smiths." They all looked uncomfortable. Though Orvas Dren had kept an iron grip on the skooma and slave trade they had all profited from the weapons trade that followed along like a poor cousin. Not only was I snatching away the spoils they were dividing, I was cutting into their existing business.

"I have only supplied weapons to the legitimate governments of Elsweyr," Velanda Omani sniffed piously.

"Weapons they need to hold off the warlords the rest of you are supplying, no doubt. Weapons they pay for with gold drakes. Where do you think they get gold drakes?" No one wanted to answer. They all knew the gold drakes came from the sale of prisoners taken in clashes with the warlords. Velanda Omani stared at the table. "The weapons that you want to ship to Elsweyr could be well used holding back the blighted beasts that are swarming off Red Mountain into the Ashlands."

"But there's no profit in supplying the Ashlanders, or the Redorans!" Nileno Dorvayn exclaimed.

"Yes, there is," said Crassius Curio, of all people. "The profit is that those blighted creatures don't wind up in the streets of Balmora. Vivec City is a long way from Red Mountain, but I think you of all of us should consider that." I was so surprised that I nearly fell over.

"The legion soldiers at Moonmoth Fort would never allow things to get that far," said Dram Bero.

"The legions in Morrowind already cost the empire far more than the returns, and with the blight cutting off goods from Vvardenfell it's gone totally backwards," the Cyrodiil continued smoothly. "Don't fool yourself into thinking the legion is an endless resource here to protect your interests. They could be withdrawn in a week. The Empire could write off Vvardenfell without a blink."

Of the five members of the council I would never have expected Curio to be my strongest ally in fighting for the Dunmer, but clearly he was. The sobering thought of the legions being withdrawn hung heavily over the room. "It is all the Redoran smiths can do to keep up maintenance on the weapons that are being used every day in the Redoran guard," I said. "Meanwhile your smiths produce armor and weapons that your drug wars have inflated past the local market's ability to pay, so they get smuggled out to Elsweyr. If the legion is withdrawn the Redoran guard is your defense, and your own business practices are stretching them thinner by the day. Orvas Dren was cutting a personal deal with Dagoth Ur. No doubt when you were all reduced to ash slaves he would still have been in charge. Do any of you want to make a deal with Dagoth Ur?" It was not an invitation.

A pall fell over them. They were facing the grim reality of economics. The currency that facilitates trade is not itself the trade. They could trade arms and sugar for the luxury of slaves, or they could trade it for the neccesity of defense. The fact that more gold flowed back and forth in the luxury trade didn't actually make it more valuable.

"So how are we going to get the sugar processed into restoratives?" asked Nevena Oles. "The slaves make the skooma, but they're no alchemists. If we stop trading with Elsweyr we'll be buried in worthless moon sugar."

"Not worthless," I said. "It just needs to be priced so that an alchemist can produce restoratives at a price that the guards can afford. The Mage's Guild can provide all the alchemists required."

"At a fat profit for the Mage's Guild, no doubt," said Dram Bero.

"At a minimal profit, if any. The guild is already sharing the front lines with the Redorans at Maar Gan. We're thinking in terms of survival, not profit. We have been for some time."

"That's true," said my unlikely ally Curio. "They are calling for our Breton friend's head back at the Arcane University in Cyrodiil. Since he killed Trebonius the guild here has done nothing for the mainland. Too busy doing 'local charity work', as they put it."

Eventually the new direction took hold. Restoratives and armaments will be flowing into the breach at Maar Gan. With Hlaalu archers to back up the Redoran warriors the tide may begin to turn.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

57: Big business

House Hlaalu is the house of opportunists. When the Imperial treaty was agreed to by the Tribunal it saved House Redoran, which would have fought to a devastating conclusion, and doomed House Dres; but the Hlaalu seized the day and became the brokers of Imperial commerce. Today dawns a new day.

Before I arrived at the guild hall in Ald-ruhn on my way to Vivec this morning I was cut off by an Argonian agent. "This one brings word from the hunter. Things move quickly. That one is at home in Balmora." I stepped into the hall just long enough to let my stewards know my plans for the day, then went home to gather the armor of Demeter Boyle.

When I slipped invisibly into Hunter Nine-Toes house in Balmora he was pacing. Containing the energies of the lizard folk of Black Marsh within the walls of a house always seems such an effort. He wasted no breath on greetings. "The Hlaalu council meets today. Dram Bero is challenging Velanda Omani for leadership of the council."

My experiences with the Redorans and Telvanni fed a misunderstanding, and I snapped. "Oblivion take these Hlaalu! We can't afford for them to be killing each other now! Dagoth Ur will do a fine job of killing us all as it is!"

Hunter cut me off with a hiss. "There will be no killing Arvil Bren. In House Hlaalu such a challenge is resolved with nothing more than a few blustery threats...and a large exchange of coins."

I should have guessed. "Well, if there is to be a new direction I suppose a new leader is a good thing. And a meeting now is certainly better than a meeting later."

"We assumed you would want to inform them of their new direction yourself, but Dram Bero is expecting you."

Timing is everything. I waited; watching Nine-Toes wear out his carpets. His agents brought a stream of reports through the day. I didn't see any reason to delve into his sources. I also saw no reason to involve myself in the inner workings of their council. Leadership of the council passed to Dram Bero without major opposition. I waited. The seat vacated by the demise of Yngling Half-Troll passed on to Nileno Dorvayn. I waited.

Crassius Curio defended himself against a vaguely considered resolution to 'purify' the council by replacing him with another Dunmer. I listened to the report on this discussion with interest. The wily Cyrodiil had no doubt made the connection between the well known Arvil Bren and the mysterious Demeter Boyle, and did not hesitate to use hints of 'secrets' to his advantage. The time for waiting was over.

I walked into the council hall tensed for battle. After my last visit it would have been foolish to do anything less. Foolish, and an insult to the honor of the council guard. I wasn't sure that my attempt to restore that honor was successful, but I certainly didn't want to assume I had failed. Apparently I had not. A burly Dunmer in the distinctive bonemold armor of a Hlaalu guardsman stepped in front of me.

"The council is in session," he said. There was pride in his voice, almost enough to cover the hint of nervous tension.

"As they should be," I said. I turned the golden visage of my Dwemer metal helm on each of the guards, then turned back to what was apparently their self appointed leader. "Well guarded; also as they should be." I undid a clasp on my chest, and gathered the scabbard of the Foeshocker off of my back. "The new head of the council is expecting me, but it wouldn't be appropriate to appear armed with this." I offered the huge claymore, and Moon and Star pulsed obviously on my hand. "It would not be wise to attempt to draw it from the scabbard," I suggested.

The guard stared at the legendary ring, well known to cause instant death to anyone who wore it other than Nerevar. "I understand, sir. Your weapon, for your hand only. It shall be an honor to hold it for you." I was impressed. There was only the slightest hint of relief in his voice.

I sat in a comfortable chair. "If you would let the council know that I await their pleasure," I said. The guards did not relax. My acceptance of normal protocol did not completely erase their memory of my previous visit. The glossy finish of the new table stood as a stark reminder. To their relief the council page returned immediately to usher me into the chambers.

As I entered the chamber Nileno Dorvayn rose to her feet respectfully, and after a moments hesitation the rest of the council followed suit. Dram Bero was the last to rise, and looked irritated.

"Congratulations on your promotion," I said to the newest council member. "Your fellows think you are overly respectful towards guests." I raised my fist and Moon and Star pulsed brilliantly. Dram Bero's mouth dropped open momentarily; the voice of the ring was smugly satisfied.

"Not just any guest," he said. "Nerevar." Amazement etched his face as well as his voice.

"One of many names, eh Crassius?" I said. The Imperial was speechless. His 'secret', that Arvil Bren lurked beneath the Dwemer mask, had clearly been trumped. "There is business to conclude honored council of the Hlaalu. Shall we sit down?" I removed my helm. Dram Bero was perhaps even more shocked when he saw my face. Initially I pushed my own smug satisfaction at the voice of the ring, but then I began to wonder if it was really my own. The line between what I consider myself and what I think of as 'the voice' is getting less distinct.

The newly formed council of House Hlaalu has accepted the Redoran's choice and confirmed me as Hortator. They will be preparing for war with Red Mountain. I am counting on them to be as successful making decisions that forward the interests of all Dunmer as they have been at forwarding the interests of their house.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

56: A glimmer of hope

When I woke up this morning I really didn't know what I was going to do. The leadership of House Redoran is preparing for war with Red Mountain. Redoran honor can be counted on to hold them on course. The individual mage-lords of House Telvanni cannot be described as honorable, but the ambitions of Aryon and Demnevanni can be counted on just as firmly. Either Gothren will lead lead the Telvanni to war, or they will. But I had seen no sign of leadership in House Hlaalu. I could tell that I was dragging slowly as I dressed and walked into Ald-ruhn. The gathering winds that signaled the coming of yet another ash storm did nothing to lift my spirits, though it did speed my steps somewhat. I should have been more optimistic.

"This one greets you, spymaster," hissed the Argonian as he passed. His voice mixed with the wind, ensuring that no one but me would hear. I continued onward, but did not enter the guild hall. Instead I found an out of the way street and activated my amulet of shadows, then slipped into Gildan's house near the temple. Not surprisingly, the Argonian was waiting for me. Gildan, the local operative of the Blades, bid me welcome and discreetly left the room.

"We bring a message from the hunter," the Argonian said once we were alone. We exchanged a brief flurry of codes, designed to provide authenticity. Agents of the Blades operate very independently, and even though I had taken over the senior position in Vvardenfell from Caius I had certainly never met most of the agents...including this one. Once that was settled he continued. "The hunter would meet you in the plaza of Saint Olms Canton. If he is not there, another will be; one of the people of the root, with red skin, bright green around the eyes." I continued on my way with a lighter step.

As it turns out, Nine-Toes had begun his search for Dram Bero by following me. It amazes me how the Argonian has translated the hunting methods of the marsh into the world of espionage. As he puts it, the best time to find prey is when another predator is striking. While I was inside Yngling manor he was out in the plaza watching; watching to see who else might be watching.

"A well dressed woman, Archmage; Dunmer, look of a noble, but slippery."

"Slippery?"

"Slippery. Like you. Or like this one. She was hard to track. But she went in there."

"You're sure she was watching me?" I asked.

"No. She was watching your prey. She was not upset by his demise, but she gathered the details in your wake very delicately and then slipped away before the Ordinators arrived."

"So who lives there?"

"No one. The mansion is reputed to be haunted. That was the decisive clue."

At that point there was an interruption. Nine-Toes hissed an apology and slipped away. He returned moments later. "The woman has appeared at the High Fane," he said. "She is being followed."

I considered. The woman obviously was reporting to someone, and Dram Bero would certainly be someone who would have an interest in the demise of the Nord. A haunted mansion in the heart of Vivec City would be a good place for the renegade councilman to hide. I left Nine-Toes at the center of his survaillence web and went to the guild headquarters to wait. I spent the day distractedly reviewing reports.

Late in the day there was a disturbance in the guild hall. Nothing serious, but enough that I came out of my office to see what the noise was about. A red Argonian with bright green scales around his eyes was arguing with Malven. She was clearly exasperated, but continued to calmly explain that the guild guides could not transport him to Black Marsh. When I emerged from my office the Argonian gave a subtle nod, then seemed to accept the limitations of the service and left with a profuse apology. I returned to Saint Olms Canton.

"The woman has a network to rival my own," Nine-Toes reported. "There are agents watching all of the Hlaalu council. She checked in with all of them."

"Where is she now?" I asked.

"Back in there," he said, indicating the haunted manor.

"We don't know that she reports to Dram Bero though. She could be a Telvanni agent. Or Redoran, or some other faction." I turned over possibilities.

"The key information comes from what she is not doing," Nine-Toes said. I must give credit, he had left me behind and it no doubt showed on my face. "She has agents watching Velanda Omani, Crassius Curio, and Nevana Oles. She was watching Yngling Half-Troll. She would have Dram Bero under observation also, or she would have a team searching for him."

I got the point. "But she doesn't, because she works for him."

"Yes. He may not be in there, that may be her headquarters, but she should know where he is."

We worked out a plan. Nine-Toes will contact the woman, who we believe is Dram Bero's agent. Orvas Dren was his enemy. It should be possible to convince him that Demeter Boyle would be a friend.

Monday, June 05, 2006

55: Unable to attend

Arranging a meeting of the Hlaalu council is proving more difficult than I expected. Orvas Dren's corruption completely disrupted the function of the council. One member, Dram Bero, who at some point apparently crossed Dren, has dropped completely out of sight. Hopefully Hunter Nine-toes will be able to develop some leads on his whereabouts.

After meeting Nine-toes at his house in Balmora I set out for Suran. Nevena Oles manor is not far out of town. She agreed immediately. Like Velanda Omani she is accustommed to doing what she is told. It is hard to have any confidence in this council. Perhaps if Dram Bero emerges from hiding he could turn out to be a leader.

I ended the day in Vivec City, with another discouraging view of the Hlaalu.

Yngling Half-Troll is a Nord. Crassius Curio, the perverse Imperial, does not provide a great recommendation for awarding council seats to other than Dunmer, but with the realities of the political situation it at least makes sense. A savage Nord, ancient enemy of the Dunmer, makes no sense at all.

Word travels fast. I was met at the door. Yngling manor is on the plaza level of Saint Olms canton and I was glad to be spared the scene, although smashing doors with the Foeshocker is certainly amusing. I was ushered directly into a lavish office. It was hard not to notice that the Nord councilman has no Dunmer on his staff. If I had not noticed the Moon and Star on my finger would have pointed it out. Nerevar was not far removed from the bitter bloody wars with the Nords. The voice of the ring immediately began whispering "Just kill him."

"So, I understand you are arranging a meeting of the House Council," he began.

"Yes. It is time for the council to take responsibility. There are pressing matters that have to be dealt with. War with the forces of Red Mountain is imminent."

"So what? My time is valuable. To attend this meeting my fee is two thousand drakes."

The ring got louder, but I tried to ignore it. "Just who do you think should pay a council member for attending a council meeting?" I asked.

"You, Velanda Omani, tax the people; I don't care. Since I don't really want to attend, I certainly don't care where you get the money...or if you do. I'll profit as well from this war on my own as I would with those spineless creatures. Now, as I said, my time is valuable. If you have anything more to say, set an appointment."

He turned his attention to some documents on his desk. Clearly I had been dismissed. The ring was roaring in my ears. As I rose I reached for the sword on my back. A field of sparkling blue magicka flooded the room, pouring off the hands of a Nord clad in bonemold armor. "No lightning today, Breton," he grated. The Foeshocker slid from the scabbard, but the spellsword's damping field negated the enchantment. He drew his own claymore of Dwemer metal. "Let us see how you are as a swordsman, without your blade's enchantment."

The idea of a 'fair fight' between two hacking brutes armed with huge swords did not really appeal to me, especially since the Nord was as huge as the sword. It also wasn't likely to happen. Half-Troll rose from behind his desk with a dagger gleaming in his hand, and the rest of his staff showed no inclination to stay out of the fight either.

I backed towards a corner of the room. "Councillor, if you are going to hire a spellsword," I began, "you really should see the mage's guild." I waved my hand casually, and the haze of magicka that had taken a solid count of ten to pour out of the Nord disappeared in an instant. "You could have done so much better than this half-witted Nord." Foeshocker erupted in a flash, and I immediately crossed it with the steel longsword of an Orc bearing in from my left. There was a boom of thunder and a sickening stench.

The spellsword and a leather clad Bosmer stopped their advance, looking doubtfully at Half-Troll. "This is ridiculous. Dunmer politics! Great houses! This council is meaningless and I have business to tend. Get someone else!"

"I suppose Dren sold you your council seat," I said.

"Of course! I was negotiating a contract with the temple, and it helped. Well worth the price. The deal is made now, I don't need to be involved in this. Tell this council that I will be unable to attend and they can get someone else."

"That would be satisfactory," I said. I let the tip of the great sword drift slowly down from the ready. "It would be, but for one thing that Dren neglected to tell you. Appointment to a House Council is for life. It is a posting of honor, not convenience." The outraged voice of the ring was in full cry now, and not much I could do to stop it, even if I had been inclined. I drove the desk back with a huge kick of my heavy Dwemer boot, sending the Nord sprawling, then turned on his remaining minions. "Spellsword, in the time it takes you to cast a spell there will be nothing left in this room but me and the stench of burning flesh. Disgusting as you both are I have no quarrel with you. Get out."

"Wait!" wailed the Nord behind the desk, but his cry fell on deaf ears.

"A council seat is an appointment of honor, Nord, and so is their personal guard. You bought your post, and your guards. As you can see, in this, Imperial coin is no substitute for honor."

He hefted to his feet and crouched with the dagger weaving in front of him. "Honor? And you claim to have honor Breton, with your armor and your mighty blade against my dagger?"

I lifted the visor of my helm so he could see my face. "You dare stand on honor with that in your hand? You think I don't recognize the enchantment of a jink-blade?"

"The Archmage?" he stammered.

"Yes. Archmage. Redoran. Hortator. Nerevarine. I am a man of many commitments. I'll pass on your regrets that you will not be keeping yours." The boom of thunder shook the canton as I split him in half.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

54: Independent traders

I decided this morning that there was one more thing to be done as Demeter Boyle. I slid reluctantly into the heavy Dwemer armor, and pulled the visor down over my face. The walk to Balmora has never seemed so long.

The armor served its purpose well. Hlaalu retainers are well known for their ability to appraise value at a glance, and walking into their council hall clad from head to toe in rare artifacts garnered immediate attention. Nileno Dorvayn, the house steward, approached immediately. "Greetings! Are you interested in doing business with House Hlaalu?" Her friendly smile did not extend to her red eyes, and for some reason I thought of slaughterfish.

"I have business with the house. With the council, not their underlings. Call them to meet."

She took a step back, which was probably good. I was already uncomfortably warm from the walk, and I suspect the anger boiling off of her was noticably raising the temperature in her immediate vicinity.

"I don't know who you think you are, outlander," she hissed. "The council has authorized me to handle the business of the house. They are independent traders, and take care of their own business themselves. They don't meet. Whatever business you thought you had was within my purview. The only business you have left is to get out of here."

The guards were tensed, hands on weapons. I did nothing to relax them. Moon and Star pulsed on my finger with a blinding glow as I raised my fist to their leader. "This current council may shirk their duties, but it was not always so. My business with the Hlaalu began long before their corrupt tenure, but it is to be concluded now."

Her eyes were wide as she stared into the depths of the ring. "Nerevar," she gasped. She shifted smoothly to an appeasing tone. "The council really does not meet," she said. "Especially now. Orvas Dren, a high ranking member of the house, was killed at his plantation yesterday. The councillors are...concerned...and they..."

"They are in hiding," I interrupted. "Cowering in their kennels like dogs abandoned by their master. Yes, Dren was a high ranking member of the house. The puppeteer who ran your council through fear and corruption. It sickens me that the noble Hlaalu have fallen so low. It is time for your council to rise up on their hind legs and speak as mer." There was no point in glaring, but I turned the golden visage of my Dwemer helm on each of the guards in turn to let them know they would not be well served to interfere, then drew the Foeshocker. "This is the blade that struck down Orvas Dren. This is the blade that will cut free the outlander corruption from the body of the Velothi." Lightning crackled along the golden metal. "No doubt I can go to them faster than they can rise from their stupors and come to me."

"There are... some of the... the council members... some of them are outlanders..." she stammered.

"I know that," I snapped. "I have met one. A disgusting individual, but he has accepted that being a house councillor is a duty. A duty that he will put before his outlander business. One can only hope the Dunmer born will do the same. Duty and honor shall be served! Those who pillage the heritage of the Velothi are the 'outlanders'..." I cleaved a table with a stroke of lightning, and swept half of it away in a hail of splinters. "They shall not stand."

I turned slowly. "You are guardians of the council chambers of a great house. A duty, and you stand there like outlander statues. Better that you had drawn swords and gone to your ancestors now with honor than later on your knees. I am leaving. You will decide your futures. Either commit to your duties or resign your posts. If you ever allow this chamber to be violated like this again I will slay you myself." I deliberately turned my back and stalked from the room. In the modern house Hlaalu a turned back is a common target, but I counted on my point about honor having been made. It apparently was.

A quick series of teleports and a brief flight put me on Elmas Island, just east of Vivec. The Hlaalu guards at the Omani plantation were no better versed in the honor of their duties than they had been at the council hall. I struck the door from its hinges with a clap of thunder. "Velanda Omani! You are the head of the Hlaalu council! Put aside your own business, your duty has come to you."

To her credit Omani did step forward. My conversation with the nominal head of the council was short. She is accustommed to being told what to do by Orvas Dren, but I believe she will grow into the leader her position requires. She set a date for the first meeting of the Hlaalu council in over a decade. I will be notifying the council members for her myself.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

53: Casting out the outlanders

I was up well before dawn this morning. The two moons of Tamriel bathed the plantation in a soft glow. I stood in the deeply shadowed doorway of the ragged hut I had been assigned. The nagging pull of Moon and Star was quiet. More than quiet. The ring suffused me with satisfaction. The spirit of Nerevar was home in the Ascadian Isles.

The mighty bull netch, prize of Dren's herd, floated in the moonlight. Its great tentacles hung limp, trailing lightly across the ground. The huge beast was famed throughout Vvardenfell; sire to a line of netch known not only for great size, but also for the suppleness of the leather their hides produced. It drifted in its sleep on the gentle breezes, occasional sighs of its vents pushing it away from the walls of its pen. It is unfortunate that such a magnificent creature ended up in the hands of such a foul specimen as Orvas Dren.

A betty netch, brought in to breed with the great bull, was more restless. In the wild, or a free roaming herd, a breeding female would have a number of bulls flocking around her. Being penned with only one suitor was not to her liking. Her owner had paid a hefty fee, and the herders who had brought her in were nearly exhausted by the effort of the trek.

I slipped deeper into the darkness of the hut, where the glow of magicka would be out of sight. The Daedric longbow solidified in my hands. I stepped again to the doorway. The bowstring sung its quiet song and the arrow sped on its deadly course. The brain case of the betty netch, located on the bottom of the gas bag, burst silently. The tentacles gave a single jerking spasm. The lifeless gasbag continued to float, drifting with the breeze. Only when it bumped against the high wall did the herders become alarmed.

They cautiously approached the netch. Certainly no healthy netch would allow itself to be blown against an obstacle, but they had no way to grasp that the beast was dead. Only when a bold herder had grabbed a trailing tentacle and pulled the corpse away from the wall to protect the leather hide did the magnitude of the situation set in. Then the great bull woke up, and instantly sensed the presence of death in its pen.

The overnight shift was not awarded as a prize. The herders were sleepy, but roused to horrified wakefulness. In short order the panic set in. Shouts for their own supervisor and the leader of the visiting herders began to echo off the compound walls. As could be expected the watch captain was drawn to the commotion. I slinked through the shadows to Dren's villa.

Dren's bodyguard sacrificed himself for time. Caught up from sleep by the growing chaos outside he had not donned armor. When the chaos outside entered the villa, personified in my gleaming armored form, he courageously threw himself in my path. He fell to my shortsword, but not in vain. As his red eyes closed for the last time he could see his leader appear at the top of the stair, encased in full Orcish mail, armed and ready.

"You bear the Moon and Star," he said.

"Yes. It is time to unite the houses." The voice was mine, the words were not, although I was in complete agreement.

"Yes, and it shall fall to me to unite them! Seeing Moon and Star on your pale hand disgusts me outlander, but suddenly my destiny is clear. You bring the ring to me! It is I who shall lead my people! I who shall throw off the yoke of the outlanders!"

"Your touch would defile the ring, and the ring would end your life. It is not this body, born of Breton parents, that is the abomination that must be cast out. There is corruption in the outlander empire, and it oozes into Morrowind. You, Orvas Dren, you are the focal point of that corruption. You have twisted Dunmer society, twisted great House Hlaalu, twisted your own brother, all to promote your own interests above those of your people."

Again, the voice was mine, the words were not. I was still in complete agreement, but I wouldn't have put things quite that way. I was pretty sure there was a way that Dren could have been bought off. The spirit of Nerevar would not have it. It was today, at Dren Plantation, that the legend was realized. I am a Breton, but I am a Redoran. Dren is a Dunmer, but he has abandoned the spirit and principles of Vvardenfell. Today Nerevar stood for the Velothi, in the body of a Breton, and cast out the outlanders.

Of course, Dren did not go quietly. I was momentarily dismayed when he seized up an ebony spear and charged. I know well the benefits of the long reaching weapon he held against me. But the significance of the moment would be served well. The legend of Nerevar was not founded on subtlety, but on theatrics. The eyes and ears of the household staff would record the event, and the story would spread.

Deep in Dunmer history lies a mighty sword, the Foeburner. Long before the Dwemer split from their Dunmer cousins the united Velothi stood against invasion from the savage precursors of the Nords. The leader of House Dwemer, the dwarf king, forged the Foeburner in the fires of Red Mountain. The Nords, who swept fearlessly over all opposition, were turned back. Their greatest warriors fell before the blazing blade, and eventually just the presence of the dwarf king and his sword could turn the barbarian hordes into fleeing rabble.

As I swept the great Dwarven claymore from the scabbard on my back Dren laughed. "A replica of Foeburner outlander? Am I supposed to quake with fear? The Foeburner struck terror in the Nords, but it did not serve the Dwemer against the Dunmer. The Nords may be of hardy stock, but fire is an ally of the Dunmer, we do not burn like the outlanders."

"I know. I also know that the real power of Foeburner was the dessicating spell that was woven into the flaming blade that made each stroke more devastating than the last. This sword is not a replica of Foeburner. The threat to the Velothi is now armored in the flesh and dark skin of the Dunmer, like a parasite. Foeburner protected the people, this sword shall cleanse them. This is the Foeshocker." The huge blade smote his ebony spear with a strike of lightning, and thunder boomed.

Again Dren laughed. "Very dramatic outlander, but hardly impressive. A minor jolt, nothing more. But after I spit your pinkskinned husk on my spear I may even use your sword. Against the steel clad legions it might prove useful."

He jabbed with the spear as he spoke, disdaining the sword. Even the great blade could not begin to match his reach. The jagged lightning again struck against the ebony shaft with a boom of thunder. Another jolt that Dren brushed aside with a mocking sneer.

The words had not been mine for a while, but this time it was the very voice of Nerevar that roared from my throat. "Your last chance to repent Dren! Cast off your wealth, shave your head, live among the people as a beggar and shout that Nerevar has returned!"

Of course, Dren had seen nothing that made him even consider taking such a course. Neither had the onlookers. The Foeshocker struck once more. The mesh of magical metallic tendrils that had been growing through the ebony of the spear at every strike had reached its mark in Dren's gauntlets. His flesh exploded in a flash of light and steam, bursting the brittle shell of Orcish plate.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

52: Arrival

Orvas Dren's plantation in the Ascadian Isles region is the largest and most beautiful land grant in all of Vvardenfell. Being the brother of the Duke certainly has its advantages. I approached along the pleasant riverbank, rehearsing in my mind the role I was about to play. The sun rose over the outer wall ahead of me, casting long shadows of Dren's prize netch out to greet me. The giant beasts floated lazily in the morning mists, contained in an area within the compound that they had been trained to stay in by innumerable hours of constant herding. Hours put in by slave herdsmen, whose own living conditions stood far below the level of care that the netch enjoyed.

I left the bank of the river and followed the wall, enjoying its cool shade. My armor, crafted from the metallic shells of Dwemer centurions, brought to mind a custom fitted oven. The huge sword hung on my back took the place of my usual pack, and I shifted the rucksack loaded with a minimum of provisions from hand to hand. I can act the part of a warrior, and I have the papers to show it, but I certainly can't claim to be comfortable at it.

The huge Nord who met me at the west gate seemed comfortable enough. He also seemed more than willing to hack me to pieces with his great axe. My story held together in one piece though, so he opted to leave me intact also, at least long enough for his superior officers to check me out. He sent a passing slave scurrying with a cuff to the ear. "Fetch Manes Othreleth," he growled, "and be quick about it."

Manes Othreleth turned out to be a Dunmer clad in Dwemer armor similar to my own. He looked me up and down with distainful red eyes. He wore no helm. I had my own pushed up onto my head so my face was visible. His roving gaze came to rest there. "What do you want Breton?"

I held my papers out for the second time. "Hard-Hart seems to think this is the best place for my talents to be useful."

"Hard-Hart? This says you come from the Ald-ruhn chapter." He rattled the documents.

"That's where I've been working since I came to Vvardenfell. Mostly guarding mages on expeditions to Dwemer sites. Didn't pay very well, but the salvage was good." I banged the bracer on my forearm against the heavy breastplate of my armor. "Only so much Dwemer plate can be carried around, though, and only so much time can be spent with a bunch of whiny mages. If I wanted to be surrounded by mages I could have stayed home."

"Yes. Bretons are certainly known more as mages than warriors. We aren't really in need of any more guards right now. I don't know why Hard-Hart would have sent you."

"I didn't ask what the job was. Really I was ready to call it quits on the guild. Settle down somewhere. Didn't seem like I was really welcome in Redoran territory though. Hard-Hart suggested that I would do better in Hlaalu territory, and that an assignment with Orvas Dren would be a good way to get familiar."

"Well, a lot of the mercenaries who've come here have ended up joining house Hlaalu, true enough. That doesn't mean that every man in the guild should be dispatched to Dren Plantation though. The guard house isn't all that big. The boss might have a use for you though. Tell you what. You can bunk in the slave quarters until we get this sorted out. Food and a roof." He hollered to some nearby slaves. "Clear out that shack!" He pointed. "Everything! Just haul it all out." He turned back to me. "You'll want to let it air out a bit. We'll get you a clean bedroll from the guardhouse."

Despite Othrelath's claims, the guardhouse seemed huge, and very lavishly appointed. Dren may not put much into providing for his slaves, but he takes good care of his mercenaries. I suppose though that it is easy to play it down, since it sits a short throw away from Dren's own villa, which could serve as the country home of the Duke himself. Othrelath left me in the care of a Breton, also clad in armor of Dwemer metal, though hers was formed to fit a much more shapely figure. He hustled over to the villa, conversing with a Dunmer who had been strolling through the gardens using a great ebony spear as a walking stick.

"Is that the guard commander?" I asked the woman, who had been introduced as Virene Mene.

"The highest commander," she replied. "That's Orvas Dren."

Of course, Orvas Dren had also heard nothing about my 'assignment' to the plantation. I have a very short time before confirmation, actually lack of confirmation, is received from the guild headquarters in Vivec. By morning the career of Demeter Boyle must come to an end. I am past the guards posted at each gate, but the captain roving the compound and the archer on the roof of the guardhouse may present a problem... and there is no telling how many Cammona Tong thugs Dren has in the villa with him.

Monday, May 22, 2006

51: Turn of the tables

Ahnassi and I awoke in our new manor this morning. After a hard day of moving it was a joy, until I looked around at the mountains of crates to be unpacked. I pulled the covers over my head.

"You do not know how to enjoy life Arvil Bren," Ahnassi purred as she deliberately shredded the blankets with her claws. "You have vast wealth and authority, well earned, and the household staff are all wondering why you do not tell them what to do. Their Redoran honor was impugned every time you hauled a crate off of your teleport mark yesterday. If you start opening crates today they will all have to kill themselves in shame."

I peered out through the widening rents in the bedding. "Okay," seemed like all there was to say.

"This one will supervise them, and make sure your things are pleasantly arranged. Do you want all your armors and weapons scattered haphazardly about the hallway as you had them at home?" She continued to slowly slice the blankets into long strips, and I opted not to call her on her sarcasm. There are lessons one learns when their mate has three inch retractable claws.

Her devious mind is as sharp as her claws, and she was happy to help me work out my plans. It distracted her somewhat from the seemingly random rearrangements of our furniture that were keeping the staff and newly hired guards busy. I started out cringing at the seemingly wasted efforts, but by the end of the day I was awed. As she had suggested, their strenuous efforts made the staff feel useful, and by the end of the day her generous nature and a liberal supply of food, drink and gold had developed a clannish loyalty in them that will serve us well.

The sitting room area was her first priority, and it was ready well before our guest arrived. Frelene Acques looked around with an appraising eye as she was led in by a red jacketed servant. "Do not grow too interested, operative," Ahnassi hissed. "You are not here to case the house." I laughed to myself. Ahnassi had bristled at me saying that the Breton was a thief yesterday, but today she herself was addressing her by a guild rank and guarding our possessions against her. Kajiiti, in general, have a hard time acknowledging that anyone else is even capable of truly being a thief, at least in title.

"I wouldn't think of it," the Breton said smoothly, "and I apologize for any other... infringements... I have made in pursuit of my assignment." She turned a demure look my way, and I feared for her life, or at least her eyesight. Ahnassi's claws were peeking through the fur on her fingertips.

I decided to get right to business before things got out of hand. While she may or may not be a skilled thief, it was obvious why the Breton agent had been chosen for the task of infiltrating the fighter's guild. Her bubbling flirtatious nature would turn any man's head, and most would never notice the flickering calculation in the depths of her eyes. I'm sure Mercius never had a chance.

"Your assignment is why you are here today," I said. "You seem to think that a House war between the Redorans and the Hlaalu would serve your purpose."

"Yes," she said. "The Redorans have superior warriors, well respected. Many guild members who are employed by Hlaalu nobles would refuse to side against the Redorans. Not out of fear, but out of respect. They may turn a blind eye to the wrongs of the Hlaalu, but a direct confrontation with the Redorans would illuminate the right and wrong of things too brightly too ignore."

"Good theory, but I doubt it. The fighter's guild operates on loyalty and order. There might be a few who would take the high road, but every time one did it would add greater opportunity for advancement for any other who took the low road. That's how Mercius lost control of the guild in the first place, isn't it?"

"Yes," she agreed with obvious reluctance. "The Nord, Hard-Hart, appealed to the guildmasters on the mainland. He said that Mercius was too selective about assignments and was costing them money. The first thing Hard-Hart did when they stripped Percius of his rank and promoted the Nord to his place was to dispatch Percius to Ald-ruhn, the worst possible posting. Now, since the Ald-ruhn chapter brings in so little income, Percius is effectively silenced."

"So your war wouldn't work," I said.

"Yes it would. Even if you are right, and most of the guild sticks with their Hlaalu masters, the Redorans would win, so the guild would be broken."

I sighed. "So that would be an acceptable result?"

"My job is to break the fighter's guild away from the Cammona Tong. If they are completely broken in the process, that is not my problem."

"But it is mine. Those mercenaries will be needed, as will Redoran's warriors, and even the Hlaalu."

"So you are not going to cooperate?" she said, and turned an appealing look to Ahnassi. Clearly she expected that the needs of the thieves guild would provide her an ally who could influence me as effectively as she herself influenced Mercius.

"I'll get your job done," I said, "but the cooperation needs to come from you." Ahnassi's slitted eyes indicated to the Breton agent that she really had no choice.

I don't know if Ahnassi doubted the operative's word, or her skills, but she accompanied her back to Ald-ruhn. Most likely, she herself acquired whatever materials were needed, and the Breton did the forging. In any event, she returned with the documents I need. Tomorrow I will report to Dren plantation. Not as Arvil Bren, Archmage, but as Demeter Boyle, fighter's guild protector and warrior for hire.

Friday, May 19, 2006

50: Secret agents of a secret brotherhood

I spent the day today with Ahnassi, moving things from Pelagiad to our new manor at Bal Isra. It was an opportunity to explore a nagging question that had risen in the back of my mind yesterday. Ahnassi is tightly connected to the master thieves of Vvardenfell, most notably Habasi in Balmora. Her perspective on Frelene Acques would be invaluable, but tread frighteningly close to a personal fear.

"I met someone who knew my father's fence signs," I said to start the conversation.

She was non-commital, but her tail gave a sudden twitch. "Oh? Someone from the sands of your home?"

"Yes. She was with the guild steward of the fighters guild."

She hissed. "Fighters guild; they are dogs of the Cammona Tong. Their precious charter is supposed to keep them from illegal activities, but it doesn't keep them from working for thugs. Then they contract to 'enforce the law' against us."

"That seemed to be the point she was making to him. I don't think he knows she is a thief."

We were loading things into crates as we talked, and I think she might have been distracted. "She isn't a thief," she said absently.

"You know her?"

Her tail swished furiously. "Arvil Bren, this one does not ask you about mage guild business."

I stopped packing. "No, you don't, but you do hear quite a bit in your own quiet way. I don't worry about it."

"And you don't bring home security plans from your guild halls," she said.

"True. I was a thief. I grew up with thieves. I wouldn't tempt you like that." I grinned.

"Smart," was all she said, but she smiled back.

"I don't ask about your fellows," I said. "Things get stolen from the guild halls. I still don't ask. But this Breton girl is pulling me into her web. I need to know what she is up to."

Another hiss, angry this time, but not at me. "You? You are not part of her assignment!"

The question burst from the back of my mind and was out of my mouth before I could stop it. "Am I your 'assignment'?"

She dropped the ceramic pot she was putting into the crate, and it cracked in half. "No. Khajiit cannot mate that way. That is why we had to get a Breton." She looked at me with a look that filled me with remorse. "We are not just an 'assignment', are we, my Breton?"

It was a very difficult conversation, but we got through it. I'm not absolutely sure what to think, but truth is never a really absolute thing.

Even though it wasn't an intentional plot, Ahnassi being so close to the Archmage certainly benefits her shadowy friends. As the fighters guild became further embroiled with their enemies in the Cammona Tong it isn't surprising that the idea of attaching an agent to an influential member would occur to them.

"But I knew about you from the start," I said.

"Yes. You are open minded. Mercius is not. And you have your own past." So Frelene Acques had to deceive him, at least in part. She may not be an active thief, but the past she is feeding him is at least partly fabrication. Ahnassi got back to packing, but she was clearly still angry about something, and it wasn't me.

"How is our Breton spy 'pulling you into her web'?" she finally asked.

"If she has her way I'll be leading the Redoran's against House Hlaalu," I said.

"House Hlaalu might as well be 'House Cammona Tong', you know that."

"Yes, but we can't afford a house war right now. House Dagoth is enough of a problem. I also really can't afford some voice from my past announcing that the Archmage and the Hortator was raised a thief. That's the direction she's headed."

Her ears laid flat and her eyes narrowed. "We will take care of that," she said. "She is grasping at straws, but you are not a straw she can use."

I could see the problem. The target of her plan had come around, reaching the conclusion that his guild was operating outside the intent of their charter. Unfortunately, all that a guild steward reaching such a conclusion could accomplish is the destruction of his own career. In distant Cyrodiil the highest ranks of the guild welcome squabbles between what they consider 'minor provincial factions', and they are not known for making judgments based on ethics. They side with wealth.

"Actually sweetheart, I think I can be of some use to her. Just not necessarily the way she expects."

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

49: Wheels within wheels

Thieves in the Empire, like thieves anywhere, have always been organized, though calling them a guild is perhaps an overstatement. The Imperial Legions, and other enforcers of the law, will usually scoff at the suggestion, and rightly so. There is not the structure that one finds in a regular guild. The Mage's Guild and the Fighter's Guild are patterned on the traditional crafts guilds, with their system of ranks, while thieves form more of a free flowing brotherhood. In any event, it is very difficult for a thief to operate completely on their own, so some sort of conclave is almost inevitable.

I grew up in just such a conclave. My 'father', who was not really my father, was well respected in the community at large, and even better respected among those who plied their trades in the dark alleys and byways. He owned a small warehouse and appeared to make a small but honest income storing goods for various traders, whocame to our city to supply the local merchants with trade goods and take the local products away to stronger markets. What the community at large did not know was that under the warehouse floor a hidden storage area served much the same function, except that the goods stored there were only being shipped away because they were too recognizable to be sold locally...their rightful owners would no doubt object. Some of those goods my father and a small group of friends would acquire themselves, but most came from a larger group of friends who much preferred a little coin in their pockets to a house full of stolen goods.

This circle of friends expanded slowly, for obvious reasons, and in many cases a new friend would be added to the circle without the convenience of a formal introduction. When someone new arrived in town, having fled the authorities in their former home, they obviously couldn't just ask around to find a business like my father's, and if they knew of him from his reputation in criminal circles they still could not just walk in off the street loaded with stolen goods and expect a friendly reception. A unique language of signals has developed over the ages to manage such obstacles. More like a multitude of local dialects than a language I suppose.

I've not seen fit to pursue the local 'dialect', though I'm sure Ahnassi would be happy to share it with me. Today, I was totally surprised to see the familiar signs of my own native dialect. The surprise came, really, from the confidence with which the signs were given, as well as the specific details. Frelene Acques turned out to be a 'relative' after all, and she knew it. The signals she gave were straight from my childhood. I acknowledged her signs without alerting Percius Mercius. Throughout the interviews and negotiations with my new guards I puzzled about what I had gotten myself mixed up in.

Three things were obvious. The attractive Breton was no warrior, or member of the Fighter's Guild. She had ingratiated herself with the guild steward for some reason that was most likely not what the pompous Cyrodiil believed. Somehow I was now a vital part of her plan, whatever that might be. In an effort to figure out more I invited Mercius to dinner, timing the invitation so that he could neither refuse nor go without the girl. She helped by letting out a delighted squeal at the mention of a dinner out. I sent word with one of my newly hired guards to let my household staff know that Bal Isra would be hosting its first guests.

The dinner was excellent, though I was too distracted to really appreciate it. I listened to everything the girl said, sorting it into broad categories.

There were obvious lies about her past, told for the benefit of her patron. She had apparently presented herself as a legitimate trader from the mainland, caught by the embargo and then infamously stripped of her goods by bandits. It was a good story, and played well with Mercius. A warrior, he sees himself cast as the hero in the damsel's tale. Like most good fabrications it is most likely embellished from some kernal of truth. Most likely she was running black market goods through the embargo.

Another series of half truths had lead Mercius into a very awkward position. The Comonna Tong presents themselves as a society of Dunmer businessmen; a sort of merchants guild that promotes local business. As such they can, and do, contract services from the fighter's guild. The fighters guild charter prevents them from contracting any illegal services, but in doing the legal tasks the mercenaries free the tong's own thugs for their less savory tasks. Very lucrative, and as long as the guild doesn't find out too much about their client's activities a fine relationship. In the course of investigating Frelene's losses Mercius has learned too much about the Tong, and nothing much about her.

Frelene's arrest by the Hlaalu was the final touch. Mercius was left with no way to avoid the truth of the connections between the 'innocent' Dunmer businessmen, the thugs of the Cammona Tong, and the leadership of House Hlaalu. There was no way he could avoid recognizing the truth, but also no way for him to prove it. The clever Breton thief was treading a very fine line. A search for solid evidence could easily reveal sordid truths about her that would sidetrack her intentions.

Laced through this background of the deception of Mercius were a number of points made for my benefit. These were harder to assess, as far as truthfulness, but their intent was clear. As Redoran Hortator and Archmage I have significant influence. Frelene is maneuvering to have that influence brought to bear against the tong. She is willing to draw heavily on our connected past to accomplish her aims. Her methods have fallen short of outright blackmail, so far, but I have to wonder how far she will go.

Friday, May 12, 2006

48: The ordinary day

My arrival in Vivec this morning was quiet, but obvious. I enjoyed the brisk walk from Pelagiad, pausing briefly to laugh with a passing netch herder. It was good to know that for some there is still a normalcy to their days. As I left her, and the herd of great gas filled beasts who floated gently on the morning breezes, my smile faded. I live constantly in the shadow of the pending war; the war that must be won in order for her normal life, and untold others, to continue. So I crossed the bridge to the Canton with a renewed sense of commitment, but no particular direction.

It was important to be noticed, so I paused on the seemingly endless climb up the ramps of the foreign quarter to swap gossip with an Ordinator. It was not much of a trade. I gave him a vague 'outsider's view' of the turmoil in Telvanni territory, filled with 'as I heard it' and 'from what I saw' disclaimers. In return he gave me a description of the escaped prisoner. I was appropriately shocked.

"Escaped?" I exclaimed. "I had heard her name, and was thinking she could be a distant relation. I wonder if my steward had a chance to check on that for me."

"She did," I was told. My source paused, recognizing that he was slipping beyond common gossip and divulging information about an investigation. My former services to the Ordinators no doubt stood me in good stead. "Just between us Archmage, Malven was the last person to visit the prisoner, and initially there were some questions about that raised."

"Really?"

"Yes. But the guard who was on duty at the time is sure that nothing was passed to the prisoner, and didn't think the conversation went particularly well for the prisoner either."

"Malven had some simple tests. Not likely that we are related, and if not it would have been a short interview."

"That would be it then. Apparently she was only there for a few minutes."

"You said there were questions. Is Malven a suspect?"

"No. Like I said, the guard on duty was very sure."

"But, he would never want to admit that she might have slipped the prisoner a lockpick or something, so I don't know if that really means anything..."

"True enough. But there was a thorough search on the next shift as well. There were questions at first, but Malven has been cleared. No lockpick, by the way, she teleported out of the cell."

"Teleported? I thought that all prison cells were enchanted to drain magicka?"

"They are. Most likely someone slipped a magicka restorative into her food."

"Ah." I paused. "I'll have our records checked. See if any of our alchemists has sold such a potion in the last few days. Maybe they would remember something unusual about the buyer. You might suggest to whoever is in charge of the investigation that they could check with me about that."

"Good idea, Archmage."

I grinned. "I'm sure they would think of that themselves, but it never hurts to have a suggestion." It's hard to guess a facial expression behind the stiff Ordinator mask, but his eyes were smiling. I continued on to my office.

Just a typical day in the office. I gave Craetia a heads up that the Ordinators may be inquiring, and she set about auditing the alchemy records. I reviewed the summaries of financial and training records from the guild halls, and sent off brief comments to the stewards. Mostly just encouragement, though profits are slipping again in Ald-ruhn. Edwinna sometimes gets too wrapped up in her research and needs to be prodded, gently.

Word went out quickly through the guild guides that I was in the headquarters, and by noon a stream of reports marked 'personal attention' was flowing onto my desk. I do not spend many full days in the office, but when I have the chance I encourage as much direct correspondence from the membership as possible. It is a very 'informal' system, which works for everyone. I might make a couple of margin notes, and usually write 'thanks' at the bottom of the messages, then they are resealed and returned. Knowing their note will not be filed somewhere seems to make people more comfortable about sharing their opinions. From the multitude of brief notes I can get a sense of the halls that I might not get passing through. As in any organization, hardly anyone is completely satisfied, but I get to hear things before anyone is seriously upset.

In the afternoon I met with Skink. Not surprisingly, the notes from those assigned to Telvanni territory conveyed a lot of concern. What I had not realized though, and passed on to Skink, is that in the lower ranks of the guild the upheaval in the Telvanni council is heightening the usual anxieties. Fore-warned is fore-armed, and he will be letting his people know that there is every reason to believe the changes will improve the guild's relationship with the Telvanni. Obviously he won't be going into great detail, but it will reduce the strain. For his part, Skink brought me up to date on progress in the council. Baladas, Aryon, and Neloth compromise a majority, and they have started easing the Telvanni into preparation for war. They have suggested that a visit to Therana will be in order soon, but it is not called for yet.

Late in the day the message I was waiting for came from Ald-ruhn:

Initial payment on your mercenary contract has been received. Prospects will be available for interview in the Ald-ruhn hall during normal business hours. Thank you for choosing the fighter's guild.

Yours,
Percius Mercius

Sometimes things work out.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

47: Most delicate business

Conditions are vastly improved in the headquarters of the guild. Malven has kept her word, and the staff in Vivec is on par with any hall in the land. They have new apprentices, and the diverse skills of the journeymen are up to almost any challenge. It may not have been necessary to enlist the aid of Malven herself today, but it was a comfort. Diplomacy and duplicity; how they go hand in hand!

I thought long and hard about Frelene Acques last night. Getting her free from the clutches of House Hlaalu seems simple enough. As the Archmage I have enough political pull to be allowed to visit my fellow Breton, and could simply toss her an intervention scroll so she could teleport to freedom...which would of course make me instantly notorious. Even if I could slip it to her somehow, it isn't like a visit from the Archmage shortly before an escape would not raise a question. Killing everyone in the Hlaalu treasury, though perhaps possible, would certainly be extreme. In the dark hour before dawn it seemed as good an idea as any. When the sun rose it was clear that I would need help.

As steward of the Vivec hall Malven doesn't have as much political capital to spend as I have, but being Dunmer herself does help. It was not too hard for her to get a visit scheduled. She also had the advantage of reporting to supervision; any questions she didn't want to answer she could defer until she could speak to me, and she could portray her errand as a minor inconvenience she had been assigned rather than a task of any import or interest. She appeared to be bored, the guard seemed bored, the prisoner was certainly bored; not likely that this exchange would leap to mind when Frelene turns up missing.

"The Archmage is curious about your family, prisoner," Malven said blandly once she had gotten through the clutter of formalities and assorted doors that isolated the cells from the rest of the world.

"Why is that?" was the surly response.

"He is a Breton also. Apparently your surname is shared with a distant branch of his own family."

"Well, big deal. Why isn't he here then?"

I was, actually. After slipping invisibly through the doors on Malven's heels I had taken a shadowed position against a pillar and was listening closely to every word.

"The Archmage is away on business, as is frequently the case. He has given me a list of the better known members of that branch of his family. If you would give me the names of your own relatives I can check to see if there are any in common. If so I will let him know. There doesn't seem to be any rush; you don't appear to be going anywhere."

They had certainly not made friends, and the encounter at the bars passed quickly and fruitlessly. Malven returned to the guild, and the prisoner sat disconsolate on her bunk. It was clear to her, and more importantly to the guard, that no help could be expected from the mage's guild. I let the routine grind on to dull their expectations even further, and waited.

In the afternoon the guard changed. The oncoming guard peered briefly into the two occupied cells, then settled into a chair. The tired guard, with a sigh of relief, pushed the keys across the table and stood to leave. I watched the keys. The distant click of a closing door signaled the completion of the change. The new guard stared at his boots stretched out before him. Again I waited.

I don't think he went to sleep. Ordinators are a little too dedicated for that. But the quiet, stuffy room still took a toll on his alertness. With a wispered command I activated the enchantment in my glove. A trick learned from my adopted father, who called it his 'five fingered glove of discounts', the telekenetic spell allowed me to gently lift the keys, pass them behind the somnolent guard, and drop them into my other hand; all from the safe shadow of the pillar. I quietly opened the furthest cell, slipped inside, and locked the door.

It wasn't too long after that the afternoon meal arrived, and the missing keys were suddenly noted. A search of the floor, incredulous pawing at the table; the boredom disappeared like a mist at mid day. The two prisoners even roused themselves to stare through their respective barred doors. In short order a duplicate key was brought in, and they and their meager belongings had been hauled out and meticulously examined. Before anyone could think that the empty cells should be opened as well, the lost keys were found on the floor, lodged against a chair leg.

After some agitated complaints about false alarms things settled somewhat. The prisoners returned to the idle lounging that is their lot, and the guard returned to the endless battle for alertness that is his. He did, however, have the keys firmly attached to a belt on his armor. Likely no one will ever understand the mystery of the wandering keys, but hopefully they will remember that Frelene Acques and her cell were searched sometime between Malven's visit and the escape.

Frelene will no doubt use the scroll that mysteriously floated into her cell tonight, once all is quiet in the courtyard of the High Fane, the temple here in Vivec. At that point she is on her own. I did my part.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Not dead

Talking about me, not Arvil...though he isn't dead either.

Once again I've written Arvil into a bit of a corner, and coincidentally had visits from my brother and my girlfriend's parents in my own world to manage. The visits are over, and didn't stop production while they were on, but they were a distraction.

I'm moving some computers around today, which should make things better for Arvil in the long term. Once that is done I should be able to get this week's three episodes written late tonight or tomorrow, so other than today they should publish on time.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

46: For hire

Yesterday was a long day, and the sleepless night before may have taken a toll. I woke up in a foul humor, and it did not get any better. Ahnassi was no help. I guess I have kept her waiting too long. She is far more anxious to move than I am. Rather than fight about it I set off for Ald-ruhn to check on progress at Bal Isra.

Galsa Gindu, the Redoran architect, greeted me warmly and we set off across the ashlands to my new manor. The ashlands stretching to the horizon normally give me a sense of unfettered freedom. The nomadic existence of the Ashlanders seems ideal. The construction of the manor is a perfect fit, aesthetically, but in the vastness it seems far too fragile. I think Galsa could see my discomfort, perhaps because she has already been working on a solution. She and Athyn Sarethi, head of the council, have been assembling a staff to manage the estate. She also has designed appropriate fortifications, but there is a problem. With all the trouble in Mar Gaan the Redoran Guard is short handed, and fortification without guards to man the walls is a waste.

We discussed options on the return to Ald-ruhn, and by the time we reached the thick city walls I was decided. Galsa would get construction started on the walls, and I would approach the fighter's guild to supplement the guards. I thought that my position as the local head of an Imperial guild would help me in negotiating with them. Unfortunately I forgot that the empire runs almost exclusively on exchanged favors. Percius Mercius, the Cyrodiil steward of the Ald-ruhn guild hall did not forget, and was measuring my potential uses as soon as he laid eyes on me.

"Certainly I would be happy to help a fellow outlander," he said with that ingratiating tone that Cyrodiils are so adept with. "In fact I have a couple very good prospects for you. They are looking to settle. As I'm sure you know the life of a guild member can be a bit transient."

I considered my travels during my journeyman days and could certainly sympathize. "That sounds perfect," I said, setting myself up for the kill.

"I thought so," he said, "but there is a complication." I should have guessed. "I had them in mind for an assignment that may require them to leave Vvardenfell." Natives of Cyrodiil have been at the center of Imperial intrigue for so many generations that even Cyrodiil peasants can lie with no outward sign. Looking back I would guess this was a perfect example.

"A mission to the mainland?" I asked.

"No. Just that it would likely cause such...repercussions...that they would have to leave. I only considered them for the task since they are ready to leave the guild, since it is imperative that the fighter's guild not be associated with this task."

I could feel the jaws of the trap closing, but somehow he had stirred my curiousity. The fighter's guild are mercenaries for hire. Almost any action they might take would be the responsibility of whoever hired them. "What do you have them doing?"

"I haven't assigned them yet. It isn't actually a guild job, and it could offend one of our best local clients. If they do it I will pay them myself and they will be transferring back to Cyrodiil." I could have reminded him of the embargo, which might have unspun the web of half truth he was spinning, but I missed the opportunity. "It is a simple task though, and, come to think of it as a Breton perhaps you could do it."

"I thought I made clear that I want to hire Dunmer," I said.

"Yes, you did. The men I have in mind are Dunmer. That's why they would be hard pressed to do the job without problems. Frelene Acques is a Breton; you are a Breton; it could all work out."

"Who is Frelene Acques?"

"She is a friend, and she is in trouble with house Hlaalu." House Hlaalu; so that was the client that Percius was concerned about offending. "As a fellow Breton you could visit her without raising questions."

"Visit her?"

"They have her imprisoned in Vivec City."

"Visiting her does not seem to be much of a task."

"That's just to get the layout. I need her broken out. Quickly."

How I ended up agreeing to this mad scheme still puzzles me. There is no way that the fighters guild steward in Ald-ruhn was considering sending a band of Dunmer mercenaries to assault the Hlaalu treasury, which is where they hold prisoners. Mercenaries. I should have been able to simply pay them. Cyrodiils!

Monday, May 01, 2006

45: Fly on the wall

I have now seen the operation of the Telvanni council from a closer perspective than any outsider could have ever expected. It is amazing how efficiently they responded once the stakes were high enough, since it seemed they were organized specifically to get nothing done. I spent the day tagging along, and keeping out of the way. I'm sure the majority of Telvanni would wonder that the Archmage should be allowed so close to the process, but I clearly have allies now.

The day started when I was awakened by the tremendous commotion in the hall outside my room. I opened the door to find guards, who had obviously been on watch keeping an eye on my door, in animated conversation with another breathless guard who had obviously raced to be first to tell them the news. Probably raced to be first to tell anyone the news. I'm sure the scene outside my door was being played all over Tel Vos.

"Dead; her and a bunch of her retainers. The main tower was a bloodbath." That was the first thing I heard.

"Unbelievable!" another guard answered. "A magelord! A member of the council! Killed in her own tower? Can't be. Who would do such a thing?" The questioner turned eyes to me, standing in the doorway in a sleeping robe. "The Archmage of the guild seems to be trying to get on the good side of the council, and the great houses have been at peace. More at peace than usual anyway."

The breathless bearer of the bad news had regained their wind, and wanted to regain the attention. "One of the Tel Mora guards saw a Dark Brotherhood assassin fly from the high tower balcony."

The rest pounced avidly on this new detail. "Dark Brotherhood!"

"Terrible business!"

"They have no honor! Must be House Hlaalu behind it!"

I risked intruding a question. "What happened?" Our source gleefully restarted his report as the crowd fell to listening a second time, no doubt hoping to seize on some fresh tidbit.

"Mistress Dratha, in Tel Mora, has been killed! Paralyzed and hacked to pieces, along with many of her favorites."

"Paralyzed?" came a voice from the crowd. Apparently that had not been included in the first accounting.

"Yes, paralyzed. The guards who found her could tell by the way she fell. The Dark Brotherhood do use jinkblades, you know, with paralysis spells enchanted into them," the source confided, as if he had some secret knowledge of the assassin's guild.

I listened for a bit, but could see there were no real details coming. The guard who had raced up the tower had very little information, and was holding forth on the same points in order to stay at the focus of attention. I retreated quickly to my room and got dressed for the day.

In Aryon's chamber a somewhat more disheveled guard was giving a similar report, though hers was more of a first hand account. She had been dispatched from nearby Tel Mora with the news, and had no doubt touched off the wildfire of rumors as soon as her feet touched the dock. The only significant detail that she had to add to the story was that the speculation about paralysis did not come from some obscure analysis of the position of the fallen bodies, but from an enchanted shortsword left buried to the hilt in the chest of one of Dratha's retainers.

Her description of a flexible but unbreakably hardened, thin and springy blade was unmistakable, but unrecognized by many of those present. "Adamantium," I suggested quietly.

"Quite possible," said Turedus Talanian, the Cyrodiilian captain of Aryon's guard. "It's rare, but not really that hard to find on the mainland. Hardly ever see any on Vvardenfell though. Any other weapons left behind?" he asked.

"A dart. Ebony," came the answer.

"Practically a trademark of the Dark Brotherhood," said the captain. "I'd say there's little doubt Master Aryon. Someone hired the Dark Brotherhood to kill at least one council member. I put out an immediate order to tighten security, and I'm going to tighten it even further. The brothers of darkness are not to be trifled with."

"Tighten security as you wish," said Aryon, "but tighten it at the docks as well, and ready my ship. We must sail for Sadrith Mora."

I might have showed surprise if anyone had been paying attention to me. There are offices for all of the council members in the capital, but for them to actually be found there is unheard of. It was the first sign of the hectic day ahead. I accepted Aryon's offer and rode with him to Sadrith Mora, which was buzzing with activity by the time we arrived. The discussions were all carried out by the mouths, and I'm sure that the council members did very little actual meeting, but by being close by the mouths could get their responses much more quickly than usual.

By the time the madwoman Therana had arrived from her more distant stronghold the mouths had concluded discussion, and shortly after she swept into the council building Baladas was approved to fill the vacant seat. Rumors ran rampant that he had hired outlander assassins to create that vacancy, but among the Telvanni such suspicions were mostly well regarded.

Certainly no one seemed inclined to condemn him for it if it was indeed true. In fact the alacrity with which the remaining council members approved him was taken as an indication that it was true, and that none of them wanted to be seen as impeding his progress. Personally, I suspect that explains why Dratha's mouth made a hasty exit rather than pressing a possible claim to her seat.

Late in the evening, as I was having a final conference with Skink at the guild hall, checking preparations to respond to any turmoil the situation might cause, a visitor arrived. "Begging your pardon, Archmage," Turedus Talanian said as he entered. " I know the hour is late, but I was hoping to catch you before you left the city."

"And you have," I replied. "What can I do for you?"

"Well, being from the Imperial province the council has tasked me with investigating the Dark Brotherhood's involvement in Telvanni affairs. And much to my surprise they resolved to ask your guild for help as well."

"Is that so?" I asked, surprised myself. "And you said 'Telvanni affairs'?"

"A slip of the tongue. There is an...assumption...that Baladas hired them, which is unspoken and which I don't really believe anyone wants to see proven. Baladas will be a much better council member than the man hater was."

Clearly Aryon's man would not be putting much effort into finding the truth, and obviously I wouldn't either, but we would both use our contacts on the mainland to produce as many plausible but incorrect explanations as possible. No one will ever prove that Baladas hired the Dark Brotherhood, since he didn't, and Aryon had seen to it that the two main arms of investigation were safe from accidentally stumbling onto the truth, since we both knew it.

"This is a gift from Aryon," Turedus said, handing me a tightly wrapped bundle, "for your help in this matter as well as your support of his museum. It is good to see peaceful relationships blossom between our house and your guild."

I waited until I got home to open the package. It was my own armor, which Turedas had carried aboard the ship in case someone with a stray suspicion had searched my belongings. I hung the black chainmail carefully, back in the secret portion of my closet where it can hopefully remain.

Friday, April 28, 2006

44: Concluding business

Ahnassi is very much amused with my comings and goings, but she is looking forward to leaving the house in Pelagiad. I've received word that the manor section is complete at Bal Isra, but I'd like to get a barracks built and staffed with guards before I move her there. In the meantime she is happy that my current adventures have allowed for me to be home nights, at least the last couple. Today I traveled openly again to Telvanni territory, so I'll be staying here overnight in Tel Vos. The guest quarters Aryon has provided are unique, to say the least. It is interesting being on the inside of Telvanni intrigues.

I arrived in Sadrith Mora and filed my papers for my trip to Vos. As I was carrying the priceless books that the guild is donating to Aryon's museum it made perfect sense that I should have an escort, but I think the guard captain was somewhat surprised when I accepted readily. I was pleased to see the burly Gilvath again, and used the time hiking through the grazelands to befriend the rest of the contingent. Having Gilvath's account of the hunt for Calvario got me off on the right foot, despite the inherent distrust they have for the guild.

Neloth made sure I would be well guarded for more than one reason, and when all the ceremonies were complete I was shown to this room and the guards settled their schedule for watching my door. Between Aryon's regular garrison and the escorts from Sadrith Mora there will be no doubt that the visiting Archmage slept securely through the night.

Once the great tower had settled down somewhat the bookcase swung silently inward. Aryon floated into the room and settled to the floor. "Take careful note of the outer latch Archmage. This wall faces away from any watchtowers, but you will still not want to be hanging there searching for it."

"No problem Aryon," I replied. "I have more than enough chameleon magic. Even if someone looks up they won't notice me."

He swung the secret access shut. "Just make sure no one is looking when the portal in the side of the tower pops open." He pressed on a series of decorations carved into the edge of the bottom shelf, and the panel opened a small slit along the bottom. "You can look through here to make sure no one is observing, then press here to open the door."

"Perfect. I won't be seen. Not here at least."

He glanced at the blackened chain mesh of the Dark Brotherhood armor laid out on the bed. "Scum, all of them."

"Yes," I said. "They lack the honor of the Morag Tong, but the rules of the Tong would prevent Baladas from hiring them for the task."

"They have not been active in Vvardenfell for some time."

"No," I replied. "Their base in Mournhold encountered...problems, from what I understand. But no one believes that the Night Mother has gone out of business completely."

"A Telvanni councilor would present a most challenging target for the Dark Brotherhood, or the Morag Tong for that matter."

"They would certainly send their best," I agreed. "Let us hope they are good enough."

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

43: Clandestine meeting

I was awakened before dawn by the hiss of an Argonian. "Archmage, we bring you a message from Baladas Demnevanni," said Skink-in-trees-shade as soon as I was fully awake. "I have been following his progress and checking in with him at his rooms." There was tremendous modesty in that statement. Skink is my guild steward in Sadrith Mora. Like all the lizard-men of Argonia he is blindingly fast, and he is a master of illusion magic, but to slip around the Telvanni capital undetected is an incredible feat. Even their lowest retainers are no strangers to spellcraft.

"How is he doing?"

"The council is deadlocked, as expected. Actually much more quickly than expected. The mouths returned from their masters without delay."

"That doesn't sound like Gothren," I mused.

Skink let out the dry hiss that passes for laughter from an Argonian. "Well, his answer was 'I don't know', so it is not really out of character. Baladas got the full range of responses. Aryon is in favor of giving him a seat on the council, of course, and Dratha is opposed. Therana said she would not support him, but did not say no outright. Master Neloth has no opposition, but withheld an outright yes. Of course, Gothren is right in the middle, and another undecided issue goes into the record."

"I suppose we are fortunate that they don't ever get anything done."

"Yes. This one has been the subject of a possible arrest order for seventeen years, but they have never reached a consensus." Again the dry hiss. I had to admire Skink's cool. Seventeen years with the unpredictable Telvanni considering his arrest and only the useless Archmage Trebonius at his back, and his steady hand had never wavered on the helm of the most dangerous posting in the guild. I suppose my expression revealed my thoughts, or perhaps their almost 'collective' consciousness gives the Argonians more insight into the minds around them. "We are glad you came along before they made a decision Archmage."

"Me too, Skink. It would be hard to hold Sadrith Mora without you." I continued quickly past the slightly embarrassing moment of mutual admiration. "What does Baladas have to say?"

"He requests your presence in Sadrith Mora. He will be meeting with Neloth. He has arranged a signal with us, and would like you to join that meeting once he has prepared the master of Tel Naga. Neloth is the elder of the council. If Baladas can gain his active support it should sway the madwoman Therana." The reptilian eyes narrowed to slits. "Archmage, Dratha will never withdraw her opposition, and Baladas has not told us of any plans for dealing with her. It makes us wonder if he is really trying to join the council, or merely acting as their agent in some plot."

I knew Baladas' plan for Dratha, but I asked anyway, "What sort of plot are you worried about Skink?"

"Archmage, it may be dangerous walking into Tel Naga, even for you. Baladas may be maneuvering you into a trap."

I considered Skink's concern as I loitered around the guild hall in Sadrith Mora. On the one hand, the self interest of Baladas and his desire for a council seat fit nicely, as did Aryon's angling for the council chair, and they both seemed to take the threat from Red Mountain very seriously. On the other, they are Telvanni, and I am the Archmage of Vvardenfell. A plot against me was certainly a possibility. When the signal came I slipped into Tel Naga with every nerve ending screamingly alert.

If it is a plot against me, today was not the day to spring the trap. Neloth was cordial, in a slightly condescending way that suited his years. It was obvious that Baladas had been slightly out maneuvered. I'm sure he had intended to have at least a moment in private to brief me on where things stood with the elder, but he was still in Neloth's study when I was ushered in. The look he gave me held only half his usual confidence, and conveyed no useful information. "Welcome to my home," said Neloth. "I understand you know my other guest?"

"Yes," I said, guessing wildly at how much Baladas had revealed about how well we knew each other. "I had the benefit of his scholarship when I was confronting the mystery of the Dwemer."

Neloth raised an eyebrow, inviting me to add any more details, but I declined, turning to more current issues; issues that could be considered mine alone if Baladas had not mentioned them beforehand and would not reveal my own part in Aryon's scheme. "The mystery of the Dwemer has led me to confront the current situation with Red Mountain. That is why I am here."

"You want a Telvanni council that will support you in your confrontation with this situation, which is why young Baladas has brought you to me. He has you convinced that a council with him on it would serve you better than it does without." I could tell from Baladas' expression that he had been read much more openly by Neloth than he had thought. For my part I was trying to get my mind around the idea of referring to Baladas as 'young'. "So tell me Breton, what do you think of this Red Mountain situation?"

"I think that if we in Vvardenfell do not all put our differences aside and stand against Dagoth Ur we are all lost, and I've committed the guild here to that course."

"Dagoth Ur?" The ancient wizard considered for a moment, then abruptly changed tacks. "What of your Imperial masters Archmage? How do they stand on you throwing in your lot with the locals?"

"They don't," I said honestly. "I have not openly broken with them. They do not know the situation, so they have not taken a position, so I have not yet had to defy them. If and when that time comes I shall not hesitate, but I hope they will see the necessity of my position. In the long run they may consider it safe to abandon Vvardenfell, counting on the sea as the Tribunal has counted on the ghostfence, but I will try to convince them otherwise. If I cannot then the mages of Vvardenfell will act independently.

"Upstarts. You, the council in Cyrodiil, your Breton wizards; all upstarts, really. The Telvanni are the true 'mages of Vvardenfell', but I shall let that pass." He smiled graciously. "You at least have the good sense to have Dunmer among your lieutenants and advisors. Ranis Athrys going over to the guild seemed such a waste at the time, but a few centuries does change ones perspective."

"She has been invaluable to the guild, and to me personally."

"No doubt. The adroit elimination of Trebonius had her mark all over it. Not that you are not clever yourself," he added with another smile. "It is a serious question, who is using who?" He looked back and forth, from Baladas to me. "What is it you need from the council of the Telvanni, Arvil Bren? What promise has Baladas extended you? For him to get a seat on the council is going to require extraordinary measures. You are not going to be part of that without something extraordinary in return."

"I have not promised him anything that I don't believe is necessary for the safety of our house anyway Master Neloth," said Baladas.

"The safety of our house?"

"Dagoth Ur will not spare the Telvanni," I offered, and Baladas nodded agreement.

Neloth shook his head briefly, with his eyes shut, then smiled. "Baladas, our Breton friend here may be overcome by the shadows that haunt Red Mountain. Like most mortal men he thinks, naturally, that all events will come to fruition during that pitiful blink that he calls a lifetime. But you, you are Dunmer. You know Dagoth Ur is buried millennia in the past. Whatever stirrings have beset us from Red Mountain are, in the real scope of things, inconsequential."

"I must disagree Master Neloth," Baladas said quietly. "I have settled in Redoran territory, where Telvanni magick does not stand against the mountain. The Ashlands are sorely pressed by the blight, and the threat from the mountain is not inconsequential. I would have agreed that Dagoth Ur himself was not at the center of it, had the Redorans not called Arvil Bren Hortator, but they have."

Neloth laughed outright. "And because the honorable warriors of House Redoran named a spear toting wizard Hortator you think Dagoth Ur is stirring, and we should call him Hortator as well? You think the Redorans are qualified to recognize Dagoth Ur? Perhaps they would, if he marched his ash vampires through the streets of Ald-ruhn."

"The Redorans didn't recognize Dagoth Ur, Master Neloth. They recognized me." I drew my hand from my pouch and raised my clenched fist. Moon and Star bathed the room in other worldly light. Neloth's red eyes flew wide. "The Telvanni council will call me Hortator," continued the voice I hardly knew was my own. "I need your power on that council this time Neloth. This time you are not too young."

"Nerevar," he gasped. I dropped Moon and Star into my pouch. We stood silently for a long time. "The return of Nerevar is the proof. Dagoth Ur is indeed stirring beneath the mountain." He looked at me with shock completely etching his lined face. "An outlander." He turned. "You are wise enough to be on the council Baladas. Had you told me Nerevar came to you as an outlander I'd have burned you to a cinder."

"It is a shock, Master, but once the shock has passed the need is clear. We must have a council that will call him Hortator. There are reasons that I want to be on the council, but this is the reason that I must be."

"Dratha will never submit," said Neloth.

"Then Dratha must die," Baladas said.

"Yes. I suppose it is time," Neloth said with a trace of sadness.

I returned with Baladas to his rooms at the council hall, walking invisibly at his side and ducking quickly through the doors that he opened.

"He actually knew Nerevar," I said in awe.

"Yes," Baladas replied simply.

"Breton master wizards live a long time," I said.

"Harnessing magicka prolongs their flesh," he said. "You are no apprentice. You know that. It works the same way for us."

"But you live so long already!" It made sense. A normal lifespan of a hundred years could extend to nearly a millennium. The Dunmer could quite naturally live a millennium, or close to it. "How long does a Telvanni magelord live, Baladas?" I asked.

He shrugged. "Until someone kills them I suppose," he said. "I don't recall any dying otherwise."