43: Clandestine meeting
"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."