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Of Moon-and-Star

Chapter Text

A prison ship bound for Vvardenfell hastened toward its destination like a slave fleeing the whips of its master. Halberds of lightning hurled against the choppy, precipitous waves of a stormwrought sea. Some said that such violent storms were born of the breath of Padomay himself, while other tales professed that natural disasters were a byproduct of the Prince of Destruction dancing somewhere in the Deadlands. A thick bevy of storm clouds, lofty and oppressively dark, parted to reveal nebulous indications of Morrowind’s curiously aberrant landscape on the horizon. The curious storm left as quickly as it came about, its dark obscurity dispelled when land and sea alike were bathed by radial beams of morning light. From this distance, one might find themselves hard-pressed to tell that the shadow of a numinous war lay upon it--a war that is beginning to take the shape of an ancient and recognizable threat.

A soft, fretful murmur to which none were privy, save the Queen of the Night Sky herself, pierced the dying storm: “What a horrible night to have a curse.”

For the time being, the mer responsible for this utterance was blissfully unaware of the pivotal role he was about to play in the nation's history; nor was he completely aware of the role he'd already played in the nation's history--history, an ill-tempered thing that was wont to drone on for hours, which measured thereafter into centuries, and then entire eras. Perhaps most unsettling of all was the nasty penchant it had of repeating itself.

A cacophony of visions erupted behind closed lids of faces, places tinctured by echoes of ancient cries and records of tears unnumbered etched into his memories, and lurking beneath it all, love. Sensation and emotion came first, flooding his heart like an unchecked torrent, whereupon they lingered without context until the memories to which they were attached finally began stir, making themselves known to him by assuming an incohesive sequence like pieces of a puzzle. Once enough of them appeared, Neht usually had no difficulty assembling them. The difficulty lay in uniting these incoherent, near-palpable little pieces and divining their relationship with the present.

From somewhere behind the light a woman's voice, soft and maternal, spoke to him in twilit whispers while the faint sillage of roses furnished him with a sense of comfort, offering momentary respite from the pain of the past.

"They have taken you from the Imperial City's prison--first by carriage, and now by boat--to the east; to Morrowind. Fear not, for I am watchful. You have been marked, and now is the hour for you to come once more to your own."

Beneath the tenuous safety of wooden decks, the figure of a robust mer sprawled out upon a rough wooden floor emerged from a daze at the urging of a fellow prisoner, returning to reality as if he’d been drawn from the waters of Oblivion itself. His doleful, heavy lids fluttered and he opened his eyes. The queasiness that had long plagued him throughout the voyage began to subside as the vessel docked. Having conquered the storm, seams of daylight shone through the precarious array of planks that made up the ship’s lower deck, casting arbitrary pools of light against various surfaces.

"Wake up. We're here! Why’re you shaking? Are you okay? Wake up!"

Needless to say, the groggy prisoner didn't quite meet the criteria for being "okay." He bristled at the speaker’s touch; at the sound of his ash-rough voice, his nostrils flaring like a riled beast's as a clear sign of discomfort. However, his expression abruptly schooled itself back into the familiar territory of amiable neutrality as the auras of darkness and danger fled in unison, melding into the most distant corners of present-day.

While the other prisoner helped him to his feet, he cast his gaze about the drab wooden space before him, caught by a sudden upwelling of disappointment upon realizing that neither his surroundings nor his situation had changed.

Once more, the two mer took advantage of the opportunity to size each other up. Fierce, luminous eyes maintained an obligatory vigil from which they were not easily parted over their surroundings. A slight overbite, combined with a bent, hawkish nose likely owing its shape to one too many brawls further lent his features hawklike intensity. Were he garbed in his wide-sleeved Indoril robes, he might've tucked hands into their sleeves in a display of polite, attentive patience, inviting an approach. Such tact he knew to be a necessity, because one never knew how sensitive a matter could be until it provoked the wrong reaction, thus barring him from obtaining any further information. Teachings that rattled around in his mind from long ago had etched him into a creature that liked to wait until the opportune moment, for ambitions were best furnished with seamless, serpentine patience.

Subtle, tiered layers of puffiness beneath Neht’s eyes coupled with the faintest indication of redness hinted that sleep was seldom a mistress he took to wife--although such a trait was fairly commonplace among the wear-hardened face of the Dunmer; for a similar sight lay upon the sunkenness that sat beneath the scar running perpendicular to Jiub’s left eye.

"Stand up,” called an ash-rough voice. “There you go!”

Neht’s brows furrowed. The ridges upon which they were seated were decidedly shallow, even for a mer of his tender thirty-some years. His attention (or interest) quickly to manifested itself as uncomfortably long, piercing stare from which Jiub was not spared. He drew back from the offered help somewhat haughtily, finding his way back on his feet without assistance while biting back the urge to offer a waspish retort, as he often did when someone took the liberty of stating the obvious. Here, however, he took great care not to let loose words that he could not later remit or account for.

“You were dreaming,” Jiub continued after a pause. “Uhh, what's your name?"

Neht wondered if he’d truly been such a convincing actor. For the past few moments, he hadn’t been sleeping at all (though a few strategically-placed strands of hair in front of his eyes might've fueled that inference.) Howbeit, Jiub certainly seemed to think so, and Neht took comfort in the notion that others believed he was capable of such subtlety. His roving gaze immediately shot upward, his mouth falling ajar in silent wonder. Something in him longed to bathe in the physical manifestation of those images of Resdayn once again.

Though there was a time that he’d nearly coaxed himself into being nameless for the rest of his life simply to spite the multitudes who told him that name were a necessity, he had, by curious instinct, selected a single letter from the Daedric Alphabet for his identity: Neht, to which he would generally respond if addressed. When people asked him what his letter-name meant, he found great amusement in sending them off with the ornery response of “Nobody"--a notion galvanized by the firm, unspoken belief that who he was and what he did was nobody’s business unless they had something he wanted or needed, or if he was aware of the potential of consequence. Fundamentally, Neht named himself as what he was meant to be: a letter written in uncertainty.

'People name things that are nearest and dearest to them, and this furthers their understanding of that which they have named, and instills in them a desire to nurture or recognize that thing. I have not had any of these things happen.' It was a sobering thought--one that came to the forefront of his thoughts as he woke each day, as well as the nagging curiosity and its insistent demands to know why he felt that way.

The desire to know the meaning behind the strange, prophetic dreams that had harried Neht since he was a child, as well as having it on good authority that his family had come from Morrowind, Neht had set out from Cyrodiil. Many of his colleagues in the Fighters Guild felt it had been an uncharacteristic display of haste, having urged him against it days before. Earlier during the voyage, Neht admonished himself for this bitterly. He should've known that the ill-tempered thing called luck would never deign to smile on him, thrusting him instead into a volatile exchange between Imperial Foresters and a few errant thieves--that is to say, the wrong place at precisely the wrong time. To his misfortunate, the aggravated foresters had engaged in a bit of racial profiling--as the thieves had also been Dunmer--prior to being lugged all the way to the Imperial City in a cart and thrust unceremoniously into its prison.

"Neht," he replied blandly, now finding that he firmly lacked the resolve to explain that he didn't actually have a name. People had a nasty (and somewhat intrusive) habit of asking how he didn’t have a name, as if they couldn't fathom the notion that some people simply didn’t have names. Furthermore, he questioned the importance of names and titles, finding that he eschewed them on his own account while remaining indifferent toward the notion of having to address others appropriately based on their station. Usually, those who questioned him about this were people he’d met one or twice in passing--otherwise, individuals with which he’d had no meaningful interactions with.

"Well," Jiub began, "Not even last night's storm could wake you. I heard them say we've reached Morrowind. I'm sure they'll let us go!"

The joviality of that last remark was the final grain of saltrice that broke the guar’s back, dispelling Neht’s initial disquietude. He smiled, finding something endearing about the Jiub’s optimism.

"Quiet," interjected Jiub sharply. "Here comes the guard!"

Neht blinked distractedly, scarcely having noticed the other's words. He'd caught himself in another one of those strange epiphanies again--thinking thoughts, he told himself, that belonged to someone else--except that they didn’t, and he thought these things always. Often, he’d venture to ask himself why he had such thoughts, only to conclude thereafter that only he could fathom such notions.

A burly Breton deckhand whose face was perpetually drawn into an unfriendly glower escorted Neht off the ship quickly, behaving as though he were herding sheep rather than guiding a disgruntled mer through the ship’s lower decks.

Sparing not even a glance in Neht's direction, he barked, "Get yourself up on deck and let's keep this as civil as possible!"

Perhaps he'd gotten wind of Neht's little exchange with one of the guards from a few nights ago. "Trouble?" he quipped, "From little old me?"

Knowing well that the average man was quick to feel threatened by someone a few pertans taller than himself (sparking within some a proneness to make up for in aggression for what they lacked in height), so too did he wonder if it weren’t due to the fact that he was taller than this man. At any rate, he wasn’t afforded much time to ruminate over the matter. In no less than a blink of the eye, Neht was approached by a broad-shouldered Imperial guard who escorted him off the ship.

There was a great deal of pride and a regal sort of composure with which Neht carried himself as he came through the hatch, making his way toward the Census and Excise building, more dignity in his gait than one might expect from a nameless prisoner that had come from an Imperial prison ship.

"You've finally arrived," remarked a second guard, after he'd bounded out to the causeway to greet Neht. "But our records don't show from where." The guard studied Neht curiously. The whole affair proved to be quite a spectacle, and the guard felt rather as though he were gazing at some exiled and deposed king rather than at some random prisoner, prompting him to leave a respectful bubble of space between himself and the mer he escorted.

While he had no great love of the Empire (or of those too eager to associate themselves with it), he endeavored to base his dislike of any one person solely upon the person’s individual merits and misdeeds. Not wanting to be thrown into prison again (this time for crimes he hadn't actually committed), Neht managed to stay his sharp tongue during the exchange. His terse explanation served his equally taciturn nature, assuming the form of one word: "Anvil." Neht did his utmost to wipe the aggravated smile now threatening his stoic expression (which he mustered and maintained with no small amount of difficulty), unable to dismiss his mounting aggravation at the Empire’s decidedly lax methods of record-keeping. Though he’d purchased a house there some time ago, Neht hadn't been born there--but he decided that the Empire had no particular or pressing need to know that.

Prior to his arrival on Vvardenfell, Neht had since been made aware that natives were quick to identify a foreigner by his accent and his garb. As for the crime of not being native-born, this nameless mer was guilty, having spent the larger portion of his adolescence in Fighters Guild of Cheydinhal, knowing little of his parents. As an unattached orphan of numerous budding talents, he did not long escape profitable (and sometimes unsavory) attentions. The most prevalent of local rumors suggested that he was a displaced bastard from one of the Great Houses. His clan-name was Sandil, and he’d managed to reconnect with his family on the island of Gorne a year or so before. Never before had he been so happy to have been proved wrong: he was not a nobody from nowhere; he was Neht Sandil, with a family on Gorne, and that meant something.

Looking around, Neht began to suppose that he might never have left the stately tranquility of Sandil House or the scores of wonderful, whitewashed rocks enclosing the island of Gorne--a belief countered by his somewhat invasive nature, which made constant demands that he find something with which to occupy himself. He did not yet see that sinister circumstances that had uprooted him from his newfound home would ultimately prove necessary. For the time being, he cursed his fate, loathing bitterly the forces that had wrenched him from finding the long-sought solace that came with a family and a name--something he'd never known before.

After stepping off the boat, guard after guard led him the Census and Excise office, where he encountered a surly-looking little Breton stooped over with age named Socucius Ergalla, who prompted him to fill out some paperwork in order to be, as the aging secretary had stated (with no small degree of emphasis), "officially released." He reminded Neht very much of the same aged, crumpled pieces of parchment upon which he was now scrawling all of Neht’s personal information--rather, what little of it he could garner from the taticturn mer.

Neht’s stomach began to lurch when he reached the section asking for his name. A name, as he was reminded, was yet another thing that most people had which he lacked. He told them little, for such was his wont--and in truth, there was not much to tell. Thankfully, they seemed satisfied with what little information he could offer about himself: that he was a warrior born under the Atronach sign. Somehow, the Empire’s boundless bureaucracy managed to wriggle him through the system quickly, like wet thread made to pass through the eye of a broad-tipped needle. He answered the secretary’s questions, which were asked in a voice fraught with squeaky, off-pitch intonations fit to make any mer’s eardrums burst.

For better or worse, it was not long before they set him loose, furnishing him with a few of his belongings, along with instructions to see a man named Caius Cosades in Balmora. Neht managed to stay his tongue in favor of subtlety throughout the entire exchange, tempting though it was to lampoon the Empire’s lack of sound judgement.

Perhaps, he mused as he glanced back at the thatched roof of the Census and Excise building, the Empire would never learn to circumvent its folly. For the most part, Neht maintained the appearance of being as any other law-abiding citizen beneath its banners, for that is what he would have others believe, and what others would want to believe of him in turn.

The instructions didn’t perturb him, since he peregrinated habitually, whether for the purpose of work or sating idle wanderlust. His talents pandered chiefly to those who found themselves in need of a sellsword--and perhaps one of the better fighters at his local branch of the Fighters Guild. He’d never been terribly good at handling magic--but he’d never been afforded the chance of attaining proper tutelage. As he was with all things unknown, Neht found himself inexorably drawn to the mystique of the recondite, though he felt that magic was probably much more interesting for as long as it was content to remain within the romanticized realm of things he didn’t know, for he didn’t much care for the idea of devoting himself to many long hours of study--or any situation that threatened to taper off into a long-term bore.

Admittedly, it hadn't seemed like much at first, especially after his trek through the mainland, but a second glance at Vvardenfell’s colorful, anomalous landscape aroused within Neht that long-dormant sense of espousal he had to the land long ago--though he would neither recognize nor admit the truth of this feeling for quite some time. The dense boggy mire encasing Seyda Neen was filled with few points of interest--save Neht himself, who was beheld ever after within the eyes of Seyda Neen’s townsfolk as an absolute enigma.

Though Morrowind’s native locale were swift to spot an outsider, Neht appeared to evade such suspicions with relative ease. Where the swamp soon gave way to a long, dusty expanse of road, Neht was drawn from his reverie as a sudden, pained cry rang out from somewhere above, effectively flipping an altruistic switch within Neht's mind. Scanning the nearby area availed little at first, save for a curiously-placed journal lying, somewhat arbitrarily, in the center of the road.

He laid no more than two fingers upon the timeworn cover of the folio before the figure of a Bosmer came falling into view from above, seemingly having appeared out of nowhere, as though he's been tossed from the heavens and rejected by the Nine. There was absolutely nothing he could’ve done to save the poor fellow, who, as Neht after leafing through his journal, had ultimately been named a casualty of his own curiosity due to a failed attempt at testing the effectiveness of Icarian flight scrolls. Thankfully, Neht was not made to suffer the impact of the flying mer’s form, which fell to the ground with a sickening series of popping sounds, no doubt accounting for the breaking of countless bones and the muffled rupturing of numerous organs.

The naturally crimped, coarse texture of his hair threatened to enter unmanageable territory, and as Neht had no love of resembling a miniature, domesticated breed of dog popular among the Bretic nobility of High Rock, he eagerly departed from the swamp. After a few hours' walk, the landscape transitioned from the drab, miserable mire that imposed upon Neht's skin a disgusting stickiness produced by the mingling of coastal and swap humidities to verdant grass crowned by lofty emperor parasols whose forms twisted carelessly upward toward the sky, their saturated hues only muted by dusk to the muted brown-greys of igneous soil that had long ago donned a plentiful dusting of ash. In the distance loomed the inescapable, monumental hulk of Red Mountain with the ever-watchful Sharmat at its core. Even from afar, Neht could easily see its threatening crown of thin, ruby-colored seams which grew ever more concentrated as the eye moved upward.

After an uneventful trek to Balmora, the sun hung in the evening sky, low and languid. A soft breeze enveloped the land, making for what would’ve made a pleasant evening for those who cared to linger. However, a bedraggled Neht hastily acquainted himself with the local Fighters Guild and for his trouble, he was offered both a bed and a place in the guild, though he was already in the Fighters Guild at Champion rank--howbeit, he decided that nobody here had any particular need to know this. As twilight slipped into the maw of night and Masser’s crimson form threatened to consume the sky with only the small, wan shadow of Secunda standing ‘twixt the two, he made it a point to inquire about this Caius Cosades fellow they'd told him to talk to tomorrow.

For now, Neht could not deny that the prospect of a comfortable, proper bed after weeks of sleeping on the cold stone floors of the Imperial prison or the harsh wooden floors and threadbare hammocks of the prison ship was thoroughly enticing. Though he was not given to luxury, he'd recently come to spoil himself with sleeping in beds or pillow-nests. Neht settled himself upon the bed, pulling the sheets over himself and clutching them protectively as if they were all that stood between him and untold misery. Sleep, while coveted greatly, was a difficult mistress, and Neht always had a terrible time catching up to her. The muffled sound of another exhausted head against the surface of a freshly-laundered pillow posed the perfect invitation for the claws of exhaustion to close in around their prey.

The delicate aroma of stoneflowers, roses, and spices whose names escaped Neht fled from his senses, replaced by the acrid aroma of blood mixed volcanic ash. In vain, he sought the brilliant rosebeds and bejeweled trees against an endless expanse of emerald dawn, grappling for that sense of peace like a blind fisherman in pursuit of an ever-elusive prized catch--but those memories passed like a breeze rippling through tall grass in a meadow.

The silence was assailed by a deep, rich voice, and Neht’s face shifted abruptly from tranquil geniality to sternness. Cold, proud eyes looked on, transfixed with a mixture of horror and disgust. The voice belonged to the man in the mask, who did as he did each night and bade that Nerevar come. The shadow of his purpose lay upon the other; obscuring all and robbing Neht of his peaceful reverie. The speaker sought something, and the listener pretended not to hear him at first--but the speaker was far too bold to be ignored.

"Who are you? I don't know any ‘Lord Nerevar.’ And what's more, I don't want to be ‘Lord Nerevar’!!" Neht shook his head vehemently, squeezing his eyes shut while repeating this mantra firmly in an effort to cushion himself from his current circumstance, wilfully driving a wedge between the past and the present, fearful of what he might see if he dared to look back for too long. Being named 'lord' by this figure didn't suit him, though he could not say why.

For many nights now, it had been the same scene: something that looked like a celebration mixed with a ceremonial procession of sorts, attended by a great deal of suspiciously cadaverous-looking creatures with which the masked man conversed with jovially, but Neht could understand fewer than a single word. The pervasive feeling that he expected Neht to remember these individuals and participate in the conversation and that he was trying desperately to include Neht in the conversation only increased Neht’s ever-growing discomfort.

It began with the masked figure walking Neht down a stony isle that somewhat resembles a chapel, though everything looked much more ominous, rendered in tones of red and black. The masked man gripped Neht’s hand tightly enough to ward against the fear of letting go and miraculously his long, curved, vermillion talons did not pierce Neht’s flesh. Neht had half a mind to ask him whether or not this was some sort of wedding ceremony, and if that were the case, then where was the ring--and that, he decided, was precisely what he’d do.

“If you mean to wed me, I think you should know that I’d much prefer for the festivities to occur while I’m awake!”

Oddly enough, he didn’t feel as strongly opposed to this notion as perhaps he should’ve been. When the other wasn’t actively terrorizing him, Neht noted that there was something profoundly comforting about his presence, and Neht even began to enjoy his company--that is, until the masked man disrupted everything by frightening him all over again.

However, Neht knew not his name, much less what it was that fueled the looming, merlike figure’s insistence on invading his dreams. He'd encountered the one he knew as the masked man since childhood, though his appearances then had been far less frequent, with each of those instances seeming far-off and much more like a product of his own fancy than someone actually entering his dreams.

Provoked by what he perceived as audacity lurking in the other’s silence, Neht’s temper burned hotter than the magmatic reserves surrounding the bleak, cavernous dreamscape around him.

Frustrated, he cried, “You're not answering me!”

The man in the mask always did this--always, he marched in, destroying the peace while trying to reminisce with Neht, who fancied the other a complete stranger at this point. However, Neht could not deny was something markedly familiar about the figure’s infatuation with the past and his polite, habitual beating around the scathecraw as it were.

Neht pondered. What was it, exactly, that prevented him from getting to the point? After searching for the sound of his own voice, Neht realized that his words remained somehow unspoken. In lieu of an insult, the grey emptiness of silence persisted--but what he Neht could not speak, he later passed over in pensive silence.

"Who are you?"

In the dead of night, the Incarnate wakes, screaming.


Chapter Text

Within the prison of the sheets, Neht’s aggravated shape began to writhe, his muscles rippling with unspoken agony edged with terror and delicate beads of perspiration clung to his curiously pale, Kothringi-like complexion--a pallor worn chiefly by the Sandils of Gorne, and to a lesser extent, something similar by Dunmer who were born and lived long away from Red Mountain. Per his tendency to be remarkably mobile in his sleep, the covers were now wrapped tightly around his legs like the corpse of an ancient Ra Gada royal preparing to be interred. Feverishly, his head shook to and fro as clammy hands dug into the woolen coverlet in a vain attempt to cling to the tangible safety of the waking world.

Needless to say, the display attracted quite a gathering. Numerous attempts were made to liberate Neht from the igneous jaws of his nightmare by giving him a gentle shake or pleading with him, but each endeavor proved ineffectual. All who witnessed the spectacle agreed that it looked as if he were embroiled in some sort of disagreement and curiously enough, it seemed that he was trying to fight someone off, wriggling out of an embrace from which he could not escape. Eventually, he was drawn out of his uncomfortable, catatonic state by a chorus of discordant and concerned-sounding murmurs.

A pool of verdant, green-tinged sunlight streaming in from the bug shell-shaped windows prevalent on Hlaalu architecture suggested that it was mid-afternoon, meaning that Neht had slept in far later than intended--a misfortune attributed to his body’s need to take advantage of what little genuine rest that could be salvaged after the nightmare finally reached its conclusion. As his grogginess subsided and his surroundings gradually came into focus, Neht found himself immersed in a sea of worried faces.

Once she could firmly ascertain that he was indeed awake, a snub-nosed Imperial woman took it upon herself to inform Neht that he’d been behaving strangely in his sleep. Just this once, he decided to spare himself the details by not asking her just what sort of strange things he’d been doing. Neht wanted to know--but at the same time, he didn’t. While fate certainly had its way of leaving the door open for him, he knew that it was sometimes better not to step through (though he seldom preferred to remain ignorant.) 

“Sometimes, it’s better not to know,” Neht said, his declaration ringing a bit more loudly than he might’ve liked. For the next thirty minutes, he continued to repeat this mantra in his mind, desperately attempting to convince himself that this was indeed the case.

It took a great deal of convincing (and no small degree of mild coercion) to get his new guildmates to believe that he was indeed alright and that it was just a dream--a notion which Neht half-wanted to believe, himself. A deep (but decidedly brief) blush suddenly crept across his cheeks as he recalled that he’d allowed himself to act on the sense of familiarity with the land--and despite this, he was new there, and his first day culminated in a nightmare from which he'd awakened with a loud mixture of weeping and screaming.

Fearing that he hadn't made such a peachy impression his guildmates, Neht briefly entertained the hope that their opinions of him might stand to improve somewhat as time passed. Unfortunately, he later learned that there proved to be many exigent sorts within the guild who were only too eager to take advantage of his contrite state. Per his suspicion, he found out that nobody on Vvardenfell seemed even remotely aware of his exploits back in Cyrodiil.

Not that this discouraged him, for eagerness (and perhaps over eagerness at times) at the opportunity to prove himself to others was his wont. Proving himself to others usually involved some element affirming his own self-worth and his merit as an individual with the ability to get things done, which was, in his own mind, the trait about himself that he liked most. Moreover, the smug, fictitious little creature that liked to burrow itself deep into the hidden recesses of his mind rejoiced each and every time those who doubted his ability to succeed were proven wrong.

As he ran from each of Balmora's drab buildings, Neht made it a point of ingratiating himself with the locals, who occasionally had him perform some manner of menial task at his own discretion. Regardless of how he felt about the local scenery, it gave him the opportunity to scope out the terrain, as well as asking for the whereabouts of that Caius Cosades person he was supposed to report to. He went through from man to mer like a hot knife across scrib jelly. Just as he was about to deem his search fruitless, a bright-faced mer laborer lounging near a doorway supplied Neht with the necessary information: Caius Cosades, it seemed, inhabited a slightly messy rental property across the bridge and up a few alleyways, almost directly on the other side of town from the Fighter’s Guild.

It was the first taste of convenience Neht had known for several months. Naturally, he was by no means reluctant to savor this convenience, per his preternatural ability to predicate things in his own future, which told him that the road ahead was paved with exorbitant difficulty.

While he was by no means directionally impaired, Neht nevertheless had a frightful time finding Caius’s residence, due to what he judged to be a stifling degree of monotony present in local architecture. For quite a stretch of the way, as far as he was concerned, everything looked the same. The only notable differences were minor nuances in the sizes of each building and the array of banners, baskets, barrels, and crates nestled against the side of every building. One could tell that it was Cammona Tong town by the number of suspicious, corpse-like shapes in the river--to say nothing to the shady-looking, dagger-toting mer haunting the rooftops--and how the guards simply drifted about the town, treating the situation with the same insouciance of anyone who was well-accustomed to such things.

By the time he managed to find what he supposed was the right place, Neht was extremely frustrated, and consequently, he'd abandoned the traditional polite gesture expected of anybody who visits a house not belonging to them: knocking on the door. Instead, Neht simply entered, unbidden, finding the space moderately welcoming--chiefly because he remained unapprehended, and it had been unlocked. Seconds later, he strode up to an aged Imperial to capture his attention, finding that the man was curiously bereft of a shirt. Caius Cosades possessed a cheerful, weathered countenance which stood in stark contrast to his mealy, neutral-colored surroundings. A row of hoary, cropped hair encircled the Spymaster's balding head, and sunken indentations beneath his eyes told of many a long, fretful night on the job. For an aged person of the mannish races, Caius possessed a remarkable amount of athletic muscle--something that was not left to Neht’s imagination due to the Spymaster’s lack of a shirt.

The house, much like its inhabitant, appeared to be in a slightly unkempt state, suggesting that its owner was of an addled mind, having put forth a few meager attempts at cleanliness. A chair adjacent to the main dining table lay tipped over on the floor, and by all indications, it looked to have been there for quite some time. A cluster of illuminated manuscripts and thick tomes whose titles referenced the scholarly, historical nature of their contents were scattered about the floor. Neht fancied that he'd spied a bowl nearby with a few glimmering, telltale traces of moon sugar left in it. Neht watched as Caius’s thoughts did somersaults on top of each other before assembling into something cohesive. It was almost as if the man’s soul had been wrenched from the depths of Oblivion itself and forced back into his body abruptly. Caius spoke in a quick but unsystematic manner, betraying an overstimulated mind coupled with a sharp wit that had been somewhat slowed (though not entirely dulled) by substance abuse.

“What? Oh, yes. I'm Caius Cosades," he confirmed. “...But what do you mean, you were told to report to me?? What're you talking about?”

Neht’s eyebrows shot up reflexively as he stifled a snort. Perhaps he hadn’t gotten the message--but then again, in his experience, individuals that were particularly addled after partaking of skooma and its myriad of mind-altering delights weren’t usually the keenest on getting the message, as it were. "I’m Neht,” came his cool reply, “And I have a package for you." Upon later reflection, he realized that he couldn't very well have said "my name is."

“Ah, well! I'm just an old man with a skooma problem.”

Not that Neht needed any further confirmation of this fact. In spite of self-abnegation and his usual restraint, he snerked. To Caius’s left, Neht spotted a rotund, decanter-like vessel with series of small cords wrapped about it--and it was as Neht supposed: a skooma pipe. Not that he was particularly concerned. Perhaps it would come in handy later if the other ever took a notion to pull a fast one on him.

The following question at large, Neht hoped, was purely rhetorical: “ said your name was....what, exactly? Neht?”

Caius's conclusion drew another nod from Neht.

“Letters for names? Huh. Must be a new naming trend or something.”

Neht's eyes narrowed as his thoughts toed the line between offended and pensive. He wondered if Caius genuinely mean that to express interest in Neht’s plight, or if it had  simply been a gibe. Tempted as he was to say something in response, he opted instead for the stay-still-and-say-nothing approach--an approach that hadn’t yet failed him. 

“You've been told to report to me and deliver this package. Perhaps you'll let me look at it, eh?”

For the sake of a gibe, the notion of concealing the package as a joke upon this drug-addled man briefly crossed his mind, but Neht's good-naturedness betrayed him with a swiftness fit to shame Boethiah, and he found himself reluctantly surrendering the lightweight parcel.

Caius rose his fingers to form loose air-quotes as he spoke the letter-name. “Good, good! Welcome to the service, Neht. Now you belong to the Blades. We’re the Emperor's eyes and ears in the provinces. You can use my bed if you'd like some rest...but leave my personal effects alone unless I say otherwise. Now then. Let us discuss your orders.”

Neht nodded once more, listening intently, though it didn’t prove to be much of a discussion. He liked not the notion of belonging to anybody, be it an individual or an organization, and he liked less the notions of being at the mercy of another. In truth, it was more of an informative seminar concerning the Blades and their service to the Emperor from afar via the use of subterfuge and information-gathering. Nevertheless, it was something for which he would later find himself thankful. He didn't particularly savor the idea of having to supply this individual with personal information, as such interactions so often demanded. 

Meanwhile, Caius seemed slightly unnerved by the intense, falconlike scrutiny with which Neht studied him. As he spoke, the Spymaster began to feel slightly disgruntled, as though somehow, something within Neht's very aura conveyed that the idea of spying on behalf of the Empire didn’t quite meet with Neht’s approval.

“Well, one look at you, and anyone can tell that you're an experienced adventurer.”

Neht beamed beatifically. That much was true, and Caius hadn't steered the remark into the territory of superfluous flattery. Knowing this, Neht could rest easy while allowing himself to take some pride in his accomplishments without being driven away by the concept of genuine adulation.

“That will be your cover identity. Around here, freelance adventurers are thick as fleas on a wild guar. You'll want to keep at that profession to avoid unwanted attention. Is that understood? Yes, good…”

Though Neht offered no indication of approval or acknowledgment of this advice, he didn't find himself in the mood to contest the other's assumption. With the ghost of a nod, he allowed Caius to continue.

“Now: Go talk to Hasphat Antabolis at the Fighters Guild. Ask him what he knows about the Nerevarine cult and the Sixth House secret cult. But I'll warn you: He's gonna ask you for a favor first-- and it's gonna be ugly. But do it, and then get the information and report back to me.”

Suddenly, he wanted so badly to believe that the prophecy, the memories, that damned word, all of it---was just a bunch of cryptic, recondite nonsense referenced occasionally (and in a markedly selective manner) by those who took dangerous ideas to wife. "Nerevarine" --there was something about that word that just didn't sit well with Neht. Perhaps...a word, existing within that word: a name. He'd overheard a conversation something about it back at Sandil Manor--something about that word and a person called Peakstar. He couldn't remember the details, and at any rate, he was eager to put the matter from his mind--clinging in folly to the hope that he might never hear of it again.

It was, as he now reassured himself, just a word, and therefore no harm could come of it (provided that such a word was never applied to himself.) Words, after all, were like names, which meant nothing unless he willed them to. Neht scrambled out the door and hastily made his way back to the Fighters Guild. The strong desire to believe that none of it was true, that it was all just a bunch of a mythical hogwash that nevertheless tormented him with wanton cruelty. However, the most difficult person for Neht to convince, in the entirety of Tamriel, was himself.

Once, the prophecy had all seemed like a far-off dream, further away than the bewilderingly verdant landscape of Gorne--something he would never accomplish, or accomplish in name only.

He wove his way in and out of guildmates' trajectories, placing made a few delicate inquiries here and there about his quarry while supplying carefully-crafted excuses as to why various errands had or hadn't been done to someone's liking until eventually, he found the contact he'd sought. Neht could scarcely hear the conversation he was having with Antabolis because Caius's warning was still ringing in his ears: 'He's gonna ask you for a favor first, and it's gonna be ugly.'  

The favor was as ugly as Caius had foretold: Antabolis requested that Neht fetch a Dwemer puzzle box from within ancient Dwemer ruins called ‘Arkngthand’. While Neht usually savored a challenge, he did not laud himself for being yet another person's fetcher--especially since that person's advice was about as useful a plate of scuttle made to ward off a nix hound. It was his dearest hope that the box wouldn't be too difficult to find. Silently, Neht marveled at each syllable: ‘Arkngthand. Arkngthand.’ 

Somehow, he knew each to be purely idiosyncratic of the tongue once spoken by those vanished mer, curling his lips and tongue to mirror the guttural intonations of Dwemeris, awakening long-lost memories of being unable to consistently pronounce such words correctly. Perhaps if he repeated the name, he might perfect his decidedly terrible pronunciation of it. At the very least, it was a viable distraction from the drudgery that awaited him.

In this life, Neht had never so much as laid eyes on a single thing of Dwemer make. Presently, he knew and recalled little of them, save that ruins of any sort were usually extremely hazardous and therefore likely inhabited by dangerous things in turn. Before departing, Neht made another series of pointed inquiries that would help him find the place and eventually, a large, broad-shouldered Orc lavished pity on him, marking the spot on his map, further supplying him with a detailed description of relevant landmarks and directions. The intrepid Dunmer made his way southward along various pathways; up and down a few steep cliffs and by way of the Foyada Mamaea, upon which lava had flowed long before enduring the countless footfalls of men and mer.

The ash-riddled environment and that dry, dusty sediment stirred up by his movements caused Neht’s eyes to water and made him wheeze profusely. It was certainly a far cry from the place he’d grown accustomed to, which was lodged between the craggy Valus Mountains to the east, the verdant Heartlands to the west, and the fertile Nibenay Basin to the south. During his stay on Gorne (and the trek he'd made through the mainland prior to that,) he found that Morrowind’s environment was wholly deserving of its own category. He had to be careful, as one man in Balmora previously warned, for there might be Blight particles lodged somewhere within that dust. Neht didn't know what the Blight was, but it certainly didn't sound favorable, and from what little he could glean based on previous applications of the word, it indubitably pertained to some sort of unpleasant (and often fatal) disease.

He made no effort to keep track of what direction he was heading, making his way rather haphazardly through Molag Amur. By now, Neht was conditioned to trust both in his gut instinct and in landmark descriptions he'd been given. Whenever his guildmates back in Cheydinhal would come back from their adventures, regaling each other with tales of their exploits, Neht found that almost every one of them entailed the person that had heroically ventured forth was generally been thrust into some sort of situational bind, (despite making it seem like a cinch for want of increased self-aggrandizement and the subsequent awe of their peers.) His indomitable nature and resolve to complete this little errand spurred him forward nonetheless; with each steel-sabatoned footstep taken in anticipation of whatever troubles might lay ahead.

At last, he came upon a series of weathered, rust-colored towers protruding from the earthen cliff sides like strange, slightly bent fingers pasted on some manner of unfinished animunculi as an afterthought. By running his fingers over rusted, pipelike structures, he was endowed with a sense of appreciation for both the soundness of the material and the longevity of its ancient craftsmanship. Neht deduced that the Dwemer must’ve once thought their cities to be infallible metallic bulwarks that could eternally preserve their abstruse ways. What he judged to be an entrance of sorts appeared to be blocked by a strange rotund door with a smooth, deliberate, boulder-like structure in the center. Nearby, another pipe sticking out of the ground was affixed with a small, handle-like apparatus that stuck out at an obvious angle--a sight that proved both inviting and foreboding in Neht’s eyes.

Something stirred in him, and he grinned. ‘This will either end with my success...or, it invites certain death.’

Invigorated by the combined prospects of certain danger and a minimal chance of success, the first footsteps of Neht’s intrepid foray into the depths of the ruin rang out swiftly. He turned the handle, and as the doors of Arkngthand opened with a deafening metallic screech, he was forced--perhaps for the first time in this life--to entertain for the possibility that fate had, at long last, smiled upon him. In the wake of a concussive metallic screech (whose volume was most likely amplified by his own anxiety), Neht heard the ruin’s rusty metal doors screech shut.

Despite the enigmatic disaster that had precipitated the Dwemer's disappearance, it seemed that the industrious, long-lost deep-folk had somehow managed to leave the better part of their constructs still in near-perfect operating condition. Some supposed that their industrial hubris, combined with their veneration of the ungodly had ultimately caused their annihilation, and perhaps their tireless need to emulate and dissect the power of the divine in their minds and a fervent quest for the summit of erudition had ultimately proved to be the last great endeavor of those industrious, bearded mer. It certainly seemed a plausible enough explanation--at least, in Neht's mind. Judging by the appearance of several dismantled animunculi, Neht guessed that he was not the only person seeking something from Arkngthand’s anomalous depths. Whatever he was in for, he knew at this time that it would probably involve combat. With that realization, the position of his dominant hand shifted reflexively to the hilt of his blade, where it was to remain until he reached the safety of Balmora. As he began his descent into the belly of the beast, as it were, Neht got the uncanny feeling that he was stepping into a tomb that just might prove to be his own.

“Almighty Azura,” he bellowed, splaying his arms dramatically, “I've been buried alive!”

Carefully, he made his way across a narrow metal walkway with a steep inclination, where the brassy surface of metal debris that was long ago galvanized by the miracles of tonal architecture etched into crisp, linear geometric designs married copious slabs of stones and clusters of boulders. He gazed from one stout, brass-colored quarter-keg to the next and from one corroded arcane bauble to the next, determining that if there was aught left to be looted, then it had been well-hidden by the ancient, long-departed masters of Arkngthand, or carted off long ago. Everything immediately available appeared to have been thoroughly sacked by looters (perhaps more than once,) evidently with each item they’d deemed unworthy stealing strewn carelessly about the place. When curiosity seized the better of him, prompting him to pry open one of those quarter-kegs and peruse its contents, an awful grinding sound rang out as the lid was removed. To make matters worse, Neht found that container quite empty, and the level of his patience beginning to resemble the emptiness of that container.

Neht generally did his best not to make a skyrender's nest out of a mudball, but he began to lose all hope of finding what was likely a small cube among the combination of piled scrap metal and collapsed stone which filled the Hall of Centrifuge, as well as clusters of cumbersome-looking containers.

It was not long before his footsteps summoned the sound of unsheathed steel, whereupon he was suddenly accosted by a brazen Redguard and an Imperial. His suspicions from earlier were confirmed: unfortunately, he was not alone. If the combination of thuggish behavior, poor cloth and woefully mismatched armor was anything to go by, the pair seemed like criminals. A duo of ragtag larceners, no doubt loathe to share their spoils with an adventurous interloper? At any rate, their choice of cloth was poor and worn in places, whether by misadventure or neglect. Naturally, their weapons looked to have been stolen--possibly from a cache of Dwemer weapons they’d stumbled upon nearby. Regardless of who they were (or weren't), they had successfully caught Neht unawares.

Unaware as he was, in this strange hell.

They noticed Neht’s presence, much to his irritation, just as he’d begun to fancy that he was being extremely sneaky, prompting him to draw his blade with a snarl. His aptitude with the weapon proved nothing to laugh at, and so too did it prove the be the last mistake the two interlopers ever made by setting themselves against it. In the heat of battle, Neht became, once more, himself--the mer that he really was, when he bothered to deconstruct all the exterior pylons that one drape about himself so that he might readily show others whatever they wished, when forced to interact with society in a manner meriting wholesale acceptability.

There is, perhaps, a beast in all men and mer, beneath the facades we construct for ourselves--just as there was beneath Neht’s guise of veracity, integrity, and self-eschewment--and such a grim, beastly spark thrives virulently, much to our shame, upon vices and violence in their most rudimentary of forms. All of these things that others consider savage and base: sex, betrayal, intrigue, and violence were given a noble casing long ago by the Chimer, who have since become Dunmer; attaching to these concepts something that they believe to be a much more likable semblance, in the form of three.

A wild gleam shone in his eye, like a wild kagouti as he bared his blade with seamless ease. The steel missed its mark, weaving in and out to strike something vital for the sake of ending scuffle. The aggressor had almost lost sight of his quarry, as Nerevar moved with such speed that it was difficult to discern what he was doing. This Dunmer was almost certainly bewitched--but the rogue didn't have too much time to react, because a brief, searing pain coupled with a numbing sensation would be the last thing he felt. When his own blood was shed, he was prone to exhibiting a violent state of furor, and would not stop until something roused him back into consciousness.

Had there been witnesses, he would've been quite the spectacle to behold--a churlish, bloodstained youth with the likeness of a provoked beast. He wanted to admonish himself for losing control and being again as once he was, but finding that obnoxiously evasive cube was the priority. Closing his eyes, Neht tried to imagine where that damn thing had gotten to, but his mind greeted him only with more cryptic visions and obscure memoirs instead of the clarity of thought.

"Reach heaven through violence, then," rang a long-lost voice from Neht's memories, its tone gilded and galvanized by the glory of past victories.


The deafening overture of armies marching and an image of blue and gold standards fluttered behind his sockets. Nerevar became again the contrived, somewhat churlish youth that reincarnation had made of him, while wrenching himself away from this vision desperately like a drowning man trying to claw his way back to shore, not allowing himself to linger on the matter, or to make sense of it. He concluded that now was not the time to have another nightmare--especially while he was awake--stumbling into a room and slain its squatter occupants in his haze: another Imperial who, per the scent of his singed vestments, apparently had a penchant for casting destruction spells.

Glancing down at the man's gored and cloven skull, Neht suddenly felt rather sullen. "Stupid fetchers," he chided the slain man. "Might've seen the rest of the evening if you hadn't tried to gut me!" He shook his head and heaved a sigh, turning his attention to a nearby set of shelves, which had fallen into a shabby and dismal state of disrepair. A tiny, cubelike structure of a telltale reddish gold color bore markings across its square faces what matched the motif of the surrounding Dwemer ruins--and so, it had to be the elusive puzzle box, or such was N's guess. Even if it wasn't it would simply have to do. Neht was far from eager to continue his foray and enter the deeper sections of the ruins.   

 The whole affair had been rather strange, and Neht was markedly eager to put the event behind him as he sped back toward Balmora. Nowhere in his repertoire did he clearly recall slaying the Imperial and the Redguard from the first chamber; just as he certainly had no recollection of encountering the fellow in the third room--but he didn't allow himself to ruminate over this for long, focusing instead on hastening his return to Balmora. As Masser's rotund form gradually consumed the darkening sky above, Neht glanced upward, wondering how he'd managed to inadvertently devote an entire day to the chasing after a tiny box.

What perturbed him most of all was how easily each of those looters appeared to have been slain--presumably by his own hand--in a manner that made the philanthropic aspect of his personality long to presume otherwise. Whatever the case, it was far too late to go back now, especially for one that habitually dooms himself to stare headlong into the day that comes, rather than reminiscence with the one that has passed. Neht's gaze shifted from the sky to the ground. It didn't matter where he looked--be it into the sky, at the vivid, twisted landscapes before him, the tumultuous wrath of Red Mountain in the distance; the face of a stranger. Things that he should mark as familiar are met with a stare devoid of recognition, and instead, he looks long into the truth: the inevitable fragmentation of memories cause by Azura's willful smashing of two ceramic vessels together, causing both to crack and break while tiny shards and residue from each lodge themselves into the fissures of the other's.

A lithe thief armed with lockpicks, raising a finger to her lips while wondering if there was anything in the world worth stealing. A man with a robe and no desire to surrender his nation's dignity to the ravages of a foreign empire. A woman who wrote a book, daring to question the status quo of oppressive beliefs. A man who was dangerously content to dream of deeds rather than to do. A brash ashlander with an axe and a staff, whose intent it was to tie all loose ends together by force. A survivor of the Blight who failed to master the war as it began to bubble up around her. One after another in eventual succession, interred in myth and obscured by legend.

Who were those people, and why did Neht know them better than he knew himself? If he’d been these people before, was it possible that they could help him--but how could one remember being other people, and how could one forget something as essential as death?

Chapter Text

Neht’s gossamer-thin attempts at veiling his peevish behavior failed to escape the notice (and concern) of his guildmates. His aggression-labored breathing and the visible sliver between his lips--along with the tenseness of his jaw which betrayed barred teeth--were met with the subtle meekness of guildsmen scurrying timidly out of his way like mice. While one lacking in familiarity with the institution might be hard-pressed to believe that meekness had a place in the Fighters Guild, there was no shortage of indiviuals who more than happy to give Neht a wide berth if he let loose even the slightest indication of anger. It seemed their evasive mannerisms were motivated chiefly by the desire not to cause trouble--a desire that, under normal circumstances, Neht himself might've empathized with.

Lost in his thoughts, he was completely unconcerned with his appearance for the time being, inadvertently cutting a figure as splendid as it was terrifying, well-befitting the ancient Chimer witch-knights of Veloth. He loped through the corridors belligerently like a miniature, mer-shaped ash storm, unafraid of mowing down anything that dared to get in his way.

From the wroth depths of wherever he'd wandered in his ire, Neht found himself drawn back into reality by the sensation of something cool and comforting being pressed against his skin, and it was by this action that the beast in him was soothed, moments before it knew the silence of sleep once more. The source of this sensation was a young Dunmer man who smiled up at Neht somewhat timidly, gently dabbing away at the blood produced by a wound on his forehead.

Splatters of crimson had stained a sizable section of hair that swept back from Neht’s brow. Although he quickly became aware of the presence of a thick ribbon of blood snaking down the bridge of his nose, Neht simply stood there. Once the severity of the sotuation registered itself in his thoughts, Neht hissed, "Nchow!"

This supplication of profanity was prompted by the knowledge that such a stain was near-impossible to wash from his hair. A few seconds passed before Neht heaped apology upon apology, his words tripping over themselves as they were coupled with fragmented attempts at supplying the healer with an explanation as to how this situation had come about.

However, the mer with the cloth seemed unfazed, chuckling softly. “It's fine. Really, it is. We get this sort of thing all the time in here!”

Neht winced quietly. He didn’t want to be “this sort of thing in there, all the time”--especially in front of this mer, whom he now fancied. His normally steely eyes grew lambent with enthusiasm as they locked on to that dark, lustrous coif of hair, pouring down his slender, robed shoulders in the form of a luxurious, cascading body wave.

“Ah, there! That should stop the bleeding for now,” he chirped cheerfully, securing an ointment-soaked bandage around Neht’s head. “I think Hasphat Antabolis wants to see you. Be sure to come and see me later so I can finish tending to it properly.”

As Neht walked away from him, armed once again with the intent of drilling the Drillmaster, he couldn’t help but notice how the other had brushed against him, ever so slightly, before sauntering off in the opposite direction.

Neht grinned stupidly at the now-empty corridor. Being the charismatic creature that he was, Neht had little difficulty when it came to wooing others, proselytizing them to his way of thinking, or merely manipulating them into somehow facilitating his goals. His efforts to construct various methods of consistently circumventing adulation and admiration were a byproduct of this strange, inherent fear of letting others form a profound attachment to him. People attempting to fluff him up with compliments agitated him--especially if it was someone who enjoyed an elevated place in society. It was all flattery and at the end of the day and they all wanted something from him. A compliment was as a favor; a nagging thing that wore a mask of piety or kindness while demanding that something be done in return.

A tingling sensation in Neht’s stomach reminded him that it had been a while since he’d been furnished with that sort of encouragement. He’d make it a point to seek the other mer out later that evening. Effectively besieged by nightmares on all sides, a light bit of copulation might prove somewhat therapeutic. It would be something new and perhaps refreshing, seeing as he hadn’t gotten at it with anyone for quite some time. For the sake of keeping things exciting--and, at times, to keep himself from being lifted off the face of Nirn once more at the hands of his own misery, Neht found that variety was the essential dish upon which to sup and his habitual spontaneity proved to be the perfect spice. 

In the meantime, Neht all but confronted Drillmaster Hasphat, throwing numerous pointed questions at him with the same threatening and obnoxious persistence of a cliff racer until he’d managed to extract the necessary information. For his part, Neht was not the one who desired answers to these questions, but he was certainly the one who had to endure the torment of hearing them.

The Drillmaster provided him with a written account of what he knew, albeit reluctantly. Neht laid into the other spectacularly (and somehow without shattering his veneer of politeness) until he lost his desire to continue grilling him over the furnace about it altogether. He strode out of the Fighters Guild and on his way up the road to see Caius, now immersed in the Hortator's long-lost sense of pride concerning his own ability to get things done.

“So,” began Antabolis smoothly, “Have you done that little favor I asked...?”

In a somewhat dramatic gesture, Neht rose his brows while withdrawing the cube from its hiding place in his armor, waving it under Hasphat’s nose, vaguely aware that this little fetch-errand was extremely illegal because it involved the unregulated handling of a Dwemer artifact.

“Perfect! Just what I was looking for. Just let me take that…” Despite his scruples, he relinquished the puzzle box without protest. Normally, he might've had reason to feel somewhat cross with the notion of surrendering something he'd gone such lengths to find, but in this case, he was extremely eager to be rid of that small, wretched trifle. He had no use for it otherwise.

The Drillmaster squinted, holding the puzzle box aloft to observe it in the warm lantern light, as though he believed that the warm glow of the lanterns might reveal something extraordinary about an item that Neht found wholly vapid and uninteresting. “By the way...the inscriptions on the box seem to be directions for setting a Dwemer key into a specific lock. If you’re interested, come back and maybe I'll have a key you can take back to Arkngthand.”

Neht feigned a smile. While he was not often wont to pass up the opportunity for adventure,  he’d decided that he’d rather not go traipsing back into the metallic bowels of that particular Dwemer ruin, or run the risk of being caught with yet another illegally and ill-begotten artifact. Besides, the grinding of rusted metal against rusted metal and grating echoes that reverberated down those antiquated halls and into Neht's poor, blunt-tipped, cup-shaped ears were the perfect recipe for a frightful headache.

“Thank you, I suppose. But I'll be needing that information about the Sixth House now, if you don't mind.”

“House Dagoth is the Sixth House, the ''lost'' Sixth House. In the first age, House Dagoth betrayed the other Great Houses during the War of the First Council, and were destroyed for their treason.”

Finding that he was unable to deny the stark familiarity of the House’s name, and the phrase “First Council”, nor was he able to place where he’d heard them before, Neht blinked. Melancholy swept over him like an invisible cloak he hadn’t meant to don, and he wondered why the mere mention of these things caused his heart to sink. A warning voice rose from within the depths of his soul: Some things are best left forgotten.

It was a hard lesson, and one he should've learned during his time on Gorne--but the Sixth House and its risen Grandmaster were the lesson that Nerevar would never learn.

“I can answer any questions you may have, but I'll also give you some notes to give to Caius and recommend some Sixth House references he should read." Hasphat produced a small, neatly-stacked series of documents and gave them to the youth, whose mind was, as one might expect, now reeling with questions. However, there wasn't much more information to be had from Hasphat on the subject, who met most of Neht's subsequent queries with the words “I gave you the notes. Give them to Caius.”

Once he was certain that he'd exhausted all possibilities with that route, Neht realized that he was left with little alternative but to ask about the Nerevarine. Gods, how he abhorred that word! Only with great effort was he able to ask, “  the Nerevarine?”  He squeezed his eyes shut, wanting to ignore that word and how it sounded when he said it. Thus did Neht and subtlety momentarily part ways.

Fortunately, the Drillmaster didn't seem to notice the youth's aversive behavior. "The Ashlanders believe a reborn Nerevar will unite the Dunmer against the outlander invaders and restore the ancient Dunmer nation. Nerevar is a legendary hero and saint of the Temple, but the Temple denies the prophecy and persecutes the heretics who believe in the Nerevarine. Tell Caius that Sharn gra-Muzgrob would be a better person to ask about the native faiths and superstitions.

Despite his endeavors to convince himself that this was purely native supposition, Neht was scarcely able to stomach the information he'd asked for. Though he desperately wanted to believe that it was all a sore invention of oppressed minds, he could not explain how, deep down, he knew it to be true. Somehow he knew, standing before the truth like a nix hound backed into a corner. He thanked the Drillmaster for his time before darting back to Caius's house, where he hastily furnished the spymaster with his findings.

“These notes are from Hasphat Antabolis? Excellent! I trust that he didn't work you too hard for them…”

Neht looked miserable--as miserable a mer who he knowingly amasses the threads that could make his own noose should feel.

However, Caius wasn’t quite finished with him yet. “I'll look 'em over in more detail later, but now, I have some new orders for you…”

Neht's nostrils flared. While the demands and needs of others had a propensity manifest themselves in the form of an incessant raid against his nerves, Neht endeavored to fulfill and protect these things as if mechanically prompted, without thought or protest.

Per his unprecedented ability to prognosticate things in his imminent future, he sensed another set of circumstances involving running yet another vapid errand to fetch a mundane object looming just over the horizon, and he absolutely dreaded it. Howbeit, he’d marked Azura’s words well, which stated that his guided ascension might be masked by a series of seemingly bootless tasks. A bit of salt stung the wounds on his pride. All this subterfuge was for the benefit of the Empire. The Empire, at whose hands the folk of Resdayn had evidently been forced into extremely dire straits. For the time being, Neht was resigned to tolerance, so long as he knew that this facade might soon be discarded in favor of greater things--which is to say, he was as any other Dunmer might be, playing the game until he felt it no longer suited him--but not while making sure to reach back and confirm that the dagger behind his back all the while.

Neht continued to pull and snip each of the respective strings until he found that all was arrayed to his liking, because there were almost no lengths to which he wouldn’t go if he knew that it might somehow prove beneficial for the law and the land. Reincarnation certainly hadn’t managed to stamp that out of him.

“I've looked at Hasphat Antabolis's notes. They cover the Sixth House in great detail, but not the Nerevarine cult. Hop on over to the Balmora Mages Guild. It's right next to the Fighters Guild. Get Sharn gra-Muzgob to cough up what she knows about the Nerevarine. Of course, she'll have some silly errand for you to run. Go ahead and do what she asks. Report back when she's given you the information.”

Oh, the humility of it all! Even though he could remember growing up in the lower rungs of Cheydinhal society, the strange sense that he's somehow moved down in the world--or cast down from a high office--weighed upon Neht heavily as he exited the rental flat, all the while trying not to wince at that word as it pricked his pointed ears. The saddest thing of it all, perhaps, was not the wound on his forehead but the wound he'd sustained to his pride by becoming everybody's sweet, unquestioning little errand boy.  

 After entering the Mages Guild, he kept his introduction brief and got to the heart of the matter.

Leaning over a bookshelf like thick veils of ivy content to encroach upon the space of a tree, Sharn was immersed in something undoubtedly arcane and wholly disinteresting to Neht before she whirled on him. “No! No more interruptions! How many times--”

Neht countered her rudeness with a flat expression. “Caius Cosades asked me to speak with you,” he interjected promptly.

“...Oh. You are one of Caius's associates? That is a different matter. Caius and I have a very...satisfactory arrangement.”

'A very satisfactory arrangement--meaning that Caius trades labor from hapless mer such as myself in exchange for your information,'  Neht mused, smiling bitterly at how correct he was. It was satisfactory--that is, for all parties involved that weren't Neht himself.

“--and I'm sure we can come to some sort of agreement if you will complete a little errand for me.”

Lo and behold, there was the meat of the matter: Neht was asked to run yet another bootless errand. The grim reality of it sank in: while he’d initially come to Morrowind with the grandiose idea of embarking on a pilgrimage of self-discovery, it was now beginning to look as though his time in Vvardenfell wouldn’t amount to a plate of scuttle. 

Surely, there had to be an explanation lurking behind the obscurity of the unknown--and with it would come satisfaction, along with a reprieve from the insatiable, form-shifting creature that now haunted his every dream when he didn't tope or invest heavily enough in his use of sujamma and its decidedly sanative properties. Neht could scarcely hear the rest of Sharn’s request for the ringing in his ears. “The errand, then, is very simple. I need the skull of Llevule Andrano. You'll find it in Andrano Ancestral Tomb. But take care not to upset the natives. The Dunmer have some peculiar primitive prejudices against necromancy, and take grave objection to unauthorized tomb visits.”

He sped off, treading almost thoughtlessly until the landscape began to change around him. It was moderately familiar, and if his surroundings were as recognized them, then he was presumably somewhere near Pelagiad. It was not long before he reached the aforementioned tomb, prying open the door to the place with much difficulty, as it was burrowed into the rock face. He'd been devilishly tempted to ask the orc whether or not she was a necromancer--for why else would one be seeking to pilfer selective remains from their resting place?--but  that was a can of scrib for another day. Neht sped off, treading thoughtlessly until he reached the aforementioned sepulture.

After a couple of steps inside the crypt, he was assaulted by a couple of skeletons and a peculiar robed creature bearing an uncanny likeness to the skeletons, though its dusty robes, extra arms, and almost stately hovering status seemed to promise that it was something slightly more grand and terrifying than its bony, grinning counterparts, leading him the conclusion (when he later learned that they were called bonelords) that their title was indeed well-deserved. These bone lords were, for Neht, more difficult to fell than any undead creature he’d yet encountered.

As his eyes moved from the numerous votives left by the Dunmer for the purpose of venerating their dead ancestors, Neht noted that it was impossible for him to tell when and if these creatures felt pain, or if and when they were nearing their limit. When the remainder of their unearthly vigor was finally spent, the skeletons simply fell apart, landing on the floor in a diffuse heap, thus posing a formidable tripping hazard. It was wasn’t as if there was any shortage of cadaverous tripping hazards in there as it was, for Neht had previously stumbled over the desiccated figure of a slain Dunmer. Closer inspection revealed that he was hardly carrying anything of worth, and at any rate, he was loath to disturb a body in a tomb that was filled with undead, for fear that the corpse might rise up in vengeance like rest of the crypt’s unliving occupants.

The layout of the crypt was as labyrinthine as it was dismal for the adroit mer. Nevertheless, Neht successfully managed to make his way through the place by carefully surveying each etching around the slots and miniature chambers filled with the interred dead, discerning whether or not the remains were the ones he sought. He read and re-read, militantly circling each room while ensuring that he hadn't missed one. Just as his frustrations began to escalate, Neht happened across a door that was apparently unopened, gently pushing it ajar. The small space within was littered with plain-colored urns, and upon a small platform elevated a couple of inches from the ground, a skull was seated alongside an ornate dagger whose wicked-looking shape seemed to promise unfathomable ritualistic deeds of eld.

With great reserve, Neht took them both into the sleeve of his steel vestments, although not before dusting the skull off gently. Already, he felt that he was greatly disrespecting the dead of that crypt, and deep was his desire to minimize his transgressions as much as possible. A pervasive, lingering feeling of guilt gnawed away at Neht, who was suddenly aware of each and every step he took on his way back to Balmora once more, opting to take the shortest route possible. He didn’t want to spend any more time with a dead mer’s skull than was absolutely necessary to facilitate the completion of this task.

By the time he came once more to Sharn gra-Muzgob, Neht had gone cold and felt himself detach from all the goings-on around him. Naturally, the Orsimer wasn’t able to take offense at his tepid level of involvement because the river of artifice ran chief among his proficiencies. A brief pang of anger stabbed his conscience as he reluctantly surrendered the skull. Of course, he took the utmost care not to allow any visible indication displeasure to seep through. For his trouble, he was given the written information that Caius craved.

Neht trudged back to Caius for the umpteenth time, deciding that he was going to part ways with the situation if this was all his sojourn in Morrowind would amount to; for being someone's mailman was certainly not what had drawn him here. As for what he needed to do, he’d certainly find a way to do it. A tiny, selfish voice rose up from somewhere within him, whispering its hope that Azura might lay her enmity against the Empire for its misdeeds, though he knew better than to entertain such a notion. Prior to being thrown on that ship and sent to Vvardenfell, Neht had neglected all awareness of just how deep his dislike of the Empire ran.

“These are Sharn's notes on the Nerevarine cult? Excellent! I'm promoting you to Blades Apprentice! Now, for your next orders: I want you to interview three informants in Vivec City concerning the Nerevarine and the Sixth House. First, I want you to speak with Addhiranirr, a Khajiit Thieves Guild operative. Secondly, I want you to see Huleeya, an Argonian with the Morag Tong. Finally, I want you to speak with Mehra Milo, a Temple priestess. Here: I've written the details down, so you won't forget. And here are two-hundred drakes, for bribes and….” Caius smiled slyly, adding, “Other expenses…”

“Other expenses.”  Neht certainly hoped that this meant that he might be afforded the opportunity to purchase some more sujamma and another longsword, for the one currently in his possession had proved a little worse for wear during his little escapade in the Andrano Ancestral Tomb. 

As Caius went on and on, the youth’s eyes glazed over, and he could feel something urging him again, faintly, until Neht departed from the house, barely able to recall what Caius had said. He padded along the road until he found a grassy hillock where he sat to take time and consider whether or not it was all worth it. He carried very few things with him at any given time--his blade, his clothing, and a few small tokens that had been handed down to him. Neht had never known his mother, much less anything about her--until the day that he received a summons from the count of Cheydinhal, who had given him a few keepsakes--chief among them a small, old signet ring emblazoned with a curious winged sigil emblazoned on the front. Somehow, he knew it was there for the sake of stamping official documents. The weight of the ring in his palm was a mere fragment of the ancient authority implied by its seal; a mere fraction of the encumbrance that was the state, and a light dusting of patina and mild wearing around the edges contributed to the air of antiquity about it.

He said he didn't know his mother's name; only that it seemed that she'd been exiled from one of the Great Houses for some reason, or was perhaps fleeing from some sort of persecution. At the time, Neht hadn't given it much thought--at least, not until he took a good long look at the ring. He could recall taking the ring out, seeing it glimmer as the sun's rays hit it at that moment stirred every resting memory that had long been dormant, calm and unrealized within him. After that, it had begun: each night, his dreams filled to the brim with faces from the past, urging him to return home. 

Neht had taken all of these things as signs, but as he sat upon that mound of turf, he wondered if he'd been wrong. With the possibility of being wrong came the knowledge that things would be easier if he was wrong about it all, and part of him hoped this was the case. A dense fog settled over his mind, and he drifted into an uneasy sleep. 

A sudden jolt woke him, and he found that he'd crossed blades with an aberrant, malformed creature that appeared to Neht as a crazed, diseased parody of a Dunmer. The sweet stench of decay filled N's nostrils but didn't perturb him. What bothered him was that this creature was harassing him, yet it seemed lucid enough in speech and thought,  prompting Neht to demand an explanation.

“Who are you and what do you want? How is that you come to accost me here? Answer quickly, or I shall free your head from your miserable shoulders!” Rather than a stately declaration, Neht’s warning had been presented as a threatening hiss into the creature's ear. Thereafter, there was absolutely no attempt on his part to salvage the facade of gentility.

“Lord Nerevar, my master, Dagoth Ur, bids you come---” Neht became lambent with a mixture of fury and righteous indignation--but for some reason, he found this request morbidly compelling, as though it were spoken in a voice other than the broken, scratchy, gurgling vocalizations of a monster and for a moment, he thought it had been.

For reasons he could not yet grasp, being addressed that way sent him over the edge. Whatever else the creature had to say, he no longer cared to hear--for in him was the knowledge of how that sentence would end. It was parroting the same words he'd heard in the dead of countless nights. He drew his blade in a flash and began stabbing blindly at the ash monster, causing it to quail. They clearly hadn’t anticipated his wrath. Perhaps they’d meant to pick him off in his sleep.

The inquisitive element in the youth’s quiet voice slipped into confusion and annoyance. “You continue dispense formalities, and address me as ‘my lord.’ You bid me to come. Then, you decide to have me killed...”

While Neht hadn’t expected to escape the masked man’s nightmarish passions unscathed, he was nevertheless quite cross with him for sending creatures to assassinate him in his sleep, and he was more than a little confused. Was he trying to extend the hand of friendship? Did he, as he’d suspected with the first couple of dreams, mean to woo Neht? Or, had he changed his mind and decided to kill the frazzled reincarnation of his former lord?

“...You cannot have it both ways, Voryn,” Nerevar murmured into the creature’s ear as the hilt of a fine steel blade sank into the creature’s mottled chest.

As the ash creature died (if ‘died’ is indeed the word for it), the first signs of the sun's arrival over the horizon seemed hastened by his actions. A strange prickling sensation crept across Neht's face, and it quickly evolved into a harsh, searing pain over the next few seconds. He clasped his face in his hands as if he believed it might keep the pain isolated to just that spot while blundering about, unable to see; blinded by a light seen by nothing else.

Neht’s hands clambered across the ground, clawing at the vegetation for support. His fingers wove through the tall, uncut grasses until they found cool waters. Reflexively testing his ability to see, Neht wrenched his eyes open, met by a reflection in the water that stared back at him incredulously. For a moment, it was as if a veil--which had been upon him his whole life thus far--had been lifted from his eyes at last.

The face staring back at him from the reflection was bewilderingly familiar; for Neht knew it better than he knew his current visage, despite the marked similarities between the two. It was in every way himself, but with strange, intricate adornments and iridescent blue face paint. The mer’s skin could surely shame all the gilt treasures buried in the vault of the Imperial treasury, creased faintly with the barest indications of age. Silver eyes flashed like lightning heaved across the sky above tiered puffiness beneath both eyes which recalled that the Hortator enjoyed very little sleep in most of his lives.

Out of childish habit and contrived doubt, Neht made a few faces at the reflection, which mirrored every strange, expressive contortion he could manage. The stars and sky reeled overhead, and each passing moment seemed to span the better part of eternity. He felt himself making faces at the reflection, trying to ascertain that it was indeed himself--which, it was. Neht veered like a pendulum, back and forth from denying that it was him to accepting the reflected mer that had stared back at him, and it was the most comfortable, natural feeling in the world.

A pale blue light could be seen in the center his forehead: a moon and star, seated next to each other, solemnly heralding his identity. Neht blinked and his reflection had become normal again, but the lit symbol on his forehead lingered a few moments before fading. The dawn had broken. Huge, billowing clouds of the past were drawn in by a momentary storm of recollection--and that’s when he knew it was real. Once more, he knew the world as a soldier knows enemy territory, dwelling the corners of secrecy when he was not content to march to the thunderous din of his own purpose like an army of occupation.   

With a strange sort of satisfaction, Neht strode back to Balmora with a slight bounce in his step. While the air of tranquility about him seemed untouched, he was nevertheless troubled about what had just transpired. Perhaps today he would make it a point of taking a break. Surely, he told himself, it would be alright to refrain for just one day.

Especially if that meant performing deeds that weren't in the service of the Empire. Something about serving the Empire--and the thought of continuing to do so--just didn't sit well with him.

Reluctantly, Neht steered himself away from completing the task at hand. Admittedly, he did feel as though he deserved a bit of a break, despite the warring aspects of obligation. Armed with that feeling, he strode into the South Wall Corner Club and treated himself to a meal and, for the rest of the afternoon and evening, sujamma.

When the last embers of daylight died down into the evening, Neht spied a familiar face entering the corner club. It was that fellow from the guild who had treated his wounds a day or so before. His eyes languidly swept across the room until they met Neht’s, arriving at the point of intersection where each gaze became fixed on the other’s. A coquettish gesture, no doubt. He’d been flirting with Neht since the day he’d arrived in Balmora. They spent the first part of the evening with pleasantries and small talk and otherwise getting to know one another, though that was far from the ultimate purpose of their interaction. A few genial hours passed and Neht allows the man to lead him to his house.

When the door opened, Neht entered without complaint, allowing the one-time interest to guide him to the bedroom. The house was extremely dark, save for clustered assortments of half-melted candles and a few crimson lanterns. Though this might normally warrant his suspicion, Neht was far too distracted to devote much thought to the matter. Bound by the desire to lose himself, even if it were just for an instant, he cast aside his reservations with the help of arousal, which proved quite diverting as the other draws him into a heated scenario.

A feeling of relief washed over him as the dark-haired seducer relieved him of his clothes before lying Neht back and positioning himself in Neht’s lap. By all accounts, the other Dunmer seemed quite keen for the festivities to begin, as it were.

The youth’s lips curve into a smile, “Straight to the point, eh? I can admire that…” but that smile fades as the other effectively mounts him. A chorus of pleased sighs erupted from both Dunmer as lovemaking takes its course. Things were enjoyable at first--and Neht could do little to deny that physically, he was well-pleased. However, what physical pleasure he felt was soon eclipsed by agitation, for he was unable to lose himself as intended. Something about the other's wavy, raven-colored tresses kept him desirous yet grounded.

For the better part of this little tryst, a sensual sort of eye contact remained present between the two, chiefly due to Neht's efforts to maintain it. It was, after all, important to keep one's eye on the prize--until Neht narrowed his eyes closed--an action he would later deem a mistake. Perhaps by closing his eyes, he’d sought to close out the dim, red-washed surroundings and focus only on the sensations of the other form writhing against his; savoring the sensations by grasping each heated, sinuous motion rather than fixating upon its image.

A few moments passed before Neht’s eyelids reluctantly fluttered open, and he clung to each of second before slipping into what he saw next. The entirety of the room had changed: the plain linen bedding was changed to a silken coverlet, the space about him had grown significantly larger than before, and the decor is painted in somber shades of crimson, grey and black interwoven with geometrically abstract designs and sumptuous but celebratory hints of gold.

He gazed up at the Dunmer he'd gone to bed with, only find that it was not the same mer--rather, it was the graven image of the Chimer that lurked in his memories and dreams, nude and impassioned.

Neht wanted to freeze; to cry out, only to find that his body remained immersed in the guttural, percussive motions of lovemaking. Reaching toward whatever he could grab, he moved to test the tangibility of that gilded form and hopefully dispel the illusion. Per the nature of the moment and because it's the closest thing in reach, he squeezes the mer's lower thigh--and to Neht's dismay, the rich, throaty tenor of the cry he elicits rings the same as it does in every other dream.

He'd already climaxed when the crimson-eyed mer seized his hand, drawing it toward his face and planting a kiss on his knuckle. Neht looks on in horror as the other breathes the words, “My lord…”

At last, he screamed, gripping the other's narrows hips and wrenching the two apart. Neht blinks, and everything seemed to have returned to normal. His partner is crumpled up on the floor, lying there in a heap because Neht's powerful arms had all but thrown him to the other side of the room.

The other Dunmer looked up at him, confused. “Have I offended you, sera...?” Surprise and hurt were manifold in his tone.

Though he knew that the other was merely being polite, it made Neht felt irrationally fearful and angry. However, he was far too proud to express his fear openly, looking upon the other instead with an icy, dispassionate glower as he dressed and departed hastily.

The poor thing tried to follow Neht for a few moments, begging to know what he'd done wrong and if Neht was alright. Neht had compassion for the stark misery in the other man’s eyes, but as he was its cause, he could do little to assuage it.

“Do not speak of this to anyone.”

The sweet subtlety of Neht’s tone might’ve left room for strength unsuspected, but many Dunmer are wise to the danger of sweet subterfuge, as they partake in it regularly. As he was perhaps wiser than some, the would-be paramour made it a point of avoiding Neht then on.

Chapter Text

En route to the Fighters Guild after exiting his failed paramour's residence, a thoroughly downtrodden Neht was abruptly set upon by a fanatical mer clad in a faded blue robe toting a torch in broad daylight. The ferocity of its flames of seemed to somehow defy Azura's waxing light. Each sputtering ember fought on in vain to belittle the glory of dawn--though if Neht believed that the peculiarities stopped here, then he was certainly in for a surprise.

The torch-carrier in question seemed excitable and hazy in his mannerisms, as though he was not quite there, though the stark clarity contained in his eyes told another story. Neht got neither the chance to greet nor question this individual as he started right in on him. “I am a Sleeper, one among countless others,” he began; his voice lilting and trembling with enthusiasm. “I bring to you a message: Dagoth Ur calls you, Neht, and you cannot deny his summons.”

Neht’s eyebrows shot up instantly--for what was this about something he couldn’t do? Well, he thought, we'll see about that! Naturally, the air about them now seemed pregnant with the possibility of strife as his fingers fluttered hesitantly over the hilt of his blade, where they remained throughout the entire duration of this exchange. 

“The Sixth House is risen, with its Lord, in all His glory,” the mer chattered excitedly, blissfully unaware of Neht’s formulations of defiance as he continued, with feverish eagerness, to spell out his numinous master's intentions, whatever they were. (Not that half of it made sense, but Neht could at least respect that this fellow was certainly trying.)

Despite knowing that he would come to regret this decision immensely, Neht decided to ask this Sleeper about his lord--for surely, there had to be something to it; a method to this madness.

“Dagoth Ur is our Lord and the Father of the Mountain. He sleeps now, but when He wakes, we shall rise from our dreams and sweep clean these lands of the n'wah. Why have you denied Him...? Why do you deny Him still? Resistance is futile, because it is as He foretold: "All shall greet him as flesh, or as dust.” The Sleeping House is the one True House; the one to which all true Dunmer are welcome. Rejoice, Moon-and-Star, and join us! Come to Red Mountain, and prepare the way for His coming!”

An aggravated sigh escaped Neht. Why, he wondered, had he even bothered to ask? The bitter, all-too-familiar taste of regret singed both thought and tongue as Neht hastily elbowed his way past this self-proclaimed Dreamer. Furthermore, he wondered just how the mer’s mind had gone from concluding that Neht had somehow denied the invitation before proceeding to extend it once more. Frustration, he felt, was hardly a suitable reward for the patience he'd shown their cause so far.

At any rate, some indication of alarm must've been evident on his face, because the mer’s resounding laughter could be heard as called after him, “Whether or not by your will, you will come to him soon enough. “Come! Grasp the chain! Prove you’re sane!”

The thought of what might become of them--combined with the events plaguing his most recent nightmares--gave Neht goosebumps. Were it not for the laws of the land, he might’ve killed them on the spot for propagating an idea that was dangerously and obscenely wrong. Furthermore, he wondered, why was he the one being asked to prove his sanity? Surely, Neht mused, the giver of this invaluable advice could've stood to take a leaf from his own tome!

Those words, coupled with the sound of the mer's uneven, off-key laughter, haunted Neht's next few days abroad. There was something agonizingly familiar about that incongruous poetry and how it had been expressed in a tone simply dripping with fondness and admiration, as if the other believed that Neht already knew what he meant. What disquieted him the most was how it all sounded as though it had been someone else speaking through him; some force from afar using that hapless mer as its mouthpiece.

Lurid, towering fungal forests with verdant clusters of vegetation and precipitous, ashen foyadas which had formerly held and commanded his rapt attention seemed to be worth nothing now as he rushed by them quickly. Out of fear of being stopped by someone just like the man from earlier, Neht partnered with haste while continuing to wage his resolute war against sleep, taking neither camp nor to wife notions of respite, since the attacks and unwanted visits from those withered grey beasts were becoming more and more frequent.

‘Damn him. Why does he have to make everything WEIRD?’ In the middle of this thought, a small pebble dared to get caught in his instep, Neht kicked it away sullenly and with such force that it was as though he believed it was the sole cause of his misery. The rock shattered, scattering itself to the winds in the form of tiny fragments of dust and igneous sediment.

A series of weathered signposts littered throughout the landscape was the only thing that gave Neht any sense of direction, despite the fact that all friendly passerby seemed thoroughly convinced by their remarks that he looked "so natural there”, or that the land "suited him well" as he continued to move about Vvardenfell's anomalous environment. Neht reached the Ascadian Isles more quickly than he had anticipated, and before he knew it, the shapes of Vivec's numerous cantons loomed headlong before him against the horizon.  

As he stepped into what he could only venture to describe as a chaotic mess of buildings on platforms connected by a series of out-of-the-way bridges, a helpful samaritan informed him was the Foreign Quarter, it was simply a matter of discerning where on Azura's blessed spheres he should go from here. Thankfully, the many of the locales seemed helpful--though some were arguably more useful than others, supplying him the faulty advice of, “Just look around, sera. You’ll find it.”

Obviously, they'd never been outside the city much, and couldn’t fathom just how difficult it was for a newcomer to navigate their incorrigibly labyrinthine metropolis. Door by door, everything began to look the same all over again (except perhaps being skewed at a slightly different angle, depending on which canton he'd strayed into.) The only reason Neht could discern the difference between each section of the city was by the variety of banners and tapestries held aloft between the cantons and the thick, dark Daedric letters embroidered into each of them.

Judging by the perplexing layout of the place and the moonlet that hung precariously overhead, threatening to crash into the city the moment the city's eponymous deity became dissatisfied with the affections of those that lived there, Neht began to wonder if the fabled Warrior-Poet was a cruel sort--and suffice it to say, one glance up at the Ministry of Truth had him deem it a likely enough explanation. Be that as it may, he could understand why such a precaution had been taken, recalling that he’d once told an old friend that fear was a highly effective management tool.

By either sheer luck or sudden intuition, Neht found himself entering the Lower Waistworks of the Foreign Quarter--but not before wandering through roughly three-quarters of the city, and otherwise a myriad of places that proved to be everything but the place he was looking for. The Foreign Quarter, as Caius's instructions had suggested, contained the Black Shalk Cornerclub and therefore, Caius's Morag Tong-affiliated informant. Neht kept his head down, providing the appearance of one who eagerly minded his own business. Nevertheless, he and his actions turned a multitude of heads--and not for the first time. A few of what he vaguely presumed to be formal guards of some sort buzzed about the busy hive.

The first one that he'd seen had stopped in his tracks to give Neht nothing short of a good long staring-at, and the gilt mask that each Ordinator toted did little to hide the fact this mer's interest pronounced itself as an uncomfortably long, roving stare. The Ordinator paused, canting his head slightly. His hand was stayed by hesitation moments before that gilt gauntlet rose slowly to point at Neht, reaching up to touch the gilt visage upon the front of the helm curiously. The gauntlet's fingers appeared to curl slightly, perhaps indicative that (judging by the rather low, contemplative grunt heard) he was trying to divine some kind of connection between his mask and Neht. Whatever conclusion he had (or hadn't) come to was destined to remain a mystery to Neht, as the mer simply shook his head as though the gesture might dispel his suspicions.

He gave Neht a very slow, stiff nod beneath the helm before strutting off. Neht tried to smile and otherwise give them a reason to be suspicious, for he was guilty of no crimes (other than that of being raised outside of Morrowind--at least, in this life.) He made it a point to avoid straying too close to the Temple itself for long, however--despite the fact that he harbored more than a few questions about their city's eponymous, sacrosanct leader. Neht had absolutely no intention of allowing those polished, priestly sorts to proselytize him--which he knew they would, if he’d let them. If he gave those zealots any indication whatsoever that he may be opening the door, they'd just barge right in and swarm him like fleas on a guar. One might think he'd stumbled upon a nest of cliff racers rather than educated individuals who worked in a temple or chapel.

"Outlander," The Ordinator said rather stiffly, and as though the word itself were more of an admonishment than a fact. It appeared that N's Cyrodiilic lilt had betrayed him. The word had been spoken with the same harsh pointedness as an insult delivered in the midst of a heated argument--the seemingly perpetual argument that was the Empire and Morrowind. Yet Neht also fancied that maybe the guard had sounded a bit disappointed for some reason. Armor, as he well knew, could conceal a myriad of secrets--but it could not veil changes in posture, nor could it wholly guise one's tone of voice and demeanor. He gave Neht an extremely slow nod beneath the helm before strutting off.

"We're watching you, scum," harped another Ordinator from afar.

Neht’s throaty reply reverberated off the walls, causing several of the Ordinators to turn on their heels, likely with the intent of going after him: “Oh, I’m sure you are.” He cut a few corners, ducking through various hallways until he was certain that he’d eluded all possibility of being pursued for making that remark. It was all rather amusing--both how they acted like they were his betters, and how they appeared to believe that they were the only masked individuals that were watching him. Neht snorted. Perhaps they'd all just have to get in line!

During his soujorn in Gorne, the local priest at the Tribunal chapel, Vono Sarando, was a nice enough fellow, but he’d talked Neht’s ear off once the subject of faith had been placed on the table. For his part, the priest had been very eager to convert one of Sandil House’s youngest members to the Tribunal faith, and Neht might’ve allowed it to happen, save for the strange feeling inside him that came up each time, telling him that a mer could not venerate his friends as gods.

Without sparing another glance at those saintly tapestries, Neht bobbed and wove through passing throngs of people until he found the door to the Black Shalk Cornerclub, which he entered in great haste. He did not have much seeking to do to find the Argonian, who stuck out like a rather unwilling sore thumb a throng amid disgruntled Dunmer patrons. Neht approached him quickly, striding up to the other in a brisk but relaxed manner. So began their conversation--taking the form of strained expressions and exchanged whispers.

“Yes, Neht. I simply wish to go to my friend's Jobasha's bookstore. We can talk in peace there. But these troublesome fools keep threatening me. They hate my kind, and I think they're spoiling for a fight. But you're a Dunmer; so perhaps you can reason with them and persuade them to leave us alone. But I warn you: if you say the wrong thing, they may attack us both." The Argonian's scaly brow-ridges knit worriedly as Neht drifted off, hopefully, to dissuade an oncoming scuffle.

Over the next few minutes, Neht immersed himself in the art of befriending and negotiating with the so-called troublesome fools. Ethys Savil, the ringleader of the group, seemed to change his tune a bit. At first, he'd snapped, “Am I talking to you, fetcher?! No. I am speaking to that filthy reptile--so push off!” But his song sounded a little different after the Indoril Amulet and ring fell away from the spot in which Neht had tucked it away within his armor, becoming visible. The ring had been mounted upon a chain and placed around his neck for safekeeping, and Neht would later praise this part of his heritage for unexpectedly coming to his aid. Neht came to suppose that despite the staunch eye of the Ordinators, who might suffer all to believe that their gaze encompassed every nook and cranny, the city was positively abuzz with grifter sorts. Suffice it to say that he was correct.

Taking note of the Neht's nice clothes, the mer heaved a sigh, concluding that this one was undoubtedly a noble.

“Fah. Fine! I don't want any trouble with the likes of your lot. He can stay here forever or leave, for all I care. It isn't our problem, is it, boys?” His friends nodded in solemnly. Neht made his way back over to Huleeya merrily.

“I’ll show you out. Let there be no further strife here, thanks be to these good, reasonable mer." Neht's voice filled the room, and even those thugs were now smiling and finding it hard not to warm up to him. It was plain to see that he certainly had a way with people, when he cared to exercise those skills.

As they exited the Cornerclub, the cluster of troublesome Dunmer congregated at one of the tables. Neht overheard what bits and pieces of what they were saying. It put a smile on his face, but he didn't give it much thought thereafter.

Huleeya led the way to Jobasha's Rare books, and both parties kept quiet until they entered the aforementioned shop.

The Khajiit shopkeeper and the Argonian boggled for a moment at the fact that before they stood a good-spirited Dunmer that seemed wholly disinterested in the practice of clapping their kind in irons.

“Yes, thank you very much for that.” Huleeya’s voice was markedly more audible than it had been before. “We should be free from distraction here. Now, I will tell you about the Nerevarine cult so that you can report back to Caius. And I don't know about any Sixth House cult, but I can tell you what I do know."

Neht smiled. “Go on.”

“To understand the Nerevarine cult, you must understand the history of the Ashlander people. Nerevar means something very different to the Ashlanders from what he means to the Dunmer of the Great Houses. You should also be aware of the persecution of the Nerevarine, and the legacies of the many False Incarnates. The Temple treats the Nerevarine prophecies as heresy, and they imprison anybody they find to be involved with it. The Empire doesn't intervene because the ideas within the Nerevarine prophecies generally promote hostility toward the Empire. The Nerevarine cult is located at the heart of the ancient feuds between the nomadic Ashlanders and the settled Dunmer of the Great Houses. Here's a summary for Caius--but feel free to stay and questions. I will answer what I can in detail.”

Neht graciously accepted the paperwork, tucking it away with his things for safekeeping. There were so many things he wanted to ask, but he knew that his questions span beyond what the Argonian knew. “No, but thank you for being so thorough. I will not keep you any longer.”

The three said their goodbyes and parted; as Neht still had another informant to track down. He'd be sure to visit Jobasha's again later and peruse his wares. While he was there, he had managed to get a few good books for a decent price--The Wild Elves, and a copy of the Invocation of Azura. The next day, he'd return to purchase The Progress of Truth upon Mehra Milo's advice.

A few hours later, Neht stumbled upon St. Olms Waistworks in search of a good place to take a quick rest. Not long after he'd entered, he came face-to-face with an Imperial with an air of officialism about him. His name, as Neht would later discover, was Duvianus Platorius.

“Ah, hello there. I'm looking for a friend of mine--a female Khajiit by the name of Addhiranirr. Do you know where I can find her?" It did not take Neht long to put two and two together: an Imperial operative, in search of a Thieves' Guild agent? If he were to find her, then Neht would never be able to get the information he needed--and so he spun the following tale as seamlessly as Mephala sows the barbed seeds of discord and disbelief in the hearts of those who are content to believe that the might never know aught but peace in their lives: “Actually, I believe you just missed her. She's gone on a trip to the mainland.”

The stress mounting in the man's facial expression was almost tangible. “I see,” was his crestfallen response. “Maybe I'll run into her back on the mainland, then…”

Neht nodded. “Perhaps.” But the Imperial had already walked off, likely formulating plans as to how he was going to catch up to that crafty Khajit.

The next few hours were consumed by a tireless exploration of the St. Olms Canton underworks, which seemed the most likely place for a Thieves Guild operative to hide. This wasn't the first time Neht had dealings with them, though that particular fiasco had taken place back in Cyrodiil many years before. As it happened, he eventually crossed paths with a lone Khajit down there, who turned out to be none other than Addhiranirr herself.

Neht was relieved. He'd trodden through these winding underways for quite some time, fearing that he was beginning to get lost, for everything looked the same.

Her voice was practically a purr, warming and therapeutic to the ears. “So. Arrre you the one Addhiranirr must thank for getting rrrid of the annoying Census and Excise agent...? Indeed, Addhiranirr is verrry glad to see you, and happy to tell a frrriend of Caius all about the Sixth House cult. And Addhiranirr knows nothing about the Nerrrevarine. This other cult Addhiranirr knows about, because it is all about smuggling. Some smart smugglers are suddenly "too busy" for their old clients because they have a new employer, the Sixth House, who pays VERY well. Addhiranirr does not know what they are smuggling now, because they are very secretive! And this is odd, because these smugglers are always loud and bragging, and now, they hush up like fat-bellied kitties full of sweet-meats. Addhiranirr knows nothing about this Nerevarine cult, because it is all just silly superstition. So you tell Caius this: Nobody in her rrright mind pays attention to this nonsense. Prophecies and ancient heroes reborn and other silliness. Fuzzy tales forrr little kitties!"

Neht found himself frowning profusely at her words. ‘Fuzzy tales for little kitties. How nice it might be, if only that were true!’

Along with her gratitude, the Khajit had rattled off all the information he needed. Thankfully, she also furnished him with a written version of her account on the matter, as her speech was far too swift and rolling for Neht's now-added brain to properly keep up with. He gave his thanks and, after asking her for directions out of there, departed to seek out the final informant.

So it was that the prodigious fighter made his way to the Temple area of Vivec City. He'd always been under the impression that being in a temple (and its library) should make one feel sanct--or that there should be some kind of pious orenda cloaking one when one ventured to such a place. Neht took umbrage at this as he climbed the steps and entered the door to the Halls of Wisdom, continuing through lengthy corridors until he found a comely mer clad in a woeful shade of blue.

“Yes, I'm Mehra Milo,” she said as Neht questioned her, in a voice immediately thinning to a whisper. “Caius sent you? Follow me into the back of the library. We can't talk here," she whispered.

Neht wondered silently what the purpose of this secrecy was as the two migrated to a spot in which they were obscured, by several bookshelves, from the watchful wrath of the Ordinators.

“I'm afraid I don't know anything about a Sixth House cult, but I can tell you about the Nerevarine Cult. And Caius--he's a dear friend. He admires the best traditions of the Temple: charity for the poor, education for the ignorant, protection for the weak. He is a Westerner, but he has come to love our land and its people. Also, like me, he distrusts the arbitrary power of the Ordinators, and he suspects the Temple is hiding something. He serves the Emperor but also loves Morrowind. He sees the failing virtues of the Temple as a threat to Morrowind's political stability. All the rest of the information he needs is in a copy of 'Progress of Truth'. That should tell him much he needs to know about the Nerevarine cult. We have a copy here, but I fear I'm being watched by the Ordinators. A safer plan would be to search local booksellers."

Neht smiled thinly. All this running around was wearing his patience thin, and the fact that Mehra seemed like a kind person was all that stood between Neht and his gall at this point. The loathsome, obscure pall of night soon cast itself upon the city, and Neht found a place to rest until the morning came. He rested but didn't dare fall asleep. 

The next evening, he carried himself back to Seyda Neen on a whim, knowing all the while that Caius awaited him impatiently in Balmora, which was back in the opposite direction. If one had ventured to ask Neht to explain this action, he would find himself characteristically bereft of an explanation (especially if one paired this inquiry with the assumption that his actions were all carefully planned.) He knew only that something told him that he needed to go, and so he did.

His feet carried him almost automatically toward the Census and Excise building until he encountered a lean, dark-haired mer dressed in black leaning against the corner of the building with one foot casually propped against the doorframe. Nearby lay a sizable burlap rucksack, and at first glance, it didn’t seem to be of any import. A disgruntled Neht began to wonder if Azura meant to test him by having him encounter these enticing sorts. 

“Serjo Neht Sandil,” the mer remarked, his drawling tone more smooth than the finest brandy.

Neht froze. This mer knew his name, and when people knew his name, it usually meant trouble--furthermore, that it was a stranger that knew his name seemed to indicate that perhaps they had dirt on him, as it were. Whatever the case, Neht was intrigued. “That would be me,” he declared, rather grandly--unafraid of this particular name because there came with it a surname, and that meant family. “You know who I am.”

The mer folded his arms, canting his head slightly. Over the next few seconds, Neht came to admire him greatly, for he did not balk or fold beneath his intense, scrutinous stare. “Of course I know who you are. My informants in the Census and Excise office told me that you're doing a bit of spying for the Empire. You come from good stock, so I’ll admit I was a little surprised to hear this. Tell me, serjo: d’you really feel comfortable working for the Empire that imprisoned you...?"

He shook his head. “Not particularly, if it’s an honest answer you’re fishing for.”

“Good. I was counting on that. My employer, Master Aryon, would like to receive that information instead. Besides, we'll offer you double the amount you'd get from Empire. Master Aryon lives in Tel Vos, which can be accessed via Sadrith Mora. Here's a few drakes for the fare, and a few levitation potions. Trust me--they'll come in handy. Oh. By the way, so will this.”

The man snatched the bag and thrust it into Neht’s arms. “It’s yours, you know.”

The youth peered into the bag and began to weed through its contents. His fingers paused as they crossed paths with silk, and Neht immediately closes the bag upon catching a glimpse of resplendent blue. “My robes, from Gorne,” Neht murmured, his voice barely a whisper. “How came you by these? Who are you?”

By the time Neht managed to pry his gaze away from his things, the mysterious supplicant was already walking away. “Ralav Menenim,” the other replied, pausing to spare a glance over his shoulder. “But that's not important right now. Go see Master Aryon. We'll be in touch. Oh, and...please don’t lose your things again. I went through quite an ordeal to get them back for you.”

“Thank you, I suppose,” Neht grumbled. While the whole affair had left him with far more questions than answers, he was nevertheless grateful to have his finery back. Normally, Neht didn't place too much significance on clothes and jewelry. It was not the luxury of the raiments that he craved; rather, it was the fact that these particular things had been given to him by someone he could rightly call kin. Tangible proof that he had a family now, and roots of his own.

He wondered what the man had meant when he said he’d gone through quite an ordeal. Thoughtlessly, Neht pushed the door to the Census and Excise Warehouse, finding its interior unlocked and unguarded. A few steps into the room revealed an environment rife with unseen tripping hazards. He had a frightful time trying to see, as all the lanterns had been doused. Startled, Neht reached down, peering into the blackness, finding that he’d trodden upon something squishy--something that felt suspiciously like a slain person.

Reaching down, the youth’s hands were suddenly immersed in a pool of blood. Fervent rapping sounds erupted from outside the door, prompting a scowl from Neht as he stuffed himself into a barrel for the sake of avoiding detection. The door practically burst off its hinges as guard after guard entered the fold.

An aggravated cry erupted from one of the guards. “By the Nine! Someone’s been murdered!”

A cacophony of sabatoned feet rushed through the place for what seemed like time immemorial. Neht remained deathly silent, squeezing his eyes shut. There was no doubt in his mind that if he were to be found there, the guards now swarming the area would indubitably try to pin those murder charges on him. He could say little in his defense, as the sound mind would judge it rather unlikely for an armed mer being caught a murder scene in the middle of the night as simply being caught in the wrong place at an inauspicious time. Coincidence had long since fled those lands.

Neht's only true wife was trouble, yet he'd failed to percieve that he'd walked into yet another setup. The Telvanni agent had effectively forced his hand. Even if he were to escape (as he now planned), this Ralav character--if that was indeed his name--had certainly appealed to Neht’s emotions, thus eschewing whatever chances he had of continuing to pursue that particular route.

However, someone had once told him that the way of destiny was as the way of ruling kings, with each wrong-walking way tapering off into the void to circumvent the next; and he’d marked these words well. As the desperate brigade of footsteps tapered into silence, he knew that his path was his own to carve out. His were the hands that might shape the abstract motif of the future, and he knew there was more than one road leading to that final, gleaming destination.


Chapter Text

Neht remained motionless in that barrel for quite some time until he felt himself being lifted and briefly transported, presumably somewhere outdoors--if the fresh air and thin, linear rays of sunlight seeping in from between fissures in the weathered wood were anything to by which to base his judgment. Hearing one of the workers complain about how heavy the barrel was, Neht was half-tempted to burst out of the barrel and demand to know whether or not the man was implying that he was overweight. Of course, to do so would be to blow his cover, so Neht waited until all fell deathly silent before slowly loosening the lid of the barrel to peer out at his present circumstances, which thankfully proved favorable for a change.

He found himself surrounded by many more crates and barrels, not far from the causeway leading into the Census and Excise offices. Neht’s bones ached, and he could feel every sinew in his legs longing for a good stretch. Slowly and deliberately, he slithered out of the barrel like a moistened tree serpent against a canopy in Black Marsh’s vast and jungle-like expanses. He crept around the storage containers until he was certain that he’d evaded the vigil of two incoming voices, slipping out of Seyda Neen unnoticed thereafter. Neht then made his way toward a doorway nestled between some boulders past the silt strider station. He flung open the wooden door without reserve, ducking inside the cavern hastily.

The unmistakable scent of smoke trickled into his nostrils, snapping his attention in the direction of a warm light below emanating from a blazing firepit which illuminated the faces of a Dunmer woman with her dagger at the ready. By all indications, she appeared to expect the trouble that was Neht. After all, he hadn’t made the quietest of entrances, having parted ways with discretion after escaping the confines of that barrel and the threat of becoming a gratuitous scapegoat for someone else’s crimes. There was an air of fierce secrecy about her, particularly the way she crouched next to a nearby canoe and glowered from behind it, as though daring an intruder to come forth. Naturally, that's precisely what Neht did, as he favored not the idea of taking respite too close to a door, fearing that it could be flung open at any time by Imperials that might've wanted his blood.

So it was that he sprung on the woman and struck her down without hesitation, knowing that she would've done the same to him. Neht spied a small, glimmering bauble bounce out of her dusty vestments and a curious chink! could be heard, accompanied by a somewhat rhythmic arrangement of clinking sounds as the smuggler woman fell, which he knew to be the subdued sounds of something small and metallic making contact with stone. He followed his ears hastily, ignoring the strange, far-off overture that constantly played in his ears while refusing to be washed from his thoughts, retrieving the shiny thing from between a damp cluster of stalagmites. Closer inspection revealed that it was a key.

At this point in his life, it was Neht's understanding that if someone stationed toward the front of a ruined and or cavernous complex happened to be carrying a key concealed on their person, it would undoubtedly be of use later on. He slipped the key into his sleeve and pressed on, now of a mind to clear the ruins of further hostile presence, as it was his intent to make camp there. Upon pushing a battered wooden gate open, Neht made a sharp left and climbed up a rickety wooden walkway that somewhat resembled a ladder before happening upon yet another gate which was decidedly similar to the last, the only difference being that this particular gate was locked. He thrust the key into the padlock immediately, pushing the gate open and bounding blindly into the darkness toward the sound of hurried, shuffling footsteps.

Suddenly, a bright light was lit mere inches from the youth's face, revealing the bedraggled visages of two Argonians and one Khajit. Each was dirty and sparsely dressed, bound by an oppressive and improperly worn necklace of oppression composed of numerous links of chains connected to a telltale bracer on each of their wrists. Without even looking at the bracers, Neht knew they were slaves, and something about this knowledge nearly sent him over the edge.

A small, broken purr inquired from the darkness, “Does the Dunmer have the key to our bracers? Will it let this one go frreee?”

He would've been hard-pressed to refuse. With one seamless and automatic gesture, Neht slipped the key into each of the three slaves' bracers, tossing aside multiple thick ropes and chains before thrusting a sizable bag of coin in the middle of the room and doling out each for all three of them. It would, he hoped, prove an ample enough sum to get these poor souls across the borders and into their respective homelands--or at least, find somewhere to go that would see them safe and free. After finding a few weapons and some clothes stashed in the smugglers' copious collection of barrels and crates, Neht silenced their gleeful clamoring and gratitude after taking a few steps back. 

“Stay together. Run hard. Don't look back.”

Eager to savor the bounties of their newfound freedom, the former slaves rapidly equipped themselves and demonstrated the utmost eagerness to adhere to their liberator's suggestion. Neht uttered a soft prayer as each of the three darted past him, fervently hoping that anything good and divine would ensure their continued freedoms and safety.

Just as he'd anticipated, Neht's good deeds had not gone unnoticed by less savory presences lurking within the smugglers' cavern. A cruel, wicked-looking dart sailed just past Neht's head, earning its marksman the ultimate fate of having a battleaxe lodged in his forehead mere moments later, and his companion nearly being rent in two by Neht's bare hands. On this particular occasion, he did not bemoan his unintentionally brutal method of execution, feeling that it was a well-earned fate for those who would willingly condemn innocents to a lifetime of harsh servitude, back-breaking labor, and inhumane treatment.

Once he'd ensured that Addamasartus was a safe place (or at least, a good bit safer than it had been), Neht settled down in front of the firepit and took a lengthy and strangely peaceful nap, unbothered by memories or the strange and twisted machinations of the man in the mask. The stone and dirt floor serving as his bed wasn't particularly comfortable, but Neht was scarcely a stranger to the notion of being a bedless mer out of both self-abnegation and being subjected to circumstances that demanded near-constant peregrination. 

Neht awoke early the next morning, feeling strangely gamely and invigorated. He made his way out of Addamasartus haphazardly and into the light of day. Initially, his pace was that of a brisk walk that occasionally hastened into a full-fledged sprint, as though his own eagerness were a nix hound nipping insistently at his heels.

That evening, Neht entered Caius's house quietly after returning to Balmora, finding that the Spymaster was deeply asleep. Because his slumber suited the youth's purpose, Neht remained somewhat stealthy, not particularly keen to interrupt his metaphorical guar-catching. Neht practically tiptoed across the floor; his powerful, muscular form momentarily endowed with the silent and meaningful grace of a Senche-rat, withdrawing a piece of parchment from his person, upon which he proceeded to copy the partially-decoded contents of the package he'd delivered to Caius not long after arriving on Vvardenfell. Each scrambled amalgamation appeared to be written backwards, meaning that he could've easily inferred the purpose of its message for himself. For now, he refrained from doing so, chiefly because that would involve him having to linger. With each second wasted, he knew that he grew closer to having his position compromised. Satisfied with his rapid but accurate handiwork, Neht slunk away, making sure he'd left all things as he'd found them.  

Neht departed Balmora once more, beginning the long journey to Tel Vos, stopping to rest and lean against a mushroom-tree just once. Periodically, his running tapered back into a stately stride and as he caught his breath, Neht sang one a soft and somewhat arbitrary tune, as was his wont.

It's so nice today ♪

The sky is clear, so blue and clear!

I had a really good nap ♪

No weird dreams, but I'm craving coffee ♪

And I'm feeling great. ♪

It's so nice today ♪

I didn't sleep too much, freed some slaves, did my job! ♪

Torchbugs are fluttering and kwama are working ♪

It's so nice out today♪

I feel like I'm about to float away!♪

He repeated this personal mantra, sometimes humming the lyrics softly instead of singing them as he made his way through Molag Amur and then the Grazelands over the next few days. Eventually, he found a curious structure that looked as though a magnificent, fungal Telvanni tower had birthed a child with an Imperial fort. A thin, crepelike banner that fluttered in the wind read, in thick Daedric letters, “Tel Vos.” It was by this banner that Neht knew he was where he needed to be. His breath failed him as he gazed up at the tower. The abode of any Telvanni wizard, he recalled, was always quite a sight from the exterior.

The only problem was getting up there, to the least-accessible parts of the tower where the wizard undoubtedly made his abode.

Hesitantly, Neht withdrew one of the levitation potions that Ralav had given him a few days before, squeezing his eyes shut as he felt the tangible safety that accompanied knowing that one’s feet were safely anchored to the ground, where he felt they ought to be. Most Telvanni wizards, however, seemed to fancy the opposite. Visions of a red sky were soon replaced by a white room as Neht tried desperately to block out the situation as he floated toward a ledge housing a doorway to the upper chambers of Tel Vos.

“A mer likes to have his feet on the ground,” he grumbled softly to himself upon entering the place, earning him a sidelong glance from a nearby woman garbed in a lurid and terribly ornate robe. Unfazed by this clear indication of disapproval, Neht continued through a series of several lofty hallways and chambers until he was stopped by a throaty greeting issued by a green-robed, dark-haired mer.

“You have made a wise decision, coming here.”

Neht's eyes shifted from left to right. There were several guards armored in what appeared to be a mixture of bonemold and cephalopod-themed armor, and each of them seemed loath to linger too far from their master's side. By the way the man spoke and how he extended his hand in anticipation, Neht deduced that he was undoubtedly Master Aryon. Evidently, he expected that Neht already knew who he was. Thus, for formality’s sake, he didn’t bother inquiring. Without so much as batting an eyelash, he surrendered several copies of the paperwork he'd gathered from the informant work he'd been doing for the Spymaster.

“Great House Telvanni has two branches: one that does not care about anything at all besides research, or are too insane to care about much of anything at all. The other branch, in which I play an active role, is interested in keeping tabs on the Empire and its doings, and using that information to benefit all of Morrowind. Using your name, I should be able to decipher the remainder of this package's contents If my theory is correct, it must be mentioned in the letter somewhere. Give me a moment…”

Learning the steps that made up this deadly little dance of espionage was never his intent, but Neht would devote himself to nearly anything if he knew it was for the greater good, no matter how bad the name of the cause tasted when it left his tongue. Given the choice, he fancied the flavor of this purpose far more than that of the Empire's.

The wizard drifted toward a small table not far from his chair, which enjoyed its stately status alongside an ornate rug and tapestry in the center of the room. The whole scene screamed authority fitting for one of Aryon's status. Slim digits leaf through each report, thumbing past each and every sentence with the seamless ease of one who spent many nights poring over extremely complex magickal theorems. Neht stood there, silently and patiently, until the other finished his examination.

“Interesting. Very interesting. Here is your reward for delivering this package to me. Also, if you want work in the future, I’m able to give you some. Let's call it freelance work, as it doesn’t actually require you to join House Telvanni. Now. I’ve heard of a fellow in Ald'ruhn called Hassour Zainsubani. He’s an Ashlander who left the wastes to become a wealthy trader. The Ashlanders like to give and receive presents as a form of demonstrating respect. Find out what Zainsubani likes and get him a gift. See if he will tell you about the Ashlanders and the Nerevarine cult.”

The trip to Ald'ruhn proved lengthy and more noisome than Neht's repeated jaunts to and from Sedya Neen and Balmora, thanks to the hideous roaring of an ash storm that suddenly assailed the steadily-changing terrain as Neht progressed further toward the Ashlands. The stygian expanse above was blotted out by the reddish murk of the storm. He could swear that he heard vengeful cries in unison with the makings of what almost sounds like music echoing on the winds as they swept about him, laying siege to all they encountered.

Per the tip he'd received some time ago from a mer in Balmora about the blighted particulate matter that oft carried in such storms, Neht had purchased two thick red and blue scarves along with a native helm for the sake of being protected from that blight particles, courtesy of the gold he'd received from Caius as well as his other endeavors.

A telltale red tinge, combined with the furious manner in which those pitiless winds set themselves against him, made it seem like the very fury of Red Mountain and its de-facto master were upon him in what he felt to be an extremely direct fashion--though he later assured himself that this wasn’t necessarily the case, as such storms were, as he’d been informed, quite commonplace. Perhaps that little bit of local counsel made his conclusion that it couldn’t possibly have been a deliberate sending from Dagoth Ur just a little bit easier to swallow. Through the haze, he spied the long-ago defeated form of Skar surrounded by the brownish silhouettes of other buildings and blindly charged toward them. 

 “I am Hassour Zainsubani,” the weathered Ashlander confirmed, after Neht had managed to pinpoint his location down to a single room in the Ald Skar Inn. “May you bless and be blessed. I do not wish to be rude...but if you have business speak it, for I am at leisure, and would prefer to be left alone with my thoughts.”

It was a notion that Neht understood extremely well, and so introduced himself quickly and got straight to the point by expressing his desire to learn more about Ashlander culture. There was little to no beating around the scathecraw to be had. To play it safe, he began by gently inquiring about their gift-giving customs.

“A curious question. A gift is a sign of courtesy among strangers and affection among friends. Among strangers, a thoughtful gift is a sign that you are cautious and considerate, and aware of others' wants and needs. Such is particularly useful for traders and travelers. Among friends, it is a private thing, and subtle, sometimes with great risks; for the test of the gift is how well it is tailored to the receiver.”

Neht grinned broadly. Finally, someone that had no reservations about getting right to the point! As he conversed with Zainsubani, his voice became lilted with a hint of joviality. Soon, Neht found that absolutely loved listening to Zainsubani speak, finding great eloquence in the poetic simplicity of the other's words.

"Well! I am more than willing to procure for you such a gift, were that I knew your preferences. It is difficult for me to presume what your preferences might be, as we've only just met. As you say, it’s a bit of a risk, this gift-giving process--and I would not want to insult you, or risk spoiling your leisure by giving you a gift that might prove unsuitable."

Zainsubani looked thoughtful. “...I understand. You wish to give me a gift, but you do not know me well enough to choose such a gift, or you cannot find or afford a gift that you know to be suitable for me." He glanced at Neht for confirmation, with which he was supplied in the form of a solemn nod. "Well. Let us take your earnest thought and effort as a token of your willingness to give me a gift. You have behaved courteously, and I am therefore inclined to help you. What is it that you wish to know about the Ashlanders and the Nerevarine cult?"

Neht replied, “Let's start with the Ashlanders.”

“Ah, well...there's far too much to tell! Here, take these notes. I've written here what you should know about the Ashlanders and the Nerevarine cult, though you seem to know more than you give yourself credit for. But most of all, if you are visiting a camp, there are things you should know about courtesy and challenges among the Ashlanders. And, since you ask about the Nerevarine cult--” The elder Dunmer glanced at the youth curiously, as Neht made quite a face at that word. “--Perhaps you'll be interested in my views on the Ashlanders and foreigners because a guiding passion of the Nerevarine cult is their hatred of foreigners.”

He accepted the notes, thinking that an aversion toward foreigners--n'wah, as Neht knew them to be called, and he'd known that somehow before he'd ever set foot in Morrowind (at least, in this life)--was absolutely nothing new, but the way the Zainsubani had phrased things seemed to indicate that the guardians of that particular cult possessed a hatred of foreigners that might've been just a step or two above that of their settled, Tribunal-worshipping counterparts.

"They worship the Great Ashkhan and Hortator, Nerevar Moon-and-Star." Hearing this name roll off Zainsubani's tongue, even during pleasant, idle conversation, Neht lifted his hand to his forehead, flattening part of his silvery crest over his forehead nervously. "In ages past, he destroyed the evil, godless dwarves and banished the treacherous Dagoth Ur and his foul hosts beneath Red Mountain. The cult is of small consequence in Ashlander worship, and only among the Urshilaku do its followers have any influence. Other Ashlander tribes share the sentiments of the cult but widely regard the Nerevarine prophecies with suspicion and skepticism."

What on Tamriel had he gotten himself into? Neht's head was beginning to ache. He nestled the lower half of his face into the scarves to conceal his lips, which were now set into a grim, downward curve. 

While the conversation had been chock full of names and words he absolutely didn't want to hear, he nevertheless thanked the mer for his time and his willingness to explain. The rest of the day passed in the form of a blur until Neht woke the next morning, having opted to rent a bed in the inn as well before dragging himself out of the inn to make the long trek back to Tel Vos. The journey back was a blur as well. All he could do was focus on aiming his trajectory toward the coast and as far the Mountain as possible. Somehow, the time it took to get back to Tel Vos seemed to go by much more slowly than it had on the journey there.

Aryon offered the notes a cursory glance, thumbing through them and picking out what parts he needed before handing them back to Neht.

“Thank you for the report. But it's time I told you what's really going on...”

Neht nodded, steeling himself for more unwanted news--news that wasn’t entirely new.

Aryon continued, “The decoded package you gave me from the Empire states that they think you have the 'appearance' of meeting the Nerevarine prophecies.” He scoffed, taking no notice of Neht wincing rather loudly as that inescapable word popped up yet again. “Well! Whatever the case may be, I will not allow the Empire to use this prophecy to their benefit. House Telvanni and, no doubt, the entirety of Morrowind, would benefit greatly if you were to fulfill it.”

“One of my informants has said that Sul-Matuul and Nibani Maesa at the Urshilaku camp are the leaders of the Nerevarine cult. So I'm sending you to speak with them. Tell them your story and have them test you against the Nerevarine prophecies. Once you've spoken with them, report to me. Here are five hundred drakes for expenses. No doubt you'll have to bribe your way through their gulakhans to impress them.”

He accepted his payment after indicating his thanks and departed. Per his newfound status as a double agent, Neht had to make an additional trip to Balmora and deliver a slightly doctored copy of the same reports to the Spymaster, largely for the sake of avoiding suspicion. Caius, as he suspected, effectively gave him the same mission and another decoded copy of the package. 

Glancing down at the intimidatingly thick conglomeration of parchment emblazoned with numerous seals indicative of  Imperial bureaucracy, Neht tried to convince himself that the package and whatever else its decoded contents contained was a matter to be dealt with later. Caius and Aryon had both given him a summary of what he needed to know. Once Nerevar had been set in motion, he was a difficult force to stop. Still, the sharp-toothed thing called curiosity gnawed away at him, content to don the form of ‘What if there’s something in there I don’t know about??’ in his mind.

Perhaps it was foolhardy for him to bury his face in the paper in such a distracted manner while making his way north to the Urshilaku camp, but he did it anyway, intermittently swapping between the decoded message and an extremely complex map of Vvardenfell’s aberrant terrain and its numerous landmarks. It was, as the voice in his dreams had repeatedly observed, absolutely not in his nature to let things be. Neht’s eyes scanned the document systematically as the seeds of displeasure were planted upon his features, soon blossoming into a frown.

Spymaster Caius Cosades

Knight-Errant of the Imperial Order of Blades

Director of Imperial Intelligence in Vvardenfell District, Eastern Provinces

I have the honor to acquaint you with his Majesty's wishes concerning a nameless Dunmer aliased “Neht”, an individual of no rank or consequence. " Neht” has been released from prison by his Majesty's authority and sent to you with this missive. He is to be entered as a Novice in the Imperial Order of the Blades, and is to serve under your absolute authority as you shall see fit, except insofar as his Majesty's particular wishes are concerned.

His Majesty's particular wishes are as follows:  A local superstition holds that an orphan and outcast, a youth born on a certain day to uncertain parents, shall unite all the tribes of the Dunmer, drive out the invaders of Morrowind, and shall reestablish the ancient laws and customs of the Dark Elven nations. This orphan and outcast is referred to in legend as the "Nerevarine," and is supposed to be a reincarnation of the long-dead Dunmer General and First Councilor, Lord Indoril Nerevar.

As “Neht” has the appearance of meeting the conditions of this local superstition. Therefore it is his Majesty's desire that he shall, insofar as is possible, satisfy the conditions of this ancient prophecy, and shall become the Nerevarine.  Though this prophecy is indeed only an ancient local superstition, his Majesty has taken counsel on this matter with his most expert informants and confidants, and his Majesty is persuaded that the prophecy is genuine and significant, either in its entirety, or in its several parts, and he earnestly demands you treat this matter with the utmost seriousness.

Certain aspects of this ancient superstition are described at the end of this document, and further materials will be forthcoming by courier at the earliest occasion. It will, of course, be necessary that you acquaint yourself better with the details of this ancient superstition from your local sources. Since this matter intimately concerns the nameless Dunmer, it is expected that you will employ him to gather information on this subject. His Majesty has taken a great personal interest in the legends and prophecies of the Nerevarine, and eagerly awaits reports your reports.

I have the honor to be, Sir, your most Humble and Obedient Servant,

Glabrio Bellienus

Personal Secretary to the Emperor

The information was formatted and phrased so dully that Neht could feel his eyes beginning to glaze over with boredom at first. He issued a groan, noting that the wretched word appeared again. Why on Tamriel had Neht even bothered to read it? It wasn’t as if it said anything he wasn’t already aware of. Was he intent on making himself suffer? Perhaps he'd never know what it was that fueled his incessant need to stick his nose into matters that might've been better if he'd stayed out of them. Silently, he cursed himself for his incessant need to know these things, which often led him to knowledge that he found wholly unsatisfactory.

The camp was located near the northern coast of Vvardenfell and was often set upon by fierce storms filled with ash and other unpleasant particulate matter, heralding numerous manners of blight disease. Before departing, Neht made sure to purchase a protective Gah-Julan helmet, so that the better part of his face might be shielded from the realm's notoriously harsh and unpredictable weather. If Neht took a silt-strider to Khuul (largely to avoid being set upon by cliff racers.) From there, his road would lead north to the camp.

Dust (and whatever accursed particulate matter that had been deposited by the previous ash storm) hung densely about the air. The winds were beginning to pick up a bit, and Neht stiffened as he heard what he was sure were winds whipping and howling in the near distance and about half an hour later, the edge of yet another storm ravaged the environment with its turbulent wrath. He hummed, quiet at first and then near to the point of screaming in a vain attempt to drown out the uncanny sounds of chanting that hung on the unnatural, blighted gales.

After arriving in the Urshilaku camp, Neht was enveloped by a strange sense of euphoria whose cause the could not place. For a few moments, he might've sworn that that camp and surrounding environment looked completely different: Linear streaks of sunlight illuminated the ground, forming harsh contrast against the dark outlines of yurt largely comprised guar and kagouti hides; and each tribesperson fleetingly wore the visage of long-dead Ashland Chimer hard at work.

But from within the well of Neht's memories, the harsh howling of the ash storm soon drew him forth. Whatever he'd seen--or thought he’d seen--was gone, replaced by the new and unpleasant truth that was present-day reality.

As he anticipated, negotiating with the Ashlanders was not an easy task. Any entertainment of the notion suggested by the settled folks’ rumor-mongering, which suggested that they were a savage, brainless lot, would immediately pass from one's mind once they bothered to immerse themselves in conversation with an Ashlander. They were a frugal, cunning and enterprising people; and perhaps the least advanced thing about them was that for the most part, they abandoned the cushion of luxury in favor of a rather spartan existence that they, by the teachings of Prophet Veloth, considered to be the purest of lifestyles. Like anybody else, they believed that their way was the best of ways, and would defend that statement if called forth to do so.

As he passed into Ashlander territory, Neht became resigned to their intense scrutiny and suspicion for saying what he had to say. After all, this was the land of the Velothi, meaning that one should suspect cunning and ulterior motives in all direction.

Whenever there was so much as a small indication of Neht's presumed lack of familiarity with the subject was promoted as an excuse to bar him from completing his goal (which happened regularly), he pulled out all the stops, which included (but were not limited to) bribery, which was not at all deemed bribery at all by the Ashlanders, but simply as another equal method of entreatment. This he could respect, for in bribery was contained more divinity and righteousness than outright murder, and the end result was the same: he needed to ingratiate himself with their gulakhan.

The musical clatter of carved windchimes and strung-up bulbs left to dry out for the purpose of storage soothed Neht's nerves as he stepped into Zabamund's yurt. Just as he'd done with Zainsubani, Neht got straight to the point, and offered a hefty tribute of two hundred gold, with the intent of smoothing any ruffled feathers. Zabamund paused, his thin mouth shifting into a small, satisfied smile. 

“Yes...a gift of two hundred gold coins,” the gulakhan remarked hesitantly, though that golden gleam stood in a stark, almost greedy sort of contrast with the red-violet hue of his eyes as he spoke. "That is earnest proof of your respect. Yes, I believe you should speak with our ashkhan. Perhaps he will be angry with me....but I think I can bear it.” He shrugged. “Go to the Ashkhan's Yurt and speak with Sul-Matuul. Ask him your questions, and tell him I have sent you."

Neht nodded his thanks, ducking out of one yurt to enter the next. Suffice it to say that he certainly hoped that two hundred drakes had proved a satisfactory sum with which to bribe the other.

'Looks like I won't be getting that Daedric longsword anytime soon,' Neht mused woefully. Two hundred drakes was a hefty sum from which he was loath to part. All he could do was pray for assurance that it would be given to a good purpose. He tried not to dwell on the matter overmuch as he stepped into the ashkhan's yurt.

"So, my champion Zabamund has sent you to speak with me about the Nerevarine prophecies," began Sul-Matuul, the aloofness in his tone all but demanding Neht's sudden exodus from his own misery.

"Yes. I'm here because believe I may be," Neht began with a pause; for it was only with a great amount of effort that he was able to speak the next part, "The Nerevarine."

The ashkhan's eyes narrowed instantly, gleaming with a combination of displeasure and suspicion at the youngster’s audacious claim. Neither party, it seemed, was eager to endorse that claim. “You think you fulfill the Nerevarine prophecies,” he said coolly, and as though he were amending Neht’s statement. “You wish to be tested to see if you are the Nerevarine. But no outlander may join the Nerevarine cult. If you were a Clanfriend--an adopted member of the Ashlander tribes--then perhaps. I have an initiation rite in mind. If you pass this rite, I will adopt you as a Clanfriend of the Ashlanders. And then I will submit you to Nibani Maesa, our wise woman, who is skilled in oracles and mysteries, and who will test you against the prophecies.”

“Give me a task and I will see it done,” replied Neht, smoothly and confidently. He seemed completely unfazed by the ashkhan’s stony apprehension.

This display of firmness and resolve seemed promising, but this wasn't the first time the ashkhan had seen it. Sul-Matuul knew well that many supposed incarnates were hellbound on a path to failure, and he had no desire to rouse his people or place faith in another fleeting paper prodigy.

"To be adopted into the tribe, you must undergo a harrowing. In a harrowing, you will be judged by the spirits and ancestors to see if you are worthy. Go now to the Urshilaku Burial Caverns and fetch me Sul-Senipul's Bonebiter Bow. Sul-Senipul was my father, and his spirit guards his bonemold longbow deep within the caverns. Return to me with this bow, and I will adopt you into the Ashlander tribes as a Clanfriend."

A moment of silence passed, and thunder came between them for a moment as a limpid gleam leapt across those great eyes, which were silver like Secunda for a split instant. Neht accepted the task before him, incited by the challenge. Mantled with heavy cloak of purpose, he ducked out of the yurt and set out from Ashlander camp as swiftly as a pale whiff of cloud on the windy, turbulent day that had been his entire life so far.

Meanwhile, back in the Urshilaku camp, Sul-Matuul pondered the mer he’d just conversed with; this impressive, mist-crowned mer that marched as if he were his own army with a curious aura of tranquility, sweeping himself into Sul-Matuul's hearth like a benign ash storm. He’d not taken his eyes off Neht, equally due to his curiosity in the youth and his inherent distrust of strangers, and had politely pretended not to take notice of the curious mark on stranger’s forehead when he’d tried to cover it with his hair.

Chapter Text

Cradled between the carapace of long-dead silt strider and a cluster of boulders, Neht awoke with a start, finding that he was not plagued by the usual pall of grogginess one might expect upon awakening. His thoughts were as clear as the beads of morning dew that perpetually dappled the vibrant grasses of Moonshadow--but as he understood it, awakening with somewhat arbitrary thoughts was a relatively common occurrence. (Common or not, it certainly trumped waking to feel disconsolate, cold and empty as well as exhausted, as though he’d run across Morrowind at least twice!)

Just as Sul-Matuul had pondered him the previous evening, Neht pondered him in turn. The mer’s name was enough to nurse his suspicion of a potential relation existing between Sul-Matuul and Alandro Sul. The thought sent him reeling, his mind beginning to pick up the strewn pieces of a recollection.

Back in Cyrodiil, his heroics had nearly cost him his life on one occasion. Goblins--more of them than he could count, and a lich, were what it took to fell him. He died--at least, for a while. Dying was an action that saw Nerevar’s spirit reappear in Moonshadow--a trip from which it generally did not return until a new Incarnate was born. However, this particular occasion proved to be the sole exception. When he came back, Neht could recall only the most minuscule of fragments of the encounter between himself and an auburn-haired mer with a blindfold who seemingly dwelt in Moonshadow. The silvery canoe, the encounter, the sad smile that came from someone who seemed to know Neht better than Neht knew himself--but above all, he recalled how his words had coaxed his spirit back into his body.

That mer, it seemed, wanted him to live--simply out of love or good-will, rather than willing the concept of his living once more being used as some sort of cruel mechanism through which gods could carry out their vague and numinous machinations. Neht shooks his head, unwilling to reflect upon the matter further, occupying himself exclusively with the matter at hand, which was to fetch a bow from an ashlandic tomb--a tomb that housed the kin of the ashkhan himself, no less. Indeed--it seemed that Sul-Matuul had sent him there with little to no expectation that he would return. Perhaps, Neht mused, he’d sent him there to die. A subtle way of having an annoyance take care of itself.

Nerevar had learned the sore lesson from his first life that woe befell anyone who sought to enter or tamper with such tombs, even if that individual happened to be an innocent squatter seeking shelter from an ashstorm. That’s how the Urshilaku had first found him: a squatter in a tomb--which, in his defense, he’d mistook for a cave--the very tomb into which Neht was being sent. A smile pulled at the corner of his lips as he jogged headlong into another memory. He’d found a way to make amends for his transgression, and it was not long before he became a warrior of some repute. For decades, the Urshilaku had known him as one of their own--before, as he recalled someone saying, he’d allowed himself to be seduced by the weeping, back-stepping ways of the housemer. Why he wished to become their khan would forever remain a question counted among the greatest of the Urshilaku’s mysteries.

He entered the cave and stuck down roughly twenty skeletons in rapid succession, his progression unhindered save by the treacherous terrain of the cave. The shriveled figures of ash-mummies, each in a huddled-up posture, dotted the higher rungs of the cavern. Glimmering, effervescent trails of cyan-colored mushrooms whose ancestors were rumored to have been stolen from Moonshadow itself lined the edges of each cavernous room. Neht recalled that these fungi were popular among ashlander tattooists, who made a special (and somewhat toxic) form of ink by grinding the caps into a thin, near-liquid paste. It was the very manner of ink which Nerevar, captivated by its vivid colour and glowing essence, had stubbornly opted for it to be the very stuff that lined his facial scarification. As the luminosity from the rotund caps bounced off Neht’s oddly reflective eyes, a voice from the past pricked his ears, warning him that it was the most dangerous option out of the lot--that he might die from having that stuff injected into his face--or at the very least, suffer immensely if the healing process went awry.

Such warnings regularly found themselves wasted on the ears of Nerevar Mora, and would remain so for many lifetimes. Upon reflection, perhaps that added element of danger was what had made the prospect seem so appealing. Of course, none of these things happened, in spite of many horror stories about half of so-and-so’s clan dying because they wanted to cover themselves in tattoos using that mushroom-based ink--which served as further fodder for the rumors that Nerevar was thrice-blessed by the three (the Daedra, then; for they had been the keepers of the Chimer people, as it were) and likely invincible. Surely, they said, only a son of Boethiah could endure the ways of the “Sky’s death” ink with little trouble to show for it!

Preoccupied, Neht leapt ever upward, as the normal stroll or run would simply not suffice if he wished to make it from rock to rock. Neht’s curiously high acrobatics skill remained yet another unsung attribute carried over from his first life. It had once been his dearest ambition to sit or nap on all of the rooftops in Mournhold--especially the particularly tall ones--but now, it seemed, he would simply have to settle for surviving this ordeal by leaping from one rounded stone platform to the next.

From time to time, a few smaller stone fragments would dislodge themselves from each platform leaving no sound to indicate their eventual contact with the bottom floor, meaning that it was a long way down, indeed. Normally, he could cope with such heights, unfettered by the concern that a normal, sane individual might feel at such a prospect--but all that appeared to exist below was darkness and the unknown, biting territory that so often accompanied it.

The final chamber spoke for itself--rather, it screamed. A cacophony of unearthly, ear-shattering wails erupted from what Neht perceived to be the far side of the room. The sounds seemed to be coming from something both very angry and coming right at him. Sure enough, two thin, gauzy, spectral indications for hands, mimicking that of a skeleton’s in shape, attached to a cloaked, diaphanous figure that seemed to be flailing its limbs aggressively at him before posturing to cast a spell.

Perhaps somewhere in that empty, translucent head, the ghost had come to the same conclusion that many ghosts who encountered Neht did: that he was simply your average intruder--and a stupid one at that, wielding some poor manner of weapon ranking somewhere below silver on the hierarchy of weaponry.

Unfortunately for the ghost, Neht was anything BUT such a person--and he’d come armed with the curious, double-headed Daedric labrys he’d “won” from Boethiah on his birthday back in Cyrodiil. His birthday, as it happened, lay upon the writhing cusp of Serpent’s Dance and Gauntlet.

While most champions were rumored to expect Goldbrand as a reward, the warrior-prince had seen fit to loan Neht her axe. Ornate, flamelike designs blazed across both winged heads and on to the haft, hosting a series of aggressively pulsating Daedric runes whose identity Neht couldn’t quite place, for if he stared into them for too long, the runes seemed violently leap off the surface of the weapon and burn themselves into his eyes, and then into his thoughts. Thereafter, he would awaken and recall little, aside from being coaxed into the maw of darkness by a small, seductive voice which always suggested that he snuff out the lives of those who had dared to wrong and oppress him.

The hefty labrys seemed to drink the blood and indeed, the very defeat of its oppressors, mysteriously appearing wherever Neht was right when he’d supposed that he’d misplaced it. He might’ve found himself in a bit of a sorer spot, had it not decided to reappear shortly after his arrival on Vvardenfell.

Neht heaved an apology, subconsciously slipping into Ald Chimeris, as his axe heaved itself at the ancestral guardian one final time. The baneful spirit seemed to fade from existence, into what he hoped was a more comfortable position than screaming at people in its stony sepulture. Though he possessed the likeness of a Dunmer in this life (and a Chimer before that) and generally attributed as being one of them, Nerevar never had understood (nor approved) of how the line between the territories of calling upon ancestral ghosts for aid and the realm of necromancy was habitually drawn and redrawn by everyone time and time again to suit whatever the political leaning of the time was. Curiously enough, he’d never been able to summon an ancestor ghost, in any of his lives.

Ancestral ghosts of any sort seemed to be in the business of making things difficult for him, from Almalexia’s ancestral ghosts guffawing at him and proclaiming him a inferior creature, unworthy of their descendant’s hand (as well as generally taking delight in faultfinding in spite of his best efforts to be courtly and appease them) to the baleful, screaming things hell-bent on guarding their tombs. No matter how he looked at it, it seemed that they were put in a rather miserable position, and that did leagues to explain why they were either riveted on objurgatory criticism of his person or physically attacking him whilst wailing. The encounter with the Indoril ancestral spirits on Gorne had been a delightful paradigm shift from what he’d expected--they were terrified of him, reducing themselves to begging him not to reincarnate into any other Indoril family. Now, Neht thought with a grin as he bent over to collect the bow, it was they who had to do the appeasement--or suffer the consequences!

The surface of the bow had been decorated by a small helping of grave-dust. His fingers slipped across the smooth, cool, curvature of the bonemold’s surface (which remained uninterrupted save for a few shallow engravings here and there), stopped in their tracks by the presence of charms mounted upon small strings of long-dried, leathery sinew appeared to be crafted from ancient kagouti bones--their yellowed appearance serving as a silent testament to their age.

Neht indulged himself for a few moments, all but bathing in the exquisite craftsmanship. It was truly a bow worthy of an ashkhan--and perhaps worthy of his former self, if only he'd had a use for such a weapon! He was about as useful with a bow as a kwama queen without a mine--a travesty which many believed to be an unfortunate byproduct of Nerevar’s impatience.

Neht exited the tomb just as he’d entered it--aside from the small, triumphant parade occurring in his heart. He had since adjusted himself to a lack of praise, attuning himself instead to the expectation of being informed that no matter what he did, it was somehow inadequate; that more still was to be demanded of him; that it was never enough--and perhaps the worst part of it was that nobody ever had the gall to be forthright about it. (Perhaps, he realized, he was guilty of being too eager to supply others with the very image that ultimately caused them to take that indefatigable facade for granted.)

Still, he knew that he’d successfully completed one task and that each deed (meritorious or not) placed him one step closer to his destination. Neht’s trek back to the Urshilaku camp was miraculously interrupted. The sun hovered determinedly above the wastes, its wide, linear rays casting themselves against a wash of dull, neutral colors. Carefree and inconsistent, the winds had their way with the land, whipping against everything and stirring up whatever they pleased.

Mindful of the unseen threats lurking within the various particulate matter, Neht nestled the lower half of his face into his ash-scarves. While the thick fabric was soft and excellent for snuggling one’s face into, he found that he had to re-acclimate himself to the constricting, near-suffocating feeling of fabric clinging to his nostrils and his mouth, and how the air trapped within the scarf was unnervingly hot and stuffy from being recycled. Howbeit, this mild discomfit was made more trivial still by the thought of what might happen to him if he were to inhale any of the blight-dust. (Additionally, there need for ash-scarved was further necessitated by the issue of Neht’s blunt-tipped ears--which not only served as a dead giveaway that this time, he was descended from mer who had made their lot by settling somewhere on the mainland, their cup-like shape had a nasty habit of trapping all manner wind-blown matter, which often funneled into his inner ear with little resistance, condemning him to ear-migraines which nearly rendered the poor mer functionless!)

Needless to say, Neht’s reappearance at the Urshilaku camp rose more than a few brows--although this wasn’t entirely unexpected from a batch of mer who expected to never see him again. A familiar (although subdued) air of respect hung about those who found themselves outside their yurts to witness Neht’s return. He was a mer who could get things done--the weight of the bow in his hands was tangible proof of this fact--and  that  was a trait by which any ashlander worth his salt could stand. Without a word, Neht ducked into ashkhan’s yurt, finding that the surprised silence that the other ashlanders exhibited had, at least momentarily, made its way their ashkhan.

Without further ado, Neht presented Sul-Matuul with the bow while angling his head at a certain direction to provide the barest suggestion of implied loyalty and humility--an unspoken piece of ashlander etiquette when treating with ashkhans.

“ indeed my father's Bonebiter Bow,” Sul-Matuul confirmed after a lengthy pause. “I name you...Nammu, Clanfriend of the Ashlanders. Keep my father's bow, and bear it with honor

You have completed the initiation rite. Keep my father's bow, and bear it with honor. You are a friend of our tribe, and may rest in any Urshilaku bed, but do not harm other tribe members, or take their things...”

Though Neht was careful to provide the appearance that he was listening attentively to Sul-Matuul, he grew cold and began to detach from the present once more. He’d initially supposed that this interaction would produce a number of things--but never that the ashlanders would’ve come up with their own name for him (which, in their tongue, meant ‘No-name.’) It wasn’t wholly inaccurate. Perhaps Neht should’ve been flattered by the gesture, but all it did was remind him that he was still an empty suit of armor, upon which the Urshilaku were hanging yet another badge.

The words, “And now I will fulfill my other promise,” drew Neht forth from his misery, however--especially when Sul-Matuul added: “Go to the wise woman's yurt, and Nibani Maesa shall examine you, and test you against the Nerevarine prophecies."

Armed with the intent to visit the wise-woman, Neht ducked back out of the yurt with furrowed brows, a head swimming with questions and a weapon that was of no use to him in tow.