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Betwixt Hunter's Nightmare and Dreamsleeve

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“Now I’m waking up! I’ll forget everything…”

Micolash didn’t want to wake up. Not now. Not when he was so close.

Yes, he was close. He could feel it. Any time now, Kos would have heeded his prayers. She would have granted him eyes. Eyes on his brain. She would have cleansed him from his beastly idiocy, help him ascend to a higher plane. She would have cured him of all his hesitation and make it all worth it in the end.

Yet now, that hope was shattered. He could feel himself torn from the dream as that idiotic Hunter struck the final blow. He cursed him, before he was hurled back through time and space, no doubt to be reunited with his body. So much sacrifice, so much reasoning with himself to go through with it, and now, it was all gone.

Inwardly, he was raging and seething, but he knew nothing could be done. He would simply have to wake up, same as the other members of the School of Mensis. They would have to acquire the necessary means for another ritual. It was tricky, no doubt, but not impossible. Besides, Mergo had been sympathetic to their goals before. He was likely to grant them access to the dream once more…

So he waited. With the patience of a man who knew it was the only thing he could do, he waited to return to his own body. As the hours, then days and then perhaps months dragged by, he calmly awaited the moment to once again wake up in Yahar’Gul.

Yahar’Gul, however, remained elusive and in time, the vast expanses of the cosmos gave way to the deepest of darkness. His conscious continued to float, to be trapped in a never-ending world beyond the physical and the longer it lasted, the more uncertain he became.

Until, at some point, he heard a voice.

“Ah, another forlorn soul, sacrificing his life on the altar of knowledge.”

Its sound, the first he’d heard in so long, had Micolash look up eagerly. He was so desperate for some sign of life, some indication of change or progress that he welcomed any kind of distraction. So he turned towards the voice, eagerly, wanting nothing more than to see.

What a sight it was.

Above him hovered a strange being that defied description. The best way he could describe it was a void, living and pulsing. An endless spiral that moved inward and outward al at the same time. From it slithered countless black tentacles and countless slit yellow eyes stared at him with rapt fascination.

Instantly, the scholar was beset by terror, yet in the very depths of his being, there was also an odd sliver of excitement. This being, almost too horrific to behold… Could it be? It had to be…

“Oh… Oh! My wish was granted! Are you… Are you Kos?”

A deep slithery laughter shook everything around him. It caused a deep sense of revulsion to bubble up inside him. It regarded him with twisted amusement, its slit pupils curiously darting back and forth.

“I am not your precious Kos. She is long gone from what I sense. In fact, so are you.”

His voice was calm, a lazy drawl laced with cruel indifference. It was enough to force ice into the veins of the bravest men. Yet what truly drove fear into the heart of Micolash was the claim he’d just made.

“N-No. No, you lie. Kos is a Great One. Great Ones cannot die. I am not dead either. I am merely dreaming and trying to wake up...”

The being burst out into howling laughter. Several dark and liquid tentacles slithered in his direction. The scholar stood frozen, warily eyeing the appendages as bile formed in his throat.

“Ah, the human mind. Ever clinging onto the hope of immortality. Unfortunately, Micolash, your time has run out. Your god is dead.”

Suddenly images started to flash before his eyes. They assaulted his vision, even when he tried to close his eyes. It always felt like they were burning his retinas, so gruesome was content of what they showed him.

He was on a beach, but he’d be damned if he recognized it. On it lay a large, strange white creature, motionless and decaying, surrounded by many strangers in Hunter garb. A Great One, he knew, but he could only scream in horror as the men and women proceeded to violate her corpse in every conceivable way. A horrid, deformed humanoid was drawn from her dead womb, shrieking in confusion and horror at being thrust into this cold, bleak world.

Merely watching it made him sick, but it was nothing compared to what he was shown next. The vision of a body sitting on a chair with a Mensis Cage on his head. It was atrophied beyond recovery, well within the process of mummification. It unnerved him beyond words, but as he inched closer, he finally realized it.

The body was indeed his.

He stepped back, trembling all over. His knees buckled and for a moment, he swore he would faint. Only now did it really get through to him. He was never going to wake up again… He had no body left to wake up in.

“No. No, no, no, no… It can’t be! It wasn’t supposed to be like this! I don’t… I don’t want to go yet! I don’t want to die!”

The being seemed rather apathic to his agony. “You are no more, Micolash. Your ritual has failed, your soul is fading. This is the end for you. Unless, of course, you are willing to make a deal.”

The scholar looked up at that last word, goosebumps rippling across his skin. “A deal?”

The sheen in those yellow eyes intensified. “An exchange of knowledge. You know many things, Micolash. Many…fascinating things. You are a scholar, yes? Who wants to learn any interesting things. I can provide that for you as well as your continued existence. All for those lovely little morsels you hold in your head.”

Micolash could feel his entire body grow cold. A deal. A deal to save his life. The animalistic part of him leaped at the opportunity. Who didn’t want to avert death when they were staring it in the eye? Still, even in his fractured mind, he managed to ask the important question.

“If not Kos, then who are you?”

He could practically feel satisfaction radiate from the void. “I am Hermaeus Mora. Daedric Prince of Fate, Knowledge and Memory. A Great One, as your kind would call me. And what I offer you is not something I offer to any mere mortal. Though of course, you are welcome to refuse and let your spirit fade away. Though it is such a shame that all of your efforts will have been for naught…”

The almost casual tone he wielded once again caused Micolash’s fear to rise. The reality of death once again encroached on him, clear as glass. He would forget if he died and all the knowledge and revelations he had acquired would die with him. It was too much to take.

“So, what say you, scholar? Do you accept my offer?”

The strange Great One needn’t say more. The idea that he and all his precious work might be wiped from existence was too frightening to face. He had made up his mind. He was willing to make a deal.

“I do. Behold the eyes in my brain, oh Hermaeus Mora. So you might grant me life and add more.”

The void started at him, then laughed. “Very well. Stand closer, scholar, so you can receive what you’ve bargained for.”

Again, there was that ominous undercurrent in his voice, but Micolash knew it was now too late to have second thoughts. He stepped up towards the being, trying to ignore whatever sense of revulsion he felt. He took a deep breath, waiting for what was to come.

“This will probably hurt.”

The scholar didn’t get the time to respond to that gleeful announcement. Like a snake pouncing on a mouse, hundreds of tentacles leaped from the void. Like a volley of spears, they aimed at his head and then without warning, impaled him through his skull.

He would have screamed at the unimaginable pain, but it practically numbed him upon contact. The extent of it should have made him pass out, but instead, he remained completely conscious as he felt the tentacles writhe and burrow into his brain. He could feel them probe his thoughts and memories, the sensation of which was almost worse than the physical agony.

It was almost as if those things were feeding, his harrowed mind thought. Searching for proper prey to devour. He could feel them probe his memories of Rom, the School of Mensis, Mergo… It was devoured eagerly, scrapped from the recesses of his mind like the remnant of a delectable meal. And the pain… By the Great Ones, the pain...

It went on, on and on for hours. In the end, his nerves were so frayed that he started to lose consciousness. He could feel himself pass out and he did nothing to fight it. Anything to get a reprieve from the torture.

“The grand lake of mud, hidden now, from sight.”

A lake…

He was in water, somehow…

As his eyes opened, he saw it. All around him, there was water. Deep emerald in color, soaking him to the bone, and something in it threatened to pull him under.

Feeling his strength rapidly being sapped from him, Micolash started to swim. The strange bindings resisted, exerting even more strength in an attempt to pull him under the waves. He fought, looking around as panic rose inside him, a sliver of hope overcoming him upon seeing a solid surface nearby.

He swam, struggling against the force that tugged at him, possessed by a strength he didn’t know he was capable of. When he reached the surface, a strange metal grating and withered rock, he clamped his fingers around it, hanging on with all his might. His strength was fading, but he refused to give in.

As he slowly inched out of the water, he could see what was holding him. Thick black tentacles, similar to the ones who had buried in his head before. The sight of them had fear wash over him and it only increased his sheer determination to get out of the water. Sheer terror drove him forward and scraping at the metal by the edges of his nails, he finally managed to loosen the grip of the appendages as he crawled onto the grate, gasping for breath and shivering heavily.

“Well, you actually survived. You are truly stronger than most.”

An amused, inhuman voice rang far above the scholar, making him look up. Above him loomed that familiar void, filled with eyes and tentacles. Again, there was that sense of dread looming in the back of his mind.

He looked around and it only grew. The world he looked at was strange and that was putting it diplomatically. The sky was sickening shades of green and red and he seemed to be standing on an island of metal and stone, amidst that threatening green sea. Black tentacles slithered out of it every now and then and everywhere, bodiless eyes seemed to watch him. Yet what he noticed most of all were numerous pages, spread all over the island and whirling through the air.

“What… What is this place?”

“This is Apocrypha, where all knowledge is hoarded.”

He nodded at this information without realizing it. So this was a library of sorts… Though he’d be damned if it was like any kind of library he was familiar with or any place where humans were meant to be. This was definitely not the world he had anticipated to return to.

The entity sensed his discomfort. “I have kept my word, scholar. You are alive, are you not?”

Again, there was that underlying feeling of malice and as angry as Micolash started to feel, he decided not to respond. It slowly started to dawn on him that he might have just made a deal with the devil. Perhaps not one that the church before the Healing Church believed in, but nefarious all the same.

Even now, it leisurely stared at him, seemingly none too concerned for his plight. “You are free to explore my realm to your heart’s desire. Perhaps you will prove clever enough to uncover the secrets here. If so, welcome. If not, then you will not find much peace here. Good luck, Micolash.”

Before the scholar could respond, the being was gone and he found himself looking over the eldritch landscape all by himself. Suddenly, he felt cold. Here he was, with his knowledge of the dream intact…but with no one to share it.

Still, even in his muddled and damaged mind, he realized he couldn’t simply stand there. With the green sea murmuring behind him and tentacles slithering in and out, looking for prey. Staying here would be suicide. There was no other option but to keep moving and explore this realm.

The scholar set off, looking around the strange island. His eye soon fell onto a strange pedestal and after cautiously touching it, it changed shape. Suddenly, an iron, grated walkway literally unfurled before him and he quickly realized there was no way but forward.

Soon, Micolash’s time was occupied with taking in both the wonders and the horrors of the realm. It was clearly not a place made with humans in mind and whatever was left of his sanity was constantly sending off warning signals. He wouldn’t have listened to it even if he could. There was no escape anymore; all he could do now was survive.

The plane was hostile and more than a few things in it made him uneasy, but there seemed to be a method to madness. He quickly figured out that using the pedestals in certain ways would open paths and that some of the hallways were alive and moved by themselves. That some of the books could be used to travel to other sections of Apocrypha. He had to work out several ways to traverse them safely, but they were far from the only threats here.

Strange monsters, looking not unlike ascending members from the Healing Church, would patrol the passages, willing to strike down any living being that came near him. They possessed horrifying powers, ones he didn’t dare to tangle with, and once or twice, he would come by the remains of those who had. He would take what he could of those, including their robes which seemed to be in far better shape than his, and would instead sneak past any of the terrifying enemies he encountered.

He never slept and for some reason, he never went hungry either. Time seemed meaningless and the sky remained the same dull colors, never indicated either night or day. With every step he took, every new path he discovered, he was drawn deeper into Apocrypha and he swore he could feel eyes sprout on his brain with every new, unsettling discovery he made.

He made plenty of those. Just like Hermaeus Mora promised, this place was filled with knowledge. Countless books, containing many strange and miraculous stories, just his for the taking. Many a times, he was held up from his explorations and simply sat down to read, eagerly devouring tome after tome.

The books told him many interesting things. They talked about strange creatures, spells, unknown races, weaponry and alchemy. They told him of a million strange realms, inhabited by beings called Aedra and Daedra, similar to the Great Ones he had feverishly prayed to for most of his adult life.

He had to say he soon became absorbed by it all. By the endless tomes that made up this plane and provided him with knowledge beyond his wildest dreams. Every day, he could feel his mind expand. The taste of unknown wisdoms, waiting for him to be consumed. The thought made him downright ecstatic.

Perhaps, he figured, staying here would not be such a punishment after all. He could make do. Simply hide in the many dark corners of this place, tugged away with whatever book he managed to scavenge. Forever learning. Forever growing more powerful and wise.

Oh, how they scoffed at the Healing Church. They laughed and derided, telling the School of Mensis that their attempts to commune with Mergo were a waste of time. He might not have contacted Kos, but what he found was so much sweeter. His wish had come true at last. Finally, he was granted eyes.

“You! Hey, you!”

The sound of a voice snapped Micolash from his enraptured concentration. He looked up, an angered expression on his face, only for his eyes to grow wide. In front of him was another human being.

He blinked, certain he must be dreaming. He hadn’t seen another living being here since he arrived…how long ago was it again? The scholar looked him over. He was clearly an older man, dressed in mage robes, and with a thick gray beard. There was a crazed gleam in his eye, but any further investigation was cut short as the man shoved a book in his face.

“Can you read this?”

Micolash recoiled, frowning at him. “What?”

He got a grunt in response. “Septimus wants to know if you can read this! Tell me! Can you read this?”

The book was shoved closer to his face and knowing that the stranger was unlikely to leave him alone, he acquiesced. His eyes swiftly trailed across the lettering, which looked alien and unlike any writing he’d seen. Thankfully, he’d spent enough time on this eldritch plane to decipher it. It was a book about black magic and otherworldly knowledge, he determined, a read he might be interested in himself at a later point.

“Yes, I can. What of it?”

The man’s eyes lit up. “Read to me! Read! Tell me what it says about leaving this realm! What does it say?”

The scholar could only stare. Why would anyone want to leave this realm? This treasure trove of eldritch wisdom, the true place from which one could ascend? How could one be so ungrateful?

Still, when he realized the man would not leave him alone, he relented and read the page presented to him. “Black Books are esoteric tomes, Daedric Artifacts created by the esteemed Hermaeus Mora. They offer access to and from his realm of Apogrypha. Some appear to have been written in the ancient past, while others appear to be written in the far future. They are much sought after as they contain hidden knowledge that grant the reader great power.”

As he finished reading, Micolash had to admit he was now intrigued. These books sounded like something he would be interested in. After all, great power was why he’d undertaken this endeavor in the first place. If only he could find one of those…

The old man, however, was far more excited for other reasons. “That’s it! That’s it! The Black Book! That’s how I get out! That’s how I’ll leave this wretched Oblivion!”

He was practically skipping up and down now, but the scholar didn’t get the time to verbally express his annoyance. Suddenly, a loud rumble shook the ground and several more eyes opened in the sickly sky above. The sound of angry tentacles trying to burrow their ways across the island closed in from all sides. Yet all of it was a mere whisper compared to the thundering voice of Hermaeus Mora.

“Septimus Signus! This knowledge was not meant for you!”

Instantly, he could see the old man shrink. He looked around, eyes wide with terror. He clutched the strange book to his chest, only to then utter four frantic words.

“I have to go!”

Then, swifter than anyone his age should, he whipped around and started to run. He started sprinting through the dark corridors, making good speed as the distance between them increased. Still clutching that fascinating book…

That tidbit caused Micolash to perk up. “Hey! Hey wait! I want that!”

Instantly, he pulled himself to his feet and started to run, his other reading material instantly forgotten. He sprinted after the old man, not caring if he was seen or what was in his way. He kept calling after him, this Septimus, begging him to drop the book, to let him have it.

He ran through corridors, up staircases and across walkways, dodging the tentacles that lashed out in an effort to swat both him and the old man. He followed him through the books, not caring he alerted the strange monsters in the vicinity. He was deaf to their roars, too quick for their claws and spells. Nothing mattered until he was able to get his hands on that book.

So blind was he that he barely even noticed the gigantic lurking monster until it leaped right in front of him. It opened its jaws and the scholar remained frozen in horror as long, slithery tentacles spewed forth from it, combined with corrosive slime. He willed a hand upwards, to defend himself with one of the many spells he’d learned in this place, but found it utterly limp as the monster inched closer, ready to devour him.

Suddenly, however, a burst of flame erupted on the creature’s skin. It let out a furious, pained roar, enough to rattle Micolash’s very bones. He looked up in shock, only to find Septimus standing there, book still in hand. The old man quickly readied another spell and flung it at the creature as it came charging towards him, fearlessly facing it as it did its best to annihilate him.

For some reason, witnessing this stranger’s steadfastness shook the scholar out of his daze. He too now started to cast spells, determined to bring this monster down and survive in the process. He had to now. He wouldn’t be able to forgive himself if something happened to that book…

So he fought. He fought and ran and evaded the monster’s spells, meanwhile retaliating with those of his own. Septimus joined him in the attack, pelting the creature with anything from fire, ice and lightning to terrifying elemental thralls. He cared little for any counter attacks, shrugging them off with stubborn resilience, viciously shouting strange curses at his aggressor with every new strike.

Soon, the two of them were working in tandem, giving it all that they could. The old man’s courage inflamed Micolash’s own, making him bolder as he cast ever more destructive and intricate spells. A swift distraction tactic on Septimus’s part had it momentarily distracted and with a perfect shot of the creature’s already wounded head, he struck.

Finally, the lurking monster could take no more. As a burst of lightning hit it square in the brain, it collapsed. The ground shook as it did so, putting the scholar off-balance for the briefest of moments. Only then did he realize he was gasping for breath and shaking on his legs, but he didn’t have very long to think about it.

Septimus was moving again, still holding the book he wanted.

Cursing under his breath, he resumed the chase. They moved higher and higher, with Micolash begging and demanding the man to simply give him what he wanted. His pleas, however, were ignored and he soon saved his breath of scaling the staircases, just hoping they would end eventually and he would be able to corner the old man and snatch the book.

After what seemed like forever, he got his wish. The grated walkway revealed a dead end, with a large pedestal near the edge. A large black tome rested on top of it and Septimus rushed towards it. He flipped it open, frantically trying to read its contents. The scholar was not far behind, ready to strike, only to stop dead in his tracks.

Out of nowhere, the void materialized once more. A million eyes opened, all of them focused on the man at the pedestal. Tons of razor sharp tentacles manifested, ready to impale its prey. They shone with fury and its normally languid, amused voice now shook with unbridled rage.

“You foolish sorcerer. Do you honestly think you can escape my realm? That you can escape death? I reduced you to dust once, I can do so again!”

The old man faced him, his voice defiant. “Septimus got this far, you Daedric fiend. Besides, I learned a lot while I was trapped here. Just watch.”

With those words, he put his hands on the book and started chanting. The Daedric Prince responded with a furious roar, its tentacles stretching out in an effort to stop him. The sorcerer simply summoned wards, calmly continuing his spell, refusing to move from the pedestal as an almost amused tone became evident in his voice.

The scholar could only watch this display in shocked silence, hesitating on what to do. Something told him he didn’t want to get in the God’s way, that he would be smitten alongside this wizard if he tried to interfere. Unless, perhaps, if he interfered in the powerful Lord’s favor?

His face lit up at that thought. That could work. He wanted that book and the Daedric Prince wanted to prevent this man from leaving this place. No doubt he would gain the Lord of Knowledge’s favor if he’d help him in that regard, maybe even earn the book for himself. Perhaps, Hermaeus Mora would reward him for his loyalty with even more knowledge…

That, for him, was the carrot on the stick that moved him forward. Having made up his mind, he charged up to the old man. He threw his arms around him, pulling with all his might to get him away from the pedestal. The old man struggled, trying his best to fight him off as he continued his spell, but Micolash was relentless. Meanwhile, his eager hands grasped for the tome, while he screeched on top of his lungs to give it to him.

Yet just as he managed to grab hold of it, there was a flash of green. It made him jump, but just as he recovered, Septimus had finished his chant. The scholar screamed, begging nothing in particular for the spell not to work, only for his vision to rapidly start going black. He tried to fight it to no avail, crying out for Hermaeus Mora to help him, and as a violent pull and humming noise overtook him, the last he heard was the thunder of the Daedric Prince’s voice, cursing them for a thousand lifetimes.

Once more, the scholar found himself hurling through infinity. He was pulled through what seemed like endless planes, hurled past strange planets. He saw beings that defied imagination. Countless images flashed before him, in rapid succession, fast and insistent enough for his brain to twitch. So much so that in the end, he just closed his eyes and prayed for it to end.

When Micolash could finally open them again, however, the visions were gone. Instead, he was looking up at what seemed like a normal sky and the tops of some old, withered trees. It reminded him of the forests surrounding Yharnam, he realized. Those that were still there when he was still a child…

That thought spurred him into action. He sat up, panicked, and looked around. Was he back in Yharnam? He was alive, felt that way at least, and the hot wind in his face felt all too real. Had Apocrypha been a dream as well? Had he finally woken up? Was he finally going to forget everything and lose all his knowledge?

Just as he was about to ask this out loud, however, another voice was heard beside him. “Wait is this… This is… Solstheim! We are on Solstheim! I made it! I made it!”

The scholar looked over his shoulder, only for his jaw to hang open. Beside him was the man from Apocrypha. He was practically jumping for joy, kicking up the ashen sand in a strange sort of victory dance. The smile on his face made him look years younger and he soon fell onto his knees, raising his hands to the sky.

“Free! Oh, thank the Divines! Septimus is free!”

Micolash could only watch him in astonishment and anger. So Apocrypha had not been a dream after all… Then how on earth was this man so happy to be gone from it? A land of plenty, allowing humanity to rise above their beastly idiocy, and this foolish old man had spat in the face of it. And even now, he still had that strange tome…

He got to his feet, seething. He’d teach him. He’d teach him for taking him from his beloved haven. He’d tear that book from his hands and beat it with him, forever make him rue the day he took his aspirations of eyes on his brain away from him…

Before he got the chance to do so, however, the old wizard shoved the book into his hands, laughing loudly as he did. “Have it! Have this blasted book! I will go back home. Back to Winterhold! Back to regular experiments away from Dwemer and Daedra! Oh, it’s so good to be back on Nirn.”

The sudden weight of the tome startled Micolash and he looked at Septimus in utter shock. He opened his mouth to say something, but the man had already turned around and walked away, to some unknown destiny, practically skipping as he went. Soon, the scholar was alone with only the book he’d so coveted to keep him company.

After a long moment of uncomfortable silence, however, he decided he might as well read it. He read the title, which seemed to be Oghma Infinium and opened it, eagerly scanning the contents. Yet rather than the satisfying rush he felt before when reading, all he felt now was an unsettling chill.

Something about this book wasn’t right. The same way he recalled feeling when he met Hermaeus Mora for the first time. The way it read. The dark knowledge it suggested in swirling, eldritch lettering. The way it seemed bound in what felt like several shreds of…skin. There was something horribly wrong and askew with it and what it could be used for.

The same way he had once felt when looking upon an umbilical cord…

He could feel his heart stop for the slightest of moments. Just why did he recall that feeling? Why now of all time? Why was he actually recoiling at the thought of unlimited knowledge rather than embracing it, with the kind of instinctual fear he’d once displayed as a naïve young scholar? He didn’t know for certain, but perhaps it had something to do with this place. Something about suddenly tasting a sense of normalcy he had long forgotten about.

Perhaps it had been Yharnam or Apocrypha that drowned out this feeling before. Being surrounded daily with other obsessed minds that had hushed their own rational doubts and those of others. An echo chamber, that willfully ignored what kos or Mergo or Hermaeus Mora might actually represent in full. In the end, it didn’t matter. Right now, he felt something he hadn’t experienced ever since he joined the Healing Church and it was overtaking all his senses.

Clarity, at the forefront of his mind and guiding his thoughts for the first time in years.

“I must take this book. Hide it. Put it some place where no one will ever find it… It should never fall into the wrong hands…”

And with that thought standing out in his mind, like a beacon against the darkness, he started to walk, clutching the tome tightly against him. This wasteland was unlikely to last forever, after all, and if this Septimus knew where to go, then there was likely life around here. If anything, perhaps that strange wizard could still be caught up with and was able to give him some advice on what had to be done.

After that… He didn’t know. It didn’t matter for now. All he had to do for now was do the right thing and the rest would be a bridge he’d cross later.

That seemed like a solid plan for now. His first real one in this strange place, but it was all he had to go on. So he moved, following the sorcerer’s footsteps. Uncertain but bravely, into a plane unknown.