The Elder Scrolls Volume One: Unbound - A Fallen Empire

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Erende was supposed to be a thief. That's all he ever was. But when a mysterious Guild raids his home and steals a scroll - a scroll of a land Erende had no idea existed - he's thrust into the middle of a deadly fight after a devastating war that wrecked the land of Tamriel. Now, he's part of a mission to find the treasure his scroll holds to save Tamriel - before it's too late.

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12. Chapter Ten

 

 

4E 715

Second Seed

Tirdas

 

 

If he could, Erende would have run all the way back to Halrain.

  But his legs soon gave out as his lungs became empty of air. He collapsed onto the ground, sputtering acid and saliva from his mouth. Behind him, he heard the jingle of armor.

 “Head count, someone do a head count,” he heard Do’tesh say. Heavy breathing circled him.

 “I see Vala, Khir’schen, Ori, Aeria-”

 “Toro is with me,” said Aeria.

 “Camoran, Morag, Steffan, all here,” Khir’schen coughed.

 “I’m here,” Bahadur said, “Erende?”

 “Fine,” Erende said, clearing his throat, “I’m fine.”

 “What about the horses?” Vala asked.

 “I have them,” Do’tesh muttered. Erende looked up to see her holding the reins. Vala’s ashen face smiled in relief.

 “Everyone is here, thank the gods,” she breathed. Erende coughed once more. The ash felt as if it stuck to the lining of his throat. He wiped his eyes. They still stung.

 “Everyone, settle in,” Morag stated. He was covered in a fine layer of dust, turning his black armor into almost gray. A jagged wound cut across his mouth, bleeding as he spoke, “anyone adept in magick, I would appreciate it if you played as nurses tonight. Camoran, Do’tesh and I will make camp, we’ll rest here for the night. We’ll take shifts keeping watch, and begin the journey farther into Morrowind when the sun rises.”

 Erende sat still on the ground. He didn’t speak and only watched the others as they prepared for the night. The Nightingales each set up leather tents around a fire that Aeria had quickly built. The horses were led by Bahadur, who unclipped their harnesses and let them jog around, their hooves making soft hits in the ash, like a hammer banging against leather. Orianer and Vala sat in the ashes, their hands gold. Erende saw Khir’schens wound close; the blood stopped flowing, her flesh mending itself. He then felt an odd sensation in his nose. Crossing his eyes, he saw the scrapes and cuts heal. When he touched the bulb of his nose, it didn’t hurt, nor was there blood. Erende bowed his head slightly towards Vala, who smiled.

 “Thank you.”

 “Of course,” Vala said, bowing back. The fire crackled. Steffan stood near the flames, tending to a spit. His right eye was bandaged his arm was in a sling. Orianer seemed to focus all her energy on him.

 “I apologize, for this.”

 Erende turned. Morag was finishing up pitching the last tent, stabbing the iron rails into the soft ground. His expression was grim.

 “I apologize for not being able to properly guard and escort you all into Morrowind safely, like I had promised. I did not realize that the militia would construct a barrier in our absence, as we have always been able to negotiate those standings,” he did not make eye contact with them, “again, I apologize.”

“It is not in your fault,” Aeria said, her voice sore and ragged, “from what that Dunmer was saying, it seemed to be that he broke his honor of some contract?”

 “The Madison-Night contract, to be precise,” Camoran interjected. He sat on a fur rollout, one hand on a mug of mead and the other picking at a loaf of bread. He balled a piece in his hand before tossing it into the fire.

 “During the war, the Thieves Guild from Riften came here, to Morrowind, for shelter. The militia had already been created at the time, and, obviously, they didn’t trust us, what with the leaders, me being a “gold back” and the other two being beastly creatures-” he turned to Morag and Do’tesh, who just frowned, “-no offence, so that led to the leader of the militia, Zirik Ulil Madison, and our leader, Morag, to strike a contract on boundaries.”

 Camoran took a handful of sand and chucked it into the flaming wood, where it sizzled.

 “Apparently contracts don’t mean shit anymore now that the war is over.”

 “The war will never be over,” Ori said with her teeth clenched, “there’s always going to be fighting, always going to be disputes because of this.”

 Khir’schen stood. The fire made shadows dance on her skin.

 “Of course there are always going to be disputes,” she said, “it’s mortal nature, you know that. What we need to focus on right now is getting to that camp,” her eyes scoured across them. She met Erende’s, and locked. His breath hitched.

 “We need answers for this damn Daedric Prince mess, and the only way we know how right now is to get to that camp. Morag,” she peeled her gaze away, and looked to the Orc, “what’s the fastest route to Mournhold?”

 “To head southeast, along the water line until we reach it, although there may be new settlements from Vivec Madison along the way.”

 “Our original play was to head south from Skyrim, then east from along the Cyrodiilic border,” Do’tesh said, “although now Do’tesh believes that the safest route would be to cut straight across.”

 “Apparently so,” Aeria said. She held the scroll in her hands, her fingers delicately tracing a line across it, “Erende, come here.”

 Erende stood, walking to her and peering over her shoulder. His eyebrows crunched together. The scroll was different. Instead of showing Tamriel as a whole, it showed Morrowind. One of the black X’s that had previously dotted the land in tens of numbers was reduced to one. It was placed near the border of both Skyrim and Cyrodiil. A red line extended out from it, moving east until it landed on an unfamiliar symbol.

 “It’s…it’s different.” Erende muttered, “this us to be a map of all of Tamriel, but now it’s reduced to just Morrowind. Why is it different?”

 The scroll was taken from Aeria by Morag, who quickly looked over it.

 “That black X,” Morag said, tapping the parchment, “that’s where we are, roughly. See, we came from Riften, down southeast towards the border.”

 “So, we need to follow that red line?” Aeria asked. Morag nodded.

 “Of course, we do,” Orianer said, “it’s now a magick map, ever changing, ever so omnipotent.”

 “Well, it changed for the better,” Steffan intervened. The magick Ori had focused on him had helped, and his arm was now free from the sling. His eye, however, was still bandaged. His free eye was nestled in a glare.

 “Maybe the scroll is attached to this mission, and it’s giving us the gift of clairvoyance. Logic knows we need it.”

 “It doesn’t matter,” Bahadur said, “what matters is that we get enough sleep now in preparation for tomorrow.”

 “Bahadur is correct. Tents are set, and two tents are doubled so four will need to pair up. Everyone, now, please stay in your respective tents. I will take first shift in watch-”

 “No, I can do it.”

 Morag raised an eyebrow as Erende stood up. He held his fists at his side.

 “I want to take first shift.”

 Morag didn’t argue, just grinning as he shook his head.

 “Alright then, boy, you’ll take until midnight. Call us if you see any signs of trouble.”

 The Orc then disappeared into one of the tents, as did the rest of the Guild. Erende sat near the fire, warming his hands. The sound of the crackle soon became part of a melody as snoring echoed from the tents. A rabbit popped from a small patch of grass. Erende watched as it bounded away on dunes of ash, clutching the fur rollout underneath him. Even as several hours passed, and the fatigue began to weigh heavily on his eyelids, he focused on staying awake. The horses had stopped neighing, now all snored softly.

 In truth, he didn’t volunteer just to help. He did it because even as he fell into exhaustion, he didn’t think he could sleep. Erende had killed someone. A soldier, a woman who died trying to protect her homeland because she was scared. She had lived in a world where she only knew fear and war. Erende couldn’t imagine that. He couldn’t find the process of understanding how she must’ve felt.

 But Erende felt vile. He felt sick, the guilt of his actions responsible for her untimely death resting like stones in his head. Erende stared into the flames, images jumping out at him through the licks of orange and yellow. He grimaced, scooping a handful of ash and throwing it into the pit.

 “You okay?”

 Erende looked up. Khir’schen stood next to him, blanketed in a fur robe. Her hair was braided neatly, her paint had been washed off. She waited for a moment until Erende realized to move and offer her a seat on the rollout. As he scooted away, she smiled softly.

 “Isn’t it time to switch?”

 “Hm? I don’t think so.”

 “It’s almost two.”

 “Really?” Erende turned back to the fire, and yawned, “well, might as well keep watch the whole night then.”

 “You can’t do that, your eyes already have purple bags underneath them,” Khir’schen said, poking his cheek. Erende shooed her away.

 “I’m fine, are you okay? What are you doing out here?”

 “Don’t change the subject. You need rest.”

 “I’ll rest when you answer my question.”

 Khir’schen sighed, rolling her eyes as she adjusted herself.

 “I’m not tired anymore.”

 “That’s quite debatable, as your face still looks tired.”

 “I might look tired but that does not mean I am tired.”

 Erende smiled, glancing to her. Shadows still danced on her face. It seemed that no matter what angle he looked at her, she always had a shadow. It made her mysterious in his eyes. Mysterious and beautiful. His smile dimmed.

 “I’m not okay.”

  Khir’schen looked to him in worry. Her forehead had creased, her mouth tucked in a thin line.

 “What do you mean?”

 “I mean…” he sighed, “this is going to make me sound like a cow, but…but I can’t stop picturing the soldier I killed in my head. I can’t stop thinking that it was I who killed her. I took her life away from her.”

 His voice cracked, and he cleared his throat, “I just…I took her life away. I ended it. I killed her. I know that makes me sound weak, less of a man, but-”

 “No.”

 Erende stopped. Khir’schens looked to him, her face set in hard stone.

 “Being aware that you have feelings does not make you any less of a man. What makes you less of a man is hiding those emotions and portraying yourself to be someone whom you are not. You killed her, yes, you took her life away, but reflecting on it and regretting that course of action shows that you are mortal and you are real.”

 She bit her lip, looking to the fire pit.

 “In truth, I hate killing others. I hate it, but sometimes, it’s what we have to do. That serpent from the voyage would have killed us, and these soldiers would have done the same.”

 Erende nodded slowly. He followed her gaze to the flames. Silence was between them for some time.

 “How…” Erende started. He paused, and Khir’schen gently touched his arm.

 “Hm?”

 “How many people have you killed?”

 She didn’t move, taking in a deep breath before exhaling slowly.

 “I’m not sure. The Guild has only been active for, what, three months now? During that time, we had the serpent, the Khajiit raid, the damn Nordic ruin and then this, so I’m not sure.”

 “Well, has it gotten easier?”

 “I supposed. We are all developing our sills as warriors. Before, it was difficult to even defeat someone in combat. Through this mission, we have learned some, but not enough. Our minds are not on if we should kill them or not, it is if we can defeat them.”

 “I see,” Erende patted her hand.

 “If you ever need any training in combat, I will gladly help you. I’m sure you need it.”

 “Shut up.”

  Erende grinned. The stone in his head had been reduced to a pebble. Khir’schen then yawned, pulling her hand away from him before standing up.

 “Well, I better get back to bed. Please get to bed too, or else you’ll be asleep the entire time while we go to Mournhold.”

 “What a lost.”

 She shook her head, a smile still on her lips and she walked back towards her tent. Erende heard the ruffle of the curtains behind him, and he leaned back on his bedroll. The sky was clear. Stars twinkled overhead. No moons were visible, giving him a wide view of the night. He sighed.

 He was going to be okay.

 It was early the next morning when Erende awoke to the sound of a snorting horse. He cracked open his eyelids, a line crust making them stick together. He sat up, rubbing his eyes and blinking rapidly. The tents had all been packed up, the bedrolls placed on the horses, and their harnesses now clipped on. Camoran stood before him, kicking a pile of ash and dirt into the fire pit. He grinned when he saw Erende.

 “Well, well, well, good morning, your highness. Have a peaceful rest?”

 “Quite,” Erende yawned, standing up. Ash had made its way down his back and into his clothes, and he wiggled as he walked, trying to shake it loose. Camoran snorted.

 “Lovely dance. What’s it called?”

 “The shut-up and get on your horse before I make you,” Aeria interrupted. She rode Toro, her hands gripping his gray fur.

 “Let’s go, it’s half a day’s ride to Mournhold, but we’ll get there sooner if you hurry your arses up.”

 “Yes ma’am,” Erende muttered, walking to Isolde, “let’s just hurry up and get there, and hopefully they have extra water. There’s still ash in my pants.”

 The ride was a lot less short than Erende expected. Granted, they cut through the ashen desert with the aid of the scroll. The heat of the sun had been mostly blocked by the clouds of ash that billowed through the barren wasteland, and yet Erende could feel it’s rays glaring down his back. As they travelled, Erende did his best to avoid what seemed to be ruins sticking out from under even more ash. When he had asked before where the ash had come from, Orianer made a sarcastic remark about flying rabbits and mythical potions until Vala silenced her and told him about a volcano. He didn’t want to ask again for her to clarify.

 It wasn’t until Erende opened his eyes from a nap and saw that the ground had turned from ash to a bright, glorious green. The air was humid, the stickiness clinging to Erende’s skin like sap. He grimaced, rolling his neck only to find himself covered in sweat.

 “Where are we?”

 In front of him, Vala turned. She smiled.

 “We’re getting close to Mournhold.”

 “But, the ash, it-”

 “This area of Mournhold was not affected by the ash blight,” Do’tesh said from further up the line, “Mournhold is far from the mountain that spewed the ash miles across, and luckily, the nature here has maintained its beauty, as no one is willing to fight on a battlefield such as this. The Argonians took advantage of the Dunmer during the war, and now their borders overlap. Mournhold is in between the residence of the swamps of Argonia, while the Dunmer live in the ash,” she breathed in, sighing happily, “the trees and the air remind Do’tesh of home, of Elsweyr, so Do’tesh feels content.”

 Erende looked out into the dense jungle. It was far from what he had seen on the border of Morrowind. The trees reached high into the air, the greenery almost hurting his eyes. Flowers and mosses sprouted across the floor, the hooves of the horses making squishing sounds as they stepped. Erende spied old stone and bronze ruins jutting from the ground. He was hesitant to ask, until Vala pointed ahead.

 “There! I see it!”

 Erende leaned forward, peering over the heads of the Guild and through the brush. In the distance, he saw three towers, all covered in vines and moss. Below them was a small village. A makeshift metal wall circled the perimeter. As they drew closer, Erende spied movement around the wall. Then, an archer appeared, a cloak covering their face, knocking an arrow into a glossy bow. Aeria immediately unsheathed hers.

 “Wait,” Morag said, holding up his hand. He raised his arm higher.

 “Hello, brothers!” He called. The archer laid down their bow.

 “Welcome, Morag!” They called back.

 A gate opened in the wall, and the Guild entered Mournhold. As they were all inside the gate closed with a clank behind them. Erende stared at the size of the city. It was not what he had imagined. It was smaller than what he described a city to be, and the buildings themselves were being devoured by vegetation. His boots squished on the moist floor as he slid off from Isolde’s saddle.

 The archer that had greeted them came down from the wall through a set of stairs. When Morag dismounted, the archer ran to him, hugging him tightly. That’s when Erende noticed the tail peeking out from under their cloak. It was yellow and scaly, and not at all what he had expected of the people

  “Welcome home! We’ve missed you!” The archer said. Their voice had just a little hiss to it. The archer then unveiled their hood, exposing a very short, very lizard-like face with a sharp smile. Erende recoiled. Before he could say anything, Steffan lunged and covered his mouth.

 “Not a word until we give them a chance to explain.” He said, understanding Erende’s bewilderment. Erende breathed heavily. He didn’t understand why someone who looked like Walks-On-Poison was here, nor did he really want to know. His mind was boiling with questions as the young lizard turned to them, and bowed.

 “Welcome, Nightingales and guests! For those who don’t know my name, I am Sera Nikiona, Argonian of the Thieves’ Guild,”

 “She’s my daughter,” Morag said, quite proudly. Now Erende had even more questions, but a glare from Steffan put all hopes of asking those questions to rest. The Argonian then grabbed Morag’s hand, and happily pranced back towards the towers.

 “Come now, come! They wait in the chambers beneath!”

 They followed a giddy Sera through the streets of the small village. Erende turned to see other Argonians taking the horses and leading them towards a separate section of the city. Huts of both grass and homes made of wood and metal stood, exposed to the sun and rain and the intruding vines. Oddly, Erende couldn’t see any villagers. Only other figures cloaked in the same brown armor that Sera wore stalked the village.

 “Where is everyone?” He asked, turning to Sera. The Argonian grinned, showing off her serrated teeth.

 “This is your first time in Mournhold, yes stranger? Then you will be quite surprised,” she said. At the end of the street, Erende saw a large door. It was bronze, with markings cut across it. Sera let go of her father for a moment, walking towards a mass of ferns and vines and clearing them away to expose a small, simple lever on the wall near the ground. She reached her foot towards the lever, using her weight to bring it down. Erende heard the hiss of steam, the grinding of gears before the doors groaned open, revealing a winding staircase down to an enormous cavern filled with blue light. From where he stood, Erende could see buildings as tall as the towers in Halrain stretch all the way to the ceiling. He could see streets lined with people, and birds flying in the air as if it were a sky. It was an entire village, an entire city in the ground. Do’tesh grinned as she leaned in to the Guild, who all seemed as bewildered as Erende felt.

 “Surprised?” She asked. Erende nodded.

 “Very.”

 “Well, it is a nice way to introduce a city. Welcome, my friends, to Mournhold.”

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