The Improved Emperor’s Guide to Tamriel — Dreams of Cyrodiil

Nightmares of Coldharbour

Hallucinations plague me. I see flashes at intervals while I am awake. I crave rest but cannot sleep, for sleep kidnaps me; I am banished to a terrible place where confusion, terror, and loneliness eat into my mind as the worms writhe in my chest. Sharp, floating rocks. Blasted promontories. Impossible islands shrouded in crackling storms. I believe now that I am ruined.

Asleep now?

These objects are dream-memories. I must have thought them important enough to sketch, but what are they? Infernal devices? I’ve drawn the blind man in the cloud of moths. I keep seeing him out of the corner of my eye, but he isn’t there when I turn to look for him. Can he help me from this damned predicament? Or does he only exist on these pages and in my head?

This nightmare realm extends its slowly strangling tendrils deeper into my waking moments and has taken over my dreams completely. I seem to be here, even when awake. Is this Tamriel, under a foul and powerful spell? I spent my time moping and traipsing about this terrible land of death and the dying. Even the ground and the ragged rocks that thrust up from it seem to have felt the mark of torture.

My boots, covered in oozing blue-black sludge. The wind howls and stabs about my cloak, more piercing and icy than a Nord blizzard. My eyes are read and bleary from soot and dust, but there is nothing of pleasure to see. Wind-wrenched skeletal trees, long-destroyed ruins, everything blackened and slowly crumbling. Inhospitable wasteland. Faint cries from the charnel houses and slave pits. Loud metallic knocks and ripping sounds.

I look down at the acris water: Soft-skinned critters scamper in the reeds or slither in the filth. I gaze across at the blackened island I have reached but have no memory of arriving. The remains of an old inn I visited in Stormhaven. Charred skeletons, sitting up to clatter their teeth at me. I sniff the air. The faint waft of lavender. Then the foul stench of rancid meat. I look up and the sky is cold with fire.

Last night a Dark Elven wizard appeared to me within this dream. He seemed just as surprised to see me as I was to encounter him. He mentioned his name — Malkur Valos — and told me we were in a place called Coldharbour, the Oblivion plane of Molag Bal. “And it’s no place for the likes of you. However you came here, I advise you to leave, and do not return.” I pleaded for him to help. But he was gone.

Over the wind, I heard distant, cackling echoes of mocking laughter.

My Coldharbour nightmare is never ending. The fetid wind chills and weakens my bones. The nacreous fluid meanders and masquerades as a river, but with a repellent bluish glow and dark, indistinct snaking shapes flowing in its depths. The gray ashen soil reminds me of the dead gray eyes staring from the corpse of a raven I discovered in the manor’s undercroft when I was four years old. The dead bird haunted me for years afterward.

I wander alone and afraid, and seemingly ignored. I paint the menacing walls and gates of my confinement. Yes, that is it! My terrible revelation: The whole world or plane or land of Coldharbour is an immense prison — even for its master! But why? What is the point of small cells (high-bricked and barren) or sealed chambers with unbreakable locks? Why are there prisons within prisons? Jails within jails?

I think I remember my prison guide: an inmate trapped within these walls of waking sleep. His name…. what did he call himself? Soul-shriven? My mind is provoking trickery, though, so these words could be the ravings of a simpleton. I remember the prisoner’s voice now but not his appearance. My memories are becoming murky, slowly covered in creeping darkness. Did I even see my guide?

I did. I did! My guides showed themselves to me! The soul-shriven are many. Empty bodies, dried husks, driven only by false purpose instilled by the masters. They speak slowly and with timid whispers; their tongues are partially cut. Skeevers scurry and nip at their feet. Helpless forms. Moving statuary. But with the flicker of a living soul. Pitiful shells. Sad, afraid, lost.

The gaunt faces of the guides peel away from my sight. I peer into a cell with a big Nord woman, vital and different from the withered servants of the Daedra. Titanborn, the soul-shriven call her. Lyris Titanborn. She cannot see me — my being is indistinct and malformed — but I watch her pray to her gods. Her communion is unsuccessful: The Eight Divines cannot hear our screams from in here.

The Nord was put to work. She toiled with the others who were caught, tormented, and forced into bondage. They make everybody work: Argonians and Altmer chipping away at great mountains of rock. Dunmer and Redguards stripped of their fineries and forced to carry stones to one of a thousand walls. Breton and Imperial stonesmiths, reduced to ragged and hunched wretches, carving indentations, runes… and the face that leers from every edifice.

There was to be no toil for me: I was beyond and could not be commanded. Not for long, though, they assured me… not for long. Soon I would be there. Be one of them. Joining the forlorn and hopeless in the pointless labor for the whims of the depraved. In the blasted, stolen landscape. Stolen? From Tamriel? Yes!

The hated Dremora, accursed Daedra: Servants of the Masters. Whether in guise of a Worm Cultist or a Grand Duke commanding the weary downtrodden, they exist to mock and torment. Look at their arms and armor. Thievery! They stole it, like they steal everything. They cannot invent, only copy. Their objects are stolen forms born from mortal mind, crudely cobbled together, copied and exaggerated.

A plundering of the uplifting qualities possessed by Man and Mer. Advancements in warfare and culture. Learned ideas and pooled wisdom. Venerated customs and current evolution. Held up against a black mirror for me to peer into, I watch the perverse mimicry of the Markynaz. I note the baying groveling of the Clannfear. And the wounds of Markarth open up again, flesh flayed and bubbling.

Spider Daedra. Hateful. Loathsome. But what if you’re lost in their terrible realm? What if you don’t know what to do? Then you need them. I expected to be trussed up and slowly dissolved. But a befriending? Conversation? Joviality? Only if you believe these scuttling hellions can feel compassion. They spin the web for Molag Bal. Their imagined aid only serrates my sanity. I am to be coaxed off this cliff, not pushed. The Daedra. The cursed Daedra.

I remain in my island hut, a house but never a home. A knock on the door at midnight. Khefletak saunters in — another Daedra, a Xiviliai: not so kind. The feral demon pried open my mouth so words spilled out, and I told him everything. Everything about Honoria. Her favorite sweet roll recipe. The soaps she uses when she bathes. The smell of her pillow and her ointments. While I wept, he laughed, said he would find her, visit her, and….

Must not think of that. Mustn’t. Banish those thoughts from my head What am I doing? Compiling a guide of what I’m forced to see. Yes, yes, yes. What I see are Daedra. A field guide to Daedra! Perhaps it will help. Who? The Imperial scryers? Painting staves off the darkness closing in on the corners of my mind. Writing everything down. A filled scrapbook before a scholar’s funeral.

Ogrims, they’re Daedra. What do they look like? I shall draw them, back and front. Spiked. Scaled. Pawlike hands. Unkempt toenails like a giant’s. Spines and warts, chins, and squinting, glinting eyes. What do they do? I shall write. Ogrims: they guard. Simple, but strong. Torment their underlings. Grunt, don’t talk. Heal, don’t bleed. Hmmm. What would they bleed if they bled?

Focus. Drawing Daedra, doing it right. Right, details, mustn’t forget. Claws sinking into pale flesh. Ripping out the briarheart? Soft and pliable, like roasted piglet. Alcove in the corner for the compass. Savagery. Can you hear the shallow breaths? Faintly? No, listen. Mustn’t remember. No, no, no, my first love was Iris. Remember her spiked armor? She paraded around like she owned most of Bravil! She died in the war.

I awoke again in my hut, still confined to Gil-Var-Delle. I am weak and alone. My previous notes, the scribbling of a man unhinged. Somebody stole my mind; I have no recollection of those words. But I do remember last night’s dream: ghastly and vivid. Molag Bal consumed the Bosmer town of Gilverdale in a single, dreadful night.The brutality displayed was incomparable. I could not resist watching the feasting. Oh, the slaughter! But these were echoes of the distant past; it had happened in the First Era.

The God of Schemes grows in power and influence; his corruption is vast and his desires more wanton. The harvesting of souls. The tormenting of Tamriel. Mundus and his Oblivion plane grow more entwined with every soul he snatches. And now Molag Bal had some to Cyrodiil. An army of Daedra and a legion of the undead raze Bravil and destroy my homeland.

I spend the day (night? permanent dusk?) painting more horrors from the dream. Cyrodiil was overrun by war, and my beloved Bravil was in flames. Straggling survivors gazed dumbfounded at the ruins of A Warlock’s Luck in the northern square, now facades of cinders of ruin. My cousins in the Fourth Legion, they were so proud of their Imperial uniforms. I heard the news that Postumianus had made Centurion: What will become of them if this is a true vision?

I wish I were as skilled with a blade as my brother: My execution after I murdered the overly ambitious Emeric, the whinnying Jorunn, or that pompous Ayrenn would have meant a worthy afterlife at the right hand of Reman. The dream told me what I had long suspected: That no one builds like the Empire. No artisan can match Imperial artisans. So is it envy, then? Must the Provincials destroy that which they cannot match? To think I drank and I simpered in the company of these fiends. To Oblivion with the lot of them.

No, wait… second thoughts. Although the various Alliances attack my beloved Cyrodiil, they do not bear the burden of blame. Once again, the foul Daedric Prince Molag Bal, his champion Mannimarco, and all his cavorting little puppets are the cause of this strife. The Stonefire Cult is on the rampage. All of Tamriel is in chaos. Cracks in diplomacy between the provinces become deep fissures.

A brief composition before my imminent decomposition. The nightmare began with muffled trumpets. Then silence. The toll of a bell. Even the wind died down. Then it came. First the grinding, shrieking metal scraping and unraveling. Chains descended from the skies, giant claws drew Daedra to Nirn and sent more souls to Him. Molag Bal’s Dark Anchors, forged in the Slave Pits of Coldharbour. I saw them! I see them now!

Don’t they know? They must realize! The Dark Anchors now fall on Cyrodiil. Sweet Mara, they cut and gouge through our sacred stone, our wondrous battlements, gorging on the Imperial City. The sky will open, and the Daedra will come. First those that scurry. Then those that seek to feast. But Molag Bal shall unleash the Titans. The Daedric Titans! Vast and winged and punishing. Our Divines forsake us.

Indiscriminate death. Set upon by the gnawing and the rabid. Cyrodiil’s candle flickers and is snuffed. Servants and superiors — no one is spared the sharp tooth, ridged blade, or diseased hook, barb, or beak. And Molag Bal will watch from his palace in Coldharbour where everything stares back at him with his own face, and he will gloat, and mock, and gorge on the souls of mortals.

The Lord of Brutality has a most insatiable appetite. The more souls he consumes, the more he wants. As his grip tightens and all of Tamriel chokes, his power cannot be kept in check. Sacrificial altars will not be enough. Clandestine plots to devour the few champions of hope will not be enough. So he will summon them, them — the Harvesters. They reap more and more and more souls.

And how do they harvest? With a kindly cavort? A flute and a drum, with a singsong to coax your soul out? No! They siphon, they suck, they drain. They funnel the very magic of the void along their many fingers. They force you to face the blank nothingness. They snare you in, burrowing into your weaknesses, picking at these scabs until they bloom into terror and compliance. They hate with love and love to hate…

Molag Bal reigns triumphant. Every mortal of Mundus is consumed. We crawl in his filthy effluent, slaves to his grotesque whims for ever, and ever, and ever, and ever. The invisible house has disappeared. The body on the island cliff in a cross-legged slump. Corpse eyes rolled back, tears all wept, jaw unhooked with laughter. Buboes swell and seep. Pustules and abscesses with thick, green purulence. Hands severed, dancing in spasmodic rhythm, pulled by hidden strings. The body dragged forward, lifted by unseen compliances. Then dropped in a crumpled heap, swaying at the edge of the precipice.

I fall into Honoria’s arms. I frolic with her in the meadows of my youth. I wake in our matrimonial bed, linen fresh, and crisp, warm and comforted as my love nestles close to me. I peer forward ten years or twenty. I shall retell these tales to my children. And someday to my grandchildren.

No, no, no. The great quivering of black worms opens up to swallow me.

No. no, no

A scribe of the empire, planning paths from Bravil
Flaccus pranced across Nirn at the Chancellor’s will

Lied his thought to a book bound in leather and hide
Filled with musing and art, t’was a real sense of pride

But his welcome was worn as he traveled the land
Many knew he was spying, feckless, and fanned

When flummoxed by evil, the scholar did squirm
Skin seared, fate decided; the mark of the Worm

Foes on every corner, sleep terrors at night
Dark hunters surround; his mind in permanent fight

Still he staggered as wretched sickness sapped morale
fore Flaccus, life departed, bound to Molag Bal

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