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Craglorn

Author: 
Naryu Virian

Craglorn: I’d never even heard of the place before my target paid the Dragonstar Caravan Company to take him there. I traveled to Belkarth on the next caravan in and started sniffing around, trying to pick up his trail.

Odral Quintayn

The aforementioned personage has been marked for execution in accordance with the lawful tradition and practice of the Morag Tong.

The place was … strange. And I say that as a native of Vvardenfell. Just outside Belkarth, I encountered my first Nedic ruins, in the middle of a lake. Why there?

Odral Quintayn, my old alchemical friend—what are we doing here?

I rode the caravan all the way to their home base, in the town of Dragonstar.

This Dragonstar was clearly uncivilized territory because they worshiped Daedra in the open there. Boethiah, for one: her “Faithful” run some kind of combat arena right in town, though it doesn’t seem to be part of the regular Arena circuit.

And in the bar at the Company Depot, I ran into a rogue scholar of the Golden Eye who told me about a nearby site dedicated to Daedric Prince Hermaeus Mora called the Seeker’s Archive. She said that whatever I was after—and I was clearly after something—I could learn about it at the Archive. For the right price, of course. Ha! If she could tell I was seeking something, she should also have seen that I’m not fool enough to ask old Mora for it.

So I asked myself instead: Where would you go, Odral Quintayn? What are you looking for in this wilderness of Nedic ruins and monolithic Ra Gada tombs? For that matter, what is it with the Redguards and their copious crypts?

I mean, we Dunmer are ancestor worshipers, but we don’t build absurd numbers of crypts everywhere. …Or, no, now that I think about it, maybe we do. But not sprawling necropolises like the Howling Sepulchers, for Three’s sake. No, Skull, if I know Odral—and I do—he’s more interested in the affairs of the living.

When Odral was warned by Vonos Bero that the Tong was onto the Seven Secretives, he immediately left Vvardenfell for the continent. Which was easy because House Hlaalu has trade connections all across Tamriel—and therefore so does the Tong.

House Hlaalu’s been infiltrated: at this point, it’s about two thirds merchant traders and one third merchant-assassins.

But not even the Hlaalu had connections in this forgotten wasteland. Odral wasn’t just running when he came here—he was after something. The Grandmaster said he didn’t know the Secretives’ true goal, just what they called it: the Simulacrum Rubric. Each member of group was supposed to contribute something to this goal. That’s what Odral’s come for.

Odral Quintayn was the Morag Tong’s leading alchemist, so I figured his contribution had to be alchemical. Craglorn was home to an ancient Nedic civilization—were they wise in the arts of alchemy? That scholar had told me of a Nedic library in Fearfang Caverns, which seemed like a good place to start. It sounded snaky, and snakes mean poison.

For the Morag Tong, poison is what alchemy’s all about! Sure enough, Fearfang was full of snakes—big, ugly ones I didn’t care to tangle with. Worse, there was some kind of snake cultists infesting the place: the “Scaled Court.” I didn’t find any alchemy—but I heard one of the snake folks mention a place called Hel Ra Citadel.

B’vek, that was a mistake! Hel Ra Citadel was one of those Redguard necropolises I was complaining about, full of weird sand zombies that I later learned are called Anka-Ra. No one should try to go into Hel Ra with less than a very capable and well-armed team—even my world-class stealth abilities were tested to their maximum.

I guess if you have gravel for eyes, you can see in the dark as well as the light. My father used to warn me, “Naryu, once you’re noticed, you have two chances of getting unnoticed again: fat and slim. Just get out.” Funny: he said that during a lesson to me and Odral when we were both just thralls-in-training.

In Hel Ra, I’m sure Odral would have followed that advice.

But, as Father pointed out more than once, I’m too stubborn for my own good. I wasn’t about to let some piles of walking pumice keep me out of a place where I wanted in. I led those Anka-Ra a merry chase before I decided honor had been satisfied and I could get the Vekh out. Besides, I wasn’t learning anything useful. Those old Ra Gada were all about swords, not alchemy or potions. I’d allowed curiosity to divert me from my task. My father would not have been amused.

I sure got an eyeful of Yokudan arms and armor, however.

Not that I’m likely to ever need to disguise myself as a Yokudan, but I filed the knowledge away, as I do with everything. I like the feature-concealing visors on their helmets, of course.

Being able to hide your face makes infiltration of guarded sites so much easier.

So, on to the Spellscar, where I should have gone in the first place.

When a region has a giant crater of magical devastation caused by the fall of a mystical space spear, that’s got to get your attention. It just didn’t sound, I don’t know, alchemical enough, so I tried the historical sites first. When I finally got to the Spellscar, I realized the magnitude of my mistake. Whatever caused this bizarre havoc had to be related to Odral’s reason for coming to Craglorn. Here was sheer, destructive power on a vast scale, and the Seven Secretives were certain to want it.

There was a camp of Mages Guild researchers near the big spike.

So I eavesdropped on them. They called the thing the Mage’s Staff—not in relation to their guild name, but to the Mage star-sign. It seemed there were cults in Craglorn that worshiped the constellations.

And the cult that worshiped the Mage was somehow involved with the big black spike.

Cults that worshiped the constellations. Who knew? The researchers said something about there being a way to get inside the Mage’s Staff, so my course was clear: poke my adorable nose where it didn’t belong. As usual. (I bet you saw it coming, didn’t you, Skull? You should have: you knew me well enough.) So I found the way in.

I passed through some kind of magical portal, and it took me to … the sky. I’m as serious as a slit throat. I emerged onto a cloud of jagged rocks floating through the night sky. Yes! Floating rocks, absolutely crawling with spellcasters and all kinds of atronachs. But they were pretty busy with each other and didn’t notice me.

One of the spellfiends was shrieking, “The Mage! She promised me!”

I was pondering the idea of talking to a constellation that actually talked back, when one of the air atronachs noticed me. It had more swords than me, so I decided to make a tactical retreat back out to the Spellscar.

Of course, no matter how many swords it had, that air atronach was a nixad compared to the colossal stone atronach I saw in the Aetherian Archive. What a brute…

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I … persuaded … one of the Spellscar researchers to chat with me. He said that somehow the major constellations had incarnated into persons and the Mage was at the Aetherian Archive in Elinhir, a town full of wizard towers just to the east. I hotfooted over there and found the Archive.

Ominous-looking place—but it couldn’t be weirder than the inside of the Mage’s Staff, right? I saw a likely-looking band of Undaunted who were preparing to enter it, and followed them in. The tower was full of monsters and traps, but I rode the coattails of the murder club all the way to the … top? I hung back as the Undaunted fought a battle I couldn’t quite understand, then spoke with The Mage herself. I waited till they were good and gone before coming out of hiding.

And then I spoke with her. The Mage. Or a piece of her, anyway: she said she was “a mere echo of the Mage’s aspect,” whatever that means. She was an otherworldly presence, drained by the recent combat, and already starting to fade out, but in her state of cooperative passivity, she was willing to listen and answer my questions.

Reminded me of someone who’d been dosed with a Tell-All Potion, as we call them in the Tong. That brought me back to alchemy and Odral Quintayn. The ensuing conversation was strange and elliptical, and I’m still trying to sort it out in my memory … which is confusing for me, Skull, because I remember everything perfectly. Everything! Except for this.

Trying to sort out why Odral had come to Craglorn, I asked the Mage what kind of power she brought to mortals. She shrugged and said she was a Celestial Guardian, not one of those et’Ada who tempt mortals with power. There was only one of her kind who did that: the Celestial Serpent. The corrupter. He was behind everything.

The Serpent, Ophidius Incarnate, had somehow gotten his metaphysical fangs into two Guardians, the Mage and the Warrior, and was subverting their powers to gain sway over the minds of mortals—first here in Craglorn and then all across Tamriel. I’d even met some of the Serpent’s cult without knowing it: those Scaled Court creeps I encountered in Fearfangs Cavern.

If I was looking for mortals who sought power, the Scaled Court was where I needed to go. The Serpent, it seemed, had attracted power-hungry men and women of many different talents, dubbing them “Regents” of all sorts of nasty disciplines. The one I wanted—the Mage muttered behind her mask as she sought the answer—was the Regent of Roiling Concoctions. …All right, I snorted at that, I have to admit it, though the situation was far from funny. So, I asked, where is this Scaled Court?

“Wherever mortal greed and ambition gather for ill purposes.” This was not exactly the answer I wanted—I’d hoped for something more along the lines of “turn right at the crossroads just west of Belkarth.”

Then where was the Serpent, I asked? If I could find him, I’d find his followers, right? “The Sanctum Ophidia is the focal point of the Serpent’s presence on Nirn! But I sense, assassin, that there is not where you will find he whom you seek!” Yes, she talked like that. “But I am only a fading shard of the echo of an aspect of a Guardian! Your destiny is within the purview of … another.” Oh, good—I was in somebody’s purview. Great. But where was this Sanctum?

“North … of Skyreach!” At last! Useful directions—even if it did mean trekking almost all the way back to Dragonstar. I took the road west past Belkarth, avoiding interesting-looking caverns on the way—no time for side ventures, Odral had been on his own in this place long enough. I waved at Hel Ra Citadel as I turned north.

I passed the Ruins of Kardala on my left—nice waterfalls—and considered what Odral might be getting up to with the Regent of Roiling Concoctions. Whatever alchemical abominations the Scaled Court was cooking up, Odral would be sure to know how to put it to work on the behalf of the Secretives. He was the best alchemist we had.

As I approached the northern cliffs where I’d find the Serpent’s Sanctum, I could see the soaring towers of Skyreach off to my right. I didn’t know it at the time, but that was where this Craglorn jaunt was going to come to its ugly end—but only after I let the Ophidians nearly kill me in their wretched sanctum.

A couple of fennec foxes watched me enter the narrow gorge to the Sanctum, their heads cocked curiously, trying to figure out why I was doing something so stupid. I wondered, too, but just stuck out my tongue at them.

The real problem, the one I’d been avoiding, was that I was on my way to find and kill Odral Quintayn. My oldest friend. All right, maybe I’d been friends longer with Gorven Hledri, but I’d killed her last year.

Odral was my adopted brother. After my father, Mjahlar Virian, had sponsored us both into the Tong, Odral and I trained together side by side. We found differing roles in the guild, but always supported each other. And now I was honor-bound to kill him. I wanted to delay that moment, so I entered Sanctum Ophidia as slowly and stealthily as I could. A good thing, too, because it was teeming with Scaled Court warriors, the Serpent’s hand-picked killers. They were arrogant and boastful, certain of conquering the world.

The Serpent, though gone, would be back, and they bragged about the monsters he had at his command—like armored Welwas, ugly bastards that looked like the south sides of echateres going north. I gave them a wide berth. Likewise the armored trolls: I didn’t want any part of them, thank you very much. I wasn’t there to slay monsters.

But the Scaled Courtiers—they were killing the monsters themselves, draining them of blood and other fluids, and then chanting happily as they carried it away! I intuitively knew what that was about: bad alchemy. Real bad alchemy—that would lead me to Odral. So I followed the bucket brigade, eavesdropping. “This ought to fill the Birthing Pool!” they laughed.

Birthing Pool? I couldn’t think about it then. They were leading me through a barracks of the Serpent’s elite guards: the Vicious Ophidians. Bunch of s’wits—I already hated them from the way I’d seen them bullying the lesser Courtlings in the outer chambers. Their weapons were gaudy and tasteless, but at least their outfits had those convenient feature-concealing masks. I grabbed what I could, and continued following the bucket boys while pulling on an Ophidian helmet. When you join the Tong, you learn disguise before you ever learn killing.

Mjahlar taught me that, Skull. He’d learned it from Grandmaster Rythe Verano himself, you know—one of the last of the Morag Tong who dated back to before the Potentate assassinations, when the guild was proscribed and went into hiding.

Verano worked hard and long—centuries—at restoring the reputation of the Morag Tong with the Great Houses, working mostly on Indoril and those stiff-necked Redoran, getting them to accept us again as legitimate enforcers of the social contract. And we’re almost there … but the Secretives would have set us back three hundred years. According to the Grandmaster, anyway.

Bucket Boy One activated a portal, and they stepped through. I followed, in time to hear Number Two say, “Back in Skyreach!” So we’d left the Sanctum and its monsters.

The monsters here were monstrous mortals: thugs geared out in emulation of the Celestial Warrior. We were in a tower devoted to that constellation, in ancient times and again. But the bucket boys were just passing through. I followed, lurking.

Finally we got to the Serpent’s Corruptery, and I saw what these bastards were up to: combining forbidden reagents with stolen Celestial power to create new monsters, unheard-of abominations the Courtlings said would revert Tamriel to the ages of chaos. So there it was: the alchemical secret Odral had come to Craglorn to find. The Grandmaster had asked me, after executing each Secretive, to collect their contributions to the Simulacrum Rubric and bring them back to him. But I have questions. Should I? And was that a real Dragon skeleton?

And this conflict between the constellations—how far back does it go? Based on some Nedic tapestries I saw, all this has happened before. Could the constellations return to threaten Tamriel once again? If so, shouldn’t their secrets be suppressed rather than spread? The Grandmaster wants these “contributions,” but I have to say, I wasn’t upset when the Dwarven device Vonos Bero was after was destroyed. Now once again, I was nearing the climax of an Execution, and I could see I was going to have to make a choice.

From behind a snake-wrapped pillar, I watched as a pool gave birth to a Mantikora. Everything about it felt wrong, as if the rules of reality were being repealed, denying the world I knew. I retreated into an adjacent laboratory.

There I encountered Mendan Flot, the Regent of Roiling Concoctions—but it was actually Odral. I knew him instantly. He was at a calcinator, preparing to swallow a fuming potion.

He put it down when he saw me. “Naryu,” he said. “If you don’t kill me, I’m going to take this potion. I’m oath-bound: you know I have to do it.”

“I have an oath to fulfill, too,” I said. And killed my adopted brother.

Then I smashed the potion and calcinator. Dumac take it—if the Grandmaster had really wanted the Secretives’ “contributions,” he should have put that in the Writ—shouldn’t he, Skull?