Being a True Story Of The Nerevarine Prophecies And Other Diverse Incidents In the Province of Morrowind Dedication

НазваниеBeing a True Story Of The Nerevarine Prophecies And Other Diverse Incidents In the Province of Morrowind Dedication
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Chapter 12
You can get further with a kind word and a gun than with a kind word alone.

Attributed to Al Capone
Although I had decided to approach House Hlaalu first, I still had some reservations. When I had researched the Great Houses, I had learned enough about Hlaalu and its councilors to be wary. In particular, I was concerned about Crassius Curio. Although he wasn’t the acknowledged leader of Hlaalu, the Imperial councilor was one of the powers to be reckoned with. And even if he was peculiar, he was also extremely able. Add to that the fact that he resided in Vivec, which was full of Ordinators, and my problems were multiplied. Sul-Matuul had warned me that the Temple guardians would be likely to try to kill me first and ask questions after if they knew that I had declared myself Nerevarine. Of course, so far as I knew, no one had denounced me to the Temple- yet. Oddly, that fact made starting with Hlaalu a wiser choice. Theirs was the only House most of whose councilors lived in or near the main seat of the Temple. Better to get in and out before word of my claims reached too many ears. The truth was that I wouldn’t have been happy to be obligated to anyone whose motives I didn’t trust, not just Crassius Curio. The fact that he was a decadent Imperial simply made it worse.
Despite my fears, the Hlaalu councilor was as gracious as ever when I asked to speak with him. He invited me to sit and asked how he could be of service to “one of Redoran’s rising stars.” That complimentary title was his way of telling me that he had sources of information and that he knew who I was. Realizing that the best response would be directness, I asked Crassius to tell me how Hlaalu went about naming a Hortator. The councilor explained that the title was largely honorary, but nevertheless required the unanimous support of the House Council. To achieve that support, one would have to demonstrate that there was a need for a war leader- that a true crisis existed. He then provided a description of the Hortator’s role,
“A Hortator is a champion who leads by inspiration. He challenges opposing heroes in single combat. He goes on long, desperate quests. He goes alone into the citadels of the enemy. He confronts the dangers no one else in the House is strong enough... or courageous enough... to face.”
Much as I disliked that summation, it certainly matched the situation Azura had trapped me into, so I asked if I could become Hlaalu Hortator. As I had expected, Crassius asked for a “small consideration” of 1000 drakes for his vote. He was honest enough to point out that Orvas Dren would NOT support me as things currently stood and that a number of the other councilors would not defy Dren. I willingly paid the bribe and asked Curio for any advice on the other councilors. He listed them and their probable reactions- Dram Bero would likely support me- if I could find him. Yngling Half-Troll would probably need to be “removed.” Nevena Ules and Velanda Omani would follow the lead of Orvas Dren. He suggested that it might be possible to trick or bribe Dren- he could be found at the Dren Plantation. Lord Curio then casually mentioned something that took my breath away- Orvas Dren was the head of the Camonna Tong and was rumored to be involved with the Sixth House. Although my initial reaction was to sharpen my blades and take the shortest path to the Dren Plantation, I restrained the impulse. Considering the influence Dren seemed to wield, killing him might very well prevent me from being named Hortator. And, much as I hated to admit it, sometimes duty took precedence over justice. Finally, Curio gave me directions on how to find most of the other councilors and I took my leave.
Although my mind still whirled with the thought that I would have to go ask a favor of the head of the Camonna Tong, there were other councilors closer by who I could hopefully persuade. Yngling Half-Troll lived in a manor house atop the St. Olms canton, and rumor had it that Dram Bero could also be found somewhere in Vivec. As was true of most Hlaalu councilors, Yngling retained an interesting variety of “hired help,” including a Nord, a Bosmer, and an Orc. Whatever else he might be, Yngling certainly wasn’t biased. Although Crassius had suggested that House Hlaalu wouldn’t mind if Yngling just “disappeared,” I saw no reason to handle their internal squabbles for them. If he was willing to listen, I would do my best to convince Yngling to support me out of his own self-interest. After hearing my story, the Nord proved himself to be as direct as those folk usually are-
“Well, tha’s very interestin’, I’m sure. But it will take 2000 drakes if you want my vote.”
That seemed a small price to pay to achieve my goal and to avoid having yet another death on my conscience, so I willingly paid. It was also gratifying to avoid getting entangled in the Hlaalu power struggle. If Crassius wanted Yngling removed, he would just have to find someone else to do the deed.
The thought of finding someone reminded me- I still needed to find Dram Bero. A few careful questions and judiciously spent coins revealed the fact that the elusive Hlaalu councilor was occasionally seen on the St. Olms plaza, the very place where I found myself. Considering how the Hlaalu seemed to prefer to settle disputes, I wasn’t surprised that one of their councilors chose to conceal his whereabouts. It’s hard to assassinate someone if you don’t know how to find him.
* * * * * * * *

The only thing duller than the next few stages of my dealings with House Hlaalu would be retelling those events, so I shall refrain. I will only remark that I found Bero and he gave me his support. One interesting event did occur which had nothing to do with Hlaalu. While I was seeking information on Dram Bero, I heard rumors about a man named Danar Uvelas, who had gone missing. His wife, who ran a small apothecary shop in St. Olms, was anxious for any word of his whereabouts. As an orphan, I was always moved by stories of missing family members and the loved ones who waited for news. I suppose my interest in such cases was fueled by my secret wish that there was someone, somewhere, who cared about my well-being. Also, after dealing with Hlaalu, it seemed that a favor for someone in need might balance the books a bit, or at least make me feel better. So I sought out Moroni Uvelas, who had the haunted eyes and care-worn face of someone who has loved unwisely and seen too many promises broken. After I had spoken with her long enough to gain her trust, she explained that her husband was a skooma addict and that he tended to hide out in the underworks of the canton when he was on a binge. Usually, he would return after a few days, broke and suffering from the effects of the drug. But this time he had been gone for over a week, and Moroni feared that he had finally succumbed to some disease or perhaps even died in some dark corner. Although she was afraid to find out for certain, she was even more afraid to go on living without knowing. I reassured her as best as I could, and promised that I would go immediately to find the missing man. Azura and Hlaalu and prophecy would just have to wait.
The “underworks” is really just a fancy way of saying “sewers.” All of the debris and detritus of the cantons finds it way down into the noisome canals and tunnels. Some of that debris is the sort that makes its way there under its own power- people with reasons that are compelling enough to put up with the stench and the rats. Because the man I sought was an addict, I had to check all of the canals, as well as the walkways. It would be easy enough for someone to fall in and drown in a drug-addled state. And I had made a promise that I would find Danar, living or dead. As I splashed down a dark, twisting tunnel that connected two of the main canals, I saw a hunched figure lurching toward me. When I called out, “Danar,” the figure seemed to stiffen momentarily as if in recognition of the name. As I drew closer, the true horror of Danar’s fate was revealed to me. The being that I met was no longer Danar Uvelas, even though it still wore the clothes his wife had described to me. What I met in that echoing tunnel was a corprus stalker. Hopeless though I knew it to be, I tried to break through the madness that the disease had wrought, praying that some spark of Danar still survived. But it was no use- the foul creature simply shambled forward and clawed at me. The struggle was mercifully brief, for I had no desire to do else but end the creature’s pain. As he fell, I caught the glint of silver on the ring finger of one misshapen hand. The ring was a marriage band, inscribed in Elven script- “To Danar, My Husband.” It gave me some comfort, that, even at the worst moments of his addiction, Danar had not pawned the ring. And now it was up to me to carry it back to Moroni and to tell her that she would not have to listen for his knock any longer. Deliberately telling an untruth is wrong in the eyes of some religious folk, but I obviously do not hold such beliefs. And even if I did, I think I can be forgiven for telling Moroni that I found her husband curled up, as if asleep, in a dry section of the tunnels. I told her that he appeared to have gone peacefully, with a slight smile on his face. And I gave her the ring he had kept throughout the worst of his troubles. In return, she gave me several potions of Cure Common Disease, a generous gift from someone who had so little.
Whatever inner peace I received from that episode was severely tested when I went to speak with Orvas Dren. The Dren Plantation was somewhat north of Vivec, and was clearly a prosperous enterprise. The sight of the slave quarters caused a tightness in my chest and an involuntary twitch of my sword hand. Remembering my purpose, I firmly stepped on my more noble impulses, and asked a retainer whether Orvas Dren was home. After an insolent glance at my appearance, the retainer responded that Lord Dren might be home, but that he probably had no desire to speak with anyone of “my sort.” Through clenched teeth I replied,
“Perhaps that is a matter for Lord Dren to decide?”
The guard simply yawned elaborately and pointed toward the villa, then said,
“Do what you want, pal. It’s your funeral.”
When no more encouragement appeared to be forthcoming, I shrugged and entered the house. After wandering around and being gratuitously insulted by guards and servants, I finally found Lord Dren on an upper floor. He was relatively young for someone who held so much power in Vvardenfell, but his eyes were peculiar. It took me a moment to grasp that what I was seeing was the same lack of expression as might be found in the eyes of a dead man. When he first saw me, Dren reached for his sword, but then seemed to have another thought. He released the hilt and sneered at me,
“The servants’ entrance is around back, and the slaves work the fields. Decide which you are and find your rightful place.”
With great restraint, I told him that, if he was in fact Lord Orvas Dren, then I was in the right place. I added that I had come to him because I wanted to be named Hlaalu Hortator. With a smirk, he said that I had showed uncommon sense in coming to him, then asked,
“What is it worth to you? Why do you want to be named Hortator?”
For what seemed like the thousandth time, I ran through the story of the prophecies and how I fit into them. Dren was less than impressed.
“That's the worst story I've ever heard. What makes you think I care about these prophecies? If you're the chosen one, why do you have to come to me? Why aren't you Hortator already, eh? I believe you have wasted enough of my time. Goodbye.”
Sometimes, a dismissal is actually a dismissal. Other times, it is the opening of negotiations. The key is to recognize which is which.
I knew that Dren, like most of Hlaalu, would be susceptible to bribery. In his case, the difference was that it wasn’t about the money, it was what the money signified- respect. So I gritted my teeth, bowed to the leader of the Camonna Tong, and offered him a “gift” of 2000 drakes. With that preliminary out of the way, we were able to get down to business. Dren again asked me why I wanted to be Hortator, what was in it for me? Knowing that his bias against the Empire would provide a lever, I told him that defeating Dagoth Ur would be the key to throwing the Empire out of Morrowind. That was exactly what he wanted to hear. His sneer was replaced with a calculating expression, and he told me,
“I have long believed it was a mistake to turn from the old gods. Perhaps Azura is with you after all. And perhaps not. I will tell you that I've spoken with Dagoth Ur. He promised me the same thing. That he will drive the foreigners from our lands. But I am not one to ignore opportunity, nor am I one to be troubled by rubbing two sides of a coin. If you are a Breton of your word, I am your ally. I will tell Velanda Omani and Nevena Ules to support you as Hortator of House Hlaalu.”
I had to do many distasteful things on the path of prophecy, but I tell you now that shaking the hand of Orvas Dren was more disgusting than wading through the sewers of Vivec. But I was driven by necessity, and so I clasped his hand and answered his phony smile with one of my own. However, I was not foolish enough to turn my back on him when I left.
* * * * * * * *

The remaining Hlaalu councilors were only too happy to do whatever Orvas Dren told them, so I was able to quickly return to Crassius Curio. That peculiar Hlaalu noble congratulated me on my success and gave me a belt which was the symbol of the Hlaalu Hortator. As I prepared to leave Vivec, a feeling of some unfinished business nagged me. It was as if I had seen or heard something and not grasped the full implications- and I had an idea that it was important. I recalled the last few days- my business with House Hlaalu was mercifully over; the only other recent task I had undertaken was the unfortunate affair of Danar Uvelas…. And that was when the answer came to me, or rather the question- how did Danar Uvelas catch corprus when he had never left Vivec?
Perhaps my own experience had colored my thinking, but I believed that corprus was rather difficult to catch, unless one ventured inside the Ghostgate- or entered a Sixth House base. And since Danar had spent his time in the underworks of Vivec, that seemed to indicate that something worse than rats lived in those dank tunnels. The first place I decided to check was St. Olms itself. When I had been looking for Danar, I had noticed a guarded door, but hadn’t thought I needed to find what lay on the other side. Now I did. Whatever it was, I owed it to the people of Vivec to seek out the source of the evil that festered beneath their very feet. To this day, I cannot explain my actions even to my own satisfaction. I no longer had any illusions about being a hero, if I ever had. Perhaps it was the fact that I had been infected with the dread disease myself and felt an obligation to protect others. Perhaps I felt the need to atone for making a deal with Orvas Dren, instead of cutting him down where he stood. In any event, I felt compelled to cleanse Vivec- at least of the more obvious evil. There was a fleeting moment when I wondered why this task should fall to me, with all those Ordinators parading around. After all, weren’t they supposed to be the soldiers of the Temple, dedicated to seeking out evil? Of course, to do that, they would first have to admit that a problem had grown up right under their superior noses, a problem that they had neither sensed nor stopped. Far easier to polish their armor and mouth platitudes about the greatness of the Tribunal than to actually do something.
What I found underneath Vivec was…surprising. There were no fewer than three Daedric shrines, along with worshipers who were less than happy to see me. Under the Hlaalu canton, in the ancestral vaults, I was unsurprised to find a large amount of contraband, including moon sugar and more of the cursed ash statues that had been used against Redoran. There were also several smugglers who weren’t going to be able to make their next delivery. Of more interest was what, or rather who, I found under the Arena canton. Through a partially concealed trapdoor, I discovered extensive quarters, dining rooms, stores, and practice areas. And I also found Eno Hlaalu, the head of the Morag Tong. As I had no desire to do business with the “official” assassins guild of Morrowind, I made my excuses and got out of there as quickly as possible. The Telvanni underworks were by far the cleanest- no debris, no rats, no lurking Daedra worshippers. Whether that was because the Telvanni were naturally fastidious or because no one was dumb enough to set up a base in Telvanni territory, I didn’t know. The wizards also had an area I simply couldn’t resist- the door was clearly marked “Telvanni Monster Lab.” No self-respecting adventurer could pass up something that invitingly labeled, and I was no exception. Apparently, the Telvanni had learned rather more about the ancient Dwemer than they were admitting to anyone- the “Monster Lab” contained a number of the mechanical guardians usually associated with Dwemer ruins. From the Dwemer metal, soul gems, and other tools scattered about, it was clear that they had unlocked the secrets of constructing the spiders, spheres, and steam guardians that still patrolled the Dwemer strongholds. Unfortunately, whoever was working in the lab was not so kind as to leave any plans or drawings lying about, so I wasn’t going to be able to animate any metal monsters of my own.
Finally, in the last place I wanted to, I found the evidence of Sixth House malignancy. In the Redoran Ancestral Vaults, I was set upon by a lame corprus beast. And beside one of the canals, I found a small shrine, complete with corprus meat and a sacrificial victim. Again I was reminded that the Sixth House seemed to be targeting Redoran in particular. It could not be a coincidence that Varvur Sarethi and Brara Morvayn had been attacked via the ash statues, and that I now found Sixth House magic being worked beneath the Redoran canton. And I had to wonder if it had truly been free will that had led me to choose Redoran as my House, particularly when Hlaalu had seemed better suited to my “talents.” Regardless, I had made my choice and I did not regret it. I destroyed the foul shrine and cleansed the stone-work as best I could. Although Vivec was now safer and cleaner than it had been, it would only be a matter of time before the evil crept back in. The Temple and its guardians seemed to be oblivious to the danger that threatened, and I now knew that it was up to me to take the fight to Red Mountain, to Dagoth Ur. But the time for that battle had not yet come. I was Hortator of Hlaalu, but Telvanni and Redoran yet remained. The path to Red Mountain ran through Sadrith Mora and the towers of Telvanni power. I only hoped that I had grown strong enough to face those ancient Dunmer wizards and their terrible magic.
* * * * * * * *

The Telvanni councilors preferred to live in isolation- for a number of very good reasons. First, each worked in his or her own way to accumulate power and to unlock the secrets that would allow them to gain still more. Not one of the wizards wished to have another observe their progress too closely. Then there was the fact that one could choose to advance in House Telvanni by means of assassination. The Telvanni attitude was that if someone was able to slay a councilor in his or her tower, surrounded by physical and magical protections, then the slayer deserved to be rewarded. If Redoran respected honor, and Hlaalu respected money, it was safe to say that Telvanni respected power, particularly magical power. In any event, between their jealousy and their (justified) paranoia, the councilors resided in towers or “Tels” scattered around the eastern side of Vvardenfell. And, because they were too busy (and too cautious) to be bothered to congregate in one place, they had developed a uniquely Telvanni solution to communicating . Each councilor employed an accomplished Telvanni retainer as a “Mouth.” These Mouths served as the means by which the councilors communicated with one another and with the outside world. They stayed in contact by means of a magical connection that may as well be called “telepathy,” even if that is not precisely accurate. The point of all this is: it was a very bad idea to show up at a Telvanni tower uninvited and unannounced. Startled Telvanni wizards tend to blast strangers with magicka and leave their servants to sweep away the charred remains. Therefore, I knew that my first stop would have to be Sadrith Mora and the Telvanni Council Hall, wherein the Mouths gathered. In my travels throughout Vvardenfell, I had tried to listen more than I talked and to retain most of what I heard. Therefore, I did not walk into Sadrith Mora completely unprepared. Athyn Sarethi, Caius, and several others had mentioned that Master Aryon was the most “progressive” of the Telvanni councilors. Although he had many of the characteristics of that House, he was young enough to listen to a non-Telvanni. Perhaps even open-minded enough to listen to someone claiming to be the Nerevarine.
With that in mind, I purposely sought out Galos Mathendis, Mouth for Master Aryon. Reflecting his master’s more liberal nature, Galos listened politely as I told him that I wished to be named Telvanni Hortator and why. When I had described all the events that brought me to this point, Galos looked thoughtful as well as concerned and said,
“That's not a pleasant story. And it means trouble is coming, for all the Great Houses. I'm afraid you'll have to speak directly to Master Aryon on a matter of such importance. His tower, Tel Vos, is north along the coast.”
That certainly made sense- no Telvanni wizard was going to accept a story like mine without a chance to examine me personally. Anyone could claim to have passed the other trials and to be the Incarnate, could possibly even convince one of the Mouths. But it would be a special sort of fool indeed that would try to deceive a Telvanni master in his own seat of power. Before I departed for Tel Vos, Galos gave me a copy of the Brown Book of the Telvanni, which listed the current councilors, their residences, and the names of their Mouths. The book also recorded the House’s continuing objection to any ban on slavery in Vvardenfell and their refusal to restrain the unauthorized expansion of Telvanni holdings. Again I could see that Redoran had been the only Great House where I really fit in.
Regardless of the Telvanni’s feelings about slavery, or anything else, what mattered was convincing them to name me Hortator. That being so, I made my way north to Tel Vos. Even the exterior of that wizard tower showed that Master Aryon was different from the “traditional Telvanni.” His tower appeared to be composed of an Imperial fort or similar construction in and around which a more standard organic Telvanni tower had grown. Having no idea exactly how to find the councilor, I entered the first door that I found and wandered through the maze-like interior. While engaged in that practice, I discovered a couple of the reasons why it was a bad idea to poke one’s nose into a wizard’s lair. In this case, those reasons were a Flame Atronach and a Winged Twilight. Strange pets these Telvanni chose to keep. I hoped Aryon wouldn’t miss those two. At last, I found a guard who rather grudgingly told me that Master Aryon’s chambers were through a south-facing door near the top of the tower. Armed with that knowledge, I used a Levitation potion and rose upward to search amongst the higher reaches of the more tree-like segment of Tel Vos. Once I had located and entered the proper door, I met an Imperial mercenary named Turedus Talanian, the head of Aryon’s household guards. Once Turedus satisfied himself that I had not come on a mission of assassination, he relaxed a bit. He felt that it was probable that his master would be willing to at least listen to my story. As I turned toward the stairs, I heard him mutter something about, “…which is more than most of these daft wizards will do.”
Master Aryon was not precisely what I had expected, as my only real experience of Telvanni wizards had been Divayth Fyr. For one thing, he seemed quite youthful for a Telvanni master. However, as I looked more closely, I realized that his eyes held the same sort of intensity and focus. Young though he was, Aryon had earned his place in House Telvanni through skill and ability. When I explained my desire to be named Hortator and related my story yet again, Aryon asked me to give him a few moments to consider what I had told him. I waited anxiously as he sat staring into the distance for a period of time. Very soon, he returned to the present, focused his intense gaze upon my face, and spoke,
“Yes, I understand. You are willing to take the responsibility, and I am willing to vote for you as Hortator. I think the other Telvanni councilors will also cooperate, though some might need a little persuading. Master Neloth is ill-tempered, Mistress Dratha doesn't like men, and Mistress Therana is losing her mind. Archmagister Gothren is another problem. He will not refuse you directly, but will delay indefinitely. I recommend that you to kill Archmagister Gothren.”
That blunt speech took me aback- I wasn’t used to people talking so directly about their peers. Particularly troubling was the recommendation that I kill the Archmagister. When I asked on what grounds I could justify such an act, Aryon told me,
“Archmagister Gothren never directly refuses requests; he just delays indefinitely, never giving an answer. I don't know of any solution, other than killing Gothren. I'll tell you plainly. I stand to gain if Archmagister Gothren dies. I say this so you won't think I'm trying to trick you. My advice is still good. Gothren won't name you Hortator, but he'll never come out and say so. And in House Telvanni it is customary to settle disputes in this manner.”
In the beginning, I had feared the Telvanni because of their great magical powers. Now I began to wonder if all those years of isolation and dabbling in the arcane hadn’t unbalanced every one of them. I could not imagine Athyn Sarethi so matter-of-factly telling me that my best course of action would be to kill Bolvyn Venim. And I had reason to believe that Athyn wouldn’t exactly be heartbroken if something did happen to the Redoran Archmaster. But the first Telvanni councilor I encountered told me to kill the head of the council as casually as someone else might order a drink. Shaking off my confusion, I thanked Aryon for his support and his advice and got out of there. No matter what Aryon said, there must be a way of becoming Telvanni Hortator without trying to kill the Archmagister. And I could also sound out the other councilors first. As it soon turned out, Aryon was by far the most rational of the lot.
* * * * * * * *

I resolved to try Master Neloth next, as Tel Naga stood in the center of Sadrith Mora. By returning to Sadrith Mora, I would also be able to speak to the other Mouths and hopefully discover how their patrons might react. One thing seemed certain- my dealings with the Telvanni were likely to prove unpredictable. Still, happy to have a plan, even one that probably had small chance of success, I made my way to the Council House. The Telvanni guards seemed to have become used to seeing me around, as indicated by their cheery greetings, such as: “Annoying outlander,” and “Find someone else to bother.” Although the sense of fellowship was similar, the Telvanni hails lacked the zest of the Vivec Ordinators’ “We’re watching you…scum.” Still, I was happy to see that I was making a good impression on my Telvanni hosts. Ignoring the guards, I besought Arara Uvulas, Mouth for Master Neloth. Believing that the tone of Arara’s message to Neloth could affect my chances of success, I offered the Mouth a “gift” of 200 septims “for her valuable time.” How valuable her time really was, since she seemed to spend all of it standing on a platform staring into space, I did not bother to contemplate too deeply. The bribe lightened her frown considerably and she listened politely, if impassively, to my tale. I wondered why I couldn’t just ask all the Mouths to pay attention while I told the blasted story once, but that was not “how things were done” in House Telvanni. All of the other obviously eavesdropping Mouths would pretend that they had no idea who I was or what I wanted, and I would get to run through the whole exercise again, and again. I suppose that when you spend your days standing on a platform, staring into space, and mentally communing with an ancient wizard, you take your amusement where you can find it.
As I had expected, Arara told me that the matter was too important for her and that I should speak directly to Neloth. His tower of Tel Naga arose from the center Sadrith Mora, a massive structure of spiky branches and bulbous growths. Although the tower was impressive in its immensity, it seemed somehow misshapen, as if the mind that had guided its growth was somehow cramped and unable to stretch to new heights. I wondered if a Telvanni tower’s shape reflected the mind of its resident wizard; and, if so, what that might mean for my mission. There was but one way to find out, so I took a deep breath and plunged ahead. Surprisingly, the two retainers I encountered in the Tel Naga entry hall were quite pleasant. Either Arara had kept her promise, and sent word ahead, or these Telvanni were unlike most others. After a quick look around the entry, I espied a doorway to the upper tower, perched in a balcony-like opening across the hall from me. Clearly, the only way to reach the interior door was via levitation- standard practice in most Telvanni residences. Knowing of that particular affectation from my time in Tel Fyr, I had mixed a sufficiency of potions to serve the purpose. Although I had learned to cast a levitation spell, it was chancy at best and tended to wear off at unfortunate times. So I was quite happy to trust in better living through alchemy, and imbibed a potion which allowed me to float across the hall, through the door, and up the central “fly-well.” A number of chambers branched off of the well at different levels, but I suspected that Neloth would follow the practice of using the highest chamber as his workspace.
In that chamber I found a fiercely scowling, ornately dressed Dunmer, who was in the process of complaining about something to a Telvanni retainer. When he saw me, he stopped in mid-tirade and transferred his glare to me. A look of relief flitted across the retainer’s features before he schooled them to stillness. From Aryon’s description, the personable Dunmer in the gold robes must be Master Neloth. His response to my initial greeting confirmed his identity, as he growled,
“Whatever you want, the answer is no.”
As Neloth’s grumpiness was well known, I had been prepared for his surly response. With a theatrical sigh, I allowed my shoulders to slump and cast my eyes downward as if my hopes had been crushed. I also let the bag of gold I was holding in my left hand clink invitingly as it just happened to swing against my leg. Glancing upward, I saw Neloth’s eyes sharpen at the sound.
“Alas,” I intoned in a grief-stricken voice. “To have traveled to fabled Tel Naga to give this gift of 1000 septims to the renowned Master Neloth in furtherance of his research, only to be turned away. Where shall I go now? Perhaps Master Aryon or Baladas Demnevanni will be more interested. Forgive my thoughtless intrusion, Master Neloth. I should have realized that something as insignificant as 1000 septims would not concern so great a wizard.”
With another sigh, I began to turn away. Neloth’s scowl had been replaced by a look of greed and startlement. He snaked a bony hand out to grasp my shoulder and said,
“Wait, Outlander. Perhaps I was a trifle hasty. My studies have not gone well of late and other issues have vexed me. But even so, I would not be so uncouth as to turn down a thoughtful gift.”
His eyes unerringly focused on the bag of coins and lit with glee as I passed it over. Thus encouraged, I launched into my story. Even though Arara was supposed to have communicated all of this, I knew that the Mouths didn’t always tell their patrons everything. And I could understand why Arara would not want to provoke the unpredictable Neloth. It soon became clear that Arara’s judgment had been sound, for Master Neloth’s face quickly went through several interesting variations of color, none of which spoke of a healthy blood pressure. His frown returned full force, and he said,
“What are you going on about? Prophecies, visions, superstitious jibber-jabber? Don't interrupt me with that nonsense. Go bother some bone-through-the-nose shaman or bug-eating wise woman.”
Perhaps there was some elegant and clever solution to this situation. Possibly I could have discovered some artifact or ingredient that would have improved Neloth’s disposition. But such a solution would take time, a commodity I feared I did not have. What I did have was gold, and I would spend it like water if I must. I clapped a dramatic hand to my forehead and said,
“Forgive me, my lord. What I meant to say was that I have another 500 septims to aid you in your research.”
As I had hoped, that thawed the old boy right out, and he said,
“Well, why didn’t you say so? Hortator? War leader of House Telvanni? Is that necessary? Why doesn't anyone tell me about these things? So. Do you want the job? Are you qualified? Good. Then go ahead. I don't care. Be the Hortator. Now go away.”
Not the most ringing endorsement, perhaps, but good enough for my purposes. I quickly disappeared down the central fly-well and contemplated my next move. Therana and Dratha, the two female Telvanni councilors, were left. Each presented a problem- Therana was reputed to be so far around the bend she was likely to meet herself coming the other way, and Dratha disliked males, whatever their race. I had a feeling that my previous problems with women had done nothing to prepare me to deal with those two.
* * * * * * * *

As I returned to the Council House, one aspect of my musings about the ways of the Telvanni bore fruit. As all of the remaining Mouths were in the same chamber, I would speak to all three at the same time rather than scurrying back and forth between Sadrith Mora and the various Tels. Besides, unlike the councils of the other Great Houses, it seemed that the Telvanni did not particularly care how the others voted- at least on this issue. Therefore, I told my story to Felisa Ulessen, Mouth for Therana; Raven Omayen, Mouth for Dratha; and Mallam Ryon, Mouth for Gothren. None of them told me anything I did not expect- Therana’s “attention could be hard to get and hold;” Dratha did not like men- I should “do anything possible to improve her disposition;” and Gothren should hear what I had to say as soon as possible. As the Archmagister’s residence at Tel Aruhn was the closest, that suited me. A short stint of water-walking found me outside Tel Aruhn, and Gothren’s retainers were as rude as any Telvanni I had yet encountered. In fact, several of them even went so far as to explicitly state that they would not speak to me because they didn’t like me or my “kind.” Whether they meant Bretons or members of the Mages Guild or Redorans I did not bother to inquire- their animosity was of the greatest indifference to me. All that mattered was being able to convince Gothren to support me as Hortator. Ignoring the insults and hostility, I levitated to the upper hall and found the Archmagister flanked by two Dremora Lords, clearly summoned guardians. No wonder Aryon wanted me to take on the chore of disposing of Gothren. The Archmagister was scarcely more civil to me than his retainers had been, but his style of dress told me that he was a vain Mer, susceptible to flattery. After I had praised his great wisdom and obvious magical pre-eminence, the pompous old wizard unbent enough to hear the purpose of my visit. As Aryon had predicted, Gothren did not say yes or no; he simply asked for more time. With the consummate skill of a politician, he used a great many words to say nothing-
“No. Wait. Let me think.... Yes. I understand perfectly. Your story makes sense. Your proofs are persuasive.... But a decision on such a remarkable matter is a grave responsibility, and not to be taken in haste. I will need some time to reflect and consider, and to confer with the other Telvanni counselors. Leave me.”
Knowing that I would get no more from Gothren, and that I needed two additional votes, I graciously took my leave. Perhaps Aryon was correct, and the Archmagister would never give me a favorable response. But I did not know that, and I also wasn’t sure how the rest of the House would react to an attack on their leader. Finally, I wasn’t sure that I was prepared to challenge a wizard and his summoned guardians in his lair. That seemed like a remarkably effective way to commit suicide.
Tel Mora, home of Mistress Dratha, was relatively close by, so I left Tel Aruhn and prepared to go north. Just before I departed, I remembered a detail of a previous visit to Tel Aruhn and stopped in to see Bildren Areleth, the apothecary. After making a couple of purchases, I set out to discover if my powers of persuasion could sway Dratha. When I reached Tel Mora, I decided to talk to everyone I could, in hopes of finding some clue as to how to approach the eccentric Dratha. To my surprise, the people of Tel Mora were quite friendly, and I began to wonder if the talk of Dratha was all just a joke. Most of the tradespeople repeated the same story- that Mistress Dratha had been around forever, did not like men, but might still give me some work. Somehow, I got the impression that any work she offered me would be of the “go away, and if I am lucky you’ll get yourself killed” variety. When I reached Berwen’s Tradehouse, I was reminded of why it was important that I see this through. Berwen was a Wood Elf, with the slanted eyes and blonde hair common to her kind. She also appeared to be in a state of extreme agitation, and rushed through the usual greetings in a breathless fashion. As she paused for a moment, she took in my armor and weaponry and asked if I had been sent to “deal with the corprus stalker.” I admitted that it was the first I had heard of it, but that I would be glad to listen and help if I could. Berwen explained that the creature had somehow gotten into the store and she had managed to barricade it inside an upstairs room. Normally, Master Aryon would have dealt with it, but he was very busy. No one else was willing to risk catching the dread disease, and the stalker’s presence was ruining business, not to mention Berwen’s ability to sleep. I promised to do my best, and made my way up the stairs. Behind a stack of crates was the result of Dagoth Ur’s madness, his desire to create an army. The beast had once been an elf, but was now a monster, shambling back and forth, roaring. With the blessing of my immunity to corprus came the responsibility for dealing with those who had not been so fortunate. It was not a role I cared for, but I could not put it aside, either. The creature haunting Berwen’s storeroom and I were inextricably linked- if not for the manipulation of Azura, it could have been me roaring my mindless fury at the world. I conjured a bound bow and dispatched the poor beast as mercifully as I could. I felt no pride nor thrill in the death- it was simply necessary, and I was the only person who could handle it. As the stalker wheezed its last breath, I said a silent prayer to whatever powers there might be that his soul would find rest, untroubled by the madness of the gods and their creations.
* * * * * * * *

My somber mood served me well when I finally made my way into Dratha’s tower. The first person I encountered in the upper tower was a Redguard warrior named Nanine, who was so friendly that I began to wonder if the stories about Dratha were just an elaborate joke. That notion was quickly dispelled when I reached the top of the tower and met the mistress of Tel Mora herself. Whether she was truly “older than dirt,” as some of the residents had it, I could not say. However, she was certainly one of the oldest Dunmer I had ever seen, and time had not mellowed her. Her legendary dislike of males was clear in the look she gave me- the sort of look one usually reserved for the material one finds on their shoes after crossing a pasture. After several seconds of her glare failed to incinerate me on the spot, she intoned,
“What is this man doing here? Is it lost?”
That was not precisely an invitation to state my case, but I had to try, just the same. Putting on my most humble expression, I said,
“I crave your pardon, Mistress Dratha, but I need to speak with you on a matter of some importance.”
Rather, that was what I started to say. I actually only got as far as, “I crave…” before she raised one imperious eyebrow and said,
“How did this man get in here? Hello? Who's supposed to be on duty? Will someone show the poor thing out? It must be lost. Utterly and completely lost. Body and soul. Lost in the darkness that surpasses understanding. Do I make myself clear, manling?”
Wonderful. And everyone had said that
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