Abject terror. That was the first and last thing she remembered. She had been taken out of her bedroll by several masked thugs and rendered unconscious with some kind of spell. When she awoke, she was bound on an altar and a high elf was standing over with a blade, chanting. She didn’t even have time to scream before the blade came down and pierced her heart. One single moment of mind-blowing pain, and she felt nothing else.
Now, as Amelia DesJardin opened her eyes, wondered why she wasn’t still feeling that pain. She was certain the blade had pierced her heart. But here she lay, cold but alive, in a dank room filled with bluish light. A bowl with some radishes and a cup of water sat on the floor next to her, but she didn’t bother with it. Instead, she got up and looked around. There were several bedrolls, some of which had skeletons lying on them, a small campfire, and evidence that someone had been eating and drinking; but she was alone. The jagged bars on the door indicated that she was in a cell. So she was a prisoner, but that didn’t bother her much. She had broken out of jail before. At least she wasn’t dead.
Or was she? Whatever was going on, she didn’t feel right. She wasn’t in any pain, but something was . . . well, it was off. The terror was gone, replaced by a kind of numbness and confusion, but that was nearly as bad as the fear.
“How do you feel?” came a voice.
Amelia looked around the cell again and out the door, but no one was around. There was shouting outside the cell, but nobody close enough for such a soft voice.
Suddenly, a ghostly figure appeared before her, and she gasped with shock. “Holy—”
“Careful, now. You’ve been through a terrible ordeal.”
“You have no idea. Who are you? Are you a ghost?”
“No, just a projection. I’m a prisoner like you, but so much more. I am the past and the future, despair and hope. The tapestry we weave is complex; you cannot hope to see the whole pattern. Not yet.”
“Um, okay. So do you know how to get out of this place?”
“Someone will open your door. Then you must take up arms and protect yourself. Find Lyris Titanborn. Together, you will rescue me. And I, you.”
“I am so confused.”
“All will be made clear in time. Our destinies are linked; that is all you need know at this moment. Someone comes. Quickly, make your escape.”
An Argonian came up and unlocked the cell door. “We’re getting out of here. Come on!”
Amelia opened the door and ran out into the common area, then down a wide hallway among a dozen other prisoners, still not knowing where she was or where she would escape to. The halls were cavernous, marked by skeletons hanging from the stone walls and constructs set into the high ceilings, and tall banners with stylized faces on them. Her ghostly companion spoke inside her head, urging her to run faster. He said weapons were in one of the next rooms and bade her again to arm herself. When she found the room with the weapons, she picked up a sword and a shield and ran on with the others.
“An enemy blocks your path,” said the voice. “Strike it down!”
A skeleton ran at her, wielding a sword, but she was ready for it. How could she not be alert for danger in a place like this? And she could handle herself. She blocked its blows with her shield and swung the blade. It dodged out of the way twice, but her third strike hit it across the shoulders, and it crumbled into a pile of bones.
“Quickly now!” the voice urged her. “Do not slow, Vestige!”
Amelia didn’t have to be told twice. In fact, she didn’t have to be told at all. She wasn’t about to stand still in this horrible place.
A woman approached her, running from the other direction. She was dressed in green rags like Amelia’s, and she was obviously a Nord, her features strong and fair and her height enormous. She was at least a foot taller than Amelia. “Whoa, there,” she said, “are you okay? I heard fighting.”
“I’m fine, thanks.”
“Does look like you’ve got some fight left in you. You haven’t been here long.”
“No, I . . . I just woke up a few minutes ago. I’m still not sure what’s going on.”
“Well, I can help. The name’s Lyris.”
“Really? Lyris Titanborn? I was told to find you.”
“What? Who told you to find me?”
“This is going to sound weird, but a strange, ghostly figure in my cell told me. An old man in rags.”
“The Prophet!” Lyris gasped. “He spoke to you? Amazing. It was very dangerous for him to speak to you like that. He must think you can help. What did he say?”
“He said our fates were linked. He’s still talking in my head, said something about us rescuing each other.”
“Then, that’s what we’ll do. Let’s go.”
Amelia followed Lyris through the prison and out a door, but the outside was just as unpleasant as the indoors. It was freezing, and a stormy sky sent snowflakes floating down. Chaos was everywhere, with some prisoners running down the hill and others just standing in place, collared and looking half-dead. “What now?” she asked.
“We need to disrupt the sentinels.”
“What are the sentinels?”
“Magical constructs created by Molag Bal to guide his vision in Coldharbour.”
“Coldharbour! We’re in Coldharbour?”
“You didn’t know? Then I have bad news for you. Aye, you’re in Coldharbour, and you’re dead.”
She had wondered, but hearing it out loud was like getting hit with a ton of bricks. “So he did stab me in the heart,” she said shakily.
“That was Mannimarco. He sacrificed you to Molag Bal and took your soul.”
“My soul? Then what in Oblivion am I? I’m not alive, but I’m conscious. Am I a ghost? And if I don’t have a soul, how am I even a ghost?”
“I wish I could answer that, but I’m afraid I don’t know. What I do know is that we need to get moving. The sentinels are at the top of that hill.”
“Fine,” Amelia said with a sigh, although she had no idea where her breath came from. She followed Lyris across a field to a river, where they had to fight a flame atronach. This wasn’t like any flame atronach she had ever seen; it was blue. But it died just as easily and exploded just the same, although she didn’t feel any pain from the heat.
“Well played,” said Lyris. “At least you’re good in a fight.”
“Yes, I’ve been adventuring for a few years.”
“You look very young. How old are you, Vestige?”
“Older than I look. I’m twenty-five.”
“Where were you when you were taken?”
“Stormhaven, near an Aleyid ruin. Somehow I think I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
“I’m not so sure about that.”
Although she didn’t agree with Lyris, Amelia could comprehend how the Nord might think this wasn’t just coincidence. She had seen enough crazy, inexplicable things in the last few years to understand prophecy and fate—or at least the concept of such things. “How do we destroy the sentinels?”
“I have no idea. Brute force?”
She followed Lyris up the hill to find a large eyeball floating between the prongs of a giant sconce. It peered at them for a moment but then turned and looked at something else. High Rock was riddled with magic and frightening monsters, and Amelia didn’t scare easily. Besides, after everything else that had happened today, a large floating eye just didn’t instill much terror.
“Let’s try this.” She jabbed her sword in the eye, and with a scream, the structure collapsed.
“Good!” said Lyris. “While he’s blinded, let’s get to the Prophet’s cell.”
“The Lord of Brutality knows of your escape,” said the Prophet’s voice in her head.
The two women ran back down the hill, across the frigid river, and up another hill do a door, which was warded.
“Damn!” said Lyris. “Destroying the sentinel must have triggered the barrier. We’ll have to find another way in. I wonder if Cadwell can help us.”
“He’s the oldest of the Soul Shriven, and he knows Coldharbour better than anyone.”
“Is that what I am? Soul Shriven?”
“What about you? You seem different than the others running around here.”
“No, I’m alive, with my soul intact. I was brought here as well, but . . . well, that’s a tale for another time.”
They went down the river a ways and found a Soul Shriven sitting at a campfire with an iron pot on his head. He was playing the lute and singing off key. Several Soul Shriven stood around listening to his song.
“Hello!” he greeted them warmly. “What’s this? Out for a stroll, then? Lovely day for it.”
“Are you Cadwell?”
“Sir Cadwell, yes. And you are?”
“What a lovely name! Ah, and fair Lyris! Good to see you, dear!”
Oh, gods, this guy was as mad as Sheogorath’s earlobes. Then again, people dealt with things in their own way, didn’t they? Maybe madness was the best way to survive in Coldharbour. “I hear you might be able to help us,” said Amelia. “We’re trying to get to the Prophet’s enclosure, but the door is sealed.”
“Oh, dear, that’s unfortunate. I do happen to know another way in. It’s a rather exciting jaunt, rife with atronachs, feral Soul Shriven, and dozens of traps.”
“How do we get through all that?”
“Rather cautiously, I’d expect.”
Amelia couldn’t suppress a chuckle. She liked most everybody until they gave her a reason not to, but she decided this Cadwell was absolutely adorable—for an insane, emaciated, undead spirit, anyway.
“From here, you’ll want to follow the river, and after a while you’ll see the entrance to the Undercroft. Once you’re there, the path should take you right to him. Watch your step, hold your noise, and do mind the traps.”
“Thank you, Sir Cadwell. Do you think we have a chance?”
“Lyris seems to think the Prophet knows a path back to Tamriel, but I rather think if one existed, I’d have found it by now. Truth is, I’ve been in Coldharbour so long, the place feels like home. Still, a good uprising now and again is a pleasant diversion, don’t you think? Best of luck! If you don’t make it out, do check in now and again, won’t you?”
Amelia and Lyris followed the river downstream, fighting a few flame atronachs along the way. Lyris was a good fighter, and though she didn’t think she was in any real danger of dying here, being already dead and all, she was glad to have the big Nord at her side. They finally found an iron door just up the bank. The tunnels inside didn’t look all that different from the terrain outside, except for the occasional spike trap. They waded through icy water and fought several feral Soul Shriven, poor souls who had been in Coldharbour so long, they had lost all sense of self. Amelia hated cutting them down, but there was nothing for it. They would surely do the same to her.
They finally came to a dead end and a ladder, which led up to the main structure. After navigating a few halls and a couple of doorways, they found the chamber where the Prophet was being held. He was suspended in midair inside a floating cube that was held in place by two very big soul gems electrifying a larger one above it. Lyris stood at a pedestal before the construct.
“All right,” she said, “the good news is we made it here in one piece and the Prophet looks relatively unharmed. The bad news is it’s going to be up to you to keep him safe and get him back to Tamriel. I’m not going with you.”
“What? Where are you going?”
“The only way for a prisoner to leave is if another living soul takes their place. I’m going to trade places with the Prophet.”
“Lyris, no! There must be another way.”
“Believe me, I wish there was, but there’s no one else, and Molag Bal needs to be stopped.”
This couldn’t be happening. Lyris was going to sacrifice herself to free the Prophet. There had to be a way to save her; Amelia couldn’t accept this. “I can’t just leave you here.”
“There’s nothing for it, Vestige.”
“I hate this.”
“I know. But this is what needs to be done.”
“All right,” she agreed reluctantly. “Let’s just get it done.”
“There are locking devices on either side of the cage. You need to disable them so I can initiate the transfer. The Prophet will know where to go once it’s done, but he’ll need you to be his eyes.”
“Good luck, Lyris,” she said, placing a hand on the Nord’s shoulder.
“You too, Vestige.”
Amelia went to the first gem, which sent blue light to the one over the cage. It was a simple matter to knock it off balance, causing a break in the beam. She did the same with the second gem, and the cage creaked and groaned as if it were going to come apart.
“I give myself so that the Prophet might be free!” Lyris cried. Her body rose in the air, surrounded by blue light. She disappeared with a flash and the Prophet stood in her place, an old, blind man with a walking stick. Lyris’s screams chilled Amelia to the bone.
“Oh, gods,” she moaned softly.
“Thank the Divines you’re safe; there’s that, at least.”
“Is there no way to save Lyris?”
“None, I’m afraid. But I promise you, Vestige, once we escape, we’ll find a way to rescue her together.”
“Why do you guys keep calling me Vestige?”
“Because you are a shell of your former self. Soulless, an empty vessel, longing to be filled.”
“Sounds so cheery,” she said dryly.
“It is as the Scrolls foretold, although not exactly as I imagined.”
“I hadn’t imagined it, either, believe me. The Scrolls?”
“The Elder Scrolls. They prophesied your coming.”
“My coming? You’re saying it wasn’t chance that caused me to be sacrificed? I think there has been some mistake.”
“No, Vestige. This is the truth.”
One thing about escaping with Lyris, she had known what needed to be done: fight and run. But the Prophet was telling her things she couldn’t—or didn’t want to—get her mind around. “So is that why Lyris called you a Prophet?”
“That is what I have come to be called. My true name is lost, even to me. Quickly now, we must make haste to the anchor.”
“Daedric machines of the darkest magic. Their chains bind our world and pull it toward Coldharbour.”
“Can we break them?”
“It is my hope that we can, over time. For now, one of them will return us to Tamriel.”
“Let’s go, then.”
He held onto her arm, and she made her way through the hall and out a door at the rear. The corridor led to another large chamber. More machines were placed around the room, gears of some kind, and dominating the center was a humongous ring suspended over a circular platform, from which a flight of stairs ascended. Two smaller rings hung above the large one, and the one on top glowed with cold, white light. Lightning crackled within the ring.
As they entered the chamber, two skeletons rose up from the platform and attacked. The Prophet shot a spell at one of them, but Amelia didn’t notice what it was exactly because she was engaging the other. She took a couple of jarring blows before dropping the skeleton, but before she could sigh with relief, a figure emerged from a pit behind the stairs that was so monstrous, so horrible, so uncompromisingly evil, that all she could do was scream.
Flames poured from the enormous blue-black creature, who laughed at her terror. “I am the face of pain,” he said, and with that, Amelia realized she was staring at none other than Molag Bal himself. She screamed again, and he laughed more. “Scream, child, yes. The souls of the damned are my weapons, and you will know eons of suffering.”
He sank back into the pit, and a humongous atronach appeared on the platform before them. The thing looked like it had been constructed from several skeletons. But Amelia couldn’t move.
“Vestige, get ahold of yourself! I will heal you, but you must defeat this creature!”
With that, Amelia shook her head to clear it and advanced on the monster. She hacked away at it while it jabbed and swiped at her, but for every painful strike—and she did feel pain this time—she felt the warmth of the Prophet’s healing magic. When every swing of her sword, she came back into herself a little. Fighting was familiar, something she was comfortable with, even against this walking pile of bones. In the end, it didn’t take all that long to kill it.
“By the Eight,” she breathed when it was done.
“Well done, Vestige.”
“I do have a name, you know.”
“I mean no insult by this name, I assure you. It is your title, your badge of honor.”
“A shell of my former self? That’s not honor.”
“Oh, but it is. Now. I will prepare a spell to lift us to the anchor above us; but first, you must re-attune yourself to Nirn in order to regain your physical form. You will need a Skyshard.”
“I’ve seen those before in my travels, but I never understood how they worked so I stayed away from them.”
“They’re shards of Aetherial magicka that carry the essence of Nirn. If you absorb its magic, it should restore your corporeal form. If you run into them in Tamriel, I recommend absorbing them as well. They confer a great amount of power.”
“I’ll keep that in mind. But there isn’t one here.”
“I will summon one for you to absorb.” He raised his hands and called, “Shard of Aetherius, fall upon us now and anoint us with your blessing.” With a flash of white light, a multifaceted stone bigger than her head appeared before them, a beam shining straight up. “There, quickly. Collect the Skyshard.”
Amelia reached out and touched the shard, and she was caught up in a gust of warm air and light as a power like none she’d ever experienced flooded through her. The tension built until the light exploded all around her and caused a massive head rush. She also felt her body more strongly, as if it were suddenly there. Her heart began to beat, and her breath came back in a heavy gasp. “Whoa!” she cried.
“Great Akatosh, Dragon God of Time!” the Prophet prayed. “Your children are lost in the fog between worlds, and they cry out for mercy. Let the way be opened so that these wandering souls can return home. Let the will of Molag Bal be denied!”
Blue light filled the space at the top of the stairs and into the portal above. “Quickly, Vestige. Into the portal.”
Amelia took a deep breath and dashed up the stairs. Stopping only for a moment to think, this is insane, she closed her eyes and jumped. And she fell up. For a fleeting moment, unbearable pain shot through her extremities and her heart felt as if it would burst. Then all was black.
She opened her eyes in her own bed, wearing a nightgown, and for a moment she thought it had all just been a terrible dream. But then she noticed the Prophet, incorporeal again, standing in in the corner. She sat up and peered at him through bleary eyes.
“The Vestige awakens once again. As I feared, we arrived in different locations. But worry not. We will find each other when the time is right. There is much we need to accomplish.”
“How long was I unconscious?”
“I do not know. The voyage between worlds disrupted all sense of time and space.”
“But I’m home. How did I get here?”
“That, I cannot answer. I only know that you emerged in the sea and some charitable soul fished you out and brought you here. As for myself, I am in a city of industry, but I know not where.”
“What now, then?”
“We will meet again. In the meantime, I will find a way to rescue Lyris. You must follow your own path. Explore. Search for a cause to lend your hand. Join with others.”
“So pretty much what I was doing before?”
“Yes, but be wary, Vestige. Our very plane of existence is in peril. The threat of Molag Bal looms across Tamriel, and chaos spreads in its shadow. We must skirmish with evil wherever it rears its head.”
Amelia sighed. “Prophet, I don’t know if I’m the best person for this. You’re talking about a hero, and I’m hardly that.”
“Don’t underestimate yourself, Vestige. There is more to you than you understand. Together, we will get your soul back, we will save Lyris, and we will thwart the will of Molag Bal. I must go now.”
“But what do I—”
It was too late. The Prophet disappeared.
“What a week I’m having,” Amelia muttered to herself.
“Well, well,” said a masculine voice, “look who’s finally awake.”
She looked up to see a man standing in her bedroom door, one she knew well. Jakarn—thief, spy, sometimes lover, and good friend—stood there, flipping a coin in the air and smiling at her. With dark hair and pale blue eyes, he was drop-dead gorgeous, but oh, did he know it.
“What are you doing here?” she asked him. “What am I doing here?”
“Kaleen pulled you out of the ocean, and I brought you home and stuck around to make sure you were all right. I was starting to wonder; that was days ago.”
“Kaleen? Are you serious?”
“You may not get along, but that doesn’t mean she wants you dead. You were half-drowned.”
“Will wonders ever cease?”
“Who were you talking to?”
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
“Well, now that you’re okay, I have somewhere I have to be. Are you okay?”
That was Jakarn; he never stayed in one place longer than absolutely necessary. Amelia shrugged. “Considering. You go, love. I’ll be all right.”
Jakarn walked into the room, sat down on the bed, and placed a kiss on her forehead. “If you need me, you know where to find me.”
“No, I don’t. I never know where to find you; you always just sort of show up.”
With a chuckle, he said, “What do you mean? I’m a changed man! I’m a dedicated crewman on the Spearhead now.”
“Yeah, until Kaleen kicks you off the ship. Thanks for watching over me, Jakarn.”
“Are you sure you don’t need me to stay awhile?”
“No, I’m fine. Hungry, but fine.”
“Then, I’ll see you soon, my dear.” He kissed her on the mouth this time, just a quick peck, and then he left the apartment.
Amelia got up to go find some food. She shared the room with Kireina Skaarsgard, a soft-spoken Nord and her dearest friend. Kireina wasn’t home; she was probably out on some quest. It was what they did. There were mercenaries of a sort and spent a lot of time doing “odd jobs” for the people of High Rock. Sometimes they adventured together, but Amelia had been alone when she was taken.
She had some bread, cheese, a handful of grapes, and a glass of wine, then went back to her bedroom and stood before the mirror. She was average height for a Breton—meaning she was short—with red hair that fell to just past her ears and green eyes. Men told her she was pretty, but she had always thought her cheeks were a little too soft. They gave her a pixieish look and made her look younger than she was. Today, she was pale and had dark circles under her eyes. She picked up a comb and ran it through her hair but groaned. “Oh, screw it,” she said, and plopped down on the bed.
She needed rest, she was sure of it; but as she lay there, Amelia realized she wasn’t the least bit tired. She guessed several days of sleep was enough. Maybe she should have asked Jakarn to stay for a while, because when she closed her eyes, she could see Mannimarco standing over her, dagger in hand, ready to pierce her heart. Gods, no. It was time to get up.
She climbed out of bed, put on a spare set of armor, dug into her stash of gold, and headed toward the marketplace to replace her weapons and good armor. Then she would find work. Anything, just so long as she didn’t have to sit in her room alone and think.