Katla stood up from her crouch by the aged oak and slowly stretched. Her knees popped from being bent so long. She scanned the woods. They were as silent as they’d been when she first perched here four hours ago. Outside of a few rabbits and butterflies passing by, she seemed to be alone.
She looked again at what had once been her home.
In five years’ time, so much had changed for her. Here, though, things looked much the same. Too much.
Katla stood at the edge of the woods surrounding her old home near Chorrol. She was making her way to Skyrim, by way of a smuggler’s route she’d learned of while in the city of Rihad. She’d trusted the old Khajiit merchant, though she couldn’t tell you why. Some people gave off an instant sense of trust. He’d been one. The map she’d bought off him was crude, but easy to read. Once she got to Bruma, she’d head north on the main road to the Pale Pass border. There’d be a place to turn off, though, and a small cave that would lead through the Jerall Mountains and, eventually, open into Skyrim near where she could join up with the main road outside of Falkreath, as if she’d properly crossed the border.
Between the news about the new Emperor, what she’d witnessed on the roads since arriving back in Cyrodiil from Hammerfell, Katla didn’t want to cross the official border again. The treatment by the New Imperial guards, as they were calling themselves, had been concerning.
She’d been encouraged to pay a bribe to cross into Cyrodiil from Hammerfell. The guards had blatantly indicated it was the only way to enter the province. Fortunately, an Imperial merchant headed back to Anvil had caught her and told her not to.
“It’s a death trap,” he’d said. “They’re stripping valuables off the poor idiots who fall for it. And, worse. He’d pointed her to the border post, a small building near the gate she’d not even noticed. Never in her life had one needed a pass to cross, but the merchant had said it was required now. As long as she owned land in Cyrodiil, or could offer up a relative or nobleman she was going to see, they’d give her one.
Relatives. That was the thing she didn’t want to tell anyone about. As she and Mira had agreed, it was best she not be in contact with any of her relatives. No way to know who else in her family was part of the order.
So, land. What land? She didn’t own land. Her parents did.
But, they were gone. What had been theirs was now hers.
How was all this hers? Until she’d needed it to get back into Cyrodiil, it had not crossed her mind that this property outside of Chorrol belonged to her.
No siblings, no other close family to try and claim it. She’d owned this since the day her parents died.
The shed looked much like it had five years ago. Weeds had sprouted around it, working their way under the wood slats. Otherwise, it seemed as sturdy as ever.
What had been the house lay scattered around the land. Their house had been a blend of plastered stone and wood framing. The wall that held the fireplace still stood, blackened yet strong. The fireplace and stone chimney were missing a few stones off the top, but otherwise looked solid.
Bits of collapsed roof and a few wood studs sat attached to the wall. Everything else was scattered stone, wood, plaster, and mounds of debris that had been their belongings.
Mold covered much of the debris. Nothing looked salvageable.
Katla studied the ground. Something was off.
It hadn’t rained in weeks, so the ground was hard packed dirt. The color seemed wrong; the ground almost a gray color, instead of the rich brown from memory.
Katla and her family were not farmers. They’d maintained a small garden, to feed themselves. Plus, a couple of goats for milk and cheese, and three chickens for eggs, and the occasional chicken dinner.
She didn’t remember what happened to the animals after the explosion. So many things from that night were a blur.
Katla risked stepping out from the woods and walking the property. She looked around again for any sign she wasn’t alone. Around her remained as still as the past hours had been.
You’re alone. Get a grip on yourself, she thought.
She walked about ten paces, crouched, and studied the ground. She reached down and scooped some loose dirt into her hand. There was ash mixed in, which made sense. The fire after the explosion would have left behind ash. What seemed so off about it? She looked around the property again, then glanced at the shed.
The shed had weeds. It sat near the edge of the woods. It had been far enough away to not be touched by the blast and ensuing fire.
The rest of the property had no plants. No weeds, no stalks of previous vegetation. It was winter now, and no one had planted anything in years, of course. But, there were no weeds, no bushes, none of the overgrowth that should have happened at some point on such deserted land.
Katla looked along the edge of the woods. Bushes, vines, all the vegetation seemed to stop a few feet past the trees.
She looked down at the dirt in her hand and brought it closer to really look. Light from the afternoon sun caught a few of the pale, coarse crystals she hadn’t noticed before. Katla carefully put them on her pinky finger and tasted them.
Someone had salted the ground.
Why? A warning to her? To keep others away? To make the land worthless? How long before the soil recovered and plants could grow here again? Years, most likely.
She stood and let the dirt fall through her fingers, then wiped her hand on her leather pants. She’d worn her armor today, just in case there was trouble. She was grateful the leather pants made for a quick way to clean her hands. A firm grip was essential if she needed to use her bow.
Katla looked again at what had been her home. She felt her chest tighten.
They were in there, somewhere. Whatever was left of her parents.
Why had she come to this place of pain? Of loss? Her life could be separated into two times. Before that night and after.
There has to be something useful here, she thought. She’d come originally to give her official notice and claim the land in Chorrol. To be registered as the owner now, on the county paperwork. As scary as it was to take the chance of being seen, the debacle at the border had reminded her she had responsibilities here in Cyrodiil. She had to act like the adult she now was.
Mira’s warning had stayed on her mind throughout the process. A lot of noble families were listed as members of the Order of the Fire Queen. They still had no way to know how active the families were in the order now, centuries later. Surely, not every family with an ancestor in the order was still part of it?
Clearly, her parents had been. The Hammerhearts seemed to have become members many years after the initial order formed. Neither Katla nor Mira had yet come across the name in their research of the Second Era. Most of the nobles were Breton families. Far less Imperials had shown up, so far. Even fewer Nords.
Katla had made it through the paperwork without even a second glance from anyone. She seemed safe enough in Chorrol.
Staying still in these woods for hours had only confirmed that. No one seemed to be watching the property. Perhaps because they knew she’d fled to Skyrim, and then gone to High Rock.
But she had officially crossed into Cyrodiil. Someone would read the border log at some point. Another reason to use that smuggler’s route to get back into Skyrim. Maybe registering the land would help, too, to convince the order she was back in Cyrodiil, and they wouldn’t realize she was back in Skyrim, back with Tara.
Not too much longer and she’d be able to see her. Wrap her arms around her.
She needed to send her a letter, give her an update. Tara was at the Penitus Oculatus outpost, wherever that was. She’d said she probably wouldn’t receive any letters until she left training.
No matter. Katla wanted her to have as many letters to read as possible when she did get them.
Katla studied the house remains. She needed to see if there was anything useful about the order here. She needed to get to their secret place, the cave.
Where they died.
What parts of the house hadn’t been blown outward, had collapsed in on itself. She’d never be able to dig through the debris to get into the basement or the cave from here.
She needed to find the second entrance, the secret one she’d seen those order members leave that night.
Her chest loosened at the thought. She didn’t want to be any closer to the house than needed. To see what had been her life. Their life. The before life.
The secret entrance had been near the edge of the property. She scanned for the rock outcropping. It sat where she remembered it, on the southern edge of the property, almost directly across from where she stood.
Katla moved swiftly along the edge of the woods, passing by the shed. She should check it out when she had time, to see if anything of value remained inside.
The rock outcropping was a large jutting stone, a jagged oval erupting from the stony soil that dominated the southern edge. The rock was a slate gray, about the size of the shed, rising twenty feet in the air. Directly underneath was deep shadow, the rock blocking the sun’s rays from penetrating. High grass grew along the edge, too, blocking the view of what sat under the rock. She was beyond where the ground had been salted.
Stepping into the shadow of the rock, Katla let her eyes adjust for a minute. Thick vines and weeds grew here, plants happy with the constant shade. She bent and pulled at them. There had to be something here. Thorns from the winding vines cut into her hands as she pulled and pushed them away. A pattern quickly emerged, the vines covering a section of ground with scattered dirt, but no growth. Katla carefully wiped the dirt away.
There it was. A trapdoor. Petrified wood slats sat flush with the ground; a simple iron ring embedded in it to allow for lifting. All the years of living here and she’d never noticed it.
Memories arose of climbing the rock, pretending to be a queen surveying her realm. She’d never bothered exploring under the rock, though. It’d always been dark and dirty. Not interesting. She had to wonder if that’d been done on purpose, the vine planted to discourage exploration.
Katla pulled on the iron ring. The door resisted at first, as if sealed to the ground. Three more strong pulls and it creaked and released, opening to reveal a dark maw into the ground.
If she knew magic, she could’ve produced a spell of candlelight and sent a ball of light down the tunnel, revealing what lied within. Instead, Katla pulled out a torch and lit it with the flint rock she carried.
She descended the long wooden ladder that had been nailed into the rock lining the tunnel walls. The tunnel seemed to be a mix of natural formation and dug out earth, the walls a mix of rock, dried mud, and wood framing to keep it stable.
How long had this been here? Was this why her parents had bought the land? Did they know about this? Did they dig out the tunnel?
No. Katla would’ve noticed if they been involved in a long digging process. This had to have been here before. Was it an old mine? An old smuggler’s cave? The tunnel gave no answers.
The air tasted stale. Still. A mild acrid smell entered her nose. Old smoke. Old fire.
Katla felt her heart pound. She pulled in a breath.
You can do this. You need to do this.
She swatted away the thin cobwebs blocking her path, held out the torch, and slowly walked down the tunnel. She could stand upright, a few roots from long dead plants poked through the ceiling and brushed her hair as she made her way. The tunnel turned left, then right. She paused and crouched at each corner, listening. Silence greeted her. She could’ve been headed to an ancient tomb, undisturbed for hundreds of years.
A tomb. Isn’t that what it had become?
The tunnel turned a few more times, seemed to be a few hundred meters in length total, before opening into the cave. The secret place of worship.
The cave was dead silent. The acrid smell from when she’d first entered the tunnel was stronger here, but still faded, a memory of the past.
The first memory flashed.
Entering the cave for the first time, her eyes falling on the skeletons, the bodies.
Her torch flickered and she was back to the now. The opposite side of the cave lay in black shadow. She’d have to move further in to see the other side.
Near her stood the two altars. Molag Bal stood in his daedric glory, the two great horns surrounding his skeletal horned head, his grin of spiky teeth as menacing as all images she’d seen of him. His long tail wrapped between his clawed feet. In one hand, he held his great spiked mace.
Katla had never been sure who she considered more evil, Molag Bal or Mehrunes Dagon. Not all Daedric princes were evil, most simply represented the harsh sides of beasts, mer, or people. Molag Bal and Dagon were the two exceptions. Katla could not imagine anyone worshiping such gods.
Molag had created the vampires, though, and controlled the Oblivion plane known as Coldharbour. He seemed the most in touch with the undead. Perhaps that was why so many necromancers worshiped him.
Why had her parents?
The second altar was a simple carved stone. A tall slab mounted on a pedestal. The carving jumped out at Katla.
The symbol Mira had shown her; had sketched out in her journal. The one she’d found on a painting in her home. The emblem of the Order of the Fire Queen.
A solitary tree reaching for an orb, a sun. A strange tree that did not evoke the peacefulness Katla usually felt from trees in the woods.
This altar was proof of their membership, her parents’ commitment to the order. The stone looked old. How long had it been here? It seemed something passed down through generations. Did all members have an altar to the order? Did they think Tara Geonette was a god?
The second memory hit her.
She cowered down while they screamed at her Dad.
“Where is it?!” The leader, the tall Imperial yelled.
“We don’t have it,” Dad said.
“Liar!” the second man said, a dark haired Breton. “You were entrusted with it. This was your last chance.”
“The time has come,” the third man said. Another Breton. “Do your duty.”
Katla tore her eyes away from the altar and looked at the deep shadows.
You need to search.
She stepped to the nearest wall. Mounted to the wall was a sconce, an unlit torch sitting in it. She touched her torch to it, and watched it flare alive. Two more sconces were in easy reach, so she stepped to each and lit them.
She turned back to the rest of the cave, most of it now revealed. Shadows remained around the blackened debris that had once been the other entrance.
The third memory flashed.
She could hear Mom screaming, plus the other sounds that came with the assault. Katla was in their bedroom, grabbing the bows, seeing the red soul gem for the first time.
Katla shifted her grip on her torch. The cave was filled with blackened bones. Skeleton parts lay scattered across the ground, a femer by her foot, what looked like finger bones next to it. No body was intact, no bone left untouched by flames. Ash coated all surfaces, the stone table she remembered the fresh bodies on especially piled with it.
Broken, blackened pottery dotted the second table. Whatever spell had been cast to cause the explosion of the house had set the entire cave afire, it seemed. It didn’t feel like the focal point, though.
Had Dad run out of the cave, into the house? Were his bones up in the rubble somewhere? Or were he and Mom here, part of the mass of bones lying in pieces around her?
There was no way to know. Her parents had died here. Their remains were most likely here. But, no way to know for sure.
Katla breathed in relief. She’d been most afraid of seeing them. Of seeing huddled, blackened corpses that were obviously them. Some Divine had spared her that vision.
Was there anything of value here? She’d need to tell Mira and Tara about the stone altar. And Molag Bal. Had the order worshiped him? Or just her parents?
What else could be here? Could have survived the fire?
Katla looked at the larger of the tables. The bottom of it was carved shelving, similar in style to some old Nordic tables she’d seen in Skyrim. These carvings looked more intricate, finer lines, and richer curves. Breton design?
The shelves were filled with blackened books, ruined from the fire. She stepped closer to them.
All were charred, the top ones beyond recognition. They were thick, spell tomes or history books, perhaps. She pushed them aside, and looked at the books underneath and behind them.
A few were salvageable here, burnt edges, partial covers. Katla could make out a copy of On Necromancy, badly burned, but with readable pages. Then, she saw it.
The journal stood out for its size. Small and thin, it sat buried under the three burnt books above it. Its red leather cover was charred, the binding loose and edges burned away.
Katla’s hands trembled as she picked it off the shelf. As gently as she could she opened it and peered at the first few pages.
Scorch marks, burn holes, missing edges. Much of the journal was damaged.
The thin, slanted writing she knew to have been her mothers’ jumped out at her.
“…thinks we’ll be safe here…”
A fourth memory flashed.
The house exploded and she was flying. The ground slammed into her, knocking the breath out of her. Screams, smoke, fire, falling debris. She’d been blown into the woods.
Katla closed the journal. Mom, maybe Dad, too, had kept a journal here. And, some of it was still readable. She’d found something.
What was inside? Details of the red soul gem? Secrets of the order? An explanation of why they were necromancers?
Katla tucked the journal securely in her satchel. She needed to read it. Not here. Not in this place of death.
Katla quickly walked the rest of the cave. More burned books and what had been scrolls lay on a small, third table on the far wall. A few soul gems sat on it as well. All seemed empty, no blue purple glow emitted from them, a tell-tale sign a soul was within. No red soul gems.
Everything else seemed ash, whatever had once been in the cave turned to useless nothing.
She looked again at the other cave entrance, the one that led to the basement of the house. It was filled with black wood, collapsed stone. No longer an entry point to anything. The only way into what had been the house would be from above.
She needed to leave. Get out of here. There was nothing else left for her.
Katla extinguished the wall sconces and headed back down the tunnel.
She put out her torch and climbed through the trapdoor to deep blue light. Evening was upon her. How long had she been down there?
She kicked dirt back over the trapdoor and rearranged the vines in a way she hoped looked natural. Scanning the area quickly, she darted to the nearest woods. She wanted to get back to Chorrol. To where she was staying for one more night. Tomorrow, she could head to Bruma, then that smuggler’s cave.
She heard the fireball first, that whoosh as it flew through the air, taking all oxygen with it. The sudden yellow-orange light fast approaching her confirmed it.
Instinct kicked in and Katla rolled forward across her right shoulder, coming up crouched, with her bow drawn and arrow notched. The fireball collided with the nearest tree and a few embers touched her left shoulder.
The bright light of the fireball blinded her, cutting off most of her view of the darkening land. She caught a glimpse of a moving shadow, someone in robes, perhaps, and released her arrow.
She heard the thrump of the arrow landing and the cry of pain. The shadow fell to the ground.
Not dead. She’d not been able to see well enough for a kill shot. Perhaps she’d caught their shoulder.
Good enough. She had to get out of here.
She didn’t have the speed of Tara. She’d never seen someone run as fast as her, but running full speed brought her through the woods and on the road back to Chorrol within a minute. She didn’t dare stop.
She made it back to the city and inside the safety of the walls just as the final light of the day left. Stars were shining brightly now.
You’re not safe yet.
Had there only been one person? Was someone else following her? Perhaps someone had stayed in the city, watching the gate. No, she wasn’t safe yet.
Katla stepped into the nearest alley, between a general goods store and bakery. Both closed for the night. She pulled her satchel out and dug for the scroll.
Mira had sent ten of them to her with her last letter.
“…no matter where you are, read one and it will instantly teleport you. I apologize now for how queasy you’ll feel. Use them to get inside. I have the doors barred and magic barriers in place. No one can reach you once you’re inside. When you’re ready to leave, I have some orbs within to teleport you to your choice of city in Cyrodiil. Stay as long as you like.”
Katla’s hand closed on one. She pulled it out and unrolled it. She gave herself a second to look around, make sure no one saw her. She mouthed the words on the scroll silently.
She felt her hair stand on end. She smelled something bitter and sharp, then the air in front of her flashed, as if a lightning bolt had struck her. The flash faded and she was standing in someone’s home, the room spinning on her.
She collapsed into the chair to her right. Her stomach clenched, and she was grateful she’d not eaten in hours.
She was inside Mira’s home in Chorrol.
She was safe.
(Check out the mod, Daedric Shrines – Molag Bal, at the Nexus.)