Wagon wheels bumped against the low dimple in the dirt as the ragtag band of pale elves passed through the woodland clearing. Cloudless summer skies stretching endlessly over the mountains of Mereth. Mild scent of honey drifted from the hanging branches. Occasional butterflies and other colorful insects floated lazily over the swaying blossoms, Warm sunlight stoking the gentle petals as the midsummer breeze tickled their folds.
It was a perfect day to…
“…Stop and take a break! I can’t go any further.” Grunted one of the company. The stout Elf slumped down on the nearby tree, panting his lungs away. He rummaged the sack and pulled out a water skin from which he drank eagerly.
“Hilyat! (Come on!) Orthalf! We can’t stop now!” A taller kinsmen shouted from the front. “We should have met up with the Elders hours ago and the Companions may still be on our tail!”
To an outsider, he would have seemed barely past his twentieth year. But, as a person more knowledgeable in elven longevity would know, his real age most likely ranged from anywhere between several centuries to a millennium. Long strands of ivory colored hair were kept out of his white chiseled face by a silver circlet, rest of the locks ran down the back of neck. Faded markings of a ring surrounded by blue flames decorate the front of his tattered grey robes: Symbol of Syrabane, the Snow Elven God-Ancestor of Magic.
“By the merciful Ancestors, do you see any Nords around here, Anaeron?” Another robed figure said irritably, wiping the sweat off his lean face and straightening his ponytail. “They must have given up after we took to the woods. Besides, at this rate, we would all die from exhaustion before Nord’s steel take us.”
“The boy’s right.” Orthalf chided in mid-drink, perspiration glistened on his balding head. “The weather is horrible. Why did the Nords have to invade us in the bleeding summer?”
“I thought you were used to heat given your profession as a blacksmith.” Lynthir poked at the middle-aged smith’s ribs, making him spill his drink all over his ducktail beard.
“Heat I can endure. This humid, damp muck in the air? NE! (NO!)” Croaked Orthalf.
Anaeron looked around the weary troupe. Men were practically dragging their feet on the ground as they secured the perimeter. Pale faces of women and children poked out of the wagons’ overhanging tarps, looking equally bedraggled and jaded as the rest of them. Horses pulling the carriage gave a weak neigh. It was impossible to spur them on further.
“Fine. We’ll take a break. But only for couple minutes!” Anaeron called to his kinsmen before lowering his body on a tree stump at the edge of the clearing. He took a moment to study his map.
“You sure we are going to the right place?” Lynthir asked, scooting over to his side.
“Have more faith in your friend, would you?” Anaeron tapped the small red dot on the parchment. “We are going here…” He moved his finger slightly down the map “…and we are here right now. It’s only a couple miles away.”
“Yes, and that’s what you said two hours ago.” Muttered the pony-tailed elf.
“I know what I’m doing.” Anaeron growled, annoyed by his friend’s attitude.
“Yup, you said that too.” Lynthir mumbled dryly.
“Heca! (Go away!) Leave me be.” Snapped Anaeron. Lynthir rolled his eyes and went back to the clearing. Anaeron couldn’t help but wonder how he got into this miserable mess.
For eons, his people, the Snow Elves, lived in Mereth in relative peace. However, the recent conflict with the Nords of Atmora changed that. In a span of few months, wave of Nord armada calling themselves the Five Hundred Companions successfully landed on the northern shores and have butchered the previous inhabitants with impunity. His people were losing. Anaeron and his fellow acolyte Lynthir at the Temple of Syrabane returned to their village when the defense of the arcane temple became untenable.
Anaeron had hoped to stay clear of the horrors of war, but the war found him regardless.
Two days ago, advanced scouts from the king’s army informed them of the Nord raiding party headed to his village from the East. The townsfolk split into two groups in the hopes that the pursuers will chase after one of them while the other escapes unharmed.
Anaeron’s group included half of the able-bodied men in the village as well as the women and children while the other group had the town’s leaders, commonly known as the Elders or Old Ones due to their advanced age, along with remaining half of the male populace. In the fortunate instance where both parties manage to shake off their attackers, they were to rendezvous at a location north of their current position where they will join up with the people who, according to the Elders, will provide safe harbor until the Nords lose interest in them. However, trek through the dense wood slowed them down considerably and now they were hopelessly behind schedule.
‘I wouldn’t be surprised if they left without us.’ Thought Anaeron. He crumpled the map and shoved it down his knapsack. The young elf was about to get up and stretch his limbs when a small brown bunny hopped out of the bush. It tilted its head sideways as if observing the elf with childish curiosity. His worries temporarily left his mind.
“Hey there, little guy.” He said, smiling at the cute little creature. “Are you thirsty? I bet you are.”
Anaeron held out his hand. In an instant, tiny crystals of ice magically formed above his palm. Furry rabbit cautiously edged to the outstretched hand and slurped the ice. Tingling sensation on his hand made the young mage giggle.
“Oh! That tickles!” He chuckled and instinctively pull back his palm. Rabbit quickly jumped away in response to his abrupt reaction.
“Don’t go, I didn’t mean to scare you.” Anaeron cooed gently. “Here I’ll let you keep the ice.”
He placed the slippery crystal on the grass in front from him. The bunny slowly approached the ice, sniffing it for reassurance. Suddenly, the creature’s long ears perked up and the rabbit bolted away from the mage, diving into the bush and out of sight.
“Hey, come back!” Called Anaeron, standing up to get a better view of his furry friend fleeing into the woods. “What’s up with that-?”
Before he could finish his sentence, earsplitting warcry erupted behind him. Anaeron rolled away just in time to avoid a gleaming steel battleaxe from chopping him in two. The blade followed through with its momentum and struck the tree stump he was sitting on only a moment ago. Bare-chested Nord warrior stood over the stunned mage, crimson warpaint covering half of his face. Splinters flew in the air as the barbarian retrieved his weapon from the tree and readied it for another attack.
Thinking quick on his feet, Anaeron encased his opponent’s legs in arcane frost as the hulking Nord threw his weight behind his swing. With a shrill yelp unbefitting his appearance, the Nord comically fell face first into the ground, his axe still held aloft his head. Anaeron looked around in time to see thirty or so Nord berserkers charge out of the trees with their weapons ready.
“It’s the Companions! RUN!” One of the woman yelled before climbing into the carriage for safety.
Long javelins sailed through the air and skewered one of the horses pulling the wagon. Defenders hastily retaliated with hunting bows and woodcutting axes. Anaeron hurried over to join the fray, sending icy spears and miniature blizzard at the oncoming assault. He stood back to back with his friend, letting off a volley of deadly spells in perfect synchronization with his counterpart.
“Sweet Syrabane, where did they come from?!” Lynthir gasped, hurling another spike of ice at the Nords.
“I don’t know!” Anaeron replied frantically, charging two different spells in each hands. “Damn it! I told you we should keep going!”
“Are you saying this is my fault? You are the one who led us here into this ambush!” Other mage retorted.
“I was just following my map!”
“Damn your map to Oblivion!”
“Hey younglings!” interrupted the stout elf, clubbing another Companion on the skull with his smithing hammer. “I have enough to worry about right now without you two bickering like little girls!”
“He started it!” two mages cried in unison.
“Honestly Orthalf, we stopped here in the first place because you couldn’t drag your fat bum with the rest of us.” Anaeron grunted.
“When you two kids are two thousand years old, you won’t fare any better than I did.” He shot back.
Despite their spirited counterattack, the strength of arms quickly became apparent. They were farmers, hunters, and mere apprentice mages going up against seasoned warriors who had been gathering their strength while they waited for their prey. When the dust settled, the Nords have completely surrounded the wagon and the remaining defenders. Anaeron glanced to his side. With one of the horses dead, there was no hope of fleeing this mess.
“Got any bright ideas?” Lynthir whispered.
“No, unless you can come up with a spell to turn all these Nords into skeevers.” Joked Anaeron. Lynthir gave a nervous chuckle.
“Guess this is it then.” Lynthir sighed. “Maybe we shouldn’t have left the temple.”
“They would have gotten to us eventually.” Anaeron pointed out. “This way, we got to see our home one last time.”
“I guess we did… Look,” Ponytailed elf turned to face his friend. “I’m sorry I yelled at you earlier.”
“Me too, old friend.” Anaeron held out his hand and the other shook it.
“See you at Our Fathers’ side.” Lynthir said grimly.
They both nodded, determined to face their inevitable end together.
“Any last words, elf?” One of the Nords growled, pointing his sword at Orthalf.
“There are women and children in the wagon behind us.” Grunted the smith. “Let them go. They are no threat to you.”
“Like you let our women and children go in Saarthal?” Companion sneered. “Request denied, Snow Elf. Face your death with some dignity.”
“Then I hope you gutless child-killers rot in the deepest pit of Oblivion.” Orthalf spat on the Nord’s face.
Murderous look flashed on the barbarian’s face as he raised his steel for the killing blow.
Two mages closed their eyes, still holding each other’s hands. He waited for the sword to cut into his flesh… sharp whistle followed by a…
‘Thud?’ Anaeron thought sheepishly. ‘Sword doesn’t thud.’
He opened his eyes. Nords and Snow Elves alike were looking around their surroundings for source of the noise. Birds began to fly away from their perches. Smaller denizens of the forest scurried about, running away from the unseen danger looming in front of the young elf. It came nearer, Anaeron could see tiny pebbles bobbing in tandem with the tremor. Everyone looked to the trees. Sound of crunching branches and shuffling leaves emanated from the woods.
“What is it now?” Orthalf croaked, his fingers tightening around his hammer.
With a thundering crash, Trees behind one of the Nords fell forward, crushing the unfortunate man under their trunks. A golden mechanical giant with the skin of bronze and the breath of steam stepped onto the clearing. Its unflinching eyes stared down at the terrified figures below. The being’s face was a life-like replica of its creators, but its expression betrayed no emotion. It lifted its arms to reveal a maul and a broadaxe where fists would usually be.
“Ysmir’s Beard!!!” Companions cried, wheeling around to face the new threat.
From behind the towering construct, an armored Dwemer revealed himself. He was wearing a splint mail made of the same bronze-like material that covered the giant. A full copper helm that depicted a crude face and segmented beard obscured the stranger’s face. In his hand, a gold and obsidian black staff emitted a crackle of arcane energy from a small soul gem lodged at its tip.
The Dwemer pointed at the Nords with his staff and uttered a single command.
Without hesitation, the automaton obeyed. Scorching bellow of steam spewed from its slotted shoulders, engulfing the Nords too stunned to get out of its way. Agonizing screams mixed with the shrill screech of issuing vapor. Elves huddled around themselves, trying to appear non-threatening to the creature as possible.
“Kill it! Kill that monster!” Companion shouted and threw his javelin.
Bolstered by their comrade’s cry, Nords rallied their forces and retaliated. Stingers of steel peppered the giant’s armor, sending sparks into the air with every hit. Howver, the construct seemed undeterred by the incoming assault. It stomped forth, squashing puny men under its mighty heels while swinging its massive arms to pulverize any enemy within his reach.
Anaeron snapped back to his senses. Now was their chance! They could escape while the Nords are preoccupied with the automaton! He tapped Lynthir and Orthalf’s shoulder and nudged towards the forest. Nodding, Orthalf and two other Snow Elves detached the dead horse from the carriage while Lynthir got on the wagon to steer the remaining horse to the woods. Anaeron was about to join them when an unexpected kick sent him sprawling on the grass floor. Silver circlet flew off his forehead from the impact, letting his long hair fall over his eyes and obstruct his view
“Oh no, you aren’t going anywhere you dirty little elf!” The same Nord whose leg he froze minutes ago snarled at the mage. His broken nose was bleeding profusely from the previous faceplant. “If I’m going to Sovngarde this day, I’m taking you with me!”
Anaeron tried to react but the force of the kick had left him dazed. The barbarian raised his axe. Young elf saw his friend preparing a spell. But he knew the axe would already be stuck in his head by the time it hits the Nord.
Out of nowhere, a purple lightening arced through the air and struck the warrior straight in the back. The brute gave a small grunt and remained on his feet though black smoke came from his burnt backside. The Dwemer calmly readjusted his aim of the Nord. He twisted the grip of his weapon. Unseen mechanism inside the staff clicked and the soul gem at the end began to glow brighter. Enraged Nord roared and sprinted at the attacker in blind fury.
The stranger held the staff tightly with both of his hand and thrusted it towards the incoming target. Another purple lightening, even bigger than the one before, cut into the air in a blink of an eye and sent the Nord flying back.
“Blessed Ancestors...” Murmured Anaeron, clutching his racing heart.
“Fall back! Forget about the elves! Let the monster deal with them!” Other Nord said hurriedly, retreating to the relative safety of the dense forest. Stranger looked over his shoulder.
“Spheres. Eftardn. (Come.)” Dwemer beckoned.
Immediately, several bronze metal balls rattled out of the forest and stopped before their master.
“Thunch fahlz nchardch. (Leave none alive.)” He ordered. Spheres hissed and zoomed after the retreating Nords with surprising speed. After the spheres left for the stragglers, armored man turned his masked head to Anaeron and walked towards him. The elf parted his long hair running down his face to get a better view of his savior.
“Are you injured?” Dwemer asked. His voice was surprisingly soft but muffled thanks to the stuffy helm he wore. “You were supposed to be here four hours ago. I was beginning to think you were dead.”
Anaeron got up wearily. The Dwemer was much shorter than him. Top of his helmet only coming up to his eyes.
“No, I’m fine. But, who are you?” asked the Snow Elf. “How did a Dwemer know about our whereabouts?”
“We are the people your Elders called for help.” He answered.
“You are the ones they called?” Anaeron repeated incredulously. He never expected a bunch of old men in backwater village to have connection with the reclusive Deep Folks. “Wait, where are the Elders?”
“They’re dead.” Answered the masked man flatly. “Along with the rest of their group. The Nords you just met got to them before I did.” “My condolences.” He quickly added at the last moment.
Despite his best effort to do otherwise, Anaeron felt tears well up in his eyes. “What… what will happen to us then?”
“We will honor our promise to your Elders. You will be given safe harbor until the Nords leave the area. As we agreed.” Dwemer replied and gestured to the group huddled by the wagon. “I will take you to the city. Follow me.”
The trip was a slow one with only one horse to pull a carriage full of people, not to mention a lumbering mechanical giant trailing sluggishly behind them. Snow Elves spoke little, pain of their recent loss still too fresh in their mind. Orthalf the blacksmith was the first one to break the silence.
“So… these machines. Marvelous constructs, aren’t they? I haven’t seen anything like them in all my years as a…”
“Not now, Orthalf.” Anaeron groaned gloomily.
“Look, I also had people I knew on that group.” He said brusquely. “But we have to move on. We always knew this was a real possibility. It’s why we divided the village into two to begin with.”
“He’s right, Anaeron.” said Lynthir gently, putting his arms around his fellow wizard. “Look on the bright side, we are going to see a real Dwemer city. Not many people say that about themselves.”
“I guess I should be thankful.” Anaeron admitted, letting out a trembling sigh.
“We are here.” The Dwemer called to them at the head of the group. Out of the ground, great stone wall rose, topped with copper rooftop. Anaeron could see two Dwemer automatons, identical to the one that trailed behind the wagon, guarding the main entrance. The imposing sight cut off the melancholy trail of thought from his mind.
His gaze drifted to the armored Dwemer at the head of the group. “Say, don’t you think he is pretty short for a man?”
“He sure is.” Orthalf smirked. “I hear Dwemers are all short limbed like boys and their women have beards to compensate for the men’s lack of ‘substance’.”
Everyone laughed but quickly lowered their voices and glanced towards their savior. The Dwemer didn’t seem to notice the discussion taking place behind his back.
As the company approached the main gate, another armored Dwemer came from inside the wall to greet them. To the Snow Elves’ surprise, he was almost as tall as they were. Short black goatee adorned with golden beads covered his chin. His skin was pale, but not as pale as the Snow Elves, with a touch of gold that hinted their ancient heritage linking them back to the Aldmer of old.
“Welcome back. I see your search has been successful.”
“Partly successful, Kotun.” Helmeted Dwemer corrected. “Inform the Lord Architect of the situation. He will want an audience with our new guests.”
“At once, Lady Undinye.” Guardsmen bowed and left his post, but not before giving a quick glance at the Snow Elves.
“Lady?” Anaeron mumbled in shock.
“I’m afraid you will have to leave your transport here. Don’t worry about your belongings, I will have the automatons bring those to your quarters before tomorrow.” Undinye said to the assembly. “Oh, and for your information…”
She took off her helmet, revealing a lustrous, curly black hair that reached below her shoulders. Her heart shaped face centered on a pink, rosebud-like lips and a short nose. Two hazel eyes shined like a well-polished moonstone. Anaeron could never have guessed such exotic beauty was inside that clunky armor all this time. The woman nodded at the baffled blacksmith.
“…Our women do not have beards.” She said stiffly and walked ahead. Orthalf blushed deep crimson as if he just had one too many glass of wine.
Snow Elves gathered their women and children from the carriage and follow her to the grand entryway of the city. Dwemer woman waved at the metal behemoth at their tail. The automaton hissed and stomped to the gate, opening the bulky metal gate with relative ease. Anaeron instinctively took a gulp as the low creek echoed in the stone. Giant construct got out of the way and trudged back to the main gate to join its fellow automatons.
“I will escort your quarters. You must realize we do not get visitors often, especially not in large numbers. As such, we lacked the proper guest accommodations large enough to house all of you. For now, we have emptied one of our unused storeroom and refitted with necessary furnishing for your needs.” explained Undinye. “I hope you understand.”
“Of course! Of course!” Orthalf said hurriedly, the blush not quite gone from his cheeks.
Warmth of the sunlight left their faces as the Snow Elves entered the subterranean city. Smooth walkway with almost mathematical design lie before them. Bronze steam pipes stretched all around them, flowing with the life blood of the city. Anaeron could hear occasional rattling and hissing inside the vents. Scent of adipose gas emanated from the oil powered lanterns, making Anaeron give a small cough as he passed. They have walked past pillars after pillars of carven stone until they arrived at the cog shaped stone floor pad with an inconspicuous lever jutting out of its center. Their Dwemer guide stepped on first and grabbed the handle. Snow Elves simply gawked at the woman, unsure as to what they were supposed to be doing.
“Get on please.” She said to the confused guests. “There is nothing to fear. This is a Dwemer Elevator. It is built to traverse vast amount of vertical distance safely and efficiently.”
The enlightened crowd woo-and-ahhed and began to cram into the lift at once. The elevator was quickly filled to the brim with one or two Snow Elves standing precariously on the edge.
“Perhaps I should have also mentioned that you were supposed to step onboard one by one in an orderly fashion.” Undinye said with a strained smile as she found herself with less personal space than she was comfortable with. “No matter, please hold on.”
Lift shuddered and groaned its way deeper into the underworld. Light of the entry hall quickly vanished into the distance, replaced with inscrutable darkness. The ride took longer than Anaeron had expected, making him wonder how far the Dwemer managed to dig beneath Nirn’s surface. He could hear the whoosh of air as the lift fell through several stories worth of height. Metal screeched on metal as the elevator came to a slow halt. Uldinye muscled her way through the tightly packed passenger to another set of bronze door in front of them.
She placed her hands on the door and gave a dazzling smile. “Welcome to the great city of Mzinchaleft.”