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The Trouble With Fort Frostmoth (Kirstia's Third Adventure, Chapter 1)


gregaaz

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Solstheim is a curious place. Ancient Nordic soil, and yet foreign. For almost two centuries, the displaced peoples of Vvardenfell have called this island home, their Morrowind culture slowly burying what was before, much as the ash of the Red Mountain covers the land deeper and deeper with each passing year. I can feel that ash between my toes as I walk. Like fine sand, it clings to most every surface, and I fear it would choke me if I didn't take care to cover my mouth - blind me if I didn't protect my eyes. Solstheim is a place in transition, slowly metamorphosing from the frozen climes of Skyrim to an echo of the magma-warmed shores of Vvardenfell. 

 

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I am Kirstia Bjissen. My father was the Black Thane, who turned on his own people in the name of justice, and I lived most of my life in exile because of his choice. I am Kirstia Fire-Eye. My mother introduced me to the secrets of Dibella and initiated me into the Lady's sisterhood of priestesses. I am... Kirstia. Chosen by three gods and touched by otherworldly powers, I have journeyed across Skyrim in search of answers. What is my destiny? What is the true face of the powers that manipulate me? What is my path to freedom? In the past months I wandered east, crossing into the territory of Ulfric Stormcloak, the man who separated my parents to cast me into exile.

 

As you can imagine, I did not linger long in his land. Instead, from the easternmost harbor of Skyrim I set sail, pressing north further and further until I arrived at Raven Rock, capital of Solstheim, for what weight that name carries - for in truth, this is little more than a community of refugees. Perhaps on account of their longer elven lives, the people here have not truly settled, not yet. They might deny it, but I can feel in their hearts and unquenchable faith that one day they will return home. It's a feeling I've felt myself, and in time it came to pass. So perhaps their faith is no less vain.

 

But I didn't come here to commiserate with the dark elves over their tragedies. I came here for answers. You could say... I came here to learn. And so I am in search of a teacher. Of The Teacher, one of the triumvirate of gods who pluck at the strings of my fate. As my Lady Dibella is the Queen of Heaven, the Teacher is the Queen of Oblivion, the Silver Spider who whispers and weaves plots. She is Mephala, and her children inhabit me. Even now I can feel them shifting within my me, nudging me this way and that through the city's streets.  At length, I found myself at the foot of a lengthy staircase, bedecked in candles and flanked by the banners of the Dunmer temple. 

 

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I quickened my pace then, jogging towards the temple doors at the apex. Before I could enter, however, a gravelly voice stopped me.

 

"Excuse me," he - a dark elf in elaborate robes - said. "But the temple is for followers of our faith." 

 

"Your faith?" I asked. "The Tribunal?"

 

"Precisely. Non-believers are never welcome here. You should depart."

 

I had anticipated I might meet such a reception, and I had tried to learn what I could about the ways of the Dunmer. "I think we may have gotten off on the wrong foot," I conceded. "I'm seeking to commune with Mephala, the Anticipation of Vivec."

 

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The priest considered me with a skeptical eye for a moment. "You? Seeking out Black Hands Mephala? Do you not fear her as you fear all the Daedra?"

 

"I confess," I answered, "had you asked me a few years ago you would have been right. But since then I have forged a connection with powers that my people understand poorly. And I want to understand more."

 

"Nevertheless," he said, "you are not of our faith. I accept that you might be on the path to one day finding our truth, but you are not one of us yet. You cannot enter the temple." He stood silent for a moment, then shook his head, continuing, "but if you wish, you may offer prayers at the outdoor shrine."

 

I wasn't thrilled to hear that, but it was better than outright rejection. Perhaps here I would still find some clue from The Teacher. 

 

"Thank you," I said. "That is a just solution. Forgive me then as I take my leave, as I wish to meditate for a time."

 

He dismissed me with more of a grunt than a proper farewell, and I turned to consider Raven Rock's shrine. Three figures surrounded the shrine proper: Mephala, Azura, and Boethiah. Settling to my knees, I tried to clear my mind and focus on the shrine - and especially on Mephala's statue. 

 

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Instruct me, Teacher, I thought. I wish to understand my role in your web.

 

At first only silence answered me. Not even the snide words of Wojtek, the Daedric spirit who had become something of a companion to me, intruded into my thoughts. But gradually, at first distantly, I sensed a presence. 

 

"For one who would understand me," a voice whispered on the wind, "you have traveled far from my web." 

 

"That is true," I acknowledged. "I know your web stretches far and wide across Skyrim, and I thought that to appreciate it, I might best view it from afar."

 

"Oddly insightful for you," The Teacher observed. "But I do not believe that was your sole reason for straying so far."

 

"Indeed. I have heard that a cult reveres you on this island. I sought to learn from them, as well."

 

"A cult? My cult?" The Teacher's voice grew sharper, angrier. "There is no cult here. Only heretics and blasphemers. Perverters of my teachings."

 

Interesting, I thought, she seems genuinely upset

 

"Of course I'm upset," she snapped, a pointed reminder that my thoughts were not safe from her perusal. "But I am not blind to the fact that now each of us wants something from the other. You want to know of my web in Skyrim, and I want the betrayers purged from this world. An equitable exchange, I think?"

 

Far from equitable, I was sure, but nevertheless it suited my goals. "Yes," I said, "it does seem like we are in a position to help one another. Where is this cult?"

 

"Patience," The Teacher counseled. "The whole world is a web of action and reaction, choice and consequence. If I cut at the strings then the web will sag and collapse. No, I will not set you on your task, I will only set into motion a series of events that will bring you to your goal."

 

I nodded slowly, but remained silent.

 

"Leave this place and go east. You will find an abandoned farmhouse and within, you will find the start of your road to the purification of Solstheim."

 

"Thank you, Teacher. I will not squander this opportunity." 

 

I wasted little time, passing through the route beneath Raven Rock's walls and pressing east. Maybe a mile east of the city, the rocky cliffs that flanked the road pulled back to reveal a stunning view of the Red Mountain - and a lonely looking farmhouse. And at its foot, I saw battle in progress. 

 

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The odds were three against one. A lone Dunmer soldier, dressed in the dark elves' distinctive bone armor, was fighting what seemed to be a losing battle against hulking, groaning creatures wreathed in ash and embers. I could feel a sudden urge to join the battle, and I drew my father's sword to strike at the nearest creature. My blade struck home into the monster's arm, interrupting its swing, but at the same time I could feel the deflection, as if beneath the ashy covering the monster was made of stone.

 

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Evidently however, that seemingly ineffective blow gave the warrior the time he needed to steady himself and strike back. As I screened his flank, he struck down one monster after another with powerful blows from his warhammer. As the last creature crumbled into a white hot pile of embers, his shoulders sunk for a moment as he at last allowed himself to catch his breath.

 

"And so it ends," he pronounced.

 

"Indeed," I agreed. "Are you all right?"

 

Turning, he considered me with an open face and a smile.

 

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"Yes... and thanks. I wasn't sure I was going to make it off this farm alive."

 

I shrugged at that. "It didn't sound like I was doing much damage to them. I don't know how much I helped."

 

"You took their attention off of roasting my hide, and that's good enough for me. Though if you're going to venture out here, you may want something with more crushing power. I don't think a thin sword like that will avail you much against these ash spawn."

 

"Ash spawn? Is that what they're called?"

 

"It's what some of the guard have taken to calling them. Right or not, I don't care what they're called. I just know that they're a danger to Raven Rock and they need to be stopped." Pausing them, he shook his head incrementally and offered his hand. "I'm Veleth, by the way. Captain Veleth of the guard."

 

I resisted the urge to grumble about the extremely thorough body search his comrades had subjected to me when my ship arrived. Instead, I met his handshake firmly. "Kirstia Bjissen," I said, "late of Markarth." 

 

"You're a long way from home, Kirstia Bjissen. What brings you to Solstheim?"

 

"A... you could say a mystery."

 

He laughed at that. "An adventurer, then? Perhaps then you can help me."

 

"Oh?"

 

"I came out to this farm to search for clues about the ash spawn. It's not much of a start, but the only thing we know right now is that they're coming from this direction. And with my man fallen," he inclined his head to a crumbled and scorched set of armor that from how it lay must contain the remains of another Dunmer, "I could use a second pair of eyes for the search. Let's have a loot around, and see if we can turn up anything useful."

 

"Fair enough, let's see what's out here." I started towards the farm, but then I paused. I pointed to a spot not far from the fallen guard, where a curved war axe lay stuck in the dirt.

 

"You mentioned I'd need something with more crushing power. Do you mind if I borrow that axe?"

 

Veleth shrugged. "It's not doing him any good now. Go ahead. Might as well take his shield, too. Those bastards hit hard."

 

I collected both, keeping them at the ready.

 

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The farmhouse was little more than a skeleton - worn down outer walls and a stone hearth. We sifted through it, looking for any clue, but at length we both concluded that there was nothing here. Veleth was about to return to Raven Rock when I noticed something out of place - the now-cooled remains of the ash spawn had a single spot where they weren't uniform. There was a distinct lump in the remains. Brushing away the hot ash, I found a scroll tube, its cap embellished with the Imperial seal. I cautiously unscrewed the tube and extracted the thankfully unburnt missive from within.

 

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"Captain," I said, "over here."

 

He turned to face me, his expression questioning. "Have you found something?" 

 

I offered him the letter, and he took a moment to read it. "This is... strange," he murmured. 

 

"Strange indeed," I agreed. "What does it mean to you?"

 

"It means... trouble. The letter says it's from General Falx Carrius, but that's impossible. Carrius was the commander of Fort Frostmoth, the old Imperial garrison. He died two hundred years ago, when the Red Mountain erupted."

 

"And yet, it seems like he is still - somehow - alive."

 

Veleth shook his head. "No," he said emphatically, "there's no way he could be alive. Everything we've seen - these monsters, the strange rumors, now this note... something unnatural is afoot. So, adventurer, are you up for helping me with one more thing?"

 

Mindful of Mephala's words, I nodded in agreement. "How can I help?"

 

"I need you to scout out Fort Frostmoth. If you can find the source of these monsters and do something about it, more's the better, but if not, at least report back to me so we can prepare our defenses. I need to show this note to the council... and, I think, to the temple."

 

Veleth and I spoke for a little while longer, and he explained to me the safest route to get to the fort. After we parted, I took note of the dimming light and didn't waste time getting to the forth. At the end of a winding route through thick drifts of ash and around the remains of blasted trees, the fort at last revealed itself. It was in rather good condition compared to most of the forts in Skyrim, a fact that spoke to the relatively unsettled nature of Solstheim compared to the mainland. Evidently this place, at least two centuries ago, had still warranted the outlay of coin for maintenance. 

 

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As I approached, I could start to see signs of motion on the battlements. Abandoning my quick pace, I proceeded the rest of the way carefully and in cover. If I could, I wanted to find a way into the fort that didn't involve fighting my way through wave after wave of ash spawn. I was hoping to find something like a collapsed basement I could infiltrate or an exterior door I could reach without passing through the main courtyard. And there were certainly enough breaks in the way that it wasn't impossible. 

 

At length, and as a blood red moon rose to dimly illuminate the fast-darkening sky, my patience paid off and I found a spot where I could mantle up over crumbled bits of wall to reach the upper levels. To my dismay, however, I heard a voice call out - "Men! An intruder has entered the fort! Prepare yourself for an ambush!"

 

The voice wasn't in the growling, bestial tones of the ash spawn. This voice sounded very human and very much alive. 

 

"Fort Frostmoth will never fall!" he continued, "Long live the Empire!"

 

I was sure this was Carrius. But where was he? I could hear him calling out, but I was at a bad angle to look down into the courtyard. If I could just spot him, then he should be easy pickings for my Dwemer arquebus.

 

Keeping to the shadows, I crept along the wall, moving in the direction of the voice. Somewhat to my dismay, I realized that a sniper shot in the open wouldn't be happening. The voice had come from the upper window of a strongpoint built into the wall. I'd have to sneak inside to find my prey.

 

TRACK THIS PREY IN THE SHADOWS

 

Hircine's voice rumbled in my chest. While I agreed with his assessment, he had perhaps waited a bit long before offering his advice. But while his words were belated, Hircine's statement was accurate. For all their strength, the ash spawn were not keen observers. With a light step and a careful course through the darkness, I reached the door at the base of the strongpoint and slipped within.

 

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Unfortunately, once within I had far fewer opportunities for stealth - complicated further as the monsters rose from the deep drifts of ash that filled much of the fort. While I was able to strike down a few of them from hiding, my path through the fort slowed to a snail's pace as I had to choose each step with care, lest I be discovered and overwhelmed by numbers.

 

The path through the fort eventually took me to a sublevel, mostly filled in with ash but with clear signs of excavation. At length, one of the dug-out passages led me into what must have been the fort's crypt - and set me face to face with an ash spawn warrior. I swung my axe once, then twice, both times deflecting off his solid core, then rose my shield just in time to keep his counterstrike from sending my sprawling. The warrior was already pulling back for another strike, and with a yell I leapt forward with all my strength, burying my axe in his head.

 

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We both tumbled to the ground, him dissolving into smoldering embers and me rolling away before I was burnt. After I took a moment to catch my breath, I scurried into a shadowed corner and waited, watching for any sign of alarm or pursuit. But the chamber was silent and still. At length, I pressed deeper, ultimately coming to a dead end - a ritual chamber of some sort. I could not help but notice the journal and satchel laid atop the altar and, mindful of my surroundings, I perused their contents.

 

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The journal was... enlightening. It was the account of a necromancer named Ildari who, if her account was to be believed, had returned Falx Carrius from the dead. Evidently, the general retained his free will, but had lost his sanity. What fate befell the necromancer I could not discern, but her last entry spoke ominously about self-experimentation. I also noticed, with interest, several references to a 'heartstone' that seemed to be the key to Carrius' revival. I wondered if I could pluck it from him by stealth...

 

In any event, the satchel had contained several keys, one of which looked similar in size to the keyhole on a locked door I'd passed earlier. Backtracking, I returned to the door and found that the key did indeed fit. I carefully opened the door and crept within, now ascending back up into the above-ground part of the fort.

 

YOUR PREY IS NEAR

 

Hircine's excitement was palpable. Now certain that I was approaching the general's redoubt, I put my full concentration into avoiding detection. If I could snatch the heartstone, I'd only have one chance. And then, in the distance, I saw him. And I saw what must be the heartstone - strapped to his chest and glowing with malevolent energy.

 

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Following the perimeter of the chamber that stood between us, I carefully, slowly moved closer and closer. But how would I close the last few yards? I was confident that if  I leapt from the shadows I could grab the stone and tear it from him, but only if I took him unawares. I found myself wishing I had something I could use as a distraction.

 

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One step closer... then another, then another, and then I was close enough. I leapt for him, grabbing at the stone - but my fingers slipped off it and I fell to the ground! Tucking into a roll, I came out with my axe out and spinning even as the general readied his powerful looking warhammer, I sunk the edge into his throat. All around me, I could hear ash spawn rising from the ground. I jerked the warhammer from the dying man's grasp, ready to make my stand against the spawn, until I saw a way out - a short staircase rising to a door. I realized this must have been the balcony he shouted his warning from.

 

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I spun on my heels and dashed for the staircase, the ash spawn hot on my heels. Shoving open the door with my shoulder, I felt the cold night air on me immediately and nearly tumbled from the crumbled parapet. With a whispered prayer to Dibella, I turned and leapt for the adjoining battlement. Bolts of fire whizzed past me as the sentinels turned their magical wrath on me, but somehow I avoided being struck. Then, by some miracle, the sky opened up in pouring rain. I could hear shouts of rage and sizzling steam behind me, and I leapt from the battlement into a large bank of ash. Sliding and tumbling, I rushed back to my feed and sprinted from the fort as fast as I could, only stopping occasionally to catch my breath as I pressed towards Raven Rock. At last, I caught sight of the gates at its lantern and slowed my pace. 

 

A sentinel clad in bonemold armor held up a hand and challenged me to halt. Panting and trying to catch my breath I barely managed to choke out, "Veleth... I'm here to see Captain Veleth."

 

 

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