Part 4: Revelation
Martin banked to the right and glided in a slow spiral down into the gaping maw of Red Mountain. The huge volcano – which dominated most of the island of Vvardenfell – had been dormant for many centuries, ever since the Nerevarine had exterminated Dagoth Ur somewhere in the caverns below. When he reached the bottom of the crater, Martin back-winged and landed, blowing up clouds of ash and dust from the crater floor.
Amidst coughing and sneezing, his passengers got off and he transformed back to human form. "Sorry about that," he grinned as three pairs of eyes glared at him out of soot-streaked faces. Only Shadow looked no different.
"It will wash off," Lark said. "I hope." He looked at the scenery. "This is a dismal place." The crater floor was indeed depressingly devoid of life, with heat-blasted rocks, ash and cinders the only things to see. Here and there pools of sulfurous water bubbled, making the air nigh unbreathable. "Now what?"
"Now we look for a way down," Martin said. "The scales are somewhere far below us; I can sense them."
"So can I," Shadow said, surprised. "They're in a large cavern."
"Yes," Martin agreed. "It won't be easy to reach."
They found a tunnel leading downwards, almost hidden from sight beneath a large overhang. It was a tight squeeze to get in, and they had to push their backpacks ahead of them, or pull them behind, just to get through the first crack. Daylight faded almost as soon as they were through, and they donned helmets fitted with headlamps. Lark had procured everything from climbing gear to wet suits when Martin had told him they would be crawling through the bowels of the planet in search of their next objective.
At first the tunnels were as ugly as the outside landscape – lava tubes littered with broken rock and ash – but as they ventured deeper, the surfaces became polished until they were walking on iridescent volcanic glass. Their reflections followed them, skittering like mis-formed ghosts within the murky depths of the glass-like walls.
After several hours of walking, crawling, slithering, back-tracking and searching, they were all exhausted, and settled down to rest in an opalescent bubble that glowed with all the colours of the rainbow as their torches played on the walls.
Eating a meal of dehydrated rations, they all felt sorry for Hassildor who could not go to sleep, for fear of losing control of the spell. Martin helped him to regain magicka and fatigue levels, but could not supply him with much-needed rest. They finally decided to sleep in shifts so that someone would keep Hassildor company and help him stay awake. Lark took the first watch as Shadow, Lume and Martin gratefully crawled into their sleeping bags.
Shadow dreamed of tall trees on the bank of a stream winding through rolling green hills. He was creeping quietly through the undergrowth, on the trail of a deer that he was hunting. He held an elven bow in his hand, but had no arrow nocked, as he did not intend to harm the deer. He simply wanted to see if he could get close enough to get the deer in his sights; that was satisfaction enough for him.
He was close to his target and intent on moving as carefully as possible, when a sudden tingle on the back of his hands and his arms betrayed the working of magic. He fell back with a startled exclamation as the air shimmered and a figure materialized right in front of him.
"For Lord Dagon!" a rough voice shouted and a blade swept down at him.
He rolled away, desperately trying to gain his feet; trying to loosen his sword from its scabbard – just to see another attacker materialize almost on top of him. He had only a moment before the cruel weapons cut down and ended his life. Then there was a peculiar sense of being sucked into something small, and then...
"Shadow?" Someone shook him awake. "You're dreaming."
He struggled to get free of the sleeping bag, his heart racing. He could recall perfectly the feeling of being trapped, and he still could not get loose. Then the bag finally fell away and he jumped up, poised to fight – only to see Martin and Hassildor watching him with concern, while Lume and Lark were still sleeping quietly on the floor. He calmed himself down with an effort.
"What's the matter?" Martin asked when Shadow just stared at him.
"I've remembered who I am," Shadow replied slowly. "Or, who I used to be, before those assassins got to me." He looked at Hassildor. "You used to bounce me on your knee, 'Uncle Janus'"
Hassildor stared at him in incomprehension. "On my knee? But..."
"I am Ebel Septim, third son of Uriel Septim," Shadow said. "I visited Skingrad often with my father when I was little."
"You're my brother?" Martin asked, amazed.
"It would seem so," Shadow said, looking ruefully at his midnight skin. "I don't suppose there is any family resemblance."
"There is something... in the lines of your face," Hassildor said, looking at him closely. "This is astounding. You survived all this time trapped in a soul gem?"
"Fortunately I don't recall the time passing," Shadow said.
"So this is why is was so easy to summon you," Martin mused. "We're already linked by blood." He stepped forward and embraced Shadow. "I never thought I would meet a brother," he said, releasing him. "I was an orphan; so I thought – brought up as an only child. And when I found out who I was, my father and brothers had already been slain..."
"But didn't you say you joined Father in Aetherium?" Shadow asked.
"Father is there," Martin agreed. "But none of his sons, besides myself, managed to go there."
"Then they too, are trapped like I had been," Shadow exclaimed. "We have to free them!"
"We will find them," Martin promised.
Shadow nodded, looking at Lark and Lume, still sleeping on the ground. "Don't tell them yet," he said. "It's hard enough for Lume as is it."
"As you wish," Martin said. "We'd better wake them and get going anyway."
They stood in a cathedral-like cavern, looking with awe at the scene before them. The cavern floor and vaulted ceiling were covered in stalagmites and stalactites, ranging in size from the finest filigree to immense pillars fading up into the darkness. In the center of the cavern floor, a pedestal of golden rock rose up, and above that floated a glowing globe that bathed the cavern in shades of multi-coloured light. Having struggled for almost two days to reach this spot, they stood transfixed as they stared at the globe of light.
Finally Martin spoke. "This is it, my friends,"
"Very pretty," said Lume, and sat down on a boulder. She yawned. "I'm sorry, I'm too tired to be impressed."
"So am I," Hassildor said, following her example.
Lark shook his head at them. "This is the most amazing thing I have ever seen."
"It seems to be flawed," Shadow pointed out. The surface of the globe was indeed dull and dark in several spots. "Do you think that's the cause of the time phenomenon?"
"I can't think what else it could be," Martin said. "It's as if something is smothering it."
"So, what do we do about it" Lark asked. "It's huge, we can't even reach there."
"I could fly there," Martin said.
"Alright," said Lark. "Let's go."
"No," Martin said. "I'm not risking any of you. I'll go alone."
"Now wait just a minute!" Everyone protested but Shadow's exclamation was the most vehement. "What do you plan to do when you get there?"
"I don't know," Martin admitted. "I think I'll have to concentrate on burning away the flaws as I merge with the light."
"You mean you will die!" Lark cried. "I won't allow it. You have sacrificed enough."
Martin smiled at him. "Dear Lark, I can't die, but I can return to Aetherium. And that is what I long to do more than anything. There is nothing for me in Mundus, you know that."
Lark subsided, hurt - in ways he could not describe - to realize that Martin would not be staying. And yet, he understood the longing to be home, and Martin was right; he did not have a home on the mortal plane anymore. He nodded reluctantly. "I shall miss you, my friend."
"And I, you," Martin said. "But you know it is necessary."
"Actually, no," said Shadow. Everyone looked at him in surprise. "If you do this, and you fail... we will have no-one left to figure out how to stop this problem."
"What are you saying?" Martin asked.
"I will go," Shadow said. "You have the knowledge to try again if I should fail. I do not. But I can do what you can do, if you show me how."
Martin considered the suggestion, but Lume jumped to her feet. "You're not going to let him, are you?" she cried. "You've been using him from the start! Don't make him do your work for you!"
Martin hung his head at her accusation, knowing it was true and feeling the guilt for the suffering he had caused his brother.
Shadow intervened, grabbing hold of Lume's hand and squeezing it. "Hush, Lume," he said, and to her surprise, she did. "Don't feel bad, brother," he told Martin. "It is true you used me to escape, but you also freed me. And the cause is just and of utmost importance. I am of the Dragon blood, same as you. I know my responsibility and I will not seek to avoid my destiny."
"Brother?" Lark asked.
"Yes," Shadow said. "I am Ebel Septim, son of Uriel Septim."
"I played for you, once," Lark said after a dumbfounded moment. "At the palace."
Shadow smiled. "I remember that, sort of. You sang a song of hope, didn't you?"
"I did," Lark said.
"I would like to hear it again," Shadow said. Lume looked at him with eyes like pools of deep water. "Before I go," he continued.
"I don't want you to go," she said softly, tears welling up. "I thought..."
"I know," he said gently. "But it has to be. I am facing my fear, remember?"
She nodded, and swallowed to get her voice under control. "I will be brave for you."
He hugged her close. "Good girl." He turned to Lark. "Will you sing for me, Lark?"
"I don't have my lute," Lark said. "And I haven't sung for so long..."
"You had a fine voice, as I recall," Hassildor said, and Shadow nodded in agreement.
"Very well," Lark said. After a moment he started singing. His voice soared through the cavern as if a choir sang with him, and the words lifted their spirits and showed them a bright future in spite of darkness.
"The sun still rises every day
And the brightly glowing dawn
With all her doors unopened
Lights my never ending way
The steep and rocky upward slope
Of that long and winding road
Redefines with every step
My unblemished sense of hope
Rainy days and rainy nights
Purifies the smoky air
To show my wond'ring eyes a feast
Of new and far beguiling sights
As I see the endless bay
All of nature seems to rise
To join me on my journey
To that long-awaited joyful day
Then I recall that all my days
Had left me stranded here and now
But still my steadfast sense of hope
Will lead me on to brighter ways."
As his voice faded away, none of them were left unmoved.
"Thank you," Shadow said huskily. "Goodbye my friends. May we meet again in Aetherium."
Lark grasped his hand. "I wish I had time to know you better."
Shadow smiled. "You have been a good friend."
He shook hands with Hassildor, wiped the tears from Lume's face and embraced her one last time, and then he faced Martin. "Promise me to find my brothers," he said, and Martin nodded. "Alright, show me what to do." As before, the knowledge came to him through the link between Martin and himself. He took a deep breath, stretched, felt his body expand, and became a dragon.
The others watched, entranced, as he took to the air; a creature of light and fire, air and movement – he glowed like the rising sun. From shadow to light, the change was the unveiling of his soul. What had been hidden by borrowed flesh was revealed to be a light surpassing that of the globe that he now approached.
As he came close to the globe, rays of light began to shine through the dull patches on the surface. The light intensified until it shone like the heart of a star, and the dragon merged and became one with it. It became so bright that they had to close their eyes. A single note, pure as a bell, rang out through the cavern, and the light subsided. When they opened their eyes it was to behold the globe, its surface now flawless and golden. There was a slight hum from the continuing note, still echoing through the cavern, and a sense of rightness filled their hearts.
"He did it," Martin said. "The flaw is repaired; the flow of time is restored."
Hassildor heaved a great sigh and let the spell dissipate. "That was... beautiful," he said with wonder.
Lume was crying and Lark went to comfort her. She clung to him. "It's not fair," she sobbed.
"No, it isn't," he said. "But it's what he wanted."
The idea of heroically sacrificing oneself was not enough to console her, and the memory of the golden dragon just brought her to fresh tears.
It was a quietly triumphant but suitably subdued group that finally emerged from the tunnels to look at the blasted crater landscape. For Lume the lack of beauty seemed appropriate, but Lark was subtly disappointed because of the unreasonable feeling that the world should look different now that they had solved the problem.
Martin transformed to dragon shape, and they could not help comparing him with Shadow's magnificent final form. Alike and yet different, Martin's immense frame seemed more substantial than Shadow's had been, and he lacked the intense glow, looking as a consequence more real and present.
They mounted and he took off, once again blowing up ashes with the beating of his wings. Then they were airborne and lifting over the rim of the volcano to stare down over the Bitter Coast to the Inner Sea on the horizon. He flew a straight course from Red Mountain to Cloud Ruler, passing over Skyrim and crossing the Jerall Mountains from the north.
Several hours later he landed in the courtyard of Cloud Ruler, to the consternation of Lark's security guards. They stormed out, weapons at the ready, to battle the mythological beast, only to stop in wonder when they saw Lark and Lume waving at them. The three passengers slid off and Martin resumed human form, at which most of the guards abdicated thought and settled for staring open-mouthed as the four people conversed.
"This is it, my friends," Martin said. "Thank you for your help."
"You're really leaving?" Lark asked.
"I am," Martin confirmed. "My duty is now in Aetherium, I have no purpose here."
"What about your brothers?" Lume asked.
"They will be found," Martin said. "But it will take time. Perhaps, in Aetherium, a way can be devised to locate them."
"So we won't see you again," Lark stated.
"Not unless you come to join me," Martin smiled. "You know, I am glad that your modern medication can remove the symptoms of your disease, but I am saddened because it keeps you fettered to the mortal plane." He included Hassildor in his gaze. "You both have done Tamriel great service; it is sad that you won't let yourselves reap the reward."
"So, should we kill ourselves?" Hassildor asked facetiously.
Martin shook his head. "That wouldn't be right either. So I'm afraid this is farewell." He shook Hassildor's hand, kissed Lume on the cheek and embraced Lark. "Goodbye." They watched mutely as he stepped back and faded away.
"At least I know he's happy there," Lark sighed, turning to walk through the lane of trees to the entrance. Lume slipped her arm through his and Hassildor trailed along.
"Do you think things will be back to normal now?" she wondered.
"Until the next inexplicable phenomenon hits us, I'm sure," he smiled. "I'll have to promote you; you've been a great help."
"What? And have me do more of your work?" she asked in mock outrage. "Rather give me a bonus and a long vacation."
"Done," he laughed.
"And what of my reward?" Hassildor asked from behind.
"What can I give the man who has everything?" Lark said, only half in jest.
"The chance to go on a new adventure," an unexpected voice answered.
They turned in surprise to see an unfamiliar young man approaching through the trees. He was tall and well-built, with golden hair and piercing blue eyes. A smile played over crooked, clever lips.
Lume felt her knees grow weak as she looked at him. She removed her arm from Lark's and approached the stranger. "I know you," she whispered, and he smiled widely.
"That's because you illuminate the truth," he said, reaching out and touching her cheek.
"Shadow?" Lark asked incredulously, finally recognising through long-lost memories the face of the third Septim son. "Or, Ebel, I should say."
"Yes, Lark," he said. "I've come to hand out rewards." He reached into a pocket and pulled out two rings, which he handed to Lark and Hassildor. "These will transport you to Aetherium," he said. They gasped in surprise. "It was deemed fair that you should have the means to go where you deserve without having to destroy yourselves. But be sure that you are ready to go, because coming back to the mortal plane is difficult and not to be attempted except in utmost need." They nodded speechlessly.
He turned to Lume and looked at her for so long that she became embarrassed. "And me?" she asked. "What is my reward?"
He grinned at her. "Me, if you'll have me."
She gaped at him for a moment. "You're kidding, right?"
He looked at Lark for help, unsure if she was happy or angry or surprised. Lark nodded encouragingly, so he took heart. "No," he said. "Even in the brightness of Aetherium, my life would be dark without my Lume. So they let me come back to you."
Any doubts about her feelings disappeared when she threw herself into his arms.
"Yes sir," Lark said, doodling patiently on a piece of paper as he listened. "Well, I've been informed that the phenomenon was due to the effect of entropy in the universe, but with the help of beings from Aetherium, the Heart of Nirn has been re-energised and should hold good for many millennia." He drew rays of light shooting from a center point. "Yes sir, Aetherium is really real. So is Oblivion... yes, I know that is a lot to swallow. You don't have to if you don't want to." The voice rose in volume. "No sir, I'm not trying to be funny... One more thing, Mr. President. I regret that I will be resigning from my position as director of the TBI's information branch... Yes, I have a replacement. He's well qualified for the post. It's in his genes, I believe. His code-name is Shadow."
They were standing on the balustrade looking out over the City. Shadow stood behind Lume, his arms wrapped around her.
"This is perfect," she sighed contentedly. "Do you think they're happy?" she asked, referring to Lark and Hassildor who had finally left the mortal plane that morning.
"I am certain of it," he confirmed. "It's a wonderful place... but it doesn't have you," he added.
"Good thing, then, that they didn't want me," she smiled.
"Two dirty old vampires?" he said, shocked. "Not if I had any say in the matter."
"Luckily, you did," she said, snuggling deeper into his embrace. They stood in silence for a while. "What of your brothers?"
"That will be one of my tasks here," he said. "I don't suppose the government will mind very much if I use the TBI's new recruits to look for soul gems. It can be a training exercise."
She laughed. "I think that's a good idea. What is your other task?"
"Re-establish the Septim bloodline," he murmured into her ear.
She twisted round to face him. Seeing the tenderness in his eyes, she hugged him tightly. "Oh Shadow, I'll be glad to help!"
The sun set and millions of lights lit up the valley below, and the stars shone up above, but the brightest light in his eyes was Lume.
Author's Note: I don't have an author's note ... I hope you had as much fun reading it as I had, writing it. Please leave a comment if you liked it, even if you did not, then please let me know why, so that I can improve next time.
Disclaimer: Based on The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion by Bethesda Softworks, who came up with all the wonderful scenery and detail of the universe used here. I tried to keep within the established universe and cosmology but took some liberties so any mistakes are mine.