Photo: Martine Johanna
Narova woke up in a field of dead grass and wilted flowers. Everything about her physical situation was painful. Even breathing was a form of agony.
“There is a darkness in your bones,” someone said from behind her.
The voice was familiar, but the person Narova saw when she twisted her head around was not. A silver-skinned elf with white hair and long, spindly fingers. He was perched on a rock and rubbing carefully at a few roots that were spread out across a deerskin cloth.
“Morlanus,” she said. The body was different, but there was no mistaking that voice.
The elf did not look up from his work. “Brought you here with a number of open wounds. Whatever is inside you, it damn near turned the whole valley black.”
Narova flicked her eyes around and saw that was a rather gross exaggeration. The fields of grass and flowers extended for miles in every direction. Only the plants in within a hundred strides or so had been killed.
“Why did you help me?”
Morlanus shrugged. “I have my reasons.” He looked up at her, as if she had just now managed to earn his attention. His eyes were a shifty, molten kind of gray—like the sky before a bad snowstorm.
“What has happened to you?” he asked, nodding at Narova’s body, and the tattoos that covered her.
Gritting her teeth, Narova slowly turned herself all the way around so she could get a better look at Morlanus.
“I might ask you the same thing,” she said. “I seem to recall a much more human-looking alchemist being attached to that voice.”
“Corporeal forms are far more…flexible than most people realize.”
“Why drop the act now?”
“Wasn’t really my choice.” Morlanus flipped a wisp of long silver hair away from his face. “I burned down my apothecary, along with some uncommon ingredients that I require to make the Potion of Racial Malleability. I have not had time to procure more just yet.”
“How’d you burn down the shop? Cooking accident?”
“It was deliberate. The Thalmor discovered me.”
There was a long period of silence.
“We best get something square,” Morlanus continued after a time. “I made the poison that was inside the bamboo needle.”
The spikes of a tree-lizard tattooed to Narova’s left shoulder prickled up.
“Did you now?” she said softly.
“I mean you no harm, it was just a job.” Morlanus placed both palms flat against the rock he was sitting on. “But if you’d like to make an attempt at retribution, I understand.”
Narova weighed that. Her body felt like it had been torn apart by a dog, then stitched back together. Not a good time for a fight. Plus, it was difficult to judge exactly how dangerous the alchemists really was.
“You’re safe for now,” Narova said.
Morlanus nodded once. “That relieves me.”
“What do we do now?”
“You should try to stay still for about two weeks.”
Narova snorted. “I am walking out of this valley in the next hour.”
“That answer does not surprise me. But the sleeping root working its way through your bloodstream likely has a different perspective.”
Narova curse. Then passed out.
When she woke up, it was dark. There was an extremely large fire going—the flames pillared twenty strides up into the air. Her body felt a little better.
Morlanus had moved. He was sitting on the other side of her, near the fire. There was a case next to him that smelled of cedar and lacquer.
“Don’t worry,” Morlanus said. “I’m not going to drug you again. I just needed a little time to retrieve this…peace offering, you could call it. I didn’t want you running off before I could give it to you.”
“How long was ‘a little time’?” Narova asked.
“You are pressing your luck, elf.” Narova hissed. She paused, looked at his strange pale face some more. “What the fuck kind of elf are you, anyway?”
“A rare kind.”
“That’s the truth.”
Morlanus looked down at the cedar case. Ran a hand over the surface gently. “I have brought you two gifts. One of them will bring you protection. The other will bring death to your enemies. Whether or not your enemies wind up being Thalmor in the very near future is entirely up to you. In any case, I believe you will find both of these gifts useful.”
Narova frowned, tried to think of a good reason Morlanus would have for saving her life and giving her presents.
“You don’t have to trust me,” Morlanus said, predicting her thoughts. “You just have to open the case after I leave.”
“And when should I expect that departure to happen?”
The pale elf stood, brushed off his black traveling clothes, and looked at Narova with his ashen eyes.
“I’ll see you again, Narova Black Hair. Count on that.”
Morlanus melted into the night on silent feet and left her alone.
She waited until the massive fire had burned its way down to nubs of wood and embers. Just stared at the case, tried to get a better feel for the smell. It would be just like that devious bastard to go through all these theatrics just so Narova would open the case and suck in a lungful of some toxin or another.
He seemed to have a flair for drama.
It took until dawn for Narova to realize that she’d made up her mind as soon as Morlanus had left, and that she wasn’t leaving without finding out what was inside.
She stood. Stretched out her muscles a little—which were still tender, especially around her stomach, where there were fresh stitches and a greenish-purple bruise the size of a troll’s skull. Then she walked over and unlatched the silver clasps of the case.
There was a mask and a longbow inside.
She picked up the bow first. It was unstrung, but there was a sinew string in the case, too. Narova hooked both ends and bent the weapon into position. The balance felt right.
The bow was made from a blackened Vallenwood Yew. It was the strongest, most flexible wood in Tamriel, but also the hardest to find. It had to be carved from the flank of a living migratory tree (no easy feat), and then oiled down with teak for months before it could be fit with a string.
Narova’s father had carried one, long ago.
She tested the draw, and smiled as she felt the beautiful flex of expert craftsmanship. Whoever had made this for Morlanus, he was a master.
There were no arrows, but that didn’t matter. Narova had always preferred to make her own.
She set the bow aside and turned to the mask.
It was a black visage—plain except for the oval eyeholes and two red bars that ran down both cheeks. The material was some kind of hardened leather that Narova had never seen before. Rough against her fingertips. It had been cured with something that smelled like brimstone and blood.
An enchanted piece of armor, that much was obvious.
Narova scanned the horizon, as if she might find Morlanus watching her from behind a tree, snickering.
“Fuck it,” Narova said to herself.
She pulled the mask to her face—it fit her perfectly, matching cheek bones and nose like a custom-made glove. She felt the warm pulse of the new magic flowing into her skin. Every tattoo on her body shuttered, reacting to the powerful charge.
Behind the mask, Narova smiled.