A time ago, long before now...
He felt the cold biting through his robes and up into his hood, mercilessly eating away at his warmth. Once, the wind ripped his hood down entirely, and he cursed, fiddling, hurriedly raising it and scolding a nearby Justiciar that chuckled at his fumbling. He saw the soldier react dutifully, the grin wiping from his long face, and his eyes scowling slightly as he slipped by. The sooner he could get inside, the better. He loathed this weather almost as much as he loathed the Campaign.
The Campaign. He dwelled upon it silently as he trudged up a rough path, from which the heavy and damp snowfall had been poorly cleared. Such a place was not fit for him, he was adamant, and he wanted to engage the siege and crush the enemy as quickly as possible, allowing his passage back home, where the sun shone radiantly every day, and nature flourished.
The mountaintop was almost as abysmal as the results of their Campaign, so far. He was a tried and tested military general, skilled and resourceful, but… these human natives were putting up far too much of a resistance for his liking. The Cats had crumbled almost immediately, subsiding under their immense power, and assimilating into their ranks, at the bottom. He wished it could have been as easy as all that.
He reached the top of the outpost not a moment too soon, and pressed his leather-gloved hands up against the damp-tarnished wooden doors.
He stepped back in frustration as a large, armoured arm protruded out in front of him, blocking his entry.
"What is the meaning of this?" He spat at the Justiciar, thoroughly perturbed with these people and this place.
He looked the guard straight in the eyes, and saw her elfin irises quiver in realization.
"Oh." He heard her say far too casually. "Field Marshal Vanaril. I'm sorry, sir. Enter, please."
He watched the armoured arm slip away from the doorway, and fall back to the Justiciar's side. He scowled at the woman from beneath his hood. He was standing much shorter than she was; maybe he was stooped over due to the cold, or maybe the Justiciar needed to lose her calves for her insolence.
He grunted and moved forward, forcing the wooden doors apart, feeling the moisture condense on the outside of his robes as he moved into the fortification, which was significantly warmer than the exterior air. He was grateful to have thick bricks around him, and hearths. He stood up to his full height in the warmth of the room, usually an inch or so above the average Altmer. He raised his gloves and lowered his hood, allowing his hair to fall freely around his shoulders in thick, clean locks. Every one of the humans he'd fought the previous day had been filthy; their faces clad in dirt and their hair a mess of tangles. No wonder they were inferior, he assured himself.
The guards of either side of the door acknowledged his presence with a courteous nod, but he didn't acknowledge them. They were foot soldiers, and as far below him as the enemy, in his mind.
He strode purposefully down the hallway of the fortification, the snow that had rested on his shoulders either melting or sliding to the floor in thick, wet clumps. He had no concerns about messing the place; he wouldn't be here for much longer, if all went well.
It took him mere moments to traverse the distance, through a small mess hall where Justiciars who weren't on duty were eating quietly, reaching a heavy and reinforced steel door, with two more guards standing point outside. He wondered what it would be like, spending hours upon hours standing in the same spot. The thought displeased him massively.
His entry was obstructed as one of his Wizards physically got his attention. He hated being touched, and these interruptions were beginning to make him think running naked back to the Summerset Isles was a good discipline for his troops.
"Marshal Vanaril." The Wizard said, her auburn hair falling in locks out of her hood, concealing her eyes to a degree. "We need to talk."
"Yes, Taren." He replied, trying to maintain a degree of courtesy for his second-in-command. "What is it?"
He tried not to rear backwards as the female Wizard leant into him.
"Marshal Faenil has been acting peculiarly." He heard her whisper to him. "So have his men."
"I'm well aware." He whispered in reply, remembering how he had been halted outside the entrance to their fortification. "I'm more than eager to find out the reason behind it."
"As am I." He heard the woman reply. "It is setting the other Wizards on edge. I'm here because they wanted me to ask you-"
Vanaril heard consternation from the Justiciars behind him, waiting at the door. He silenced her, glanced over his shoulder, and as soon as he was sure there was no issue, leaned back in to the conversation.
"They wanted me to ask you to do something about it." Taren finished. He saw a pinch of fear in her large, amber eyes. "None of the other Wizards trust the Justiciars anymore. Not the soldiers, anyway."
"What is the meaning of these judgements?" He demanded of her, having previously been unaware of this development. It seemed that the Campaign was crumbling from the interior, as well. He scolded himself silently for letting his troops into such a state of social anguish.
"Have they been under-performing?" He asked the female Wizard.
She didn't reply, and he saw her gesture him over to the side of the room. He followed, curious, but all too aware of the suspicious glances flying at them from the soldiers present in the room.
"The opposite." He heard her say as they reached the side of the room, out of earshot of most of the guards. "They've been excelling. Cutting the Imperial resistance down in droves, but… it doesn't seem natural. Even for Altmer."
He heard the mage lower her voice even more.
"We believe there is black magic at work, here."
"Something we aren't aware of, yes."
"Is it hindering our progress?"
"No." He heard her admit. "If anything, it's aiding us."
He averted his gaze to the floor for a moment, thinking. He turned slightly to see the entire room looking at them in his peripheral. He pulled his face into a scowl, and they all went back to their business as if nothing had happened.
"Vanaril." He heard her speak softly, but intensely. "I fear there is great evil, here."
He valued her theory, and that she had brought the situation to her attention, but wrote it off at the word 'evil'.
"Evil." He scoffed, and spoke idly, his eyes staring unfocusedly into the distance. "What mothers tell their children in the wet-chamber to frighten them."
He felt her hand clamp around his arm.
"Vanaril, I am being truly serious."
He met her gaze suddenly, to see her eyes swimming in a fear that she never usually possessed.
He yanked his arm away from her.
"Unhand me." He spoke authoritatively. "To your duties, master Wizard."
He saw her look at the floor in annoyance, but swallow her anger, and do as she was told. That was what he liked about Taren; that was what he liked about being in command.
"Yes, sir." She said begrudgingly, turning to climb a flight of steps in the back wall that led to where he kept his garrisons of Wizards. He slumbered near them, as well; they were the only ones in this place he could trust.
Still, the Campaign came first. The Campaign was what he needed to discuss; petty squabbles between the mages and the warriors almost at the bottom of his priority list. He righted himself from the conversation, stood tall above the soldiers in the room, and made for the strong steel door.
He was halted outside again.
"I will see Faenil this moment." He spat at the guards, now openly angry at these disturbances and how people lesser than him were questioning his authority.
"Marshal Faenil is occupied at the moment." He heard one of guards reply. He had to relate the comment to Taren's theory… the way the guard spoke to him set him on edge. It seemed unnatural, and he felt a chill run down his spine, his Magicka disturbed as they made eye contact.
"I am your commanding officer." Vanaril spoke through gritted teeth. "And I command you to open this door. Now."
"Marshal Faenil is also our commanding officer." He saw the guard speak through death-like eyes.
"Now!" Vanaril shouted.
He could hear the other Justiciars moving around behind him. He felt a small degree of fear building in his gut, the realisation he was totally outnumbered if he had to defend himself bringing on that typical pre-combat apprehension.
He watched the guards standing there, motionlessly. Neither of them replied to him. He felt a familiar and comforting tingling in the palms of his hands as he saw them begin to glow blue in his peripheral. He saw the guard notice, as well. The soldier's oddly cold eyes shot down to focus on his hands. Upon realising what Vanaril was about to do, he moved to the right, and the other guard to the left, allowing passage into the planning chamber that Faenil never seemed to exit.
"Marshal Faenil will see you now." The guard spoke idly. It was all Vanaril could do not to reply satirically. He lowered his hands, and the dim blue light vanished along with the tingling in his fingers.
Without speaking, he moved towards the door, and the two guards leaned in, unbolted the massive latches holding it in place, and swung it open for him. He stepped inside the chamber, his nerves higher than they should be, and his suspicions roused by the peculiar way his fellow commander's men were acting. He hoped that Faenil at least had his head screwed on properly.
He walked into the centre of the large chamber. He saw candles lighting the room, and the hearth lit and roaring, its heat reaching him from meters away. He looked around the vast, cylindrical stone chamber, trying to find where Faenil was. He found the other general not at the strategy table, but sitting on his overly ornate bed in flowing white robes, five golden coins held in stretched holes in each of his ears, and a large cluster of solid gold necklaces cascading down his chest. He had his eyes open, staring at nothing.
Vanaril felt his composure slipping. He knew Faenil had the tendency to be corrupted by material possession, but that was what made them such a strong team; they placated issues that the other possessed. This, however, was the worse that Vanaril had ever seen him. He was meditating and wearing jewels when he should be planning the assault!
"Vanaril, my friend." He heard Faenil speak. The other Altmer's eyes didn't change their position to acknowledge him, and his voice sounded oddly calm given their situation.
"Why are you not planning the assault?" Vanaril asked, moving forward, perplexed by the relaxing of his comrade.
"There is no reason for me to."
Vanaril paused for a moment, unsure of what he just heard.
"There is a large reason for you to."
"No." he heard Faenil reply. He saw the other elf's head dart to face him sharply. He shuddered at his eye contact as he had at the guard's outside. "There is not."
Vanaril broke off the gaze, unnerved by his comrade's mannerisms. He shifted position, from the centre of the room and doubled around, leaning down on the strategy table and gazing at the battle map that had been spread there. The land of Cyrodiil was laid out before him, but it was proving to be a much harder pursuit than he had originally thought.
He glanced at the carved wooden pieces placed in areas of the map, dyed black for the Aldmeri Dominion's soldiers, and red for the Empire's. They had been progressing well through Tamriel, until they met much more fierce resistance from the crippled Septim Empire than they ever imagined they would've. Whilst he harboured great dislike for Imperials, he somewhat admired their ferocity in last-ditch efforts. The "Great War", they had taken to calling it.
He looked across the map, seeing their manned fort at the very bottom, tucked away in the mountains across the West Weald. The troops had filtered out from there; Skingrad had fallen almost immediately, but Bravil was a much harder skirmish. Still, he was happy with how his Wizards had performed on the days of the attack. Their next objective was simple. He gazed up to the centre of the map, and saw the heart of the Septim dynasty, surrounded by little red, carved figures. The Imperial city siege was his job to orchestrate with Faenil, in conjunction with the other Marshals, and High Command, of course.
"Leave the desk be." He heard Faenil issue from behind him. "There is nothing to be planned."
"On the contrary." He span around to face his comrade. "Are you of a mind that the Imperial City will fall by itself? Because you would be markedly mistaken, and that is most uncharacteristic of you."
He saw a flash of anger spread across Faenil's face, only to be replaced moments later by the same, unusual calmness. It almost appeared to Vanaril that his associate was drugged.
"I never said that the Imperial City would fall by itself." He watched Faenil raise himself from his seat, and step down onto the floor, his white robes flowing around him. "I said that there is nothing to be planned."
Vanaril almost snapped.
"What could you possibly mean?" He almost shouted at Faenil.
"Come with me, Vanaril." He watched the other elf move towards a thick oaken door. He followed, and as Faenil pushed it open, followed him out onto the balcony. The cold hit him like the walls of a fort, instantly souring his mood. He hunched over again, the mountain air cutting swathes straight through him.
He noticed Faenil lean on the wooden railing, his white robes fluttering in the wind, being seemingly unaffected by his bare feet on the frigid, sub-zero stone of the balcony. He was perplexed; he was sure the other Altmer hated the cold almost as much as he did.
He stood there in silence, watching his comrade gazing off into the distance, over the mountaintops to the lush plains of Cyrodiil beyond.
"This will be our hardest challenge, Vanaril."
"I am more than aware."
"No, my friend." He heard Faenil sigh, as if he knew something Vanaril did not. "You are not aware in the slightest."
Vanaril turned to Faenil, and made the other mer look him straight in the eyes. Again, he shivered as Faenil's amber eyes locked on him. There was something else in there, he saw.
"What are you talking about, Faenil?"
"We need help. We need help, or we will never win this Great War. The Blades will simply drive us into the ground, with the Empire behind their backs. Does there really need to be a fourth Aldmeri Dominion? We must succeed."
"And we will." He placed a hand on his friends' shoulder. "You and I."
"No, Varanil." He watched Faenil turn back towards the door. "We need more help than that." Vanaril noticed in that moment that Faenil's voice was not his own.
"What do you mean?" He asked.
"Come." He watched Faenil open the door and return through the orifice. "Let me show you."
Vanaril reluctantly headed over to the door, and walked inside, and tensed as Faenil shut it tightly behind him. He looked across the room, and was hit with a sense of perplexity.
"Taren?" He asked. The female mage stood there with eyes staring at nothing, a dazed look plastered over her face, and her mouth agape. Her eyes were completely black, where amber sheens had spiralled beautifully before. She made empty eye contact with him, and he shuddered at the feeling of something brushing up against his leg.
He looked down at the disturbance, and saw a large, shaggy dog. The dog looked up at him with eyes crafted from nothing but darkness. He could feel the Magicka draining from his body as fear rose high in his throat.
"Taren!" He shouted at the Wizard.
"Oh, she can't hear you." An otherworldly voice spoke, seemingly in his ear, but he heard the sound echo throughout the chamber. "She's… asleep, for wont of a better term."
"Who's there?" He shouted, raising his arms and summoning what Magicka he had left. Lightning coursed around his fingers, and then fizzled out as the blood rushed to his head, leaving him with a dizzy sensation.
"I think you'll find your Magicka reserves are quite dry." The voice spoke again. "Barbas, heel."
He watched in disbelief as the dog padded back over to where Taren was standing, and a towering figure dissolve from invisibility behind her. He was tall, well built, and red with black facial tattoos. Two long, curved horns extended from the back of his head.
He was no mere Dremora.
Vanaril knew immediately who he was in the presence of. He was well enough read and educated to realise the figure standing before him.
He dropped to the ground, onto one knee, and bowed his head in submission, a monster made of terror churning in his abdomen.
"M-master, I am yours." He spoke, stuttering slightly.
"Really?" The Lord scoffed. "That's lovely, but… I need a more solidified contract than that. Get him up."
He felt the power of Faenil's telekinesis behind him, scoop him up off of the floor and splay him in a star-like pattern in the air. He could taste fear and betrayal in his mouth.
"Look at me." He heard the Lord say."Look at me, now."
He raised his eyes slowly, and made contact with the lifeless black orbs that stared at him from the figure's head. He immediately felt himself slipping away, as if he were being forced from his own mind. He fought it as much as he could, but was overwhelmed by the sheer power of the mental attack.
"I'm going to have a lot of fun with your 'Campaign…" Was the last thing he heard the Lord say in that terrible, unnatural voice.