The laughter woke him.
Rotting flesh filled his nose, and darkness shrouded his eyes like a cloak. At first he thought he was dreaming again, but a second glance reminded him where he was.
The swinging lantern in the hall croaked on its hinges at every strike of thunder. Its ginger claws pulled at the black-iron bars, smitten with dirt and sweat and blood. Shivering, he crawled closer to its light, hoping to find a shred of warmth with it.
A voice pierced through the darkness with a hollow timbre. "Cold, thief?"
He corked his head back towards the deeper end of his cell-room, where the reaches of the lantern light could not touch. Eyes as luminous as diamonds stared back at him. "I had a nightmare."
The shadow beyond stirred. "What was it this time? More death? Screaming?"
"A great gate," Avery said, frowning. He wondered why the Redguard had taken such an interest in his dreams. "And laughing."
"A great gate?"
He nodded. "A huge one, red and bright like a gem. It burned my eyes whenever I looked straight into it."
"Do you remember where you were in the dream?"
"No." Only darkness. Whenever he prodded his mind for more, a surge of pain seared his head. Dizzy and dazed, he pulled the tattered blanket of his bedroll over his shoulders, which were drenched in sweat. "Enough," he said wearily, "I have no wish to discuss my dreams right now, Flamothias."
The one named Flamothias scooted forward so that part of the lantern light shed its grace upon his face. A blush of sickly paleness enveloped his gaunt cheeks and angular jawline, but the spaces under his curious eyes were plagued black with circles. He had a nose as long as a sword-hilt, and short-cropped, raisin-black curls that stopped short of his scarred forehead.
The Redguard regarded the young Imperial quietly. The lantern light past their cell flickered, and thunder roared over them, shaking the dungeon. "You have fevers when you dream," he said, silent as a ghost.
"Do I?" Avery asked disdainfully. He hated it when the Redguard would try to pry more out of him than he wanted to tell. "Would you like to take me to the chapel then? I'm sure the Jailor will loan you her key."
The lines over the Redguard's jaw and neck tightened. "Careful, thief. Your tongue is not as sharp as my dagger."
The Imperial laughed. "What, the dagger you don't have? Save me from your idle threats, Redguard."
Flamothias' eyebrows were knitted together in a frown of agitation. The pasty, pink line where his mouth was tightened. "I will have it when I am released from this filth. You can be rest assured on that."
"Aye, and what good would that do you? I'll be released well before you will, and when I am, I intend to run as far away from here as I can."
At that, the Redguard smiled ominously; a crooked halo of rotting teeth. Avery saw the light in his shallow, colorless eyes wink with satisfaction. He slunk back into his corner. Avery turned away from him with a chill.
The cell he had been holed in was still dark, but his eyes adjusted well enough to make out the rest of its features. A lone table of birchwood stood on three wobbly legs against one of the other walls. A tan pitcher, bordered by two clay plates, sat over it, the food from their last meal still decaying with a foul smell that made him wrinkle his nose. Two chairs made of a darker wood flanked the table, one upturned as if it had been thrown down in anger.
He lost count of the days he had been in here. The cell was a timeless chamber, where the comings of the sun and moon were no longer familiar to him. Time and time again he would lay awake, stubbornly trying to keep himself reminded of who he was before he got here, when sleep would take him. And then the nightmares. They happened more oft than not, with him waking up bathed in sweat, their imprint fresh on his memory like a new kill. But he could not, for the love of all the divines on Nirn, remember even half of them.
Sometimes he would recall hearing voices in his dreams, saying things… of what, he was not entirely sure, but he dared not mention anything about them, not even to his cellmate. He heard that voices in dreams were a dark omen, and those who had them were on the path to insanity. Divines help me. He hoped that he was not going insane.
When the nightmares first ailed him, however long ago, he had gone to his cellmate about them. Flamothias was a mage of great knowledge, or so he boasted. He still remembered the brooding scowl over the Redguard's face when he first brought them up.
"Not nightmares," Flamothias told him feebly, "but premonitions. It seems a higher power has chosen you to warn the people of Tamriel, for better or for worse."
"You're out of your mind. Even if that is true, no one would listen to a prisoner, a thief…"
"No, perhaps not. And perhaps I am wrong," he had said with a hungering ponderment. "But you are touched with something."
"Touched with something?"
The Redguard cocked his head pensively. "I have not seen it before in the way I see it with you. The firelight seems to dance around you, not on you, the guards pay attention to your pleas, and even the shadows hiss at your mere presence. You have a curb of influence on the material world around you."
The conversation ended there. Not because Avery did not believe the Redguard, but because he was afraid of what else he was going to say. He never remembered having dreams that had such a powerful effect on his body the way these did. Headaches, quivering muscles, even losing control of bodily functions...
The young Imperial shivered some more. It was times like these that he wished he didn't overthink things so much. He curled up into a ball, trying to still his mind… deep breaths…
The rain grew angry as time passed by, their violent pit-pats only getting louder and louder as the storm rolled over them. Avery could hear the waves of the great Lake Rumare crash into the nearby Imperial shores.
"You missed breakfast," Flamothias said, his forgone anger now thinning away. "But lunch is soon." He looked out the small square window up at the top of their cell. Grey light poured over his face. "It seems that Cyrodiil weeps today."
Weeping. The young thief frowned. No, nobody should have been weeping today. There should have been laughter - there was laughter… somewhere.
The young Imperial grabbed his head. Like a drum, it pulsed with pain. The portrait of a young man with silver-blonde hair sailed across his memory. Divines, why can't I remember anything? It bothered him that he could not fish out more of his thoughts. Every time he tried it felt like something very hot and sharp was splitting his skull in half. No matter how hard he pushed, the only thing he could see was the great oval gate, alive with fiery light.
They were soon served lunch, which consisted of two beef strips and a mob of cold peas. Jessen Icesteel was on Jailor duty this week. She was a skinny, flat-chested Nord who liked to talk her weight in a conversation and more. She would usually accompany the prisoners while they ate their lunch, covering the gossip of the realm, talking about this Lord and that Count, and marriages and balls and great parades. But today she walked down the sloping steps from the city barracks in haste, her young boyish face grim with silence. The light chainmail she wore was changing, up and down, as she went and served the prisoners before sitting at the end of the hall, just underneath the lantern.
"Something seems amiss, Icesteel," Flamothias said, taking his plate from her as he sat up next to the prison bars. "The waters of the lake growl, and the rain falls with a sorrow I cannot quite taste. What is wrong?"
The jailor gathered up her straw-blonde hair into a little bun. Her cheeks were flared with a red flush. It looked as if she had been on the move all day.
"The Emperor's first two sons…" she said with a crack in her voice. "They're dead."
Her words echoed down the dungeon hall. Soon Avery could see the faces of many prisoners popping in between the bars of cells further down along, all of their sullen eyes on the brooding jailor who had captivated their attention. The young Imperial tore away a piece of one of his beef strips.
"Aye, Geldall Septim, the Crown-Prince, and the middle brother, Enman. They were on a hunting trip in the Great Forest… you know how dark the forest can get, can't you? They seemed to have wandered too deep and something - or someone - killed them, in cold blood."
"So we don't know how they died?"
"No, I didn't have the guts to ask, pardon, I would've told you if I did… the way Captain Hieronymous looked today when he gave the news… you should've seen it for yourselves. I never seen a man that brave look that scared ever before. One thing I do know is that they were murdered… everyone who was there says so… at least, those who survived. Lord Indarys, Count Cheydinhal's younger brother, even his bodyguard, the huge one who won the tourney in Kvatch a couple of winters back, Sir Hardwyn Hill, and Rayond Drismond, the royal clothier, and Lord Illond Fastus and Jorrva, son of the Jarl of Windhelm, and several others… they all say it was murder. A plot to overthrow the Septim line."
A murmur seeped through the cells now. Thunder roared again, shaking the lantern hanging above her. Flamothias continued pressing her for answers. "The third boy, the youngest, Edel Septim, is he alive still?"
"Yes, thank the Divines," Jessen said. "Him and his father, the Emperor. Edel chose not to go because of prior plans here in the City."
Flamothias looked paler than usual when she responded. "Who else was murdered?"
"The Imperial City court wizard and battlemage, Nevacen Thorn, Lord Sedus Agryn of High Rock, and the newly appointed captain of the Imperial City Watch, Marcus Anton. They say a lot of his men disappeared as well when they heard the news and tried to bring his body back from the forest… it's a shame, they say Nevacen Thorn knew more magic and history than any mage of Tamriel, and that Marcus was to be the youngest guard anointed to City watch captain…"
The name Marcus shot at Avery's memory. His thoughts convulsed, swirling like storm winds in his head. Guard Captain… the position was far too familiar to him. Was he a guard captain? No… I'm a thief, a coward…
He still remembered when he fled. It was not the only thing he had done wrong on that fateful night in Chorrol…
His head pounded against him, sending a huge wave of pain that ran down his whole body.
A voice piped up from one of the cells further down the hallway. "If I were a bettin' man, I'd wager my drakes on the brotherhood… bunch of assassins won't bat an eye at killin' even a baby boy… what's to stop them from murderin' the Emperor's sons?"
The lantern swung, and revealed his face for just a moment. It was grisled, with curls of ebon sprouting from every patch of skin on his face. Small, curious peeping eyes stared at them with a vindictive fervor.
"Perhaps, Corys," Jessen said, "but-"
"You soft in the head?" another voice bellowed from the back. "You'd need a fat piece of akatosh to be able to get the brotherhood to assassinate royalty. I wager they not wanting to do anything with the Septims cause they don't want to all get killed themselves."
"Oh yeah? I'll wager 50 drakes you're eating up your own shit-"
"50 drakes all you have you fucking cotter? I could shit more money-"
"Boys, hush!" Jessen clashed her blade against the nearest set of cell bars. "I didn't come down here to hear you all arguing. Quiet down, otherwise the guard-captain's going to have my head for it… meaning no more news for any of you. Now, I'm leaving before any more of this gets out of hand."
She left with whispers nipping at her heels.
Avery laid back as his head pounded against him. Sweat dribbled down over his cheeks and nose, and he found every waking moment harder and harder to breathe. He almost lost sense of everything around him, drifting into another short sleep, until another soft voice spoke from the cell opposite his.
"A right tight cunt she has, if you ask me, don't you think, Flamothias?"
Avery raised his head up just a little to catch a glimpse of the tired Redguard before he replied. "I wouldn't know," he said shallowly, "I didn't ask you, Valen."
"Then you've got a right tight cunt too, probably," came the voice, chuckling.
"Spare me your words tonight, I wish to be able to keep my ears when I'm released from prison."
Valen Dreth was a scrawny dark elf who never understood when to stop talking. Sharing a cell akin to Avery and Flamothias, he was the first thing they woke up to, apart from each other, and the last thing they fell asleep to. On most days Valen was tolerable, keeping to himself with whispers and random outbursts of angry muttering. But on some others, he was quite nasty, taking out his anger on anything and everything around him.
"You Redguards are all the same," he scoffed, scooting closer to the edge of his cell. "Too prideful to admit that you've ended up as bad of scum as the rest of the lot. Even now," he snarled, "you can't look me in the eyes, you pathetic piece of trash. I hope they make a slave out of you when this is all finished."
Flamothias had responded, but Avery could not keep fighting the fever as it took him. His mind was stripped bare, and he dove straight into waters that he should not have gone into. He had hoped his sleep was dreamless, but it wasn't. This dream was of wine as bright as gold, spilling over a great stairway…