First Rites

Nyxalinth arrived home from her trip to the market, only to find that her father had locked himself in the study again.

She knew better than to disturb him. It wasn't for fear of his sharp tongue, though she certainly didn't care to subject herself to one of his never-ending lectures. Her father, an expert in Conjuration, often summoned powerful Daedra and other creatures of Oblivion. The slightest disturbance or mishap could result in death, or worse.

Instead, she moved on to the small kitchen to put her purchases away. The bread went into the breadbox, and the meats into the ice chest where they could keep until that evening's dinner. Not that either of them could cook terribly well: Nyx's mother had always been the one to see to that.

"Your father couldn't make toast if he had step by step directions," she'd said on more than one occasion, and it never failed to make Nyx giggle. Even now, it made her smile even as she missed her mother terribly. She had died in battle several years before—a heroic death, saving a child from Necromancers—but death nonetheless.

Nyx sighed. Both she and her father had mourned her mother in their own way. Neither of them talked about it much. Her father (and to a lesser extent, Nyx) both understood that Jagraeda Eriksdottir would one day go the way of all mortal flesh, but neither of them had expected it to happen so soon.

She'd only been in her early thirties, and Nyx had been twelve. She had just turned fifteen—tall for her age, and strong. She'd always been strong, and it had taken her a while to know her own strength and to control her temper with the other children. They were immature and silly and they didn't understand her, and they were often mean.

Sometimes they were afraid of her. They expressed their fear in the only way children know: cruel taunts and vicious attacks that left her bleeding more from her heart than from her skin. Nyx 's father told her it was because they sensed she was different from them, and that people fear what is different.

She emptied the other sack now, bringing out a wheel of cheese, some vegetables, and a small jug of wine. She put them into the pantry and tucked the sacks into the basket where they belonged.

Nyx closed the pantry door, and it was then that she noticed the note on the table. Her father would leave a note for her telling her where he would be, for how long, and what he wished her to do in the meantime whenever he had to leave the house or was busy in his study. She picked up the note and read it.

Usually, his notes were a list of chores, or a shopping list. Sometimes, his requests were more esoteric in nature. "Go to All Things Alchemical," one such note might read. "Discuss the properties of nirnroot versus gillyweed with the shopkeeper." So she would, and the alchemist or blacksmith or bookseller or whomever he had directed her to was almost always too happy to discuss their stock with her, especially if she made a purchase.

On some days, however, he would leave her an entirely different sort of note. "Wander through the marketplace," would be all it said. Or "Visit the library and read what you will." When she returned home, they would discuss what she had seen or done or learned.

Today was one of those notes, the kind that offered a lesson but required her to find out what, exactly, she was to learn for herself. It said, "Go to the ruined temple of Mara that stands an hour's walk past the bend in the west road. You will know it when you see it. Go well armed, but avoid battle if possible. Do not enter the temple itself! Stay outside and explore carefully. Bring back a small souvenir of your trip."

That was all. No 'Dear Nyx,' no 'Love'. But that was all right. She knew her father well enough to know in her heart that he loved her, even if he didn't always say it. She tucked the note in her pocket and dashed off to her room to change.

Outside the temple ruins, Nyx could understand why her father had wanted her to see it. She had never seen anything so sad, and yet so lovely, in her life.

Centuries ago, the priests of Mara in the temple had become corrupt and evil, turning in secret to the worship of Molag Bal, King of Rape. The few priests who had remained unblemished in their faith led a band of warriors against their brethren, killing them all and destroying the temple in the process. Realizing that in their vengeance against their fellows that they too had been corrupted, the surviving priests declared the temple an anathema to the faithful and departed, never to be seen again.

Most of the trees were still relatively young, for it had been a long time before anything grew around the ruins again. Weeds and brambles and kudzu vines wrapped around the tumbled masonry like constricting snakes. Many of the blocks and bricks were scorched, and some were partially melted. Wildflowers grew between some of the blocks, as if even here, hope survived.

Given her nature, Nyx had no issue with Daedra worship. She had worshipped Malacath briefly. She'd always felt like an outcast, and the Prince of the Scorned and Abandoned made her feel like she was part of something. She'd moved on eventually, but several of his Orc followers remained friends with her.

Nyx glanced around quickly for some small token of her visit. Many of the stones were just too large. The flowers were lovely, but she couldn't bring herself to pick one. There had been enough destruction here already.

A glint of metal drew her eye to a twisted lump that appeared to have once been a goblet. It was badly tarnished and partially melted. Nyx walked over to it and picked it up. A small shower of dirt poured out from the goblet's partially warped bowl. She turned it over in her hands, smiling a little. Mud encrusted gems sparkled weakly as a bit more dirt poured out of it. For all it had been through, it was still a thing of beauty.

Setting her spear aside, Nyx removed her leather backpack. She opened it and put the goblet inside, closed it, and hefted it to her shoulders once more. As she picked up her spear, Nyx caught sight of a flight of stone steps leading down into the temple proper.

'You know you shouldn't, Nyx,' she told herself sternly. 'You have what you came for. Go home before something big and ugly bites off your face.'

In the end, the lure proved to be too much to resist. "Just for a few minutes," Nyx murmured. "If I don't go in too far, I should be fine." She started down the steps.

In a dark corner of the ruined temple, the Daedroth's sensitive hearing easily picked up Nyx's voice and footsteps. It growled softly, scenting the air to find her.

The stairs opened into a spacious antechamber. The frescoes on the walls turned Nyx's stomach to look at them: they depicted the horrors in which the priests turned cultists had readily indulged. Her eyes swept the antechamber quickly, looking for items of interest besides the vile walls.

'If I want to see anything else, I'll need more light.' She cast a simple spell that allowed her to see in the dark. The antechamber was lit with an eerie glow, but at least she could see where she was going now.

A curved arch led deeper into the gloom. Nyx studied it from her position near the stairs. Intellectually, she knew her father's words had merit. Old ruins—especially old ruins that had once been home to Daedra worshippers—were dangerous. Nyx, however, was at that age when common sense was at its lowest and the sense of invulnerability at its greatest.

"I won't go far," she promised herself. "Just through that arch. And then I'm going home."

Several minutes later, however, Nyx had gone through the arch and down the short corridor to the large shrine itself. Looking up at Bal's statue, she shuddered in disgust. How such an unappealing Daedra Prince could inspire orgies to rival those of Sanguine's followers, she didn't know, and didn't want to know. She eyed the statue disgustedly for another moment before turning her attention to the offerings on the altar. Several gems, a small chunk of ebony, and something that looked like reddish-pink salt sat on a small silver plate.

"Someone's still using this shrine," she said softly. The idea struck her with the force of a war hammer. "Someone…is here." Swallowing hard, Nyxalinth made up her mind to leave. She knew better than to mess with offerings made to Daedric gods: it was said that to do so would bring a guardian Dremora to destroy the offender.

She had nearly made it all the way back to the arch when something heavy and snarling and reeking of old blood and decaying flesh knocked her to the shrine floor. Nyx barely kept her grip on her spear as she struggled to sit up.

The Daedroth snarled at her again; this time, Nyx could make out its words.

"Ssacrifice for Baaaal. Pleasssse Lord."

"Oh. Oh gods." Nyx said, her mouth suddenly dry and tight, her heart pounding madly. Having recovered slightly, she rolled to her feet just in time to avoid another of the Daedra's clumsy but powerful attacks.

Its scaly fist smashed into the floor. The beast howled in pain and while it struggled to free its now trapped hand, Nyx attempted to dodge around it to attack from behind. It wasn't completely helpless, however. One swipe of the Daedroth's long tail sent her sprawling again.

Nyx hit the floor with a grunt and a thud. Her spear skittered out of her reach to land some distance behind the now-freed Daedroth. She heaved herself to her feet as the beast charged her.

"No escape," it growled. It swung at her with a viciously clawed paw.

Nyx barely managed to duck the attack. Even so, the beast scored her leather jerkin, leaving deep scratches. Had she been even a second slower, it would have laid her back open to the bone. As it was, the Daedroth still managed to scratch her badly. Hot blood flowed under her armor.

How badly am I hurt? I know it got me—it stings. It would get her again if she didn't move. Nyxalinth forced the burning pain from her mind and made herself move.

She ran for her spear with the Daedroth in pursuit. She had almost reached it when the beast sent her sprawling again. Fortunately for her, she landed atop her weapon. She grabbed it up, rolling onto her back as she did so.

"Come on, then!" she screamed, forcing herself into a sitting position. Quickly, she backed herself into the corner. I hope this works, she prayed to whomever was listening. Still sitting, she braced the spear against the 'v' formed by the two walls. "Come on, you festering excuse for a lizard!"

The Daedroth hesitated. Before, the not-mortal (for that was how it thought of Nyx: it lacked the thought processes to properly articulate how she smelled to it.) had only smelled of blood and fear. The not-mortal still smelled of blood and fear, but now the Daedroth smelled the scent of rage…and of danger.

But the blood…oh, the blood. It would devour her flesh, but it would leave the sweetest part of the not-mortal—her heart—for its master. Molag Bal would be pleased. Perhaps He would even give his servant a stronger Daedroth form.

Thinking this, the Daedroth charged. It lacked the intelligence necessary to understand what Nyx was doing.

That proved to be its undoing.

The Daedroth impaled itself through the chest, spearing its own heart. Although the wall took the brunt of the beast's impact, Nyx nearly lost her grip on the spear. She felt the dying beats of The Daedroth's heart through the spear's shaft.

The Daedroth growled one last time, blood pouring over its razor-sharp teeth. It pawed the air with its claws, still desperately trying to reach its prey. Finally, its primitive brain caught up with its heart and it shuddered one last time before falling to the floor, taking Nyx's spear with it.

Shaking all over, Nyx stared in shock as the beast faded back to Oblivion. Braced against the wall, she pushed herself up to her feet. She grabbed up her spear and raising it high, she let loose a feral scream of rage and triumph.

Nyxalinth arrived home just as the sun set. Her father had dinner ready, and was busy setting the table when she walked in.

"You're a bloody mess." That was his way of expressing concern for her wounds.

"Thanks, I love you too." She meant it.

"Sit down by the fire. I don't need you bleeding all over the dinner table. I'll see to your wounds."

While her father did this, he asked, "Did you see the ruins?"

Nyx nodded. "I brought back a souvenir, too. It's in my backpack."

He grunted. "Judging from these wounds, I'd say that you went into the ruins. Which I specifically told you not to do."

"Yeah—ow!" You did that on purpose. She thought he might do it again if she said it aloud, so she remained silent.

"I could never tell your mother anything, either." He laid his hands on her bare back; Nyx winced again at his touch. A moment later, healing energies coursed through her flesh, sealing the wound completely.

"It might scar," her father warned her. Nyx heard a small note of pride in her father's voice. "In fact, I'm sure that it will. Get dressed, and we'll have dinner. You must be starving."

"I am."

"Then why are you still standing there?" he snapped. "Go change your clothes, and you can show me what you found and tell me what found you over dinner."

Hiding her grin, Nyx did as she was told.