Disclaimer: this is, as we all know, as applicable to all chapters as this the first: I don't own Oblivion – Bethesda Softworks does.
Special and repeated thanks go to my beta Pheonicia, without whom there would be a lot of typos, unclosed plot/logic gaps, and far too many filler words. She's a fantastic writer, so if you haven't looked at any of her work, please, do so now. ^_^
The UESP Wiki is one of my core sources of information – special thanks to their very existence. Enjoy the story!
Chapter One: The Mazken
New Sheoth Palace, 3 E Year 1
"Well?" Grakendo Udico frowned, her blue eyes mere slits in her face.
Orphael bowed politely, knowing Udico was not a woman to be trifled with, particularly not when she was in a bad mood. And this went far beyond any mere bad mood. "The Aureals have fallen, as we expected they would. However, as unexpected, they didn't delay Order for long. Didn't even thin their ranks. They've got to be getting reinforcements from somewhere – but I'm sane if I can understand how."
Udico ground her teeth, fingering the hilt of her sword. She knew Aureals were useless lot, a waste of space and air, but she had expected them to – at the very least – slow the Forces of Order down a little. Too much faith in the foolish. "Did you happen to learn anything remotely interesting, male?"
Orphael looked around at the throne room, trying to figure out which piece of bad news would not result in his immediate execution – or an invitation to make a suicide run against the Forces of Order, which was about the same thing. That annoying chamberlain, Haskill, continued to skulk, suffering something akin to separation anxiety since Lord Sheogorath's disappearance, silent and useless. The entertainers, the courtiers, all gone. Nothing remaining but a few scattered Aureals and the Mazken themselves, and a city in a state of advanced chaos.
"No – only that I still believe Order has taken our Master." There – the least upsetting piece of news. If Udico asked for more, she would have no excuse to do anything particularly spiteful, because she hadasked. And as for Order…he frowned, looking away from his superior.
It had to have done so, taken the Master – there was no other answer. The Master might be irresponsible (hence his need for devoted retainers, such as the Mazken), fond of games and jokes – as well as punishments – but surely he'd never just…leave. Not when his Realm collapsed around its inhabitant's ears.
Those who had ears, anyway. Those Argonians made Orphael wonder…
"How long?" Udico asked tiredly, looking at the male. Not as useless as an Aureal, but short temper and convenience made her append that he was only marginally more useful. Still, in all fairness, a scout was a scout, and it would be far more counterproductive if he'd thrown himself on the Swords of Order, rather than report back.
"Depends on if they make straight for New Sheoth, or if they take time to reinforce their hold on the rest of the Isles…" he answered. "If I may advance the opinion…" he paused to give Udico time to tell him to keep quiet.
Udico grimaced, but nodded anyway. Why not? It couldn't hurt to hear.
There were decided advantages, Orphael considered as he chose his words, to having held a high position in Lord Sheogorath's favor, prior to the Daedric Lord's abduction. "It doesn't really matter how they do it, Grakendo, they're digging their heels in. If we wait, they'll only be able to gather more reinforcements from the Fringe, to pour in through the Gates – we all know that's where the brunt of them are coming from. If they solidify their hold, they'll be impossible to dislodge…"
"Are you telling me," Udico hissed, "that we've already lost? Impossible!" She picked up an inkwell and hurled it across the room, where it shattered. Of course it was impossible! Unheard of! The Mazken didn't lose. "No!"
The ink, dark as his own skin, spread, seeping into the red carpet on the Manic side of the throne room, giving him something at which to look. Not to mention Duke Vaelar of Dementia had vanished as well, run away. And the new Duke of Mania, Thadon…the useless little Bosmer was too far gone on felldew, blissfully unaware of the war enveloping the realm.
"Yes. My apologies, Grakendo. And still no sign of Order's leader. I refuse to believe these bucket heads are autonomous. Not if they represent Order." The word tasted foully corrosive in his mouth. No, Order would have a far more stratified chain of command than even the Mazken and, Orphael hoped rather than believed, much less ingenuity.
Year after year, life after life, in all the fragments of his memory, the hazy little cobwebs of the last Circle, and the one before…he remembered nothing so implacable, nothing so assiduous in the systemic destruction of the Isles.
Poison in the Waters, and he could no more stop it than free the souls on the Hill of Suicides.
"Tell me something I don't know, worm," Udico snapped, finally giving into temper, her indigo eyes flashing as her dark lips pulled back into a snarl, revealing ever so slightly fanged teeth.
Orphael chose his next words very carefully, the lines in Udico's face, of anger and stress, prompting great care. After all, as he'd reminded himself before, Udico was not a Mazken to cross, even on a normal day. Much, much less so on a bad one, like today. Like most of this whole week.
The doors at the end of the hall burst open and a female runner came staggering in, breathing hard. "Grakendo! Pinnacle Rock is cut off! Also, we've sighted…it's…" she shook her head, choking as she tried to swallow, and wound up choking on her own spittle as she tried to breathe and swallow at the same time.
"Go on," Udico pressed, more gently than she might have done for the male she'd just shouted at, sweeping over to stand beside the other female, patting her back as Udico prompted the choking woman to raise her arms above her head. "What is it?"
"We think…it's…it's Jyggalag!" The runner spat out, looking horrified, finally lowering her arms, as the coughing stopped. "It can't be anything else!"
"Jyggalag? That's impossible! He was defeated…exiled ages ago! All the records say so!" Udico gave a great exhale of a helplessness she was steadfastly unwilling to admitting to, biting her lip, to keep the exclamation of defeat from falling into the air. Mazken didn't give up. They couldn't. Nor could she see what else to do, except to maintain a brave face, and throw herself at Order's swords when they came. Not the best plan she ever came up with, and certainly a last ditch one. "You're sure?" She asked finally, with the air of a woman grasping at straws.
"I'm afraid so," the runner announced, her expression full of terror and the fatalistic knowledge that this was the end.
Orphael's heart sank between the words spoken and the look on Udico's ashen face. Something stirred, clouded deep in memory, like cobweb curtains in a draft. Some sense of nostalgia. If the Prince of Order chose to reassert himself, after centuries, millennia of exile…well, that explained why Lord Sheogorath was gone. Order's first step in asserting itself would be, of course, to remove the Madgod, the very opposite of everything Order stood for. So damnably predictable…and yet how come no one saw this coming? Any of it?
"He's already marching straight across the Isles, the Crystalline Spires are all reactivating! They're doorways possibly to Jyggalag's prison plane! It's where new reinforcements are coming from, in addition to the ones pouting in from the Fringe. He'll…" the runner turned ashen, "He'll be here before sundown!"
With all Udico's focus on the problem at hand, and the runner, Orphael was allowed to escape her bad temper. His own mind rattled with thoughts like lead coins. The more he thought about it, the sicker he felt. As one of the Lord Sheogorath's favored it would be, ultimately, his job to 'volunteer' to take the first spot in any attempt to stop Jyggalag. There was, simply put, no one else.
Only the Mazken and the shattered Aureal forces remained, the tiers of leadership either kidnapped, out of their heads with felldew or simply gone, self-preservation overriding loyalty. All in all, not a reassuring force for a last stand against Order. "I will go," he announced. Best to get it over with, as he was one of the most highly favored….it was expected.
"You'll what?" The two females had forgotten he was still standing there.
Orphael gazed levelly at Udico and the runner. "I said 'I'll go'. To face Order…it's…as one of our Lord's favored, it is my duty, and my honor." No one argued, though he had half-hoped they might. Honorable course or not, it still looked like suicide to him. However, if he didn't volunteer, he'd be volunteered later. Better do it by his own choice than by orders.
He knew he should have stuck to scouting, and stayed away from Court. But no…no, with Order so far inland there was no point, he'd only have led some glorious suicide charge out in the wilderness. Perhaps, he tried to console himself as he left the two women, he might even get in a blow against Jyggalag himself.
Jyggalag stood at the base of the stairs, leading up to the palace of New Sheoth, the heart of the Shivering Isles.
Watching the Prince of Order storming forward, twice as tall as any of his knights, Orphael, dry mouthed, adjusted his helmet. This was it – the last chance. Unsheathing his longsword, he trotted down to the next terrace, his two accompanying teammates with him. "You sure about this?" One hissed, watching as crystalline Order appeared beneath Jyggalag's very feet.
"Kh – what else can we do?" The other demanded.
Shut up, perhaps, so he could think, but fear made Orphael's tongue swell to fill his mouth, and filled his mind with an indistinct sort of noise, prohibiting clear thought.
But it didn't matter. Jyggalag wasn't interested in talking. Something in his mind considered that Prince is never one for talking, though he wasn't sure why. This was a first – the first time in millenia Jyggalag had walked…
Within moments he'd fought his way before the towering form of Jyggalag, even sunk his sword in up to the hilt, through the Prince's midsection, a brilliant display of quick moving, light footedness, and pinpoint accuracy.
Jyggalag's faceless helmet shifted, crunching to look down at the Mazken. Orphael watched his own reflection, thrown back at him almost perfectly in the facets of Jyggalag's…armor? Hide?
Pain shot from sword to hand, to shoulder, the instant the sword ceased burying itself in the Daedric Prince, a clout with a massive hand sending Orphael reeling back. It felt as if acid surged through his veins. Orphael barely registered the burned, blackened look of his skin, the way the affected limb trembled with weakness, as if with great age before darkness and sudden searing pain took him.
The first thing you had to remember was not to try and breathe, once consciousness returned. You didn't breathe right away, because you were still underwater – that much memory retained. However, you were also always near the floor, so a strong kick would sent you swiftly upwards, bursting out of the cool water into clean, sweet air. And for a Mazken, air was a good thing.
"Ah, there you are…how're you feeling?" The male on duty asked, helping pull his comrade out of the Wellspring of Pinnacle Rock.
"Great…all this dying, drowning, rebirthing is just fantastic," Orphael responded a little dully, blowing water from his lips as moisture sloshed out of the pool along with him, water beading on his skin to run off when the droplets grew too heavy. Of all the rooms in Pinnacle Rock, the Wellspring remained one in which the air hung comfortably against wet skin. The others were, on the whole, kept fairly comfortably cool – and not so friendly to wet skin.
"Well, at least your sense of humor's intact. You're going to need it."
"Ooh…who's in charge now?" Orphael pulled a towel off the stack, securing it firmly around his waist. The sounds of water, the Wellspring, lapped and echoed in the vaulted room of Pinnacle Rock. A safe place.
"Nelrene, for now. Ulfri's still trying to track down Lord Vaelar. He's still missing, we think he's dead."
Orphael shuddered at the thought for the paranoid Dunmer. Something about Vaelar always made Orphael feel the need to keep the Duke in front of him – he remembered that much. "Well, at least I know where I stand with Nelrene. The others?" Surely he hadn't died alone, he knew that much, but splintered memory provided no other details.
"Nope, you're one of the first. Determined bastard." It was a compliment, the other Mazken's grin indicated this.
Orphael gave a barking laugh. "That's right, don't forget it…" he stopped, catching sight of his right arm. Although the flesh there was healed, smooth and healthy, below the elbow it was darker than the rest of his skin, as if somehow stained. Even his nails looked blackened by comparison to the other hand. "How come…" he asked slowly, examining his hand perplexedly. Strange, that such an injury carried over. "…so many are dead?" Unease moved through him like an unseen creature in deep water.
"I don't know," his colleague responded. "Some big fight – Lord Sheogorath's put it right, though. New Sheoth seems to be intact just…" the record-keeper trailed off, a furrow appearing between his brows.
"Just what?" Orphael demanded sharply. The feeling of unease bothered him. He had forgotten something, he knew. They always did – but this time it was something important.
"Just…I dunno. I seem to remember it being a little closer to the Rock, maybe it's just faulty memory." His companion shrugged. "I'm sure it's right where it ought to be. Must still be woozy from the trip back." He gave an uneasy laugh.
"Maybe," Orphael grunted, blue eyes gleaming vividly in the gloom. "Well, let's go see what kind of trouble Nelrene's getting us into, eh?"
"Careful Orphael," his friend warned. "She's in one of her moods."
Orphael smirked, stretching to help limber up stiff muscles. "When is Nelrene not? She's as temperamental as an Aureal, that one," and fascinated by pain – though not usually her own – so the rumors indicated. Shaking his head, Orphael headed for the armory. There was no way in the Isles he was going to see Nelrene in just a towel. It'd give her ideas, and Nelrene was one of those Mazken who should not be allowed to get ideas.
Orphael might have a tolerance for pain, but it was not something he enjoyed.