On the Wrong Side of the Ghostfence

by Edgar Louis

Introduction

Since I was a young boy I dreamed of becoming an adventurer, to explore far-off lands and the many caves and ancient ruins scattered across them.

Life, in typical fashion, led me down a completely different path. I discovered my gift for study at a young age, and I became a scholar instead. Admittedly I was far better suited to this vocation, the scrawny, tentative Breton man I grew up to be.

Later on, as the head archivist at the Arcane University, reading the books and scrolls waiting to be sorted into the library was a large part of my job. Through written word I re-lived the adventures of adventurers and scholars alike, and my dreams of running off to travel the world were rekindled.

For a long time I wrestled with my instincts. Silly daydreams, I told myself, were pointless. I was a successful scholar, and had a job to attend to. The mages guild library wasn't going to organize itself, and people depended on me.

It was not until some years later I realised I was deluding myself – I never married, I lived alone within the Arcane University. I had no family to provide for. I was a middle-aged, balding scholar who spent his days endlessly arranging and rearranging musty old tomes for musty old wizards. More importantly, I was long overdue for a holiday.

I began to plan a trip to Vvardenfell, deciding that the island was the most rugged and exotic place in Tamriel I could possibly visit. I had read all about Red Mountain and the Ghostfence, the magical barrier surrounding the volcano, during my studies, but had never seen it for myself. It was time to do something about that.

Chapter One – Raziel the Dunmer

My first glimpse of Vvardenfell from the ferry was a dark shape looming out of the thick early-morning fog that blurred the edges of the sky and the water. As our ship drew closer, the shapes solidified and the mist cleared to reveal the Imperial settlement of Ebonheart, a reminder of home that looked lost and out of place amongst the groves of giant mushrooms that grew on the shore.

However, beyond the stern grey stone the Imperials had built Ebonheart with, the land looked as rugged as the dark elves that lived there. For the first time in my life, I felt the thrill of being in a strange land!

Beside me, Raziel Lendas, my guide, seemed far less enthused by her return to the island. For the day-long voyage she shut herself away in her cabin, only emerging when the distant screech of cliff racers signalled our approach to land.

Naturally I had hired her for protection on my journey – I was not particularly unfit for my age, but I had never shown much aptitude for combat or magic, and I knew the wilds of Morrowind were far less tame than my homeland of Cyrodiil. I found the hunter slouched over a table by herself in the corner of a seedy tavern, nursing a flagon of Mazte and brooding over her latest fruitless excursion to the island. It had not taken long to convince her to join me, though her conditions were very specific.

"I want three thousand Septims, five hundred in advance, and you pay for our supplies and equipment," she told me, rubbing her pointed chin with a gauntleted hand.

I realise most men would have balked at the price, but something in her expression changed when she glanced me over. I decided to think of the expenses as an investment into my future.

As she pocketed my deposit, Raziel suddenly flashed her pointed teeth in a smile.

"It's not often you'll find someone like you who's willing to go near the dust-bowl of Morrowind," she said bluntly, putting more emphasis on 'like you' than I really thought was necessary. Still, her confidence bolstered my own, and here we were, nearly at our destination.

Raziel's mood improved drastically once we landed at the Ebonheart docks, and her Alit-like smile returned when she saw I was already wearing the special thick-soled boots she had told me to buy, to protect my feet from the rocky terrain. She had fashioned for herself a quiver of arrows during the voyage, and her longbow gleamed with the enchantment she had placed on it. She looked all-too eager to wage war on Red Mountain's fearsome menagerie of beasties.

Chapter Two – Vvardenfell

A short boat-trip on a strange, leaf-shaped little vessel later – much to Raziel's distaste – we arrived in the great city of Vivec. To this day, I have never forgotten the sight of the city's cantons rising up out of the still water, the splash of water against the side of the boat, or the snap of brightly coloured banners flapping cheerfully in the wind overhead as we glided past flat-helmeted gondoliers.

I would have liked to stay for longer in Vivec, but the long voyage to Vvardenfell had made me restless and eager to see more of the island. Looking back, it shames me to think that, after half a lifetime of learning from books, how little I knew about that strange country, and what I might have learned had I taken the time to experience it all properly.

It took only the rest of the day to reach Ald'ruhn, the closest proper town to Ghostgate, where we would start our hike from. The silt strider, true to its name, marched across the land on its spindly legs, first from Vivec to the riverside town of Balmora, and then when the green, rolling hills gave way to grey, ashy wasteland, from Balmora to Ald'ruhn.

There was evidence of the empire's reach even here, in the midst of the Ashlands, in the form of an imposing stone fort just outside the city walls. Raziel snorted disdainfully as we passed by atop the silt strider. While I didn't share her derision, I understood her sentiments. The Dunmer have always regarded immigrants, 'outlanders' as they call them, to be invaders of Morrowind. In some ways their view is justified - the Imperialist approach to spreading the Empire's influence, at least to me, has always resembled a playground bully grabbing the other children's toys for himself while they are not looking.

I was never a very brave or outspoken child. Though I proudly call myself a citizen of Cyrodiil, I quietly felt myself siding with Raziel.

Chapter Three – Ghostgate

We set out the following morning on foot for Ghostgate. I can proudly say now that I handled the walk much better than I had anticipated, partly due to Raziel's recommendation that we stock up on scrolls of feather to ease the burden of all the supplies and gear that we had to carry. Between us we carried a tent for shelter, potions to ward off disease, scrolls of levitation to help us over any impassable ground and healing, and of course, an Almsivi intervention scroll each, in case we needed to make a quick escape. We also had to carry food and water enough to last the journey, both of which would hard to come by, as there were no rivers near the mountain and we would not be able to hunt the creatures that resided there for food for fear of catching the blight disease. To protect us from the ash storms that came swirling down the mountainside, we each had a masked, armoured helmet to cover our faces.

While, to the people of mild-weathered Cyrodiil, this list may seem excessive, Raziel assured me it was essential for adventurers to stock up on such items when travelling between towns, particularly in the Ashlands where even light winds can turn the air into a stifling haze of ash and dust.

I had expected Ghostgate to be a small town, perhaps like Ald'ruhn. When we finally arrived, despite my eagerness to immerse myself in the wilds, a cold weight dropped into the pit of my stomach. A small outpost sat nestled between the slopes of the foyada we were using as a road, and stretching out in both directions like shimmering paper-cut, was the Ghostfence. This was the last place of comfort we would find for days.

Unlike the previous inn we stayed in, Raziel and I were given a single bunk to rest in, with no separation from the other patrons. Luckily our only neighbours were a few exhausted pilgrims who paid us no heed. That night, as Raziel settled down in the bunk above me, making the wooden bed-frame creak and rattle, I decided I should try to get to know my new travelling companion a little better. I would soon be sharing a tent with her in the middle of the wilderness, after all.

At first she was reluctant to talk, and when she did, she spoke in hushed tones, as if not wanting the other patrons of the hostel to overhear. Little by little, I learned that she hailed from a large family, and grew up on a guar farm on the mainland. Her childhood had been a quiet one, but she went out to make a fortune for herself at nineteen years old, and never went back. Raziel Lendas was not her real name, but when I asked her why she kept her real name a secret, she went quiet, and I tactfully changed the subject.

At some point I must have fallen asleep, for when I woke early the next morning, Raziel had already gone to make a donation at the temple downstairs to receive a blessing. I left her be until she returned, and did not question her about it. If she remembered much of the previous night's conversation, she did not show it.

Our real concern that morning was the weather – but luckily the sky that morning was clear, and had already begun to warm the ashy ground. This alleviated the butterflies in my stomach a little – despite the protective clothing we wore, the idea of stumbling blindly through ferocious ash storms terrified me.

With one last quick glance backward over our shoulders at the road we had taken from Ald'ruhn, we let the portcullis clang shut behind us, and stepped through to the other side of Ghostgate.

Chapter Four – Red Mountain

Day 1 – 14th, Last Seed
According to the calculations we had made, the journey would take us anywhere from one and a half to two weeks if nothing went horribly wrong, in which case we had agreed to use our scrolls of Almsivi intervention to teleport back to the temple at Ghostgate. We would follow the Ghostfence clockwise - the idea was to keep the barrier in sight as much as possible. That way we could avoid wandering too close to the heart of Red Mountain even without the (horribly vague) map and compass we brought with us.

We left the path straight away to scramble up over the rocky bank. The noise disturbed a cliff racer nesting amongst some boulders, but before it could reach us it tumbled to the ground in a broken heap, one of Raziel's barbed arrows protruding from its neck. Raziel's cold efficiency startled me more than it should have – I was paying her to kill anything that attacked us, after all.

The way was steep and slippery with shale – as the sun rose higher into the sky, we found ourselves having to inch our way along narrow ledges with our backs to the edge, where the rock had crumbled away. The whole way we were accompanied by the low, never-ending throb of the Ghostfence, and the shadow of Red Mountain looming over us in the distance.

The sun was just starting to dip behind the silhouette of the volcano when we passed an old wooden door set into the slope – an abandoned egg mine. We decided we would sleep inside that night, to make the use of solid shelter while we could. We were bombarded by angry wild kwama warriors almost as soon as we could set foot inside. Raziel wasted no time in shooting them down, and soon the place was littered with the creatures. She left me to dispose of the corpses outside while she went further into the caves to exterminate the rest.

As I dragged the fallen Kwama through the cave door to clear a space for our camp, I was oddly reminded of the land the Imperial Legion had acquisitioned from the Dunmer outside Ald'ruhn.

I sat and waited by myself for a long time, unsure what to do without Raziel there to order me around. She emerged from the tunnels after a long while, her blue skin flushed an unbecoming shade of purple and spattered with Kwama blood, but in a strangely decent mood. Soon I saw why.

"Look what I found!" she exclaimed, holding her prize up for me to see. Three large white eggs, free of blemishes that came from the blight-disease. She flashed her toothy smile at me again, and this time I shared her sentiments.

Chapter 5 – Not Alone

Day 2 – 15th, Last Seed
My muscles groaned in protest when I awoke the next morning – the long days of travel were already starting to take their toll. Moreover, the sky outside had darkened, but not with rain clouds. Raziel swore when she saw them.

"Looks like Red Mountain's been belching smoke – if the wind picks up, we're in for an ash storm," she said, sniffing the sulphurous air. "We'd better keep our masks handy."

Luckily the wind stayed calm, and our path along the Ghostfence evened out, much to my relief. Our progress was much quicker than the day before.

Around noon, a cluster of spires rose out of the grey hills, coated in dust and ash so thickly, I had to persuade Raziel to come closer with me so I could get a better look. While she yawned and paced impatiently back and forth behind me, I painstakingly chipped away the caked-on grime with my dagger until I had uncovered enough of the building to take a proper look.

The metal the Dwemer used in their construction was as mysterious as the history books made out, but I recognised the architecture right away now that I had seen what it was made of. When I placed my palms flat against it, I felt the faintest, repetitive thrum beneath them. With a shiver of excitement, I realised they were vibrations from still-functioning machinery deep within the complex.

Excitedly, I suggested we try to find a way inside, but Raziel shook her head.

"If there's still machinery down there, then there'll be guards too. Monsters made of flesh and bone I can kill, but I'm not fighting off homicidal machines." The longer I argued the more tight-lipped and stubborn the hunter became, until I had to give up. Reluctantly, I followed her back between the ancient buildings towards the pathway, leaving the ruins behind, for some other, braver adventurer to explore some day.

We had almost reached the path when Raziel grabbed my shoulder and shoved me backwards, hard enough to send me sprawling on my back. My pack crunched painfully underneath me as I landed on it. Though I squeezed my eyes shut, I heard a twang as she fired an arrow, a strange, low groan and a wet 'thump' – then before I had time to even wonder what it all meant, Raziel hauled me back to my feet, muttering her apologies. A strange figure lay in the dust, sticky blood starting to pool beneath it. From its shape I could not work out what it was, and I took a step closer.

"Wait, don't look!" Raziel's protest came a moment too late. I recoiled sharply with a cry when I saw what the creature was – a man, or rather, what was left of a man, with his skull carved open at the front, a gaping hole where his face should have been.

"What is that?" my voice cracked as I stumbled backwards, but I was still too horrified to feel any shame. Raziel shuddered and turned away too, following me over to a dead tree stump a short distance away where I sat down heavily.

"They're called Ash Zombies – brainless things, empty shells of the people they once were," she explained as she sat beside me.

"You mean there might be more of them?" bile rose in my throat as my head filled with horrifying scenarios of what might happen if we crossed paths with a mob of the creatures. I hoped Raziel would shake her head and assure me with her usual quiet confidence that we were safe; that she was no match for Red Mountain's twisted denizens. Perhaps she'd even bare her teeth in one of her sudden, disarming smiles.

No such luck. Instead, she just pursed her lips together into a hard line.

"If you want to turn back, I won't stop you," she told me. She gestured at her pack, where our scrolls of Almsivi intervention were tucked away. "Use one of those, and we'll be back in Vivec by this time tomorrow. It's your choice." We sat there in silence for a long moment, both lost in our thoughts. I could almost feel the warmth of the crackling fire in the inn in Ald'ruhn we had stayed in. However, I had come so far already, and I was certainly not ready to return to Cyrodiil.

"No," I said eventually, putting on what I hoped was an expression of determination, though my insides felt watery as the Mazte they'd served at the Ghostgate hostel. "We'll see this through."

The sky turned black long before sundown, the clouds of ash knitting together to blot out the sun. Reluctant to turn in so soon, we lit our lanterns and carried on, the noise of the Ghostfence the only sound apart from our weary footfalls the cries of distant cliff racers. The path curved away towards the mountain, but we followed it anyway, not wanting to risk climbing the slippery rocks in the gloomy half-light while our hands were full. Every so often, Raziel would freeze and hiss at me to cover my lantern, and I would linger uncertainly in the middle of the path by myself while she poked around behind the rocks or scrappy, sickly-looking shrubs poking their way through the barren soil. I assumed she was looking for more ash zombies, but I couldn't quite bring myself to ask.

When it became too dark to continue, we erected our tent – with some difficulty, as I had somehow misplaced the instructions – and took turns to sit awake and keep watch. Unlike the wilderness of Cyrodiil or the rest of Vvardenfell, where the air would be filled with the sounds of nocturnal creatures, owls, bats, the howls of wolves, Red Mountain descended into silence. Real silence, the heavy, hollow quiet you only hear when you are truly alone.

But we weren't alone – we had seen that for ourselves that afternoon.

The silence terrified me.