Prentus shivered and wrapped the wet, clammy blanket tighter around himself. A thin trickle of water oozed down the smooth, squishy surface of a giant mushroom and dripped onto his miserable-looking bunch of firewood, already almost black with moisture. There was no way he could light a fire; not in this weather. He sighed and squinted through the sickly grey veil of rain in the direction of the far-off shore; he thought he could see the castle windows still ablaze with light, blinking teasingly at him; the Count must be having one of his 'late nights' again.
Oh, how he longed for the comfort and warmth of the guardhouse, for a hearty meal and a mug of foaming mead and a good, sound sleep in a cosy, dry bed afterwards! What had he done to deserve this posting? He was stuck on this weird island in the middle of the bay, day in and day out, with no hope of relief and with no one but that crazed Khajiit woman and the talking door to keep him company; and as if that was not bad enough, his supplies had run out. He had not eaten anything since the day before last, and he just did not dare touch any of the bizarre vegetation that grew on the island. Although… some of it did look quite appetizing…
'No, I must not succumb to the temptation…' Prentus whispered through clenched teeth, pressing his hands hard against his gurgling stomach in a futile attempt to keep it quiet. A short, broad-leaved branch, heavily laden with vivid fruit, swayed in front of him, as though daring him to stretch out his hand and ease its burden. Prentus screwed up his face and turned away, gasping faintly as his stomach uttered a shrill cry of despair.
'Oh, don't worry, they are quite edible,' said a soft, slightly mocking voice somewhere out of the grey wet mist behind him. Prentus jumped up and, baring his sword, looked around wildly, his eyes round with fear.
The wet mist laughed, 'Startled you, did I? You are becoming far too nervous, my friend. A guard should not be nervous, now should he? I think you will do a much better job with your stomach full'.
As Prentus brandished his sword blindly at the moist air around him, a dark, cloaked figure stepped out of the mist, and before he could do anything, thin, long-nailed fingers closed in round his wrist, making him drop his weapon.
'There is no need for that,' the soft voice breathed into his ear.
His heart sank. He recognized the voice now. It belonged to that Dunmer woman who visited the island most often. She would go in through the door, and then come out, days later, a strange smile playing on her lips, and leave the island, crossing the bay in those enchanted water-walking boots of hers; then, she would return and go in again. Although he never admitted it, even to himself, deep in his heart, he was mortally afraid of her. Perhaps, even more afraid than he was of the glowing door, with its wild, toothy grin, and of the whispering voices, voices of madmen and madwomen, rustling in the dark like dead leaves, keeping him awake at night. He cried out something incomprehensible and tried to jerk his hand free of her grasp. The woman let go of him and laughed again. She leaned gracefully towards the temptingly swaying branch, cut off one of the fruit with a small curved blade and started peeling it with an extremely busy air, as though the fate of many depended on how well she would take the skin off this odd-looking little fruit. As she did so, her broad dark hood fell back, revealing a gaunt face, strangely pale for one of her kin, with high cheekbones, thin lips the colour of ripe plum, and fiercely glowing red eyes.
'These days I am not really into eating,' she said, handing Prentus the fruit with a courteous smile, 'but I do remember that it tastes quite good. A bit like a pear, but more juicy… Now, I wonder what is keeping the others?'
'O-others?' Prentus stuttered, struggling to hold on to the skinned fruit, which was now slippery with juice, as one does with a bar of soap.
'Yes,' the woman replied absent-mindedly, peering down slope that lead from the bay to the island.
In a short while, other cloaked figures started emerging out of the wet mist, shivering and muttering bewildered remarks. Prentus gaped at each of them, as they gathered round the woman, as if awaiting instructions. First there came a woman, small and light-footed – a Bosmer, perhaps – armed with a bow and arrows. She turned on her heels, quickly taking in the surroundings, and exclaimed, 'Why, Sister, that's some shelter!'.
She was closely followed by a man, who was gazing around in wonder with eyes just as red as the Dunmer's.
'I am sorry it took us so long,' he said, approaching the two women; by the sound of his voice, Prentus guessed that he was a Breton, 'We had a bit of an argument as to what to do with the boat. In the end, brute force won; Gogron is chopping it to pieces even as we speak'.
'Good,' said the Dunmer, allowing the Breton to put his arm around her waist, 'The less clues we leave behind, the better'.
After the Breton, two Argonians came running up the slope, with a fair-haired Breton woman panting in their rear. Then there came a sulky-looking Khajiit, whose eyes suddenly widened as he saw the glowing door. 'You are not… you are not taking us to the realm of the Skooma-Cat, are you?' he asked falteringly, knitting his eyebrows in a suspicious grimace.
The Dunmer laughed, 'Yes, dear Brother, I am doing just that'.
At this point, Prentus, who had been ignored by every single one of the newcomers, felt that it was time to cut in. 'Now, hold on a second,' he said in his most authoritative guard-like voice, putting his hand on the Dunmer's shoulder, 'You may go in and out as long as you like, but I won't have you drag unsuspecting innocents in that place!'
The cloaked strangers exchanged amused glances. The Breton woman giggled, 'Unsuspecting innocents! That's rich!'.
Prentus felt exceedingly uncomfortable. He was not used to not being taken seriously. He gave the Dunmer a small shake and repeated his authoritative guard-like speech, but hardly had he finished, when the voice of a somewhat displeased Orc boomed somewhere from above, 'Chill out, buddy, or I'll have to gag you with your own intestines!'.
Prentus swallowed and looked up. An enormous bulk of an Orc – most likely, the Gogron who had been taking care of the boat – was towering over him, flexing his fingers with a very unpleasant smile. Prentus opened his mouth for a plea for mercy; but his very first words drowned in the deafening, echoing bellow that came from the glowing door.
'Intestines?' it cried cheerfully, 'Did someone say 'intestines'? Why… it's you again!'
The Dunmer bowed. The door went on, suddenly irritated, 'What do you think you are doing, running to my Realm and back again like that when you should be stopping the Greymarch? What do you think you are, a pendulum? Come to think of it, you might look great stuffed into a grandfather clock… Though I'll have to chop off your limbs, of course, otherwise you won't fit inside… And what are these fellows you've brought with you? Cheerleaders?'
'They are my friends, My Lord,' the Dunmer replied, curtseying, 'They seek shelter in your Realm'.
'Wha-?' the door spluttered, 'Seek what? In my Realm? You must be taking it for some kind of bed-and-breakfast! And I assure you, my Realm is NOT a bed-and-breakfast! Though I do like breakfasts… I like beds less though, but still… Well, since you've been a good little puppet and obeyed a couple of my orders quite nicely, I might as well take a look at your gang's minds…'
There was a long pause, during which the strangers shifted uneasily from one foot to the other, clearly no longer sure what was going on. At long last, the door burst into a fit of manic laughter.
'Delicious!' it spat out in between thunder-like guffaws, 'Simply delicious! More delicious than cheese! If you like cheese, that is. Sadistic freaks and homicidal maniacs! Why, they will fit in wonderfully in the Isles! Not for long though, if the place gets squashed by Jyggalag. Which is why you must quit fooling around and go straight to my palace! I've got a job for you; besides, you are not fooling around the right way; it makes me miffed'.
The Dunmer curtseyed again, 'Allow me to spend a bit more time here, My Lord. I have a few matters to settle'.
'You seem to be urging me to skip-rope with your intestines,' the door said sulkily, 'Ah, well, do as you please. If you find the Isles squashed like a mushroom cap the next time you visit, this will all be YOUR FAULT! In the meantime, I will have some fun with your friends here. Marvelous specimen you have collected, just marvelous… You may be a lousy Champion, but you are a great collector… I like collectors. They are all a bit batty. Maybe even more than a bit. I don't like tax collectors all that much, though. Well, what are you waiting for? Shove your gang inside and be gone!'
The door fell silent, its wide-open mouth glowing welcomingly. Seeing that there was nothing he could do, Prentus withdrew into the shadows. The Dunmer gave each of her strange friends an encouraging smile.
'I won't be long,' she said, shaking hands with the two Argonians, 'I need to convince the Black Hand that the Purification was completed'.
'How are you going to do that?' asked the Bosmer after she had unlocked her farewell embrace. The Dunmer grinned, baring her suspiciously long and sharp teeth, 'Oh, with the help of a little Manic spore gas they will be sure to see a bunch of dead bodies lying around… and more than that, no doubt. Incidentally, once you are inside, do pay a visit to Xedilian. I have always felt it needs more chambers, and you are just the people to design them'.
'Why, thank you, Sister,' said the Breton woman, kissing the Dunmer on the cheek, 'Though I am not quite sure what this means'.
'You'll find out soon enough… Now get inside before the Madgod looses his patience… You will love the Isles, I assure you! It is the only place I have ever seen where one can be oneself without having to hide. Give my warmest regards to Haskill!'
Gracefully evading a hug from the Orc and winking at the bewildered Khajiit, the Dunmer ushered her friends inside the blue glow. One by one, they disappeared in the door's greedy mouth, till there was only the Breton man left.
'Will we ever return?' he asked, casting a long glance back to where Bravil lay, fast asleep beneath a veil of mist.
The Dunmer shrugged her shoulders, 'I will do my best to find the real traitor. When I do, you may come back… But I doubt that you will be willing to do so… This place has a way of affecting people… You'll see…' A strange, dreamy look suddenly came over her face, and her red eyes grew misty.
'Etanni?' the Breton said quietly, touching her hand with his fingertips.
The Dunmer started, as if suddenly awakened from a dream, and cleared her throat, a bit too loudly, 'I should really be off now. Enjoy your stay!' and, having given the Breton a hurried kiss somewhere in the corner of the mouth, she disappeared into the rain.
The Breton smiled to himself, gently stroking the place where the Dunmer had kissed him; then he turned abruptly and stared in the direction where Prentus was standing, his eyes flashing ominously.
'You there,' he hissed, passing his tongue over his lips, 'Do not breathe a word of what you just saw to anyone! If you do, you might very well find yourself missing a couple of gallons of blood one fine morning. You have been warned!'
With these words, he dashed into the blue glow, which sucked him in like a man dying of thirst sucks in water. When he was gone, Prentus flung himself on the wet ground, clutching his throbbing head. This was it! He had had enough of this posting! Next thing he would do after getting up would be fling himself into the water and make it towards the shore, where there were no talking doors, and cloaked strangers lining up to enter them, and red-eyed Bretons to hiss death threats at innocent bystanders! Although… Prentus gasped with terror as a small thought suddenly stirred inside his mind. What if… he went in and saw for himself what draws folks to this blasted island like flies are drawn to honey?
'Why not?' said the glowing door, 'You will fit just fine for testing new Xedilian chambers…'