It was a strange noise that first caught her attention, some kind of buzzing, or maybe a strong vibration that sounded out of thin air. The Dragonborn wasn't sure what it was, but she was sure it did not rumble from the stone around them, like it would have been natural— them being underground and all. That made her slightly more caution where the usual undead didn't.
It was with sharp eyes and strained ears that she stepped into the great opening at the end of the tunnel. Inside the new circular room, the stone flooring was strikingly out of place compared to the unkempt aspect of the previous spaces she'd explored. Rounded levels of stone were smoothened out and levelled as if carved especially for the sake of appeal, the crafting of the inter-most circle presenting a clearly decorative design. There were patterns in the walls as well. Resembling black doors, on a closer look they appeared to be made out of fragmented, interweaving vines.
And as if that was not eerie enough, in the very centre of this space stood erected a dust-covered plinth continuing high in the air through an odd ornament evoking the shape of a bird or a bat. On the left, the yellow light of a torch could be made out shining from behind another open door leading to who-knew-where.
It was none of those things that captured her interest the second time; not the dark atmosphere or the caress of magic in the humid air. Not even Frea's words of warning could have interrupted the Dragonborn from reaching out for the heavy old book sitting innocently in front of her, collecting dust.
"There are dark magics at work here. Ready yourself." Her Skaal companion uttered urgently, but Malvina had more important things to do than listen to the woman.
Maybe it was a bit contra productive, given her line of work —orc stronghold and bandits-infested caves where not the best of places to get distracted by paper— but Malvina'd always had a thing for books. Biographies, spell-books, historical books, adventure stories written on old scrolls, journals, diaries: anything and everything that was readable flared up her interest. It was something she was born with, this thirst for knowledge and her tendency to hoard up rare and not-so rare tomes.
Frea's muttering interrupted the Breton's staring contest with the black book, and Malvina sent a glare from under the hood of her armour. "This book…it seems wrong, somehow. Here, yet…not. It may be what we seek." It must have been too dark for the Nord to notice the stare Malvina sent her way, the Dragonborn realized sourly when her companion continued to talk gibberish. Divines, why did she have to end up with the crazy ones all the time!? Everyone knew books just weren't evil, they just… weren't! Shaking her head, Malvina did what seemed like the only thing to do.
She picked up the book and opened it eagerly, her leather-clad hands careful not to damage the old parchment, and by Mara, it was in perfect condition, no ripped corners, spilled ink of faded words! Greedily, she took in the bold black text. Her native curiosity so powerful that, had she known what would happen next, she would have probably done it anyway.
"The eyes, once bleached by falling stars of utmost revelation…"
"The eyes, once bleached by falling stars of utmost revelation…"
"The eyes, once bleached by falling stars of utmost revelation…"
The words repeated themselves in her mind in strange, disembodied voices, darker than the ones she was used to hearing near Word Walls, less human than even the chanting of the dragon-priests. Had Malvina not been frustrated because she hadn't managed to read the rest of that book, she might have found it disturbing.
Or maybe not; once three or so Daedric Princes got into your head, you started to find few things disturbing anymore. Still, it wasn't every day that the Last Dragonborn was eaten, quite literally, by a book.
Malvina mentally gave Solstheim some extra credits for its originality.
It was after the voices chanted that one frustrating verse ten or so times that the darkness surrounding her started to give way to colours; dull, ugly shades of green and yellows, but colours nevertheless.
Directly in front of herself Malvina gradually started to make out new sound and a new voice, definitely human and in all probability haughty. "The time comes soon when…" Oh, it was human, male, and smug, no doubt about it.
The woman attributed the voice to the vaguely humanoid shadow slightly to the right, but trying to make out anything was proving to be quite a hassle, and the figure could have very well been anything from a tree to a dragon, for all she knew.
When the world came into focus around her, it did so explosively. There were dragons, lightning spells and floating 'I-have-no-idea-what-you-are-but-you-look-like-something-related-to-a-netch' entities. She couldn't have said that she was surprised to find herself on her knees in no time, palms flat against the ground in an effort to balance herself. All Malvina could say was that she was impressed.
It had been a long time since anyone had managed to stagger her with such rapid efficiency.
"Who are you who dares to step foot here?" The blurry shape finally revealed itself to be indeed a man, and a dragon-priest judging from his attire. His voice echoed over the noise of hissing and… that same sound as before, that vibration, but stronger and sharper, filling the enormous space like some sort of malignant wind. Behind the masked man and the weird creatures, she thought she saw books and pages flying in circles in the background, but what really caught her eye were the massive bookshelves she could see scattered around at random.
She wagered those could have easily held in a couple of hundreds of good books. Curiously, she turned her head to the left, studying her surroundings.
The dragon-priest kept talking. "Ahh, you are Dragonborn." He said, some growing interest in his tone. From the corner of her eye she thought she could make out some of the tomes' titles. The Real Barenziah volume III stood squeezed between The Aetherium Wars and Immortal Blood, and just on a shelve lower was something referred to as Ahzirr Traajijazeri. The man kept speaking, clearly getting into a rant, and Malvina wondered how long it would take him to realize she wasn't really paying him any mind.
"I can feel it, and yet…"
What was this place exactly, and why were there so many books? She stretched her neck to have a better look, and his voice faded away, thoughtfully. 'Did he take the hint already?' She half-asked herself, reluctantly taking her eyes away from the book covers.
"So… you have slayed Alduin. Well done. I could have slayed him myself back when I walked the earth…"
No, it seemed he hadn't caught on just yet. On and on he went, oblivious to her disinterest. He reminded her somewhat of Frea, actually.
"Excuse me!" She finally stated, unapologetically despise the wording of her dismissal, and the man simply stopped, most likely surprised, angered or offended— perhaps a combination of those. "What is with all those books? Are you a scholar?"
She did not really grace him with her attention even when he spoke to him— because yes, she was the slayer of the Word-Eater, and she didn't really need to give a damn about anyone anymore. Now... Horror of Castle Xyr sounded like something she might enjoy reading; she briefly wondered if she had the book back home, and if not, how she should steal it.
"Foolish woman, I am Miraak, the first born Dragonborn, favourite of the Daedric Prince of Fate and Knowledge, Hermaeus Mora, one of the dragon-priests of old-"
She huffed. "Yes, yes, I'm sure you are. Now, are you a scholar or not?" Oh, how she hated elusive answers! She hadn't asked him who he was, really!
"What audacity! I am no simple scholar! I possess the forbidden knowledge of the Black Books; I retain understanding of things weaklings like you would not be able to comprehend in their lifetimes!" The strange man growled, the earth shaking in response to his fury.
Still too weak to even stand in a sitting position, the Dragonborn's bit her lips in impatience and curiosity. "You like to read, then!" She exclaimed, brightly, even if an invisible force seemed to press harder and harder on her chest, slowly suffocating her.
"Have you read all the books here?" She asked, and the man was quiet, but Malvina could guess the only reason she wasn't stared at evilly was the fact that his mask got in the way.
"Hermaeus Mora is the patron of information and memory, the keeper of knowledge in its entirety. The Apocrypha is an endless library; I have spent lifetimes of yours here, harvesting the power it offers. Power I have been given access to at a great price." There was something peculiar and foreboding in the way Miraak stated the last part, even with the dull, hard edge of his speech. It was still not what she wanted to hear, though; it didn't really answer her question.
"So…does that mean you've read all those books? All of them?" Impossible, the Breton thought to herself, such a thing was not doable.
Strangely, for the first time since Malvina met the dragon-priest, he answered her clearly. "Of course." He said, and to the woman's great amusement, she thought she detected a hint of irritation in his incredibly self-assured voice. "Your impertinence is astonishing, even if you are Dovahkiin." Ha, that was definitely irritation there.
"Are you sure? Every single one of them?" The disbelief in her voice was inevitable and to-be-expected. In all honesty, there were a lot of books gathered in that one room. And those were only the ones she could see.
"You are not worth the trouble of lying to. I could have you killed in the blink of an eye; it would be enough to will it to happen." He sneered, having found her lack of trust in his aptitudes insulting. "You would barely have enough time to scream." She wondered why he suddenly felt the need to bring up the fact that her life was still at his mercy.
She was perfectly aware of that, and it had nothing to do with the conversation at hand. Changing the subject so was just plain bad taste.
"Yes, yes, I know, thank you for reminding me. But still… Every historical fact, every adventure narrative and uninspired verse?" Had her body not been in such a horribly awkward state, she would have tried to point to the towering shelves brimming with books— out of which the black volumes were mostly unlabelled, much to her confusion.
"Tell me, woman, how many times must I repeat myself until you shall have satisfied your curiosity? Or it there no such happenin-"
"Even the romance tales?" The Last Dragonborn interrupted him, again. There was arrogance in her eyes as she finally looked up to his towering frame. To Mirrak, she wore the expression of a person who assumed too much, too fast.
"All of them." He stated, pleased to have crushed the overconfidence on her face.
For a while, she looked puzzled, almost defeated, and he fed on her disappointment. This woman was someone whose ego he found especially satisfying to crush, short as their interaction had been.
"The Sultry Argonian Bard!"
"What?" He couldn't have possibly heard right.
A grin worthy of a Khajiit split her face, perfectly visible even with the cowl shadowing her features. "Have you read even that?"
Had Miraak been a lesser man, he might have sputtered. "I am not obliged to indulge you or your absurd questions!" He snarled instead and felt a headache coming on strongly. Why was he doing this to himself, he wondered? For a brief moment, he entertained the idea of ending the smart-arse's pathetic existence. Even that moment was quickly interrupted.
"Ah-ha! I knew it! You couldn't have possibly read all these books!"
Her victorious little address, even if her body was completely at his mercy, touched his pride just as accurately and potently as ever.
'I was right!' was written all over her face.
The dragon-priest felt the strangest urge to wipe the smugness she showed by telling her otherwise, but even he would have never admitted to such a thing. He refused to say he'd read that blasted book. 'The Sultry Argonian Bard', what a joke! Ridiculous!
"Ellya Erdain is untalented scum. Even I could write something like that and make it twice as entertaining."
Malvina squeaked in alarm, having not expected, of all things, to hear that!
Frankly, neither had Miraak.
He had meant the comment to be only for himself —an unwariness born out of an eternity spent in solitude (you never expected being ear-dropped on where there was no one to ear-drop on you)— but watching her face distort the way it did was rather agreeable.
The Last Dragonborn, on her knees and hands before him, was visibly gasping at the indication of his words. A thin smile sketched under his mask, and Miraak watched her from under the safely of the venomous-yellow metal.
"Send her back where she came from, she can await my arrival with the rest of Tamriel." The Seekers moved closer to Malvina, and he carelessly turned to leave.
That caught her interest. "This is going to be unpleasant, I assume?"
"You assume correctly… for once."
Relentlessly, she was blasted with magic from above. There was a long way to Solstheim, and all she could really think about was ways to get her hands on a book wrote by a certain ancient Dragon-Priest.
If such a thing existed, she needed to have it.