Nephethys was beginning to lose the sliver of vitality she had left. The dark elf stumbled through the darkness in her undergarments and a single blade in her right. The battle with the dæmon who almost choked her to death left her weakened, almost crippled as she was still gasping for air long after the fight. When the monster suddenly let go of her, she ran for her life. Not her typical approach to things but she knew that the poison in her veins was feeding on her strength. By the time she was all alone again, Nephethys had formulated an idea in her mind as to what had caused her ailment. Remembering Shthelith's words about the venomous blood of the merfolk and how it saturated part of the surrounding seas she inferred that it was this blood that must have somehow entered her body. Perhaps through one of the many wounds Nephethys had suffered along the way.
In spite of the poisoning she was still surprisingly quick on her feet. Getting away from that impervious creature was her top priority. She might not survive another confrontation. And so, the darkness proved to be her best friend after all. She wandered as fast as she could through a dense maze of caves and tunnels for a long while, however, somehow, the thing caught up to her. But Nephethys was a quick thinker. Using her very special abilities she merged with the ubiquitous shadows and watched the dæmon walk right past her and into a cruel trap. A shredmound had taken up residence within that tunnel. The former assassin obviously took note of this. The dæmon, however, did not and walked right into the beast. Much to her surprise the dæmon seemed to recognise what it had just stepped into and moved forward with the utmost care as to not disturb the shredmound's peaceful slumber. Nephethys went on to observe and wait as the hulking creature shaped its flesh into a sharp blade and sliced right through an overgrown section at the very end of the treacherous passage. The horned fiend vanished behind the bleeding flesh thereafter and left the shredmound hurt and enraged. All Nephethys had to do was wait until it calmed down again and then quickly sneak through to the end as the dæmon itself cleared a path for her. And for the first time, a strange feeling rose inside when she thought of the creature that had pursued her.
The dunmer attempted to follow in the dæmon's footsteps but soon found that the caverns and passages became too coarsely hewn to recognise any single trace.
After she took a few turns she lost the trail completely and wound up in yet another confusing web of tunnels that disembogued into a series of intriguing chambers. Shewn within were the remnants of what seemed to be a culture entirely detached from the few civilisations Nephethys had come to know during her travels. The first chamber, a room with wooden flooring and smoothed out stone surface for walls, told of architectural craftsmanship unlike the masonry of the Llhorenians or the Shithirsians. It looked nothing like the city of Bendicia or like the hamlets of the Aímamer. This suggested that there lived another people at one point in the Painted World. Immediately, Nephethys asked herself if Shthelith was aware of that. Her suspicions of him having a hand in the destruction of the Shithirsian people led her to suspect also an involvement in the purging of the race at hand - whomever these ruins belonged to.
Nephethys focused on her surroundings and discovered that this chamber held no shadows for her to blend into should the need arise. It was lit by small, glowing glass tubes that were embedded in an irregular pattern into the ceiling, cleverly conceived for the light to reach every corner. At its far end there was a wooden door built into the stone so deep underground. The next chamber followed the same overall design but instead featured a few, large holes in the walls and a queer, wooden object, rectangular in shape, with no clear purpose. Nephethys knelt down to look at the object. It featured multiple slits that ran down vertically and next to each other. Nephethys reached into one of them and felt a sticky, oozing substance coat her fingers. It was very warm to the touch but had no odour about it. What this was for, the elf couldn't fathom. But things got even more alien as she went along.
Past the room with the sticky substance, behind another wooden door, there lay a greater room than those that came before. Its furniture was the most puzzling yet. A single hole in the wall to her left. The room was elongated and along its walls were aligned an even number of intricately carved pillars which were also made from wood. They rose up to be somewhat taller than Nephethys was and their topmost part featured a cylindrical compartment with movable parts, likely to open or close said compartment. The top cylinder was larger in diameter than the pillar it was supported by. From inside the wooden structures Nephethys could hear something. A sizzling, smacking, shifting something.
At the walls there were more of the rectangular boxes and suddenly, Nephethys noticed how warm the room was in general. She was almost glad to be in her undergarments at that moment.
She espied another door at the far end of the room. As she moved towards it, the floorboards creaked under her weight - floorboards made from wood that didn't have corresponding trees for on the surface. At least she herself hadn't seen any that would match the colour, smell and feel of it. "These sunken chambers must be incredibly old then", she thought as she moved along. Nephethys explored further, moving through a network of rooms filled with those pillars, oozing objects and holes in the walls big enough for a person to fit through. The climate in these rooms was highly humid. Steam gathered as water on Nephethys' dark skin and saturated what little cloth was left on her body. The increasing humidity carried her mind away as it became harder and harder to think clearly. But it also appeared to alleviate some of the poison's effects at the same time. Nephethys stumbled like this through a few more rooms until she suddenly regained her senses.
In front of her, on the floor, there lay a naked Aímeri female some rooms into the maze. She was fast asleep and pregnant. "How did she end up here?", the dark elf thought. How did a pregnant woman from one of the blood elf hamlets wind up all the way in the cove? Even if the Aímamer would regularly congregate at the stone beach above to pray towards the sea, none of them would just jump down into the caverns below, much less bring any conceiving women along for the processions. Nephethys tried waking her up but failed. Shaking, shouting and dragging did nothing to relieve this almost comatose state. In the end, Nephethys was forced to leave her be and continued onwards. Through the next door however there were even more impregnated women that lay on the floor sedated. Aímamer and Shithirsians alike were subject to this strange effect. Now Nephethys understood that there was something wrong about all of it.
Before she could proceed her attention was arrested by the painful groans of one of the women in that room. Nephethys turned and saw the blood elf struggle to stand and walk. "Where…?" is all she managed to bring out before she was brought to the floor with overwhelming torment. She cried out and in response, the others woke and were in an equal amount of agony. "Oh by Sithis, are they all entering labour?!" Nephethys said nervously. The bellies started moving in unnatural ways and soon, it became evident that whatever was inside them didn't plan on exiting the body the usual way. The women were on the ground and writhed as the first stomach opened. Something clawed and bit its way through the flesh until there emerged four insect-like creatures the size of a hand from the gaping flesh. They scuttled towards the walls and vanished into the holes. Nephethys looked around and saw another body get torn. And then another. And another. Distant screams told her that others suffered the same fate in many more rooms like this.
"Why does it always get worse?" she complained. Her condition had gotten much better though, and she felt her bodily strength returning. She was more ready than ever to defend herself should the need arise. Carefully, the elf snuck forward and spied through the next door. She could barely believe her eyes but right where she was, deep underground, there existed a pit of gargantuan proportions carved out of the surrounding rock. A giant circle that descended not in a cone-shaped manner but like human-sized stairs into the depths of the earth. The walls of each individual circle were lined with elliptical, fluorescent things. "Perhaps they were cocoons of some kind", Nephethys thought. The extent of the cave and the structure before her left her speechless for some time. All she did was look and wonder. She noticed a movement happen in the corner of her eye. It was one of the insect things, brown of colour, an elongated body with six legs, four wings and a broad head sporting sharp mandibles. It scuttled, then flew, towards one of the glowing ellipses and vanished therein.
Nephethys made her way around the pit to get to the opposite side. Fortunately for her, the path was wide and even, chiselled to near perfection. Her presence did not go unnoticed however, and her efforts to make it through to the other side were interrupted by a singularly striking, dark figure in a heavy robe that suddenly appeared behind her. It towered above her, sleek, slender, its face hidden under a hood casting shadow. It was a good arm's length taller than she was and the extremities were proportionally longer. It definitely wasn't human or elven. Evidenced further when it started to speak to Nephethys in a broken tongue. This is what the figure said:
"Krr't'kt. Trr'o'kt pe atre'kt, etr'r. Rruee preet'k rru t'ko h'rak. Rruee u'rr tk're h'ai'tr. Rru h'rei chet choi'kt asrr't."
Nephethys had trouble making sense of it but faintly recalled familiar word structure and sounds to suggest that the creature tried to communicate in her language but wasn't quite equipped for such a feat. Still, it was utterly indecipherable for Nephethys. She took a few steps backwards and assumed a defensive stance. The tall figure before her raised its arm and the heavy sleeve of the robe revealed the curiously malformed "hands" and chitinous arms of it. The assassin readied herself, the sword in a backwards slashing position in her hand, her legs ready to slice through the creature. Said creature then first removed its hood and then the entire robe fell to the floor. A mixbreed organism of half insect, half elf or man shewed itself. Strong, muscular arms, legs and torso augmented by chitin plating layered on top. The head was bald and armoured and lacked any face - it was merely a chitin-coated skull with eyes. Its lower jaw was split in two and shaped like mandibles.
"No wonder he can't speak" Nephethys said. The beast moved its hands, the digits shaped like long, flexible claws. "Krr't'kzzt z'trrk kt k'tkzrrt. Krr krr ktk tk zzz!". It made these noises among other clicking sounds and threatening gestures. Nephethys was sure that it now spoke in the tongue of its people. There was nothing in the alien speech even remotely suggesting vowels or usual syntax. And the erratic manner with which it was spoken seemed furious. Out of a lack of understanding, Nephethys angered the creature. But she appeared to at least in part understand what was going on. For in her mind, these insect people, that she would later refer to as the Harvesters, gathered females to breed their kind in them and send them to the giant, circular pit they were standing in front of for incubation. Maybe their civilisation was decimated due to a major Aímeri incursion and this was their way to evolve and breed and survive whatever the vile elves had done to them. The Shithirsians, it seemed, had no such luck but instead became victims to the Harvesters too by accident.
If she had understood the tall Harvester in front of her, she would have probably helped them in what they were trying to do. But she didn't. Neither did she know their true intent. Her most immediate concern now was survival, as the Harvester raised its claws and opened its mandibles threateningly, revealing absurdly sharp teeth and multi-jointed appendages, like very slim tentacles with joints, writhe in between all of this. A dark ooze spilled out of the maw and it came closer. Legs with their knees backwards and feet sporting but two large toes pointing forward and one pointing backwards. Nephethys was in luck to be back with her full strength again. The Harvester attempted to negotiate but the cultures of the Dunmer and the Harvesters were too different. And so, the Harvester would take what it wanted by force. Nephethys didn't expect it lashing out at her and she received a gash on her arm. It burned terribly, for the claws and mandibles and toe's claws were drenched in poison. Not quite the same as the blood of the merfolk but still it burned ardently all the same.
She jumped out of the way and rushed forward again in an effort to impale the Harvester on her sword. The weapon got stuck in its chitin plates on the back and Nephethys used it as leverage to crawl up and drive her leg blades into its shoulders. It screeched its agonised wails and grabbed Nephethys by the waist with both hands. The sharp claws caused painfully burning cuts and she got pulled out and thrown into the pit of glowing cocoons. She landed on the second level of the pit but the landing was hard and uncomfortable notwithstanding. Nephethys reacted just quick enough to roll sideways and avoid her sword that came flying her way like an arrow shot from a daedric bow. It got stuck in one of the cocoons behind her and a brown, steaming sludge spilled out that seemed to erode the stone it touched. A second later the big, black robe came flying her way as well. It blinded her for the few moments it took her to get it off - enough time for the Harvester creature to position itself right in front of her to deliver a potentially fatal blow.
Its spine cracked and out of its back, a bony, very pointy tail emerged. When Nephethys was allowed to see again the tail's tip came right for her. Once, twice, thrice she dodged. The ground quaked from the immense force of impact. There was no telling of how great the damage would have been if the Harvester had hit its mark. When the tail came at her a fourth time, Nephethys was prepared. She brought her legs together and cut the tail clean off. She got a hold of the severed tip and drove it into the Harvester's leg before getting up and retreating in defence. The creature screeched once more and shattered some of its chitin plating as it removed the tail from its leg. More brown ooze spilled from it and it was limping towards its target. Enraged, four great wings spread from its back and the Harvester hovered in mid-air to accommodate for its damaged leg. The beast was even more dangerous like this and swept down multiple times to bite into Nephethys' head.
She avoided the maw and retaliated, cutting off a mandible and a few tentacles from the mouth. The loud buzzing of the interminably flapping wings became unbearable and the ensuing headache eroded Nephethys' capabilities bit by bit. With each passing moment, her focus suffered from the terrible noise of the wings. They were in themselves a weapon and needed to be removed quickly. Meanwhile, the Harvester tried to decapitate her with its claws and Nephethys had trouble dodging the airborne assault effectively, leaving her with several, concerning cuts close to her neck. She breathed heavily, warm blood running down her back, soaking her once white undergarments in red. She breathed the pain away and remembered that she was capable of casting simple hæmomancies. The poison of the shithirsian blood had rendered her magick useless but since its effects vanished not too long ago, Nephethys was once more able to use her blood to her advantage.
First, she used what exposed blood she already had and molded them into sharp javelins. She telekinetically threw them towards the flying Harvester and destroyed two of its wings. The buzzing got quieter and the Harvester lost a considerable amount of altitude. With some of the noise gone, Nephethys managed to focus further and heal her injuries as the Harvester took some time to recuperate from the blow it had just received. With her vitality back in full force, she jumped above the wounded Harvester and came down with spread legs and an upside-down pointing blade, removing the last two wings and ending the Harvester's life by driving her sword deep into its skull.
The Harvester's lifeless body lay next to her as she picked up the heavy robe it had worn prior to the fight. She was still panting and recovered slowly. She sat down on the ground and examined the black robe. It was much too long for her. She cut away some of the cloth on the skirt and the sleeves to make it more appropriate to her Dunmeri size. She used the leftover cloth to dry her skin and wipe away any dirt, blood or bile before putting on the great, black robe of the Harvesters. Finally she wore something again - a sort of trophy no less, shewing her triumph over a great adversary. Not that anyone but her could recognise the import of her new garb. That's what she thought, at least.
But her trials, her peril did not end there. It happened when she was climbing out of the pit. A cracking sound, followed by the splashing of water and a "krr'kt" somewhere behind her inspired fear. "Oh no, no no no", she said and turned around. One cocoon had hatched and an adult Harvester emerged from within the sludge. Next to her, another crack, another splash, another Harvester. Somewhere far down the pit echoed the cracks and splashes of yet more breaking and hatching cocoons. Soon, the strange language of the insect men filled the hall. "Nonononono…" Nephethys mumbled. She realised that her robe concealed her true identity for the moment. She used this and made for the nearest door at the top of the pit that lay opposite the rooms she had dubbed "birthing chambers" in her mind.
Nephethys closed the door behind her and looked for a way out. Exiting the insect territory was chief for continued survival. If just one Harvester put up that much of a fight, what could hundreds do? Either way, she was in no way equipped to deal with these numbers. Escape proved to be more difficult than she thought. Before her, several tunnels wound through the rock. They looked different than the usual tunnels Nephethys had traversed. They were coarsely dug and rather narrow as opposed to the intricately cut ones of the Shithirsian people. But still big enough so that Nephethys could crawl through them rather easily. However, she needed to act fast as the clicking noises of the Harvesters got closer behind her. She arbitrarily chose the rightmost tunnel and followed its path. On all fours she made her way through it without even so much as looking back. She depended on her sensitive ears to tell her if danger was at hand from behind. Her knees and hands were already sore after only a few meters but she had no choice - she had to continue lest she ended up as a breeding vessel for the insect men of the deep.
Nephethys' mood significantly improved when she noticed an incline going up. Up, towards the surface? Her excitement was great, although she had to contain it for the time being as she didn't want to attract any attention from the Harvesters. She crawled and skulked, the air got less thick, moist and crowded the further she went. Was she on the path back to the surface and fresh air? The tunnel got more narrow. Narrower and narrower until she had trouble squeezing through at all. She could feel that the surface could not be far. Nephethys tried to dig. At first with her hands but after several nails broke off she tried to turn around and dig with her legs instead. She squirmed and wriggled back and forth and back again and twisted and turned in every direction. Suddenly she felt a movement within the rock. Seeing this as a sign of progress she kept on moving and kicking as the air in the tunnel got thinner and thinner. The rock moved again. Barely able to breathe, Nephethys tried going back the way she came. Lightheaded and dizzy, she exhausted herself too greatly to endure any more moving. She would have died had the ground beneath her not opened up and swallowed her whole.
She fell deep. Very, very deep. She was still nimble and cognisant enough to avoid obstacles on her way down but she fell so incredibly long and deep into the darkness that the mere imagination of how much distance she covered during the fall intimidated her immeasurably. She was this close to finally being free only for the weak soil to give way. She turned in the air, hands pointing down. From them she would conjure cascading pillars of blood magic to slow her fall and prevent ending as a heap of crushed meat at the bottom. Soon enough she landed, her magicka reserves and vitality greatly strained. She couldn't tell where she was exactly. Only that it was a large chamber way deeper than she could remember having ever gone.
Looking up at the giant, gaping hole above her head she cried bitter tears at her loss of altitude. She sat and wept silently, burying her face in the palms of her hands. Nephethys had enough. She didn't want to go on anymore, sneaking through the neverending rock and stone and dead fish and blood and all the other horrible things that she and the others had found in the cove. Thorus was gone, Shthelith was gone. At that moment Nephethys didn't care any longer whether or not Shthelith was responsible for the fate of the Shithirsian people and the insect men, or if he had lied to her and Thorus. She didn't care if Thorus was more occupied with defeating his past that continually snuck up to him, enveloped him. As much as these things burdened her, all she wanted was to be with them again.
She said nothing. After a while her tears ebbed and her face dried again. She exhaled, sniffed and stood up. A long, thorough sigh later and her mind was back on track. She still harboured hope to see her companions again, to see Thorus again. And maybe, just maybe, there was another way out through the depths she had landed in. Nephethys rubbed her eyes to clear her vision and as she did, a quiet "Oh please, not again" escaped her dry lips. A good distance away there it stood, the dæmon with the single horn protruding from its head. She couldn't see it clearly but she recognised its silhouette from afar. This time however, she would strike first. For Nephethys was weak no longer, an arsenal of deadly spells at her disposal. And if the worst came to pass and the horned dæmon attacked her head on she would be ready.
She advanced, slowly at first but she went faster as the nervousness grew within. She saw some rock formation move in the back and the dæmon turned around. She slowed down and observed. A distinctly human sounding voice echoed throughout the cavern and the monster waved at her. But Nephethys would not be fooled. She spoke a few Aímeri incantations under her breath, spread her arms wide and floated on top of bloody columns. From them came whips that lashed out at the creature, rippling waves of destruction for the monster that had almost choked her to death before. Nephethys never thought to see it again but she would not let the chance to put it down go to waste like that. The assassin intended to do her work and to do it well. Meanwhile, the contraption behind the dæmon had turned and vanished into the ground. The dæmon then, too, went down and into hiding.
"It fled?", she thought. "Let it be then. No point in fighting an enemy that does not fight back". She stopped pursuing the dæmon and hoped it would not come back for her but the way in which it had fled suggested that it had its own agenda. Or perhaps it recognised her robe and feared to be mauled by a hundred Harvesters. Either way, Nephethys didn't have to fight another battle and conserved what energy she had left. To her right, stairs led up to… somewhere. Anywhere but down was good enough for her so she took her chances and ascended. She hadn't seen properly fashioned stairs in ages. Her only question was: "What am I going to run into this time?". The presence of stairs usually hinted at someone nearby who made them.
Nephethys would never come to know what truly lay beyond those stairs. After having climbed about a third of them a violent earthquake almost caused her to lose her balance and fall. The deafening noise of crunching rock in an order of magnitude hitherto unprecedented deprived her of her senses. Already, the first rocks loosened from the ceiling and came raining down on her. Nephethys escaped upwards with a few bruises. Now it was a deadly race against time and a collapsing system of tunnels. She climbed the shifting rock formations that cascaded down from above. With the aid of her blood magic she went up the crumbling caverns. She heard many screams of the leftover Shithirsians who perished in the caves. Slowly, water began to pour in and swallowed what was beneath her bit by bit. This also meant that a path must have been clear to get to the surface.
Nephethys dodged falling rocks and waterfalls from the surface that gently opened up. The water of the crimson sea that had the same properties as blood was more than helpful in her ascent as she could wrap around the waterfalls and reverse their direction of flow so that she was carried up quickly. Before long she witnessed the cove that she had been stuck in for such a long time crumble to nothing and get buried by the crimson sea. And all the Shithirsians, all the Harvesters and what other lost civilisations may or may not have been dwelling in even deeper levels vanished with it. She found herself in the middle of nowhere, held afloat by her superior magic that she had had the time to hone during these turbulent days that she had spent within the cove's confines. She walked the water's surface like a goddess and she realised what power dwelt within her. And she beheld the great mountain of the jagged ridges, the high temple of the seal of flesh. Hema's Peak.
With nowhere else to go and the faint hope in her heart that her beloved Thorus managed to recover the seal of blood that was hidden in the cove, and made it out alive somehow, she set out to retrieve the final seal and take it from whatever evil guardian would stand in her way.