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"Obviously." Hal-Neesa replied as she reached the bottom of the ramp and joined with the others. "Part of it, at least. The part I found most interesting when I was testing it."

Neesa reached out a hand and pulled a thin Dwemer rod to her. Walking over to the projected map, she used it as a pointer as she started explaining parts of the map. "I'm sure the lot of you can figure out the basics if you stare at it long enough. These are mountains, these are rivers. Artificial structures can be harder to see, but if you look close, say See these lines? That's the imprint of a building. Maybe a Skaafin encampment. You see all these smaller lights scattered around? They are focal points of magical power. A lot of them are probably groups of Skaafin warriors; their enchantments, mages, and the like. If enough of them are congregated close enough together, then it can concentrate enough magical power to show up here."

Ri'vashi was starting to make better sense of the map, but there was the obvious feature that Neesa had not yet addressed: the overwhelmingly bright light at the center of the map. "So, if these are points of magical power, then what of the large one? Is that Vile himself?"

Neesa shook her head. "Not exactly. The device isn't tuned to show the divine energy of a Daedric Prince at all right now. That light is 'just' a concentration of magical energy more powerful than anything I've seen in a few thousand years. And no, I don't know what it is. All I do know is that its strong enough to obscure a pretty wide area around it. No matter how I tune the device, I can't see what's under that light. But, since I can't detect Vile anywhere else in his realm, I can guarantee that's exactly where he is. So, you all can make whatever plans you feel like to try and get to him."

"Everything that I have learned has given me an immense amount of respect for the Psijic Order. And their tenets, while strict, are noble. They have incredible power, and the wisdom to know how dangerous is to use it. They do important work for all of Nirn, even if it often goes unseen. But..." Meesei began, betraying some amount of discomfort in her tone as she briefly glanced away from Lunise. "Look, Lunise, I do not know what you think of your mother for leaving you as she did. You have never said, and I have never asked. But, to be a part of the Psijic Order demands a high price from its members. They have to be able to judge the needs of all the people of Nirn equally. No matter where they are, what they are, where they are from, or even if they are family. They have to become truly detached from Tamriel...but they are still people. Still mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, with people who they still care about. They are not quite like monks, they can still fall in love, have families and children, but if those families happen to be back in Tamriel, they usually have to give them up. I do not think either of us can know how your mother may have changed in all these centuries, but I am willing to wager that she still misses you immensely. I know I would, if I were in her position."

Meesei finally stood up, holding up a hand slightly charged with magic. "I will know right away if it worked if I am able to establish a stable portal at all. But...the Psijics are protective of their isolation. Even if they decide to allow this visit, and you are able to re-connect with your mother without issues, I still doubt they would allow me to retain the means to return to Artaeum any time I wish. They would likely modify the tuning needed to bypass their defenses, so...this may end up only working once. If I do open this portal, I want to be sure that you are ready to step through it with me. I brought one of my dresses to put on...and one of yours, if you want to change."
Ri'vashi had learned long ago not to become involved in what, for the most part, amounted to bickering between Teroiah and gro-Tagnud. Although part of her did share Teroiah's distrust for Hal-Neesa, being able to form an actual plan of attack ahead of the invasion was an advantage that could not be understated. At present, they just had general knowledge of the kinds of environments and enemies to expect in the Fields of Regret. They would not even know what kind of terrain the portal itself would form in. Having a plan ahead of time would substantially quicken the pace at which they could deploy their armies.

As usual, Hal-Neesa did not waste time with pleasantries once she saw Sabine and the others at the top of the ramp. "Finally, there you are. Stay clear of the room's center. The mechanism will move, and I do not want you damaging it if it strikes you."

Neesa had evidently already been prepared, as she pressed a button to activate it right away. There was a loud sound and they could feel the platform shaking underneath them as the mechanism suddenly came to life. The massive, orb-like device at the center of the oculory rotated around to align the focusing crystals embedded into it. Shortly afterwards, Hal-Neesa activated the mechanical arms attached to the top of the dome, which reflected and focused the light shining in from the top through their crystals. Eventually, all of the parts of the mechanism reached their intended alignment, projecting their light onto the wall underneath the controls.

Even before Neesa made it down the ramp to join them, they would be able to see clearly that the device was projecting a map. Just at first glance, and without any explanations, some of the details would be difficult to interpret, but distinguishing features like rivers and mountains were easy to identify. The fading of the map at its edges suggested that there was more to the realm beyond what was being shown, but the strangest and most obvious detail they could see was a bright point of light large enough to obscure the terrain of a fairly large area. There were other, smaller points of light scattered around as well, but nothing so bright as to interfere with the map.

"I think to say that I simply 'read it somewhere' does not give justice to the value of my source." Meesei answered, still not lacking any confidence. "I think you know by now that I had access to Psijic writings in Apocrypha. Several of my spells, time manipulation, there is nowhere I could have gained that knowledge. But, I did not find just a simple spellcasting manual. What I read were the personal notes of one of the ranking members of the order. Notes on her magical research, personal thoughts, musings on her life within the order. I'm sure you recognize how valuable of a perspective that is, and why I am so sure to suggest this."

Meesei brought one hand up to Lunise's shoulder and lightly smiled. "I just need you to trust me; I do not believe you will regret this. The monk who wrote those notes, I believe she is the one currently in charge of maintaining and adjusting the island's defenses. She described in detail the previous tuning spell she was adjusting, which is how I learned of it. The notes I read will be written in about ten years, so that tuning spell may be in use. If not, then I will simply be unable to establish a portal, and there will be no harm. If the Psijics decide that they do not want to allow your visit, then the worst they will do will be to make us leave, and if that happens, I promise I will not argue with them. And given their scrying abilities...perhaps this will not be so unexpected for them?"
Neesa was evidently unfazed by Meesei being absent, likely because she did not tend to be involved with large-scale military planning. Meesei's pack had largely transitioned into a role as a battlefield vanguard, rather than strategic planning. "See that you do. Now that your portal is done, there cannot be many more delays, and if all of the effort I have put into this project ends up going to waste, then I am going to be bleeding someone dry. Make sure that everyone who is involved in the large-scale deployment and maneuvering of your soldiers is present for this." As was usual for Neesa, she did not waste time before teleporting away, having said what she came to say.

Few people had been inside the tower of Mzark since Neesa had started her project. Deliveries of supplies were usually just left near the lift at the bottom of the tower. Neesa had also, evidently, appropriated several more Dwemer automatons to carry out any manual labor that was needed. Only Sabine had actually been up to the oculory itself since Neesa started, and only a handful of times. Based on the few summaries of her progress that Neesa had given to Sabine, Neesa had needed to replace many of the oculory's parts in order to re-purpose it for its new task. While a normal Dwemer oculory was designed to, in basic terms, observe the stars, this particular one was a modified version of the device that was meant to read an Elder Scroll without any of the side effects. Neesa's goal had been to convert it back into a "normal" oculory, and apparently, she had finally succeeded.

When Sabine did finally arrive with the others, they would find the oculory in a rather disorganized state, with Dwemer scrap and unused parts scattered around on the floor away from the mechanism. If Neesa did have any system of organization, it was certainly not obvious to look at. Her automatons, at least, were all dormant up against the walls, out of the way, so they were less likely to trip over them. Neesa herself was standing at the controls to the mechanism, waiting with a dubious degree of patience for their arrival.

"I would not be so quick to call it impossible." Meesei answered quickly. "How much would you say you really know about the Psijic Order? Their magic and culture are mysterious; intentionally hidden from outsiders, even the Altmer of Summerset. I know that you were closer than most, given that your mother was a member of the order, but there is still quite a lot you may not know about them. I know that a Psijic would not tend to share those kinds of details, even with family."

In contrast to Lunise, Meesei took a hold of her hand even more tightly. "My point being, you may have the wrong idea of what it would mean to go to Artaeum. The Psijic order are not a vindictive or aggressive group. The very core tenants of their order call for altruism, and serve to the well-being of Mundus. But, they are observers first and foremost, and do not like to become directly involved in events on Tamriel. Their goals are noble, but who knows for how long they are going to remain apart from Tamriel? Given everything I know about the Psijics, it is very possible that, even within an Elven lifetime, you may never get to see your mother again. Not unless I can help you see her. At the very least, I want to try. One of the most significant parts of Artaeum's defenses is that the realm the island inhabits can easily move between different parts of the void. So, even if you are able to find its exact location, that information will not be accurate forever. But, I know of a spell to...attune one's self to Artaeum, which ensures that any portal to the island that I use would always be able to find its true location. The island does have other defenses as well, of course, but the spell luckily takes care of those."

Most everyone had already cleared away from the archway, though some took a few more steps back when Sabine gave her warning. Ahnasha waited until Sabine brought the stone to a complete stop before placing her hand gently upon it. She applied just a slight amount of force to nudge it into its proper orientation. She did not want to waste time, so as to save Sabine from having to maintain her spell for uncomfortably long, but she took care to go through each step properly. A mistake now would not exactly be disastrous, but it would mean another day or more of delays to reset the enchantments.

Merely by being in their positions, the stones were already weakly connected by non-visible currents of magicka between the runes on their ends. With her hands on the stone, Ahnasha could feel the connection the objects that would charge the stones' binding enchantments, which were two varla stones at either side of the archway. Ahnasha would not be opening the portal itself now, but activating the bindings would officially put them in a time constraint. The stones would hold their charge for a few weeks, after which point the bindings would break down and the stones would become inert. It gave them plenty of time to work with, but if there were any unexpected delays, then they would have to re-enchant an entire new set of stones.

Taking in a deep breath, Ahnasha applied the small amount of magicka needed to spark the activation of the enchantments, which immediately drew in all of the power held within the varla stones and poured it through the whole of the archway. Although the stones were separate pieces, the enchantments were designed to all behave as a single unit. Ahnasha's role was to make sure that, as those connections strengthened, they did not contort any of the liminal connections in a way that would inhibit a stable portal. While difficult to describe in words to a layman, it was nothing too complex for an experienced conjurer.

It only took a few seconds for bright violet beams of light to form between each of the portal's stones, and the stones themselves started to glow slightly in the same color. As the bindings activated, Sabine would find herself no longer able to manipulate the keystone telekinetically, but rather, the whole portal felt like a single object from a magical perspective. At that point, it was being held up under its own power. The varla stones, which were previously glowing in a brilliant white, were now just plain, lifeless crystals.

"Okaaay, I think we're good." Ahnasha remarked as she slowly moved her hand away from the glowing stone. "All of the connections seem stable, and the bindings are fully powered. When we activate the sigil stone, the portal should be perfectly stable. Now, I guess we should get this scaffolding taken down."

Their construction team were already mostly looking to Sabine to confirm their instructions, but Sabine may have found herself distracted by the person who suddenly walked up beside her. It was uncertain if she had only just arrived, or had been waiting out of sight until they were done, but even Ahnasha up on the scaffolding had not noticed Hal-Neesa until now. "It is time. Gather up your military leaders, my project is done."

There was a short pause while Meesei soon lost herself staring at Lunise. It was no small urge within her to throw her arms around her with a kiss, but she did have to remind herself that she had more of a purpose to their outing today than just spending quality time together. Although, she had certainly been enjoying every moment they had been able to have together thusfar. "I just love being able to see the sky again. The cave's mushrooms are certainly beautiful in their own way, but it's not quite the same as a clear, blue sky. Maybe we can come out here again later tonight and see the stars?"

Meesei sat herself up and moved over closer to Lunise. She rested one hand on hers, then gave her a kiss on the cheek. The idea of going farther was tantalizing, but again, there was something else she wanted to do. "We have to take these moments while we can. I am guessing it will only be a few more days at most before we open the portal to Hircine's realm, and I will not be able to avoid work at that point. I think the rest of my pack is ready, for the most part. Most of them have been reconnecting with family these last few months; doing things they would rather not leave undone. I don't have those kinds of old connections to...revisit, though. Both of my parents died before I left my village, and I did not have any siblings, or even close friends, really. There were people I cared about there, of course, but nothing that would be worth the risk of revisiting. What I do have, you. I will be honest when I say that romance was not something I expected to find for as long as I was serving as Hircine's Champion. And certainly not something I was looking for. But, it was something that I found anyway, and you do not know how glad I am that I did. You have made me so, incredibly happy in the time we have been together. There is something I would rather not leave undone, not for me, but rather for you."

At this point, in a rare display, Meesei was actually showing some visible nervousness. She was fully expecting some objections, and was already lining up the rebuttals she had been preparing in her head for the last few weeks. "I plan on coming back from this invasion alive, but if I don't, then there is one gift I would like to have left you with. I want to bring you to Artaeum."
"Maybe you're right...or maybe I was, but it doesn't matter now. What's done is done." Ahnasha answered. "I'm safe; we both are. You know about all this now, so we just have to hope no one else ends up finding out. Like you said, we'll always be together. Let's just hope we get to keep the lives we already have. You have to admit, for all their faults, the lives we have are pretty good ones, all things considered."

Ahnasha was distracted enough that she almost did not notice Hal-Neesa step up alongside them. She avoided appearing too startled, though Neesa showed no qualms about interrupting anything they might have been talking about. "Your craftsmanship has some flaws, but I'll judge it acceptable to fulfill our deal, once you're done with that one inside. Your training will continue tomorrow. Now, I have other things to do, so I expect you can find your own way back."

While Ahnasha could certainly head back to the city with Sabine, Neesa clearly did not actually care about the response, as she immediately cast her spell to teleport away. It was as if her body disintegrated away in seconds, leaving no opportunity for anyone to hold her up.

" least that part of the deal went as well as it could have." Ahnasha shrugged.

A string of graverobbings was not exactly an easy matter to sweep under the rug, especially for the affected parties, but there was simply no way to disprove the story Fendros told. In calmer times, the clan might have paid closer attention to it, but with the invasion preparations rapidly nearing completion, there was always something else for them to worry about. Aside from a long, private conversation with Meesei that left Ahnasha surprisingly shaken, she did seem to get away with her crime.

The better part of two months had passed, but as much as the clan may have been dreading it, there was no denying how close at hand the invasion really was. The cavern had never been as crowded as it was now, with all of the invasions assets from each faction finally in place and ready. Once their portals were ready, there would be nothing stopping them from launching the attack, and today was the day that their first portal would be assembled and ready.

The portal was being built in sight of the Silent City, albeit still far away. It was located in as open of an area as they could find, close enough to one of the Dwemer roads to make it easier to transport supplies to it. Originally, they had designed the portal to emulate an Oblivion gate, but the issues they ran into when trying to craft the enchantments for the portal did force some design alterations. Their portal was not constructed from one or two large, enchanted stones like the Daedra’s gates. Their portal, or at least the one that would be connecting them to the Hunting Grounds, was about the same size as an Oblivion gate, but was made from multiple, man-sized stone blocks that would levitate into the shape of an archway, bound together by their enchantments. Their second portal, which would breach into Vile’s realm, was much larger, though all of its pieces were already complete and would not take but a few days to assemble within Hircine’s realm. The difficult part about creating the portals had been the research, along with the trial and error in refining the enchantments. The actual assembly was trivial by comparison.

At the moment, the pieces of the first portal were being moved into position for the activation of their binding enchantments. Doing so would not activate the portal right away, but would allow the portal’s stones to levitate in place on their own. Currently, all of the stones, apart from one, were being held in their positions by the scaffolding they had built up around it. The final stone was the one that would connect in the middle of the two sides of the archway, and was laying on the ground underneath it, ready to be lifted up into position.

There were a dozen mages and scholars from the clan currently at the portal site, though many more than that had been working on the project at various points for the last few months. Currently, Meesei had placed Sabine in charge of the team, or at least all of those from the clan. The Empire and Dominion did, of course, have their own mages on-site, which did little for their productivity. Before activating the binding, the Imperial mage had insisted on double-checking all of the enchantments in the stones already in place, which meant that the Dominion mage had to check the Imperial’s checks. It was a process that repeated itself for half an hour, during which time neither of them discovered anything wrong.

Ahnasha only barely managed to avoid pulling her own fur out listening to the Imperial and Thalmor argue about which of their identical results were more correct, but they were finally ready to complete the construction. Ahnasha was at the top of the scaffolding, and would be the one to activate the binding enchantments. The enchantments themselves were complete and could be activated by any mage of moderate ability, but the liminal connections between the separate stones needed to be perfectly aligned to allow the flow of energy in the right patterns for the portal to be stable, which was a task perfectly suited for a conjurer.

Ahnasha looked down over the edge of the scaffolding, down at Sabine. “Okay, I’m ready, and if there are no arguments…” Ahnasha began, giving a quick, irritated glance over at the Imperial and Thalmor mages. “…you can levitate the stone into position now.”

The stones were heavy, but Sabine’s magic would be powerful enough to lift them with little risk. Meesei, who had also been working closely on the project, originally was going to be present for the activation of the bindings, but had changed her plans just a day before. Currently, Meesei was away from the clan entirely, though she had not been entirely clear when she told Sabine what she would be doing. All she had said was that she had something of great importance to her that she needed to do before the start of the invasion.

Meesei breathed in deeply, opening her eyes slowly to give them time to adjust to the almost overwhelmingly bright sun directly above her. It was a near perfectly clear day, with hardly a hint of a cloud in the sky, allowing the sun to bathe everything beneath it in its heat. It was hot enough to make even an Argonian uncomfortable…when actively moving around and working. Meesei, however, was laying back naked on a nice, smooth rock in clear view of the sky like a basking lizard. Indeed, that was precisely what she was doing. It could be difficult in Black Marsh to find a suitable stone not covered by the swamp’s canopy, but to lay back on a well-heated rock felt simply divine to most Argonians.

Of course, Meesei was not in Skyrim, or anywhere remotely close to it. She was on a fairly tiny tropical island far off of the southern coast of Elsweyr. It was a place from Lunise’s memory: a minor smuggler’s outpost she had been to during her time serving the Thalmor in Elsweyr, and one that had, by this point, been abandoned for many decades. It was one of many such forgettable islands south of Tamriel, and to Meesei, the perfect place for a nice, private retreat for just the two of them.

Meesei listened to the sea birds and the waves gently caressing the beach for a few minutes, then finally stretched out her arms above her head and turned onto her side to look at Lunise, simply smiling.

Ahnasha will essentially be agreeing, so I'm not sure you would have much to respond to. Do you want me to skip ahead, or did you have more for him to say?
"It's not about trust, Fendros." Ahnasha answered. At least by appearances, she did not appear to be regretful nor remorseful, and she did not hesitate to reply. "I stand by everything I've done, all I've accomplished. But, I know what it could mean for me if all this was discovered by the wrong people. That's why I go through all the trouble of hiding it. Multiple hideaways, burying the thralls, scattering around Falmer totems. I know I have been a bit reckless in the past about showing my abilities, and I can only thank Hircine that it hasn't yet come back to bite me. And if you and the others didn't know about it, then you couldn't be blamed if I was found out. All this was to protect you, and I hope it does end up helping us when we end up facing down Vile's daedra."

Ahnasha turned towards Fendros and slowly wrapped her arms around him. "Just think about it. After all this is over, after we win, we won't have to worry about all this fighting and...planning a war. We'll all make it back from this, and finally be able to just live as a family. You're the second to the most influential Champion that Hircine has ever had; we can give Rhazii a better life than any lycan could ever hope for. I'm sure there will still be plenty of work for us, but we'll be able to have so much more time to ourselves. We could go explore all new parts of Tamriel, or go re-visit ones we never had a chance to really appreciate. We could go back to Elsweyr and visit old friends, maybe show Rhazii some of his cultural heritage. Then we could go to Morrowind and do the same for your side of his family. We won't have to rush, or have impending death looming over our heads. We can finally, together. So, please don't fault me too much for wanting to make sure that will happen."
"Okay, very well." Ahnasha replied cautiously. "Just...let's be careful not to get in Neesa's way of doing whatever it is she's doing." She warned.

Ahnasha had not expected Fendros to actually want to see the results of her work, and she was not sure if she should be worried about his intentions, or what he hoped to learn from it. She supposed that seeing the thralls would show him that she had been honest, but it did not seemed to her like he much liked the truth, regardless.

Nevertheless, Ahnasha led Fendros outside, and they did not need to do any more than round the corner towards the back of her hideaway for Fendros to see what she had been hiding all this time. On their approach, Fendros would have seen a fairly plain, open area with a few clusters of mushrooms, but there had been far more than that just under the surface. Now, the dirt was riddled with holes from the small army of thralls that had dug themselves out from the ground. Now, there were almost two hundred undead thralls standing like soldiers in formation in front of Hal-Neesa. The vampire was standing with a glowing violet hand raised high, scanning her eyes from one end of the formation to the other. Just as Ahnasha had described before, the majority of the undead were either Falmer or chaurus, along with a small variety of animals, and more than a few humanoid forms. Some were zombies of dead flesh, wrapped in linen like draugr, while others were entirely skeletal. It would be difficult to tell without closer inspection, but some may have even been collections of flesh and bone pieced together from different creatures and given life through Ahnasha's necromantic enchantments. At the moment, though, all of them were bending to Hal-Neesa's command.
Aside from anything Fendros might have left to talk about, I'm ready to move on, which would be to a point where the opening of the first portal is within a day or two.
"Yes...probably the most unintentionally wise statement you've made thusfar. Considering the overwhelming dangers of the Walking Ways, it can wait." Hal-Neesa commented, standing to her feet. "For now, I have thralls to inspect. I expect your wife is done with her preparations by this point."

Regardless of any response Fendros might have had, Hal-Neesa headed outside, followed shortly by Ahnasha returning inside with a brief, but unmistakable look of anxiety in her expression. Alhough by the way she was looking at Fendros and the others, it might have been them, rather than Neesa, who were the source of her worries. She was absentmindedly rubbing her hands together, giving nervous glances to both Saras and Fendros before she finally spoke. "Listen...I know none of this is ideal, but you don't have to worry about anything else after this that might upset the clan. I'm not going to be needing any more thralls, and I'm going to be focusing on conjuration training up to the invasion. After this is dealt with, you can just put this all to rest and focus on more important things."
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