“Although I walk through the Valley of Shadow, I fear nothing.
For I have embraced the night and darkness brings me comfort.”
Eleven centuries had passed since the inscription was shaped within the cavernous hollows of the mountain. Ancient ebony figures stood to either side of the archway, armor-clad guardians that marked the threshold between the living and the dead.
Kha’jay Khrassa – Moon Claws – held the torch high and read the deeply-carved runes again to ensure his translation was exact. It was not written by him, but it so accurately described the Khajiit that it could have been written for him. He paused once more to muse over the exquisite and lifelike details of the statues.
His feline snout wrinkled with distaste when he inhaled the stale air. Despite the musty smell, Kha’jay breathed deeply, avidly, as he prepared himself to pass beyond the mantle. It was not fear that heightened his emotions. It was something altogether different. For somewhere beyond, in the depths of this profound and quiet darkness, laid the remains of his father. It had taken him years of research to find the secretive location and days of concentrated interrogations to gain permission to enter.
A hand touched his shoulder, but he did not cringe away from it. The divinations and questions were over and the hand held no malice. A voice, barely above a whisper, sounded louder than it should in the hushed gloom, “You have come this far, Mr. Khrassa. Do not let your trepidation keep you from these last steps.”
One glare from Moon Claws, and his escort realized the Khajiit harbored no fear. He was holding back an intense loss that brooded within him and threatened to manifest itself into the world. His emotions remained imprisoned by the man’s enduring will and yet were reflected in his steely glance.
The sudden realization of the Khajiit’s mood caused a slight nod from the escort, “Forgive me, I have misspoken. Would it help to share about your father?”
Moon Claws cleared his throat before answering, “He died before this one was born.” Almost instinctively his clawed hands touched at his necklace. However, very few of the Khajiit’s actions were subconscious, even when he desired others to think so. Such was this small reaction, he moved with a purpose. The tiny statuette fastened to his necklace had been a ‘special gift’ from his father, to present at the hour of Kha’jay Khrassa’s birth. Alas, fate and mortality had foiled his father’s loving plan.
Kha’jay usually kept his necklace hidden below his garments, close to his fur – close to his heart. But here, unlike anywhere he’d traveled, it seemed most appropriate for him to display the necklace fully. He managed a feeble smile as he dropped his left hand before he placed his torch in a sconce on the wall. It was their only light, but it would be unneeded – unwanted – beyond the archway.
“This one is ready.”
He accepted the blindfold before he stepped beneath the carved mantra above the archway. He was expecting something, perhaps a slight chill or a greater stillness to his surroundings. But he sensed no changes as he passed beyond the ebony sentinels and into the realm of the dead. Slight nudges and fluctuations in his host’s grip upon his shoulder told him when to halt, which way to turn, when to move forward. All within a reverent and blinded silence. His crimson eyes were closed beneath the blindfold, but his exceptionally keen hearing sharpened his overall awareness.
Kha’jay Khrassa did not need his eyes to see.
Moon Claws had long ago embraced the night. Now the Khajiit memorized his exact path; each angle of his turns, the precise measure and numbers of stair steps both up and down. He counted his exact footfalls and memorized their softest of sounds whispering ever-so-slightly into the hallways and alcoves. He gained a rough mental image of their path. He was certain he could find his way back if necessary.
“Always be prepared, for everything.” His private thoughts slipped like ghosts through part of his mind, “Be ready to act and to react, instantly, and with as many contingencies as possible.”
But action was unnecessary. In time his host lifted the silken veil from his eyes and he squinted into the dimness. Soft periwinkle lights winked above him where hundreds of tiny glowworms clung to the alcove’s ceiling. He received a slight pat upon his shoulder before his escort backed into the hallway.
Kha’jay steeled himself before looking down from the ceiling. Still, one cannot be fully prepared for everything. A sob escaped him, he could not hold it back. So many chaotic years filled with seemingly random events had finally led him here.
He had embraced his complex life as a gentleman and a scoundrel. Vengeance had been his, and yet he had also known the tenderness of love. The summary of his years was tallied in this present moment, and it seemed that all the pivotal events of his life had each contained a great measure of loss. Even before his birth his loss began with the death of his father. Although Kha’jay Khrassa had known companionship and was welcomed in most places he visited, he had no home.
He had no family.
The Vagabond of Shadows tried to catch his breath, to calm his racing heart and still his trembling hand as he reached towards the engraved sarcophagus.
“Searching here seldom brings answers.
The dead are silent and the shadows only echo questions.”
Her words held wisdom, he knew this. But he didn’t want to yield to that knowledge, not yet. Kha’jay had spent hours within his father’s tomb, aching for answers to questions he could not voice. His escort had stood in silent patience outside the alcove. Their mutual silence was finally broken when the Khajiit had re-entered the hallway, moments before he was blindfolded once again.
Kha’jay whispered more to himself than to his host, “Dark moons have fallen upon Khajiit. This one… this one is… lost.”
“You seek answers to who your father was, to what he was. Stay with us awhile, and I will try to help you find some answers.”
“Luck,” Moon Claws replied, “usually favors Kha’jay. But today he is no closer to the truth than he was many years ago. This one still only knows that his father once served… Her.” He touched the small figurine where it rested upon his chest. It felt cool against his fingers as though it slumbered in ice.
His guide’s voice matched the cold of the necklace, “Your father was more than a servant, much more.” But in that coldness, surrounded in the darkness of the crypt, her next words blazed through Kha’jay like a firestorm, “He was chosen.”
Moon Claws pondered in silence over the revelation as they began their journey to the archway where the ebony statues marked the symbolic boundary between the dead and the living. During the entire return trip his escort had not placed her hand back upon his shoulder to guide him. Instead she had followed in silent lock-step two paces behind him.
Kha’jay was being tested.
He was fully aware of this, but the knowledge only led to a whole new level of questions that began with, “Why?” His eyes were useless behind the silk blindfold. But he believed that he did not need to see his way. He had a choice, to reveal that he’d memorized his blind journey to his father’s crypt or to fail this test and keep his cleverness a secret.
In a rare leap of faith, or perhaps out of hope, Kha’jay Khrassa chose honesty.
These concepts were traditionally as far removed from his mind as they were from his lips. But recent events had caused them to begin seeping into his vocabulary like small wisps of light tiptoeing into a black and fathomless sea.
In time the pair had traversed the ever-night and his escort removed the blindfold from Moon Claws’ eyes. His sputtering torch was lifted from its wall sconce and carried aloft by his host. She paused before leading the way and recited the runes above them without glancing at the archway. She first spoke them in their native tongue and then in translation. Her voice was soft but clear as crystal, “Although I walk through the Valley of Shadow, I fear nothing. For I have embraced the night and darkness brings me comfort.”
She stated flatly, “These words fit you, Kha’jay Khrassa. You are your father’s son.” Her loosely fitting cowl kept her visage as mysterious to him as his many unanswered questions. His host’s words seemed to be his only reward for passing her unspoken test, for blindly yet successfully leading them back to that grand archway. In those moments, she seemed the embodiment of the cloaked figurine dangling from its chain around his neck. He quietly slipped the necklace back beneath his clothing.
“Kha’jay thanks you, M’Lady, for allowing this one to come here. To finally see… to… to end this part of his journey.”
“And where will you go now, may I ask?”
He knew he didn’t have to answer her, but he shared his thoughts anyway, “These lands hold too many memories for Moon Claws, and not all of them are good. Perhaps it’s time this one travels somewhere new. Maybe to Glenumbra, Valley of Shadow, and see what he can find there.”
Her words were barely a whisper, “Ah, yes… you speak the meaning of that land’s name. I have not been to Glenumbra. But I am told it contains no more light or shadow, day or night, as any other forested land. Still, I wish you good fortune. Yours is a long journey, but I am confident you will meet the challenges that await you.”
He almost stumbled on the steps at her next words, as they seemed more a blessing from her lips than the casual statement it so often becomes, “The Lady’s Luck be with you.”
“I have embraced the night and I walk in the shadows where other fear to go.
Yet I am confounded by the mysteries of it all.”
Her words came back to Kha’jay. Sometimes, in that fragile boundary between slumber and wakefulness, he was almost able to grasp her deeper meanings. Then his conscious mind gained control and his fleeting insight dissolved with the mists of his dreams.
It had been six months since he’d left the yawning dark under the mountain where his father’s body lie. Half of a year since he’d spoken with the caretakers of that place. Specifically the enigmatic companion who’d led him through that shadowy labyrinth. He’d tarried at the maw of the cavern with her. Two lonely and shaded souls; one had found her purpose and the other still floundered through the storms of his life. Moon Claws had intensely listening to her words yet he seldom unraveled the riddles within her dialogues.
She was either wise far beyond her years, or far older than she appeared to be. Yet another mystery to confound him. Few people ever left their mark upon his mind – his guide and guard had been one of them. It was no wonder that she’d been chosen as one of the protectors of the dead.
“But chosen by who?” Whispers in his mind.
He’d searched so very long for his father’s crypt, hoping to find answers to life-long questions. Hoping for a measure of closure to the dire losses in his life. But in the end he had walked away with few answers and even more questions than he’d started with.
By cart and by horse, by ship and sail, by foot and by cunning – Kha’jay Khrassa made his way from the coast of Auridon, northward across the great sea, then west past the Covenant isles of Stros M’kai and Betnikh, finally to embrace the grand port of Daggerfall.
The Lady of the Caverns had been correct. He’d found the forests and valleys of Glenumbra to be no more shaded than any other lands he’d traveled. Kha’jay had rambled throughout the lands near the eastern coastlines, from the southern reaches of Daggerfall to Aldcroft. He’d secreted away numerous stashes of supplies and necessities along the way, as he’d also done in distant Auridon.
Moon Claws had found common work when he’d needed lodging. He never gave credence to the fact he had plenty of coin. Although he’d made himself known to a number of clandestine groups Kha’jay had not yet accepted any of their shady ventures. “In due time,” He would usually say. “Khajiit must first gain his footings in these new lands.”
It had been only within the past fortnight that he’d began to feel comfortable and confident in Glenumbra. He was beginning to peer behind the sunny veil of the townships and its peoples. He was starting to realize where deeper shadows lurked within the land – where his secretive occupations would be needed.
But try as he would, Kha’jay could not shake away his past.
Auridon beckoned to his soul. He’d been loath to leave behind the natural beauty of those lands and his few but dear friendships there. Recent memories pulled at him the most – especially those of his mysterious guide, guardian of the cavernous tombs. Her siren’s call whispered to him in the night, her riddles plagued his dreams. When he closed his eyes in daytime, it was her face he’d see behind his eyelids. Memories of her all but commanded his return.
She had somehow left her mark on him. He wasn’t sure if it was her kindred spirit or the unfathomed truths behind her riddles that pulled at him the most. Perhaps it was just her boundless beauty and the comforting scent of her dark hair, the echoes of her soft and musical laughter.
Had he fallen under a spell of infatuation?
Had she somehow cursed him?
Or had he been blessed?
He tried to lose himself in wanderlust and bury his troubled past beneath his current lifestyle as a vagabond. Yet his grievous losses and unspeakable past deeds of retribution gave him no respite. Adding to his dilemma – under the shadowy canopies of Glenumbra, the enigma of this woman haunted Kha’jay.
His spirit found no rest.