Sundown
The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion
a travel journal in retrospective
8

Arch-Mage of the end
On the Arcane University and the Order of the Black Worm

s

After doing our tour of the Cyrodiil Mages Guild circuit and enduring all kinds of incompetence, blackmail, and murder attempts (plural!), we finally have the seven letters of recommendation we need to get past the gate of the Arcane University.

In the lobby, we meet Raminus Polus, a Master Wizard who appears to be the Arch-Mage's second in command. He welcomes us to the University, gives us the Robe of the Apprentice so that we can dress like a wizard if we want, and gives us a little introductory speech.

We come to the real work at last. You have, no doubt, seen some of the worst the guild has to offer. As much as we try to hold mages to a higher standard, they are only human. What I hope you will now see is that while the guild can be disjointed and misused, it can also achieve some wonderful things. Now you have an opportunity to engage in more meaningful tasks, and continue with your advancement through the guild.
Raminus Polus

Yeah, that sounds like an understatement. If only someone had the authority to do something about it, instead of excusing the aforementioned murder attempts (still plural!).

n

This bullshit aside, we finally have access to the Arcane University, and, even though in-universe it's horrible that we had to jump through all these flaming hoops to see it, as a video game, it is a good reward for all our trouble. It's a whole new area with things that can't be found anywhere else in the base game. There is a huge library, a garden of harvestable alchemical ingredients all conveniently in one place, and enchanting altars and spellmaking altars for making your own enchanted items and your own custom spells. Professors and students roam the place, and there are even lectures that you can attend, in which all the students sit on the benches outside and then a professor will come to yammer about the runestones. You can sit on the benches with them and listen to the lecture, or you can leap onto the podium with the professor and squat around and wiggle your butt at them while they talk, with no repercussions. High fantasy!

Lecture
We took this screenshot while crab-walking behind the teacher.

Your personal staff

Your first task as a new Apprentice of the Mages Guild is to get yourself your personal staff, as a representation of your role as a fully-fledged mage. You have to go to the special secret grove where the magical trees grow and provide wood to make the staves, and talk with the mage-artisans there, who will craft your staff to your specifications.

Wellspring Cave
The grove past Wellspring Cave

But when you arrive... everyone is dead. There are necromancers sending zombies after you. Surprise!

After you defeat the necromancers, everyone is still dead, plus now you're left with your sad unfinished piece of wood that would have been your staff. We go back to the University and explain what happened. After expressing the outrage, Raminus will make sure you get your staff anyway. Just not in the pretty magical grove with the full initiation rite.

D

Raminus wasn't kidding when he said this staff would be unique and one-of-a-kind and made to our precise specifications. You get to choose which enchantment it gets out of nine options, and the staff will be more or less powerful depending on the level at which you do this quest.

Some of the options offered for this staff are hard to come by otherwise. For example, the staff of Paralysis is a pretty good idea if you would want it, because the Paralysis effect is rare in enchanted items you can find around the world, and it's otherwise impossible for you to enchant anything with Paralysis. However, if you're really good at alchemy and can therefore brew poisons of Paralysis at any time, this might not be so useful to you. Which staff to get really depends on what kind of character you're playing as and what random loot you've found or not found.

But, because staves take no skill in magic to use and are just portable spell bazookas, our recommendation is to have your staff enchanted with something belonging to the school or type of magic that your character is using the least, so that you have access to something that otherwise would be hard for you to obtain. For example, we often get the Staff of Soul Trap, so that we don't have to grind at Mysticism to charge the Soul Gems. This time around, we already had decent enough Mysticism that we could use Soul Trap whenever we wanted, but we weren't playing a particularly charismatic character, nor were we good at Illusion magic, so we chose the Staff of Charm to aid us in sweet-talking. Imagine that, the newest addition to the Arcane University™, specifically requesting the staff that lets you brainwash people into doing your bidding.

Asking about the Charm staff
Delmar is a bit concerned.

Wish we could have had this staff back when we needed to convince everybody to write us those letters of recommendation.

Involuntary espionage

Now that we are a fully-fledged, staff-carrying mage, the Council of Mages sends us on our first official errand. We must go to Skingrad to get a book back from Count Janus Hassildor. This is totally a reasonable request, to send a wizard of the Arcane University to go fetch a book. We're glad we now get to do these more meaningful tasks that Raminus was talking about. Fetching overdue books.

We arrive in Skingrad, but we can't get an audience with the reclusive Count. His steward, Mercator Hosidus, tells us that we have to meet him near the Cursed Mine at two in the morning if we want to speak with him. Now we, a wizard of the Arcane University, have to meet the count at night by the Cursed Mine so we can ask him... Can we get the book back? :D

E

If nothing about this quest seems right, that's because it's not. The steward is a necromancer, made up this whole meeting as a farce, and now he's going to kill us. In the middle of the fight with Mercator and his necromancer friends, the Count himself actually shows up and starts punching the lights out of them.

Depending on how you're playing the game, this might be the first time you meet the Count of Skingrad, who is otherwise a very private person. If so, when you meet him now, you'll understand why you haven't met him before. He has red eyes, wrinkly face, fangs, the whole shebang. He's a vampire!

The Count then launches into a tirade at us for being so gullible as to think he would want us to meet in the dead of night in front of the motherfucking Cursed Mine, and for being so gullible as to think that the Council of Mages sent us here only to retrieve a book. This was espionage. So secret, not even we knew about it!

Count Skingrad

Based on our confused reaction, the Count realizes that we were an unwitting pawn, and actually seems to pity us a bit. He explains his relationship with the Mages Guild, and why this was a sticky situation they just dropped us in unknowingly.

I suspected Mercator was involved in their cult, but was unwilling to move against him without knowing the identities of his allies. Despite what your Council may think, I've not thrown in with the Necromancers, and would never do so. You may pass along that message. [...] They wanted information on me and what is going on here. Well, now they shall have it. Tell your Council that the next time they want something from me, they come themselves. They don't send someone under false pretenses. [...] I regret that Traven has involved you in this way.
Janus Hassildor

It was really shitty of the Mages Guild to send us here like this, completely unknowing. The Mages Guild was attacked by necromancers, and the Council of Mages immediately suspects that the Count of Skingrad might be involved, just because they know he's a vampire, and vampires are undead, which is kinda related to necromancy, isn't it?

So, their move is to send the new clueless baby mage to spy on him. Just us showing up in that moment is rude, and we don't even know it. We also walk right into a dangerous volatile situation with the fact that some necromancers have infiltrated the Count's entourage. And we go in there knowing nothing about the previous history between the Count and the Mages Guild, which is a strained neutrality brought by the fact that the Mages Guild knows that he's a vampire, so they keep his secret in exchange for information. They're essentially blackmailing him while not trusting him at all. Any of this would have been good for us to know, rather than us just thinking this is about a book, with no idea of the delicate nature of this situation. We walk into the castle with what sounds like a really brazen cover story that immediately makes everyone in the room think we're a spy, when we don't even know why we're there. This is why we almost got killed by people that figured out immediately that we were a spy. Maybe if the Mages Guild wanted us to spy on the Count, they could have made that be our mission, and we could have come up with something a little smarter. And what have we done to deserve being put in this situation anyway?

But in the end, it all goes well, because our presence smoked out the necromancers from the Count's court. And because we were so clueless, the Count could have pity for us, rather than rage. He trusts that we really were being used here, and not that we wanted to enact a plot that was so insulting to his intelligence.

X

Now we go back to the University, where we get to yell at Raminus that this almost caused a diplomatic crisis and got us killed... and he still acts all condescending and political at us.

Saved you, did he? Well, that's a good sign. I must apologize. It was never the Council's intention to put you in harm's way. [...] At the time, it was believed there was no reason to inform you, since it was not crucial to the task you were given. [...] Arch-Mage Traven feared that sending a high-ranking official with the guild might draw too much attention, and provoke a reaction from the Count. We were also concerned that it might drive any necromancers in the area underground, making them difficult to root out. [...] We simply wanted to survey the situation in Skingrad.
Raminus Polus

Sure, Raminus, sure. It's not important that we don't die.

And he dares act all surprised that the Count saved us? He fully expected the Count to be evil, and he's probably never even had an honest conversation with him. And why anyway, because he's a vampire? You think he likes it? He was a victim of a vampire bite. That's exactly the same as deciding to smash together corpses in sick necromantic experiments.

The pillar

We're told that we won't be subjected to any more bullshit, but we're sent to the pillar.

We're told to go talk with another of the University's mages, Irlav Jarol, about his ongoing research in an Ayleid ruin. Turns out he's not actually been very active with his studies, instead leaving all the work to his underlings. Our questions make him feel guilty enough that now he wants to make amends and take responsibility! By sending us.

Vahtacen pillar
The pillar

In the ruin, there is a magical pillar that zaps whoever uses magic near it. The mages there have been trying to magically analyze this pillar, but whenever they use the magic, they keep getting zapped, and most people are unwilling to try again. Only two researchers remain, and they're absolutely thrilled to have us, a nobody who knows nothing, sent there in place of the actual expert who might know what to do, but is too busy taking credit for everything his underlings do.

The researcher by the entrance, Skaleel, is beyond done with this shit. After any time you talk to her, she mutters, “what a waste of my talents”, and she refuses to even go inside the dangerous ruin anymore. Deeper inside, there's the second researcher, Denel, who stubbornly hasn't given up solving the mystery of the pillar, even with his life at stake.

We find Ayleid inscriptions on the walls by the pillar, but Denel can't read them without a dictionary, which Skaleel has, but won't give it to him because she's fallen into complete apathy. We manage to convince her to give the dictionary to us, so we can give it to Denel. Now he can translate the inscriptions for us, and with some brainstorming, we can solve the puzzle, which causes the pillar to reveal a hidden door.

This simple solution had to wait for so long only because Irlav didn't show his face, and let his underlings completely lose all of their morale. He probably knows how to read Ayleid inscriptions even without the dictionary. He could have walked in, looked at it, and figured out what to do. But he didn't want to leave the comforts of the Arcane University and go through the hassle of actually doing his field research. His white robes might get dirty!

Irlav Jarol
“I'd investigate it further, but I don't wanna.”

But it is a good thing that it is us going inside the ruin and not the other two researchers, because it really is treacherous and filled with traps. In the final room of the ruin, we find a helm that seems historical enough to bring back, and that's it. Given how protected this helm was, and how it was conspicuously on a stand that required like three buttons to get there, we are concerned about what this helm might do. The mages apparently start studying it, but we never hear the results.

At least Skaleel is getting vindicated here.

You made it work? That's fantastic! Not only can I tell Irlav, we're back on track, but I can happily say we did it without his help!
Skaleel

Apparently, Black Soul Gems are mysterious

In our next all-important task, we are sent to talk with the Arcane University's librarian about necromancy, and more specifically about Black Soul Gems.

I'd like you to speak with Tar-Meena at the Mystic Archives. She is our specialist on magicka arcana, and has been helping gather information. I believe we have been asking her the wrong questions, taxing her too much with vague attempts to make sense of all that we know. Speak with her specifically about these Black Soul Gems. If she knows anything about their powers or creation. An insight to their origins may lead us to those who are responsible for them.
Raminus Polus

So, apparently, the Council of Mages has been asking the librarian to research anything and everything about necromancy, and she's swamped in these requests. Because she hasn't just handed them the information that they don't even know they need on a silver platter, they're starting to think she's useless. Meanwhile, Tar-Meena has been barely sleeping, finding and reading every book with the letters “necro” appearing in it and writing up all sorts of sufficiently dumbed-down reports for them to read, and they ungratefully treat her like a psychic printer. But ohh, maybe we have been asking her the wrong questions... so why don't you go, and pester her with another question, as a third party who doesn't even know the full context, and then deliver the answer to us via telephone game. That will work.

t

When earlier we entered the Mystic Archives, it just so happened that Tar-Meena was in the middle of practicing her conjuration when we initiated the dialogue with her, so she ended up delivering her first lines while brandishing a daedric axe all, “NO FOOD IN THE LIBRARY”. Okay, okay, sorry, sorry. We're never going to eat again, Ms. Hushbomb.

Tar-Meena
Don't make her pull out the daedric axe.

So, yeah, let's continue pestering her with more questions about necromancy! At least this time, given that we have established a connection between the current necromantic activity and the Black Soul Gems, we are able to ask Tar-Meena about Black Soul Gems in particular, so she can point us to the right book to read.

Though, we already know what Black Soul Gems are. Another book available in the game, Souls, Black and White, explains what are white and black souls, what are White and Black Soul Gems, and why Black Soul Gems are bad news. White souls are the souls of the creatures, and black souls are the souls of the sentient races. A White Soul Gem can only trap the former, and a Black Soul Gem can trap any soul, including the latter. The problem is, if a soul gem could hold any soul, that means it could hold your soul too, so it's dangerous to even touch such a thing. The only reason White Soul Gems can only hold the so-called white souls is because they are specifically made with that safety in mind, to not be able to hold the souls of the races that the Mages Guild specifically outlined as people. Also, the distinction between black and white souls has nothing to do with color or any measurable property, and is actually artificial and arbitrary, decided thousands of years ago by the Mages Guild itself specifically for the purposes of discouraging dangerous magical practices.

So, given that it was the Mages Guild that even created the concept of white souls and black souls, shouldn't the current Council of Mages already know what Black Soul Gems are?

Also, earlier, we found that Falcar was in the possession of Black Soul Gems, and this was the implicating factor in finding out that he is a necromancer. Deetsan sent the Black Soul Gems to the Arcane University as evidence and for safe keeping, and Falcar was expelled on that charge. Did Deetsan know what the Black Soul Gems were for, but not the top cats, and so they expelled Falcar just over Deetsan's letter saying he is a necromancer, and not even really knowing why?

The Council of Mages is just a den of bumbling bureaucracy and people higher up the chain not knowing anything.

Anyway, we read the book that Tar-Meena recommended, Necromancer's Moon. In the book, we read about a phenomenon known as the Shade of the Revenant which has something to do with necromancy. We report this to Raminus, and he has no idea what it is. He sends us to ask another mage, Bothiel. She's usually right behind him, peering over his shoulder awkwardly as we're talking to him. This is so insulting to our intelligence.

Raminus and Bothiel
Hi!

Bothiel also has no idea what the Shade of the Revenant is, but mentions that Falcar himself was researching something on the matter back when, and she still has a note he dropped, right in her pocket! The note has a series of locations about where to go during the Shade of the Revenant.

k

So, recap of what happened here. Raminus is trying to find out what necromantic evils Falcar was up to, so he sends random people to harass the librarian about any book mentioning necromancy, but without asking any specific question. In the meanwhile, Bothiel had talked to Falcar about his research, and Falcar ended up being expelled for necromancy shortly after. But she sees no reason to be concerned about what he was researching, nor does she consider that it might be of interest to someone.

Bothiel knows what Falcar was researching, and has his note in her pocket, while Raminus is trying to find out what Falcar was researching. And they spend 90% of their time in the same room together. Raminus' answer was within three feet, in her pocket. And it was up to us going all over the place to put this together for them. They never had a conversation in the meanwhile.

AAARERGHHG

We go to one of the sites in Falcar's note. The Shade of the Revenant is a purple beam of light that shines down from the sky onto the locations in the note, and occurs every eight days. If you just stake out the place and check each day, eventually you'll find it. On the Shade day, we witness a necromancer placing a Grand Soul Gem into an altar built underneath the beam and casting Soul Trap on it to transform it into a Black Soul Gem.

Shade of the Revenant

So, the Black Soul Gems are not as mysterious as they sound, and they are just made by the necromancers jailbreaking the White Soul Gems so that they can put people's souls inside. Which makes the fact that the Council has apparently no idea what they are even more ridiculous. It's like the Mages Guild knows what Photoshop is, but they are utterly stumped at the concept of “Hacked Photoshop”. What is this “Hacked Photoshop” and what does it have to do with piracy, that thing we are against.

For doing this running around and connecting the two people that were standing next to each other, we get a promotion.

AARHGHH

The informant

At long last, we get to meet the Arch-Mage himself. Because he never ever goes outside of the Council Chamber or his bedroom, which were previously locked to us. No one in the Mages Guild can meet him unless he specifically invites you. What a great leader.

Just to remind you, this is the guy who was elected two years ago, which caused half of the Council of Mages to resign in protest. This is also the guy who restructured the Guild halls to be inconvenient. And the guy who banned necromancy in the Guild, which may have something to do with the current plot. He's also the guy who made entrance to the Arcane University depend on all those letters of recommendation. We have personal beefs with him, but now he's our direct boss, and we have to do whatever he says.

Traven
How do you like your coffee, sir?

Traven has a task for us, and this time we're getting informed of the relevant context and backstory. Previously, Mucianus, a guild member, offered to infiltrate the necromantic Order of the Black Worm as a secret spy. The Arch-Mage agreed, and the Mages Guild received information from Mucianus. Mucianus was there risking his life to send them information from behind enemy lines, but, since his reports had such bad news, no one in the Council wanted to believe them, so they just argued and did nothing with this precious information obtained so riskily. Now, the informant has had a slight lapse in communication, so the Council is freaking out that Mucianus has betrayed the Guild, so they decided to send battlemages to apprehend specifically Mucianus. Traven reluctantly agreed for the sake of “order” in the Council.

Considering the spy was being a spy, he can't arouse suspicion that he's a spy. Any number of situations could have happened where he felt it was unsafe to send a letter directly to Arch-Mage Traven right now. So, in that critical moment where the spy is feeling unsafe, Traven sends in the blaring sirens with the spy's name on them.

If any of the necromancers have one (living) brain cell, they might wonder why the magic police are coming specifically for that new guy, out of everyone. If they were already suspicious of him enough that he felt like he had to lay low, and then this happens, he's dead.

But now, Traven is remorseful over having agreed to send the battlemages after the spy, so he wants us to go get in the way of the battlemages and rescue the spy while also not blowing his cover or messing up the attack, while the necromancers probably are trying to kill everybody, and this won't cause anything bad to happen.

K

Needless to say, nothing goes according to how Traven imagined. We arrive there, and only one battlemage has survived the initial attack, and when we walk in he promptly has a hilarious scripted death. And we find the spy has already been found out, and turned into a horrible zombie. Good going, fearless leader.

Thinking a bit more about the politics of this, the entire Council of Mages voted to send in the battlemages, and Traven agreed in the end. And then Traven did this underhanded tactic of sending us. He put on the appearance of this being a democratic decision, and then secretly tried to undermine it. If the rest of the Council knew, he'd be removed from office. Scandal! Corruption!

Yet another warning

We are sent to Skingrad again to talk with the Count, who has something to tell the Mages Guild, and he wants to specifically talk with us, given previous events. Traven wonders why he wants specifically us. Maybe it has something to do with how Hassildor has figured out that we're the only trustworthy idiot in the entire guild.

After solving a problem with vampires and vampire hunters in Skingrad, which are troubling for someone trying to secretly be a vampire, the Count tells us that his sources have it that Mannimarco, the god of necromancers, is back in the mortal plane, and is going specifically for the Mages Guild.

But Traven refuses to believe it, because that's just too bad of news.

The Bruma Mages Guild

Next, Traven wants us to check in at the Bruma Mages Guild.

I have not heard from Jeanne Frasoric for a few days now, which is unusual for her. While I welcome the break from correspondence with her, I worry that something may be amiss, given recent developments.
Hannibal Traven

We go there, and the Guild hall is on fire. A necromancer is commanding the undead in an attack, and the guild members are dead. The only survivor is J'skar, who was, of course, invisible, but who saw everything. Mannimarco was there. And J'skar says that he thinks that even though he was invisible, Mannimarco did see him, but left him alive on purpose to be able to report back this message and leave him with trauma for the rest of his life.

We report back to Traven that the Bruma Guild hall is destroyed, and he was making fun of Jeanne while she was dead. Only now Traven is like, oh my god. This is serious.

B

The attack on the Bruma Guild hall directly happened because, even though everyone is coming to Traven with every warning in the world, he keeps pretending nothing is happening because it would be too bad, and how could there still be necromancers around, since he said necromancy was no good. He genuinely thought that banning necromancy in the Guild would just make every necromancer go, “welp, that's it for my necromancy, I'll go pick up crochet instead”. And he is bewildered by the idea that the necromancer cult and the god of necromancy may have taken this ban personally and might have a vengeance against him and the Guild. Apparently Falcar's plot wasn't enough, the attack on the grove wasn't enough, Hassildor having a necromancer for a steward and then warning about Mannimarco wasn't enough, the informant becoming a horrific zombie wasn't enough, it had to go all the way to setting a Guild hall on fire and filling it with undead before Traven would take this seriously.

The grove should have been enough. They had essentially a terrorist attack on a symbol of the Guild that was in a secure place inaccessible from the outside, and several people died, and we were a target too, as the newest initiate who will go there and receive their staff. But Traven thinks the necromancers are not for real, as if the people who died are no big deal, and the attack on the symbol has no meaning, and it's just some kind of prank.

He's just hiding behind the inertia of his titanic behemoth of a bureaucracy, as if that's going to help him, and not get anyone killed.

The stolen artifacts

Apparently, behind the scenes, the other Council members have decided without Traven that something must be done about their impending doom. They've taken necromantic artifacts from the Council's Vault of Dangerous Stuff No One Should Touch, and intend to use them to stop the necromancers. Traven says some goody-two-shoes lines about how no good can come from using the weapons of the enemy blah blah. Hey, it's better than hiding in your cushy bedroom doing nothing.

Help her to see that she should not use the weapons of the enemy, especially out of fear.
Hannibal Traven

Irlav Jarol took the Bloodworm Helm to a fort to study it with some other mages, with the hope of finding a way to stop Mannimarco. Since the Helm boosts Conjuration, it looks like Irlav used it to summon a bunch of daedra, who fought the necromancers who were coming in, but also knocked the statue of Nocturnal over, which fell on his head and killed him.

Dead Irlav
(sad trombone)

Meanwhile, another Council member, Caranya, has stolen the Necromancer's Amulet. When we get to the fort where she went, it's full of mages without name tags who are all like, “Hmm, you should speak with Caranya. Get deeper in this totally safe fort and talk to her”.

So, we reach Caranya in the very depths of this creepy prison fort, and she thinks that we're defecting to her side. What side? The necromancers' side. Oh shit.

Oh, my dear. I'm afraid you're in over your head. I don't answer to Traven. I heed only the word of Mannimarco. When he has the amulet, his power will be increased, and Traven will be helpless to stand in his way. You, I'm afraid, won't be standing at all. I promise I'll make this quick. I'd like to have you mostly intact, so Mannimarco can suck the marrow from your bones.
Caranya

Now everyone in the fort will take off their mage disguises and reveal the necromancer robes within! You'll have to fight your way through everyone. Caranya herself is actually the smaller threat.

Of course, Traven suspected nothing.

Caranya turned on the Guild? I... I don't understand. She was one of my most trusted advisors.
Hannibal Traven

Earlier, he told us Caranya insisted on taking the Necromancer's Amulet. He even said “she seemed all too eager to explore its power”. She speaks in evil villain monologues! No wonder she's confused when we meet her: she stole the Necromancer's Amulet and declared her intention to use its powers. She thought that was a pretty clear defection to the necromancer side, and Traven all there like, who could have possibly seen this coming!

The Colossal Black Soul Gem and Mannimarco

Traven tells us that he's been informed, by Hassildor and other people he won't name, that a special Black Soul Gem has been created by the necromancers, and that if Mannimarco gets his hands on it, it's game over. Traven sends us as reinforcements for a group of battlemages who are trying to intercept this artifact.

Know that you have my complete confidence. I would not entrust this job to you if I did not feel you were prepared for it. Now, go.
Hannibal Traven

When we arrive there, we learn that Traven initially sent four battlemages. Four. Against every necromancer ever, for what he himself defined as the most important mission ever. F o u r.

By when we arrive, one of the original four has died, so with us as the new reinforcement, we're back to a team of four again. When the leader of the group meets us, she almost screams when she learns that we are the only reinforcement that Traven sent. She recovers to express her gratitude for our help, but jeez. Traven himself can't be bothered to leave his bedroom, as his own guild is becoming zombified around him, and he apparently can't be bothered to send more than one lone butt. There are battlemages constantly roaming the University, and they are there as we speak, but Traven is once again pretending that everything is fine, and so hasn't told them to help.

This should be the point where mages should be coming over from the rest of the province to help, classes are cancelled, every able-bodied mage to the ready. Instead, he essentially sends these poor fuckers plus us to die, while saying that he wouldn't have sent us if he didn't think we were up to the task. Fuck him and his pep talk! He actually doesn't trust anyone, and is pitting us against ridiculous odds while even framing it so that, if we die, we weren't doing our best and betrayed his trust, and if we succeed, well, that's just obvious, he knew we could do it.

F

It happens to be Falcar himself who is carrying the Colossal Black Soul Gem. He's just as amazed to see the pitiful resistance force as we are to be part of it.

What's this? Is this the best your pathetic guild could do? If so, our work will be easier than I suspected.
Falcar

Yeah, Falcar is an asshole, but he's absolutely right on this point. We manage to defeat him (revenge! for Vidkun!), and we take the Colossal Black Soul Gem to bring it back to Traven.

Mannimarco will have what he seeks, but it will be his undoing at your hands. With this gem in your possession, you will be impervious to his attempt to enthrall you. When he fails, that is when you shall strike.
Hannibal Traven

We're not quite sure what Traven was talking about here, but we don't get to ask him for any clarification, because he suddenly sets himself on fire and dies. We're just there like, blinking, and are left with the Colossal Black Soul Gem which is now filled by his petty black soul.

This conversation happened in private, and he didn't tell us what was about to happen; how are we going to explain that we didn't murder him and steal his soul as one of the necromancers ourselves? He apparently left a note for Raminus, which we never get to read ourselves, and that luckily managed to convince him that we didn't murder him for his position and then write a fake suicide note for him.

Once again, just like what happened with the informant, even if things happen to go perfectly according to Traven's contrived plan, they go bad, and there are a myriad of ways it could have gone really, really bad - for us.

Also, what the fuck, mister “only evil can come from using the tools of your enemies”. Then he goes and does necromancy on himself to stop the necromancers. And leaves us with all the burden of having to do everything, and then succeed him in his role as leader of the five people left in the Mages Guild who aren't necromancers or zombies.

Also, smart idea! Mannimarco was looking for powerful mages to kill and then control in his zombie army, so he was about to go murder Traven, but his plans are foiled, because Traven just... kills himself. Wow, you sure showed him! You can't fire me, I quit! And what makes Traven think that Mannimarco doesn't have some horrific necromantic ace up his necromantic sleeve to resurrect his now-conveniently dead body? Mannimarco's goal was to collect Traven's soul to study it and do whatever, and now his soul is already conveniently packaged in the Colossal Black Soul Gem, which was made for that purpose, and which we are just delivering to his manni-cave with a little bow on top.

Apparently, us having a filled Colossal Black Soul Gem will somehow protect us from Mannimarco's power of enthrallment, or so said Traven. This will give us the element of surprise we need to strike. But is either part of this true? When we do fight Mannimarco, the most we see to corroborate this thesis is that, at one point, Mannimarco casts a green spell on us which appears to do nothing. But was that the enthrallment spell? Did it fail because of the soul gem, or because of anything else? There's nothing proving it in a clear way. Mannimarco doesn't start going, “gasp, why won't you do my bidding!”. We don't hear Traven's voice booming from the gem going, “I will protect you, now strike!”. There's nothing suggesting that this isn't just a normal battle against some guy, and there is nothing suggesting that we couldn't have just fought him ourselves normally. We've done pretty well so far, without Colossal Black Soul Gems in our inventory. Why couldn't Traven trust us to be able to defeat Mannimarco? We've defeated every single necromancer on our path, after all.

Whatever the situation, this needed to be conveyed much more clearly. At this point, we're not even sure what Traven was planning. We tried looking up more lore details online, but everyone else seems to be just as confused. The majority consensus is that Traven was written to die only so that the Mages Guild quest could end with the player being promoted to Arch-Mage. While that's probably true, it's bad writing, and also it wasn't necessary to kill Traven off to achieve this state. He could have retired. He could have abdicated, realizing that he's not fit for the role. After all, Traven was completely ineffectual as an Arch-Mage, disbelieving in the grim reality and letting bad things happen under his watch just because he didn't want to accept the truth, and whenever he did try to do something, it was a complete disaster. Frankly, we're more surprised that a mob of dissatisfied mages didn't come pounding on Traven's bedroom door and demanding a new Arch-Mage. Maybe that's why he locks his door and doesn't come out.

In a sense, Traven's end is fitting for him, though. It's a stupid self-inflicted death for a stupid guy who never took any responsibility for creating or cleaning up his own messes, and his final act is to shirk all responsibilities for his duties, dropping them on someone else without asking, and abandoning his Guild to whatever end.

And how is he able to just name us Arch-Mage? It's an elected position! When the dust settles, the only remaining Council member is Raminus, so Traven effectively took his vote away, and Raminus somehow is still all smiles and goes with it. So Traven's final act was to be against democracy until the end.

The new Arch-Mage

We never wanted to become Arch-Mage. We never wanted all these meaningless promotions or anything of the sort. And yet, because Traven said so in his suicide note, and everyone who could have voted for someone else is dead, gone, or Raminus, here we are.

As Arch-Mage, we get some snazzy new robes. Raminus gives you a fresh one, but you could have also stripped the clothing from Traven's still-sizzling corpse, so you could have two sets of Arch-Mage's robes. If you want that.

We inherit Traven's bedroom. It is a very fancy bedroom, to be fair - maybe we understand why he never left it. His bedroom contains a spellmaking altar and an enchanting altar, both together in the same room, so you don't have to wander around the University trying to remember which room has which altar in it. The unique perk of this room is Traven's special box, which multiplies alchemy supplies that you put in them. It won't work on anything that you'd particularly want to multiply, like Nirnroot or Painted Troll Fat, but you can multiply all the Frost Salts you want! You just have to return to the box periodically, because the multiplying Scamp Skin you put in there starts to smell and a janitor will clean the stinking mess out once a week.

Traven's bedroom

When we go around the Arcane University and visit the different Guild halls around Cyrodiil, some people may greet you as Arch-Mage. But not always. The battlemages around the University still welcome you as “the Arcane University's newest addition”. While probably still true, there's a better way to refer to us now. And all the nameless Professors continue to rudely dismiss us for daring to speak with them when they are oh so busy - they haven't realized that we are now responsible for their tenure decision.

Professor
Excuse you.

Except not. We actually don't seem to have any power whatsoever, except to multiply stinky scamp skins. We can't undo Traven's asinine reforms, we can't fire Teekeeus, we can't promote Deetsan, we can't do anything. We can't even step down and say that we're too busy closing Oblivion gates to be in charge of an entire Guild, and maybe Carahil should be the new Arch-Mage.

Though, it says something about Traven that our doing absolutely nothing makes us a better Arch-Mage than him.

Thoughts on Traven

Let's recap what kind of Arch-Mage Traven was. He had been elected two years prior to the events of Oblivion, and immediately, in just two years, he enacted a reform of the Guild hall structure in Cyrodiil, restricted access to the previously-free Arcane University, and, of course, banned necromancy.

The Guild hall specializations

One of the first things Traven did as Arch-Mage, as a footnote to his bigger reforms, is that he restructured the way the Guild halls work in Cyrodill. Before, every Guild hall was functionally the same. Then, Traven mandated that each Guild hall in each town needs to specialize in a different branch of magic. So, the Skingrad Guild hall specializes in Destruction magic, the Leyawiin Guild hall specializes in Mysticism, and so on.

As a video game, it kinda makes sense that each place has a specialization. It's a trope for different game locations to have different themes so that each theme can be explored and that each place has its own personality. You know, like the themed Gyms in Pokémon. However, in universe, it really sucks.

We're not sure how the specializations were doled out, but we guess it went something like this: the guild leader in Skingrad is an expert in Destruction magic, so their whole guild got the specialty of Destruction magic. Meanwhile, the guild leader in Leyawiin has psychic visions, so their Guild hall got to specialize in Mysticism. After the obvious choices were picked, then Cheydinhal got stuck with Alteration, even though the members are not particularly focused on Alteration - Deetsan acknowledges that no one there has a particular specialty in anything, so they've been kinda scrambling to figure out how to somehow be able to put a label of “Alteration” on what they are doing. For example, there is a couple there, Orintur and Eilonwy. Eilonwy will gush about her boyfriend and tell you about how he's really good at Reflect (a Mysticism spell) and is a well-rounded mage. However, by Traven's mandate, Orintur can only sell Alteration spells, so he's filling his inventory with those, regardless of what he's personally interested in.

The quest in Cheydinhal does indeed have a theme of Alteration. That's the quest where Falcar killed Vidkun with a Ring of Burden (an Alteration enchantment, even though that's not how it's coded, but shh) and the player must retrieve the ring from the bottom of the well, probably by casting Water Breathing and Feather, which are Alteration spells. However, this being Falcar, we wonder if in his protest against Traven's policies, he decided to use this forced specialization in particular in order to kill Vidkun specifically with Alteration, just as an extra fuck you to the system.

And, just think about what it must be like to be a mage in the world now. Imagine you want to be a well-rounded mage and study several branches of magic. Then, you have to go all over the world, through the dangerous roads of Cyrodiil, and live in one town for awhile, and then in another town for awhile, always on the move to learn from all the guilds.

It's even a bad situation if you want to study just one branch of magic. Say you are from Cheydinhal and your dream is to study Destruction magic. That means you have to say goodbye to your family, pack up and move all the way to Skingrad, to be at the guild that specializes in Destruction magic. What if you just don't have the means to make such a journey? Why should you be blocked from studying Destruction magic just because you are from Cheydinhal? There's a Guild hall right there in town, but it is useless to you, because it's been rebranded as the Alteration Guild hall now, and you don't particularly care about Alteration. You have to weigh your ability to go to Skingrad against your desire to learn Destruction magic in particular. In Orintur's case, he clearly is happy in Cheydinhal, and has no desire to leave this town where he has his girlfriend and his house, and he has no interest in moving to Skingrad or anywhere else, so he's stuck figuring out how to make his abilities fit under the banner of Alteration.

Then, among all these rebranding efforts, there are towns with no specialization (yet?). Bruma had no official specialization. Jeanne was apparently not very skilled at magic at all, so maybe her specialty didn't shine through. However, she seemed to have a preference for Conjuration: she would be found reading a book about Daedra, and sometimes practicing summoning a scamp. She would also sell you Conjuration spells. The other members of the guild had very varied specialties. Selena was an Alchemist. J'skar can train you in Destruction, but was having lots of fun with Illusion spells. Volanaro was a jack-of-all-trades who could teach you a wide range of Master-level spells. Was Bruma tasked with figuring out what their specialty would be, or did they get some sort of special dispensation through Jeanne sending enough annoying letters that Traven gave in?

There's also the game design reason why Bruma didn't have a specialization: the fact that, along this quest line, the Guild hall gets destroyed, so it would be inconvenient if one of the specialties got wiped off the map. For the same reason, Kvatch's Mages Guild branch presumably also didn't have a specialization; just like Bruma, it is not mentioned in the Mages Guild Charter which lays out the specializations of all the other towns. Very convenient.

So, in the end, what even was the point of this reform? It doesn't seem to achieve anything useful, it only creates problems, and it's not even consistent with itself. There are more Guild halls than specialties - so much for neat organization.

We think the only reason Traven wanted this reform is to somehow satisfy his controlling streak and his compulsion for order, without thinking it all the way through.

Closing the Arcane University

Another of Traven's ideas was to close the doors of the Arcane University to the general public, and even to low-ranking members of the Mages Guild, only allowing in elite mages that have been vetted by all the Guild halls in the province. This is the basis for the first part of the Mages Guild questline, in which you have to tour Cyrodiil and beg every Guild hall head to send in a recommendation.

Gate of the Arcane University
The goddamn gate.

This is horrible for everyone. The Imperial City has the greatest facility for the study of magic in the whole continent, a beacon of learning that was available to anyone who wanted to go... and Traven decided to make it a special members-only club, locking out laymen and novices alike. You can't even be a full member of the Guild until you go around the world and get the recommendations. This is monstrous. It's locking knowledge behind bars, literally. When the Mages Guild was supposed to be an organization presumably about preserving and sharing knowledge.

How are you supposed to get a recommendation about your magical abilities if you're not allowed to study magic until you get all the recommendations?

And what if you simply cannot get the recommendations? What if you can't travel, for whichever reason? What if you even do travel, and you get to the last guild, and for some reason the last guild head won't help you? That's how Vidkun died. Falcar was power-tripping and didn't want to give him a recommendation anyway, so he made sure he died. It's just because we happened to survive and in the meanwhile Deetsan confronted him that we were able to get past the hurdle of dealing with Falcar, because, otherwise, he could have just said no, and had us go around doing his bidding until we died, or we gave up, and then we never get to go to the Arcane University.

The elitism and classism of Traven's decisions are staggering.

His reform means that now you have to go everywhere and win the favor of all these different assholes all over the world, just to be able to go to what used to be the free and open library. No wonder half of the Council resigned over Traven's election. Maybe it wasn't all about necromancy.

It's also very convenient that Traven did these reforms bundled together with banning necromancy. He can brand anyone who was opposed to him as a necromancer, when there might have been people legitimately concerned about some of his other policies. It's like, reblog this if you're secretly a necromancer, or support free libraries.

And how are the Guild hall heads supposed to know to give a recommendation or not? The vetting process is wildly inconsistent from Guild hall to Guild hall. Some Guild halls will basically give you a free recommendation just for showing up. Others want you to put your life on the line. And others have you do unethical acts for the Guild hall head's personal benefit. And, since the Guild hall heads have supreme power over their branch, this important decision is solely up to them, and short of committing murder, they face no repercussions for their choice. You could maybe complain to the Council of Mages that someone is being unfair, but how are you supposed to do that since they won't let you in, and Traven is hiding in his bedroom?

And even for the well-meaning Guild hall head, how are they supposed to recommend some stranger who just came from the other side of the world to ask for a recommendation? They don't know them. What if Lord Voldemort comes in and wants a recommendation? Endorsing someone is a responsibility, and they wouldn't want to endorse just anyone.

Thinking about it, we feel for Adrienne in Skingrad, actually. It's annoying for us that she doesn't even want to talk to us when we come for a recommendation, but actually, until recently, her role in the Mages Guild was to keep the peace among her members, and the rest of the time she'd be free to do her own magical research. Maybe occasionally someone, probably from Skingrad or the neighboring area, would come to join the Guild, in which case she would welcome them as an associate, and then she could get back to work. Now, she's got a line of strangers from all over the world needing her personal recommendation to go to the library, and she just wants to do her stuff. She doesn't want to be personally vetting every candidate with no guideline. That's not what she signed up for. They switched the roles from under her feet, and she's not happy about it. If she wanted to be in politics, she would have joined the Council.

Since the position of Guild hall head has been politicized, now it's coveted by people who would want power. This was the issue with Kalthar in Leyawiin, who thought the Guild hall head didn't deserve the role while he did, and he was willing to commit heinous acts to get his way. It was also the source of conflict in Bruma, with Jeanne seeking this prestigious role that was over her head, and the others resenting her for it. Instead of learning, now everyone's distracted by wanting promotions and saying someone else doesn't deserve their promotion and judging each other ranks and stepping on each other's toes.

And then, after traveling the world and seeing all this shit, you get to the Arcane University, and you talk with Raminus, and he's all, oh, I'm sure you've seen the worst of the guild... but you'll see that we're also good, now that you're here in the ivory tower. Way to simultaneously throw everyone under the bus while excusing the ones that were inexcusable. We dealt with Falcar in our recommendation tour, and you would give us this trite bullshit of “they're only human” (or elf, in his case). We almost got murdered by a Guild head, and “they're only human”. Fuck you. And for as much as he's there saying that now we'll do the real stuff, he has you fetch a library book for him and introduce him to the person standing next to him, and then he gives you a promotion. It's only irrelevant bullshit when it's for someone else, huh?

And, of course, necromancy

Traven made it a bannable offense for mages in the Mages Guild to practice necromancy. However, necromancy itself is legal in Cyrodiil. The Guild's ban is understandable in theory, because, yeah, necromancy is a bad thing both ethically and in terms of public relations for wizards.

But Traven enacted this ban with complete and utter obliviousness for its ramifications, in a lawful stupid zero-tolerance way. If there was an issue of necromancy among mages, instead of actually tackling the root of the problem, he thought the perfect solution was to just ban it, which effectively only swept it under the rug and made the necromancers continue out of spite.

Previously, necromancy was at least practiced in a peer-reviewed setting, and maybe that would have put a check on the more disgusting forms of necromancy and made sure nobody did anything really bad. But now, if you do necromancy, you can't be in the Mages Guild, but it's perfectly okay to be in some cave doing ever more disgusting acts, because, after all, it's legal in Cyrodiil, and now you even have to keep it secret from the Mages Guild, so there are no checks on anything. In the meanwhile, Traven doesn't know it's happening and he has no concept of object permanence, so, to his shortsighted perception, there's no problem at all!

This is the equivalent of the anti-bullying approaches of declaring a school a “bully-free zone” and hanging some feel-good posters and having occasional feel-good speeches from the principal about how bullying is bad. This does nothing to stop bullies from bullying, and usually only emboldens them with how pathetic the attempt to stop them was. Also, this approach basically says that bullying outside of school is fine, so now some kid can get beaten to death in a random place, rather than in the school hallways, and the principal does nothing and delivers some speech about how sad this was and that bullying is bad.

The plotline of the Mages Guild is an excellently-constructed parallel to this real-world problem. It shows exactly why this approach doesn't work, and it carries the same sense of frustration at this situation. The main criticism we have of the writing of the Mages Guild quest is that Traven's ineffectiveness is never highlighted, and, even though he supposedly did his whole heroic sacrifice, he never has a moment of realizing what he did wrong, and neither do the remaining members of the Guild after his death. There either needed to be a stronger redemption arc for him, or a stronger condemnation of him afterwards. As it is now, he never learned his lesson, and the game doesn't present the lesson either, and Raminus doesn't learn the lesson, and the only strong criticism towards Traven came from people who turned out to be necromancers, whose top concern was that necromancy is cool, and not the fact that Traven's reforms destroyed the Mages Guild.

Because yeah, shortly after this, the last remnants of the Mages Guild completely disintegrate. After all, what kind of Arch-Mage could the Champion of Cyrodiil be, with all our other tasks? Canonically, the Champion of Cyrodiil disappears from Tamriel after a while, so we didn't last long as Arch-Mage either, and who's next in line? Raminus? We don't think so. There weren't even enough people to fill the Council quota while Traven was there, and, in the meanwhile, two of them have died. Traven effectively killed the Mages Guild, an organization which had been existing for more than a thousand years. Good job.

In conclusion

Overall, the Mages Guild questline is ambitiously long, while not being repetitive. It really captures the feeling of working within a bureaucracy, with incompetent people at the top. The first part is fun and interesting in itself, but being able to finally enter the Arcane University has lots of really good in-game rewards for managing to achieve it, but the questline doesn't end there. We do wish the end of it had been better written, though. We still have no idea what was up with the Colossal Black Soul Gem.

But fuck Arch-Mage Traven. What the fuck is wrong with Traven anyway? Why is he such a control freak? He's so controlling, he couldn't even resist naming the hero of Cyrodiil as the new Arch-Mage, putting his hands past his own death to make sure things went how he wanted. And why is he so unable to process bad news? Why doesn't he trust anybody? Why does he have such bad ideas without the humility to realize that he made a mistake? What happened to him? And how did he get elected in the first place?

References

These pages on the UESP contain quotes and descriptions of events that were referenced in this article. Some things we wrote about might not be mentioned in the wiki, but we witnessed them directly in the game.

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