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Saturday, November 13, 2010

V - Arkngthand

Fenara spent the following weeks traveling to various Dwemer ruins under the instruction of Edwinna Elbert, fetching various artifacts and rare books and plans for her. Her days fell into a pattern, and Fenara found herself growing comfortable with entering the ruins. It was odd, for they were all dark and eerily silent save for the occasional clicking spider, but Fenara found that she felt oddly at home inside them, and she often dwelled as long as she could in the ruins, trying to make sense of the script along the walls and admiring the intricacy of the artifacts she found there.
One chilly evening in the first week of Frost Fall found Fenara in her room in the guildhall in Ald’ruhn, crushing green lichen with her mortar and pestle taken from the storage tower of the Caldera guildhall. She set the pestle down and knelt down to check the Dwemer metal that was melting inside the calcinator, then glanced at the recepie she was following. It was a formula given to her by Anaranen, the Altmer alchemist who took up residence in the lower level of the guildhall, and who often offered Fenara advice in the area of alchemy. This was a recepie for a restore strength potion that Anaranen had said turned out enormously well, but as she studied the parchment again she frowned. It called for fire petals treated with fresh resin, an ingredient she must have skipped over when she first read it. Fenara knew she had the treated fire petals somewhere, but a thorough search through her room yielded nothing, nor did asking Anaranen. Thinking hard for where she had left the petals as she went back upstairs, she suddenly remembered – they were in a cabinet in her old apartment in Balmora. She had left them there when she moved, having never come across a recepie that called for them and thinking them rather useless. Extinguishing the calcinator, Fenara donned her cloak and took the guild guide to Balmora, intending for this to be a quick trip there and back.
It was evening when she left the guildhall in Balmora and started towards the river. She climbed the stairs to the back street and went straight up to her door, finding, to her surprise, that the key was still in the lock where she had left it. Fenara went into the apartment, which was dark and chilly inside, and opened the cabinet, finding the treated fire petals still in their jar, pushed to the very back. She left the apartment with the treated fire petals under her arm and had made it to the bottom of the stairs when she heard a familiar voice.
“Fen.” She turned to see Caius Cosades, with a shirt on this time, paused in the act of unlocking the door to his small, one-room house.
“Oh – um…good evening, Ca –”
“Inside.” He pushed open the door with his foot and went in curtly, leaving it ajar. Resigned, Fenara followed him in and gagged slightly at the stifling, sticky smell of moon sugar that choked the air. “I told you,” he said deliberately, kicking his shoes off and stumbling over to his bed. He leaned over and groped for something underneath it. “That you need to get a bit of experience under your belt, then come see me for orders. It’s been what, three months?”
“I hardly think it’s been three,” Fenara said defensively. “Two, at the most –”
“The point is,” Cosades interrupted, straightening up with his battered skooma pipe in one hand. “We have work to do, and I can’t afford to let my agents run about doing whatever they like while there are things to be done. You owe the Emperor your life and service, and this isn’t a dandy way to repay him.” Cosades banged the pipe down on the table and twisted the lid off, pulling a packet of moon sugar out of his pocket and tearing the top off. “So,” he said, shaking the sugar into the pipe and screwing the lid back on. “Are you ready to follow my orders this time, Fen?”
“I suppose so,” she replied curtly, feeling that, like last time, she didn’t have much of a choice.
“Good,” Cosades said, now lighting the tip of the pipe with the candle on the table. “Go talk to Hasphat Antabolis at the Balmora Fighters Guild. Ask him what he knows about the Nerevarine secret cult and the Sixth House secret cult. You’ll have to do him a favor first. Probably an ugly favor. But do it. Then get the information from Antabolis and report back to me.” He shook the pipe around, then took the end of the mouthpiece and took a long drag on it. When he looked up at Fenara, he looked immensely relaxed. “By the way... Hasphat is a student of Morrowind history. Take the chance to get a little education. No point in being part of history if you’re too ignorant to understand it, eh?” He pulled a long, dusty book off the table and blew some of the grime off the cover. “Here. Janette Sitte’s little book is a good place to start. Take it. You might also look for On Morrowind, the Imperial Province, by Erramanwe of Sunhold.” Fenara took the book and looked down at the cover. A Short History of Morrowind.
“I suppose I’ll be off, then,” she said coldly, tucking the book under her arm.
“Good. And mind that you get it done.” Fenara left Caius Cosades to his skooma and went out into the dark street, struggling a bit with the heavy jar and the thick book. She hadn’t thought to bring her whole bag with her – it seemed silly, for all she had meant to come here for was the treated fire petals. Not wanting to be in Balmora more than necessary, she crossed the river and went straight to the Fighter’s Guild, which was conveniently located in a crowded street beside the Mages’ Guild. She asked a woman polishing a shield inside the door where she might find Hasphat Antabolis and was directed to the training room downstairs. Fenara found the room easily enough and left her cumbersome load by the door.
Hasphat Antabolis was indeed in the training room, standing on the thick burlap mats with an Imperial woman with a lopsided dummy set up in front of them. The woman was methodically punching the dummy, while Hasphat periodically stopped her to correct her posture or demonstrate a better method. For a moment, Fenara hung back, not wanting to interrupt, but when Hasphat caught sight of her, he motioned for the woman to go on practicing and came to the doorway to meet her.
“What can I help you with?” he asked, smiling. He was an Imperial man, tall and thick-chested with a short crop of dark hair.
“I was sent by Caius Cosades,” she said. “He asked me to –”
“Old Caius, eh?” Hasphat said with a chuckle. “Well, I’d be glad to help you with whatever you need, friend, but it would be nice if you’d do me a little favor first.”
“What kind of favor?” she asked warily.
“There are Dwemer ruins nearby called Arkngthand. I need you to run over there and find me a little cube with a circular design and some symbols on one side. It’s called a ‘Dwemer puzzle box’. Bring me back the Dwemer puzzle box, and I’ll tell you what you want to know.”
“That’s all?” Fenara said, her spirits lifting at this news. The Dwemer ruins felt home enough to her to make her enjoy going into them. Hasphat nodded. “How do I get there?”
“The old Dwemer ruins at Arkngthand are extensive on the surface and underground. Head south out of town past the silt strider port, then cross bridges east over the Odai River. At the signpost, head north towards Caldera. Immediately on the right see a signpost for Molag Mar. Turn right and head uphill on an old road to cross an ancient Dwemer bridge over Foyada Mamaea. The entrance to Arkngthand is on the east side of the foyada, south of the bridge. Turn a crank on a pipe nearby to open the doors. The little cube I'm looking for is about the size of a fist, maybe a little bigger. It will be made of a coppery metal, with a circular design and symbols on one side and some lined marks on the other sides. That’s all I want, that little cube.”
Fenara thanked Hasphat and let him return to his training, picking up the book and the jar again and taking the guild guide back to Ald’ruhn, not wanting to spend the night in the apartment over Cosades’ house. When morning dawned, she took the guild guide back to Balmora and started the walk south towards Arkngthand.
The morning was crisp and mist was settled over the grass on either side of the path. Fenara walked quickly, partly to keep her feet warm and partly for excitement at entering a new ruin. She found the bridge Hasphat had mentioned and started across it, not noticing the figure at the end until she was nearly halfway across. Here, Fenara faltered. Several times, she had come across travelers on the road. They were often friendly, but once or twice she had met a bandit and had run instead of attacking. The thought of taking someone’s life still sickened her. But she would not be able to run if this man proved to be hostile.
Fenara moved forward warily, her hands up and a spell at the ready. Just as she was about to meet him, he turned, swore, and summoned a skeleton. Fenara moved backward quickly, summoning a flame atronach, a lithe yet enormous golem composed entirely of live fire. The atronach reduced the skeleton to dust with a single swipe, then moved forward to attack the man. Fenara stayed back, hesitant to enter the fray. It proved, however, to be a small fray, for her summoned atronach wrapped one flaming hand around the man’s neck and seared his skin, making him scream in sudden agony before the atronach hurled him off the side of the bridge. There was a dull and distant crunch of metal and bones that bounced around the tall stone walls of the foyada, then utter silence. The atronach turned to Fenara, gazing at her through slitted eyes and waiting for instruction. Feeling slightly sick, she made a smooth gesture and the atronach faded away. At least it wasn’t me that did the killing, she thought, walking across the end of the bridge. Ah, but you did the summoning, murmured a nasty voice in the back of her head. Determinately ignoring it, Fenara climbed a small hill to the entrance of Arkngthand.
Fenara couldn’t find a door, but instead a rounded, door-sized sheet of metal set into one of the buildings. Remembering that Hasphat had told her that she needed to pull a crank, she started moving around the door, searching. She finally found a large rounded handle on a broken pipe not far away from what she assumed was the entrance. The crank was rusted and should have been difficult to operate, but in turned easily, which worried Fenara. Perhaps she wouldn’t be the only one in Arkngthand.
As the crank turned, the rounded metal split in two and the pieces began to separate, revealing that they formed a shell over the real door. Realizing they were about to close over the door before she could open it, Fenara quickly ran to the entrance and pushed it open, squeezing past the two halves of the shell with a familiar screeching noise.
She found herself in a cavernous hall, quite different from the usual low-ceilinged antechambers she came into in most ruins. Arkngthand, unlike the other Dwemer ruins, did not put her at ease – on the contrary, it made her feel sick to her stomach.
The walkway she was on ended abruptly in a layer of torn metal that looked like it had been violently ripped away. A makeshift ramp of large boulders and flimsy-looking sheets of scrap metal wound down to the rocky color of the hall. Uneasy about the safety of the ramp, Fenara levitated over the walkway and came to a halt on a rusted platform at the bottom. Before her, there were two tiers of open rooms, each with several circular doors set into the wall. Behind her, a rocky cavern tunneled into another Dwemer ruin. Deciding to explore the tiers first, she started off the platform and heard a loud, sudden shout that echoed around the metal walls.
Fenara took several instinctive steps back, her robes swaying around her ankles, and summoned a scamp, preferring to save her magicka and deciding against another atronach. The scamp immediately scurried forward and started clawing at one of the two men who had appeared out of the shadows. The other bypassed the scamp and came straight towards Fenara, his silver dagger glinting in the dim light.
For a brief moment, she hesitated, but then the man was upon her and he was raising his dagger towards her. In a sudden adrenaline rush, she stepped forward, grabbed his shoulder with one hand, and pressed the first two fingers of her other hand to his forehead. A frost spell she had made herself radiated through her fingers and she felt its energy pass into him, causing his whole body to suddenly go rigid with cold, then collapse. A few feet away, the scamp’s enemy fell as well, and it pranced proudly back over to her. Fenara looked down at the second man she had killed and cracked her knuckles nervously, then kicked aside the dagger with a clatter and made a smooth sweep through the air to banish the scamp. It faded away and she went into the main part of the room, glancing around. A lopsided ramp of boulders led up to the second tier, but this, too, looked unstable, and Fenara levitated up instead.
The tier was empty save for a battered hutch carrying a few old cups and bowls of Dwemer design. There was a round door set into the wall, though, and she pushed this open and went through to a much smaller, dark room.
“Red? That you?” a deep Imperial’s voice said from a corner. Not stopping this time, Fenara shot poison spell towards the voice and backed up as it hit the man there. He gave an angry cry and sprinted out, drawing a sword, but Fenara kept moving backwards, knowing the spell would quickly take hold and hoping he didn’t get to her before it did. Luckily, he gave a strangled gasp and fell to the ground just before he reached her, letting out a strangled hack before he died.
Quickly stepping over the body, Fenara went to hurriedly comb through the shelves there. On the bottom shelf, she found a small cube engraved with markings and lines, just as Hasphat had described it. Surprised at her luck, Fenara carefully packed the cube away and left the way she came, levitating back up to the entrance. Had the ruin been more like the ones Edwinna had sent her to, Fenara would have gladly stayed, but the presence of the smugglers made her quite sure that she would be forced to spill more blood if she wanted to continue, and that thought alone made her stomach tie itself in knots.
The walk back to Balmora was uneventful, and Fenara went straight to the Fighter’s Guild to deliver the cube. Hasphat took it with a pleased look in his eye and slipped it into his pocket.
“Perfect, perfect. Now, I suppose you want to know about the Sixth House and the Nerevarine, don’t you?”
“I’d love to,” Fenara said gratefully, and Hasphat pulled two chairs out from where they were stacked by the wall and he and Fenara sat down.
“So,” Hasphat said, leaning back heavily. “Old Caius wants to know about Sixth House and the Nerevarine.” Fenara said nothing, assuming this statement was for dramatic effect. “I don’t know much about the Nerevarine, honestly. The Ashlanders believe a reborn Nerevar will unite the Dunmer against the outlander invaders and restore the ancient Dark Elven nation. Nerevar is a legendary hero and saint of the Temple, but the Temple denies the prophecy, and persecutes heretics who believe in the Nerevarine. Tell Caius that Sharn gra-Muzgob would be a better person to ask about the native faiths and superstitions.” He leaned forward, an excited look in his eye. “I can tell you quite a bit about the Sixth House, though.
“House Dagoth is the Sixth House, the ‘lost’ Sixth House. In the First Age, House Dagoth betrayed the other Great Houses during the War of the First Council, and was destroyed for their treason. I can answer any questions you have, but I’ll also give you some notes to give to Caius, and recommend some Sixth House references he should read.” He pulled a folded sheet of parchment out of his pocket and handed it to Fenara.
“What is House Dagoth?” Fenara asked, putting the parchment away. “I’ve never heard of it.”
“House Dagoth was the Sixth of the Seven Dunmer Great Houses. Nothing remains of the Sixth House. Its members were all slain or adopted into other Great Houses following their treason in the War of the First Council. Their clanstead was called Kogoruhn.”
“And the Sixth House Cult? Is it different from the Sixth House?” Hasphat leaned back thoughtfully.
“I've heard something about a secret cult worshipping Dagoth Ur. The idea is that the Tribunal are false gods who have betrayed Morrowind to the Imperials. The cult plans to overthrow the Temple and drive the Empire from Morrowind. The cult is outlawed by the Temple, the Great Houses, or the Empire, and I doubt it’s very popular. I’ve also heard there’s some connection with smuggling...that they smuggle goods, or hire smugglers, or something like that.”
“And what is Dagoth Ur?” She wasn’t sure why, but the name gave her an odd feeling that she couldn’t quite describe. Hasphat looked at her, a wry smile on his face.
“Dagoth Ur was the leader of the extinct Sixth House, House Dagoth, the traitor house destroyed in the War of the First Council. Dagoth Ur is the evil immortal enemy of the Tribunal Temple cult. The Temple blames Dagoth Ur and his hosts for all the evils that beset the Dunmer and Morrowind. Dagoth Ur dwells in fiery caverns beneath Red Mountain, served by his kin and legions of monsters.
“Caius says he’s fed up with heroes. The Empire keeps sending them out here to the provinces to ‘civilize’ things. The fools don’t seem to realize that their ‘destinies’ are being created by historical processes. And they’re too ignorant and impatient to understand it. So Caius sends you to me, hoping you’ll be different.” Hasphat smiled grimly. “Poor Caius. So many disappointments. He and I always argue over the role of the individual in history. Is the individual shaped and controlled by history? Or can an exceptional individual shape history? Are individuals carried in the stream? Or do they dam and divert the flow? I say Tiber Septim changed the world. Caius says that Tiber Septim was a product of his time, and if he hadn't lived, some other person would have served his function. What about you? Are you going to change the world? Or just be carried by the flow? When we understand the events that occur to us, the events become history. History is understanding. Otherwise we’re all just dumb animals trying to get in out of the cold.” With this pronouncement, Hasphat stood up promptly, startling Fenara. She stood up as well, and he picked up their chairs and carried them to the side of the room. “I hope I’ve been helpful – I never caught your name.”
“Fen,” she said, and she was surprised at how natural it felt on her tongue. “My name is Fen.”
“Well, Fen, I hope I’ve been helpful. Take those notes to Caius, he’ll be able to do something with them. And good luck with the rest of your endeavors.” He smiled, and she wished him well and went outside.
For a moment, she stood under the stone awning over the door, staring up at the cloudy sky. What about you? Are you going to change the world? Or just be carried by the flow? She looked down at her hands, her hands that were used to being idle and wearing gold rings and were now callused and worn. Who was she? Surely she was no longer Princess Fenara Almalexia Helseth. But she certainly didn’t feel like Fen, a mere Magician of the Mages’ Guild. So was she something else? Perhaps I don’t know yet, she thought. Perhaps I’m something yet to come. And, reassured slightly by this thought, she stepped into the cold and started back towards Caius’ house.

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