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Saturday, November 27, 2010

VII - Julan

Fen spent the following days doing chores for Skink-in-Tree’s-Shade, an Argonian that took up residence in the Mages’ Guild in Sadrith Mora. Edwinna had run out of jobs for her to do shortly after she had delivered the notes to Cosades and had sent her along to the guildhall there. Fen found that she missed going into the Dwemer ruins Edwinna sent her to, but Skink was much kinder than the other stewards she had encountered so far, and put her in no rush for any of the tasks he set her to.
One evening several weeks after Fen had delivered the skull, Skink asked her to deliver a soul gem to Edwinna in Ald’ruhn. Fen took the gem to Edwinna, then, as it was late and she was tired, decided to stay the night in her old room in the guildhall. She deposited her bag in the room and crossed the darkening street to the Ald Skar Inn, where she had usually taken her meals during her stay in Ald’ruhn. As was her usual routine, Fen propped open a book on the table before her and read while she ate, only looking up when she heard a voice above her.
“Pardon me, sera.” Fen looked up to see an old Dunmer man standing by her table. His eyes looked heavy and his red hair was faded to gray in patches. By the look of his clothes, he was an Ashlander. “You have a look about you of someone on a journey. Would you be visiting the Ghostgate at all on your travels? I have a matter of personal interest there, and I seek a messenger. I can pay you for your trouble,” he added hurriedly.
“What matter would that be?” she asked, closing her book. The man sat down at the seat opposite her.
“Well…ah, as this is a family concern, I shall keep things brief and to the point. I have a much loved daughter, whom I see far more rarely than I should like. The last time I saw her, she was most distressed, and begged me for my help in locating a friend of hers. She said that he was travelling to Red Mountain, and had to be stopped before he got himself killed.”
“And what would you like me to do?” Fen still felt a little surprised that the man had approached her, of all people, especially since there was a heavyset Orc in full bonemold armor at the bar drinking quietly to himself.
“Well, if he is going to Red Mountain, then he will pass through the Ghostgate. If you are travelling there, then perhaps you might ask around and find out if anyone has seen him. There surely can’t be too many ragged Ashlander youths heading onto the mountain alone. If you say you will do this, I will give you 200 drakes. That's all there is to it.”
“Wouldn’t you want to know if I find him?” she asked skeptically.
“No. In all honestly, I care not if you pocket the gold and never even go near the Ghostgate. I have never approved of this boy, and if he has indeed permanently disappeared from my daughter’s life, then I would count it as a blessing. If I pay someone to make enquiries, then I have carried out the letter of my promise to her. Perhaps if no more is heard of the boy, she will give up hope, and return to her family, who love her as she deserves. But I have said too much. Will you take my money?” Fen studied his face, puzzled. Not many were willing to give up a large amount of gold for a reason whose outcome didn’t matter to them. But she supposed there was no reason not to travel to Ghostgate. She had been meaning to see the fortress at some point, anyway.
“Alright,” she said, and the man looked relieved. “I’ll ask around Ghostgate and see what I find.”
“Very good. Here is the gold.” He counted out a few fifty-drake pieces from his money pouch and pushed them across the table to her. “What you do now is entirely your own affair. Even if you return with information, I doubt I shall be here to receive it, as I am leaving town shortly. But as I said, that is of no concern to me. Bless and be blessed, outlander.” With that, the man stood up and left the bar. Fen looked down at the pieces, then slipped them into the pocket of her robe.
Early the next morning, she set out for Ghostgate. The skies were clear, showing no sign of an approaching ashstorm, and Fen walked idly, unbothered by the cliffracers that drifted lazily overhead. After about an hour, her head started to ache. The reason became apparent as she neared Ghostgate – a loud, deep humming emanated from the fortress, and Fen had always been sensitive to sound. Slowly, the Ghostfence loomed into view, and Fen had to stop for a moment to take in the splendor of it.
Ghostfence rose at least four stories high. There were enormous stone pylons supporting it at intervals, each carved with detailed depictions of the faces of the Tribunal at the top. The actual fence was comprised of a rippling forcefield that let off the loud humming. The view beyond the forcefield was distorted, but Fen could vaguely make out a landscape exactly the same as what was on the her side of the fence. There didn’t seem to be anything remarkable about it.
Edwinna had once explained the concept of the Ghostfence to her. It was an enormous barrier that circled the entirety of the Red Mountain region, held up by the combined power of the Tribunal – the gods Vivec, Almalexia, and Sotha Sil. The fence was put up to contain Dagoth Ur and the Ash vampires, the creatures that served him. And if the power of the Tribunal were to fail, Edwinna had told her, the Sixth House beasts would be free to storm out across Vvardenfell.
The path went straight up to Ghostfence, then turned and moved alongside it, and Fen gazed up at it as she walked. The glimmering of the barrier started to hurt her eyes, though, and she looked back down at the road.
It was nearing midday when Fen reached Ghostgate, the small station that carried the only way into Ghostfence. She approached it from a distance, squinting against the brightness of the Ghostfence, and as she neared it, she saw bright flashes of what was clearly a fire spell just outside the gate. Fen frowned. The Ghostgate was a guarded area, and the only battling that should have been happening would be on the inside. She jogged the rest of the way to the gate to find that the flashes were spells being cast by a young Dunmer man that was surrounded by three clannfears, enormous reptilian Daedra that were viciously ripping at the man’s shoddy-looking armor. As Fen watched, the man pulled out a sword, which one of the clannfears seized with its mouth and tossed away.
Thinking quickly, she summoned a scamp and ran forward to help. A few fire spells took down one of the clannfears, and she left the Dunmer to continue peppering a second with arrows while she began casting at the third. With the help of her scamp, the third clannfears fell, and she used her last bit of magicka to finish off the second. It fell dead among its fellows, the cheap chitin arrows portruding from its thick hide.
“Ah….greetings, outlander. I suppose I should thank you for your help with those clannfears, although I never asked for it. Everything was under control.” Fen looked up. The man had a large gash across his shoulder that was bleeding freely, but he didn’t seem to notice. She looked back down at the dead clannfears, and suddenly all the rage and frustration that had been building up in her sprang loose.
“Are you mad? They were making complete mincemeat out of you! For Azura’s sake, look at that wound!”
“Ha!” he said brightly, swaying slightly on the spot. “I’ll have you know I was just playing with them to train my skills. Then you come blundering in playing the hero and ruin it for me! Next time, keep out of it, all right?” Fen narrowed her eyes at him.
“I suppose you won’t want healing either, since you’re clearly too busy training your bleeding to death skill.”
“Well, uh, actually – ”
“No, no, it’s fine!” Fen said, throwing her hands up in the air. “I can see you don’t need any assistance. I’ll let you carry on with your training. I’m sure some more Daedra will be along any minute!” She turned sharply and started back the way she’d come.
“Wait!” Fen turned sharply, glaring. He seemed to wither under her gaze. “All right. I apologize. I’m glad that you arrived when you did. You probably did save my life.”
“Probably?” she repeated scathingly.
“All right! You definitely saved my life. Happy now? And...uh ...if you could heal me, I’d be very grateful. I seem to have run out of potions. And magicka. And...well, most things, really.” For a moment, Fen was tempted to leave him there to deal with his troubles on his own, but after a second she sighed and found a healing potion in her bag.
“Here,” she said, uncorking the bottle and handing it to him. He gingerly poured the potion out over his wound, which steamed as the skin cleanly stitched itself back together.
“This is embarrassing,” he muttered, setting down the bottle. Fen did not speak, but raised one eyebrow, her arms crossed over her chest. The man sighed. “I’m trying to become a strong warrior,” he explained. “But it seems I still have a long way to go. It’s expected of me. But I spend all my time training, and I’m obviously still not good enough. Gah! What would my tribe think of me if they knew I had been rescued by an outlander? An outlander, for Azura's sake! I mean, no offense, but it looks bad.” As much as she was trying to maintain a stony demeanor, Fen took pity on him.
“It’s not that bad,” she said, dropping her arms. “There were three of them.”
“Thank you, but you don't understand... but how could you? You have no idea who I am, or what I have to do, and why.”
“So tell me.”
“It’s not that simple!” he said indignantly. “It’s not something I’m free to discuss, and certainly not with outlanders! All I will say is that I have a sacred mission I need to carry out within the Ghostfence on behalf of my tribe – and others. But I’ve been training around here for a week now, and I can't even deal with the monsters on this side of the fence! How can I hope to survive if I go inside?”
“If it’s a sacred mission, shouldn’t the gods be protecting you?”
“Ha. That’s what my mother says. She has incredible faith – in the gods, and in me. That’s why I have to succeed; I can’t stand the thought of disappointing her. But I’m not sure I share her faith. Perhaps that’s my problem.” He shook his head, then looked at her again. And suddenly, his expression changed, as if seeing her clearly for the first time. “What did you say your name was?”
“You’re stronger than me. And you say that your name is Fen, and you are a freelance adventurer.”
“Or something like that,” she muttered, but he ignored her.
“Tell me, Fen, do you ever adventure inside the Ghostfence?” She looked thoughtfully past him, where the path beyond Ghostgate stretched upward.
“I haven’t yet,” she said. “But it’s been on my mind.”
“I thought so – you’re strong enough to deal with any of those ash monsters, or you soon will be. I wonder... would you be willing to help me develop my skills? Would you consider…training me?”
“Training you?” Fen said, taken aback.
“Sure!” he said quickly. “I can levitate, breathe water and heal myself – provided I have enough magicka, of course. I’m fast, agile, and I can repair your weapons for you, if you have the right tools. Gah! I'm an idiot!” he exclaimed suddenly, smacking himself in the forehead. “I still haven’t introduced myself! My name is Julan Kaushibael, Hearthfriend of the Ahemmusa tribe. Well...sort of...I’m actually an outcast, but...uh...it’s complicated.” He stuck out his hand as if to shake. “So, what do you say, Fen? Do you think we’d make a good team?”
“Well…” Fen said reluctantly. She had never trained anyone before, let alone had someone follow her about. But Julan’s eyes were hopeful as he gazed at her earnestly. “I don’t know how good a teacher I’ll be, but you're welcome to tag along for a bit.” She took his hand, and they shook.
“Great! I have to admit, I was getting rather lonely hanging around here by myself. I'll let you take the lead, since I really don't know Vvardenfell all that well. In fact, this is the furthest I've ever been from home up until now. But...look...since we’re here, can we try going within the Ghostfence? Not far, just inside the gate. I have to get used to it, I just have to...”
“Sure,” she said, glancing at the long, gated tunnel that led into Red Mountain. “How do we – ”
“I’ve got it!” Julan said quickly, reaching past her and pressing a triangular button that stood on a short stone pylon outside the gate. There was a loud click and the first gate of two started to rise. “I guess – ah, I’ll just follow you then,” he said sheepishly, and Fen smiled slightly and passed him, pressing the next button to open the last gate. It clicked and rose up, and as Fen led them to the base of the mountain, the wind started to pick up and the skies turned a familiar dusty red. Lifting one arm to shield her eyes, Fen started to walk, trusting that Julan was behind her. She had barely gone three paces, however, when she heard him shouting her name over the wind.
“Fen! Um…I’m…” he drifted off.
“What is it, Julan?” Fen called, pushing her hair out of her eyes.
“I’m not ready for this!” he shouted, looking embarrassed. “Can I…can I just use a Divine Intervention scroll and get us both out of here?” Relieved, for the mountain had been giving her an ominous feeling, Fen nodded, and Julan fumbled with his pack and took out the scroll. There was a flash of light, then they were standing in the small courtyard of the Tribunal temple in Ald’ruhn.
“I...I'm sorry for what happened back there,” Julan said, rubbing his neck. It was quiet in Ald’ruhn – evidently the ashstorm had not reached it yet. “Gods, you must think I'm an utter coward. But I swear this to you: I am a warrior. I have never run from a fight, and I do not fear death. I’m not afraid of the ash monsters on Red Mountain, it’s something else...hard to explain. I think it’s to do with these weird dreams I've been having...” Fen looked up quickly, remembering her dream of the golden-masked figure.
“What dreams?” she asked, hoping she wasn’t the only one. She had had the same dream three nights in a row now.
“I often dream that I’m climbing Red Mountain, and it’s dark, and the air is filled with ash, getting into my eyes and mouth, and it gets harder and harder to keep moving. And there are all these voices surrounding me, whispering things...”
“What kind of things?” Fen asked.
“I don’t know. I can’t understand what they are saying. But they sound... uh... not good. I mean, you’ve heard of Dagoth Ur, right? Even an outlander must know about him – the devil who lives under Red Mountain, yes? Who is supposed to make people go insane by sending them dreams?” Fen nodded. She was tempted to tell him right out that she wasn’t the outlander everyone thought she was, but she held her tongue. “Dreams like that,” he finished simply.
“Everyone has odd dreams sometimes, but they don’t mean anything.” I wish I believed that, she thought to herself.
“Of course. Dagoth Ur is a powerful figure in our history and legends - of course lots of people dream about him. It's nothing. I'm certainly not insane, and I'm not planning to be!”
“But…these dreams bother you so much you can’t set foot on Red Mountain?”
“They aren’t. I mean... they won’t. I know it doesn’t make sense. Just give me a little time, please. Maybe we could carry on with my training, I think I need to take my mind off things.”
“Oh,” Fen said. She had momentarily forgotten that she was going to be training Julan now. “Well…um…what are you good at?”
“Well…I’ve been doing archery all my life, I doubt there’s much you could teach me there…”
“I’m a mage,” Fen said quickly. “What are you good at magic-wise?”
“Oh. Well I’m best at restoration. You know, healing people. And I’m not bad in illusion or mysticism.”
“How about destruction?” she asked.
“I could…work on that.”
“Then why don’t we have a go at that first?” Fen suggested, and they walked out of the courtyard. “We can use one of the spare rooms in the guildhall here, Edwinna won’t mind.”
“Wait, you’re in the Mages’ Guild?” Julan said, stopping. Fen nodded. “Ugh! I can’t stand the Mages’ Guild! Especially not the one here! I get lost in it every time. I keep running ‘round and ‘round the balcony, I always forget where the damn stairs are…” Julan continued into his tirade as they walked towards the guildhall, and Fen couldn’t help but feel that perhaps her days wouldn’t be quite as lonely now.

This chapter starts Kateri's Julan Ashlander Companion mod.

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