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Saturday, January 1, 2011

XI - The Urshilaku Camp

I hope you all had a safe and happy new year :)

“Nice of you to show up,” Cosades said as the door banged shut behind Fen. “How long ago did I tell you to be here, Operative?”
“I –”
“Too long ago,” he interjected. Cosades slammed his skooma pipe down on his table. “I’m tired of you running every which way to do gods know what all over this damn island. It happens one more time and there’ll be consequences, you hear?” Fen bit back a retort and nodded. “Good,” Cosades said, tripping over a boot on the floor on his way to the table. “Now. I have orders for you. First, take this.” He shuffled through some papers there  and pulled one out, handing it to her. “These are notes from one of my informants, Hassour Zainsubani. I had to send one of my other Operatives to go get them since you disappeared off the face of the damn earth for a week. They’re on Ashlander customs. You’ll need them later. I'm promoting you, and sending you to the Urshilaku camp to speak with Sul-Matuul and Nibani Maesa. But before you go –”
“Ouch!” Fen felt a sudden burning on her finger and looked down sharply. There was nothing there, though, and she looked up apologetically at Caius, who raised an eyebrow, then continued.
“Before you go, I think it may be time to tell you what’s going on.”
“What do you mean, what’s going on?” Fen asked, confused. Caius gave a heavy sigh and sat down, shuffling through the papers again.
“The Emperor and his advisors think you have the appearance of meeting the conditions of the Nerevarine prophecies.”
“I have the – what?”
“That’s why you were pulled out of prison on his Majesty’s authority and sent to me,” Cosades continued doggedly. “So you could satisfy the conditions of the Nerevarine prophecies and become the Nerevarine.” He handed another sheet of parchment to Fen. “Here. This is a decoded copy of the package you gave me when you arrived. Read it later. It should explain everything.” Fen took the parchment wordlessly and stared down at it. Her heart was racing.
“As you'll see in the decoded message,” Caius went on, “the Emperor and his counselors say you have the appearance of satisfying the conditions of the prophecy. Do you really satisfy the prophecy? Are you really the prophesied Nerevarine?” He folded his thick hands and glared thoughtfully at her. “At first, I thought we were just supposed to create a persuasive impostor. Now I don’t know what to think. But I am sure of one thing. This is not just primitive superstition, and we will treat it seriously, just as his Majesty commands.
“Zainsubani says Sul-Matuul and Nibani Maesa at Urshilaku camp are the heads of the Nerevarine cult,” Caius continued, pulling himself out of his chair with a heavy sigh. “So I’m sending you to speak with them. Tell them your story, and have them test you against the Nerevarine prophecies. As heads of the Nerevarine cult, they can best judge whether you satisfy the prophecies. When you’ve spoken with them, report back to me. Take the silt strider to Ald’ruhn, then to Maar Gan. There’s a scout, Nuleno Tedas, stationed at the outpost there who can give you instructions.” He paused right in front of her, his eyes narrowed darkly. “No side trips, Operative. This is more important than whatever you might need to do.”
With that, he shooed her away and Fen went out and stood on the doorstep of his house, staring down at the papers she had been given in disbelief. But before she could even begin to comprehend what she had just been told, a furious voice echoed down the street.
“You filthy, traitorous, n’wah!” Fen looked up and saw Julan storming down the road, his face twisted in rage. “You scum! You liar! I thought I could trust you! And now you have betrayed me in the WORST possible way!” He stopped right in front of her, his face inches from her own.
“Julan, what are you talking abo –” Julan slapped the papers out of her hands and they fluttered to the cobbles while Julan leaned in closer, his glare hot and furious.
“I KNEW something wasn't right about that Cosades man! So I used our telepathy rings to listen in to your conversation!”
“You spied on me?!” Fen cried incredulously.
“WHAT?!” Julan roared. “YOU accuse ME of spying? YOU’RE the spy, Fen! I know that now! You’re an Imperial spy! Of all people, I never thought you would be a spy for my most hated enemies. And that’s not even the WORST of it!”
“Let’s have it, then,” Fen said angrily, her hands balling into fists.
“You're trying to pass yourself off as the NEREVARINE! YOU! An OUTLANDER! How DARE you mock me like that! And not just me, my PEOPLE, my RELIGION and my entire CULTURE!”
“Look, this is a surprise to me too!” Fen shouted.
“I don’t CARE! You're still prepared to go the Urshilaku and attempt to con them into accepting you as the fulfillment of the prophecies! That is the most offensive and ridiculous thing I have ever heard!”
“I’m not trying to ‘con’ anyone. They’re going to test me,” Fen snarled, pushing past Julan and starting furiously down the street. Julan caught her arm and roughly spun her around to face him.
“How can I possibly believe anything you say anymore?! I just... I can’t believe you could do this to me! First you lie to me about who you are, now this?!
“It’s always about you, isn’t it, Julan?!” Fen shouted, rage boiling up inside her. She pulled her arm fiercely out of Julan’s grasp. “How the hell do you think I feel?”
“YOU?! How YOU feel? Stop changing the subject! You LIED to me! Gods, you must’ve been laughing at me all along...How could you lie to me about something so important to me?!”
“Well maybe if it upsets you so much, you should leave!” she snapped, turning sharply again and starting down the street.
“Oh no. You’re not getting rid of me that easily. Do you really think I’m going to sit back and let you try to mislead my people?” Fen paused and glared darkly at him over her shoulder.
“What exactly do you plan to do?” she asked scathingly. “You’re a hated exile, remember? Just like me!”
“Go on, twist the knife!” Julan shouted. Yes, I’m an outcast, and probably no one would listen to a word I said. But I have to try something! I can’t let you do this! You’ll have to kill me first.”
“MAYBE I WILL!” Fen shouted.
“YOU JUST TRY IT, F’LAH! You may have betrayed me, but I won’t let you betray the whole of Morrowind to the Emperor!” Resisting the urge to throw him to the ground then and there, Fen turned and furiously stormed off down the street, not caring whether he followed her or not.
Fen still felt tired enough to sleep for years, but her anger had given her a new energy, and she went straight to the silt strider and paid for passage to Ald’ruhn, then Maar Gan, Julan forcefully following her. By the time she reached Maar Gan, it was noontime, and Fen led the way into the outpost, deliberately slamming the door behind her and scowling as she heard Julan wrench it open again. A Dunmer woman praying at an altar looked up, affronted by the disruption, but Fen paid her no mind and went straight downstairs to talk to Nuleno Tedas.
“Urshilaku camp is due north from Maar Gan, but high ridges lie in the way,” Nuleno said when Fen asked her. “From Maar Gan head east past the Silt Strider, then take a trail north to the Foyada Bani-Dad. Follow the Foyada northwest to the sea. A shipwreck at the seamouth of the ravine is a landmark. Swim east around the headland. Pass east through the ruins of Assurnabitashpi Shrine. Avoid Daedra here. They’re powerful and aggressive. Urshilaku Camp lies east of the ruins, inland in a low hollow. Have you got a map?” Fen unfolded the thick parchment that Nine-Toes had given her all those months ago and handed it to her. She found a quill and made a small circle in the northern part of the island, just past a long ridge that stretched from Red Mountain to the coast.
“It’s a long journey,” she said, handing the map back to Fen. “Riddled with cliffracers and constant ashstorms. If I were you, I would make sure you always have some kind of shelter to get out of the Blight. The trader in town here sells tents, if you’re interested.”
“Thank you,” Fen said, and, deciding this was a good idea, she walked over to the Tradehouse and spent two hundred septims on a brown and green striped tent that was handed to her in a tightly-rolled bundle. Pointedly ignoring Julan, she paid for a room for the night, asked to be woken early, and sat down at the table there, unfolding the papers Caius had given her. She skimmed over the notes on Ashlander customs and respect, her anger ebbing away, then set them aside and turned to the document she had been itching to read since Caius had given it to her. The decoded copy of the package she had delivered to him. It seemed like years ago.

Spymaster Caius Cosades
Knight-Errant of the Imperial Order of Blades
Director of Imperial Intelligence in Vvardenfell District, Eastern Provinces
I have the honor to acquaint you with his Majesty's wishes concerning Fenara, an individual of no rank or consequence.
Fenara has been released from prison by his Majesty's authority and sent to you with this missive. Fenara is to be entered as a Novice in the Imperial Order of the Blades, and is to serve under your absolute authority as you shall see fit, except insofar as his Majesty's particular wishes are concerned.
His Majesty's particular wishes are as follows.
A local superstition holds that an orphan and outcast, a youth born on a certain day to uncertain parents, shall unite all the tribes of the Dunmer, drive out the invaders of Morrowind, and shall reestablish the ancient laws and customs of the Dark Elven nations. This orphan and outcast is called in legend the "Nerevarine," and is supposed to be a reincarnation of the long-dead Dunmer General and First Councilor, Lord Indoril Nerevar.
Fenara has the appearance of meeting the conditions of this local superstition. Therefore it is his Majesty's desire that Fenara shall, insofar as is possible, satisfy the conditions of this ancient prophecy, and shall become the Nerevarine.
Though this prophecy is indeed only an ancient local superstition, his Majesty has taken counsel on this matter with his most expert informants and confidants, and his Majesty is persuaded that the prophecy is genuine and significant, either in its entirety, or in its several parts, and he earnestly demands you treat this matter with the utmost seriousness.
Certain aspects of this ancient superstition are described at the end of this document, and further materials will be forthcoming by courier at the earliest occasion. It will, of course, be necessary that you acquaint yourself better with the details of this ancient superstition from your local sources. Since this matter intimately concerns Fenara,  it is expected that you will employ him to gather information on this subject. His Majesty has taken a great personal interest in the legends and prophecies of the Nerevarine, and eagerly awaits reports your reports.
I have the honor to be, Sir, your most Humble and Obedient Servant,
Glabrio Bellienus
Personal Secretary to the Emperor

Fen set the paper down, her hands shaking. So Julan was right. The Emperor wanted her to be a decoy. A pawn that he could control to gain the trust of the Dunmer. She buried her face in her hands. Is this why she had come from Mournhold? To play this dismal role in the Emperor’s plans for Morrowind? Tired and confused, she tucked away both sheets and blew out the candle, falling onto her pillow and trying to ignore the feeling of unrest poking at her brain.

A dark void, filled with nothingness, only the golden-masked man before her. “There are many rooms in the house of the master,” he said, opening his wiry arms. “Be easy, for from the hands of the enemies I have delivered you.” The man faded into nothingness and she could see a low stone altar lit with scarlet candles that cast a reddish glow over the body that lay there. It was utterly still, and Fen moved closer and saw its face, a young Dunmer woman with dark hair and fine features. It was her face. She panicked and reached out to touch her body, and as she did, the body suddenly drew breath and its eyes flew open, glossy and blank, and then bright, hot light filled the room, blinding her…

“Sera?” Fen opened her eyes. A young maid was standing near her bed, holding a dim candle. “It is an hour before sunrise, sera. You wished to be roused.”
“Yes,” Fen said, sitting up and rubbing her eyes. “Thank you.” The maid set the candle on the dresser and left the room, leaving Fen sitting in the near-darkness listening to her heart beat slowly return to normal. After a moment, she swung her feet out of bed and got dressed, wondering if she had managed to lose Julan. Or perhaps she hadn’t, and he would apologize to her. Both of these possibilities, however, proved to be false when she walked outside and found him sitting there on a crate, sharpening his jinkblade with a rock. He gave her a foul look which clearly told her he wasn’t planning on speaking to her, and she shrugged it off and headed out of town, around the silt strider, and up through the foyada, Julan following her, unspeaking.
Weak, watery sunlight started to spread as they moved deeper into the Ashlands, and Fen grew used to the quiet rhythm of her plain shoes on the ground mingling with the heavy footfalls of Julan’s boots. As the hours stretched on, the sky became faint blue streaked with clouds that were moving in ominously. At first, Fen had relished in the silence, for it reminded her of the days when she had first come to Vvardenfell and spent her time wandering through Dwemer ruins looking for rare books and artifacts, the subtle clicking and whirring of machinery her only company. Now, though, she was used to Julan’s quips and constant jokes, and the silence made her feel lonelier than she would have if he wasn’t even there.
It was nearing three in the afternoon when Fen heard waves breaking the shore in the distance and knew they were close. The sky was growing dark with the coming ashstorm and her legs ached. She desperately wanted to stop and rest for a moment, but she had no desire to sit awkwardly with a stony Julan and pressed onward. Soon they came to the water where there was a shipwreck, just as Nuleno had said, guarded by a single scamp. They killed the scamp, the first action they had seen all day, and water-walked around the high stones and the Daedric ruin of Assurnabitashpi, as Nuleno suggested. Fen checked her map when they got to land again and reasoned that they were now only a short walk from the Urshilaku camp. She raised her eyes and decided it was just over the hill that stood before them.
“So…we’re almost to Urshilaku camp.” Fen turned around, surprised that Julan had suddenly spoke. “I suppose you’re going to want to speak to their ashkahn.”
“Yes.” There was a long silence. The only sound was the wind of the gathering storm starting to stir the sea behind them.
“So. What will you tell them? They’ll just laugh at you, you know. You’re an outlander, so you could never be Nerevarine. Why are you even bothering?” Fen closed her eyes. This was the last thing she wanted to deal with now.
“I need to know what’s going on,” she said slowly.
“Well, you’re wasting your time.”
“Perhaps I am, Julan,” Fen said, opening her eyes. “But I’d appreciate it if youd keep out of it when I talk to the Urshilaku, and not start yelling that I’m an Imperial imposter.”
“Why should I keep out of it?!” he said indignantly. “You are an Imperial imposter!”
“They’re going to test me against the prophecies. If I fail, none of this will matter.” Julan crossed his arms.
“Well...that’s true.”
“But if you start making a fuss, they’ll refuse to test me at all – and then you’ll have no proof I’m an impostor.” He said nothing. “So keep your mouth shut for once, okay?”
“Fine,” he said at last. “But I’m not doing this to help you.”
“Oh, I know,” Fen said coldly, turning away. They started to climb the hill, and when they reached the summit they found the Urshilaku camp arrayed below them. It was a small collection of yurts that seemed to be dominated by five large yurts that all stood under a kind of awning erected over them. The rest were roughly the same size, save for one other larger one with a faded rug outside the tent flap.
Fen led the way down into the camp, and as they entered the cluster of yurts, the Ashlanders glared suspiciously at them. One round-faced boy holding a roughly-hewn wooden bow approached them eagerly, but a woman wearing a baby papoose on her back seized his hand and pulled him away. Fen reached into her bag and pulled out a trama root, a dark red thorn as long as her forearm that she had sawed off from a plant during the walk through the foyada. She had read in the notes from Caius that this was an acceptable gift to present to an Ashlander.
She approached one man with long, straggly dark hair and a battered netch leather cuirass who stood his ground firmly. There was a sharpened spear strapped across his back and Fen could sense his urge to draw it. She held out the trama root and bowed her head slightly.
“A gift for you, serjo, for I hope to be forgiven for entering your camp uninvited.” The man took the trama root, then lowered it and looked at her quizzically.
“What business do you have here, Outlander?”
“I wish to speak to Sul-Matuul and Nibani Maesa of the Nerevarine prophecies, serjo.” The man studied her for a moment.
“I do not believe what I am hearing. You wish to speak to Sul-Matuul and Nibani Maesa.” He gazed at her curiously, as if guessing the reason she wanted to talk. “You do not look like the Nerevarine. But you do not speak like a fool, or a madman. This is a puzzle. I tell you...go speak with Zabamund in his yurt. He is a gulakhan, Sul-Matuul’s champion, and he will decide what is right. If Zabamund gives you permission, then you may enter the Ashkhan’s Yurt and speak with Sul-Matuul.” He pointed her to the right yurt, one of the five under the large awning, and watched her go, holding the trama root in his hand.
Fen pushed aside the tent flap and immediately bowed deeply to the tall Dunmer man who stood just inside, sitting by the fire and smoking a long pipe. He lowered the pipe when they entered, then snubbed it out, speaking easily.
“Speak with respect, Outlander, and I will listen.” And so Fen told him everything she knew about the Nerevarine prophecies and the Sixth House, surprising herself with all that she had learned since she had arrived in Vvardenfell. Julan, too, looked surprised, and Zabamund seemed pleasantly impressed.
“These are not simple matters,” he said heavily. “You know a great deal more than I would have expected. And some of what you say is news to me. I believe you should speak to Sul-Matuul. Perhaps he will be angry with me. But I think I can bear that. Go to the Ashkhan’s Yurt. Ask our chieftain your questions, and tell him I have sent you.”
“Thank you,” Fen said, and she bowed again before leaving the yurt.
“This one is the ashkahn’s,” Julan said at once pointing, and Fen glanced at him. He reddened and looked away, as if not wanting to admit that he had spoken to her. She warily lifted the tent flap of the center yurt and bowed deeply upon entering.
“Stand.” She slowly did so, and saw that the ashkahn was a short and wiry man, with broad shoulders that made up for his lack of height. He had a curiously stretched face, as if it had been melted and drawn out, then let to cool. “Which one of my gulakahns has sent you, Outlander?”
“Zabamund, serjo.”
“I see. And why has he sent you?”
“I wish to be tested against the Nerevarine prophecies, serjo.” A silence fell within the yurt.
“You think you fulfill the Nerevarine prophecies,” he finally said. “You wish to be tested to see if you are the Nerevarine. No outlander may join the Nerevarine cult. If you were a Clanfriend, an adopted member of the Ashlander tribes, then perhaps. I have an initiation rite in mind. If you pass this rite, I will adopt you as a Clanfriend of the Ashlanders. And then I will submit you to Nibani Maesa, our wise woman, who is skilled in oracles and mysteries, and who will test you against the prophecies.”
“What is the initiation rite, serjo?”
“To be adopted into the tribe, you must undergo a harrowing. In a harrowing, you will be judged by the spirits and ancestors to see if you are worthy. Go to the Urshilaku Burial Caverns and fetch me Sul-Senipul’s Bonebiter Bow. Sul-Senipul was my father, and his spirit guards his bonemold long bow deep in the burial caverns. Return to me with this bow, and I will adopt you into the Ashlander tribes as a Clanfriend.
“The burial caverns lie to the south-southeast of the camp, a north-facing door in a little hill halfway between us and the slopes of Red Mountain. Go north from the camp to the water, then turn east. At a rock cairn on the beach, turn and head straight south until you find the door. The spirits of our ancestors guard the caverns. They will attack, and will kill you if they can. Force your way past them, or evade them, get the bow, and return to prove your worthiness. Now go.” Fen left the yurt, Julan trailing behind her, and started straight north. She was driven by an odd sense of determination now and intended to be finished with Sul-Matuul’s task before the night was finished, and it was only just four o’ clock. The ashstorm was brewing quickly, though, and the sky was now a dusty brown as the winds sped up.
She followed Sul-Matuul’s instructions carefully, meeting little along the way save for the occasional kagouti. By the time she spotted the wooden door set into a rock, only twenty minutes had passed since she left the camp. Fen headed for the door, determined, and had one hand on its handle when Julan’s voice stopped her.
“Fen?” She paused, her eyes fixed on the door several meters away. “You’re not really going in there, are you?” She turned to look at him, standing uncertainly a few feet away. “I just have a bad feeling about this. You don’t know my people like I do. You think this is an initiation, but it’s not. It’s a deathtrap. Sul-Matuul has no intention of making you a Clanfriend, he just wanted to get rid of you. He doesn’t think you'll come back from this place.”
“And why should I believe you?” she asked sharply, surprising herself. This new, angry Fen was someone that she had never met before, strange and alien. She was used to the shy, silent Fenara, not outspoken and driven Fen.
“Because if these are the Urshilaku Burial caverns, then they are a most sacred place. No ashkahn would just send an outlander here to trample and profane the bones of his ancestors. But he might send someone there if he was sure they would die, since the release of their soul would increase the power of the tomb’s ancestor guardian spirits. This is how my people think. Can’t you see that?”
“Why are you telling me this?” Fen asked, dropping her hand from the door. “I’d have thought my death here would be just what you want. Why the concern?” Julan looked uncomfortable, but didn’t speak. “I’m going in anyway,” Fen went on. “Even if what you say is true, it’s still the only way I’ll be made a Clanfriend. Are you coming?”
“Yes…” he said slowly. “...I’m coming. Someone has to make sure you treat this sacred place with respect.” Fen turned away and pushed open the door.
She found herself in a long, dark hall, sloping gently downward and flanked by tall, flat-topped rocks that held crouched and mummified figures. Fen slowly passed the figures, looking up at them in wonder. Each one was surrounded by an odd greenish light whose source she couldn’t detect, and there was an air about this place that was both eerie and peaceful at the same time. She had only gone a few paces past the hallway when she noticed a living skeleton running towards her, an algae-covered spear in hand. She stepped back, summoning a flame atronach, and let it reduce the skeleton to dust.
They continued through the burial cavern in silence, occasionally taking down a skeleton that attacked. Otherwise, Fen wondered at the burial rites of the Urshilaku. In one room, water covered the floor, dotted with round stepping stones of rock that held gilded boxes in which skulls were kept. In another, an enormous pillar rose to the cavernous ceiling, carved with niches that were home to crouched mummies and their belongings. She could easily become rich off the amount of loot in the caverns, but she remained resolute and touched nothing, working only towards her goal.
Finally, in a small room filled with chests that spilled out gold, they found a robed spirit floating near the back of the room. When it had fallen into a pile of dust, the dust reshaped itself and formed a bow that glowed once, then darkened again, solidified. Fen reached down and picked it up, feeling at once that this was surely the Bonebiter bow that Sul-Matuul had spoken of.
“Fen? Can I talk to you for a minute?” Fen looked around at Julan, surprised.
“What is it?”
“I've been thinking. About a lot of things, really, but...uh...mainly about this whole Imperial spy…false Incarnate...thing.” Fen said nothing. “You lied to me about being a spy for the Emperor, and I’m still not happy about that. And I’m not happy about you agreeing to pretend to be Nerevarine for the Emperor. But –”
“I’m not pretending anything,” Fen said hotly. “I’m being tested.”
“SHUT UP!” he shouted suddenly. “I’m trying to explain something here!” Fen raised one eyebrow and Julan continued. “So...as I said, I’ve been thinking. And I’ve been trying to imagine what I would have done, if I had been in your position. And I don’t really know. I probably would have shouted a lot and ended up getting thrown back into jail. Um…so...it occurred to me that maybe what I would have done in your situation wouldn’t have been a good idea.”
“Where are you going with this, Julan?”
“If you’d let me finish, I’d tell you! Sheogorath, I can tell you're not going to make this easy for me!”
“You’re not trying to apologize, are you?”
“N...maybe...I don’t know! All I know is that I tried to think about why you might be doing what you’re doing, and...I suppose it’s not your fault the Emperor is trying to manipulate you. And I can understand why you would want to find out what’s going on. And...” He faltered.
“And...um...I realized that this can’t be easy for you either. And...uh...maybe I haven't exactly been making your life any easier.”
“Too true,” she muttered.
“You're right. So...yes, I suppose I am trying to apologize. For shouting at you, and for not listening to you, and for not thinking about your side of things. And for generally being a thoughtless, self-centered, immature bastard.”
“I don’t know, maybe you should be a bit more apologetic”
“Sheogorath, what do you want me to do, stab myself?”
“That would be a start, yes,” she answered scathingly. For a moment, he just stared at her in disbelief, than her face broke into a smile. “I’m kidding!” she said, and he let out a relieved breath. She hugged him. “You’re forgiven.”
“Good,” he said as Fen tied the Bonebiter bow to her pack. “Let’s get that bow back to Sul-Matuul, then.”

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