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Saturday, January 15, 2011

XIII - Ilunibi

Late the next morning, Fen rolled up the tent and sent Julan back to Ald’ruhn, telling him to meet her in Balmora. She set a mark in the Urshilaku camp, figuring she would be coming back again, then recalled to Caius Cosades’ doorstep. It felt strange to be in the squalour of the back corner of Balmora again after her long trek through the lonely, wind-beaten Ashlands.
“Good work, Fen,” he said as she carefully related all Nibani Maesa had told her to the Spymaster. “Sounds like you being the Nerevarine is a possibility, doesn’t it?” Fen touched Julan’s telepathy ring on her hand, hoping he wasn’t listening. The ring was cool. “Anyway, let me try to get word to Mehra Milo. Maybe she can find out whether the Dissident Priests have any lost prophecies. But in the meantime, I have a very tough assignment for you. Do you think you’re ready?” Fen blinked.
“I…I don’t know. What is it?”
I think you’re ready, and that’s all that’s important,” he said, stumbling over to his lockbox again and counting out a few coins. “But just in case, I'm going to give you four hundred drakes.” He handed her the coins. “Before you head out, make sure you outfit yourself with healing potions, new gear, a little training, whatever you think you need most. And remember: if you get in trouble, back off, rest up, and go back fresh. Don’t get cocky. I think this will be a tough one.” Fen nodded slowly, not liking the direction Cosades’s words were going in. “Here’s your mission: Fort Buckmoth sent a patrol to Gnaar Mok, hunting smugglers with Sixth House connections. They found a Sixth House base, a Sixth House shrine, and a Sixth House priest named Dagoth Gares. Speak to Champion Raesa Pullia at Fort Buckmoth; she’ll tell you about the patrol and the Sixth House base. Your orders: find that Sixth House base, kill Dagoth Gares, and bring me a full report on the Sixth House base.”
“You want me to clear a Sixth House Base?” Fen repeated incredulously. “On my own?”
“You can bring that little Ashlander friend of yours along. What’s her name? Julia?”
“Julan,” Fen said distractedly.
“I don’t care. But I want this done as soon as possible, Fen. I need information about these bases.” He fixed her with a firm glare. “No side jobs, Operative.” He pointed wordlessly to the door and  Fen exited Caius’s house, her mind still turning, to find Julan waiting for her just outside.
“So what did the Skooma-head want?” he asked cheerfully. Fen didn’t answer for a moment. Julan’s smile faded. “Fen?”
“He wants me to clear a Sixth House base.”
What? Fen, he couldn’t have – by yourself?”
“You’re coming,” she replied quickly. “You have to. I can’t do this alone.”
“Of course I’m coming,” Julan answered confidently. “I just can’t believe he gave you something that stupid!”
“Quiet,” Fen muttered, taking his arm and directing him away from Caius’ house, down the street. “He knows what he’s doing. He thinks I’m ready.”
“Where is it?”
“Near Gnaar Mok,” Fen said, starting towards the Mages’ Guild. “But we need to go by Fort Buckmoth first. One of the officers there is going to tell us what happened.” Trying not to think of what lay ahead, they started the short walk out of Balmora under a steel-grey sky.
It was almost noon when they entered Buckmoth Legion Fort, an Imperial garrison that stood a short walk from Ald’ruhn. Inside, they were directed to Raesa Pullia, a muscular Imperial woman with a hardened face who was writing a letter in her office. She looked terribly out of place there – like she would be much more comfortable holding a sword rather than a quill.
“You’re Fen,” she said at once, looking up as they entered. “Caius Cosades sent you, didn’t he? He says you’re the one to handle this Sixth House base near Gnaar Mok.”
“Only one trooper returned,” Raesa said immediately, setting down her quill. “He died soon after, horribly disfigured with corprus disease, and out of his wits. In his ravings, he spoke of a cavern on the coast – he called it ‘Ilunibi.’” She shuffled through a stack of parchment, then threw her hand up. “It’s not on our maps; try asking locals in Gnaar Mok. They fought with cultists and disfigured man-beasts – corprus monsters, I think. They fled the attackers and got lost in the caves. Then they ran into a half-man creature named Dagoth Gares.
“This Dagoth Gares slew the rest of the patrol, but spared the one trooper. He told the trooper he was being spared, so he might tell others that ‘The Sleeper Awakes,’ and ‘The Sixth House has Risen,’ and ‘Dagoth Ur is Lord, and I am his Priest,’ and ‘All will be One with Him in the Flesh.’” She rolled her eyes. “Dunno what the hell was wrong with him, but he was stark-raving mad. None of it made many sense.” It makes too much sense, Fen thought uncomfortably. Neither blight nor age can harm him; the Curse-of-Flesh before him flies. “The trooper awakened outside the caves and returned here. We couldn’t recognize him, and he didn’t respond to questions...just kept rambling on like a madman until he died.
“I’ve heard of corprus disease before, but never seen it. The trooper’s flesh was swollen and covered with growths. His bones twisted and lost their shape. He spoke to himself, as if in a dream. We didn’t recognize him at first, except for his clothing and armor. The fort chaplain tried spells and potions, but couldn’t cure the disease. He died soon after he reached the fort. Didn’t realize how fast corprus kills. It sure wasn’t pretty. The troops seem shaken.” She sighed heavily and leaned forward on her elbows. “I’m a little worried myself, to tell the truth. Haven’t seen anything this bad since I joined the service. Poor fellow was a complete mess.”
“Your legion hasn’t cleared a Sixth House base before?”
“Of course we have,” Pullia snapped. “It’s just – never been this bad. All the other ones have just been filled with crazy cultists. This is the first time that a…well, a creature has come out of one. I guess I just thought corprus was something that was out there, but wouldn’t ever affect me.” She rubbed her eyes exhaustedly. “Reality’s a bitch,” she murmured distractedly.
“Can you tell us how to get to Gnaar Mok?” Fen asked, not wanting to picture the legionnaire who had returned, completely twisted and disfigured by Blight.
“Gnaar Mok is an island fishing village on the Bitter Coast, roughly west of Caldera and Ald'ruhn. Have you got a map?” Fen pulled it out and handed it to her, and she made a rough dot on one of the tiny western islands off the coast. “There’s no marked route to Gnaar Mok from Ald’ruhn. It's no easy trip.” She turned the map around so Fen could see it and moved the nib of her quill along the path. “At the Gnisis-Balmora-Ald’ruhn signpost, go south, then immediately west on a side road to Drulene Falen’s cottage. Then head cross-country west to the coast, with the old Dunmer stronghold at Andasreth as a landmark. When you hit the coast, turn south. Follow the coast, wading around headlands when necessary. Pass a shipwreck. When the coast levels out and turns from barren rock to green swamp, you’re in the Bitter Coast region. Keep south, with the water on your left, until you see Gnaar Mok, an island just off the coast. There’s a crude plank bridge through some rocks to the island itself. It’s a rough place, popular with adventurers, smugglers, and outlaws, but maybe someone in Gnaar Mok can tell you how to find the Ilunibi sea caverns.”
Pullia waved them out, and they stood under a grim, slate-grey sky on the hard-packed dirt of the exterior of the Fort.
“This should be fun,” Julan muttered offhandedly.
“We have a long trip,” Fen said, glancing up at the sky. “We might as well get moving.” And so they began to follow the route Pullia had sketched out for them. Soon the dusty cobbles beneath their feet turned to sluggish mud and rain began to drizzle on and off, filling the air with a damp chill and making the swampland around them churn lazily.
“I hate the Bitter Coast,” Fen snarled, yanking her boot, with an unpleasant squelch from the mud.
“I didn’t realize there were people who don't,” Julan said, looking bemused as she pulled her other boot out of the slop on the paths.
“Shut up, Julan,” Fen snapped, pulling the hood of her cloak lower over her face.
“You need to relax,” Julan said at once, flicking up his own hood as the rain began to patter on the thick leaves overhead once more.
“What, you want me to pretend that this will be easy?” she said harshly, starting to trudge through the muck with Julan at her heels, splashing up tiny brown tears of mud with every step.
“No,” he replied simply, “but I don’t want you to worry too much. We’re smart people, Fen. We’ll get through this all right.”
“An entire troop of legion soldiers died in there,” she muttered, her voice partly lost in the loud symphony of insects that bred in the cesspools of muck around them.
“That doesn’t mean we will,” he said pointedly, and Fen gave him a sharp look that silenced him at once.
“We’ll be there in about an hour,” she said, turning to face forward again. Soon the mountains on either side dropped away and they were surrounded by slime-covered vines and coated in a hazy, dull green glow by the shading leaves overhead. Before long, during a dry spell in the inconsistent raining, they spotted a ship’s mast a short ways away, and not long afterward a small jumble of ramshackle huts nearby.
They started across a narrow bridge made of a single half-rotted plank that had been laid between the coast and the next little island. They followed two more of these crude bridges until they reached Gnaar Mok, which was merely a collection of thatched-roof shacks made of warped gray wood and a few misplaced-looking Velothi-style buildings.
“What a pleasant little town this is,” Julan muttered. There were only a few people out, as a storm was drawing ominously closer with every minute. Those who were outside were mostly Dunmer in worn clothes, balefully going from one place to the next. A little Breton girl in a faded pink pinafore and a dark-haired Dunmer boy were kneeling by the water a little ways away, prodding a makeshift toy sailboat that was rocking slightly with the motion of the waves. Fen noticed a Dunmer woman with red hair that was turning grey staring at them, and Fen approached.
“Pardon, sera,” she said, and the woman looked over Fen’s mud-splotched robe and Julan’s armor critically.
“Who are you? More Hlaalu representatives come to tax us again?”
“No,” Fen replied. “We’re here to have a look at the Sixth House base nearby. Ilunibi.”
“Ilunibi Caverns. That’s what they call the old sea cave up on the north end of the island, right on Khartag Point. Don’t be poking your nose in there. Someone might object.”
“Khartag Point?”
“It’s on the western coast, not far from here. It’s a gigantic boulder. Some of the Orcs consider it a landmark. Why, I don’t know. Some Orc or another jumped off on a dare. It didn’t end well.” Thunder rolled through the sky overhead and the woman glanced up. “Be seeing you,” she muttered, and went down to the coast to take the hand of the little boy there, whom she led into one of the shacks. The Breton girl was gone. Fen glanced around and realized everyone was gone but the a few people at the dock who were busy tying up the single travel vessel that bobbed in the water there.
“You’d think they would get used to storms, living here,” Julan said, and they left the silent village and started across a path of plank-bridges that led across a small chain of islands. “Is this it?” They had reached the last island, which was no bigger than one of the shacks in Gnaar Mok. A large, rounded rock stood at its head, though that was the only notable thing about it.
“Here,” Fen said, walking towards the boulder. A door was built into its base, rough-hewn and sea worn, and Fen saw someone had carved words into the wood. ILUNIBI. CARCASS OF THE SAINT. “This was just put here,” she muttered, running her fingers over the words.
“Is this it?” Fen looked up at Julan. He was staring at the door with trepidation in his face, looking slightly sick.
“This is it.” She straightened up and pushed open the cavern door.

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