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Saturday, January 22, 2011

XIV - Corprus

The inside of Ilunibi looked like any other cavern. There was a sudden, steep drop right at the entrance and a waterfall into a small underground pond, then a low hallway beyond that. They levitated down past the waterfall and entered the hallway, which quickly let out into a much larger area.
The cavern split off in three directions, two tunnels on either side that curved out of sight and one smaller room right ahead. Fen could see a campfire burning there. The floor here was flooded up to their ankles.
“I think –” she started, but she was cut off by a sudden angry cry from the room with the campfire. Then there was a silhouette of a man sprinting towards them, his front in the darkness but a club visible in his hand. Fen started to prepare a spell, but there was a subtle swish past her ear and he grunted and fell backward with a splash, a quivering arrow visible in his chest. Fen looked over at Julan, who was holding the Bonebiter bow.
“I told you you would do better with that bow than I would,” she said, smiling, but Julan just lowered the bow and glanced around, his face pale. Fen led the way down one of the twisting halls and they found another door, this one freshly carved into as well. TAINTED MARROW. Just inside the door, Fen saw a tall, but hunched-over figure walking slowly away from them. She nudged Julan, who nodded and aimed carefully with the Bonebiter bow. The arrow hit the creature in the back and it gave a high-pitched snarl and turned. The sight before her nearly made Fen gag. It looked like it had once been a Dunmer, but its mouth was wide and slack and its ears were low and oddly drooping. The worst part though, was that its eye sockets were merely empty black sockets, as if the eyes had been gouged crudely from within the skull.
The arrow didn’t seem to do much but agitate the creature, and Fen managed to finish it off with a fire spell before it reached them. The floor here was dry, and it fell on the ground with a simple thud.
“What the hell was that?” Julan muttered. He went to examine the corpse, but Fen stayed where she was, glancing around. On either side of the hallway they had entered into, red candles had been melted onto the rocks, and they somehow cast a crimson glow on the walls around them so that the only light in the tunnel was a deep, ominous scarlet.
“I think I’ve seen these before,” Julan said, turning over the creature with his boot. “Not in real life. Just drawings in my mother’s books. They’re called ‘ash zombies.’” He glanced up at her. “This place doesn’t feel right, Fen.”
“We’ll be fine,” she said quickly, reassuring herself as much as Julan. “See how easily we got rid of that thing? We’ll be fine.” They continued cautiously through the tunnel, meeting more of the ash zombies mingled with Daedra and a few Bonewalkers. When they came to the next door, labeled BLACKENED HEART, Julan hung back slightly.
“We should turn back, Fen,” he said. “I have a terrible feeling about this place. You don’t understand.” But Fen did understand. She had the same feeling. A kind of dread mingled with an impossible horror.
This area, too, was lit with red candles, and they moved through it as methodically as they had the rest of the caverns – rarely talking, cutting down whatever creatures came across their path. There were men here too, Dunmer men that were stark naked and carried clubs that screamed cryptic messages about the Sixth House before they died. When these men appeared, Fen always hung back and let Julan dispatch them with a well-placed arrow.
They were nearing the end of the caverns when the tunnel they were in moved suddenly upward. Stairs carved from black stone stretched up and out of sight, and they were lined with large braziers carved from black obsidian. An odd feeling hung around the stairs, and Fen went up them almost defiantly. Her mind felt almost blank, and she somehow knew that she was expected to turn back at the stairs. Julan followed her reluctantly.
At the top of the stairs, there was a single door, a door that carried a sense of finality with it. SOUL’S RATTLE. Fen didn’t stop, but pushed it straight open and came through to a short hallway with one tunnel off of it, the tunnel’s mouth lit with braziers. A sort of faint red smoke seemed to be spilling from this tunnel. Fen went straight towards it and turned.
The tunnel was not a tunnel at all, but rather a low-ceilinged room. The center of the room was dominated by an obsidian-carved altar that carried a tall statue in its center. The statue had the vague shape of a human, but Fen couldn’t make out what it was meant to be properly through the gloom. Tall black pylons surrounded the altar, carved with small niches that held more of the red candles. At the back of the room, six black metal bells hung from a red bar that stood on a low dais. The air in this room tasted sour, like blood in her mouth, with that odd, metallic tint. A feeling of dread was building in her heart, swelling so that it might burst. And it nearly did when a tall figure stepped from behind one of the pylons.
He was clothed in a long gray robe that fell simply to his bandaged feet, and his hands resembled those of a Dunmer. It was his face, though, that told Fen he was far from human. Where his eyes and nose should have been, a short trunk protruded, hanging limply down past his jaw. His mouth, like those of the ash zombies, was slack and wide, a misshapen gash across his face. The creature stepped forward, opening its arms in a gesture of welcome.
“Fen,” Julan whispered frantically, suddenly grabbing her arm. “Fen, this is bad. This is the thing I’ve seen in my dreams. We have to get out of here. This is bad.
“The Sixth House greets you, Lord Nerevar,” it said in a harsh, many-layered voice that echoed around the cavern’s walls. “Or Fen, as you call yourself in this life. I am known as Dagoth Gares, priest of Ilunibi Shrine, and minister to Sixth House servants. My Lord, Dagoth Ur, has informed me of your coming. I wish that this time you had come to honor your Lord’s friendship, not to betray it.”
“Dagoth Ur informed you?” Fen said, and Julan’s grip on her arm tightened. Her voice sounded strained, nervous.
“Dagoth Ur is the Awakened Lord of the Sixth House, come to cast down false gods, drive foreigners from the land, and restore the ancient glory of Morrowind. He bids you come to Red Mountain.” Dagoth Gares took a few steps toward her. “For the friendship and honor that once you shared, he would grant you counsel and power, if only you would pledge that friendship anew. The path to Red Mountain is long, and filled with danger, but if you are worthy, you will find there wisdom, a firm friend, and all the power you need to set the world aright.”
“The Sixth House is dead,” Fen said, trying to ignore the fact that her legs were shaking.
“The Sixth House was not dead, but only sleeping,” Dagoth Gares replied darkly. “Now it wakes from its long dream, and with its Lord, Dagoth Ur, it comes forth to free Morrowind of foreign rulers and divine pretenders. When the land is swept clean of false friends and greedy thieves, the children of Veloth will build anew a garden of plenty in this blighted wasteland.
“Ilunibi shrine is just a small, quiet retreat for Sixth House servants, a place to contemplate and grow strong and wise in Lord Dagoth’s ways. Here we share the sacraments of flesh and blood, and dream the dreams of our Lord. This and other lesser shrines are hidden from prying eyes throughout the land. But the greatest shrines of Sixth House servants lie beneath Red Mountain, in the citadels of our Lord and his close kin.”
“And the servants?” Fen asked sharply. She sounded firmer now, and this encouraged her. “If Dagoth Ur wants me to join him, I don’t think he should be sending his monsters to kill me.” The wide mouth formed something of a grin.
“Forgive the rude welcome, but until you have declared for us, we must treat you as our enemy. The Sleepers and Dreamers are newly come to Lord Dagoth, and not yet blessed with his power. But the Children of His Flesh, they are deep in the heart of his mysteries. Their bodies swell to contain his glory, and to yield the rich sacraments of our Lord's feasts. And we are the least of his servants, for Ash Poets, Ascended Sleepers, and Ash Vampires stand high above us in the Lord’s bountiful grace.”
“Fen,” Julan whispered as Dagoth Gares went on. “We have to get out of here.
“Now, Lord Nerevar,” he boomed suddenly. “Lord Dagoth gives me these words to say to you, so you may give them thought. ‘Once we were friends and brothers, Lord Nerevar, in peace and in war. Yet beneath Red Mountain, you struck me down as I guarded the treasure you bound me by oath to defend. But, remembering our old friendship, I would forgive you, and raise you high in my service.’
“My Lord Dagoth bids you come to Red Mountain. For the friendship and honor that once you shared, he would grant you counsel and power, if only you would pledge that friendship anew.” He tipped his head to her in something of a gentlemanly gesture. “I am not your Lord Dagoth, yet I, too, would say to you...do you come with weapons to strike me down? Or would you put away your weapon, and join me in friendship?
“And now, Lord Nerevar, I believe that you have come here to slay me. Perhaps if I am first, I will be allowed to deliver your soul to Lord Dagoth in person, so that you may be reborn within him.” Quite suddenly, Dagoth Gares raised his hands and sent a fire spell spiraling across the room towards her. It was moving too quickly to counteract, so Fen seized Julan’s arm and leapt to the side, falling, sprawled, on the ground, while Dagoth Gares laughed. She fired a frost spell at him from the ground, and it hit him squarely in the chest. The ash ghoul stumbled and Julan took this chance to leap up and offer his hand to Fen, who slapped it away and shouted “Just go!”
She quickly stood up and ran forward, ducking low to avoid Julan’s arrows, and groped blindly, unable to see clearly in the gloom. She caught his arm and clenched it tightly, a drain health spell shivering through her body and then into his. He slapped her away and she scrambled to her feet again, this time summoning a frost atronach to help them. The atronach stormed forward, its bright blue light contrasting wildly with the dim red of the cavern, and Fen moved back to stand with Julan, firing spells at a safer distance. When the atronach faded and Dagoth Gares was peppered with arrows, Fen ran forward again and shoved him roughly so he was against the wall. She started to place her front two fingers on her forehead, to finish him off with a frost spell, but he spoke suddenly, startling her and making her falter.
“Even as my Master wills, you shall come to him, in his flesh, and of his flesh.”
Before she could touch him, Dagoth Gares crumpled to the ground, and at the same time Fen felt a sickening sensation ripple through her, followed by a pain in her head that felt like someone had just bludgeoned it.
She fell to the ground in agony, in too much pain to make sound, and then, just as suddenly as it had come, the pain was gone, replaced by a weak pounding in her head.
“Fen?” She looked up. Julan was there, kneeling on the ground beside her, his eyes glimmering in the dim red light. “You okay?” Fen stared at him for a moment, then looked down at her hands. They looked discolored, strange. “Fen?” Julan’s voice sounded like it was coming from a million miles away. He took her shoulder and shook it slightly. When she didn’t reply, but continued to stare at her hands, he seized one and held it inches away from his face in the gloom.
“My head hurts,” she finally said. Julan looked up at her slowly, his face pale.
“Fen…this happened to someone I knew in Vos once. Their skin got all red like this and they had a headache.” He looked back down at her hand, then at her face. “The next day they turned into a corprus monster.” The words echoed chillingly in her mind, growing louder and louder with each repetition. Corprus monster. Corprus monster. Corprus monster.
“Does that mean…?”
“That bastard,” Julan said in a terrified whisper, glancing at Dagoth Gares’ body. “That bastard gave you corprus.” With these words, it became final, and Fen felt as if the whole world was crashing down around her, leaving nothing but Fen, standing in the middle of nothingness surrounded by floating dust. It took her a moment to realize Julan was still speaking.
“…serious form of blight disease. A lot of Dagoth Ur’s minions can transmit it, so Mother made me drink these foul-tasting herbal concoctions for a week to make me immune. Damn!” he said suddenly, dropping her hand and smacking himself in the forehead. “Why didn’t I think to make her do the same for you?” There was a long silence, then he looked up at her. “They...they say it’s incurable. And...” Julan swallowed. “…always fatal. Fen, I’m so sorry. I...I don’t know what to say.”
“Go back to Balmora.”
“Go back to Balmora. Tell Caius what happened.”
“What? No, Fen, I’m not leaving you here!”
“Just go, Julan! You can’t stay here. I won’t let you be here with me when I’ve got corprus. You said it yourself, it’s extremely contagious!”
“Fen, I’m not going to leave you in this hell-hole,” Julan said angrily.
“GO BACK!” she shouted, and her voice startled both of them, echoing around the empty caverns. For a long moment, they just glared at one another, then Julan cast recall and was gone, leaving Fen alone in the dark red light of Ilunibi.
Time passed. She lost all sense of it. She had no idea how an hour differed from a second, how a year differed from a day. She lay in the darkness of Ilunibi, her head propped up on the edge of the dais with the bells, doing nothing as she felt herself spiraling slowly out of sanity. The world became blurred and distorted, thoughts that did not make sense came into her mind. She went through long periods of blackness, and when the blackness cleared she would be somewhere else in the caverns, confused, and would lay down on the ground, her head aching. Once, after one of these black periods, she found herself outside, standing in water up to her waist. She splashed to the spongy shore and collapsed there, having no inkling of where she was. The next time she opened her eyes, she seemed to have miraculously traveled for miles and miles, for she was standing on a low gray cliff in the Ashlands while an ashstorm whipped her hair around her face. The pain in her head magnified every time this happened, and when she looked at her skin, sores and raw patches had begun to form there. After one dark period, she found herself crouched before a pool of live lava in the Ashlands, gnawing on one of her own hands. At this point, she realized that there was an unpleasant burning on one finger that came from a ring there, and she threw it off. Sometime after this, she fell into darkness that didn’t seem like it would ever end, that stretched on for what Fen was sure was eternity.
“Fen!” She was jerked out of the darkness quite suddenly, and she turned and saw the face of a Dunmer man. He looked achingly familiar, but her mind was utterly blank. “Gods, we were about to give up, Fen,” he said, and he pulled her into an embrace, then seemed to remember something and stepped back. She stared at him blankly. “Oh! Gods, I’m an idiot,” he muttered, and he took something out of his bag. She closed her eyes. The movement was hurting her head. “Drink this.” She opened her eyes slowly and saw he was holding a potion out to her. When she did nothing, he thrust the potion into her hand, seeming unwilling to touch her for too long. She looked vacantly at the  potion, and he mimed putting it to his lips and drinking. Like a child, she mimicked him, spilling the liquid down the front of her robe, which had become torn and muddy during the black periods. Slowly, the world began to piece itself together again, and thoughts rushed back into her empty mind.
“Julan!” she said, recognizing the man, and a relieved smile broke out across his face. She tried to hug him, but he stepped back.
“Do you remember what happened?” he asked.
“I – I have corprus,” she said suddenly. She looked down at her hands. “Did you cure it? Did you find a cure?”
“No,” he answered regretfully. “Caius Cosades gave me that. It’s supposed to slow down the effects of corprus. So you have your mind back for a few more days.” Fen looked around, taking in her surroundings for the first time. They were in the Ashlands, and she could see the eerie glow of Ghostgate in the distance.
“How long have you been looking for me?”
“Days,” he replied. “Let me see…we went to Ilunibi last Tirdas. It’s nearly Sundas.”
“Oh, Gods,” Fen muttered, rubbing her head. “What…what did you do?”
“I went to Caius,” Julan said darkly. “As much as I didn’t want to. When you didn’t come back and you wouldn’t answer your telepathy ring, I told him what happened and he sent me and a few more of those Blades people out to track you.”
“I threw away the telepathy ring,” she said suddenly. “I felt it getting hot, but I didn’t know what it meant, and I threw it away. Oh, gods, I feel like an idiot.”
“It’s fine,” Julan replied, rummaging in his bag – Fen’s bag – for something. “We can get my mother to make you another one, easy. Ah, here it is.” He pulled out two scrolls of Divine Intervention and handed one to Fen. “Caius us to take you straight back to Balmora once you’ve been found,” he said. “And the guild guide for the Ald’ruhn Mages’ Guild finally came back, so you don’t have to try and stomach the silt strider.”
“Oh, thank Gods,” Fen murmured, and she cast a sideways glance at Julan. He looked relieved beyond belief, but there was a sad hopelessness in his eyes, a look that chilled Fen and stayed burned in her mind the entire way to Ald’ruhn.

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