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Saturday, February 5, 2011

XVI - The Ministry of Truth

Fen sat down on a driftwood log before the campfire and stared out at the dark waves, watching them crash into the tall vertical stones rising up out of the water. If she closed her eyes and breathed in the salty sea smell, she could almost imagine that she was on the beach of the Padomaic Ocean, where she had traveled with her grandmother for outings as a child. She had loved the ocean – the way the dazzling water stretched out thousands and thousands of miles, fading into whiteness on the horizon, starkly different from where it crashed up against the cliffs of Ghorne and fell back in on itself in a frothy white spray. She and her grandmother would sit on the beach for hours, Fen trying to find a pattern in the way the waves moved while her grandmother stroked her hair and told her stories of the Dawn Era.
“She’s a bit angry, but she’s made you another one.” Fen was jerked out of her reverie by Julan leaving his mother’s yurt. She opened her eyes slowly, not wanting to let go of the image. But she was back in the Azura’s Coast at Kaushibael camp, ages away from the hours spent on the beach with her grandmother. Julan held his hand out to her, offering a copper ring with a blue stone set into it, a replacement for the ring she had thrown away during her bout with Corprus.
“Are you okay, Fen?” he asked as she slipped the ring listlessly on her finger.
“Fine,” she lied, and stood up. “I should get back to Caius. He’ll want to know I’ve been cured. Can you meet me at his house?”
“Sure,” Julan said, and he cast her a somewhat anxious look before he teleported. Fen spared one more wishful glance at the stirring waves, then cast her own recall spell and found herself standing on the quiet, dingy backstreet of Balmora. She knocked once on Caius Cosades’ door, then entered.
“Fen,” he said, turning around quickly as the door banged shut behind her. She glanced around the room. It was not in its usual state of disarray – rather, there were two heavy trunks on the floor, one on top of the other, and the top one was open. The clutter in the room had been cleared away, most of the furniture gone, the tatty tapestries vanished, leaving bare, cracked stonework walls visible. Even the bedding had been stripped, leaving only a thin, stained mattress.
“Are you going somewhere?” Fen asked.
“I've had a bit of bad news,” Caius said, cringing, as he took his lockbox off the shelf and dropped it unceremoniously into the trunk. “I’ve been recalled to the Imperial City. You’ll be promoted to Operative, and will head the Blades here in Vvardenfell until I return.”
“Wait – what?”
“Internal politics,” Caius grumbled, now pulling a chest away from the wall to grope behind it. “Some concern about my sugar. I thought about refusing the recall. But they have members of my family back in the capital. I’m afraid it may have something to do with the problems with the succession.” He emerged from behind the chest, holding a handful of dusty lockpicks and a couple rusted septims. “As the Emperor’s health declines, factions are maneuvering for advantage,” Caius continued, tossing the lockpicks and the coins into his trunk. “I may be gone a while – that’s why you’re promoted to Operative.
“That makes you the ranking Blades agent here in Vvardenfell district. As far as I know. There may be other Blades agents here I don’t know about. It wouldn’t surprise me. I may be gone a while. You can use the house until I return.”
“And you want me to head the Blades?” Fen asked skeptically, thinking it would be very unlikely that she would ever sleep in Cosades’s dilapidated house.
“There’s nothing to it. Each agent has his own assignment, and reports directly to Cyrodiil. You’re promoted to Operative mostly to preserve your independence. You’re no fool, Fen.” Caius banged down the lid of the trunk and locked it, then turned back to Fen with a heavy sigh. “The days of the Empire are almost over. When the Emperor dies, nine hells’re going to break loose. Forget about the Imperial City. Think locally. Worry about the Sixth House and Dagoth Ur. And squabbles between the Great Houses and the colonists. The rest of the political nonsense doesn’t amount to a plate of scuttle.
“Now, I have final orders for you. Continue pursuing the Nerevarine prophecies, as the Emperor commands. First, go to the Hall of Wisdom and Justice, and get Mehra Milo to help you find the lost prophecies. She’s being watched; if something has gone wrong, find her private quarters; she’ll leave you a message there under the code word ‘amaya.’ Then take the lost prophecies to Nibani Maesa. From that point, you’ll have to follow her directions, and follow the prophecies.” He patted her shoulder and offered her what Fen supposed was the closest she would ever get to a smile. “Good luck, Fen. You’re a smart kid, and you’ve got what it takes to get along out there.” With that, he took a firm hold of the trunks and activated a recall amulet he wore, disappearing in a shower of white sparks.
Fen glanced around the empty room. It still held the sticky odor of moon sugar in the air, but now she was used to it. She remembered when she had first entered Caius’ house, how it had revolted her. Now the house looked even sadder than it had before.
She was about to leave when she noticed something under the bed. Fen knelt down and pulled out a book – The War of the First Council. She realized, suddenly, that this was one of the books Hasphat Antabolis had recommended she read, along with three others…Fen dropped her bag onto the flagstone floor and pawed through it, past enchanted amulets and bottles of potion and bound scrolls and a few books until she found a sheaf of parchment. She broke the seal around all the notes she had accumulated working with the Blades and shuffled through the papers until she found Hasphat Antabolis’ notes. Saint Nerevar. Nerevar Moon-and-Star. The Real Nerevar. The War of the First Council. She vaguely remembered searching intently for the books for a few days before giving up and made a mental note to search for them again, deciding that they would be more useful now than ever.
Fen left Caius Cosades’ house for the last time, closing the door on the familiar, sticky moon-sugar smell with a final-sounding bang. Julan was standing just outside, waiting for her.
“What’s the old skooma head want you to do now?” he asked as she came down the steps outside his door and into the street.
“He’s gone.”
“What? He just left without telling you? What a –”
“No, he was there. But he went back the Imperial City. He was recalled.” Fen tied the latch of her bag. “We have to go talk to Mehra Milo,” she said, and Julan’s face brightened.
“Oh, good, I liked her! What are we talking to her about?”
“The lost prophecies.” Julan’s face fell a little.
“Do you really think that’s how we should be spending our time?” he asked skeptically, but Fen silenced him with a look. They made their way to the Eight Plates, knowing Ranis would not allow a non-guild member to stay the night in the Guildhall, and Fen paid for two rooms, feeling glad to settle into her bed for the first time in several days without the sickliness of Corprus…

The golden-masked man stood far away from her, a glint of gold in the darkness, but his voice echoed in the large space. “Lord Nerevar Indoril, Hai Resdaynia! Long forgotten, forged anew!” The figure vanished and reappeared, closer this time. “ Three belied you, three betrayed you! One you betrayed was three times true! Lord Voryn Dagoth, Dagoth Ur, steadfast liegeman, faithful friend, bids you come and climb Red Mountain!” Again, he vanished, then suddenly he was directly before her, the slits in his golden mask boring into her eyes, the long fingers reaching out towards her, the breath shallow and the sound of a long, slow heartbeat echoing around the space. “Beneath Red Mountain, once again, break your bonds, shed cursed skin, and purge the n'wah from Morrowind!”

Fen’s eyes opened and she realized she was covered in a cold sweat. She was about to light the candle and pour herself a drink to still her shaking hands, but she stopped when she noticed the figure framed by light, slowly pushing open the door. It was crouched low, naked save for a cloth around its middle, and only a dark, hollow space where its eyes should have been. An ash zombie.
Fen quietly cast a silencing charm on herself to make her every move soundless, then slipped out of bed and landed gently on the floor on the other side as the creature hobbled into the room and shut the door, throwing it into total darkness. All she could hear was its heavy breathing and its shuffling footsteps as it crossed the room to the bed. Fen stayed low to the ground, crawling around the bed as the ash zombie leaned over it, blindly moving its hands across the pillow, searching for her. She stood up directly behind it and, without a second thought, grabbed its shoulders, throwing it roughly to the ground. It let off an inhuman shriek and tried to stagger to its feet, but Fen subdued it with a fire spell. It made one last feeble attempt to rise, then slouched and crumpled on the ground, staying still for a brief moment before bursting into a pile of humanoid-shaped ash. Fen lit the candle on the bedside table, spots from the bright spell in the dark room flashing before her eyes. There was a sudden pounding on the door and she jumped as it sprang open. Julan leapt into the room, his jinkblade aloft, looking around wildly until he spotted the distinctly shaped ash on the flagstones. Fen quickly tied her dressing gown around herself and walked past him, shutting the door.
“What happened?” he asked, lowering the jinkblade. “I heard fighting.”
“I woke up and it was coming into my room. An Ash Zombie.”
“Gods.” He stirred the ash with his foot, his face dark. “These things were in Ilunibi.” He looked up at her, his expression uneasy. “Why would Sixth House go after you?”
“I don’t know,” she answered quietly, looking down at the dead zombie. Maybe because I’m the Nerevarine, she thought to herself almost sarcastically, but decided it would be better not to mention that to Julan.
“They were probably looking for me,” Julan said after a moment. “Gods…sorry, Fen.”
“It’s fine.”
They left early the next morning for Vivec, neither of them having gotten much sleep. Julan was unusually quiet while they took the gondolas to the Temple Canton, not ranting about the false gods as he often did when they visited the city.
“Hall of Wisdom,” he muttered scornfully as they passed a glaring Ordinator and went inside. It was late in the morning by now, and the library was open. Fen, however, detected that something was wrong as soon as she entered. The atmosphere in the Library of Vivec was tense, and Mehra Milo was nowhere to be found. Fen didn’t dare ask an Ordinator, but she did notice that there were several more of them than last time lurking around the shelves. Wordlessly, she grabbed Julan’s arm and pulled him out of the Library.
“We have to find her room,” she said quickly, hurrying down the hall to where three doors stood at the end of the hallway, each with a plaque outside it, To her relief, one of them was engraved with MEHRA MILO – LIBRARIAN, right beside LLAALEM SENDAL. The door was locked, however, and there was an Ordinator standing just down the hall. He noticed them hovering outside the door and came over.
“What are you two doing?” he growled.
“We’re just waiting for our friend – ah – Llaalem Sendal.” The Ordinator glared at them for another moment.
“I’m Llaalem, and I’ve never met either of you in my life.”
“We – we were –” Panicking, Fen seized the Ordinator’s arm and squeezed hard, casting a recall spell on him. Before he could protest, he had vanished in a shower of sparks.
“What did you do?” Julan exclaimed, though he looked rather pleased.
“Sent him on a bit of a vacation,” she replied hastily, turning back to Mehra’s door. “Let’s hurry, he’ll find his way back to Vivec before long.” Fen quickly pressed her finger to the lock and it clicked and swung open with her Ondusi’s Open Door spell.
The slipped inside and Julan quickly shut and locked the door behind them. It was a small room, simple, with a bed and dresser and table, all cluttered with personal belongings.
“Look for the word ‘amaya,’” Fen said, picking up the pillow to peer under it. Julan opened a chest and began to rummage around inside. Fen went to the dresser, and found, sitting right on top of it, a note addressed to Amaya. “I found it,” she said, and Julan pulled his head out of the chest while Fen picked up the letter and read it aloud.
Sorry I missed you. I had to run some old documents over to the Inquisitor at the Ministry of Truth, and I'm likely to be tied up there for a while. Why don't you meet me there as soon as you can? Then we can leave together as soon as I'm done. And Amaya, don't forget to bring me the two Divine Intervention scrolls you borrowed. Or, if you used them, buy a couple of new ones for me. I think I'm going to need them soon. Janand Maulinie at the Mages Guild in the Foreign Quarter keeps them in stock.
Alvela Saram is the guard at the entrance; just tell her you're looking for me, and she'll let you in.
your faithful friend,
Fen looked up slowly, lowering the note. Julan stared blankly at her.
“I don’t get it.”
“They’ve imprisoned her,” Fen said, glancing down at the note again. “She’s in the Ministry of Truth. Damn it.
“They have Mehra in the Ministry?!” Julan said incredulously. “We have to save her!” Fen returned the note to the dresser and they quickly went back outside. She  looked up at the Ministry of Truth, the colossal boulder that hung, magically suspended, above the Temple of Vivec. It had supposedly been stopped from hitting the city by the god himself, but now it served as a prison for heretics. Fen and Julan made sure they were out of sight of any patrolling Ordinators and levitated up to the wooden walkway built onto the side of the enormous boulder, where they were stopped by a Dunmer woman wearing an Ordinator cuirass.
“I’m sorry,” she said, stepping in front of the door that led into the Ministry. “No pilgrims allowed in the Ministry. I’ll have to ask you to leave.” She paused, as if noticing Fen’s face for the first time. “But...you're not here to visit anyone, are you?”
“Mehra Milo,” Fen said.
“Mehra said you would come,” the woman said, dropping her firm tone to a whisper. She reached into the pocket of her greaves and pulled out a small key, which she slipped into Fen’s hand. “I’ll say you subdued me with magic and stole my key. It opens all three exterior doors – the upper back door is best. You’ll need other keys for other doors inside. Search for the keys in desks; no one carries keys while on duty. Mehra is in Prison Keep in the cell on the far right. She said you’d bring scrolls to get out.”
“I have them,” Fen muttered, and the woman took her arm.
“Some of us are sympathetic to the Dissident priests, but kill an Ordinator, and you’ll lose that sympathy. Now get going.” She released Fen’s arm and pointed around the walkway. Fen thanked her and went around the wooden walkway to the door she had mentioned.
“Julan,” she said quietly, turning to him. “I think I should do this alone.”
“What? No, I have to help you find Mehra!”
“I have a Chameleon amulet, Julan. I can walk straight past the Ordinators and they won’t see me. And I’m worried you would snap and attack one of them.”
“You’re probably right,” he admitted after a moment. “But you do have a Divine Intervention scroll, don’t you?” Fen nodded. “I’ll meet you and Mehra in Ebonheart, then. Just be careful.”
“I will.” Julan teleported and disappeared, leaving her standing alone outside the door. She found the Chameleon amulet in her bag and slipped it over her neck. She instantly became completely invisible and carefully slid the key into the lock and pushed open the door.
She found herself in a dark, wide tunnel carved into the rock with several more tunnels branching off. Fen shut the door quickly and kept the key in her hand in case she needed to use it again. While potent, her Amulet of Shadows had limits. If she happened to so much as brush against something other than her feet to the ground, she would immediately be visible again. Fen carefully laid the Amulet outside her robe, ready to activate it with another touch should the need arise.
There was another door at the end of the main tunnel, and she approached it and pulled it open just a crack so she could peer inside. There was an Ordinator standing guard on the other side, but other than that the room just looked like an office. Not what she was looking for. Fen quietly closed the door and picked one of the tunnels. She was halfway along this tunnel when she heard approaching footsteps from the other direction. She stopped walking and stood against the wall while an Ordinator walked past, mumbling to himself. When he was gone, she walked the rest of the tunnel and found herself in another short hallway with a door on the end. PRISON KEEP was carved into the wood of the door. Fen used the key to unlock it and entered.
The prison keep was an enormous cavern, so tall that the rocky ceiling in shadow. She stood at about the halfway point on a wooden platform. The platform moved downwards by a complicated pattern of rope walkways and bridges, then circled a low pit at the center of the cavern. There was a fire lit on the floor of this pit, with a few people in shabby clothes wearing slave bracers moving around it. There were also several cells here, with solid wooden doors that Fen assumed were firmly locked. She could see a guard’s desk at some point on the walkway, but the platform was dotted with Ordinators, and she didn’t want to risk accidentally bumping one of them – but casting a levitation spell would instantly render her visible again, so she was forced to creep along the boardwalk, doing her best to slip past the guards on patrol. She had nearly made it to the pit when an Ordinator suddenly appeared, recalling into the keep directly in front of her. Before Fen could divert herself, she had run straight into the Ordinator, and, glancing down, she realized she was visible once more.
A commotion arose almost at once. The recalled Ordinator seized her wrist, and she curled her fingers around his wrist, making him let go with a shock spell that made him reel backwards in sudden pain. Fen took the opportunity to dodge three more Ordinators that were approaching and roll under the rope of the walkway into the pit, quickly activating the Amulet of Shadows again. She became invisible, but now that the Ordinators were here they wouldn’t let anything go unnoticed. Acting quickly, Fen located Mehra’s cell – the farthest to the right – and unlocked it with a spell, slipping inside as the Ordinators’ shouting still filled the keep.
Mehra Milo was at the end of the cell, pacing worriedly around a bedroll. She turned when she heard the door open, and her face broke out into a relieved smile.
“Fen!” she said, hurrying over, and she embraced her. “Do you have the Divine Intervention scrolls? I have an escape plan.” Fen quickly found two scrolls and pulled them out, handing one to Mehra.
“We don’t have much time,” Fen said hurriedly, glancing over her shoulder. “I have a nasty feeling they saw me come in.”
“I’ll meet you at the secret Dissident priests monastery at Holamayan, then,” Mehra said quickly, breaking the seal on her scroll and unrolling it. “For safety, we’ll travel separately. When you get out of here, look for a woman named Blatta Hateria on the East Docks of Ebonheart. Tell her I sent you, and that you want to ‘go fishing.’ She’ll bring you to Holamayan by boat. I’ll meet you there, and we’ll get the lost prophecies from Gilvas "Barelo, the leader of the Dissident priests. And magic conceals the Holamayan entrance – speak to Vevrana Aryon, a monk at the dock at Holamayan, about the hidden entrance. Make sense?”
“Yes,” Fen said, and Mehra nodded. There was a loud bang on the door.
“Good. I’ll see you at Holamayan,” Mehra said quickly, and with that, she activated the scroll and disappeared. There was another bang and a splintering sound, and Fen quickly followed suit, appearing outside the Imperial Cult shrine in Ebonheart. Julan was standing there, leaning against a wall and talking to three pretty-looking young Dunmer women. When he saw Fen, he hurried over, leaving one of them in mid-sentence.
“You’re okay! But…where’s Mehra?” The Dunmer girls gave Julan an affronted look, then strutted away.
“She went before me, for safety,” Fen said quickly, tossing away the used scroll. “We have to go to Holamayan.”
“Bless you.”
“It’s the monastery of the Dissident Priests,” Fen said, hurrying towards the docks, Julan following. “That’s where Mehra told me to meet her. She said they can find the lost prophecies there.” Julan rolled his eyes.
“Why are you bothering?” he asked, jogging to keep up with her. “Caius is gone, so you don’t have to do what he says anymore. Let’s just go do some guild jobs or something.”
“The lost prophecies could help you,” Fen said pointedly, knowing this would be the only way to get Julan to accompany her. He grudgingly agreed as they reached the docks, and Fen breathlessly approached the only person standing idly by a ship, an old Imperial woman wearing patched trousers. “Blatta Hateria?” she asked, and the woman smiled.
“Yes, dear? What can I help you with?”
“We’d like to go fishing,” Fen said, and a knowing smile spread over the woman’s face.

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