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Saturday, April 2, 2011

XXIII - The Bones of Han-Sashael

“You’re back!” Shani exclaimed as Fen and Julan entered the storage room. “You’re both all right, aren’t you? And Julan, you don’t have to apologize for anything,” she added as he opened his mouth. “We can talk about it later, but...I think I understand.” She yawned. “I should head for home now. After I got trapped in that cave, I made our wise-woman teach me how to cast teleportation magic, so I suppose I’ll just Recall home now. But do come and say hello soon, won’t you? Or...” Shani smiled hopefully. “Maybe you wouldn’t mind if I came along with you sometimes? I’ve been doing some training, so I’m not as weak as I was. I don’t want to go anywhere too dangerous, I’m no adventurer like you and Julan. But I would like to see more of Vvardenfell.”
“You can come along now, if you like,” Fen said before Julan could speak. Despite Shani’s over exaggerated emotions, Fen was beginning to enjoy her company. Shani’s face lit up.
“Really? I’ll be no trouble, I promise! You’ll barely know I’m here!” Julan snorted disbelievingly, but they both ignored him. “Maybe you can show me where you get all those beautiful things you wear!” She slipped a ring with a pink stone off her finger. “Here, take this. Sinnammu made it for me, she says it’ll help us stay in touch.”
“Great,” Fen said, taking the ring. “We’re going to have to go a cave now, Shani, if you don’t mind.” She said she didn’t, and they left the Tradehouse and started to walk, first going to Kaushibael camp, then turning south as Mashti had described. Fen and Julan explained Mashti’s story to Shani as they went.
“So what are you going to do?” Shani asked quietly when they had finished.
“Find the remains of my father,” Julan told her, his face set. “As for Mashti…I’m going to have to wait and see. Is that it?” he said suddenly, stopping abruptly. Fen followed his gaze and saw he was looking at a worn cavern door set into the hillside. She approached it and saw SANIT was carved into the wood.
“This is it.” Fen made sure both Julan and Shani had a few healing potions, then pushed open the door. They were immediately met by an Ash Slave, which, faced against all three of them, was quickly dispatched. As the Ash Slave fell, Fen glanced around. The cavern was lit with red candles.
“This isn’t a daedra cave!” Julan exclaimed angrily. “This is Sixth House! Those bastards built a base over my father’s bones!”
“They have to be deeper than this, though,” Fen said, starting down the tunnel. “And if the ancestors are still bothering you, I’m sure the bones are still here.” They continued through the tunnels, going around the twists and turns, killing the Sixth House beasts they met along the way. Fen was worried Shani would be overwhelmed, but she looked almost cheerful as she stood back and peppered the monsters with arrows whenever they came across one.
“Hey Julan,” she said jokingly after they had killed a corprus beast. “You would feel right at home in the Sixth House. This guy could be your brother, you look so much alike.”
“Shut up,” Julan snapped, but Fen could detect the flicker of a smile on his face. After what they had experienced in Ilunibi, she doubted that there was another Sixth House base that would unsettle them terribly.
They finally made their way up to a shrine, which was populated by three naked Dreamers. When the Dreamers had been dispatched (followed by Julan and Shani sniggering), Fen started to poke around the shrine. She found a sacrificial trough holding rotting chunks of flesh and wondered vaguely if they were there a result of the deranged minds of the corprus beasts or being gathered for a more sinister purpose.
“Hey, Fen, come look at this.” She went to the other side of the shrine, where Julan and Shani were peering into a large, dark hole cut into the wall. Fen joined them and saw a faint light on the other end.
“It looks like this would go down to the older parts of the cavern,” she said. “Want to have a look?” They climbed through the hole, one by one, and soon found themselves on a ledge overlooking a tall cavern. On the ground below them, a clannfear and a Golden Saint, a woman-like Daedra with gold armor, stood around a cluster of bright red mushrooms.
“This is more like it,” Julan whispered. “Daedra caves.” Fen used God’s Fire again, a spell she was beginning to like quite a lot, and with a few more ranged attacks from Julan and Shani the Daedra fell dead, leaving the room clear for them to climb down into. They found these caverns were populated entirely by Daedra – this had to be the place Mashti had been talking about. They made their way slowly through the maze-like tunnels, often getting lost and having to double back to find a tunnel they hadn’t yet gone down. Shani went back up to the Sixth House shrine and came back with a broken bit of chalk, which they used to mark the passages they had already gone down.
Fen was just started to become frustrated when they found a new passageway. At the bottom, there was a small circular room that held only one thing – a dead Dreamer woman, lying facedown with a scrap of grubby parchment beside her.
“Looks like Dagoth Ur makes them too insane, if they wander down here,” Julan remarked as Fen picked up the note and began to read.

i cannot remember his face.
they said    WHAT??
said what made me come.
they took everything i thought i gave everything AND YET SOMETHING REMAINS. something made me
something still remains, BUT FOR WHAT? FOR?
no way out. just tunnels tunnels and the magic door, but only for them, the thin ones with the nails I KNEW THE WORDS ONCE
words what words? nothing nothing. perhaps they will take me through with them soon, i see them carrying many things through, presents for their mother.
soon i shall not remember not remembering.
and i shall never know if this would have mattered to me long ago.

“What’s it say?” Shani asked, peering over Fen’s shoulder.
“It looks like she wandered down here from the shrine…a magic door…the thin ones with nails…” Fen looked up at the corpse of a Hunger they had just killed. “There’s some kind of door we need to get through, and only a Hunger can open it,” she said slowly.
“How’s that going to work?” Julan asked skeptically. “‘Excuse me, would you be a dear and open this door for us rather than trying to maul us? Thanks!’”
“Maybe if we just lure one of them close enough to the door, it’ll open,” Shani suggested.
“First we need to find the door,” Fen said. They went back up through the caverns, carefully going past all the marked tunnels until they found one without a white chalk streak on it.
“How did we miss this?” Shani muttered, drawing a line outside the tunnel with the chalk as they started down it. They had barely gone three paces when they met a Hunger.
“Run past it!” Fen shouted. “The door has to be at the end of this tunnel!” The three of them sprinted down the uneven passageway, dodging the Hunger’s spells, until they reached a large cavern at the end. There was a great hole here that was blocked by some sort of strange Daedric barrier. Fen, Julan, and Shani ran right up to the barrier and Fen quickly handed both of them resist magicka potions. They downed the potions and the Hunger soon ran out of spells and ran over to attack them. As soon as it got close enough, the barrier vanished and the three of them, plus the Hunger, fell through the dark hole and landed on the other side. Fen quickly put the Hunger out of its misery with a fire spell, then stood up.
“That wasn’t so hard,” Julan said brightly, dusting himself off.
“Um….Fen? Julan?” Shani whispered, staring past them. Fen and Julan turned around, and Fen felt her stomach drop. They were standing in a high-ceilinged cavern, dominated by an enormous Hunger, at least five times the size of an Ogrim.
“M…Mephala…” Julan muttered.
The Hunger noticed them suddenly, and it let out a furious snarl that made dust shower down from the ceiling of the cavern.
“Shani, you stay back and use your bow on it,” Fen said quickly. “Julan, come up to it with me and use your jinkblade.”
Up to it?” Julan said incredulously, but Fen ignored him, summoning a Golden Saint with a scroll Skink had given her and pointing a finger. The Saint ran forward, followed by Julan, and Fen stood level with Shani, carefully aiming a fire spell at the Hunger’s head. The spell, however, struck the Hunger and vanished, clearly having no effect on it. Fen tried a similar frost spell, but the Hunger resisted this too. She tried a shock spell and a poison spell in quick succession, but neither did any damage. Beside her, Shani had jumped onto a rock for a better aim and was rapidly firing arrows towards the Hunger. Julan and the Golden Saint hacked at the Hunger’s legs side by side.
Not wanting to just stand back and be useless, Fen drew the Staff of Magnus, which she had started carrying on her back at all times, and used its drain health spell on the Hunger, praying it would work. The Hunger took several halting steps backward when her spell hit it, and she fired the Staff again, relieved. Then, quite suddenly, the Hunger stepped over Julan and the summoned Saint as if they were insects and stormed across the room towards Fen and Shani. Shani screamed and slipped on the rock and the arrows she had been shooting hit the ceiling and ricocheted towards Fen. She dove out of the way, hitting the rocky ground hard, skinning the heels of her hands. Fen quickly scrambled to her feet as she heard Shani scream again. The Hunger had struck her with one long-nailed finger, throwing her back out of the hole they had come through.
“Shani!” she heard Julan shout, and his voice made the enormous Hunger turn towards him instead. Fen cast another drain health spell at it, but the Hunger was lumbering towards Julan, screeching, and the Saint had vanished…
Fen scrambled onto Shani’s rock and hurled the Staff of Magnus with all her might. It struck the creature with a solid thunk in the back of the head, and it wobbled, then collapsed on the ground, breathing shallowly while the Staff clattered to the ground. Julan seized the chance and ran forward, sliding his jinkblade smoothly into the Hunger’s chest. It let out a high-pitched wail, then stilled as Julan drew his jinkblade out. For a brief moment, Fen and Julan just stared at one another, breathing hard, then a low groan from the previous chamber brought them back to their senses.
“Shani,” Fen said breathlessly, and they climbed hastily over the rocks together to where she was on the ground, cradling her arm.
“I think my wrist is broken,” she said, wincing as Fen took it.
“That’s easy to fix,” Fen said, relieved it wasn’t anything worse. She placed two fingers on the top of Shani’s wrist and cast a healing spell. Shani’s whole arm glowed briefly, then grew dim again.
“Thanks,” she said, rotating her hand gingerly. She stood up, and Fen and Julan followed suit. “Gods, what was that thing?”
“Well, I’ll just hazard a guess, but I think it might have been a giant Hunger,” Julan answered wryly as they climbed back through the hole.
“Shut up,” Shani snapped, shoving him. Fen, meanwhile, went forward to examine the oversized Daedra. As she was looking over its massive husk of a body, she noticed something – a fairly rusted iron tanto, stuck in the skin of the creature’s thick back. The skin had grown thick and callused over the blade of the sword – it had clearly been there for some time. When Fen leaned close, she saw HAN-SASHAEL engraved on the shaft of the blade.
“Julan,” she said, gesturing. He and Shani came over and he peered at the blade. For a while, Julan just stared, his expression unreadable. Then, wordlessly, he pulled it out of the creature’s hide, letting blood well up around the wound. Julan cleaned the sword off on his pants and took the jinkblade out of its sheath, dropping it on the ground and replacing it with Han-Sashael’s sword. Fen walked away and bent over to pick up the Staff of Magus, whose enamel was a bit scuffed but seemed mostly fine.
“Julan…what’s that?” Fen looked up and saw Shani was pointing to a large doorway that the Hunger seemed to have been guarding. Fen could see a pool of lava and a stone pathway leading upward, but the rest of the cavern was in darkness. Julan walked past Shani and went through the doorway, a determined look on his face. Fen and Shani exchanged a glance and followed.
The climb up the stone walkway was short, and at the top, a skeleton lay on the ground. Standing over it was the translucent spirit of a man, a Dunmer man in Bonemold armor had had a high-boned face framed by dark hair. He looked, Fen realized, almost exactly like Julan.
“Ha! Han-Julan!” the man exclaimed as they came to a stop. He broke into a grin and spoke in a sharp, quick voice that sounded like some sort of Ashlander dialect. He sounded oddly strident and distant at the same time.
“Julan, what did he say?” Fen whispered.
“You do not understand me, Han-Julan?” the man said imperiously. “Ha! You are no son of mine, then, who no longer speaks the language of his people!” Julan blinked.
“He said ‘What took you so long?’”
“Oh, so you do still remember some of your culture, do you? Ai, these young ones of the tribe, all speaking the tongue of the n’wah, talking like outlanders, forgetting the language of their ancestors...”
“I’m – I’m just a bit out of practice, that’s all.”
“Ai, such a generation we have upon us. No respect for the tribe. No respect for the ancestors. Leave their father's bones to rot in a cave for three years, his soul trapped, unable to join with the tribal spirits. How will the tribe survive, with such children as this?”
“You’re right,” Julan said quietly. “I’ve failed you. I’m sorry.”
“What?” Fen interjected indignantly. “Julan didn’t fail you, you failed him! He didn’t even know you were his father!” The ghost’s grin vanished and he looked at Fen with a hard eye.
“You shall not judge me, outlander. There are others who have that task. Such as my son here. He has the right to demand those answers from me.”
“No. I demand nothing,” Julan said. “I understand how it was. You made a mistake – a brief affair, an unwanted pregnancy. What could you do but deny it? Your honor could not be stained by such a thing, your wife was too respected. And you had her feelings to consider. You could not shame the woman you loved by raising another's son as your own, while she remained childless. I cannot blame you. I...it was a mistake, and you dealt with it as you had to.”
“You have every right to be angry,” Fen hissed.
“A mistake?” Han-Sashael repeated. “Yes, I made a terrible mistake. I married the woman my parents wanted me to, because she was a most religious woman, a respected servant of Boethiah, although I did not love her as she loved me. And when she threatened to summon her Daedric lord to destroy you and your mother, I made a deal with her. She would let you live, even allow you into the camp, so long as I never named you as son, never even spoke your name.
“Another mistake,” Han-Sashael said, his strange voice rippling around the cavern. “I see now I was a fool to think she would harm you, since she would lose her hold over me, and any little love I held for her would be destroyed. But in my folly and panic, I swore binding oaths to the gods and the ancestors, staking the very safety of the tribe.
“It was always my plan to tell you. When you were a man, and had nothing to fear from Ahmabi and her threats. But it is not an easy thing to do, after nearly twenty years...and I had sworn oaths that were dangerous to break. So I hesitated, like a fool. But then...” He nodded to Shani, who stood behind Fen, “your Shani came to me, weeping, and told me of your mother’s plan for you. That you were to go to Red Mountain and defeat the devil. That you had to know the truth before it was too late.
“I sent for you, but you were not to be found. So I went to Ahmabi, and demanded that she release me from my oaths. I no longer cared about her threats. She obeyed me, or, she let me think so. No doubt she prayed to Boethiah that very night. What did she pray for, I wonder? I cannot think she intended my death, as, for all her faults, she loved me. But the Daedra interpret requests as it suits them, for their own amusement. She received the trap that ended my life on the next day's morning hunt.
“I have made many mistakes in my life. Many, many regrets. But loving your mother, and fathering you, these things I have never regretted. It was the most joy I ever knew, even if it brought the most sorrow. And now you are here, fulfilling my greatest hopes for you. You will return my bones, and save the Ahemmusa. Take them, and release me from this place. My spirit will no longer retain this mind, and these memories. I shall become one with the ancestors.
“Farewell, Han-Julan,” he said softly, placing a translucent hand on Julan’s shoulder. “You will serve the Ahemmusa better than I did.” With that, the figure vanished, and Julan touched his shoulder lightly, as if still feeling his father’s hand there.
Neither Fen nor Shani spoke. They merely watched as Julan gathered the bones of his father in his arms, then walked past them and towards the exit of the cavern. They followed him in silence back the way they had come, through the hole in the shrine then down through the Sixth House base, until they came outside. It was late in the afternoon, and the sky was churning and gray, thunder booming faintly overhead. The breeze rustled the grasses around them, and they could hear the sea slapping the rocks on the coast restlessly.
“Gods, I need to move around,” Shani said, breaking the long silence. She strode off towards the water, leaving Fen and Julan standing outside Sanit in the tall, waving grass.
“I got the bones,” Julan said quietly. “We should return them to Sinnammu Mirpal, so she can prepare the proper burial rituals.” Fen touched his shoulder.
“Julan? Are you okay?”
“Yeah... I’m fine. Just tired.” Julan carefully lowered the bones to the ground and rubbed his neck. “I thought I’d feel different about this, somehow. I thought if I returned his bones, I’d feel like I was really his son, or something. And, he even spoke to me, and said the kinds of things a father should say...but...he’s still not my father. Just this man I hardly knew.
“But...I think...it’ll be all right. I was too hard on Mother, but I’ll talk to her about everything later. We’ll work things out.” Julan smiled. “So, yes, I’m okay. Thanks for asking. Hey, Shani!” Shani came jogging back over to them, and they started the walk back to the Ahemmusa camp as rain began to fall. The wise woman gasped when they entered her yurt, Julan’s arms full of his father’s bones.
“Julan! You have returned them!” Julan carefully lowered them to the ground before her. “I shall carry out the necessary rituals as soon as possible.” She took Julan’s hands in her’s. “This is a wonderful thing you have done for the tribe. You must tell me everything that has passed.” Julan haltingly explained how the three of them had found the bones, then, after prodding from Fen, the role of Ahmabi in his father’s death.
“So... this is how it was,” Sinnammu said, her face dark. “And we blamed Mashti all this time. I believe you, but there are many in the tribe who will not. Ahmabi is known as a religious woman, and a loving wife. You must make her confess her crime, if you would prove Mashti Kaushibael innocent. She is easily angered, and if you provoke her, she may admit all. I shall be listening outside, to bear witness to you.” Sinnammu followed them out of the yurt and stood just outside the ashkahn’s tent, her expression grim. Julan went in first, and Fen and Shani followed. When the tent flap fell closed behind them, Ahmabi’s shriek filled the yurt.
“What is HE doing here?! How DARE you come here! What do you want from me?!” She reached out suddenly, as if to claw at Julan’s face, but he drew Han-Sashael’s sword and pointed it at her, making her freeze where she stood. Ahmabi caught sight of the blade and the color drained from her face.
“I know Han-Sashael was my father, and I know about your little bargain.”
“And we know how your husband really died!” Shani quipped from behind Fen. Ahmabi shot her a piercing glare, and this seemed to egg Shani on. “How could you do that to your husband, you faithless bitch? You murdered him, and let Mashti take the blame!”
“How – How DARE you say that! She DID kill him! She tried to TAKE him FROM me! She FORCED me to act, to protect my marriage! To demand of my Lord that He carry out my bidding, as an act of SELF-DEFENSE!”
“So what did you pray for?” Fen asked. “The night you brought about your husband’s death?”
“I prayed that he might never breathe a word of truth to his bastard spawn!” she hissed, pointing a withered finger at Julan. “But more than that, I prayed for VENGEANCE! I prayed that that WITCH might know half the pain I felt when he betrayed me for her! And the only joy left to me now in this blighted world is that in that, at least, I succeeded!”
“Well the truth is out now,” Julan said scathingly. “The ancestors want your blood, Ahmabi.”
“Curse the ancestors, just as I long ago cursed the gods!” she screamed, taking a shaky step backwards. “And curse you three, for I will not give you the satisfaction of taking my life! Lord Boethiah, if you care anything for one who was once your servant, avenge me!” Faster than Julan could move, Ahmabi whipped a silver dagger from her belt and plunged it into her heart, blood welling on her robe as she folded gracelessly to the dirt floor. A bright white light suddenly filled the tent and three Hungers stood clustered over Ahmabi’s body, immediately lunging at Fen, Shani, and Julan. There was a confusion of arrows and spells aimed at the Hungers, then silence. When the dust cleared, Fen saw that the roof of the yurt had been blasted off. One of her spells had hit a chest that had been filled with books, and burning pages floated gently to the ground. Ahmabi lay on the floor of the yurt, blood pooling beneath her and the gangly bodies of the Hungers draped over her. Julan stared at Ahmabi’s body, his expression blank. Gently, Fen took one of his arms and Shani took the other, and they led him out of the yurt to find that what appeared to be the entire Ahemmusa tribe was assembled outside, Sinnammu at their head.
“Welcome, all of you,” she said, stepping forward. “I heard everything - in truth, the whole tribe did. Ahmabi will be mourned, but what has happened is for the best. We cannot keep such poison in the camp. Tell Mashti that her exile is lifted, and both Julan and Fen welcome here once more. Fen, if you are truly Nerevarine, then our prayers and hopes go with you. For now, I shall name you as a Champion of the Ashlanders. And Julan...I think they will call you a great ashkhan someday.” Julan seemed to choke suddenly.
“I can see from his face that he does not think I am serious,” Sinnammu said with a smile, lowering her voice and walking towards them, away from the tribe. “But I have been thinking. Tell me, Julan, why did you go to fetch your father’s bones?”
“So…so that his spirit might return to the tribe, and we would be strong once more.”
“Yes,” Sinnammu replied, laying her hands on Julan’s shoulders. “And you succeeded, but Sashael’s bones were not the cause. You carry your father’s spirit, Julan. I have known you since you were a child, and you always had his fire, his determination and his fierce loyalty to the tribe, even when the tribe rejected you. I once thought you shared his lack of wisdom, but now I believe that has changed. Perhaps it is your mother’s gift, but no... I rather think it is something all your own, that you have hard-won through bitter experience.
“In time, we shall name you Han-Julan, and in later years they will call you a great ashkhan, greater even than your father was. I know that you are still young. You want to travel, and you have obligations to your friend Fen that you should fulfill. I know this, and I shall be here to watch over the tribe until your return.” Sinnammu stepped back, and someone suddenly called out from the tribe behind her.
“Han-Julan!” There were a few smattered replies, and several of the Ashlanders raised their swords and bows as they shouted his name. Shani whipped her bow off from her back and plunged it into the air.
“Han-Julan!” she cried triumphantly, her voice carrying out over the dark plains. Then the members of the tribe came forward to speak to them, asking the details of their venture into Sanit, praising Julan for his bravery, apologizing for their years of exiling him. At some point, a group of hunters left the camp and returned with a freshly killed nix-hound. The firepit in the center of camp was lit, and Fen, Julan, and Shani were asked to sit before it with the rest of the tribe as they began to roast the nix-hound and pass around clay bowls of food. Night fell, and the rain subsided into a clear sky. The people around the fire dissolved into smaller groups, often centering around Julan. At some point, Fen was overwhelmed by the people pressing in on her, and she slid out from between them and walked to the edge of the dark camp, where the grass was dusted with frost and the air was cool. She glanced back and saw the silhouettes of the Ashlanders gathered around Julan, their outlines lit up by the cook-fire.
“Fen?” Fen turned away from the camp again and saw Mashti standing there, looking strange and out-of-place outside her yurt. “I heard the shouting from my yurt,” Mashti explained. “I had hoped that the news I found here would be good.” Fen saw that Mashti’s eyes had filled with tears. “I would risk facing Ahmabi if it meant news of my son.”
“Julan’s fine,” Fen told her quickly. “We’re all fine. He returned Han-Sashael’s bones to the tribe, and they named him ashkahn. They are celebrating now.” Mashti managed a slight smile.
“So Julan believes me? That I was not to blame for his father’s death?” She sighed and shook her head before Fen could answer. “It does not matter. I do not care if I live or die.”
“Mother?” They turned. Julan’s figure had appeared, framed by the fire behind them. He was clutching a mazte in one hand and looking from Fen to Mashti, clearly confused.
“You can kill me now,” Mashti said, her voice breaking. “I no longer care.”
“Mother, hush,” Julan said, setting down the mazte and moving forward to embrace Mashti. “I know you had nothing to do with Han-Sashael’s death. I spoke to his spirit.”
“You – you what?”
“Everything is going to be fine.” Gradually, Fen and Julan managed to explain what had transpired in Sanit to Mashti.
“I... this is too much,” she whispered, sitting down faintly on a rock. “I can scarcely believe what you are telling me. No longer exiles? Ahmabi...dead? And Sashael... Oh, Sashael...” She buried her face in her hands. After a long moment, she looked up again. “Julan...I once gave you a destiny, a dream. Perhaps that was wrong of me. It was not your destiny to receive, as it was never mine to give. But you did not fail me...you learned to make your own fate. And you have done things I did not believe possible. You have never failed me, never…and... I never told you...how proud I am of you... and... and... how much I...” She dissolved into tears then, and Julan enveloped her in his arms. Deciding to leave them alone, Fen rejoined the camp, where Shani flounced cheerily up to her, shoving a bottle of flin into her hands.
“Where’s Julan?” she asked brightly. Red patches were beginning to appear on her cheeks.
“With his mother,” Fen said, gesturing, and Shani giggled for some reason.
“Come over here, Fen,” she said, leading her back over to the fire. “I want you to meet my friend Dun-Il. You two would get along famously.” Fen glanced back once at Julan and Mashti, folded in one another’s arms, and smiled slightly as Shani pulled her back into the group.

Julan, Shani, this quest, and the majority of their dialogue are from the Julan Ashlander Companion mod.

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