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Saturday, June 25, 2011

XXXI - The Living God

Fen had not seen the Royal Palace of Mournhold until she was seven years old. She remembered the moment precisely, as if it had happened moments ago. Her aunt, or the woman she had thought to be her aunt, held her hand as they stepped into the tall-ceilinged, light-filled room hung with rose-colored banners emblazoned with the Royal crest. Barenziah and Helseth had been sitting on their twin thrones at the head of the room on their dais, leaning toward one another and speaking quietly. The air was sweet from the planters of Timsa-Come-By that lined it, and she remembered thinking that Barenziah’s deep green robe was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen.
Her aunt had started speaking to Helseth, insisting something, then they had begun to argue. Gradually, Fen’s hand slipped out of the protective grasp of her aunt and she had edged slowly away from the woman to the sides of the room, gazing at the long windows that funneled sunlight onto the floor. She made a game of it, hopping from one rectangle of light to another until her aunt called her over.
“You are going to live with this man now, Fenara,” she had said, kneeling down to be at eye level with Fen.
“Will you be here too?”
“No. I have to go back to your uncle’s farm. But I may come visit you.” Fen knew she never would.
“Why aren’t you coming with me?”
“Because you belong here and I do not.” Fen remembered not understanding that phrase. It only made sense later, when Helseth had told her the truth. When the aunt had gone, leaving Fen standing alone on the vast floor before the dais, Fen had turned to look at Helseth. He glared down at her with a contempt in his eyes that made her want to disappear into the floor. For several long, uncomfortable minutes they held one another gaze, then Barenziah stood from her throne and joined Fen, offering her a firm hand. Fen took it, slightly uncertainly, and Barenziah smiled.
“There’s no need to be frightened, child,” she had said. “You’re at home now.”
Barenziah was not there to come and take her hand in Vivec’s Palace.
The room was dim, very dim, so that the two pillars at its center rose up into shadow. There was a low circular impress at the base of the room, and in it a triangular platform was erected with its longest point faced towards the door. Three large braziers stood at each end of the triangle, and they threw the face of the man that stood there into shadow.
He was surprisingly small, the size of a normal Dunmer man, though very gaunt and thin, as though he had not eaten in many weeks. Fen could have counted the ribs that strained against his sallow skin. Two ornate paladins sat on his shoulders and his middle was covered with an intricate loincloth. In the light, it was hard to tell, but it looked as if a clean line divided his colour  – one side was gold of a Chimer and one side the pale blue-grey of a Dunmer. As they watched, he crossed his legs and rested his hands on his knees, floating above his triangular platform.
“We have business, you and I.” The door swung shut behind them with a mighty bang. Fen straightened her back and looked calmly into the shadowy face.
“Let me see you properly and we may conduct it.” The flames in the braziers suddenly flared and danced a bit higher, and Fen could see Vivec’s face, oddly pointed and wild-looking, one eye gold and the other deep red. She felt a flicker of anxiety.
“When I was young like you, I was very impatient. So I will keep our business short. Then, later, there may be time for other things. First, I propose to remove my curse upon the Nerevarine, end the persecution of the Dissident Priests, and proclaim to all Morrowind that Fen is the Incarnate and Nerevarine, the prophesied savior of Morrowind, and the last hope to withstand the menace of Dagoth Ur and the Sixth House. These things I will do, whether you wish or not.” Fen disliked his condescending manner, but willed herself to keep from speaking out and let him continue. “Next, I propose to surrender to you the power and responsibility of defeating Dagoth Ur. You may choose to refuse; I will not compel you. You will receive the power as a gift, in the form of an artifact called ‘Wraithguard.’ You may accept the gift, then do with it as you will. You will receive the responsibility as an oath. You may give your oath, then keep it or break it as you like. First, will you accept Wraithguard as a gift?”
“I will.”
“And now, will you give your oath, before all gods and men, before all spirits visible and invisible, before my honor and your honor, to dedicate yourself and Wraithguard to the defeat and destruction of Dagoth Ur, and the preservation of Morrowind and its people?”
“I swear it.” Fen glared steadily into the face of the man who had murdered her all those years ago. He studied her blankly for a moment.
“I was hoping for someone who would have no hesitations about making such an oath. You will now have a brief, momentary sensation of time passing. Don’t be alarmed. You are being taken out of time in order to avoid the unpleasant experience of learning how to use Wraithguard. It will be over before...” Vivec’s voice faded into nothingness. There was blackness all around her, and she was floating through space, weightless and…gone. It was over. Julan was right. Vivec had killed her, and Morrowind was doomed.
“...you know it.” Fen blinked and her vision came flooding back to her. She was standing firmly in Vivec’s palace, Julan beside her, and nothing was amiss. “Now. I will notify the Temple that you are our champion. There shall be no more persecution of the Dissident Priests, and I hope both sides shall swiftly be reconciled. We have time for questions, if you like. Or you may leave, as you wish. But I think there are at least two things you ought to know before you leave: how to use Wraithguard, and how to defeat Dagoth Ur.” As Fen watched, a long, thick brass gauntlet began to materialize in the air before her. It finished and hung there, suspended. It was clearly Dwemer in design, and everything about it – from the construction to the ornate carvings on the side – was intricate and perfect. Slowly, Fen replaced her Wizard’s Staff onto her back and put both hands beneath the gauntlet. It fell out of the air and into her palms, surprisingly light.
“Tell me how to defeat Dagoth Ur,” Fen said, looking up from the gauntlet. Vivec stirred. He placed his feet on the ground once more, looking thoughtfully into space.
“To defeat Dagoth Ur, go to Red Mountain to recover the artifact hammer Sunder from Gate Citadel Vemynal, then recover the artifact blade Keening from Gate Citadel Odrosal. Then proceed with Wraithguard, Sunder, and Keening to the citadel of Dagoth Ur. Within the citadel, find the Heart of Lorkhan. Use the three artifacts to sever Dagoth Ur’s connection to the Heart, and he will be destroyed, and the Blight ended on Morrowind. To destroy Dagoth Ur, you must sever his connection with the Heart of Lorkhan. To do this, strike the Heart with the artifact hammer Sunder once, then strike the Heart more than once with the artifact blade Keening. You must wear Wraithguard, because you cannot handle either Sunder or Keening unless you are wearing Wraithguard. That is the short, simple explanation. Here is the long, detailed explanation, written down for your convenience. Read it, study it, commit it to memory.” Where Wraithguard had been, a rolled piece of parchment appeared. Fen took it, folded it once, and slipped it into her bag.
“You say you will end the persecution of the Dissident priests?” she asked.
“Suppression and persecution of dissent is just one of the standard tools of statecraft. I believe we erred in trusting the judgment of Berel Sala. He and his Ordinators served valiantly in the war against Dagoth Ur. We mistook his misplaced zeal for energy and dedication. Mistakes were made. But no more. There shall be no more persecution of the Dissident Priests, and I hope both sides shall swiftly be reconciled.” For a moment, Fen just stared at him, feeling endless questions rising in her chest. But one rose the fastest.
“Why did you kill me?” There was a long silence. After a moment, Vivec, looked down at her, his face blank.
“Why did I kill you? Because you threatened the faith of my followers, and I needed their faith to hold back the darkness. And when you came to Vvardenfell as Fen, I thought you were my enemy – a pawn of the subtle Daedra Lord Azura, or a pawn of Emperor Uriel Septim, or a simple fraud – perhaps a Hero – but not much of one if my faithful could destroy you. Now circumstances are altered. I need you, and you need me.”
For the next hour, Vivec shared with her everything he knew of Dagoth Ur’s plans, giving her copies of the information the Temple had gathered. He explained Dagoth Ur’s powers to her, his base at the top of Red Mountain, his defenses, his servants….anything Fen could think of, he answered. Finally, when she had gathered all the information she could from him, they prepared to leave. Just as she started to open the door, Vivec spoke again.
“I give you one more piece of advice, Fen. You must prepare for war. Beyond the Ghostfence, there are no safe places, no allies. You will be utterly and completely alone.” They held one another’s gaze for a moment, then Fen pulled open the door and she and Julan stepped back out into the cool night air.
“Well…that was unexpected.” Julan said quietly. Fen turned to look at him. “I don’t know what to think now. He’s accepting you as the Nerevarine, but only because the Tribunal are too weak to defeat Dagoth Ur themselves?! So he thinks you can do what three living gods can’t?! That’s…”
“Impossible,” Fen muttered.
“Oh, don’t look so depressed,” Julan chided, clapping her on the shoulder. “If anyone can do it, you can. And I’ll be here, if you need me. Even if only as a distraction. Or…” Julan grinned deviously. “Maybe we could trick him into inviting us in! How long do you think it’d take to build a giant wooden guar? I once read this book, see –” Fen laughed.
“Right, you can work on that part of the plan.”
“I’ll start collecting wood,” he said, and Fen smiled. She looked up and saw Azura’s Star, the star of Dawn and Dusk, just beginning to fade as it grew later. She looked down, her confidence mounting, and she and Julan started down the stairs of the Palace.
“Where to now?” he asked, stifling a yawn. “Straight to Red Mountain?”
“Now, we need to sleep,” Fen told him. “At least I do. Tomorrow I’m going to visit the Urshilaku camp and talk to Nibani Maesa again, then go through these notes. After that we’ll plan for what’s next.” She didn’t say it, but Fen didn’t necessarily want to think about what was next. Vivec had summarized the plan for her – before assaulting Dagoth Ur, she had to destroy seven Ash Vampires to weaken his power, a task that was arduous in itself. Only after that could they travel to the top of the mountain, to Dagoth Ur’s citadel.
Fen found an extra room for Julan in the Guildhall in the Foreign Quarter, where he promptly pulled off his armor and collapsed on the bed. She went across the hall to the Archmage’s quarters and dropped her bag heavily on the floor. It felt like ages since she had last slept here. Fen stripped off the Robe of the Hortator and hung it carefully in the wardrobe. She put out the candles and stretched out on the bed, but still felt stubbornly wide awake. After a moment, she lit the candles again and went to her pack to retrieve the papers Vivec had given her. From her bookshelf, she pulled down The Egg of Time, Nerevar Moon-and-Star, Saint Nerevar, and Nerevar at Red Mountain, which she had closed in the front cover of Saint Nerevar. Fen set a cup of tea to boil and sat down at her desk, clearing it of forms that needed signing and notices from the other guildhalls to make room for the new documents.
Soon, Fen was immersed every word she read, each one alive with new meaning. She pored over them, her face inches from the pages, feverishly scratching notes in the margins and flipping through the papers, suddenly understanding everything that she had not understood before. The candles on her desk burned low, throwing odd, spiky shadows across the wall, but she took no notice, for she was too deeply steeped in the books before her.
Fen didn’t realize how much time had passed the soft chimes of the clock on her desk rang three times. She looked up for the first time in hours, noticing her tea had gone stone cold and her hands were splotched with ink. She replaced the cap on the inkwell and set her quill down upon Saint Nerevar, which she had been comparing with Nerevar at Red Mountain for the past thirty minutes. She sat back, flicking through her notes a few times. She had been overjoyed with a familiar scholarly delight when she had begun, but now she realized that none of the underlined phrases or interpretations in the margins would do her much good. Carefully closing the books and stacking them to one side, Fen reached for the pile of Vivec’s documents, which lay untouched by the cold tea.
The first one she laid out was the extensive Plan to Defeat Dagoth Ur. It explained that the Tribunal had tried and failed several times to destroy Dagoth Ur, but had ultimately failed each time due to the fact that they could not fight against him and maintain the Ghostfence at the same time. It then detailed the five phases that Fen was to carry out in order to sever Dagoth Ur’s connection to the heart. The first phase simply consisted of speaking to the Buoyant Armigers and scouts in Ghostgate, to gather information about the terrain and locations of Dagoth Ur’s citadels while stockpiling resources. The second phase explained that the Ash Vampires, Dagoth Ur’s most trusted followers, contributed to his current power immensely, and their destruction would mean it would be far easier to defeat Dagoth Ur. The next two steps explained that the Ash Vampires Vemyn and Odros were in possession of Sunder and Keening, the Dwemer hammer and dagger Fen would need to sever Dagoth Ur’s connection of the heart, meaning that their destruction was necessary.
Following this was a long description of the Tribunal’s account of the events that occurred at Red Mountain, whose validity Fen found to be in question, as it made out the Tribunal to be innocent and merely curious. Then came the passage that Fen had been waiting to read. She straightened up on her chair and leaned forward in the dying light to better see the words.

The Nerevarine will strike the Heart with Keening for a second time, causing its tones to diverge into unstable patterns of interference. Further repeated strikes with Keening will further disrupt the tones, with the ultimate result of shattering and dispelling Kagrenac's original enchantments binding the Heart, thereby severing the Heart's links with Dagoth Ur, and with any surviving Heartwights, and with the Tribunal. Destroying Kagrenac's enchantments on the Heart will also stop the corrupt effusion of the Heart's divine power, and end the Blight on Morrowind.
The Nerevarine may be tempted to steal the power of the Heart. Dagoth Ur and Sotha Sil alone know this secret. Dagoth Ur may, in extremity, propose to teach the Nerevarine to use Kagrenac's tools to become a god. We doubt that the Nerevarine is fool enough to trust Dagoth Ur, and are content to take this risk.
Be warned! The Nerevarine cannot safely equip either Keening or Sunder unless wearing Wraithguard. The Nerevarine will be injured every moment while holding either of these artifacts unless protected by Wraithguard; persistence will be rewarded with death. If Nerevarine can equip an item while not wearing Wraithguard and receive no injury, the item is a counterfeit.
One last note. Dagoth Ur must not get hold of Wraithguard. The Nerevarine must prepare and use a Recall or Almsivi Intervention if there is any risk of death or capture.
We place no compulsion upon the Nerevarine to adhere to the plans described here. We believe that they offer the best chance of destroying Dagoth Ur. But we have also chosen to place our trust in the Nerevarine's judgment and skill. Frankly, we see no alternative.
If there are doubts or questions, speak with Vivec. He has agreed to serve as the Nerevarine's guide and counselor for this campaign.
It may be that if the Nerevarine succeeds, the Tribunal will not survive. Such sentiments as might have been expressed to the Tribunal should, in that case, be addressed to the land and people of Morrowind.
May the happy convergence of fortune and prayer meet in our destiny.
On behalf of Lady Almalexia and Lord Sotha Sil,
Fen sat back slowly. She was reminded strongly of the day she had first been signed into the Mages’ Guild, when watching Ranis Athrys write her name down on the forms had seemed so final and had made her feel sick.
This was worse.
It would be Fen and Julan, a mage that had lived in a secluded palace all her life and a ragged young Ashlander, facing scores of half-men turned inhumanly powerful by the Heart. There was no way it was possible.
She set her head down on the desk, staring sideways at the sputtering candle, which was now merely a wick in a pool of expanding wax.
She woke to the familiar sound of activity in the guildhall. Her room was dark and her head rested on the Plan to Defeat Dagoth Ur, unrolled on her desk. Pushing her hair away from her face, she sat up slowly, rubbing her eyes, and glanced at the clock. It was nearly eleven. Fen sighed and pushed her chair back from her desk, going to the basin to splash her face. She had just braided her hair and donned a simple bottle-green robe when there was a faint knock at the door.
Fen crossed the room and pulled it open, revealing Julan, who looked as doggedly tired as Fen felt.
“Sorry,” he mumbled, passing her and collapsing onto the armchair by the bookshelves. “I overslept. And I have a headache.” He winced as Fen shut the door.
“It’s fine,” she said, not telling him that she had woken up all of ten minutes ago. “You don’t have to come with me if you don’t want to.”
“Where, to the Urshilaku camp? Of course I’m coming! Sul-Matuul’s starting to grow on me.” He gave her a halfhearted grin. Fen did not return the smile, but went to her desk to roll up the papers there. “Are you okay?” he asked, sitting up slightly.
“I’m fine,” Fen lied.
“Really?” Julan asked skeptically. Fen stopped in the act of folding closed the Plan to Defeat Dagoth Ur.
“No,” she said after a moment. “Julan, this is impossible. There’s no way we’re going to be able to do this by ourselves.”
“That’s not true, Fen.”
“Yes it is!” She whirled around to face him, clutching Vivec’s plan in one hand. “We both know there are better mages than me and better warriors than you out there! We’re just two people that didn’t belong anywhere else and got thrown into this mess, and if we try to do it we’re going to get killed!”
“Well if you’re going to have that attitude, we might as well just throw ourselves off the top of the canton now.”
“You’re not taking me seriously, are you?” Fen snapped, wheeling around and furiously gathering up the books on her desk.
“Of course I am,” Julan replied simply. “But Fen, what else are you going to do? Just hide in your room here and wait for Dagoth Ur to come get you?” Julan stood up abruptly, grabbing the stack of books out of Fen’s hands and dropping them unceremoniously on the ground. “Listen to me,” he said firmly. “I’d love to say that we can just forget this whole thing and go back to our old lives, but we can’t. You’re the Nerevarine, Fen, and there Nerevarine’s job is to protect Morrowind. Sure, there’s a big chance that we’ll die, but we might as well die defending Vvardenfell, right?”
“You’re awful at encouraging people.”
“I’m awful at most things.” Fen started to bend down to retrieve the books, but Julan grabbed her shoulder first. “Fen,” he said seriously. “You’re not going to die, okay? I know you aren’t.” He hugged her.
“I want to see my grandmother again,” she whispered.
“Which is why you have to get Dagoth Ur out of the way so you can,” Julan said simply. Fen closed her eyes, listening to the gentle tick of the clock in her locket against her collarbone. “Um…you’re not going to cry are you?” Julan asked nervously.
“No,” Fen said, stepping back and squaring her shoulders. “I’m not.” She crossed to the wardrobe and pulled out her bag. “Ready to go?”
“If you are,” Julan muttered, taking her hand. Fen cast Recall and seconds later they stood in the dusty center of the Urshilaku camp.
“It is Fen!” someone shouted, before they could even get their bearings. “Nerevarine!” Almost at one, Fen and Julan were surrounded by the Urshilaku, all of them speaking excitedly. An old woman reverently touched Fen’s shoulder.
“Move back,” a familiar voice in the back said firmly, and the Dunmer parted to reveal Nibani Maesa standing there, the usual look of troubled contemplation on her face. It was odd to see her outside the dimness and strange fumes of her yurt. “Clanfriend,” she said, holding out her hand. “Come.” Fen and Julan passed through the people to where Nibani was standing, and the wise woman turned and led them back to her yurt.
“Azura has spoken to me, Clanfriend,” Nibani said when Julan and Fen had settled on the round cushions before the fire. “You have been named Nerevarine of all the Ashlander tribes, Hortator of all the Great Houses. You have spoken with the False God Vivec. Your path is clear.” Nibani passed them each a clay mug of tea, her dark eyes glittering in the light of the fire.
“We have to retrieve Sunder and Keening,” Fen said, and Nibani nodded placidly.
“There are few stories of these tools, and I know little of them. Only that their purpose is with the Heart of Lorkhan.” Nibani swilled her tea around in her mug, then set it down calmly. “You must venture into Ghostgate, Nerevarine, into the core of this blighted land. You must use the tools to destroy Dagoth Ur’s bond. This, you know.” Fen nodded. “I have no more counsel for you,” Nibani said quietly. “I have guided you to this point – from here you must continue alone. But I have much faith in you, Fen. All the Urshilaku do. If we did not, we would not have named you Nerevarine, and the same can be said for the rest of Vvardenfell.” She placed one warm, dry hand on Fen’s. “The war has been long and terrible, and many have been lost. But the final battle shall soon begin, and if you succeed, only peace will follow. Our blessings go with you, Moon-and-Star. Bear them well.”
When they returned to Vivec, Fen gave Julan five hundred septims and sent him to drop his armor, his father’s tanto, and his bow off at the armorer’s. Once he left, she closed herself in her study, heated up her alchemy equipment, and began going through recepie books. Soon the desk was filled with stoppered bottles of potions, mostly cure common disease and restore health. Julan returned a few hours later and Fen had him go through all the books on her shelves, pulling the ones they might need. When she was finally satisfied with the number of potions she had made, she began packing them up, grateful that her bag was enchanted to carry much more than it looked. When this was done, she opened the large chest at the foot of her bed and started sorting through the various artifacts she had accumulated there, setting out the ones they would take with them. By nightfall, everything was packed in Fen’s bag, which sat ominously in the center of the room.
“Right,” Fen said, lifting the bag (which was, thanks to a feather enchantment, very light) and putting it on the floor of the wardrobe. “We’ll take the Guild Guide to Ald’ruhn and walk from there. Be up by eight.” Julan left to go pick up his armor, and Fen let her hair down and changed out of her travel robe. Then, for the first time in weeks, she slipped Moon-and-Star off her finger and closed it carefully in the lockbox on her desk. Making sure the master enchantment on the lockbox held strong, Fen doused the candles and climbed into her bed.
Julan was right. This was her destiny. There was no changing it now.

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