If you have any questions or comments, please email me at celestina.skymark@gmail.com

Saturday, July 9, 2011

XXXII - Ghostgate

The air tasted sweet upon her tongue. The sun’s pleasant warmth enveloped her skin. Her hair hung loose, and it danced around her face on the breeze, long and dark. She opened her eyes and stared down at the vast lands spread out below her, stretching far in every direction beneath a deep blue sky scudded with clouds. The grassy cliff she stood upon stretched downward, leaving the base of the mountain impossible to see. She felt the cool breeze sigh out from the lip of the slumbering volcano, spreading a sense of calm throughout the land.
“This was Resadayn,” the man beside her said. “Once.” He stood two heads taller than she, clothed simply with his dark hair hanging straight upon his back. His features were fine and handsome, and he was as familiar as a brother to her. “It can be this way again.”
“Morrowind?” she heard herself say.
“Not Morrowind,” the man replied. “Not that name, given to this holy land by the Imperials that invaded it. No.” He stretched out a powerful arm, sweeping his hand across the endless, deep sky. “This is our land Nerevar. This is what it could have become.”
“But the Heart…”
“The Heart is not a curse, as you and those Daedra once thought,” he said swiftly. “It is a tool, Nerevar, one that must be exercised with care.” He lowered his arm and turned to face her, his crimson eyes boring into hers. Upon his forehead, a third eye slumbered. “We can built Resadayn again, Nerevar.”
“I’m not Nerevar.”
“You are. We were brothers, once, and can be again. This land will finally be at peace. I need only you, my friend and comrade. My brother.” He held out his hand, elegant fingers pointing toward her, and gazed steadily at her, his hair tossing in the wind. She raised a hand, never breaking his gaze, and lowered it toward his, hesitating for a fraction of a second before laying it down upon his sun-warmed skin. The third eye upon his forehead snapped open, round and wide –

Fen started violently in her bed, her hands clenching the sheets around her and a sharp gasp rising in her throat. She blinked several times, slowly letting her fingers slacken and her breathing slow as she stared up at the dark ceiling. Rain pounded heavily on the canton outside, and thunder boomed in the distance.
Fen slowly pulled herself out of bed, busying herself with combing her hair and dressing in an old traveling robe and Gildan’s headscarf, trying not to think about the dream.
The land will finally be at peace.
A lie, she told herself firmly. He knows he doesn’t have much time. But the image of a clean, pure Vvardenfell lingered in her mind. No swirling ash or disease-ridden creatures, no trees violently stripped of their leaves, no perpetually grim skies blanketing the sun’s light. She could never have imagined such a sight.
“Ready?” She turned. Julan was standing there, wearing his newly repaired armor with his bow and a quiver of arrows strapped across his back.
“As much as I’ll ever be.” They climbed the platform, paid the Guild Guide, and were soon in the blue-lit hallways of the Ald’ruhn guildhall. Fen led the way outside, where an ashstorm was just starting to pick up. “I had a feeling it would be like this,” she shouted to Julan, wrapping Gildan’s scarf over her mouth and nose and pulling up her hood. Julan followed suit with the leather hood on his cuirass. Fen wanted to get to Ghostgate as soon as possible, so they wasted no time and left Ald’ruhn immediately, heading south, then east through the foyadas. She glanced back as they began their trek through the ash, looking at the tall, lonely spires of Ald’ruhn and hoping, despite how she had first hated it, that she might see it again.
By the time the loud humming of Ghostfence started to sound, the air was choked with ash, the wind fiercely whipping Fen’s robe around her legs. There were almost no travelers on the roads, and those who were out were moving quickly toward shelter. The storm was so violent that it was a relief to see the tall stone pylons of the fence.
They followed the fence down a slight slope to Ghostgate, a place Fen had not been since she and Julan last tried to climb Red Mountain. It seemed like years ago.
The structure was comprised of three towers – the Towers of Dawn and Dusk, and the Temple, situated between the two and above the tunnel that led through to the other side. The Tower of Dusk was closest, and Fen and Julan hurriedly ducked inside, where it seemed very quiet compared to the raging winds that pounded fiercely against the walls from inside.
“It’s going to take me weeks to get all that ash out of my clothes,” Julan muttered, pulling his hood down and letting a shower of dust out of it. Fen pulled off Gildan’s scarf and shook it out as best she could before draping it around her neck.
“Right,” she said, peering down the curving hallway. “Let’s head upstairs.”
The upper floor of the Tower of Dusk was a large circular room with a bar off to one side. Buoyant Armigers in chitin armor sat at tables with their helmets by their elbows, drinking and speaking quietly amongst themselves. They all had weary expressions, like they had been in the ashstorms for too long. When Fen and Julan entered, however, the atmosphere in the bar changed very suddenly.
There was a short silence in which it seemed like every person in the room was staring at them. Then one of the Armigers rose from his seat and crossed the room. He held out his hand, eyes looking deeply into Fen’s. She took his hand and he shook it once.
“Nerevarine. May the gods be with you.”
At this, the room was suddenly filled with the sound of chairs scraping against stone as the rest of the Armigers in the room stood, coming over to stand in a cluster around them. Some, like the first man that had spoken, were somber. Others laughed and greeted Fen with broad smiles. Either way, the sudden respect they generated was overwhelming. Most of them drifted back to their tables, but the first one who had approached offered to buy them drinks, and they accepted and moved to sit at the bar.
“There was talk here,” he said, sliding a few coins across the bar to the waitress. “Of when you would come. Some said they would try to kill you if you did.” He cast a sideways glance at Fen, sitting beside him. His eyes were heavy, as if they carried something he would have rather left behind. “That was before Vivec’s proclamation. Now a few are conflicted, but we know that if you succeed, it will be a great victory for Morrowind.” The barmaid plunked three flins on the bar in front of them and moved away to help someone else. The Armiger took one of the bottles and spun it thoughtfully in one hand. “It would be good to have a victory in these dark times.”
“I was hoping you could help me with that,” Fen said as Julan gulped down flin beside her. “We’re unfamiliar with the land inside the Ghostfence.” The Armiger smiled grimly.
“Ah, I know it well. Too well, I’m afraid.” He reached for a scrap of parchment by the edge of the bar and asked the barmaid for a quill. Just as Nine-Toes had when Fen first came to Vvardenfell, the Armiger began to sketch a map with smooth, practiced lines. “This is the region inside Ghostfence,” he said, showing the map to Fen. “There are six citadels of Dagoth Ur.” He drew six circles spanning the region of the map. “Only one is outside the Ghostfence. Kogoruhn. But the tales say that you have been there already.” Fen nodded, and the Armiger continued. “The rest are Endusal, Tureynulal, Odrosal, Vemynal, and Citadel Dagoth. These are their locations, but we do not know much more about them. “All our intelligence is old. No one has ventured far inside the fence for years. Sixth House creatures have become more numerous and powerful, and the most powerful can conjure powerful daedra. Until recently, we’ve been able to clear routes and keep them clean with raids, but no longer. There are no safe refuges or services inside the fence; you must return here to rest and heal. I’m sorry. That’s all we can tell you.”
“Why haven’t you been able to go inside?” Fen asked. The Armiger sighed.
“Since the beginning of this year, Dagoth Ur’s power has steepened considerably. The Sixth House, as I’m sure you know, has found ways of bypassing the Ghostfence. Ghostgate was once a symbol of the power of the Tribunal – now, I fear it is no more than a dead relic.” He gestured vaguely to the Armigers seated behind him, who had quietly resumed their chatter. “Look at us. We’re getting old, and we haven’t fought anything in months. There is simply no longer a point.”
“Then why are you still here?” Fen asked quietly. The Armiger took a long drink of his flin and set it down, staring darkly the bottle.
“When my daughter was just twenty, she received her blade and shield. We started raiding Ghostgate together with the rest of my unit. She was never scared. Then when we were in Endusal, we were separated from the unit. Folsa went ahead, around a corner, and I heard her fighting. When I came around, she had been slain by three Ash Ghouls.” The Armiger shook his head. “I ran. I hate myself so much for it, but I ran. I left my daughter’s body in that accursed place. Her mother had died years ago, and it was me and Folsa against the world. And I left her there.”
“I’m sorry,” Fen said softly. The man rubbed his thumb along his bottle.
“That’s why you’ve got to beat him,” he said softly. “I’m too old to reconcile for my crimes. But you, you can do something about it.” He reached into his pocket and drew out a battered gold coin, dark with age and scratched from use. “I’ve carried this with me for years, now,” he said, holding the coin out to her. “The others used to call it lucky. But I’ve no need for it anymore. Take it up the mountain with you. Maybe the luck still lives.”
“Thank you,” Fen said quietly, accepting the coin, and the Armiger stood and returned to his table.
“I don’t like the Buoyant Armigers much,” Julan said thoughtfully. “But he seemed okay.” Fen pulled the map closer to her, carefully running her finger up along the parchment from Ghostgate to Dagoth Ur.
“Odrosal looks like the closest,” she said. “We’ll head up early tomorrow morning and get Keening.”
“Wait, what?” Julan said incredulously. “We only just got here and you want to go up Red Mountain tomorrow?”
“Well what else are we going to do? Spend another week chatting with the Armigers?” Fen folded up the map with a flourish and stood, slipping it into her bag. “We’ve planned everything out. Now we just need to do it.” Fen paid for two rooms for the night and left Julan at the bar, going straight to her’s. She had a feeling tomorrow would be the most difficult day she would face in a while.
Early the next morning, Fen managed to rouse Julan and double check that everything they needed was packed by six.
“Want to stop by the Temple?” Julan muttered as they crossed through the dark, empty bar.
“I’ve learned to stop taking too much stock in the gods,” she replied softly. “This won’t last long,” she added, glancing up at the dim, pinkish sky as they crossed outside. Fen pressed the triangular switch on the pylon outside the gate and it rattled loudly as it cranked upwards, giving them entry into the long tunnel. Fen led the way inside, and they waited while the gate closed behind them. “Ready?” she asked Julan. He nodded, his face set, and she pressed the triangle on the second pylon. The last gate rattled up, showing them a view of the ground as it steeply rose upward. Overhead, Fen could hear the wind starting to pick up. “Let’s go.”
Squaring her shoulders, Fen led the way through the tunnel and out onto the other side, where the gate clanged shut. Now the sky was turning deep, ashy red and the air tasted metallic. Fen pulled Gildan’s scarf over her mouth and raised her hood as the wind began to blow down from the top of the volcano, straight at them.
The climb seemed to be much more difficult than Fen remembered from the time she and Julan had tried it. It was almost as if the ash storm knew they were there and it was blowing as hard as possible to stem their process up the mountain. Fen’s mouth, despite being covered by the scarf, was painfully dry. She kept her eyes as narrow as possible to avoid the flying ash, using the rocks and rubble on either side of the path to help her up the way. Every few minutes, she would glance back to be sure Julan was still with her.
They had only been climbing for fifteen minutes when a corprus monster appeared from behind a cluster of rocks. Fen killed it easily with a simple fire spell, but the monster still made her feel uneasy. If Dagoth Ur placed corprus monsters, which terrified most men, at the base of his defenses, what would lie at the top?
They soon found an enormous, slick stone wall that the old Armiger had described to Fen. At the top of it stood Odrosal Citadel. She turned, gestured to Julan, and activated her levitation amulet. The two rose up, still fighting fiercely against the ash, and hovered for nearly five minutes before they finally touched ground on the narrow cliff of Odrosal. They were immediately greeted by an Ash Slave lurking behind a crumbled building, and a few of Julan’s Daedric arrows quickly put an end to it. A short ways away, Fen could see and Ash Ghoul stalking among the ancient rusted Dwemer ruins, but she decided it would be best for them to save their energy for the interior of the citadel. The outside of Odrosal was, thankfully, quite small, and Fen and Julan found the door fairly easily. They entered into a dim entry hall, and at once a Golden Saint guarding the lower level spotted them and ran towards the stairs out of sight.
“They don’t even give us a chance to dust off, do they?” Julan grumbled as Fen led the way down to meet the Saint head on. With both of them and a summoned Flame Atronach, the Saint was fairly easy to take down, and they found little else in the citadel as they explored the tunnels below. They came eventually to a locked door, which emitted a very evil feeling, but Fen opened nevertheless with a spell. Past it, they found themselves in a dim room, empty save for a seven-foot tall figure standing over a rectangular hole in the floor.
“Well, Fen.” The voice, which was chillingly similar to Dagoth Gares’ echoed harshly around the room. “Have you come to serve? Or to challenge my station? Or to try to win Keening?” Fen felt her heart skip a beat. This had to be Dagoth Odros.
“To challenge,” she said firmly, and laughter rang around the room, though the shadowy figure remained still.
“You think to climb higher in Brother Dagoth’s eyes by defeating me? Well, then, you might rise at that. None of us Heartwights can die. The power of the Heart will bring us all back in time. But, yes, you might win Lord Dagoth’s favor by defeating his lieutenants. No hard feelings, Fen. I lose, I lose my rank. You lose, you lose all. You’re playing for high stakes. Are you sure you want to play, Fen? Surely, there is no dishonor for a mortal to serve a god?”
“I do not seek favor from Dagoth Ur,” Fen said sharply. “I seek only the blade Keening.”
“It is well hidden. Even if I should fall, you would never find it. But if you choose to serve, perhaps Lord Dagoth might even consent to grant you the use of it. Surely, by coming so far, you have drawn his discerning eye, and earned his favor. Be reasonable, Fen. Why risk blood and life for that which might be won by words and service?” Another cruel chuckle bounced across the metal walls. “But now, Fen, I believe you have made up your mind.” The figure tensed suddenly, bending its knees lithely and raising its spindly hands. Fen shot a spell of God’s Fire at it, and Dagoth Odros was dead before he could make a move.
“Well he was all talk,” Julan muttered, putting his bow away. “I guess we should look for Keening, then.” Starting from Dagoth Odros’ chamber, they went carefully back through Odrosal, searching every place they could think of until they reached a small antechamber just inside the door that they had looked over upon entering. Inside, there was nothing but a rusted gold ladder propped up against a trapdoor and the rotting body of a naked Dreamer. Curiously, Fen went to examine the trapdoor in the ceiling above the ladder.
“Let’s look up here,” she said, placing one foot carefully on the bottom rung of the ladder. It held her weight, and she climbed to the top and pushed the trapdoor open, peering around for adversaries. The small tower room looked empty, however, and she motioned for Julan to follow and climbed the rest of the way into the room. As Fen got to her feet, she glanced up at the room and froze.
“Fen, I can’t get up the ladder if you stand in front of it – ouch, what –” Julan broke off as he appeared through the trapdoor. “By the thousand-and-one spidery offspring of Black Hands Mephala the Webspinner!” Julan exclaimed, all in one breath. “That…that must be Keening!”
So it was. The blade stood erect in a wide pile of ash atop a low altar, its crystal edge forming a startling contrast to the deep red of the room. Fen pulled Wraithguard from her bag and slid it over her right hand, where it fit perfectly and glowed once. Slowly, she bent on one knee before the altar, closed the fingers of Wraithguard around the ornately decorated hilt, and pulled Keening upward out of the ash.
At once, Fen felt an odd humming in her body, which must have been Keening trying to kill her. Wraithguard protected her, however, and she stood up with the dagger safely in hand.
“Gods,” she breathed, turning it so that what little light in the room sprang off the blade in every direction. The hilt was made of shining brass, carved and decorated in the classical style of the Dwemer and closing around the crystal blade perfectly. It struck Fen that the tool in her hand had caused the downfall of an entire race of people, had given Dagoth Ur and the Tribunal their divine abilities, had been the cause of Nerevar’s death at the hand of Vivec, Almalexia, and Sotha Sil. A dagger that had seen so much destruction, but felt so simple in her hand.
“Who in their right mind would just leave an artifact like Keening just sitting in this tower?” Julan said incredulously as Fen carefully wrapped Keening in leather and replaced it in her bag alongside Wraithguard. “Oh wait…these people aren’t in their right minds,” he added bitterly.
It was nearing evening when they left Odrosal, but they agreed that they both had enough energy left to raid another citadel. Fen studied her map and they started towards Tureynulal, levitating over the steep hills and gullies that had formed on the mountain’s surface. Up above the land, the ash was even fiercer, it Fen found it difficult to focus on moving in one direction. Soon, though, they mercifully reached Tureynulal, a fairly small base settled in a deep valley. They landed just outside, and Julan quickly located the door.
“Ready?” Fen shouted over the wind, and he nodded. She pushed against the heavy metal door, cranking it open, and before they could get their bearings, a corprus stalker was upon them. Before Fen could muster herself, Julan had smoothly sent an iron arrow into the stalker’s chest, making it stumble back and fall dead. “Thanks for that,” Fen said, pushing the door closed and leaving them in the calm silence of the inner citadel. There were three doors, and they carefully went through them, finding several Ash creatures and large iron kegs of Dwemer artifacts, but nothing of credible value.
The last door they opened led into a low-ceilinged rectangular room, lit by deep red candles. Dented iron shelves filled to the brim with books of all sorts lined the walls, and several small round tables piled with thick, dust-covered volumes stood in the center. An enormous figure stood at one of the tables with his back to them, long, dirty hair hanging down his back, gold headdress scraping the ceiling.
“No,” Dagoth Tureynulal said at once, without turning to look at them. “I’m sorry. No flowery speeches. No subtle tricks. No formal boasts or challenges. Fight. Or leave. But don’t expect me to pass the time of day with you.”
“Then I will fight you,” Fen said. Julan evidently took Dagoth Tureynulal’s greeting to heart, and fired an arrow at the Ash Vampire’s back before it could turn around. Fen was weakened from using God’s Fire against Dagoth Odros, and she settled for a summoned Atronach and her Mages’ Staff. Dagoth Tureynulal, thankfully, did not last much longer than his brother had.
“These Ash Vampires aren’t too hard,” Julan said, going over and nudging Dagoth Tureynulal’s body with his boot. “Maybe Dagoth Ur will be the same way,” he added hopefully.
“I have a feeling Dagoth Ur will be much harder to get rid of than the Ash Vampires,” Fen muttered, going to scan the books on the shelf. Most were books she had read, but she pulled down the unfamiliar ones and slid them into her bag if they looked interesting. “Fen,” Julan said suddenly, and she turned. He was standing at one of the tables, looking at an enormous leather-bound book that lay open there. “Look at this.” Fen joined him at the table and peered through the gloom at the pages. Her eyes widened as she realized what they contained.
“This is Dwemer,” she said, turning the pages slowly. It was clearly handwritten, cramped and small, with various drawings and complicated diagrams taking up anywhere from a tiny portion of space to four pages. “Gods, I wish I could read it.” Fen closed the book to see the front, finding it coated in heavy dust. She swiped it clean and saw the title embellished there in – to her surprise – was written in Old Aldmeris, which, to her delight, she could understand.
“What does it say?” Julan asked, peering over her shoulder.
Kagrenac’s Planbook,” Fen said breathlessly, running her fingers along the title in amazement. “This is incredible.” Fen opened to the first page, where there was only a single word written in the smooth, spiky hand. “If only I could read it.”
“There’s no one that knows Dwemeris?” Julan asked as Fen flipped slowly through the pages again.
“Yagrum Bagarn can,” she said distractedly. “But the last time I spoke with him he said that he believed Kagrenac’s plans should die with him. I don’t think he would translate this for me.” Fen closed the book again and placed it carefully in her bag.
“What’s the point of taking it if you can’t read it?” Julan asked as Fen led the way out of the library.
“It’s still an extraordinary artifact,” she said, pulling out her locket to check the time. “And maybe someday someone will be able to read it. And in any case, it’s one of those things I don’t think Dagoth Ur should have access to.” They paused outside the door that led back out to Red Mountain. “It’s nearly nine. We should head back to Ghostgate.” Julan nodded, and Fen led the way through the darkening mountain down to the edge of Ghostfence. When they emerged on the other side of the tunnel, the sky was already beginning to look clearer.
“Much more cheerful on this end, isn’t it?” Julan said offhandedly as the stars started to emerge.
“Much.” They entered the Tower of Dusk, and Fen felt so incredibly exhausted that she realized almost at once why all of the Armigers wore a hardened, tired expression. “I’m going to bed,” she said, handing Julan a few septims. “Get something if you’re hungry. Tomorrow we’ll do Vemynal and Endusal.”
In her room, Fen returned Wraithguard to her right hand and carefully unwrapped Keening from its leather sleeve. The blade glinted brightly in the dimness of her room, and Fen studied it carefully for a time before wrapping it up again and returning it to her bag. If all went well, she would have Sunder in hand this time tomorrow.

No comments:

Post a Comment