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Saturday, July 23, 2011

XXXIV - Assault on Red Mountain

The next morning, Fen moved in a dreamlike state. She and Julan woke easily, made sure all their things were in order, and silently left the sleeping Tower of Dusk. Without speaking, Fen pressed the switch on the pylon and the first gate rattled up. They had barely made it through the second gate when ash began to blow down the tunnel, the strongest winds they had faced yet. Clutching her scarf around her face, Fen narrowed her eyes against the ash and pressed onward, out of the tunnel and up the slope.

They met little for the first hour of their climb. But as they drew nearer to the center of the mountain, more and more Ash creatures started appearing, more blighted animals, more swollen corprus monsters.
They soon surpassed the point they had reached when Julan had led the climb all those months ago. The wind was so fierce here that Fen found herself falling backwards, several times very close to tumbling down the steep slope. Before long, they came to a small overlook flanked by two tall, broken Dwemer statues. Fen and Julan helped each other against the wind, and soon they were standing at the peak of Red Mountain.
Far below them, in the deep caldera of the volcano, stood the ancient citadel of Dagoth Ur. Enormous Dwemer towers, the largest Fen had ever seen, rose crookedly out of the ash, rusted and weathered with many years of being exposed to the ashstorms. At their heart, thousands of feet below, a deep pit filled with molten lava rumbled loudly. Above this, a furious tornado of air was spinning, generating the ash storms that blew down every slope of the mountain. For a long moment, Fen stared silently at the spinning fury of the citadel. It all felt achingly familiar, and she knew why – this was the place she had died all those years ago. Only then, she was someone else.
Julan nudged her, and she made a gesture. Together, they levitated around the tall rusted spires until they found a flat space at the base of all the chaos. The wind was the worst here, right beside the swirling vortex of ash. Fen had to grip a nearby pipe to keep from being blown away. She narrowed her eyes, gazing about carefully. Just a few paces away, there was a door, but it was guarded by the same kind of iron sphere she had seen when she went to find the puzzle box at Arkngthand.
“Look for a crank!” she shouted to Julan, who was clutching a broken statue’s spear that stuck out of the ground. He looked at her quizzically. “A crank!” she shouted, miming the motion with her hand. His eyes widened beneath his hood and he nodded, joining her in glancing around.
After nearly ten minutes of searching, Fen found a broken pipe with a half-moon crank attached, several yards away from the door. She motioned to Julan, then, with all her might, pulled the crank. They hurried over, clutching handholds as they did so, but the iron sphere had already closed. Julan made to return to the crank, but Fen caught his arm and pulled him into the doorway. After a moment, the shell started to rotate and it closed over them, throwing them into darkness and reducing the howling wind to a dull roar outside.
“I am never –” Julan said, pulling down his hood “– ever, ever visiting the Ashlands again after this. I feel like half my body’s made of dust.” Fen lowered her own hood, slowly, as they stepped out of the iron shell. They were in a small, dim hallway. A short set of stairs went down and turned out of sight. “Well, we’re here!” Julan said brightly. “And we even have a plan! Sort of.”
“Julan,” Fen said softly. “You don’t have to come with me, you know. You have the Ahemmusa to lead.”
“Yes...and I hope you’ll do what you can for them, should I not return. But to die here would bring my people honor. I’m not afraid of dying.” Fen turned towards him sharply.
“You don’t have to die!” she said earnestly. “Julan, you don’t have to come with me!”
“I know that!” he replied hastily. “I’m doing this because I want to! This was my mission once, and I want to see how it ends. I want to prove to myself and to my people that I’m a strong warrior.” He glared fiercely at her. “I want to help my best friend make history! I think a more interesting question is, why are you doing this?”
“Me?” Julan nodded. “I’m doing this because….because it’s my destiny. I have to.”
“But is that enough for you? Think about why you’re really doing this,” he pressed. “You have to want this for yourself, and for Morrowind. Not because it’s your destiny. You have to believe that you’re doing the right thing. You have to be sure about it. If you’re not, you’ll fail.” He paused. “Are you sure about it, Fen?” She didn’t answer for a moment. Julan had a point. Was she sure? She thought of all the time she had spent on Vvardenfell, how one year on this island had felt more like home to her than Mournhold ever had. And she thought of someone trying to take it from her, this place where she had met so many and where she had learned her purpose in this world. She thought of Dagoth Ur trying to rip it from her hands.
“I’m sure,” she said firmly. Julan stared at her for a moment, but he seemed to accept it.
“Do you want to know a secret, Fen?” She nodded. “There have been times when I’ve wondered if I was doing the right thing,” he said softly. “Dagoth Ur plans to drive the Empire from Morrowind. That’s part of what the Incarnate is meant to do, too. Sometimes I wondered if the prophecies really meant that the Incarnate would join with Dagoth Ur, to free Morrowind. And...when we were on the mountain, that first time, I had a dream. A dream of Morrowind ruled by the Sixth House.”
“What was it like?” Fen asked, knowing the answer.
“It was...” Julan hesitated. “…wonderful. The false gods and the Empire were destroyed, and the Dunmer were free. Everything was perfect...but even then I could tell there was something wrong with the image, a sickness about it all. I knew it wouldn’t really be like that. But I was still so blind. I hated the Empire, hated the Tribunal, and sometimes I thought that anything would be better.”
“Even Dagoth Ur?”
“Yes...sometimes...even Dagoth Ur. I told you I was blind. Now, I’ve seen enough of the Sixth House to know it isn’t true. This land will become a place of misery, suffering and death if he isn’t stopped. I may not like the Emperor, or the Tribunal, but...they’re not evil. Things aren’t so bad, really. Dagoth Ur is evil. I know destroying him is the right thing to do.”
“You’re right,” Fen said firmly. “Let’s finish this.”
“Remember, Fen,” Julan told her. “I’m not afraid to die, but that doesn’t mean I’m planning on it. And if I’m not dying, you’re certainly not dying either. This is no suicide mission. This is just like any other quest. We complete it, and we go home. Now let’s do this.”
Faces set, they started down the stairs. Almost as soon as they reached the first landing, a deep, handsome voice sounded, reverberating off the walls.
Come, Nerevar. Friend or traitor, come. Come and look upon the Heart and Akulakhan. And bring Wraithguard…I have need of it.
“Fen?” Fen realized she had stopped dead upon hearing the voice, and Julan was looking at her quizzically. Despite the pleasant voice, there was something strange about it. Something…wrong.
“Did you hear…?” she started, and Julan shook his head. “Nothing. Let’s go.” They turned the corner and saw the stairs ended with a door, guarded by a single corprus monster. The monster fell dead easily, and they proceeded cautiously into the next room, which was dominated by a rectangle of flowing lava in the centre that lit the room with a fiery orange glow.
Come to the Heart Chamber. I wait for you there, where we last met, countless ages ago.
The body of a Nord woman lay facedown beside the lava, the smell of her rotting flesh permeating the air. They passed her silently, continuing down the twisting maze of corridors. Down one hall, Fen saw a great, hulking dark shape gliding slowly along the floor. It was an Ascended Sleeper, an enormous creature with dozens of deformed tentacles sprouting from where there should have been a face. It sent a spiraling poison spell towards them at the same time Fen let off a frost spell. The two collided and there was a loud crash as the hallway filled with light. Fen pulled Julan to the ground to avoid the backlash and they remained unscathed with the Ascended Sleeper had turned to a pile of ash.
Come to me through fire and war. I welcome you.
In the next room, they encountered an Ash Ghoul. Fen and Julan dispatched it, as well as the three Ash Slaves lurking in the corners, and proceeded down a short flight of stairs to another door.
Welcome, Moon-and-Star. I have prepared a place for you.
“Fen, are you sure you’re okay?” Julan said, peering at her face through the gloom.
“He’s talking to me,” she whispered. “He’s trying to get into my head.”
“Don’t let him,” Julan said firmly. “Don’t let him, Fen. You’ve got to keep him out.” Fen wasn’t able to reply, however, for at that moment they were accosted by a second Ascended Sleeper.
A small room, a set of stairs, two Ash Zombies, another small room. They moved methodically, cutting down the creatures that tried to stop them.
Come. Bring Wraithguard to the Heart Chamber. Together, let us free the cursed false gods.
They rounded a corner and were greeted by a Greater Bonewalker, a grotesque collection of bone and raw flesh often used to guard Dunmer ancestral tombs. Fitting, Fen thought grimly as they knocked the Bonewalker backward and Julan killed it with a well-placed arrow.
Welcome, Nerevar. Together we shall speak for the Law and the Land, and shall drive the mongrel dogs of the Empire from Morrowind.
They proceeded deeper into the bowels of Dagoth Ur. The next room was a series of complex tunnels that led steadily downward. As they moved through the tunnels, Fen kept hearing quiet shifting noises above and below them, as if something was moving steadily.
They were soon met by the seventh and final Ash Vampire, Dagoth Gilvos, in a dim tunnel near the bottom of the confusing maze.
Is this how you honor the Sixth House, and the tribe unmourned? Come to me openly, and not by stealth.
As Dagoth Gilvos fell, Fen went immediately forward to take the ring off his finger, for she had recognized it as a powerful object during their battle. Julan stood back, staring up at the ceiling, where the shifting was growing louder.
“Fen…” he said slowly. “I think –”
And then, quite suddenly, the hall was filled with dust and noise as a tear opened up in the metal ceiling and boulders rained down. Fen dove into a storage alcove, ducking her head as the rocks flew past her. After a long moment, the noise finally settled and she crawled gingerly out of the niche.
The hallway was filled with rubble up to the ceiling, rocks spilling out everywhere. Evidently, this part of the citadel was as unstable as the mine Shani had been trapped in. That seemed like years ago.
“Julan?” Fen called, her voice echoing. It sent chills up her spine.
“I’m okay!” His voice came from the other end of the rubble, muffled and strained-sounding. Fen scrambled up onto the rubble, struggling to shift the rocks aside. Many were too heavy, but she managed to clear a small hole through which she could see Julan, attempting the same thing.
“You’re not hurt, are you?” she asked.
“I’m fine,” he said, struggling to climb up the rocks. “But now what do we do?” Fen didn’t answer for a long moment.
“You try and shift some of this rock. If I’m not back in an hour, go back down to Ghostgate.”
What?!” Julan said incredulously. “Fen – no! I’m not letting you fight that lunatic on your own!”
“You’re the one trapped behind a load of rocks!” Fen said hotly. She frowned. “I’ll be fine. I’ll contact you with the telepathy ring when I’m on my way back.” She tried not to add if I come back.
“Fen,” Julan said quickly. “Be careful. I’m serious.”
“I know.” She gazed at him for a moment longer, then slid down to the ground again. She tried not to look back as she continued down the hall, though she could hear the faint sounds of Julan struggling to move the rock. She went down a short flight of stairs, then found herself at a door hewn out of rough wood, from behind which evil seemed to practically flow. She stopped before it, her hand resting on the rusted iron handle. Moon-and-Star glinted faintly on her ring finger, and Fen slowly removed her hand, bringing it up to her face to study the ring.
Nerevar’s ring.
No, Fen thought suddenly. Not Nerevar. Me. It’s mine now. Fen clenched her fist and looked up at the door, her eyes narrowed. This is my destiny. Face set, she closed her fingers around the handle and pulled it open, stepping into the place she knew Dagoth Ur would be.

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