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Saturday, August 13, 2011

XXXVI - The Second Numidium


Dagoth Ur was waiting. He stood at the edge of a platform, a taunting smile beneath his glimmering mask, his face darkened from the light of the monstrous sight behind him. The platform dropped off steeply, revealing that the Heart Chamber was an enormous cavern, so high up that the ceiling was in shadow. In its center stood Akulakhan, a colossal construct built of corprus meat and ash, surrounded by ash servants. Its eyes were round and staring, letting off clouds of blood-colored steam. A machine god first built by the Dwemer, copied by Dagoth Ur for his own desires.
“What a fool you are,” Dagoth Ur shouted, and his voice rose high above the other noises in the chamber – clattering, whirring, and far below, the roar of flowing lava. Dagoth Ur flicked his wrist easily, sending a lethal-looking spell towards Fen. She sprang to the side, sprawling, hard, on the metal floor. Dagoth Ur let out a cruel laugh. “I am a god! You cannot kill a god! What a grand and intoxicating innocence!” He sent another spell at her and she ducked, knowing it would be no good to fight him until the Heart was destroyed. “How could you be so na├»ve? There is no escape. No Recall or Intervention will work in this place!” He was taunting her, seeing how long it took until she would try to attack him. She ducked another spell that hit a pipe behind her and broke it so that searing-hot steam poured out. “Come, lay down your weapons,” Dagoth Ur continued as Fen struggled for her bag. “It is not too late for my mercy.” Another spell raced toward her. She rolled out of the way, fumbling. Finally she found it – her Slowfall amulet. Clutching the amulet in her left hand, Fen reached for Sunder with her right, shielded by Wraithguard. She had hung both the dagger and the hammer on her belt so that she would not have to struggle for them, which proved to be a wise choice. She stood, dodging another spell, and sprinted straight toward his spot at the edge of the platform. Dagoth Ur took a surprised step back, but she ran past him, leaping over the edge of the platform and clutching Sunder and the amulet tightly in her hands.
There was a rickety wooden bridge directly below her, stretching from the platform below Dagoth Ur’s to the waist of Akulakhan, where she could see something faintly shimmering. Fen squeezed the Slowfall amulet as she hurtled toward the bridge, activating it and drifting the last few feet. The bridge was decrepit and rotten, though, and as she landed it flipped over, forcing her to drop the Slowfall amulet and seize the edge of the bridge to keep from plummeting into the lava far below. As she struggled to climb back onto the bridge, the board she was clutching snapped and she seized the ropes it had been bound to, trying not to look down as it spiraled into the lava. Still clinging to Sunder, she pulled herself up with a mighty heave, wiping the sweat from her brow.
 High above, she could hear Dagoth Ur shouting orders to the Ash servants that occupied the edges of the chamber. She quickly started across the rickety bridge, struggling to keep her balance as it swung from side to side. At the end, in the belly of Akulakhan, she could see it – the Heart of Lorkhan, a giant, pulsating muscle nearly the size of her torso, beating gently where it was attached to two pipes.
The bridge shook with a sudden impact and Fen felt herself rising with it. Dagoth Ur had landed on the bridge behind her. Only a short ways away from Akulakhan, she leaped to avoid the backlash of the bridge, landing on the platform of the Second Numidium’s stomach. Below, the heat of the bright orange lava let off a searing heat, and Fen felt her hair sticking to her face, her robe clinging to her body.
Dagoth Ur was approaching quickly. There was no time. Fen struggled to her feet, seized one of the pipes the Heart was attached to for balance, and raised Sunder high. With a snarl, she brought it down, hard, upon the pulsating flesh of the Heart of Lorkhan. The Heart contracted suddenly to the shape of the hammer, releasing a pure, loud bell tone that rang throughout the chamber. Fen hurriedly replaced Sunder to her belt, reaching for Keening.
Before she could react, she had been seized from behind and thrown, and she was flying through the air, Keening slipping from her fingers. She hit the wall, then the ground, hard. Gasping for breath, Fen struggled to stand, and she suddenly felt long fingers curl around her neck. Then Dagoth Ur’s face was staring into her’s, pinning her against the stone wall, slowly choking her.
“You think that you can defeat me?” he hissed as she clawed hopelessly at his hand. “You think that you, a pathetic mortal, can challenge me? You are nothing, Fenara. You have reached this place by sheer luck and at the expense of others. You have done nothing but climb their shoulders to reach the top. You are useless, weak, more of a Blight upon this land than I will ever create. When you are dead and the Second Numidium walks upon the earth of Mundus, the Dunmer will praise me for destroying you.” The lines of his face were slowly blurring. She was losing consciousness. Her head throbbed, and she found herself wishing for the end. Desperately praying it would all just stop.
Then, quite suddenly, Dagoth Ur was thrown to the side, releasing her. She crumpled to the ground, gasping, squinting around to try and make sense of what had happened. Then she saw him – Julan, standing at the base of the platform with his bow poised.
“Fen!” he called, and he blasted a spell at the ground. Keening was there, and it flew into the air toward her. Fen leapt up, snatching the dagger out of the air with Wraithguard and turning back towards the bridge.
She could hear Dagoth Ur screeching behind her, but she kept her eyes on the Heart as it drew ever nearer, Keening glowing brightly in her hand. Putting on a final burst of speed, Fen seized the pipe to steady herself and thrust Keening into the fleshy surface of the heart.
Behind her, Dagoth Ur let out an agonizing cry.
What are you doing?! STOP!” A hole formed in the heart where Fen had stabbed it and light poured out, distorting the bell tone to a slightly out-of-tune pitch. Fen ground Keening into the Heart a second time, distorting the tone further and letting out another thin beam of light.
NOOOOOOOOOOO!” Fen flipped Keening around in her hand so its point faced downward and stabbed the top of the Heart, twisting the knife so that the hole there widened, letting out an enormous strip of clear light and making the bell tone waver. She then pulled Keening downward in one smooth motion, ripping the Heart of Lorkhan open from top to bottom.
Light burst out, blinding her, and the bell tone was replaced by a sudden clashing, as if the bell had been cut from its rope. The heart folded in on itself, still letting out shoots of impossibly bright light, and spun smaller and smaller until it was gone.
Fen turned. Dagoth Ur was racing towards her, snarling with fury as she felt Akulakhan start to rumble beneath her. Keening slipped out of her hand and she blasted a sweltering God’s Fire at him. Dagoth Ur flipped backward, clutching onto the edges of the swinging bridge as the aftereffects of the spell faded. His muscular body was blackened and burned, blood pouring thickly from where Julan’s arrow had struck him and soaking into the cloth around his waist. He looked up at her, sweat gleaming on his shoulders. She could tell, somehow, that the face beneath the mask was furious.
The mad god leapt to his feet and scrambled across the precariously shifting bridge towards her. She didn’t have enough energy left to use another powerful spell like God’s Fire, and her Mages’ Staff had long since slipped off its place on her back. She went for the next best thing – Keening lying on the ground, the crystal blade glittering faintly in the dim light. As Dagoth Ur reached the platform, he charged toward her, a furious snarl issuing from behind his mask. Fen clutched Keening in her hand, bracing herself for impact.
He seized her shoulders as he bowled into her, slamming her into the pipes where, moments ago, the Heart of Lorkhan had been funneling life into Akulakhan.. He pinned her free hand down with one long-clawed hand, and as she started to thrust Keening towards him with the other, he seized it, struggling against her to push it away. Fen clenched her teeth, never taking her eyes off the narrow slits in his mask, through which she could see his eyes, dark and wide. She pushed her knee up suddenly, hitting his leg with her’s and momentarily breaking his concentration. The second his long fingers on her wrist slackened, she thrust Keening upward and into his abdomen.
Dagoth Ur gasped suddenly, his body stiffening, and Fen immediately took the opportunity to shove him roughly off of her and spring to her feet. Without hesitation, she sheathed Keening and sprinted toward Julan on the other side, feeling the rope bridge begin to give way beneath her and hoping desperately that Dagoth Ur did not have enough strength to get back up. Just as she was about to reach the other, the wood under her snapped and she felt herself plummeting downward.
Fen snatched at the broken bridge, managing to catch one of the rotting boards. She was about to heave herself up when she felt a long-fingered hand seize her ankle.
I WILL NOT DIE LIKE THIS, NEREVAR.” Fen glanced down. Dagoth Ur was there, dragging her down and panting heavily as they slipped closer to hurtling into the lava. “IF I PERISH, YOU WILL PERISH WITH ME!” Her hands were sweaty, and she was slowly losing her grip on the bridge as the lava roared beneath her, beckoning her ever closer. She sent a feeble deflect spell down at him and it struck one of the sunbursts of his mask, flipping it off his face and sending it spiraling down into the rolling lava below. His face was sunken, paper-thin skin gathered unnaturally around his bulging eyes, startlingly different from his muscular body. It was a face that showed everything he had lost, all he had sacrificed in his uncontrollable lust for power. A face that Fen knew had once been handsome and full of life. Now, it was merely the husk of the person he used to be.
Dagoth Ur was panting heavily with the effort of holding on, despite Fen’s furious kicks to be rid of him. Using the last bit of magicka she had, she sent a frost spell down at him. It was weak, but it was enough. He released her and his furious roar echoed through the chamber as he plummeted downward, joining his gold mask in the roiling orange lava.
“Fen!” Julan shouted from somewhere above her, and she forced her gaze away from the roaring heart of the volcano and seized his hand. He pulled her up and onto the platform and they scrambled away from the edge as the ground shook beneath them. Fen turned quickly, and the sight before her rendered her temporarily speechless.
Akulakhan was slowly falling apart. The destruction of the Heart of Lorkhan made the Second Numidium useless, and it began to crumble into the lava it stood in. Soon, there was nothing left in the great empty space in the middle of the Heart Chamber. The room shook violently, raining dust and rocks down from the ceiling. “Let’s go!” Julan shouted, and he grabbed Fen’s hand, knowing she had no magicka left, and cast a powerful levitate spell she had taught him, sending  them both up to the uppermost platform, where the shell around the door had cranked open. Dodging falling boulders and chunks of metal, they sprinted for the exit, pushing through and landing on the other side just as a horrible crash sounded behind them. Fen and Julan stumbled to the ground in the cavern, letting the shell grate loudly closed behind them. For a moment, they both just lay there, stunned.
“I don’t believe it,” Fen finally said. “We did it.”
Yes,” someone answered, but it wasn’t Julan. “You did.” Fen sat bolt upright, and her eyes widened at what she saw in front of the door.
It was a woman, a beautiful, dark-skinned Dunmer woman in a swirling dress of blue silk. There was an odd glow around her, as if she wasn’t quite there. Fen and Julan got slowly to their feet, then Julan instantly sank down on his knee.
“Azura.”
The woman smiled, and she outstretched her hands toward Fen.

You no longer bear the burden of prophecy.
You have achieved your destiny.
You are free.
The doomed Dwemer's folly, Lord Dagoth's temptation,
the Tribunal's seduction, the god's heart freed,
the prophecy fulfilled.
All fates sealed and sins redeemed.
If you have pity, mourn the loss, but let the weeping cease.
The Blight is gone, and the sun's golden honey gilds the land.
Hail savior, Hortator, and Nerevarine.
Your people look to you for protection.
Monster and villains great and small still threaten the people of Vvardenfell.
Enemies and evils abound, yet indomitable will might rid Morrowind of all its ills.
For you, our thanks and blessings; our gift and token given.
Come; take this thing from the hand of god.”

Azura made a smooth gesture and a small white ring materialized in the air before her. With that, the Daedra Goddess offered a final small smile and blurred until she was a small light that faded from view. Fen silently stood and moved toward it. She placed both hands beneath the ring and it dropped easily into her palms. As soon as it touched her skin, she felt warm and safe, even in this dark and evil place.
In silence, she and Julan made their way back through the empty citadel, through the small hole Julan had made in the rockfall and up countless flights of stairs to the door. Julan had raised his hood in preparation for the ashstorm, but Fen pushed it open to a clear, bright sky. They stared upward in amazement at the dark, brooding Dwemer towers contrasting so vividly with the bright blue afternoon streaked with clouds. A cliffracer drifted lazily overhead. The lava in the crater below had dried to a hardened crust. Red Mountain slept once more.
“I never want to see a Dwemer ruin again,” Julan said, scratching his head. A load of sand showered down from his hair. “Gah…this is going to take me weeks to get rid of.” He looked at Fen and smiled. “So. How does it feel to be free?” She gave him a questioning look. “You’re no longer bound by your destiny...if you ever really were. How does it feel?”
“I…don’t know,” she responded truthfully. “You know, it’s strange. I always pictured him as some sort of horrible entity, like a…a thing that couldn’t be touched. But when the Heart was destroyed, he was just a man. He was just meat and bones, like you and me.”
“We’re all just meat and bones, when it comes down to it,” Julan told her, stepping out from the shadow of the Citadel to look up at the sky. “That’s all any of us are. And it doesn’t do to go messing with the fates and try to change it.”
“I think we can all see that,” Fen answered softly, pulling Keening from her belt. It was still smeared with Dagoth Ur’s blood, and she turned it in her protected hand, watching the sunlight radiate off its crystal blade.
“So what will you do now?” she asked after a time, sheathing Keening and sitting down on a large broken brick to stare up at the sky.
“Me? Uh...well...I’m not busy.” Julan sat down on the brick beside her. “Don’t have any real plans at the moment. Why...any ideas?”
“Don’t you have an Ashlander tribe to lead?” Fen asked, nudging him with her elbow.
“Oh, they can manage without me for a while,” Julan said breezily, and Fen grinned broadly. “If we’re going to regain our strength as a tribe, they need to learn to cope on their own! Anyway, I’m sure Sinnammu can take care of things. So...what do you want to do?” Fen let out a weak laugh.
“I’m sure we can think of something.”

* * *

This isn't the last chapter! Make sure you come back next week.

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