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Saturday, December 31, 2011

IX - An Unusual Army

Julan was waiting up anxiously for her in the Winged Guar, and though he looked relieved as she entered, he seemed to sense that she didn’t want to talk. He left Fen alone, and she went straight to bed, willing her mind to forget the hopelessness of her situation.
Late the next morning, Fen briefly explained Barenziah’s plan of learning from Fedris Hler the Temple. They crossed through the Plaza Brindisi Dorum to the Temple Courtyard under a bleak, grey sky, and there were few people out despite the hour being close to midday. Mournhold was so often sunny and bright that its inhabitants rarely spent their time outside on days such as this.
The Temple’s high-ceilinged reception hall was just as it had been last time they were here, occupied by several busy-looking people and thick with a scholarly hush. Fen stared at the enormous gilded doors that led to Almalexia’s chamber, a slight feeling of betrayal in her breast. She had admired Almalexia all her childhood, and to suddenly discover that the goddess had helped in murdering her formal self was more than disheartening.
“Excuse me,” Fen said softly to a wizened old woman that was sweeping the floor. The woman looked sharply at Fen, glaring at her through the translucent folds of skin that draped over her brow.
“And what would you be wanting, a skinny little elf girl with a shaggy youth in tow?” she quipped in a strained voice. “Run off together, have you? Come to try and cleanse your soul through Almalexia’s glory? The Lady of Mercy may have room in her heart for sinners and heathens, girl, but I do not.” She shook a knobby, quavering finger at Fen.
“I’m looking for Fedris Hler, actually,” Fen said, narrowing her eyes at the woman. “I was hoping you could tell me where I might find him?”
“Are you terrorizing our guests again, Varis?” someone said from behind them, and Fen and Julan turned to see a tall, imposing Dunmer man in a simple brown robe with glass pauldrons on both shoulders surveying them with a faint glimmer of amusement in his eye. “I am Fedris Hler,” he added courteously to Fen and Julan. He gave them a small bow, never taking his eyes off Fen. “The Lady Almalexia honours piety, no matter the person you were before. How may I help you?”
Exceedingly aware of Varis’s firm gaze on her back, Fen answered, “We were hoping to be of service to Almalexia somehow.” Hler’s scarred face lit up and Varis made a clucking noise of disapproval behind them.
“Ah! Truth-seekers! How wonderful. I am always aware of those who might be able to serve our Lady Almalexia. Few are worthy to do so. The Temple and the city is guarded by the High Ordinators, and the Hands fulfill other duties for the Lady. I am her Chief Steward.” He raised his palms to the ceiling, opening his hands in an inviting gesture. “Now, if you wish to be of use, we have some matters to discuss.” They followed Hler around to a large desk that stood before the great doors of Almalexia’s sanctum, where he sat and folded his hands, staring up at Fen intently.
“Perhaps you have already met young King Hlaalu Helseth,” he said in a disgusted tone. “A foul man, unworthy to sit on a throne. Still, he holds right of succession. The Lady must keep an ever-watchful eye on this King, though, lest he do something that would be detrimental to the Temple, our fair city, or perhaps all of Morrowind. Currently, there are concerns about some new recruits that Helseth seems to be training.”
“New recruits?” Fen repeated curiously.
“A standing army is nothing new in the city, though it is largely unnecessary,” Hler explained. “Mournhold is protected by her walls from the outside, and by our Lady Almalexia from within. None would dare mount an attack here. Still, tradition dictates that the king maintain an army. We believe that Helseth is raising quite a different sort of army...a goblin army.”
For a moment, Fen could only stare at him. She knew that goblins resided in the dank sewers of the city, but the thought that her father was training them as an army…? She wasn’t sure whether she should laugh or be worried.
“R – Really? I – er – wouldn’t have expected that from him.”
“Foul, vicious creatures,” Hler spat. “No wonder Helseth has chosen them to be his footsoldiers. I know that the goblins are being trained nearby, though not where, exactly. Ask around the city about goblins. Someone will know. I wish for you to find the location of goblin training area. When you do, kill the warchiefs – there should be two. Sever the head of this army, and the rest will shatter like a scrib. You might rid the city of their two Altmer trainers, as well. Complete this task, and the Lady will be pleased.”
“Altmer trainers?” Fen repeated in disbelief. This theory was becoming more ridiculous with every word Hler spoke.
“Traditionally, the Altmer have used the goblins to reinforce their armies. Why, I do not know. Rumor has it that Helseth has contracted two Altmer to train his goblin army. If you find these Altmer, it would be a service to rid the city of them as well.”
“I’ll….see what I can do then.”
“Thank you,” the steward said with that same odd smile, and he shooed them out of the Temple and into the grey late-morning light once more.
“I don’t believe this,” Fen said as soon as the colossal Temple doors slammed shut behind them, the sound echoing off the courtyard walls. “They honestly think that my father would train an army of goblins.” She let out a single humourless laugh. She turned to Julan, expecting him to chime in with a derisive agreement, but he stood awkwardly by her side, saying nothing. “Julan?”
“Well…you have to admit, Fen, it’s not unlikely.”
“You can’t be serious,” Fen replied incredulously. “You too? You think Helseth would raise a standing army of those foul beasts?”
“He’s tried to kill the Nerevarine twice,” Julan said quietly. “It seems to me he’s prepared to go pretty far just to secure his power.” Fen didn’t answer.
“Let’s go,” she muttered after a moment, and she led the way back to the Winged Guar, where they both changed clothes and gathered their things for another venture into the sewers beneath Mournhold.
Old Mournhold was, if possible, even more dingy than it had been the last time they entered it. The air was thick with the odor of defecation and rot, the walls and floor coated with slime, the fetid brown water barely moving through the tunnels. Fen used Azura’s ring to give herself a constant Night-Eye, while Julan carried a torch through the dank halls.
They hadn’t been in this part of the sewers before, and as they turned a corner they were immediately accosted by a Nix-Hound-sized creature with a leathery brown hide and an odd ridge along its back and a disorganized spew of cracked and yellowing tusks. Fen cast a frost spell at it while Julan attacked it with Han-Sashael’s blade, and after several moments the creature fell to the sewer floor with a dull squelch.
“What in Mephala’s name…?” Julan murmured, and Fen knelt beside the creature in the filth, examining its glassy yellow eye.
“This is a Durzog,” she said at once.
“How do you know that?”
“I had a pet one when I was small,” Fen told him, standing up. “They breed tame ones that grow no bigger than a hound. I kept him in the drawing room.”
“And I thought important people just grew up with cats,” Julan snorted as they stepped over the enormous corpse of the wild Durzog. They had barely made it down another hall when another leather-skinned creature started towards them, although this one was quite different from the Durzog.
The goblin was about as tall as Fen’s shoulder, stooped over with its dull yellow eyes glaring and its knuckles dragging on the stone floor. Its round head was covered by a leather cap and a makeshift burlap tunic covered its emaciated torso. Despite the pauldrons on its narrow shoulders and the bandages around its long feet, the creature looked spindly and fragile as it limped toward them with a sword that looked as if it had been whittled from bone.
Fen cast a simple fire spell she had bought at it, one that would have brought a corprus stalker down in seconds. The goblin, however, was only briefly engulfed by the fire before the spell faded prematurely and the creature continued toward them, not breaking a stride.
“They must be resistant to fire,” Fen muttered, but Julan suddenly raced past her, Han-Sashael’s sword aloft. The goblin sprang into a sudden battle position, unexpectedly, and began to parry with Julan using surprising skill with its bone sword, clearly strong despite its brittle appearance. Fen moved around to the other side of the goblin, opting for a frost spell instead, and they had soon cut it down to an unsightly lump upon the floor.
They continued down through the tunnels of Old Mournhold, which gradually turned from the rank sewers to dim caverns. There were more goblins at each twist in the path, and while their combined abilities managed to put most of them down, they had to pause several times so that Fen could extract a couple of healing potions before they moved on.
At some point several hours after they had first entered the sewers, their footsteps began to echo more loudly than was normal. They turned a corner and found the tunnel opened up to a cavern that was so enormous it was almost completely in shadow. They proceeded with caution and were soon on a precipice overlooking the huge grotto that must have been the heart of Old Mournhold, as it was decorated with the grimy ruins of the once-glorious, swirling buildings.
There were also a great number of goblins milling about the ruins, and Fen and Julan resigned to deal with them with spell and bow from the cliff before descending.
“Gods,” Fen muttered, her voice echoing many times off of the high rock walls.
“This place is huge,” Julan added, and he cast a sidelong glance at her. Fen knew what he was thinking – it would be hard to deny the possibility of Helseth’s goblin army now that she could see they had a place to train and congregate.
“I don’t think any of them are the warchiefs,” Fen said firmly, determined to prove Fedris Hler and Julan wrong. “Let’s keep looking.”
They soon discovered a door that led into a low-ceilinged ruin similar to the one they had found the Dark Brotherhood in. This ruin was clogged with goblins and Durzogs, and Fen found she was running out of health potions faster than she would have liked.
“Come on,” she muttered, closing her bag and peering down a dim hallway. “This is the only one we haven’t tried yet.” Fen led the way down the hall, squinting despite the Night-Eye from the ring. As they neared the centre of the passage, Fen suddenly felt her foot sink deeper down on a ratty rug then she would have expected. Not even a second later, she realized that this was because there was nothing beneath the rug.
A startled scream ripped out from Fen’s throat as she plummeted downward. Overhead she heard Julan shout and he shot past her, hitting the ground with a heavy grunt. Fen landed on top of him, the two of them sprawled haphazardly nearly two stories from where they’d fallen.
Before either of them could move, Fen became aware of heavy breathing coming from all around them. She slowly lifted her head. They were in a short hallway, completely blocked on both sides by throngs of goblins, staring at them confusedly with their wicked yellow eyes.
Fen scrambled to her feet, pulling Julan up after her. They stood with their backs pressed against each other’s, a spell of God’s Frost growing in Fen’s hand and Han-Sashael’s sword in Julan’s. The goblins stared blankly at the two of them for a split second, then started forward in a dull green wave. Fen felt Julan brace himself at the same time she did, but the goblins suddenly froze where they were, their eyes wide.
“What’s – What’s going on?” Fen whispered, and she heard someone farther down the hallway give a sharp command in a strange tongue she had never heard before. At once, the goblins pushed past them, paying them no mind and lumbering as a group down the hall and out of sight. There was a noise from the end of the hall as the goblins disappeared, and suddenly a tall Altmer man in heavy-looking iron armour was there, his blade drawn as he glared darkly at them.
“They’re weak to magic,” Fen murmured quickly, and she let loose the God’s Frost spell that had been building on her fingertips. A bitter chill filled the air, and when it cleared the Altmer was on the ground, gasping and dusted with frost, his skin burned red from the ice.
“Armion!” he shouted, quickly getting to his feet as Julan rushed forward. The Altmer began to parry fiercely with Julan while Fen kept a steady stream of Destruction spells going, gradually decreasing his strength. When at last he fell dead, there were several cuts across Julan’s face and his armour was badly dented, but they were both, for the most part, unharmed.
“Gods,” Julan breathed, dropping his blade with a ringing clatter to the floor and rotating his wrist around. “He was good.”
“Here,” Fen said, coming forward with a healing potion. Julan had just downed the bottle when they heard footsteps running down the hall. Julan hurriedly snatched up his sword again just as a second Altmer man appeared around the corner. He spotted his fellow’s body on the floor before them and his face twisted in rage.
Fen’s magicka was running low, and she pulled a staff enchanted with shock damage from her back. They met the Altmer halfway down the hall, and for a moment, everything was a confusion of sparks and light and clashing and blood. Then the Altmer fell, joining his fellow upon the ground.
“You okay?” Fen asked, glancing at Julan. He nodded, sheathing his sword and glancing at her.
“You’re bleeding,” he said, pointing to a spot right below her cheekbone. Fen brought her hand to her face and came away with dark blood on her fingers.
“I’m all right,” she said, blotting the blood with her sleeve. “We need to save our health potions. And I already have a scar there from when Bolvyn Venim slapped me with his ebony gauntlet on, remember? Another one can’t hurt.” She glanced uneasily down at the Altmer bodies on the floor. “Let’s keep going. We still have to find the two Warchiefs.”
They continued through the tunnels, eventually exchanging the ruins for more cave-like tunnels that were wrought with goblins. In one round room, they were accosted by an enormous Durzog that looked like it was wearing the same kind of leather armour as the goblins. As soon as it fell dead, it revealed two enormous goblins with bulging, muscular arms and horned heads that scraped the ceiling, standing there with their beady eyes narrowed. Fen backed Julan up and immediately cast God’s Frost at the Warchiefs, filling the cavern with a bitter cold.
When the frost cleared, the Warchiefs were still there, lumbering toward them with fury in their tiny eyes. Fen quickly summoned a Frost Atronach to help them, and for several moments there was a blurred confusion of noise and cold. After what seemed like ages, there were two heavy thuds, one after the other, and the warchiefs fell dead.
Fen swept one hand toward the Atronach and it faded, leaving her and Julan breathing heavily in the dark tunnel, surrounded by the corpses of the goblins and the Durzog.
“I’m assuming those were the Warchiefs?” Julan said faintly.
“Let’s get out of here,” Fen murmured, and they made their way back through the twisting tunnels and out into the darkness of Godsreach. “It’s nearly midnight,” Fen said, checking the watch inside her locket. “Let’s go back to the inn. Fedris Hler can wait until morning. I’m exhausted.”
They made their way back to the Winged Guar, where Fen immediately filled the bathtub in her room with steaming water and stripped off her sewer-soaked clothes. Every muscle in her body ached, and all she wanted to do was sleep and forget the disturbing evidence that pointed toward the goblin army rumour being undeniably true.

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Have a safe and happy new year! :)

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