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Saturday, January 7, 2012

X - The Shrine of the Dead

Fedris Hler greeted them with the same curiously unsettling grin when they delivered the news of the goblin army.

“How wonderful,” he said, looking slowly from Fen to Julan. Fen felt an unpleasant squirm in her stomach. “I have no doubt that Our Lady will be most appreciative.” He gave Fen an expectant look.
“Um…I’m very glad,” she said awkwardly, and Hler looked satisfied.
“As am I. Now, Pilgrim, I should like you to speak with Gavas Drin. He is the Lord Archcanon of Mournhold and was in consultation with Lady Almalexia this very morning. Perhaps he has a task for you. His office is just down that hall, there.” Hler stood watching them with the same odd smile as they followed the finely tiled hall he indicated down a curving corridor to an arched doorway. High Ordinators flanked the doorway, and they let Fen and Julan pass with nothing more than identical cruel glares.
The office was large and spacious, and a long wooden desk laden with papers and books stood in its centre. The man seated there was dressed in a simple robe of moss-green, his graying hair slicked back from his face and oiled so it shone in the sunlight leaking in through the rosy windows. He set down his quill when they entered, studying them with somber eyes.
“You are the ones that Hler mentioned,” he said at once, surveying them both without smiling. “Interesting. You are to be of service to Our Lady, and all would be displeased should you fail.” His eyes narrowed. “Most especially me.” Fen stared back at him, refusing to break eye contact. Drin was very clearly trying to intimidate her, and she had a sneaking suspicion that he realized who she was. Her family had never been close with the Temple, but she could vaguely recall seeing the grim Lord Archcanon during their visits to the Temple to worship, during which she had always been disguised as a distant and less important visiting relative. Still, he stared at her with a strange sort of knowing that made Fen uncomfortable.
“Beneath this Temple, there is a large sewer system, built around the ruins of Old Mournhold,” he went on, lacing his fingers together and resting his pointed chin on their tips. “You smell like you may have spent some time there,” he added quietly with a sneer. Fen crossed her arms and did not reply. “Regardless, in these ruins, there lies a shrine. This shrine has been corrupted.”
“The Shrine of the Dead was once a place of great power,” Drin went on. “It served as a channel to the ancestors, allowing the faithful to learn from them...to harness their power. Over the years, it has been forgotten, and it has grown sour.”
“Maybe that’s because you fetchers have started worshipping –” Julan started fiercely, and Fen stamped, hard, on his foot. Drin glared at them darkly and continued.
“The power that radiates from the shrine has drawn hordes of the undead to it. The Shrine of the Dead must be cleansed, though certainly not by you. This task falls to one of Almalexia’s chosen.” The Archcanon turned away from them, toward one of the shelves at the back of the room. Fen realized suddenly that there was a jittery-looking Dunmer youth standing there, wringing his hands together. “Urvel,” Drin said, and the Dunmer jumped and quickly crossed the room to stand by the Archcanon’s side. Drin turned back to them.
“You will escort this young priest, Urvel Dulni, to the shrine. Protect him well. His experience is limited, but he is necessary to complete the ritual. The Shrine is protected by the Profane, powerful liches who feed from the power of the shrine. You must destroy them for Dulni to perform his duties.” He glared sharply at them. “I stress again...protect Dulni at all costs. It is he who must perform the ceremony. If he is not able, there are no others.” Beside him, Dulni was positively shaking. Drin turned to the young priest. “Do not just stand there quivering in your boots, you insipid fool,” he said calmly, and Dulni started and scuffled over to Fen and Julan, mumbling apologies. Fen and Drin exchanged one more dark look towards one another, then she led Julan and Dulni from the room.
“What a s’wit,” Julan said angrily as soon as they were out of earshot of the Ordinators. “You should have just finished him off, Fen.”
“Somehow I don’t think that fits the definition of ‘learning from the Temple,’” Fen murmured as they stepped out into the bright daylight. She turned to Dulni. “Can you lead us to this Shrine?”
“Well…um…I kn - know it’s in the s – s – sewers,” he stammered frightfully, wringing his hands tightly.
“That’s helpful,” Julan scoffed, and Fen shot him a look.
Drin said it was in Old Mournhold,” she said, glancing towards the gateway into Godsreach. “We can go the same way we did to find the goblins.”
G – Goblins?!” Dulni shrieked hysterically, and a passing priestess shot an alarmed look at them.
“They’re mostly gone now,” Fen told him quickly. “It’ll be fine.” She checked the clock in her locket. “It’s nearly ten. We ought to get going.”
So with the shaking young priest in their wake, Fen and Julan climbed back down into the tepid water of the sewers and started to splash through the dark, odorous passages, not finding much of the way in clues as to where the Shrine was until they reached a large room that Fen guessed to be directly beneath the Temple. The sewer was guarded by a number of bonewalker-like creatures, animated skeletons swathed in tattered brown robes and hoods, drifting eerily from place to place without feet. As the three of them entered, two turned their hollow, unseeing eyes upon the trio, and Dulni let out a high-pitched shriek and ducked behind Julan.
The liches were not much a problem, Fen discovered – it was more their chilling presence that created issues, for every time they came across one Dulni would go into utter hysterics.
“Listen,” Fen finally said as a well-placed shot by Julan from the Bonebiter bow put an end to one of the liches. “You need to relax. We’re here to protect you. Nothing’s going to happen.”
“I – I know,” Dulni stammered. “Lady Almalexia will protect me. She in Her wisdom that I am the one that must cleanse the Shrine, and she will watch over me while I do so.”
“Then why are you screeching like a cliff racer every time something moves?” Julan snapped from the other side of the tunnel, where he was wrenching his arrow out of a fallen lich’s skull. Dulni did not answer, but continued to hover anxiously behind them as they pressed forward.
They continued through a confusion of tunnels and ramshackle passages following the scent of rotting flesh and the ever-increasing barrage of liches that attempted to impede them.
After what felt like hours, they reached a low, rocky tunnel lit with smoking crimson lanterns from the ceiling. Dulni’s face drained of colour as he stared up at the lanterns and unease crept into his face.
“This – I think this is it,” he whispered, looking down at the tunnel, which curved off to the left. He was shaking more feverishly than ever.
“Stay behind us,” Fen advised, and Dulni gladly complied as Fen and Julan led the way warily through the tunnel. They came out into a tall cavern lit by fuming red lanterns and dominated by a set of worn stone stairs that led up to a rocky platform. The floor in front of the stairs was littered with liches, and they all turned their strange, inhuman heads as Fen, Julan, and Dulni entered. Dulni let out a weak moan and Fen and Julan turned to see him collapse and lay motionless on the rocky floor.
“Gods,” Julan muttered, pulling out his bow as they turned back to the advancing liches. They stood guard over Dulni’s prostrate form, taking down liches as they came, smoothly reducing them to piles of dust and tattered fabric. When the shrine was silent again, Julan kicked Dulni sharply in the stomach and his eyes snapped open as he wheezed.
“Are you all right?” Fen asked as Dulni shakily got to his feet, clearly winded.
“F – F – Fine…are all those…things gone?”
“Yes, no thanks to you,” Julan said snidely, going to the other side of the shrine to look around.
“Do you know what you need to do?” Fen asked, and Dulni nodded, his jaw clenched.
“Our Lady will protect me,” he said again, and he turned away from Fen and started up the stone stairs. Julan came to stand by Fen and they watched him climb to the platform, where some sort of an altar stood. For a long while, Dulni stood silently with his hands flat on the altar, murmuring low, unintelligible verses. After some time, he raised both his hands upward and a ball of bluish-white light appeared between them, throwing everything below it into shadow. The light expanded, dripping like honey over Dulni’s arms and radiating outwards, racing down the stairs and coating the walls. It ran up Fen’s boots and up her robe, over her skin, making her whole body glow. The entire chamber was coated in pure white light, so bright that Fen had to squint. Then Dulni clapped once and the light went out like a candle, leaving the cavern dark once more.
“That was amazing,” Fen said truthfully as Dulni came back down the stairs. The red lanterns overhead had changed to a pure blue, and the sickly scarlet glow of the cavern was now deep and almost oceanic. Dulni said nothing, but stared silently at the cavern floor. Fen could sense Julan yearning to quip something, so she directed the three of them out of the shrine and up through the sewers until they found the Temple basement.
“Well, judging from your stench, I would say your task was performed successfully,” Drin said, wrinkling his nose in disgust as they trooped into his office, all of them grimy and dribbling sewer water on the tiled floor. “Urvel,” he said sharply, nodding his head to a shelf behind him, and the young priest started and hurried to fetch the box. “Take this Blessed Spear as a gift from Our Lady Almalexia,” he said as Dulni opened the ornate wooden box and held it out to Fen. “To show her gratitude.”
Feeling as if Drin would rather have them forcefully ejected from the Temple than reward her, Fen took the spear, sliding it onto her back alongside her staff. Dulni snapped the box shut and returned it to its shelf.
“Speak with Fedris Hler,” Drin said with a bored sigh, picking up his quill again and writing without looking at them. “He usually has errands that must be completed by the lowly. Don’t let him tell you he has nothing to be done. I’m sure there’s something. Urvel, wash that stink off of yourself before you come back in here. And be quick about it, I need you to catalogue my library again.” Fen and Julan left the office, followed by Dulni, and he quickly caught them before they parted ways.
“Thank you,” he told them, and there was relief etched in every bit of his face. “For protecting me.”
“It wasn’t all that difficult, to be honest,” Julan said, and Fen shot him a look.
“You were fantastic,” she told him, and the priest beamed.
“Come visit me again sometime, won’t you?” he said brightly. “Our Lady would approve, I’m sure.” With that, he turned and disappeared down the hallway.
“He keeps talking about Almalexia as if she’ll protect him,” Fen told Julan in a low voice as they returned to the reception chamber. “You’d think she’d know better than to send an inexperienced young priest to cleanse a shrine.”
“I don’t think any of the Tribunal ever know what they’re doing,” Julan said hotly. “It’s just like them, sending some completely random stranger to do their work. Almalxia’s ‘protecting the weak,’ ha!” They stopped suddenly as they reached the reception chamber, for Fedris Hler was standing near the entrance to Almalexia’s chapel, smiling unnervingly and looking expectant. Julan shrank back, aware that his voice must have carried down the hall. But Hler spoke as if he hadn’t heard a word.
“I spoke with the Lady earlier today, and there may be something that one of your skill will be able to help with. The Lady Almalexia would like you to retrieve a powerful artifact – Barilzar’s Mazed Band.”
“Which is what, exactly?”
“All I know is that the goddess wants it returned,” Hler said flippantly. “You’ll find it in the ruins beneath the Temple. Search to the northwest in the sewers. There was a passageway in the Abandoned Crypt that had been blocked off by a cave-in, but Almalexia had the area cleared.” He grinned strangely again. “As for the item itself, I don’t really see why you’d need to know any more about it. If you must inquire, Gavas Drin will give you more details. I am terribly busy at the moment.” Fen closed her eyes patiently.
“If you want this artifact at all, serjo, I suggest you tell me what you know about it now,” she told him, narrowing her eyes. Like Julan, she was quickly tiring of the Temple’s offhand way of treating its lessers. Fedris Hler’s odd smile faltered.
“Very well,” he said, and for once the grin vanished. “Barilzar himself was a powerful mage...quite powerful, in fact. He created the band sometime in the middle of the Second Era, and soon after disappeared. The purpose of the artifact is unknown to me. All I know is that the Lady wants it. I can only assume it will allow her to better minister to her people, though I find that hard to imagine.”
“Thank you,” Fen snapped, and she turned sharply and exited the Temple, Julan close behind.
“I’m getting sick of the Temple,” Julan said as they emerged into the gathering evening. “More than I used to be.”
“Cheers to that,” Fen muttered as they descended the stairs and made their way toward Godsreach. “I’m exhausted, let’s hold off on this Mazed Band business until tomorrow.” Julan agreed, and they had just reached the Winged Guar when Fen heard a familiar voice calling her name.
“You go on in,” she told Julan, and she turned to see Plitinius Mero, once again, crossing the square towards her.
“Good day to you, Fenara!” he said brightly. He paused and looked up at the darkening sky in mock surprise. “Make that good eve! You’re looking a bit tatty. Been down in the sewers again?”
“Unfortunately,” Fen replied with a faint smile. She paused. “Plitinius, have you ever heard of Barilzar’s Mazed Band?” Almost immediately, the Imperial’s face drained of colour. His entire body stiffened, and his eyes grew wide with dread.
“Fenara!” he hissed, glancing around, his face pale. “You should not even speak of such an object!” Fen frowned. She had rarely seen Plitinius distressed before.
“Why?” He took her arm, pulled her away from the inn where the dinner crowd was beginning to gather.
“I did not mean to snap at you,” he whispered, though he still looked terrified. “I have heard many tales about that ring and of the evil Barilzar who created it. It was meant to be a means of teleportation for the wizard, but it was much, much worse than that.” Plitinius shook his head. “That ring was said to open gates to hellish planes, releasing creatures best left in nightmare. I’ve heard the ring was stripped of its power, and only a god could use it now and not be destroyed.” He shook his head again, and Fen saw his hands were shaking. “The thought chills my bones.” Before Fen could speak, there was a loud shredding sound and suddenly there were books scattering at her feet, glass breaking, potions spraying onto her robes.
“Oh, Gods, I’m sorry,” she said quickly, throwing off her ripped bag and kneeling down.
“That’s quite all right,” Plitinius said distractedly as Fen gathered everything in her arms. Plitinius glanced down and his face brightened suddenly. He knelt down and picked up a book she’d missed, thick and leather-bound in red.
“Been reading this, have you?” he asked brightly, and Fen glanced up at him, her arms full of books. He turned the cover so she could see the title – The Complete Real Barenziah.
“Oh – um – no, actually. A friend gave that to me. I haven’t gotten a chance to start it.” She stood up, her arms full of potion-splattered books. “It’s about my grandmother, isn’t it? I can’t think of any other Barenziah.”
“Oh, yes, it’s about your grandmother,” Plitinius said with a broad smile. “And do you know who wrote it?”
“It’s anonymous, isn’t it?” Fen said distractedly, stooping to gather several enchanted rings she’d missed.
“Not to you, it isn’t!” Plitinius laughed. Fen paused. She stood slowly.
“Did you…?”
“I did indeed!” he cried brightly. “I felt it my duty to give to history a true and honest account of her. The story I presented, while true, was perceived as scandalous. My exuberance for the tale was left unchecked by wisdom, and I fear I caused some damage to the woman, not to mention the Imperial family.”
“Why didn’t I ever know about this?” Fen asked incredulously.
“Your father thought it would be best if you were never told,” he said with a slight scoff. “As I’ve said, the tale was a true one. However, the details within should probably not have been divulged as they were. There were details that were felt to be embarrassing to the Septim line, though it was not my intent for them to be so. The work was ordered banned, and I was to be executed. Were it not for the grace of the lady herself, I would long be in my grave.”
“What do you mean?”
“You know that Queen Barenziah is many things, Fenara – but she is not shy, and she is not ashamed of how her life was led. She knew my work to be true, and I believe she felt a sense of amusement, if not satisfaction, at the tale’s telling. She protected me from the Imperial family, and spread the word of my demise at her guards’ hands. Since then, I have traveled with her under this name, acting as her scribe, her advisor, and dare I say...her friend. I could ask for no greater honor.”
“That sounds like her,” Fen said with a smile.
“But now it is your turn, Fenara! I would simply love to chronicle the extraordinary life of Barenziah’s granddaughter as well. The Nerevarine!” he shook his head, bemused. “I have already spoken to three other authors that aim to publish a biography of you, and I fully intend to be the first!”
“Perhaps later, Plitinius,” Fen told him as he handed The Complete Real Barenziah back to her.
“Ah, yes, you still have many adventures to come, I’d imagine,” he said understandingly. “Don’t want to write it so soon that I don’t get all the details! I’ll let you be on your way, then,” he added.
“Good-night, Plitinius,” Fen said, hefting the books into her arms and going into the inn. It was crowded and smoky, and there were more people in than usual. Fen glanced around, puzzled, and squeezed through the mass to her room, where she dropped her books and the few potions she’d salvaged on the bed and sat down at the table to stitch her shredded bag back together.

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