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Saturday, January 21, 2012

XI - Almalexia

The sun had just risen when Fen and Julan set off into the sewers for what she hoped was the last time. Hler had told them that the Mazed Band could be found in a passage underneath the Temple that had just been cleared, so they traversed through the familiar dark tunnels until they found the passage he had indicated. They met little in the way of opposition – two or three liches and several oversized rats, but nothing overly threatening.

The crypt Hler had directed them to was long deserted, though Fen could feel a strange, foreboding atmosphere in the air.
“Plitinius acted very strangely yesterday when I asked him about the Mazed Band,” Fen told Julan as she peered inside a warped chest for the ring. “He looked absolutely terrified.”
“He seems like he’s fond of dramatics,” Julan muttered, stepping over a lich’s body to pry open the lid of an urn.
“Oh, he is,” Fen replied, closing the chest lid, having found nothing inside but several dusty bones and a spoiled potion. “But I’ve never seen him like that.” She was silent for a moment. “I don’t think it’s in here,” she said, getting to her feet and nodding to the ladder at the far end of the room. “Let’s go up.”
They climbed the short ladder to a low cavern, silent and dark. At the back of the cavern there was a small storage room, though it was nearly pitch black. Fen was about to suggest they turn around when a high, shrill voice echoed harshly across the walls.
“You have no place here, child of living flesh.” Fen tensed, and she heard Julan swiftly draw the Bonebiter bow. “The Mazed Band must not be allowed to leave this tomb. The Band should never have existed at all.”
“Who are you?” Fen asked as Julan drew an arrow. They stood back to back, eyes probing the blackness for the source of the voice. For some reason, Azura’s Ring was failing to provide her sight in this dark.
“That was my folly, and this is my curse,” it went on, as though it had not heard. “For all eternity, I am damned to walk in this half life, to keep my creation from destroying the hearts and minds of mortals. Those who would challenge my fate will pay with their lives.”
Suddenly, out of the darkness a thin, ragged shape lurched toward them. Julan released his arrow, and it caught the creature just long enough to let them see it. It was a man – or the remains of one. Half-rotted flesh hung off yellowed bone, clumps of ash-grey hair shapelessly framed an eyeless skull, tattered rags swathed its disfigured frame.
Fen let loose a spell of God’s Fire, and the storage room was briefly engulfed in the explosion. When it cleared, the creature lay still, its bones twisted and warped by the heat, its hair singed, the remains of its clothes blackened and burned. The crates and chests in the room had been reduced to ash, and flaming scraps of paper and cloth fluttered gently through the air.
“What…the hell…?” Julan murmured, standing back with his bow, his eyes wide. Fen went forward and knelt by the creature, staring into the empty sockets of its eyes.
“This has to be Barilzar,” she muttered, noticing, for the first time, a tarnished copper circlet upon the creature’s head. “Plitinius told me he was once a sorcerer, and he made the Mazed Band for teleportation. But it went wrong somehow.” She picked up one disfigured arm, an eerie chill racing up her spine. A ring of plain metal with a dull red stone set into was the only thing on his finger. Although Fen’s spell should have utterly destroyed it, the ring looked completely unharmed. Fen carefully slipped it off the skeletal finger and tucked it into her pocket. “Let’s go,” she murmured, and Julan nodded in agreement.
Hler was nowhere to be found when they climbed back up into the Temple, so they went to Gavas Drin’s office instead. Dulni was there, sorting papers at a small table behind Drin’s vast desk while the Archcanon read a letter, looking utterly uninterested.
“Who gave you permission to be in here?” he asked in a bored tone, not even looking up from the letter.
“I believe Almalexia wanted this,” Fen said in reply, pulling out Barilzar’s Mazed Band and holding it up. Drin’s eyes flickered from Fen’s face to the band, and his eyes grew wide.
“You’ve retrieved the Mazed Band?” he said in a hushed voice. He got to his feet quickly, coming around the desk to see the ring laying flat in Fen’s palm. “Amazing,” he murmured, staring closely at the ring. “Almalexia will want to hear about this immediately. You are to speak with her directly.”
“Almalexia wants to speak with me?” Fen repeated, closing her hand around the Mazed Band.
“Yes,” Drin said shortly, his distaste with her once more apparent. “And it would be best not to keep her waiting. She is in her High Chapel. The Ordinators will let you pass.” With that, he shooed them from his office.
“The Lady will see you now,” one of the High Ordinators told Fen as they stood outside the colossal doors into the Chapel. He glared darkly at Julan. “Alone.”
“I’m not –” Julan started indignantly, but Fen turned to him quickly.
“Just wait here, all right? I’ll be fine.” Julan bit back a protest and nodded once, going to wait by the main doors. Fen turned back to the portal into the High Chapel. The doors were engraved with intricate carvings depicting the goddess in various battles, standing guard over Mournhold, riding into battle between Vivec and Sotha Sil. Disgusted by her vanity, Fen reached up and touched the line between the two doors. At her touch, they began to grate open, widening into a vast, black space. Without glancing back, Fen stepped through the doorway, the huge doors creaking shut behind her. They slammed at her back, leaving her in utter silence.
Then Fen saw a faint light far above her, growing and dropping steadily downward. The shadows of four enormous fluted pillars stood out against the light, and Fen realized there was a great platform in the centre of the room. Then the light hit the floor of the platform and Fen saw a graceful, gold-skinned figure floating there, her bare toes pointed at the floor, her eyes closed serenely. Her lips parted and her slender hands stretched out toward Fen.
“Come,” she said in a light, ethereal voice. “Bathe in the light of my mercy.” Suspiciously, Fen mounted the three wide stairs onto the platform, and it was only then that she saw Almalexia was surrounded by a circle of men, all dressed in armour that resembled that of the High Ordinators, except it was in white and gold rather than the pale purples of the rest of the Temple. They all stared downward, as if none of them could look the radiant goddess straight in the eye. And Fen partly understood.
Almalexia was tall, willowy and graceful, sporting the ideal slender ears and high cheekbones of a much-desired Dunmer maiden. Except she was not a Dunmer – no, she was a Chimer, the name of the people that the Dunmer had once been. When the Tribunal had murdered Nerevar, Azura had punished them by forever cursing the Dunmer people with ash-coloured skin and firey eyes. But Almalexia had chosen to dress herself in the style of the Chimer, and her skin was a beautiful, dazzling gold that almost shimmered in the rich light that poured down upon her. She wore two ornate pauldrons on her shoulders, a matching piece over her bosom, and a belt equipped with an intricately embroidered loincloth to cover her front. Her body was painted in deep green, a latticework of symbols spanning her flat stomach, her legs, her slender arms, her narrow face. Between the prongs of an embossed green crown, pillows of vibrant red hair piled upon her head, several strands spilling loose and hanging in curling tendrils upon her shoulders. As Fen stepped slowly into the radiant glow, Almalexia’s long-lashed eyes opened, and Fen could see that they, too, were deep ochre.
“I welcome you to my chapel, Fen,” she said, bringing her hands together. She bobbed slightly in the air before Fen, her eyes hard, but serene. Something flickered in them – recognition? “Or perhaps I should call you by another name?” she asked, the slight lilt of curiosity creeping into her voice. She smiled, closed her eyes briefly again. “But, that is a discussion for a later time. I understand you have done well in my service, and, indeed, a service in my name is a service for all of Mournhold. Now, my faithful and obedient servant, let us discuss Barilzar’s Mazed Band.” Not taking her eyes off Almalexia’s face, Fen opened her hand, holding the small ring out to the goddess.
“An interesting item, is it not?” Almalexia said, and the ring floated up out of Fen’s palm to hover before Almalexia. “It seems ordinary enough, but it is much more. The ring is cold now, but the embers of its power still burn hot within. I will use my magic to reawaken this power.”
“Why did you want this ring?” Fen asked suspiciously as the Mazed Band disappeared in a shower of light.
“Do not concern yourself too deeply in these matters, friend,” Almalexia said, and Fen heard a condescending tone in her voice. “I will use the ring as I do everything...to serve the Temple and all of Morrowind. You have been a pleasant surprise to meet. I have seen something in you that I have not seen in a very long time. I bestow the blessing of My Light upon you. May it serve you well. We will speak again soon.” Almalexia closed her eyes and placed her hands together, palm to palm, in a gesture that clearly told Fen that there was nothing more to be said. Turning her back on the floating goddess, Fen moved towards the doors. The light behind her faded into darkness and the doors creaked open again, admitting her into the quiet reception hall, which felt dull in comparison with the radiant glow of Almalexia’s chapel. Fen glanced back at the colossal doors, a strange, apprehensive feeling she couldn’t quite describe growing in her chest.

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