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Saturday, February 4, 2012

XII - The Day of Lights

She emerged out of the Temple into dazzling afternoon sun, and for a moment Fen had to stand and admire the sheer beauty of the city. Trees covered with pink flowers lined the courtyard, and the sweeping green marble walls shone with resplendent light as the sun struck them. The air was sweet and pleasantly cool, gently rustling the flowers in the trees and making the banners that hung around the Temple’s doorway flutter halfheartedly. Fen slowly descended the sweeping marble stairs to where Julan waited.

“So?” he asked expectantly as Fen approached him.
“She was…interesting,” Fen muttered, glancing back at the Temple, its twisted spires rising high into the air. “I couldn’t tell if she knew who I was or not.”
“What did she say?”
“She said the Mazed Band was very important, but she wouldn’t tell me why…” Fen shook her head as they left the Temple. “I felt like a child, like she was explaining something to me that I couldn’t understand.”
“And does that really surprise you?” Julan asked as they started toward Godsreach, the late afternoon sun on their backs. “She killed you just so that she could be immortal. Sounds like something she would do, treat you like an imbecile.”
“She killed Nerevar, not me,” Fen corrected. They crossed through the great stone arch into Godsreach, and stopped abruptly as a group of barefooted children raced past, all of them clutching cylindrical lanterns of varying size.
“What’s going on?” Julan asked blankly, and Fen saw he had looked up to see all of Godsreach was in the process of being bedecked with similar lanterns, being strung from streetlamp to streetlamp, rooftop to rooftop, lining either side of the wide streets. Then, quite suddenly, the realization struck her.
“I completely forgot!” Fen gasped, her hand flying to her chin in disbelief as two Dunmer women with crates full of paper lanterns passed them. “Tonight is the Day of Lights Festival!”
“The Day of Lights?” Julan repeated quizzically, tapping a lantern that hung off a streetlamp as they passed it so it swayed.
“They call it that because the lights are so bright they make it seem like day.”
“What is it?” Julan asked, following Fen as she started toward the street. “I’ve never heard of it.”
“It’s usually only celebrated in Daggerfall,” Fen told him as a passing Breton man handed them both lanterns. “It’s a day of prayer for good farming and good fishing in the year to come. My father lived in Daggerfall when he was young and grew up celebrating it, so when he came to Mournhold he brought the tradition here.” She held up the lantern she had been given, painted with a simple blue fish. “See?” Julan looked down at his own lantern, decorated with a swirling design.
“Then what are these for?” he asked quizzically.
“At nightfall, my father and my grandmother used to stand on the terrace over the Plaza Brindisi Dorum and release the first lantern together. Once it got past the city walls, everyone else released theirs. The idea is that you say a prayer for your harvest and let it float up to take your prayer to the gods.” She smiled. “There isn’t much farming here, obviously, but it was fun to watch.” Fen set her lantern in a blank space between two others on the road. “It won’t start for a couple hours, yet,” she told Julan. “But the best place to watch is the Bazaar.” She led them back through the Plaza, which was beginning to crowd with people hanging strings of lights across the walls and around the fountain. A circle of lanterns stood around the statue of Almalexia and Mehrunes Dagon at its heart, and two Dunmer girls were stringing more lights across its supports.
The Bazaar was even more hectic. The centre of all the festivals held in Mournhold was the Great Bazaar, and there was a great multitude of people starting to gather at its heart. Fen and Julan went down into the crowd, and as the sky began to darken the festival spun into action.
It was as though the New Life Festival had exploded. Doorways and windows were all strung with lights, casting pools of brightness down to the cobbles below. People were dressed in their finest Temple clothes, and even the very poorest beggar could be seen wearing gold threads. Improvised bands of flute, harp, and lyre played wherever they could find a free space in the road. Children lit firecrackers in the streets and ran off, giggling, as they exploded and popped, startling those nearby. Street performers swallowed fire and turned scribs into flowers while spectators tossed Septims into their upturned hats.
“It’s better than New Life,” Fen shouted over the noise of the crowd, but her voice was lost in the excitement. The lamp-lighter boys had begun to make their rounds through the city, stooping at every lantern and making it flare to life with their small, harmless fire spells. Along the canal, the floating lanterns were tied down and they drifted cheerily back and forth as the boys climbed up to light them. “Look, there’s the dancers,” Fen said, pulling Julan through the crowd to the theatre, where a troupe of willowy Bosmer acrobats had usurped the stage and were climbing up and down a series of silk ribbons suspended magically in the air, swinging back and forth, linking arms and performing a series of complicated twists and flips.
Soon they were circled in a huge open space, through which some sort of long line dance had started, with the men and women linking arms and sashaying down in turns, laughing as they did so. The crowd around them clapped and passed around trays of tankards filled to the brim with frothy ale. The music grew louder and more raucous, and before Fen knew what was happening, someone was shoving past them to join the dance, and her ale flew out of her hands and then she was in the dance as well, and Julan had somehow gotten thrown into the line across from her. And then she was laughing and clapping with the rest of them, and when it was her turn she skipped across the line and danced down the centre with a handsome Dunmer lad, throwing back her head to laugh as he spun her at the end and they turned and danced back into the lines. When the lines circled around again, Julan was her partner, and he took her by the arm with more gusto than she had imagined he had and spun her down the row, clumsily stumbling at the end. The dance faltered as Julan tripped, and they plunged back into the crowd, laughing uncontrollably as someone shoved more ale at them.
Once night had truly fallen and the sky was smooth and black, dotted with tiny stars, the atmosphere in the festival began to change. Now it was expectant, people waiting excitedly for the first lantern to arise from behind the walls. More people moved through the thick crowds with boxes of lanterns, passing them out as they went. Fen received one with a guar’s silhouette painted on it – Julan’s was painted with a single line that they assumed was supposed to be a fishing pole.
“Come on,” Fen muttered, pulling Julan out of the mess of people. “I know a better place.” They ducked down a side alley, out of the stifling heat of the crowd, and around to the back of a row of shops where there was a short ladder up to someone’s back balcony. Fen tucked her lantern under her arm and climbed the ladder, Julan just behind her, then vaulted up the short step to the roof. They went up the short slope and stopped at its peak, which stood just over the city walls. The top strip of roof was flat, and Fen sat down, her feet resting on the sloped roof in front of her, resting the delicate lantern in her lap.
“I was never allowed out on the terrace with my father and my grandmother, obviously,” Fen told Julan as he sat down beside her. “So I would sneak out here to watch the lanterns go up.” She stared out over the vastness of the city – from here they could see beyond the Bazaar and into the Plaza, see the twisting spires of the Temple, the arched rooftops of Godsreach, the sprawling Palace at the city’s heart where Helseth and Barenziah were preparing to let the first lantern up. Fen cast a sideways glance at Julan.
“Better than spending New Life in Vos?” she asked, nudging him with her elbow.
“Much better,” he replied with a smile.  Fen stared out at the distant rooftop of the Temple, where Almalexia’s acolytes were surely sitting in scorn of the Day of Lights Festival, as they always did.
“I expected her to be completely different,” she muttered. “I mean, I thought that she would have kind of….I don’t know, come to terms with her situation after the Heart was destroyed, but she’s just like Vivec. She still thinks she can walk all over these people.”
“That’s because she’s an idiot,” Julan said lightly. Fen shot him a sideways glance.
“This festival…it seems to be the only time in the whole year that the people in Morrowind are…happy. Just completely and unrelentingly happy, like they don’t even care.” She picked at the fragile paper of the lantern in her lap. “It just…it makes me angry. That they could have had everything, they could have been so happy, if it weren’t for the Tribunal. People always say the Dunmer are so sullen and grim, and I hate it.” She stared out at the city, almost completely dark but so filled with life. “I’m supposed to protect these people. I want them to be happy.” She glanced at Julan, staring straight out at the dark city, his eyes narrowed. He sighed.
“Look, Fen, pretty soon these people are going to realize that the Tribunal aren’t doing any good for Morrowind, and when that happens they’ll turn to you. Hell, most of them have already turned to you.”
“But why are there still people that worship the Tribunal?” Fen murmured, rubbing her thumb against the paper side of the lantern. “When they know what’s going on?”
“Some people are idiots,” Julan told her. He turned to face her, bringing one knee up onto the roof. “Listen to me, Fen,” he said firmly, and she turned to him. “You’re going to put things right in this city, sooner or later. Don’t doubt yourself. You’ll get all of this sorted out, then these people will know that you’re the one they need to look to. Okay?” Fen smiled slightly.
“Okay,” she replied. Julan set his lantern down in between them and leaned over, hugging her. She put her lantern down beside his and breathed in his familiar, comforting scent. I’m so lucky, she thought to herself. I’m so lucky that I have him.
Suddenly, from far below them, a great cheer erupted from the assembled. Fen and Julan broke apart and Fen saw what had caused the outburst – a single lantern with a pattern Fen knew was the Royal Family’s seal had just risen up beyond the walls, a bright yellow circle drifting slowly toward the stars. At once, thousands of lanterns in the crowd below lit up and began to float out of peoples’ hands, rising up to the cheer of the crowd. Fen and Julan’s lanterns, too, magically flared to life, and they picked them up, releasing them into the air. A jubilant cry accompanied the thousands of lanterns drifting skyward. The sky was filled with drifting cylinders of light, chasing the first one up toward the stars.
“So did you pray for a good fishing season?” Julan teased as they watched the lanterns spin and float upwars in a steadily expanding cloud of light.
“Now, if I told you what I prayed for, I’d hardly catch any fish,” Fen replied jokingly, elbowing Julan in the side. They remained there, watching as the lanterns drifted upward in a golden train, sending a dazzling golden shadow over the city. Julan rested his hand over hers, and she smiled slightly in spite of herself as she stared out at the glowing cloud of lanterns. You’re going to put things right in this city, sooner or later.
I will, she swore to herself, letting her gaze wander down to the crowd below, every face upturned and staring in wonder at the sight above. I’ll put things right, for them. For my people. Fen and Julan were silent then, staring up in quiet understanding until the lanterns rose so far into the sky that they became mere stars among those that already shone. It had to have been well after midnight that the festivities ceased – though not intentionally.
It happened suddenly. There was a huge crash from the Plaza Brindisi Dorum, and only a split second of silence before high, shrill screams rose up from the district, the sounds of stone breaking and crumbling. Fen started suddenly, realizing she had been dozing off, her head leaning on Julan’s shoulder.
“What was that?” she asked sharply. Julan’s eyes snapped open, and he hurriedly blinked sleep out of them.
“What?” he said, glancing around.
“I heard –” Fen started, but she was cut off by another crash from the Plaza. More people were screaming now – running in confused knots away from the centre of the city. “Come on,” she said quickly, getting to her feet and sliding down the back of the roof. There was another crumbling sound, this time accompanied by a mechanical-sounding, inhuman roar.
Fen and Julan ran out from behind the shops and into the street, which was choked with people hurriedly racing away from the Plaza. She caught one of them, a terrified-looking Dunmer man, by the arm.
“What’s happening?” she asked him hurriedly, but he shoved her away and rejoined the throng. “Let’s go,” she shouted to Julan, and he nodded. They started to run against the flow of shrieking people, fighting towards the Plaza. When they reached it, a horrific sight reached their eyes.
The statue that stood at the centre of the Plaza was now only stubs of stonework – the rest of it was scattered in rough-hewn chunks around the fountain. There was smashed paper from the lanterns everywhere, most of it on fire. Viciously mauled bodies were strewn all across the space. And it was clear to see what was causing the havoc. Dozens of enormous creatures, each at least twice the size of a full-grown Durzog, rampaged through the square. There seemed to be two different types – one, a long, thin white one with bulging eyes and teeth as long as Fen’s arm and another that was squat and muddy red with enormous flat feet that shoot the ground wherever they stepped. Both types of creatures seemed to be half put-together with machinery, with metal cogs and bolts portruding from their backs and connecting their necks to the rest of their bodies. Guards and High Ordinators fought them, trying unsuccessfully to beat back the monstrosities.
“You!” someone shouted, and Fen whirled around to see a Palace guard racing towards her. “Don’t stand about! Take arms!” He raced into the fray, drawing his blade.
“Let’s go,” Fen breathed, and they followed the guard into the mess of creatures. Fen kept a steady spray of spells going whenever she was met with one of the strange creatures, and she knew Julan was doing the same with his blade. When the last creature finally fell, Fen heard someone send a page to the Palace. She glanced around. Fire still burned from the fallen lanterns, and there were more bodies lying near the fountain. The Plaza was utterly destroyed.
“What are these things?” she murmured, kneeling down beside one of the long-necked white ones. It was definitely put together with machinery, though this creature was far more technologically advanced than the centurions of Vvardenfell’s Dwemer ruins. Fen reached out to touch its hide and her hand made contact with something slick and sticky. She drew it away sharply and saw that the entire body was coated in a colourless sort of slime.
“What the hell…?” Julan muttered, appearing over Fen’s shoulder.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” she said, standing up and wiping her hand on her robe. “Never.” A guard jogged up to them suddenly, holding his helmet under his arm. He looked disheveled and irritated.
“The captain of the guard wishes to see you,” he said.
“Yes,” the guard repeated slowly, as if Fen were an imbecile. “He wants to see the one that helped fight off the creatures. Straight away.” Fen spared the strange creatures a final glance before she and Julan followed the guard back to the Palace, where Tienius Delitian was waiting in the reception chamber.
“I had a feeling it would be you,” Delitian said, a slight look of distaste crossing his expression. The door clicked shut as the messenger left them alone. Fen narrowed her eyes.
“I would remind you, Captain, that while I am unable to use my title, I am still the Princess of this realm. I’d advise you to address me with more respect.” Delitian said nothing, only glared darkly at her before continuing.
“Obviously, we can’t allow these attacks to continue, but we need to know more about the source,” he said, crossing his arms. “It seems the attacks originated from some Dwemer ruins that have been buried deep beneath Mournhold. The Memorial statue has been destroyed, and we’ve cleared a passage below. My reports tell me that the creatures that attacked were at least partially mechanical, so perhaps they were of Dwemer origin. I want you to explore these ruins, find out where these creatures have come from, and report back to me.”
“Those creatures weren’t Dwemer,” Fen said at once. “I spent the entire last year of my life in and out of Dwemer ruins. Those were something else.”
“I don’t care what you think they are,” Delitian said shortly. “Princess,” he added, his tone clipped and his gaze cold. “We need to know where they’re coming from. Will you investigate the disturbance or not?” Fen felt Julan tense beside her.
“We will,” she said, resting a hand on his arm to keep him from lashing out suddenly. Before Delitian could reply, Fen pulled Julan from the reception chamber.
The Plaza Brindisi Dorum was in no better shape than it had been when they left it. The creatures’ corpses still covered the cobbles, walls were still in ruin, and flaming remnants of lanterns still burned. Even more High Ordinators and Royal Guards were there, and they let Fen and Julan approach the remains of the statue.
“They must have come out of here,” Fen said, peering down to the space between Almalexia’s robe and the detached feet of Mehrunes Dagon. There was an enormous hole there, leading down into the darkness, and rusty ladder snaking into the black space. “Let’s go,” she murmured, kneeling down and testing one foot on the top rung. It seemed to hold her weight fairly decently, so she continued down, Julan just behind.
They stepped down into a low, dark tunnel that turned sharply out of sight. A little ways away, Fen thought she could hear the faint buzz of a shock spell. She put a finger to her lips and Julan nodded once. Fen led the way down the tunnel, going around the bend. It dropped off suddenly, giving them a lofty view of the large Dwemer-style chamber below. Fen and Julan knelt behind a rock, out of sight of the extraordinary battle that was raging below them.
More of the strange creatures that had attacked the Plaza had flooded into the chamber, and there was a number of ancient-looking Dwemer centurions struggling to fight them off. The creatures seemed to have a shock effect on the centurions, and every time they struck one the entire chamber would light up with the flash of it.
“Mephala…” Julan whispered, leaning out past Fen.
“Those aren’t Dwemer,” she murmured in reply, narrowing her eyes at the fighting creatures. They watched for a split second more, then Fen motioned with her hand and they silently climbed back up to the Plaza. “I’ve never seen anything like that before,” she said as they walked back to the Royal Palace. “What do you think –” But Fen was interrupted as a young page bowled into her, sending her staggering back and him sprawling to the ground.
“Watch where you’re going, n’wah!” Julan shouted, and the boy scrambled to his feet, quickly snatching up his papers.
“Sorry – sorry, are you the one that the Captain sent to investigate the ruins?” he asked breathlessly, looking up at Fen.
“Yes,” she replied slowly. “Why?”
“The King wants to see you,” he said, continuing to pick up his papers. Fen froze.
“I – what did you say?”
“The King wants to see you,” the boy repeated, giving her an odd look. “And you’d best go now, he was very impatient.” Fen looked urgently at Julan.
“Let’s go,” he hissed, pulling her away from the page. “This isn’t a game anymore, Fen. He knows.” Fen glanced back at the page, staring at them impatiently.
“I – I don’t –” she stammered, taken aback.
“I’m supposed to take you to the King,” the boy insisted.
“Listen, idiot,” Julan said sharply. “You say one more word and I’ll hold your face in that fountain until you’re bloated, all right?”
“Is there a problem?” All three of them looked up. Two Royal Guards had appeared, glancing suspiciously from Julan to the page.
“I have orders to take her to the King,” the page said insistently, nodding to Fen.
“Then to the King she goes,” one of the guards said.
“No,” Julan interjected at once. He turned to her. “Fen, come on. Cast recall.”
“Teleportation magic doesn’t work in Mournhold,” Fen whispered, her voice hoarse.
“We can take the both of you in wearing shackles if we have to,” the second guard said suddenly. “Both of you – let’s go.” And so, with the pageboy smugly in the lead, Fen and Julan were taken back through the Plaza towards the Palace, neither of them daring to speak with the Royal Guards breathing down their necks. Fen felt herself creeping closer and closer to hysteria with every step. She couldn’t shake the feeling that she was being led to her deathbed.
“The King wants to see her alone,” one of the guards outside the antechamber leading to the Throne Room told Julan when they reached it. “You stay out here.”
“No,” Julan said at once, turning to Fen. “No, I’ll let you walk into Dagoth Ur alone, but I won’t let you do this alone, Fen. Not this.”
“Please don’t,” Fen whispered, clutching his hands and realizing hers were shaking. “Please don’t leave me, Julan.” The guard reached forward suddenly, wrenching them apart.
“Get out,” he said curtly to Julan, and before Fen could act she had been ushered through into the antechamber, despite her and Julan’s cries of protest. The door to the antechamber slammed, and Fen heard a key in the lock.
“No,” she whispered, frantically scrabbling at the door. “No, no, no, no, no.” She turned around to look at the small antechamber. There had to be a way out. No windows, no doors except the one leading out and the one leading to the throne room. Could there be a hidden trapdoor? She was about to lift the rug when a thought struck her.
Pretty soon these people are going to realize that the Tribunal aren’t doing any good for Morrowind, and when that happens they’ll turn to you.
Fen took a deep breath and straightened up. She was the Princess of Mournhold, the sole heir to the Throne of Morrowind, the reincarnation of Lord Nerevar Indoril, the slayer of Dagoth Ur. One man could not terrify her. But it would be foolish to walk in as Fenara….
Fen reached into her newly-mended bag, finding Gildan’s old headscarf that she had used while traveling in the Ashlands. The scarf was weather-beaten and worn now, but it would serve the purpose. Pushing her hair out of her face, Fen draped the scarf around her shoulders and her nose and mouth, leaving her eyes the only exposed part of her face. With that, she went to the door to the Throne Room and prepared to meet her father.

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