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Saturday, March 3, 2012

XIV - The End of Times

“You will let me fight this one alone, won’t you?” Fen said to Julan early the next morning as they departed the Winged Guar. “It’s just like the duel with Venim, they won’t take me seriously if you help.”
“How hard is this Karrod going to be for you to fight?”

“I’ve…well, I’ve seen him spar before.” Fen didn’t voice the rest of her thought. The few times she had seen Karrod fight, he had been deadly quick with the blade, moving with a powerful, brute force and taking down his opponent in seconds. He could have only gotten better since then.
“Same thing, then. I’ll stay out of it, but if he’s about to kill you I’m stepping in, I don’t care what Helseth does. For all we know, he knows it’s you and this is just another plot to do you in.”
“Just stop it, Julan,” Fen told him sharply. She was already jumpy enough as it is.
They were met in the Reception Chamber by a page and brought to the Throne Room, where Fen wore her scarf over her face. It was once again filled with courtiers and guards and messengers, and they all quieted and watched as Fen and Julan walked towards the throne where Helseth sat. Barenziah’s throne was empty.
“Ah...you have come to meet Karrod in battle,” Helseth said, straightening up as they approached. “Good for you.” He made a smooth gesture, and Karrod stepped from behind the throne, his face expressionless. “Karrod is looking a bit under the weather today, but no matter. Perhaps you’ve heard that Karrod has never been defeated in battle?”
“I haven’t, Your Grace.”
“It’s true,” Helseth said smugly. “Amazing, don't you think? Regardless, this will be a fair fight. You may both use whatever weapons are at your disposal. I wish you both luck. None are to interfere, and you will begin on my command.” He gave Julan a sharp glance and Julan moved out of the way to stand along the wall with the courtiers. Fen cast him what she hoped was a reassuring glance as Karrod stepped down towards her. Helseth signaled, and a low stone barrier went up around them. Karrod, completely unfazed, drew his blade, an ancient-looking, cruelly curved scimitar, and focused his dull eyes on Fen.
At once, Karrod moved swiftly forward, swinging his sword around towards Fen. She ducked out of the way, casting a shock spell that made Karrod stumble. But he quickly regained his footing and came toward her again. They repeated the cycle another time, then another. Karrod moved almost mechanically, not showing any sign of being pained by Fen’s spells. All they did was make him falter, buy her an extra half second before he came at her again.
Fen abandoned the shock spells and she and Karrod circled each other slowly, Fen wracking her mind for a spell that could give her a leg up. In the split second she was distracted, Karrod moved forward, swiftly slashing at her arm with a side sweep of his sword. Fen gasped as the cruel metal stung her skin. Blood flecked the floor, and Fen quickly healed herself before diving out of the way of another of Karrod’s attacks. One of the watching guards jeered loudly and several others followed suit.
Fen knew she wouldn’t last long fighting like this – she was barely even fighting. Karrod clearly had some sort of protection against her spells, so she quickly reasoned that the only way for her to thwart him would be through melee. As Karrod came in for another swipe, Fen smoothly sidestepped, pulling her staff from her back. Perhaps she was better with magic, but she had worked with her staff for days to prepare to use Sunder on the Heart of Lorkhan. It would have to do.
The next time Karrod came round, Fen lifted her staff. His blade hit the ebony it was crafted from and bounced cleanly off. A faint look of surprise crossed his face, and Fen used the opportunity to step forward and swing the head of the staff towards his middle. It collided with a solid thunk, doing little more than denting his armour. Fen frowned as Karrod prepared for the next blow. She would have to aim for his head.
Fen ducked swiftly at Karrod’s next strike and moved forward, lifting the staff. The two of them began to parry fiercely, and Fen kept her eyes trained on his, her view only broken by the flashes of ebony and steel as their weapons crashed together. Fen’s staff and Karrod’s sword locked, and they pushed against one another, never looking away. Fen jerked her staff away suddenly, surprising Karrod, and jabbed the butt of it down at the top of his foot, using all her strength. Karrod’s face contorted in pain and he broke eye contact with her. In seconds, Fen had swung the staff over his shoulder and collided with his head in a loud crack. Karrod stumbled – his sword clattered to the ground in a flash of silver, he fell backwards, a trickle of blood running from the corner of his mouth, a bruise already forming where the staff had struck. He landed heavily upon the bloodied stonework, flat on his back, and Fen pinned him there with the butt of the staff.
“Hold!” he said in a deep, gravelly voice, and Fen blinked, startled. “I am beaten.” Slowly, she removed the staff and offered her hand. Karrod took it, and she pulled him up. He smiled as he grasped her hand firmly and shook it. Fen saw the courtiers and guards around the room were staring at one another in disbelief. “You are a great warrior, Fedura Rindal.”
“Thank you,” Fen said, still a little confused, and Karrod gave her a small smile before he moved away. The low barriers were gone, and servants were already coming forward to clean up the blood and scuffs from the flagstones. Helseth stared at Fen, distaste in his eye.
“I have seen you fight my champion, though I find it hard to imagine how you have succeeded,” he said coldly. “I did not believe anyone could best Karrod, but you have shown me otherwise.” Helseth shook his head. “And he speaks! There are depths to you, Fedura, that I will fathom in time. For now, you have proven yourself to me.” He made a smooth gesture, and a servant came forward with an intricately engraved wooden box. Helseth turned to the servant and opened the box, then turned again so Fen could see what lay inside. It was an item she had seen countless times before, always on display in the upper reception hall – a long, thin glass dagger, glimmering faintly with enchantment, resting in its silken wraps.
“This is the Dagger of Symmachus,” Helseth said, lifting the dagger out from the dark silk. The servant snapped the box shut and bowed away. “It belonged to my grandfather. Bear it with honour.” He held the dagger out to Fen, and for a brief moment, their eyes connected. Fen felt a curious shiver of warmth run down her spine as they locked gazes, and she thought she saw something familiar flicker in her father’s deep scarlet irises, identical to her own. But it was gone in a second, and she had looked away, the dagger in her hands.
“Thank you, Your Grace.” Fen slid the dagger onto her belt and inclined her head, and Helseth nodded briefly.
“And now, I have more plans for you,” he said, going back to his throne. “As I’m certain you know, Mournhold is one of the seats of power for the Tribunal. The goddess Almalexia resides here in her Temple, surrounded by her High Ordinators. I have no great love for Almalexia, her Ordinators, or the Tribunal of which she is a part. In light of recent events, I believe it is time to gather more information about them.”
“If I may be bold, Your Grace, what events?”
“The attack on Mournhold was as unexpected to me as it was destructive to the city,” Helseth explained with a sigh. “And I make it my business to remain forewarned of this sort of event. Many believed the attacking creatures to have been Dwemer constructs, but we know now that this is not the case. These creatures were beyond anything dreamt of by the Dwarves, creatures it would take the power of a god to create. I would like you to learn more about the attacks.”
“How, Your Grace?”
“I believe that the only person who might shed more light on this situation is Almalexia herself,” the king continued, fiddling idly with the gilded armrest of his throne. “All indications are that these creatures must be the constructs of Sotha Sil, and only Almalexia is likely to have information about him.”
“Sotha Sil – the third member of the Tribunal?”
“What other Sotha Sil is there? I wish for you to speak to Almalexia, learn what she knows about the creatures, and report to me. There is no reason for the goddess to suspect that you and I may be allied. Use this to your advantage. Do not approach me again until you have learned all that you can.” Fen stared downward, thinking. The destruction of the Heart had certainly taken a toll on the Tribunal, but was it enough for Sotha Sil to want to attack Mournhold?
“I would be honoured to help, Your Grace,” she said, and with that she and Julan were waved away.
“Gods,” Julan muttered. “It was like he wanted Karrod to do you in.”
“I’m sure he did,” Fen murmured back. “I never knew Karrod could talk, you know. He’s lived in the Palace since before I was born, and I never heard him say a word.”
It was nearing midmorning, and the sky was a dark, steel grey, ominously overcast. There were fewer people than usual out as they walked to the Temple District – dark weather was uncommon in Mournhold. Julan agreed, grudgingly, to wait outside as Fen spoke to Almalexia again. She crossed the Reception Hall and passed through the enormous doors, once again watching as the ball of light slowly dropped down to illuminate the goddess.
“Greetings, Fen,” the goddess said serenely as Fen mounted the four stairs up onto her platform and went to stand before her. “It is good that you have come. I believe you may be of use to me.” Fen said nothing, and Almalexia continued, “Since the horrendous attack on the city, there have been some alarming developments. One of the most troublesome has been a cult that has recently formed, led by a Dunmer named Eno Romari. They call themselves the End of Times. In these troubled times, I fear the cult is gaining in popularity.”
“Why is that bad?” Fen said, yearning to ask why Almalexia was so opposed to people with different beliefs in Mournhold. The goddess smiled warmly, as if dealing with a particularly dim child.
“Very little is known about them yet, but there is one very disturbing fact we have learned. Many of their members have been found dead.” Fen was not surprised. She had read of these sorts of cults before, the kind that believed a better life would be waiting for them if they died. Almalexia, however, cocked her head slightly, as if puzzled as to why Fen had not recoiled in horror. “At least seven of them have been found so far,” she continued, her voice losing its superior tone and exchanging it with a darkly concerned one. “All dead, all in their homes. It appears they ingested a strong poison, and not even my magicks could revive those who were found. We must find out what drives this group, and rid my city of their presence. Speak with Meralyn Othan at the Great Bazaar; her brother Sevil was one of those found. Learn what you can about them, dear Fen, and of this Eno Romari. Take care with him, though. The words of a martyr cry louder than those of a zealot.” With that, Almalexia waved a hand and Fen left through the circle of her silent, staring Ordinators and out onto the broad terrace just outside the Temple, where Julan was sitting on a stair, glaring that the people going inside with disgust.
“Look at all of them,” he said scornfully, getting to his feet, his hair blowing lightly around his face in the wind that was beginning to pick up. The sky overhead was still ominous and grey. “So convinced that this fraud of a goddess will save them.” One frail old man walking into the Temple with his wife cast Julan a venomous look, and Julan returned it coldly as the couple went inside.
“Let’s try not to pick fights with anyone just now,” Fen said, starting down the broad stairs. She relayed all that Almalexia had told her, and Julan looked, if possible, even more bitter.
“Of course she’s trying to flatten anyone that doesn’t worship her,” he said scathingly as they crossed under the archway into the Great Bazaar, which felt strangely quiet. “I mean, a cult that kills people is bad and all, but still.”
They soon located Meralyn Othan with the help of the few people that were out. Meralyn was a broad-shouldered Dunmer woman, tall in stature, wearing a simple brown frock and sweeping the doorstep of the clothier’s shop. Her hair was drawn off her face in a sloppy twist, and her eyes were tired and drawn. As they approached, she stood back with her broom as if to let them pass into the shop, and she looked surprised when Fen said they wanted to talk to her.
“I don’t finish my shift for another few hours,” she told them, rubbing her thumb along the broom handle. “I’m sorry, but you’ll have to come back later.”
“I’m afraid it’s urgent,” Fen said. “It’s about your brother. Sevil.” Meralyn’s face changed. Her eyes widened and her mouth hardened into a tight line.
“You’ve heard about my brother?” she said in a low voice. Fen nodded and her eyes were suddenly hot with fury. “All would be well if he hadn’t fallen in with Eno Romari and those End of Times lunatics. Sevil was a lonely man, a bit lost, but he was hardly stupid. It was that cult that caused his death!” She was gripping the broom so hard it was trembling, and she stopped herself as someone passed between them to enter into the shop.
“We can sit down,” Fen offered, and Meralyn gave a curt nod, leaned her broom against the wall of the shop, and followed them a short distance away to where several curved benches encircled a tree. The leaves overhead were whipping back and forth in the wind, and several fluttered down around them.
“The End of Times are a suicide cult, plain and simple,” Meralyn explained. “Their beliefs are destructive, heretical, and frightening to me. I don’t know how my brother ever got involved with them.” She glanced around darkly. “I’m beginning to see them all over the city, but you’ll most often find them in Godsreach, outside the Winged Guar.
“They preach that the Tribunal have lost their powers, and that this is a signal that the apocalypse is near. Eno Romari teaches his followers that our time in Tamriel is at an end, and the gates of Oblivion will soon open and the daedra will walk the land.” She shook her head disbelievingly. “Only the ancestors who have already left this world will remain once the Daedric scourge covers the earth. And so he promotes what he calls ‘The Cleansing.’”
“And what’s that?” Fen asked, frowning at this strange premonition. Daedra walking the earth of Nirn at will sounded unlikely, but she had seen too much to believe that it was impossible.
“It is a ritual suicide,” Meralyn told her, her voice quavering with anger. “My brother was no fool, but he was a trusting person, always looking for someone or something to believe in. He thought he had found that in the End of Times.”
“Do you know where we can find Eno Romari?”
“Outside the Winged Guar, spouting his nonsense to passersby, and to the drunks stumbling out of the tavern,” Meralyn replied immediately. “He’s a lunatic, though. Stay away from him.”
“Thank you,” Fen told her, briefly touching Meralyn’s hand. “And I’m very sorry.” The door of the clothier’s shop opened suddenly and a finely-dressed Bosmer woman with her blonde hair drawn tightly away from her face stood there, glancing around. She spotted Meralyn and her face soured.
“What do you think you’re doing?” she shouted across the plaza, and Meralyn leapt to her feet, cast Fen and Julan a fleeting glance, then hurried back over to the doorstep to resume her sweeping.
Eno Romari was not hard to find. He was a peculiar Dunmer man, with a shaved head and gold earrings winking in the light, his eyes portruding and large. He wore a white linen robe tied with a sash of gold, and stood outside the door of the Winged Guar, trying to catch people by the arm as they exited. Most shook him off, but this did not appear to discourage him, especially when Fen and Julan approached. He turned his bulging eyes on them, a broad, almost fatherly grin spreading across his face.
“My greetings and blessings upon you, friends,” he told them, giving them both a short bow. “I am Eno Romari. How may I help you in your journey through this life?”
“We’d like to talk to you, if it’s not too much trouble,” Fen said, leading him away from the door and over to an unoccupied spot on the porch. “About the End of Times.” Thunder echoed ominously through the steel-grey sky overhead, and Romari nodded knowingly.
“We are a peaceful group, dedicated to relieving the suffering all are feeling in these troubled times,” he told her, placing his hands together, palm to palm. “I teach my followers the way to enlightenment, through understanding of what is happening in our world and what is to come in the next. All of my people know the importance of preparedness for the coming troubles, and many are willing to make great sacrifice for our cause.”
“What sort of sacrifice?” Fen asked, though she knew the answer.
“Our beliefs are very simple, dear friend. The blessed Tribunal –” (Julan made impatient noise, which Romari ignored) “– ­though once filled with glory, are no longer the gods they once were. As with the tides and Tamriel’s moons, all cosmic powers will wax and wane. But, when gods die, it creates ripples throughout the lands. The passing of the Three will be a prelude to the end of this era, and the beginning of the next. The followers of the End of Times are making ourselves ready for this to happen.”
“What exactly do you mean, ‘making yourselves ready’?” asked Fen slowly. The streets were almost silent now, the thunder echoing more frequently across the sky.
“The Daedra Princes are not our ancestors,” Romari explained, oblivious to the brewing storm around them. “Nor are they our allies. They will wash over the land, destroying all that man and mer have built over these thousands of years. The only protection from this scourge will be our true ancestors that have gone before us and watch over us even now. Many of our followers choose to participate in the Cleansing, to prepare the way for the rest of us. It is a sacrifice to be sure, but it is for the greater good.”
“And the Cleansing?”
“It is a glorious ritual, friend. Our followers cleanse themselves of all of their troubles, all of their burdens here on this earth. They send themselves ahead to the ancestors, spreading our word, making ready for when we shall all join them in our fight against the Daedric hordes.” With this pronouncement, lightning suddenly split the sky, accompanied by a crash of thunder and the pattering of rain. Romari’s face was lit up eerily by the lightning, and he watched with a strange smile on his face as Fen and Julan took their leave. Before they crossed through the arch into the Temple courtyard, Fen glanced back through the sheeting rain and saw the Dunmer standing silently on the porch of the Winged Guar, watching them through the storm.

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