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Saturday, March 17, 2012

XV - The Weather Witch

Almalexia was nothing short of livid when Fen relayed Romari’s explanation to her. The goddess’s brow furrowed and her muscles tensed, and the moment Fen had finished Almalexia closed her long-lashed eyes as if she were about to scream.

They would dare...” she hissed in a deadly whisper. Her penetrating eyes snapped open again. “So, the Tribunal has lost its power, has it? These fools would dare question Almalexia’s power, here in her city! I will give them a lesson in power, Fen, and you will be my agent.”
“Which entails what, exactly?” Fen asked darkly.
“These fools must be reminded of the true power of a god. Since the attack on the city, much of my own power has been spent caring for my people. The number of wounded has been astronomical, and caring for them all has been taxing to even me. Still, I must demonstrate to these people what it is to mock the will of a god. You will travel to the ruins of Bamz-Amschend and activate the Karstangz-Bcharn.”
“The Karstangz…?”
“The Karstangz-Bcharn. The Weather Witch.” Almalexia’s eyes were bright now, practically alive with cold glee. “At its height, the Dwemer civilization was masterful in the use of machinery. In a time of drought, Dwemer scholars were commissioned to create a machine that would bring rain to their lands. They created the Karstangz-Bcharn. Its existence was little more than a myth until recently, when the ruins opened beneath my city. I wish for you to activate the machine, make it to create ashstorms in Mournhold. Then, these heretics will know the power of Almalexia!” Fen stared at the goddess, not liking the sound of this plan.
“Ashstorms,” she repeated. “In Mournhold.” Almalexia smiled serenely.
“That’s correct. While these storms may be common on the island of Vvardenfell, they do not occur here, so far removed from the Red Mountain. Now, though, they will, and these heretics will understand the power of the Tribunal. The power of Almalexia!” she gestured fluidly to one of her Hands, the Ordinators around the room, and he came forward, keeping his eyes down and presenting Fen with a dented Dwemer coherer. “Take this, and use it to activate the machine,” Almalexia told Fen as the Hand backed into the shadows again, his eyes averted. “You will have to divine its workings on your own, dear Fen, but I believe you are up to the task.” With that, she signaled for Fen to leave.
“What’s that for?” Julan asked as Fen came out into the Reception Hall.
“I’ll tell you when we get back to the inn,” she muttered, noticing that Fedris Hler was watching them closely. Julan nodded, and they went back out into the torrential downpour, pulling their hoods up and moving as quickly as possible through the sheeting rain towards Godsreach. It was coming down almost sideways, and the trees were stirring mightily, the wind whipping their branches fiercely. Fen glanced up in amazement. In all her years of living in Mournhold, she had never seen a storm this momentous in the city.
They finally reached the Winged Guar, where they trooped into their rooms to peel off their wet things and towel themselves dry. Fen was sitting at the vanity in her dressing gown, trying unsuccessfully to dry the moisture from her hair, when Julan knocked and came in, his own hair a tangled mess around his face, a towel around his neck.
“So?” he said, dropping down in the armchair beside her fireplace, rubbing his hair vigorously with the towel. “What does she want you to do now?”
“She wants me to manipulate an ancient Dwemer machine to create an ashstorm in Mournhold,” Fen said darkly, pulling the towel off her head and reaching for her comb. In Fen’s mirror, Julan’s reflection had frozen, his eyes wide.
“You’re not serious,” he finally said, dropping his towel on the floor. Fen nodded grimly, sweeping her hair to one side to comb through it. “Fen…she’s crazy.”
“But think about it,” Fen replied, studying her somber face in the mirror, narrowed by the long white scar where Bolvyn Venim’s gauntlet had once struck her. “This will send a message to Sotha Sil too, won’t it? I’m no fan of Almalexia’s, but if Sotha Sil wants to try and destroy my city I will do everything in my power to stop him.”
“So you’re going to frighten the people into worshipping Almalexia instead?” Julan demanded furiously. Fen turned around on her stool to face him.
“I’m not doing this to frighten anyone,” she told him firmly. “I’m doing it to put Sotha Sil in his place. If he thinks that he can set those creatures on my city and my people, he’s mistaken.” Julan gave her a long look, like he was desperate to say something, but kept his mouth closed as Fen turned back to the mirror and resumed combing her hair. “Let’s leave tomorrow morning, okay?” she said. “Before sunrise. Since tunneling through ruins always seems to take us most of the day.”
The next morning, they donned their cloaks and left the inn. The streets were barren and empty, and there were puddles every few feet and broken branches scattered on the cobbles. The only people out were the Ordinators and Royal Guards, looking broken-down and tired as they stood at their posts.
The fountain at the centre of the Plaza Brindisi Dorum had been roped off until the statue could be repaired. There was no one around, however, so Fen and Julan slipped beneath the barrier and climbed up the large plinth once more, where the great hole between the remains of the statue gaped open at them. They once more made their way down the tunnel to the great gallery, and although the strange creatures were dead, there were three Dwemer sphere centurions rolling alertly back and forth on the floor far below.
“Wait,” Fen whispered, pulling Julan behind a rock as he drew his bow. “Those aren’t normal centurions.” She stared hard at the constructs, trying to discern what was different about them – then she realized it. While the sphere centurions in the Vvardenfell ruins where menacing-looking but easy to take down, these seemed to be split in half at their base and had a kind of crossbow built onto one arm, loaded with thick bolts. “I have a feeling those will be a lot harder to kill than the ones we’re used to,” Fen muttered. “So let’s be careful.” Julan nodded, and they waited until two of the centurions were out of sight before going out onto the rocky outcropping to attack – Julan with arrows, Fen with magic.
Almost at once, the centurion fired a bolt at them. It cut through the air much faster than expected, and Fen could sense a powerful – and probably lethal – enchantment on it. She dove to the side, pulling Julan with her, and they tumbled down among the rubble and hit the ground, hard. Fen quickly got to her feet and Julan followed suit, both of them stepping over the broken stone and metal that littered the floor to continue firing at the centurion. It fired another bolt, and Fen quickly ducked to avoid it – she felt it graze the air over her head and impale itself into the stone wall behind her.
Julan moved forward quickly, seeming to decide that it would be difficult to get a good shot with the bolts constantly being fired at him. For a brief moment he parried with the centurion, then it fell, emitting sparks from its back and slumping over, its crossbow dragging on the ground.
This, unfortunately, had attracted the attention of the other two centurions, and they rolled forward, their crossbows poised. Fen let off a blast of God’s Fire, and the centurions stumbled a bit, but continued forward. The first raised its crossbow.
Fen summoned a frost atronach, commanded it with a point, and quickly moved to the side as it lumbered forward, shooting blasts of magicka at the constructs. In a few seconds, the one centurion slumped over and the other collapsed to the corrugated metal ground with a series of heavy-sounding clangs. Fen banished the atronach and moved forward, kneeling beside one of the centurions.
“Wow,” she murmured, examining its crossbow. “I’ve never seen anything this powerful in a ruin before.”
“I’d say so,” Julan agreed, picking up one of the fallen bolts from the floor. “If one of these had hit us we’d be dead in seconds.”
Fen stood up and glanced around the room. It felt even larger from the floor – the ceiling was in shadow, the vast walls painted with strange, dark silhouettes, cracked remains of fluted pillars scattered beside the few that were still standing.
“Do you have any idea where we’re supposed to go?” Julan asked, and his voice echoed around the tall, dark chamber. Fen reached into her bag and pulled out the Ring of Azura, which bettered her vision in the darkness.
“Usually the most important part of a Dwemer ruin is at the bottom,” she said, heading for the side of the hall where a rusted steel door stood. “So let’s start by going down.”
Bamz-Amschend was unlike any ruin Fen had ever seen. It was the same basic building pattern – corrugated steel and brass on everything – but the architecture was completely different. The hallways were two stories high, each individual room they entered even taller. And the ruin was in a worse state of decay than Fen had ever seen. Large panels were regularly missing from the floor. Rust climbed the walls like ivy. Every few seconds there was a great rattling or humming that echoed through the walls around them. Bits of rubble crowded the edges of the halls. Every hour or so, they would come across a caved-in passage completely blocked by rocks. There were more sphere centurions, too, rolling along silently until Fen and Julan came upon them. There were also steam centurions that were at least three times bigger than the ones on Vvardenfell and were, unfortunately, resistant to magic, resulting in Fen and Julan using a lot more of her healing potions than she would have liked.
At some point, they entered what appeared to be an empty dining hall. Rusted bowls, plates, and cutlery were set out along the tables, the food that had once occupied them long gone. Each of the benches held several piles of grey ash, and some of them were accompanied by Dwemer armour and weaponry. There were two enormous fans overhead, one broken, the other turning in halfhearted circles. The entire hall felt eerily devoid of life, and Fen felt gooseflesh rising on her arms.
“This place is strange,” Julan muttered as Fen went to look at one of the tables. She touched one of the ash piles and chills raced up her spine.
“I think these were the Dwemer,” she said softly. Julan appeared by her side.
“What do you mean?”
“Look at this,” she said, gesturing to the ash piles. “Look where they are. And some of them have armour by them. I’d bet you anything that when the Dwemer disappeared, this is what happened to them.”
“Then why aren’t the Vvardenfell ruins like this?”
“We’re the first mer that have been in this place for centuries,” Fen murmured, her voice echoing eerily. “And I think this ruin is much older than the Vvardenfell ones. In Vvardenfell, all the ash was swept away and all the armour was looted. But we’re the first living things that have been in here in ages.”
“I have this weird feeling,” Julan said after a moment. “I can’t describe it. But I just feel…odd.” Fen didn’t have to say that she felt the same way. They both knew it to be true. They left the dining hall behind, chased down the hallway by the steady beating of the one working fan.
Much of the rooms were the same, and it was hours before they found anything of interest – in one of the storage rooms there was a heavy iron chest packed with two large satchels that felt strangely light.
“What do you reckon these are for?” Julan asked, weighing one of the satchels in his hands. Fen picked up the other one and brought it to her nose – it smelled of tar and gas.
“I think they’re explosives,” she said. “Let’s take them with us. Maybe we can use them to get through some of those rockfalls.”
Sure enough, they soon reached another caved-in passage, and Julan lodged one of the satchels in between the rocks.
“What do we do now?” he asked. Fen reached forward and touched the satchel, casting a weak fire spell.
“Now we run,” she said hastily, grabbing his arm, and they sprinted to the end of the corridor. There was a huge crash that rocked the floor and knocked them to their feet. Dust and rocks showered down from the cavernous ceiling, then all was still. Fen looked up, squinted through the floating dust, and saw a small hole had been made in the rocks. “Perfect,” she said. “We’re lucky it didn’t cave in on us.” She and Julan climbed through to the other side of the hallway, emerging coated with dust and debris.
They soon found their way to a tall room that was very different from the others they had seen. Screwed into one wall was a colossal dog-like construct that appeared to be half-finished, as evidenced by the detached hand and strange tools littered around it. Other cogs and bits of machinery stood around the room on rusted tables and desks, as well as several jars of an odd, congealed substance that smelled strongly of burned tar.
“This reminds me of that room in Endusal,” Julan said, examining a foot on one of the desks. “There were a bunch of giant body parts there too.”
“This is some kind of forge,” Fen muttered, glancing around the room. “This must have been a craftsman’s workshop.” She was tempted to take one of the strange jars of spoiled tar to look at later, but the thought of disturbing too much in this ruin was unsettling, and they left the forge they way they had found it.
They continued down the long, endless hallways, moving deeper and deeper underground. A few hours after they left the forge, they came to a flooded passage that was blocked by another rockfall. Fen lit the second satchel and they quickly moved out of the way as it exploded. When the dust had settled, they could hear running water coming from beyond the rockfall.
“That’s odd,” Fen muttered, and she led the way through the hole in the rocks. When she straightened up, the sight that met her eyes took her breath away.
They were in an enormous, dome-ceilinged room, everything illuminated up with a deep, bluish light. Waterfalls poured from slots in the walls to a deep pool far below, and narrow iron walkways stretched out from the thin border in the room, pointing toward the great mechanism at its centre. The thing itself was a metal sort of egg, surrounded by thin spires that grazed the ceiling. The guardians of the room – two sphere centurion archers – had long rusted and decayed in the presence of so much moisture, and now hung motionless around the edges of the room.
Fen and Julan slowly crossed the thin walkway toward the Karstangz-Bcharn – the Weather Witch. They went around to the back of the cap of gilded iron, and there was a circular slot there. On a short platform across from the slot, three levers stood. On the far wall across from the levers, there was a large, blank stone panel.
Fen pulled the Dwemer coherer out of her bag and carried it over to the slot. The coherer fit in perfectly, and with a loud grating noise, the metal egg rose up several feet, then began to rotate counterclockwise, its pointed tip glowing faintly.
“What do we do now?” Julan asked loudly over the hissing of the machine. Fen turned to the levers.
“Pull that one on the far right,” she shouted, going to the left one. She grabbed hold of the rusted lever and, using all her might, dragged it toward her with a sharp grating noise at the same time Julan moved the right one. The panel shifted with a great crumbling noise, and now there was a chipped painting of some sort of cloud. Fen tasted something strange and glanced around. The tip of the metal egg was beginning to spawn fog that drifted into the room, slowly expanding as it did so. The noise made it impossible to think.
“Pull the middle one!” Fen shouted, and Julan did so as Fen pushed the left one back. The fog ceased almost at once – the panel shifted again, this time showing a sheeting rainstorm. Water poured out of the tip of the Weather Witch, dribbling over its contours like a fountain. “Push that one back again!” Julan slowly cranked the middle lever and the panel grated to a new image – a volcano, spewing ash. “That’s it!” Fen shouted. She turned – the Karstangz-Bcharn was now emitting reddish ash from its point, a loud that was quickly expanding through the enormous chamber. “Let’s get out of here,” she called to Julan, and they quickly crossed the room and climbed through the hole before the gallery could fill with ash.
“Gods,” Julan said. “That was insane.”
“I never knew they were so advanced,” Fen murmured, watching the chamber fill with hissing ash through the hole. “I mean, I knew they were smart, but I never imagined they would be able to change the weather. I’d love to have a chance to study it.”
“We’ve got other things to worry about,” Julan said, kicking a few rocks out of the way. “Like the fact that Almalexia is guarshit insane.”
Slowly, Fen and Julan climbed the great distance back up out of the ruins and up into the cave just underneath the city. Fen climbed up the ladder first, hearing a faint whistling overhead. She emerged aboveground and her hair pulled itself loose of the braid she had put in that morning in the fierce wind that whipped the air. The sky was a cruel, rust-coloured red, the air thick with swirling ash. Fen felt Julan tap her foot, and she moved out of the way, extending a hand to help him out but staring upward all the while. People were running with their heads down, some of them in a complete panic. The trees were flung this way and that, some of them nearly doubled over in the fierce storm. It was the ashstorm, more powerful than Fen had ever seen on Vvardenfell, slowly beating away at everything in its path. Mournhold – Fen’s beautiful, beloved city – now stood in the thick of the cartwheeling ash, and it was all because of her.

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