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Saturday, March 31, 2012

XVI - A Missing Hand

I am well-pleased, good and faithful servant,” Almalexia said, lightly pressing the flats of her hands together and smiling serenely at Fen from beneath her long, dark lashes. “My people look upon the elements, and see there written a divine testament to my lordship. Did ever any other god display such dominion over the earth and sky? But now...with a heavy heart, I must lay a sad burden upon you. I bid you bring the peace of understanding to my Missing Hand.

“One of my most faithful guards, one of my very own Hands of Almalexia, pledged to honor and protect and serve me in all ways, has lost his mind,” she continued, her face mournful. She gestured vaguely to the circle of silent Ordinators around her, and Fen noticed there was an empty space in the guards directly to Almalexia’s right. “Salas Valor has abandoned me, and now spews vile and slanderous untruths about me to any who would listen. I pity him, and know he is not responsible for his actions. To view the splendour of a god may drive even the strongest mortal mad. But now he presents a threat to us, and he is very dangerous. I fear you may not be able to spare his life.” Fen’s hands tightened into fists. Almalexia wanted her to kill someone for telling the truth. Fen was beginning to see that the politics of Mournhold relied heavily on this tactic.
“Now Salas Valor haunts the streets and sewers of Mournhold,” the goddess continued. “His wild, distracted manner frightens the people, but even my Ordinators are afraid to confront so terrible a weaponmaster and war-wizard. I beg you – seek out Salas Valor. Relieve us of this threat to my beloved people, and bring peace to my sacred city of Mournhold.” When Fen didn’t respond, Almalexia plunged into speech again.
“Salas Valor was once my most trusted Hand and faithful servant,” she said, laying a long-fingered hand over her heart. “But recently his behavior has been erratic. He has been quiet and unresponsive. I am afraid... I may have allowed him to come too close. It is impossible that a mortal and a god might meet on equal ground, but...perhaps he had deluded himself. I regret his lamentable state, and am sorry that I may have been partly responsible for his condition.” With that, Almalexia waved her hand gracefully, and Fen retreated down the platform, leaving the eerie silence of Almalexia’s High Chapel in her wake.
The Temple Reception chamber was a completely different state. There were all manner of people there, coughing and blinking and shaking ash out of their clothes and hair. Women clutched their children close and men glanced nervously out the high, stained-glass windows at regular intervals. Priests and priestesses moved throughout the small crowd that had assembled, trying in vain to calm them down. Julan was waiting just beside the door, looking thoroughly irritated.
“Look at this,” he muttered to Fen, gesturing to a woman who was in hysterics, grasping Fedris Hler’s hand and begging him to stop the ashstorms. “Look what she’s doing to these people.”
“Let’s get out of here,” Fen replied in an undertone, and they slipped through the distressed people and made their way outside.
Just an hour of the storm raging through the city had already caused more destruction than Fen had thought possible. She had never noticed on Vvardenfell, because the ashstorms only occurred where the land was barren and empty, but it seemed to be obliterating every living thing in its path. The gardens that spread all around the Temple and were normally bursting with many-coloured blooms were now patches of tangled weed coated in brown ash. The ornately groomed trees that stood along the paths had begun to wither and die, their leaves ripped brutally from their branches by the howling wind. And everywhere, people were running with their heads down, covering their faces with their hands or scraps of cloth, struggling against the wind to seek shelter from the brutal weather. Fen wrapped Gildan’s headscarf firmly around her own face, feeling increasingly guilty. It didn’t matter that Almalexia had given the order. It was Fen who had caused the ashstorms.
The Winged Guar was busier than usual, though its patrons were less distressed than those who had taken refuge at the Temple. It was late in the day, and Fen, though exhausted from their run through Bamz-Amschend, wanted to be finished with this business quickly.
“You go upstairs,” she said to Julan. “I’ll go down. Find out if anyone has seen a man in High Ordinator armour wandering around in the streets.”
She did not have to ask many people, though, for the barkeep told her straightaway that he had seen the man lurking near the canal just a few moments ago when he went to empty the water pail.
“I don’t plan on killing him,” Fen told Julan as they went outside. “Just warn him, like with the Common Tongue authors. Tell him to get out of Mournhold.” Julan nodded, agreeing with this plan, and they made their way through the howling wind, slipping in between the houses and buildings until they got to the blank stretch of road in front of the canal. A man in full High Ordinator armour stood with his back to them, staring into the canal. His armour had an odd sheen to it, Fen noticed.
“Salas Valor?” she shouted over the wind. The man twitched, then turned sharply. Fen could not see his face through the impassive mask, though his eyes glinted through the mesh that covered their openings.
“So,” he shouted immediately, making Fen jump slightly. “She has sent you for me. Now YOU are Her favorite. How convenient!”
“Salas –” Fen started, but he spoke swiftly over her.
“Whichever of us dies, she will be well pleased. And if both of us die, so much the better!” He turned fully to face them now, the wind stirring the fringe on his helmet. “Well, I am content. Perhaps this is how it was meant to end. I ask the forgiveness of all the gods and spirits – whoever they may be. And you, too, might make your peace with your gods, because at least one of us will not live to see another sunset.”
Before Fen could react, Valor had drawn his scimitar, glinting cruelly in the ash, and had leapt forward, aiming a swift cut at Fen’s head. She flung her hand up and a shield formed there, giving her a chance to move back as the scimitar crushed it. He sprang forward once more, completely unfazed, moving with deadly speed and skill. Fen cast a mild blind spell, making Valor stumble momentarily and giving her and Julan a chance to act.
Fen immediately let loose a barrage of God’s Fire, completely engulfing Valor with flames. When they cleared though, he moved towards them as swiftly as ever, as if completely unaffected. Julan quickly leapt forward to parry, though Fen felt uneasy. Valor moved with lightning-fast precision, and while Julan had become a skilled warrior since they had met, she wasn’t sure he could battle a Hand of Almalexia without help.
Fen set to work, summoning every creature she could think of to help, then going in with her own enchanted staff. Even completely surrounded by adversaries, Valor never seemed to tire, moving fiercely and quickly, cutting down the daedra Fen had summoned with ease. When they were all down, he turned to Julan, poised for a death blow.
Fen swung her staff with all her might, cracking it across Valor’s helmet. It hit the plume atop his head and fell sideways, hitting the ground and rolling away as Valor turned to Fen. He looked perfectly normal – not the least bit mad – and Fen faltered slightly as he turned his attention away from Julan.
She faltered a moment too long – the Hand sliced his scimitar smoothly across her, and Fen felt a searing pain across her chest and she stumbled backwards, gasping, and hit the ground, knocking the wind out of her. The ash-filled sky overhead was spinning – she could vaguely hear the sounds of Valor and Julan sparring, but they were strangely muted. Fen touched a hand to her front and her fingers came away covered in blood.
There was the sound of another body hitting the ground, and Fen squeezed her eyes shut, breathing hard. Please don’t let it be Julan, she thought desperately. Please.
“Fen! Gods, Fen, are you okay?” Fen let out a relieved laugh. The movement tore at her wound and she gasped in sudden pain. “Oh, shit,” Julan muttered, reaching for Fen’s bag. “Shit, shit, shit.” He rummaged hurriedly through it, still muttering, and finally found a small bottle. “I hope this is the right one,” Fen heard him mutter, and then there was a cool, soothing liquid in her throat, familiar. A potion. Fen coughed and sat up quickly, looking down. Her robes were torn and she was still covered in blood, but the wound had healed.
“Are you all right?” she asked Julan at once, and he nodded. Fen saw the body of Salas Valor sprawled on the ground behind him. “Gods, he was worse than Karrod.”
They got to their feet and stared down at Valor, his eyes open and glassy, Fen’s hair whipping through the ashen wind around them.
“What do you reckon?” Julan shouted after a moment. “Should we leave him here?”
“No,” Fen replied, reaching down and pressing her hand to the Hand’s chest. His body slowly disintegrated, leaving a pile of white ash that was quickly swept away by the wind. “I have a feeling he didn’t do anything wrong.”

* * *

A Storm of Swords spoiler: Totally unrelated, but my sister saw this chapter title and asked me if it was about Jaime Lannister. Just so you know

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