If you have any questions or comments, please email me at celestina.skymark@gmail.com

Saturday, December 15, 2012

VII - A Test of Wisdom

Fen lived two full days among the Skaal after the death of Rigmor Halfhand, most of her time spent sitting across from Korst Wind-Eye and listening to him speak. He told her that the small blue men she had encountered were called Rieklings, and that they were thought to have descended from Falmer, ancient snow-elves that used to inhabit Solstheim and Skyrim.
He showed her cuttings of native plants, teaching her how to use each one, from the rare purple Wolfsbane petals that were smooth and sharp along the edges to the Belladonna berries that you had to crush with the flat end of the knife. She learned maps of Solstheim and star charts detailing constellations that were not visible from Vvardenfell, read rare books privy to the northern nations, drank tea that tasted bitter but was said to heal one’s soul. She learned that Korst Wind-Eye was a quiet man, trusting and kind, and that he seemed to immediately understand every question that she had.
The morning of the third day, Fen descended to the lower floor of the Great Hall to find Tharsten Heart-Fang speaking to five members of the Honour Guard, all of them looking drawn and afraid. Heart-Fang noticed her and gestured for her to join them, and the circle widened to allow her in.
“You have done well, Lady Fen,” he said gruffly, though his voice did not seem as glad as his words. “You have shown your loyalty and wisdom, but there is one thing further I will require of you. Now you must prove your strength as a warrior.” Fen bit her lip – face-to-face combat had never been a strong point of hers. She had always thought of her duel with Karrod as mere luck.
“In what way?” she asked, and the Honour Guard began to trickle away out the door, leaving her and Heart-Fang alone.
“You have been spending much time with Korst Wind-Eye as of late, yes?” Tharsten asked, and Fen nodded. “Good. Then I wish for you to travel to Lake Fjalding. Seek him out, for he has traveled there already. He will give you further instruction. Look for him on the northern shore of the lake.”
“If I could be so bold, Chieftain,” Fen began slowly. “What manner of test awaits me at the lake?”
“Not a test, exactly,” Heart-Fang replied, glancing out a window and looking troubled. “More of a disturbance. You’ll know it when you see it. Better to let Korst explain.”
“I’ll go now, then.”
“See that you do.”
It was a short walk from the hill that Skaal Village was perched upon down to Lake Fjalding, and Fen what Heart-Fang spoke of the moment she emerged from a small grove of pines on the shore. In the centre of the lake, an enormous pillar of fire rose directly out of the water, standing the height of fourteen full-grown men. The ice around it had melted and it roared with a crackling fury, seeming to leap higher and higher every moment. Fen could feel its heat from where she stood a good distance away.
“Lady Fen!” She turned, and saw Korst waiting a short distance away. Fen hastily approached.
“The fire –” she started hurriedly, breaking off and staring at the shaman expectantly. Korst sighed, leaning heavily on his walking stick.
“These are strange times, my friend,” he told her, the fire glimmering in his eyes. “I am unsure what magic is being worked to cause such a disturbance on the lake, but you were sent here to prove your strength.”
“I am…not the strongest fighter,” Fen warned, staring at the fire that roared from the heart of the lake.
“But you have shown us that you are able,” Wind-Eye replied, his pale eyes studying her. “The Chieftain and I believe that you are capable enough. Beneath that lake there are a series of ice caves. In one of those caves, you will find Aesliip, a Draugr Lord. Heart-Fang believes he is the one responsible for the disturbance on the lake.”
“A Draugr lord,” Fen repeated curiously. Wind-Eye had told her about the Draugr, undead Nords that guarded old barrows in the wilderness, and she had realized shortly after that she had encountered them once, searching for the Greedy Man’s bag. “And that’s who Heart-Fang thinks is responsible?”
“Fire from water, flame through ice,” the shaman said softly, his eyes reflecting the dancing glint of the fire on the lake. “Strange indeed. Heart-Fang believes that a Draugr Lord who lives beneath the lake is the source of this, but I am not certain. I fear that this could be a sign of the Bloodmoon Prophecy, though I pray to the All-Maker that this is not so. From what I have read in the histories, Aesliip was once a powerful mage who delved in necromancy. As a result of these dark magics, he was made a draugr, but he retains much of his immense power.” Wind-Eye looked back at her, his brow furrowed. “You are to kill this creature, and perhaps end this madness. Take care with this task, Fen. This situation seems odd to me.”
“And what is the Bloodmoon Prophecy?” Fen asked. A chill ran up her spine as she said it. The name came with a sense of foreboding, a dark worry that seemed to nestle itself into her very skin.
“It is an ancient prophecy, one that I hope is but a myth,” Wind-Eye responded, his face troubled. “It tells of a time when the moon above will turn blood red, and the wolves that walk like men will walk the land. The prophecy tells of other signs that precede the Bloodmoon, but they are not all easily interpreted.” He shook his head. “Let us speak about this at another time. For now, you are to prove your strength.” Fen was silent for a time.
“I’ll go, then,” she said finally. “You go back to the village. There’s no need to wait for me here in the cold.” Korst nodded.
“I’ll see you off.” Fen did not respond, but offered him a small nod of thanks as she turned and stepped carefully onto the ice.
Her boot slid slightly, but the hard soles managed to grip the ice as she slowly made her way toward the flaming heart of Lake Fjalding. She could hear the ice straining under her as she grew closer to the fire, and the heat scorched her face and left her back very cold. When she was within a stone’s throw of the pillar of fire, she heard the ice begin to crack under the combined stress of her weight and the heat from the fire. Fen glanced back – Korst Wind-Eye was nowhere to be seen.
As quickly as she could on the cracking ice, Fen loosened her cloak and lay it on a rock protruding from the water. She pulled her boots and woolen stockings off her feet, then filled her lungs with air and let the ice give way and send her sliding into the icy water.
Remembering her mistake the last time she had ventured into Solstheim’s water, Fen cast a Mark and, clutching her boots in one hand, dove into the lake, suddenly finding herself in a cone of warmth. She glanced up – through the rippled distortion of the water, she could see the fire, seemingly floating atop the surface, but somehow casting its heat down below.
Turning away and clutching her boots in one hand, Fen kicked down to the floor of the lake, where a cave entrance was concealed in a rock directly beneath the fire. She swam through a narrow tunnel, then found herself emerging in an ice cave similar to the ones she had entered during the Ritual of the Standing Stones. Wringing out her sopping braid and tying it up under a scarf to dry, Fen glanced around, her toes curling on the cold, slick ice. The cavern was very dark, and she could just barely see the sparse light reflected off the glassy, ice walls. She cast a small fire spell in the palm of her hand and dangled her stockings over it to dry them, then pulled them over her icy feet, lacing up her boots behind.
Fen drew Trueflame, slowly advancing forward into the dark, silent cave. She soon began to meet more of the draugr, the humanoid once-Nords that came at her with tiny, pointed teeth and glowing eyes, their limbs dangling and bones jutting from tears in their leathery, cracked skin. Most of them were quickly cut down with a spell or a swing from Trueflame, and Fen soon found herself working into a rhythm, as she often did when traveling through a cave.
Some time passed. Fen guessed that it had to be late into the afternoon by the time she reached a much smaller, narrower cavern that led her into a round, dark room chiseled in the ice. She advanced slowly, Trueflame crusted with draugr blood and casting a spiky orange light into the slick ice floor. The only other light in the room emanated from what looked like an enormous magical barrier opposite her, offering a distorted view of the tunnel beyond and casting a strange, hazy purple glow over a tattered bedroll and a worn table, the only other articles in the room. Fen stopped, watching her breath rising before her, as she noticed a shape outlined against the pale glow of the barrier, a crippled, stooped shape that seemed to be breathing slowly.
“You are brave or foolish to enter this place, Dunmer.” The voice was low and frail, like an old man upon his deathbed. Fen narrowed her eyes and lowered Trueflame, trying to see better in the limited light from the portal that blocked off the next tunnel. “But I sense a bit of wisdom in you...perhaps. I might kill you where you stand, were you to try and keep me from my task, but there are more dangerous things in these caves then this poor soul.” The figure turned, and though Fen could only see a worn leather helmet and glowing eyes from the outline of the barrier, she knew at once that this had to be the draugr lord Aesliip.
“What task would that be?” she asked slowly, her fingers tightening over Trueflame’s hilt.
“I have been in this cave for many centuries. The draugr you met in this place are not my kin. Mindless creatures, driven only by desire for living flesh. My story is quite different.
“I was once a mage, of the people who call themselves the Skaal. I was powerful, mortal. Powerful beyond their reckoning. But I strayed. I delved into the black arts, became learned in the ways of necromancy. When this was discovered, I was cast out by my people. Alone, I wandered to this place.” Aesliip turned his head to gaze upon the barrier, and Fen could see his profile in the purple glow, half-rotted and gouged with festering wounds, empty eyes in hollow sockets, a cracked jaw and split lips that barely covered yellowed, sharpened teeth.
“I continued to learn what I could of the ways of the living flesh and the energies that animate,” he continued, turning back so that his mangled face was in shadow. “I became a summoner, I communicated with the Daedra. It was then I learned of their machinations, their plans to destroy my people.”
“What plans?” Fen asked suspiciously.
“A group of Frost Daedra had taken up residence deep in the bowels of this island. I thought at first that it was my doing, that I had somehow summoned these fiends. But they were beyond my abilities. I learned that they would wipe this island clean of life, slaughter my people and all we held dear. I knew I must act.
“I tried to warn my people, but I was an empty voice to them, as though I were dead. So I used my magic to erect a barrier deep in this ice, strong enough to contain these Daedra and keep them from overrunning the island. The barrier held; for years I maintained it. But I grew old, and I knew that my death would mean the death of all life on Solstheim.” Aesliip exhaled, and no air rose from his bruised and torn lips – there was no breath in his lungs to breathe.
“My life had to be extended, so I used my knowledge of the black arts, and I turned myself into the creature you see before you. A Draugr. Eater of Flesh. But my life was infinite. I could keep the barrier intact so that my people might survive. And now you appear. To kill me, perhaps? You may have the power, but perhaps you have a greater purpose here.”
“What purpose is that?”
“Fight with me, Dunmer,” the draugr said suddenly, his hazy, glowing eyes wide. “Together we might vanquish these creatures, send them back to their unholy plane. I will lower the barrier, and we will cleanse the land of this scourge.”
There was silence, filled only by the faint humming of the strange purplish haze that sealed the caverns beyond. Fen had been tasked by the Skaal to kill Aesliip. But they had neglected to tell her of his past. Korst mentioned a Bloodmoon Prophecy, Fen thought, staring into the draugr’s waiting eyes. And now Aesliip is warning of some sort of dark scourge. It couldn’t be a coincidence.
“You’ll get this sorted out, then these people will know that you’re the one they need to look to.” Fen whipped her head around, staring at the space behind her – it was empty, nothing but a dark, icy tunnel. And yet she had heard the words again clear as the day Julan had first spoken them to her, at the Day of Lights Festival in Mournhold. Perhaps your friend is trying to communicate something to you.
“We will fight these creatures together,” Fen said calmly, turning back to Aesliip, and the draugr bobbed his head in acknowledgement.
“This is wise,” he murmured, turning to face the barrier. He raised one skeletal, half-rotted hand and pressed it into the whirling energy there. “I will lower the barrier that keeps the demons at bay. You and I will be victorious, as the lives of all those above are forfeit if we are not.” A hole formed in the barrier around Aesliip’s hand, and the purple matter melted away until they were left in darkness, the gaping mouth of the tunnel awaiting them. “You will lead,” Aesliip told her, taking a step back. “I will watch for the ones that will surely follow us.”
And so Fen led the way into the deep inner halls of the caverns beneath Lake Fjalding, the hunched draugr by her side. Between Aesliip’s long, lethal claws and Fen’s spellcasting, the Frost Atronachs that inhabited the caverns were dispatched fairly easily. When they had slain the last daedra that lurked in the shadowy, dark corners, Aesliip turned to Fen, his empty eyes grim.
“You have done a great service for the people of this island,” he told her, his voice as harsh as ever. “You will never know how well it is appreciated.” Fen stared upward, knowing that there were more tunnels overhead, and above that, the tall depths of the lake. And above that, the pillar of fire that Fen instinctively knew still burned on.
“I am sorry that I came here with intentions to kill you,” she said finally, and the draugr nodded.
“Many things in this place are not at all as they seem, Dunmer. You would do well to remember that.” Then, quite suddenly, the creature folded in on itself and crumpled to the icy floor of the cavern, immobile. The lights in its eyes were gone, leaving a shrunken, emaciated corpse in its wake.
Not wanting to linger in the frozen, empty caves, Fen cast recall and found herself on the edge of the lake once more, standing beside her cloak and robe on the thin ice beside the pillar of fire. She quickly gathered up her things and made her way back to the shore, looking back at the flames that still rose high into the gathering twilight. She swung her cloak over her shoulders and sat down on a large, flat rock, despite the gathering cold. She sat in silence, staring up at the moons slowly rising up from the horizon.
“I never was one for the cold.” Fen turned her head, hardly daring to believe it. Yet there he was, in the same glass armour he had died in, standing by the lapping water on the shore of Lake Fjalding. Her breath caught in her throat. She was afraid to move. Afraid it would make him vanish. Julan looked back at her. “Why are you here, Fen? Why are you in Solstheim?” Fen looked down at her hands and clenched them to keep them from shaking.
“I – I don’t…” she looked up, and found she was alone again, sitting on a cold rock on the shore of an even colder lake. 

No comments:

Post a Comment