1. This site uses cookies. By continuing to use this site, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. Learn More.

Dragon's Light: A Wild Bear Chase - Chapter Five

by Aritheanie

I rushed back into my room at the Silverhome, picked up my bow and light shield, then paused. I didn’t know what conditions awaited me on the island, and the man I was attempting to rescue, wherever he might be in the place was unlikely to be in good shape, if I’d read Kurdan’s character aright. I frowned, and decided to add more healing potions and some dry rations to my belt pouches.

I fished out two boxes from my pack, one small, one larger and wider. Opening the larger box first, I traced my finger across the multiple vials of potions, nestled in velvet cushioning. These were my own homebrews, including some meant specifically for ‘difficult’ situations — ordinarily I wouldn’t use them because the ingredients were either costly or hard to obtain. I couldn’t ignore the feelings of impending doom I was having, however; and after hesitating I started pulling various potions from the box. Two vials of the brew I called “run like hell” that healed, restored energy and made the drinker invisible for a short time; another potion that dispelled curses and shielded the drinker from physical harm, a little something for tight spots, a few doses of invisibility…

After I’d packed my belt pouches with all the potions I needed, I opened the first box. The glint of the dull brass rings and amulet in the low lighting greeted me. Not for the first time, I was grateful that Clesyne had given me this set of jewellery: the amulet held an enchantment of nighteye; whilst the rings had spells that constantly cast a general shield against harm and relieved fatigue once triggered. I momentarily regretted that none of the enchanted jewellery I’d been given conferred a chameleon effect or powers of invisbility; that would have been really useful right around now. I shelved the thought to bring up with Clesyne later, and simply put on the various pieces on, making sure they were hidden by my clothes and armour.

I lingered a little longer over my box of potions, before regretfully deciding I was as ready as I could be, given the unknown circumstances I had to deal with. Thumping down the stairs, I let Gilgondorin know where I was headed to, and reminded the innkeeper of his promise to send word to my sister if I didn’t turn up in the next two days. I ignored Gilgondorin’s tactful suggestions that involving myself in the affair was pure stupidity, and hustled out of the door.

The magic shop Kurdan had mentioned being next to the waterfront and docks was A Warlock’s Luck. I started off on a fast jog, that landmark firmly fixed in mind. I recalled it to be nearly straight down the street I was on; the shop was at the very end of it. Reaching my goal, I proceeded past it, turning towards the docks and where I assumed the boat would be, near the wooden steps that led to the river’s edge.

Kurdan was already there, with a Khajiit next to him already sitting and waiting in the boat, both with an oar to either side. I noted, with some unease that the cat-man had a hunting bow slung over his shoulder, the well-cared for weapon showing marks of long use and handled in a way that meant its owner knew his business.

“I’d have think you wouldn’t care to m-be here, Kurdan,” I said. “You asked me to get your axe, and I will. No need for you to come along.”

“I’d rather know where you are on that island, pretty Breton. Can’t have you running off with my family’s axe, can I? No silly ideas about holding it for ransom either.” The orc’s smile was a cruel thing that made me feel a chill. The thought of holding his axe as surety to let myself and Aleron Loche go had crossed my mind, briefly, but if it hadn’t been an option then, it surely wasn’t now with him watching me.

“You going to follow me all the way into the ruins, then?” I disliked that thought immensely. Last thing I wanted was a huge clumsy warrior behind me that I couldn’t trust not to put a blade in my back, clumping along inviting unfriendly attention and setting off traps. I’d rather have his Khajiit — underling? Partner? — with me, if it came to that. At least the Khajiit knew how to move stealthily from kittenhood; I doubted that Kurdan could manage it.

“Don’t be stupid, woman. If I’d wanted to go myself, why’d I tell you to go get it for me then? Nah, I’m just going to be here, with the only way off the island. If you’re thinking of swimming…The slaughterfish along this stretch of the Bay tend to be rather frisky. Heh heh!”

With that comforting thought, our boat bumped and scraped up on the gravelly bed of the shore of the small island which was dominated by the fort, or rather, its ruins. I got out of the boat as soon as I could, and looked around, ignoring the orc and Khajiit who were behind me, busily tying up the boat to the small wooden jetty that abutted on the shore.

The exterior of the fort was a bleak place, with great stones from the ruined walls and keep scattered all over the landscape, mostly bare, rocky ground, relieved only by scattered patches of green, long grasses.

“There’s the entrance to the Fort. The axe is in the center, if yer remember what I told you earlier.” Kurdan jerked his thumb in a direction I assumed meant towards an entrance.

“Is Aleron Loche he — he — here on the island?” I asked. The Orc shrugged, and waved a hand.

“I grow tired of your questions. Go find my axe, woman.”

Clearly I wasn’t going to get anything further of use out of him. Time to get to work, indeed.

I carefully walked around the area of the ruined fort and its keep, noting various distinctive points of interest and orienting myself. Parts of the old fortress were now underwater, where the tides had washed against stone and mortar, wearing both down. A locked metal gate barred the way into the fort, and my attempts to pick the lock were foiled by the rust that blocked the keyhole.

Cursing, I started looking for another way to get in. Was the asshole greenskin playing a trick on me?

It took a while and much searching amongst the tumbled before I found a switch of sorts, hidden on the ground amongst the flagstones. Hoping it would open the gates, I turned the wooden handle, wincing at the sound the gate made as it opened. Success! I stepped through the gate, and entered into the ruins of a large circular tower, presumably once the main keep of the fort. Skeletons littered the ground, overgrown with grass and lichen between the cracked paving stones, and the wind moaned and whistled through the cracks and crannies of the crumbled walls. I could almost believe this place was indeeed haunted and there were ghosts just out of sight.

“Oh no…” A wavering voice came from behind me. I spun, startled, hand going to my knife; I breathed out again in relief when I saw who had spoken: an aging Breton man, the scant dark hair he had left already greying. He was dressed simply in fishing waders over a yellowing shirt and leather sandals. He looked solid enough and non-ghostly, if rather pale and worried; his eyes were sunken with large, dark bags under them, as though he had only a little sleep recently.

“Aleron Loche?” The man nodded his head, seemingly momentarily relieved, before his hangdog expression took over again.

“Did Kurdan send you? Are you here to kill me?” The bluntness of the question was shocking.

“What? N-no! Your v-vv-wife, she —” I floundered.

“Ursanne?” Aleron breathed. “No, no, no! Kurdan has her too? Where is she?

“No, no, he doesn’t. Your wife ash — asked me to find you. Kurdan said he’d tell me where you were if I found his axe for him.”

Aleron burst out laughing then, a mirthless sound that sounded more hysterical than amused. I wondered if the strain of being here in Kurdan’s power had turned his brains.

“Divines, of course she’s found a lackwit to come looking for me, of course she did! What luck!” He burst into laughter again even as I bit back an angry retort. “Only a fool would’ve fallen for Kurdan’s story — a fool, just like me, ha ha!”

I refrained from grabbing him by the collar, though I was sorely tempted to see if shaking him hard might shake some sense out of the babbling. “What are you talking about?”

“I was such an idiot to believe him, same as you did, we’re both idiots.” He wheezed another sound that sounded closer to tears than laughter. “It appears as though Kurdan has tricked another poor soul with his ‘axe’ story.”

” ‘Axe’ story?”

Aleron’s face was grim and white under the brown tan of his complexion. “How haven’t you guessed it yet? There never was any Axe of Dragol. It was just a ruse to lure you out here, the hunter setting out bait for a fox.” The sinking feeling in my stomach was back, and it brought its friend nausea to play, even as Aleron continued in a voice devoid of anything resembling emotion: “In my case, he told me if I retrieved the axe, he’d forgive my debts.” My right hand began to tingle and grow numb, and my breath grew quicker along with my heartbeat. I barely heard the end of Aleron Loche’s words over the roaring in my ears.

“He’d marked me out for his next victim, but then you came after me, like he hoped someone would… You’re now the prey in Kurdan’s insane hunt, just like I am. And here, we’ll most likely die.”

I froze there while I struggled to take in the implications of what I’d just heard. A hunt? What was there around here to hunt, and who was doing the hunting? Oh.

“We need to get out go now!” I snapped, seizing the older man and hauling him along towards the gate. Shit, Aleron Loche didn’t look physically fit at all… I was calculating the fastest route back through the rocks and scree to the jetty and its wooden boat, wondering where Kurdan and his Khajiit lackey could be hiding, perhaps watching us. “Come on!”

The man simply dug in his heels and refused to move more than the few steps I’d managed to drag him. I turned around, ready to blister his ears with swearwords. What the hell was he doing? Was he hanging around to try and get us both killed?

“Don’t bother. The door to this place is now locked — they’ll have locked it as soon as you came in here. I hope you can fight. It’s our only chance of escaping alive.” The only way to get out alive — Aleron’s words were disheartening, but if I were honest with myself, I’d come here, expecting treachery of some sort, though I hadn’t expected this level of perversity in the Orc. Perhaps I should have.

Bother it all! What I really wanted to do right now was turn around, find some way to get to the water’s edge and jump into the bay, take my chances with the slaughterfish of the Niben. It sounded better than whatever dark hints Aleron Loche had been babbling about.

Thing was, I was supposed to bring Aleron back to his wife, and I took that to mean in decent condition, or as decent as I could manage under the circumstances. Right now, that meant sitting the man down from his nervous pacing, building a small fire, feeding him with the rations I brought, and making sure he washed them down with a dose of calming potion. After I’d ensured his nerves were settled, I began pumping him for information, which he was glad to part with.

“Look, on the surface Kurdan looks like he’s mostly legitimate, right? He lends money and charges interest on it, and if his rates are high, and end up higher than just about everyone else, who cares? At least that’s what he likes to pretend he’s doing.” Aleron Loche’s voice was animated with sheer bitter venom, nearly spitting on every mention of Kurdan’s name. “I can tell you now, Kurdan doesn’t make most of his money being a simple usurer.” Here he lapsed into a dour silence, his body visibly trembling even hunched over as he was.

“Where does he get he septims then?” I prompted the man.

“Hunting.” Aleron’s face twisted into a sneer.

“Hunting?” A hunt, and we were the prey… Such a remote location, with no one who would miss the victims… and anyone who came looking for them. I shivered, though the fire and the warmth of the day were still strong.

Aleron nodded, staring into the dying flames, jumping a little whenever a particularly loud crackle was heard. “You get it now, don’t you? He didn’t just invent new and creative ways to extort money in the guise of usury, he also invented what he calls the Hunter’s Run, that’s what makes him most of his fortune. People pay him a great deal of money to hunt and kill living, human prey however they want. No questions asked, and he takes care of the bodies. He uses the dungeons under Fort Grief as the hunting grounds. I was placed here because he knew someone would go looking for me.” He stopped, before looking up at me.

“It’s wrong of me maybe, but — I’m glad you’re here.” He waved me off as I opened my mouth. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry you got mixed up in all of this; I truly am, but I’m not sorry that it’s you here. Not if it means my wife is safe.” He looked defiant, even as I stared back at him. I could feel a nervous excitement of my own that trembled through my limbs, and I resisted the urge to get up from the rock I sat on and start pacing myself, like Aleron himself had earlier.

Perhaps I should dose myself with that calming potion too, then my hand could stop tingling; it was quite irritating… Oh wait. I only brought the one dose. Pity.

“We need to get out of here, and get you to her and away from this place,” I murmured, and louder, “So how does one ess-scape Kurdan’s hos-hosbi-” I gave up, even as Aleron Loche’s face grew more and more pinched. “Out of Kurdan’s hands?” I finished, lamely, any mood to joke extinguished by the unbelieving despair writ large in the man’s face. I hadn’t forgotten he’d called me a lackwit on our meeting, and so I must seem to him, stumbling over something so simple as speech.

“The only way to get out is by descending into the Hunter’s Run and killing the hunters. One of them will have the key to the door. That’s Kurdan’s rules. It’s the only way we can win.”

“How m-many hunters?” I asked.

“I don’t know, three, five? They blindfolded me for the trip across and it was dark when they left me here.” He twisted his fingers together in a nervous habit I recognised from his wife and finally burst out, “I wish I could help more, but I can’t fight, I’ve never held a weapon before in my life! I can’t… blood, oh gods, I — I don’t want to die — get us out of here please — please!” Aleron’s face was a study in miserable fear.

“I don’t want t-to, either.” I smiled at him, trying to soothe him even as my own stomach twisted with nerves like snakes. “I have a sister to get back to. I’ll do my best.”

“Kurdan is treacherous. Be wary, friend.” I mm-ed absently, running a last check of my inventory.

“Stem out the embers, and then t-try to cover, stay out of sight.” I stripped off my left gauntlet, removed the ring on that hand, then fumbled around in my pouch and handed him the strongest invisibility potion I had with me. “Invisibility potion, take it if you get seen. Ring’s shield against harm, you know how use?” Loche nodded. “I’ll come back for you when I’ve got the key.” I bent over and removed my boot knife, pressing it into Aleron’s hand. “Hold it like this. Fast teach: Pointy end in other man, see? Try for the soft bits like eyes or stones where you can.” He paled, but gripped the knife harder. “Stab or cut away from yourself. And I’d like my knife back, but if you end up fighting for it, for Talos’s sake don’t let the enemy get hold of the weapon, throw it away if you have to.” He nodded, rather uncertainly. “Chin up, we’ll get out, all right? You’ll see your f-ff- wife again. Wait for me.”

I left him there, hoping he could manage to stay out of sight somehow; hopefully Kurdan and whoever he’d brought to the party were fully focused on me and not him, the poor sod. For an instant, I thought of turning around and going back for him, getting Aleron to follow me into the dungeon. Reason soon reasserted itself though; Aleron Loche was old, untrained and had never been in a fight; he was a liability even if he wasn’t following behind me and bumping into me every three paces, alerting however many people Kurdan had waiting.

Now was likely the best time to trigger the enchantments on my ring and amulet, before I encountered any enemies. A quick breath out, in, out again, then in, focus. Magic within, concentrated, building like a storm. Ignore the growing pain, let it build further…

I released the gathered power, and tried not to scream as what felt like thousands of little burning sparks licked across my skin. Gods damn but that feeling never got any less worse, even when you knew it was coming! The feeling settled into a steady prickle marking the sensation peculiar to active magic; I breathed hard, squinting against the glare of a night eye enchantment active in full light.

If only… I tried to remember what using magic and enchanted objects had once been like without pain, and couldn’t.

I shook my head, took a deep breath, and ran down the stairs that lead into the keep’s bowels.

The first obstacle in my way was a stout wooden door of oak, its timbers cross braced and barred, with a heavy iron door ring. It was unlocked, however, and I opened it, inwardly swearing as the door groaned and creaked on its hinges, swinging inwards. From the half opened gap, I saw that the door opened onto a long corridor, lit with a few torches at the end where there was a stairway. I slipped through as soon as the opening was wide enough to admit me, and shut the door as gently as possible. The door closing still made a heavy clunk, but not as loud as the thunk from outside that made me whip around, heart beating rapidly. I pushed against the door, as hard as I could muster, but to no avail— the door was barred from the outside.

There would be no returning that way. Resigned, I faced forwards to whatever was coming next. I crept along the walls, going by feel as much as sight. The shadows were thick and the air musty and damp; I rubbed at my nose a little as it’d started to itch.

Some ways in, a locked ironwork gate was set into the wall on my left. I peered through the bars, noting that it seemed to hold stone furniture and some barrels. I tested the lock, wondering if I could pick it, but the lock proved impossible to move with picks alone.

Moving on, I stepped around a large crack in the stone flooring, before descending the stairs, which weren’t very long. So far, so good; all that was visible from the faint light of the torches above were more stone walls. The path ahead was long and faded off into the darkness; a split off to the right led behind a corner I couldn’t see around from where I was standing. Go right, or stay in the present direction?

Going right seemed to be the more appealing choice; from previous explorations in similar ruins, I didn’t think that there would be a long passageway in that direction; a short way at most. If it did prove to stretch for a considerable length, I could retrace my steps. Thus decided, I took that way. I kept myself on alert, expecting to be set on at any moment.

A dozen steps or so in, and I met my first hunter. The Imperial rushed me, bellowing as he slashed madly with the shortsword he carried as I ducked and dodged his swings, drawing my sword as I went.

No shield and light leather armour, no helm, heavyset build. Wild pattern of attacks, with little science behind his movements: this one clearly was all about the offensive and a shite fighter to boot, who didn’t seem to know how to deal with anything that could actually fight back. The number of gaps he left open was incredible and the way he signalled every move before he made it — I felt vaguely insulted. The poor fool actually left his right side open to attack every other swing or so, and didn’t seem to even realise it. By the Sword of Ebonarm, may all the gods of war and battles curse me for a fool, if I didn’t take advantage of that stupidity!

I brought up my shield and blocked a blow that’d gotten close, quickly falling back as I reassessed his prowess. That blow had been powerful — not quite enough to impair, but strong enough to cause me worry — I had more skill, but he’d have the advantage once he tired me past the point my ring’s magic could replenish. Time to finish this; there were an unknown number of enemies left to fight, the less time spent on this cretin the better.

I parried another blow aimed at my head, threw a punch at his face in riposte and waited for my chance, angling my blade upwards and to the left. There! The Imperial’s reckless move to follow through earned him a foot of good Colovian steel through the right of his chest. The sword made a terrible rasping crunch as it grated past his ribcage. A gurgle, a wet cough, and he went limp, dragging my sword blade downwards as the fresh corpse slid off the blade.

One down, two or four more to go. Excellent. Searching the corpse produced a key and random small coins, which I pocketed — the dead man surely had no need of it any more after all.

Now where might the lock I needed to open be? My guess was, wherever it was lay further ahead.

Onwards, then. I just hoped that Aleron Loche was staying out of trouble above ground.

Slogging through the dungeon was cold and nasty, among other descriptions. Here and there, parts of the passageways I had to go through were underwater, meaning I had to swim to get to the next patch of dry ground. I kept a wary eye on the ground for trap triggers. The occasional mouldering skeleton of some poor sod broke the monotony of dirt on stone, and did nothing to ease my tense nerves. Here and the occasional hidden and not so hidden chest (those were booby-trapped of course) was set out, presumably to aid the hunters and whatever prey they were after, prolonging the ‘game’. I saw no reason not to leave those unraided — less help for them meant more chances of living for me, and I looted any useful potions and gear I could carry, ruining the rest.

Apart from being wet and chilled, I worried about the trail of mud and water I was leaving behind me; not even an invisibility potion could hide water once it dripped off my person. On the bright side, I found a nirnroot growing in a crevice, wonder of wonders.

Traversing the corridors, I encountered a Breton, who made life tricky with his fireballs; two dosed arrows to his legs left him on the ground moaning. Those moans soon quieted.

I didn’t usually poison my weapons. Such methods were distasteful in outright combat — if my aunt Siona could see me now, by Leki would I ever be in for it! — then again, any notion of fairness in this situation had gone right out of the equation before I’d set foot on this blasted island. I needed every advantage I could get here, and if it meant bending honour in battle, so be it.

Rummaging through the deceased’s pockets produced a second key, which I noticed was different from the first one.

Here was an interesting conundrum: Two men, two different keys. That suggested that one must be the correct copy; with no way to know which was the right key, I’d have to face and fight however many hunters were down here. A less likely option would be that I’d need all of the keys from all the hunters just to get the locked door open. In any case, unless I could question one of them, I was stuck with trying to find all of the hunters and taking their keys.

“Kurdan’s rules, one hunter should have the key to the door”. Thank you for that load of horse shit, Aleron.

The long twisting corridors continued; I spotted the first signs of a trap overhead, just before I crossed a long bridge across a gap of sorts. Soon I was picking my way through a set of swinging mace traps, rolling and tucking as sharp spikes and heavy wood swished overhead. I breathed hard as I cleared the last one, trying to regain my bearings before standing up, then walking onwards up another set of stairs. Was there no end to the stairs in this place? The old-time Legions seemed too bloody fond of the things here.

The rasp of steel on leather saved me from being surprised and skewered.

“Fuck!” Swing — miss. I struck out again — hit! My opponent, a huge brawny Nord shrugged it off like a dog does a flea.

The Nord brayed laughter as he swung again. His longsword and height gave him a large advantage in terms of reach, and meeting his sword, edge to flat, all but numbed my arms with the impact. I scrambled back, grunting as I blocked his rain of blows before freezing, and then flailing forward as I felt my left heel step back into nothing. I rolled forward, feeling the pain of a sharp slice to the shoulder. Up again, dodge, dodge, bash his chest with the shield, duck, try to take his feet from out under him — fail.

I had to get him over the edge of that pit, but how?

We both circled around each other, a tight orbit staying well away from the edge and the drop to a sharp end, breathing hard, weapons up and ready. There was loose gravel all over where we were fighting — if I could get him to lose his footing I might have a chance.

Feint left, cut to the right; duck down — left, left!

My left hand, full of grit-laden gravel all but slammed right into his face. The massive brute howled, swinging in arcs grown larger and wilder. I wove around and under, as he stumbled blindly to where he thought I was. I stuck a foot out. The man stumbled into it and tripped. A sweeping kick to his feet, and over he went, gravel crunching, dust flying, accompanied by a scream and snapping wood, as I rolled away from the edge my enemy hadn’t been able to see. Silence.

I waited for the dust to settle further, before peering over the edge of the pit. The man was spread-eagled, the sharp-pointed stakes at the bottom poking through his chest. The poison on the stakes was dark and highly visible to my nighteye enhanced vision, the plop-plop-plop sound of blood trickling down the only break in the silence. I shuddered and turned away before losing the contents of my stomach.

Wiping my mouth against the back of my gauntlet, spitting to remove the dust and sour taste from my mouth, I squared my shoulders and slowly walked back to the edge of the pit, before carefully dropping down into it to search the dead man. I still had to get the key from this one.

Clutching the bloody key, I clambered out, once again thankful for my training in acrobatics. The smell of blood still filled my nose. As I’d expected, this third key was yet again different from the two already in my possession. Did each hunter have their own particular exit from this place? Or — the clarity of this thought broke in on me — did any of them even have the right key? Kurdan had shown himself treacherous; I could easily imagine him controlling who got in and out and when.

Still nothing I could do about it in that case though, except continue to play on in this perversion of a game. Nine rot the bastards who were down here thinking this was good fun!

Two more Imperials attempted to ambush me with a rockslide: I surprised them instead with their own prepared trap. The muffled screaming was unpleasant.

I continued on, turning down a corner and hastily backing out of it again, as darts whistled past. Shit, must’ve been a pressure plate; ah, no, it was a trip wire.

I could just hear my sister scolding me in my head, upbraiding me for my lapse of attention. I breathed in deeply to settle my nerves after the scare I’d had, and then realised that the air smelled funny.

Vapour misted thinly across my vision. Gas!

I turned tail and sped back down the hallway, already starting to feel my nose and throat burn and tighten. Thrusting a hand into my waist pouch, I fumbled out vial after vial, vision blurring from lack of air and sharp pangs of nausea. After what seemed an eternity, I managed to find the general poison cure I had stored and choked that down, coughing and wheezing.

Slowly I managed one whole breath, and then another, eyes tearing. Whatever that gas had been, it was nasty. The curative had taken care of most of it, but I still felt weak, nauseated, and was seeing double, as though I’d just been concussed. Shooting my bow would be a lot harder in this condition.

I got back to my feet, waiting half-crouched for the world to slow down its spinning into something reasonably stationary, then stumbled back the way I’d come; I’d managed to notice another flight of stairs headed downwards towards the end of the corridor before the gas and darts.

My head was pounding by the time I made it to the door at the end of the corridor. Sinking down in front of it to rest for a while, I closed my eyes, massaging my head and scalp willing the pain and nausea to ease. I could not have said how long I stayed there, slumped against the door, but I felt better for the break.

Up again — slowly — and then I started trying every key I’d collected. One of them worked, the lock clicking open. I swung the door open, and stepped through to whatever awaited.

A steep stairway, slippery with lichen, fortunately well lit by torches, led downwards. I was highly cautious now: were I Kurdan, I’d have kept the better hunters back for this juncture. Whoever else was left down here, probably was a harder foe than the five I’d dispatched above.

Several blind corridors and crumbled stones later, then being startled by a rat, I was starting to get rather grumpy. Finding a mostly clear passageway, I advanced cautiously. This time I saw the gas wisping upwards from a pot on the ground — and a pressure plate I absolutely couldn’t avoid stepping on due to the narrowness of the passageway. More darts and poison fumes. Marvellous.

The air down here was still, though, which meant whatever noxious vapours that were being emitted, were staying fairly stationary. I looked at the pressure plate, and the distance between it and the gas. I should be able to make it through the darts just holding my breath, if I moved fast and carefully. Tall order, given my head was still swimming from my last encounter with the vapour, but needs must.

A last look to assess the line of attack, a linen rag from my pouch wrapped across my mouth and nose, and go!.

Nearing the fuming pot, I started hugging closer to the walls, narrowing my eyes to slits, breathing fast and shallowly. One deep gasp of air and I was sprinting for dear life.

One, two, jump — and I was through to the other side, the misty vapour scarcely shifting even as I leaped past it to temporary safety and clean air. Darts thunked into my shield or hissed harmlessly by. I kept on running, and was soon clear.

I examined my armour for any stray darts, fearing being poisoned by accident, and regretting not bringing more poison cures. A deep basso growl alerted me to the fact that I was no longer alone.

“Must be getting slow if I’m only just catching up to you, maggot. Seems I better cut down on the ale!” I stabbed at him but had to abort the move as the heavy mace head nearly made contact with my face. Several more swings of my sword won a grunt; I’d pinked him nicely on the forearm. “You’ve some spirit in you. I like that!” A charge that I sidestepped, slashing at the Orc again. He laughed, and paused to lick the blood off his arm.

The Orc wielded his huge mace effortlessly, like it was part of his arm. I was in no mood to appreciate his fine display of fighting skills however, since I was too busy avoiding the blunt and painful death the mace-strokes promised. A sharp pain went up my left arm as my shield broke.

“Let’s get this over with!” The greenskin sounded cheerful as his heavy shield slammed into my face. I turned my head aside at the last moment, letting the cheek pieces of my helm catch the main force of the blow. Everything spun and my head rang like a bell, no breath left as I hit the ground. I licked my lips, which were suddenly, painfully dry. A booted foot rolled me over.

The Orc was grinning down at me. Bastard didn’t even have the decency to look winded.

“Beg, little maggot, and I might just let you live a little longer. Until I’m done with you.” I didn’t want to think what he meant by that.

If I was going to die here — hell, so be it. But I wasn’t going to beg. I was of the Hillfolk, no matter how many years I’d been away from home, and begging in any form was unthinkable.

I spoke slowly, both to make sure I got my words right, and to cover up any sound that might give away what I was doing… “Can’t. Your mama never taught me how.”

The Orc roared — and charged forwards, mace readied to end me then and there. It also brought him nicely within range for me to kick him in the balls. He doubled over, and I sunk a dagger into his arm, rolling away as he sank to his knees. I watched, intent, as paralysis overtook him.

“The key to out.” I pointed upwards. “Who? You?” The Orc spat in my face. I wiped my face, and stared back at him. The poison should be creeping its way up now towards his chest. Soon he showed the first signs of hyperventilation, as he found himself getting short of air.

I held my bow up, making sure he could see it; he was fading rapidly. That’s the trick of it; the bigger the target, the faster the poison worked to choke off their air supply. “There’s no cure for you except die. I’ll end it fast if you say what I question you, or you can choke to death. Slowly.”

The Orc chose to die in slow silence.

I didn’t bother to stay and watch.

I wandered about a little, until I stumbled onto a passageway, this one long and made of hard packed earth and not stone. It looked newer than the rest of the ruins — an addition made by Kurdan? It seemed to be fairly straight and slanted upwards. Upwards was good. My head was killing me, as was my arm — I suspected the bone there was cracked, and would need the attentions of the closest healer or priest to mend properly when I got back to Bravil. For now though, I swigged a healing potion that eased the soreness and cleared my vision somewhat, and munched on a handful of dried fruit. That would have to tide me over until later.

The passageway was long and winding, but blessedly free of traps and hunters — I dared to believe I’d actually gotten them all, and really, 6 hunters in this spot was surely the limit?

Hiss-thunk! I jerked back as the arrow thudded uncomfortably close to my feet. Where —

Shit. I really should’ve expected this. Kurdan’s Khajiit friend was here guarding what definitely looked like the way out. I backed up, behind the bend I just passed, spitting out a stream of oaths as I stowed my bow, which miraculously had taken little damage and not been lost so far through the fighting. Against my other opponents, I’d had a slim advantage in that my amulet granted me superior night vision; the Khajiit’s night vision was probably better than mine, magical facsimile of the Khajiiti natural gift that it was.

Bow against bow in the dark; a contest of speed and nerve. Well fuck that. Did he really think I was going to indulge him in a shooting contest? In the dark?

I drew my long knife from its sheath, upending the acrid contents of yet another vial over the blade.

He’d cornered me and then all but announced his presence, stupid move. He’d then failed to come after me further as I retreated, doubly stupid. I wanted to live, more than he wanted to kill me. That Khajiit was going to regret his actions thoroughly in whatever time he had left to live. Poisoned blade in hand, I crouched and charged at full speed, zig-zagging to throw off the Khajiit’s aim.

He sure wasn’t expecting me to charge him — what crazy bastard runs up to an archer with bow already in hand?

That surprise, and the momentary indecision it created cost him. I threw a punch at his head with my left fist, then slashed him with the dagger in my right, across the forearm he’d brought up on instinct, ducking his flailing with the bow; then punched him again in the stomach before slashing at his torso and rolling away. He was already sinking to the floor by the time I came out of my roll.

Stepping over the soon-to-be corpse, now frothing at the mouth, I stooped down and slit his throat. It wasn’t nice, but I had no inclination left to be nice. It’d been a very long day and any goodwill or kindness I had were exhausted. All I really wanted was for this bullshit to be over, the faster the better.

And so the last of Kurdan’s lackeys died. Dumbass.

The exit was close: in fact I nearly smacked straight into it. Definitely needed to stay awake here. The key I’d taken off the dead Khajiit opened it; this door, unlike the others in this ruin opened smoothly and quietly, the creak it made hardly louder than the wind whistling outside. I turned off the night eye enchantment with a profound relief; straightening as the constant tickle of the enchantments lessened dramatically.

I circled around the side of the ruined tower, ready to duck as soon as needed. Kurdan was still out here, for all I knew, unless he’d sodded off back to Bravil already, in which case Aleron Loche and I would be stranded here until he came back.

Puffing up a rise, I dropped down onto my belly as voices came on the wind. I wriggled forward, mentally groaning as I found the situation I least wanted: Aleron Loche, tied up, miserable, bruised and bloody, staring up at Kurdan gro-Dragol. Gods damn it all.

“Don’t expect your pretty Breton saviour — ” he sneered on that last, “to come out of there alive, Loche! Ra’jhera will make sure of that, if nothing else.” Loche said something, but the momentary shift in wind direction made me miss the wording. I winced as Kurdan backhanded the man in reply.

“Now all this stewing in your own misery you’ve been doing’s been fun to watch, but I’m tired of it now. Time to finish it.” The hell he would!

The wind was now blowing towards the two on the lower ground, but not very strongly. The light was fast fading, but I could still see clearly, and little glare. Good conditions for a spot of archery. I stood, drawing as I went and willing my dodgy left arm to hold steady.

Kurdan’s arm arose, dagger in hand, poised for the killing blow.

The hand fell. A scream.

I took the shot.

Kurdan gro-Dragol’s time on Nirn ended on the point of a single arrow.
StellarWind Elsydeon likes this.