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

by Aritheanie

I trudged back into the Merchants’ Inn, sore, cold and feeling more defeated than I liked. The bears were now likely safely rounded up and penned in their warehouse, warm, snug and probably well fed by now, the lucky, lucky beasts, and much joy may Sal’s client have of them!

I didn’t understand what Clesyne was trying to do, really. I ran over the gist of her message to me again, and the recollection just made me feel more and more irritated. “Sorry, won’t make it to you in time, something else’s come up — take the bears on to the City first without me. Love, Clesyne.” What? What in the hell else was this important she couldn’t come and help me wrangle the damn beasts home? Do her damned job?

I shrugged off Velus’s anxious greeting with a grunt — no doubt he was wondering where Clesyne was. I would have absolutely loved to know the answer to that too, but my sister was being unusually mysterious as to her whereabouts. Three weeks now she’d been ahead of me at every turn, never where she was supposed to be, and despite my sending off messages to our usual drops, asking her what in the name of Aetherius and the Divines she thought she was doing, not a word in response.

She’d not done that in years. Not since I’d been injured and she came to my bedside six months after the fact, when I was already awake. I was beginning to wonder if she wasn’t lost in the wilds somewhere, injured or worse. Spriggans. More bears of the local variety. Mountain cats. I cut that train of thought off immediately as I waved for a mug of beer. Probably not the most prudent thing on an empty stomach, but I couldn’t give a scamp’s arse about prudent behaviour at the moment.

I finished the beer, and signalled for another, ignoring Velus’ disapproval that manifested itself in dark looks at my filled tankard, gentle coughs and a vehement polishing of the good pewter. I was still feeling the need to get rip-roaring drunk, but wondered if I shouldn’t get a room to be drunk in — better than going out to find a fight in any case. I had no desire to see the inside of the drunk tank Itius loved threatening people with, not tonight or any other time.

I spared a wish for my previously high levels of alcohol tolerance, then decided that it was as well I was a lightweight nowadays, since the goal here was to get drunk as fast as I could manage. Bugger what Oleta said previously about living a sober life and my old injuries. My sister had as good as run out on me, my boss had just fired me — us, I suppose, but Clesyne wasn’t exactly here to be fired, was she? — all I needed now was to be arrested for real, instead of the fracas of the afternoon. Or see someone killed in front of me or something.

I was somewhere on my third beer of the evening, feeling more and more morose, and considering whether or not to try the brandy Sal (Zenithar empty his pockets and send him the clap!) favoured so much when he went carousing. A disturbance outside the door drew my attention from contemplating the beautiful amber gleam of the liquid in my tankard however.

The door slammed open and the source of the disturbance made its way in. Audens Avidius was in the lead of a passel of Watchmen — and were those Palace Guard? The smarmy son of a netch had a wide smirk on his face that I would dearly love to punch off it.

Oh fucking Tiber Septim dancing on the Numidium. The bastard was heading my way. This could not be any good. I came alert instantly, or as alert as I could considering the amount of beer I’d had, cursing the fact that I’d been drinking this heavily. The one evening I needed my wits around me…

Avidius bustled over to my table, grinning like the cat that ate the canary. “Sirs, this is the woman, Clesyne Aswyth.” What?

“But I’m not Clesyne…” I started to say. Avidius was gloating openly and by Julianos would he just stop it. Sonofabitch. He damn well knew who I was. What in Oblivion was he playing at, lying to a superior officer like this? Velus had stopped his polishing, and was now looking at me, helpless, openly worried. I looked back at him briefly, hoping he would shut up and not interfere. Whatever it was, if Avidius thought he was going to be able to get away with it… best if Velus stayed well out of it. I might have brought trouble to him now just by being here.

I’d been focused on Avidius so much, I jumped a bit when I found myself being addressed by the stern faced Guard Captain. “Are you Clesyne Aswyth, of Daggerfall?”

Clesyne? What did Clesyne have to do with anything? She hadn’t been anywhere near this afternoon’s fracas anyway. “No! I’m not Clesyne. Why —”

Avidius chose to open his mouth again at this point: “She’s lying, Captain, of course she would, she’s a liar through and —” I cut him off with a swing to the jaw. It was wild, sloppy and glanced off the side of his jaw, instead of under it like I’d meant to, but Divines, that felt amazingly good, and he deserved more punches, as many as I could dish out.

“You damned m-mangy diseased s’wit! Stendarr take you for your lies, fetcher!” I jumped onto him, fully intending to throttle the life out of him. The table behind him tipped and crashed from the impact, mixed with the screaming of the patrons and Velus’s shouts. I’d had enough of Audens Avidius, his smirks, his lies, his insinuations, his corruption, his robbing honest merchants and people in the markets, his leering smarminess that left me feeling unclean every time I encountered the sad sack of shit —

Strong arms dragged me back, separating the both of us. I yelled even as I twisted free and managed to get close enough to a wheezing Avidius, before I was pulled back again. I did manage to leave my mark on his face however, raking him hard across the face. The deep bloody scratches on his left cheek and nose was absolutely gratifying. Take that you —

The icy rush of a Paralysis spell snapped me out of my bloodlust in short order. Someone must have caught me since I didn’t hit the floor directly, but was lowered to the ground. My eyes were frozen open, so I was aware of the Guard Captain leaning over me as he beckoned to someone else. “Is this the woman who was spotted during the incident?”

“This woman does look to be her, but there was also report of an identical twin sister…” I began racking my brains, trying to figure out whose attention Clesyne or I might have drawn.

“No matter. She did just assault a member of the City Watch, even if she is uninvolved in the other — matter. Bring her in.” The captain’s words made me queasy. The matter of the bears from the afternoon was settled. What other matter could he be referring to?

There was no leisure to think about it, however, since I was then lifted upright and off the ground. A Calm spell sent me into a lassitude of thought, even as my arms were forced behind me and bound with enchanted shackles that silenced my magicka, muffled any noise I made and drained my energy, so that moving on my own was nearly impossible. I attempted to twitch a finger, and succeeded, barely. The paralysis was obviously beginning to wear off. I then felt the wash of a Command Humanoid spell run over my skin, and my feet began moving without my will.

I managed to turn my head enough to stare at Avidius as I was marched out of the door. He paled a little as I glared at him, then grinned at me, triumphant. The sight made me seethe and long again for his throat under my hands. He swallowed and winced a little — the marks I gave him must have smarted, ha! — and that had to be enough to content me for now.

I was marched onto one of the waiting carts, forced into a seated position, and we were off, jouncing on the cobbles and headed towards the Prison District in silence. The men around me spoke not a word and I of course, was unable to do so. I prayed then to Stendarr, our Lord of Mercy and Justice, begging Him to hear me. Let Avidius’s wrongdoings be found out, and if Stendarr were so kind, that I should be the one to help bring him to true justice at last, in the name of all his swindled and wrongly accused victims through the years.

The cart stopped. I looked around, then lifted my eyes to the tall tower of the Bastion, headquarters of the Imperial Legion. The structure was forbidding, even more so now that a thick fog had set in, and all that was visible of the buildings surrounding it were lit windows in the dark murk. The wind blew in our faces, bringing the smell of the nearby sewers that emptied into the Rumare, as well as that of rotting vegetation. At that moment, Masser broke through the fog and clouds to shine on the tower, rendering it black, brooding against a background of silver. This was my last sight of freedom, as a pair of burly Guardsmen swiftly helped me off the cart, none too gently, and through the doors of the tower in front of us, which was dimly lit at this hour.

I was relieved of my belongings, then marched behind an enclosure by a female guard and told to strip. I was then searched most thoroughly in every cavity, and given a set of rough sackcloth clothes that were no better than rags to put on before my hands were again bound in those enchanted shackles.

The guards were turning me in the direction of what I knew to be the cells on the East side, where common criminals, drunk and disorderly persons and those awaiting trials were held, when another guard came and ordered them to stop. A flurry of murmured orders later and I was turned about-face — to the cells to the West.

I swallowed and stumbled along. The atmosphere was oppressive and growing more so, even as the path began sloping downwards and the stone walls began to look rougher hewn, the air damper, more dank. Itius had once told me those cells were high security, reserved for prisoners awaiting execution, or those deemed a threat to the Empire, too dangerous or otherwise known for deeds of particular infamy, to be held with the common inmates or to be paroled. Solitary confinement was their lot, no visitors allowed, no rights granted, no fixed detention period save for those awaiting execution.

This was where people went when they were forgotten. A chill struck me to the heart. They thought I was Clesyne, or seemed to — damn Avidius!

No reason was given at my arrest save that of assaulting a Watch Captain; surely that offense hardly warranted a stay in these cells? No reason, that is — except those officers had been interested in Clesyne, had asked if I were my sister. This meant that Clesyne was the one the Empire’s finest were looking for. The one who was supposed to be here. In maximum security. No visitors, no rights, detention at the pleasure of his Imperial Majesty.

I thought back to how Clesyne had seemed to be avoiding me for the past two weeks or so. How in the places where I had almost managed to catch up to her, the cities had been in a quiet uproar. It was all very hush-hush, but enough rumours had spread that the populace knew something major had happened. And now it seemed Clesyne, my sister had somehow been entangled in the mess that had Palace agents investigating. By the Nine, what had she gotten us into?

I rolled over on the hard straw pallet that served as a bed, my back to the wall as I looked up at the window. The moonlight from earlier was obscured and the sky dark outside. Who knew what time it was now? I shut my eyes and tried for some sleep, but not before saying a short prayer for my sister’s safety and freedom, wherever she might be.

In the dark, the only company I had was the sound of water. Sleep was long in coming.

I nearly lost track of just how long I was in that cell. The jailor was prompt enough with food and drink — simple bread and water — but remained dumb, even when I demanded to know when I was to be arraigned, or if I were to have a trial. What was I being held for? What crimes had I committed that justified my being here? To each and every query, the jailor returned nothing but a solemn silence. Had my cell not had a window, I would not have known whether it were day or night. It was still mostly dark in the cell however, and the persistent dampness made for chilly nights, since Last Seed was also the month which heralded the end of summer, and we were nearly to the start of Hearthfire.

It was a relief when, about a week into my incarceration, four men, Imperials, and clad in the uniforms of the Watch showed at the door to my cell and called for me to stand back. I did as I was told; asking if I was to be freed. This question was met with derision. “Free? You? Oh that’s a joke!”

“Where are you t-taking me then?” I stood still, refusing to move, even when they shoved me hard in the back. “Audens is our good friend. We owe a little favour to Audens — I see you remember him, eh bitch?” I snarled at the wretch, who I now guessed to be in Avidius’ pay. “Audens wants you moved to a different cell — the ones where the hanging ‘uns live. He’s made it sweet on us for ‘t, so’s we tend to like going along with him when he says things, you know?”

I spat in his face. The blow I received rocked me backwards onto my pallet and bounced my head against the wall. Fortunately for me, this particular specimen of manhood was slow and telegraphed his moves long in advance. I was ready for him and managed to roll with his punch well enough I didn’t hit my head too hard against the wall, which was my chief concern. “Now that wasn’t very nice was it? Not polite eh?” Another blow to the other cheek, roll with the blow again, lessen the impact. “We heard what you did to Audens. That? That was for him. Teach you politeness. Remember that when you talk to your betters.”

“I see none of them in this cell.” I muttered. A clip to the ear this time. I hoped that satisfied the brute’s liking for beating up on defenseless prisoners, or I’d have to seriously start worrying about more head injuries. “Shut up and come quietly, or you’ll get worse.” The men were less than kind in cuffing me for the transfer, though I must admit I was hardly cooperative. I was half dragged, half pushed to a new cell, the door shut in my face. I looked at the window. Still West, from what I could make out. This section was completely silent. Not even the constant drip of water, which I had grown to hate, could be heard. I screamed at the cowards to come back, to tell Avidius to let me out.

What else could I do? I could not escape the prison on my own— I had no capability for spellcasting, and I felt the magicka draining and silencing potions I knew were added to the bread they fed us to be increasingly ironic in my case. I hadn’t a lockpick to try the door, and the prison was famously impossible to break out of, located as it was in the heart of the Imperial Legion. The earlier blows to my face were beginning to feel hot and throbbing. At least no one I knew would be seeing these bruises and going into a protective lather.

A darkly amused chuckle sounded from the cell opposite mine. I moved closer to the door to see who it was. A Dunmer was in there, and he was laughing. “What’s so funny?” I grated.

“Well, well. Look what we have here! Pale skin, snotty expression.” I glared back at him. “You’re a Breton! The masters of magicka, right? Hmph. You’re nothing but a stuck-up harlot with cheap parlor tricks.”

Never had I felt the loss of my magickal ability so keenly. “Shut the fuck up you p-pasty faced asshole!” He wheezed, as though what I just said were the most hilarious joke ever told on Nirn.

“Go ahead, try your magicka in here. Let’s see you make those bars disappear. No? What’s the matter? Not so powerful now, are you Breton? You’re not leaving this prison ‘til they throw your body in the lake. Oh, that’s right. You’re going to die in here, Breton! You’re going to die!” He ended on a creepy laugh that did no favours for my state of mind. The truth was, I was terrified that all of what he said was true: I was going to die here, all because of a stupid corrupt Watch Captain and whatever in Peryite’s hells my sister had gotten involved in. All that would be needed was for the jailor to stop the supply of food and water — would it be death of thirst? Or starvation?

“Hey, you hear that? The guards are coming… for you! He he he he he he.” I strained my ears— he was right. I heard voices, shouts to lock the door and the clanking of armour as a door clanged to, somewhere above.

An old man’s words came faintly to my hearing. “My sons… they’re dead, aren’t they? All of them?” A woman answered him, harder, stronger — like one used to command. “We don’t know that, Sire. The message only said they were attacked —”

The group came into view of my cell: A white haired old man, an Imperial by his looks, tall, richly dressed in long robes, being hurried along by a group of men and a woman, clad in ornate, if still very much functional armour; clearly they were bodyguards of some sort, protecting the old man who was in the center of their formation. The old man paused for breath a short distance away, looking at the woman as he did so. “No. They’re dead. I know it. I have known ever since…” His voice trailed off. “Please, do not lie to me further, Captain.” The woman, a Captain, it seemed rather, ducked her head— abashed to have been caught in a lie by her superior? Someone — several someones were dead. Several very important someones, I was beginning to fear.

“My job is to get you to safety.” The old man nodded, accepting her words and the implicit apology contained within them before he spoke again. “I know this place… the prison?”

“Yes, your Majesty. Beneath the Legion Compound. We’re headed for a secret passage known only to the Blades. No one can follow us through here.”

If one of those creepy bronze-looking Dwemer automaton nasties so common in Morrowind had jumped right in my face at that moment, I could hardly have been more surprised. Your Majesty? Your Majesty? Did this mean that the old man was the Emperor? The bloody Emperor of all Tamriel was right here? What? A secret passage? My heart was starting to thud. The group were advancing to stand before my cell.

The Captain was obviously surprised to see me in the cell. “What’s this prisoner doing in here? This cell was supposed to be off-limits!”

“The usual mixup with the Watch, I guess…” one of the men, who I saw was an Imperial, answered. She snorted in disgust. “Never mind.” Giving me a hard glare, she ordered the gate opened. “Stand back. We won’t hesitate to kill you if you get in our way.”

“Stand back, prisoner. Over by the window!” A second man, clearly another bodyguard for the elderly man — my brain was still gibbering over whether this indeed might be the Emperor — was shouting more orders at me through the bars. I did as I was told. The door swung open and the group filed in.

“A secret passage…” Great Kynareth. That must mean… I watched in disbelief as the Captain advanced to the stone and brick pillar at the back of my cell and pushed at a certain brick. The entire wall swung away, revealing a passage, which she and the first man vanished into. As he passed, the Imperial side-eyed me and muttered loud enough for me to hear, “Looks like this is your lucky day. Stay out of our way.” The rest of their group followed, and I could hear orders to fan out.

They’d left one of their number behind, obviously to bring up the rear. He also happened to have been the one shouting orders at me. I could now discern he was a Redguard, since he had advanced closer to stand between me and the elderly man in his charge. The man’s eyes were on my every move, his katana drawn in the event I tried anything against his principal. The Captain’s voice drifted back into hearing. “Better not close this one. There’s no way to open it from the other side.” Her head poked back through the opened passageway. “Please, sire, we must keep moving.”

The old man — no, the Emperor — Divines, I could still hardly believe this was happening, the Emperor, in my cell! — was about to follow them into the passage, when he happened to glance in my direction, then looked again at me in the face, more intently. I saw him start visibly and pale a little, but when he spoke, his voice was steady. “You… I’ve seen you. Let me see your face.”

I came forward dumbly, into the light of the single torch, the man with the sword standing back a little to let me pass, but still tensed, watchful. He obviously didn’t like the idea of me getting any closer to the Emperor. “Sire, please, do not delay further — we must go, quickly!”

The Emperor shook his head as he moved closer; his hand already reaching forth to grip my jaw, gently turning my face first to one side, then the other. His fingers felt cold, the skin papery against mine. “I’ve seen you, twice over, in dreams and in the waking realm, both the bane and the saviour of my blood. But which are you?” I was startled. How could he know — ? My thoughts were interrupted as he froze, spotting the scar that ran along my neck and jaw, up into my hair.

He stared fixedly at it for several long moments, enough that his guard began to show obvious signs of restlessness. I wasn’t too keen on remaining under his scrutiny either. Then he shifted his gaze to look at me straight on, and oh, those blue eyes, in that moment! I scarcely breathed, transfixed. Rheumy with advanced age, the Emperor’s stare was sharp, penetrating, in a way that made me feel as though all my secrets were laid bare. As though there was something powerful lurking in that gaze, busy judging, searching me for something — what, I didn’t know.

I heaved a breath as the Emperor closed his eyes. His expression grew remote for a moment, then he exhaled, a long breath out as his shoulders slumped visibly, before straightening again as he looked back at me. Gone was the preternatural air of perceptiveness and strength. He seemed frailer now, the deep wrinkles seaming his face deeper, obvious, just like any other man of his years, heightening the grief in his expression. “You truly are the one from my dreams. Then the stars were right, and this is the day. Gods give me strength.”

“I — what? What’s going on? Sir — are you tt-truly the Emperor? Sire, I don’t understand!” I was beginning to wonder if this were truly the Emperor; and if that was so, if the Emperor wasn’t showing his age, so to speak. Dreams? Stars? What on earth? This was beginning to resemble a particularly vivid hallucination. Perhaps I was dreaming, had dreamt all this, and I would soon wake up, hopefully in a bed with my sister fussing over me — but no, I was certainly in jail, and stuck for the gods knew how much longer. Perhaps I’d caught a fever from the damp and was actually raving. In any case, I doubted my imagination was capable of creating such a scenario in detail, no matter my mental condition. I surreptitiously pinched myself. It hurt.

This was really happening. Oh Divines.

The Emperor’s lips quirked up into a small smile. His expression was momentarily transformed, from weary and sorrowful, into an honest amusement that made him look much younger, almost impish. He’d probably noticed me pinching myself. I felt my face flush. His smile broadened, but then faded until he was solemn yet again. “I am indeed your Emperor, Uriel Septim. By the grace of the gods, I serve Tamriel as her ruler, and have done so for 65 years.” He paused here. “As for what is happening: assassins have attacked my sons, who are now dead,” his deep voice audibly faltered on the word dead, but regained its steadiness as he went on. “Logically the Council fears I am next. My Blades are now attempting to lead me out of the city by a secret escape route. By chance, the entrance to that escape route leads through your cell.”

“But, sire, why am I even here? I — ” I quieted as he held up a hand.

“The why is hardly a concern at this time. Perhaps the Gods placed you here, so that we may meet.” I frowned. Why all this mystery and talk about gods? Human fuckery had led me here, not divine intervention. “As for what you have done, or have not done,” his gaze was knowing, “it does not matter, not now.” I opened my mouth, wanting to speak, but snapped it shut as he continued. “You are a citizen of Tamriel, and you, too, shall serve her in your own way. That, and not the events that have led you here, is what you will be remembered for.”

I had to laugh briefly at that. Me, remembered? Apart from my sister and possibly my few friends, who would care? And what had I done that was worth remembering? “The gods know, I’ve had to m-make my own way nearly all my life. They’ve nn-never actually helped me before. Screwed my life over, more like. But by your leave, sire, what shall I do now?”

“So do we all go on our own ways. But what path can be avoided whose end is fixed by the almighty Gods?” The Emperor’s gaze turned assessing, a hint of slyness in the set of his expression, that vanished into seriousness. I stiffened. What now?

“Baurus!” The Redguard immediately stood to attention. “Sire!”

“In our haste to depart, I neglected to send one last document to Chancellor Ocato.” He was looking at me as he spoke, his hand withdrawing a small sealed scroll from within his robes. “This is a grant of unconditional pardon, given in my own hand and seal, for any and all crimes committed, past and present, by a certain prisoner currently being detained at my pleasure.” I blinked. “The prisoner’s name is Arliene Aswyth, a Breton, if memory serves.” I felt my mouth drop open even as my knees decided now would be a good time to resemble melted cheese. “See that you deliver it yourself, to the Chancellor’s own hand, as soon as possible.” The bodyguard, Baurus looked as bewildered as I felt but acknowledged his orders with a salute.

The Emperor had entered the open passage, so I did not see his face. His words were clear however. “I trust now you will find your own path. Take care… there will be blood and death before the end.”

I sat on the floor, staring at the dark maw of the secret passage, trying to process the last however many minutes. My head was still spinning from the rapid turn of events. That had been the Emperor and his guards fleeing the city. His sons — the heirs to the Ruby Throne, dead. The Breton in me was already considering the political ramifications somewhere in my hindbrain. The rest of me was still moving rather slowly.

I ran through a quick set of the breathing exercises I’d learned, then considered what to do next. I was a free woman now, by imperial decree; however the proof of my freedom was hardly secure. The only way out I knew of now was the same way the Emperor and his group would take, whatever that was — presumably through the sewers and the underground caverns below the City. Rumour had it the caverns were filled with goblins and undead, and wild tales circulated of rats the size of a man. It would be a dangerous route, unarmed as I was. The Blades officer, Baurus, had warned me against attempting to follow the Emperor’s group before leaving. Still, it was the safest way I could think of to get out alive and preferably unhurt.

The group had a lead by now, but I had nothing to slow me down, making me lighter and faster on my feet than men in heavy armour. The Emperor’s age and frailty was also going to work against their need for haste. His Imperial Majesty looked quite spry for a man who was soon to celebrate his 87th birthday, but he didn’t quite look to me like he was going to be able to move very fast at all, at least not as fast as his bodyguard were capable of at constant speed. Everything they did would need to take his physical condition into account. All in all, I thought I had a better than zero chance of catching up to them quickly, and hopefully follow them out unseen.

I quickly descended into the passageway, noting that these seemed to be ruins of a sort; they must be of Ayleid origin, given the history of Imperial City and White-Gold Tower. The place was dark and hard to see in, the stone flooring uneven in sections, and what sources of light were available did little to dispel the deep gloom. Still it was ideal for someone attempting to tail a large group. Or ambush them. Slipping between shadows, I strained my ears for any sounds that the Emperor’s party might make. There! The distinctive clanking of armour was somewhere up ahead. I rounded a corner just in time to spot a figure disappearing down a corridor, bearing a wavering light. I rushed to keep the figure in sight, suddenly glad that the rags my feet were wrapped in made nary a sound on the stones.

Shouts came from a little ways ahead, followed by the clash of steel on steel and screams; I froze, looking for cover, cursing when the likelier spots I found were closer to the fight than I would wish. No help for it. Sneaking closer and hiding behind a convenient pillar at the edge of the area, I saw the Emperor surrounded by a ring of defenders, while the rest of the Emperor’s guard clashed with strange men in red robes and bound armour — magically conjured protection from the planes of Oblivion. The shapes of the horrid spiked armour made my skin crawl, for some reason.

One such man came past my hiding spot; I tripped him up with a foot, clamping a hand over his mouth before he could yell, then struggled with him for control of his weapon. He fought hard, and fuck, that elbow to the ribs hurt! I managed to get a good grip around his neck and squeeze at the right spot to render him unconscious; strangling him with his own hood was fairly easy after. His bound weapon and armour dissipated on his death; I searched the corpse for anything of use, and found a couple bottles of weak healing and magicka restorative potions.

Stuffing the bottles of healing potion in the waistband of my pants, I moved closer to the fight, which was mostly over by now. The Emperor’s guards had triumphed, but their ranks were reduced. I watched them regroup, some splitting off again to fan through the chamber, presumably making sure no more foes remained to surprise them. I recalled that 10 guards had entered my cell; 6 now were left, Baurus among them, I noticed. “Are you all right, Sire?” he asked, anxious. His armour was battered and spattered all over with blood. “We’re clear for now, but there’s no way to tell if there’s more of them coming.”

“I am well,” the Emperor’s distinctive tones were muffled by the distance and acoustics of the chamber. “Captain Renault? Where is she?” Baurus shook his head. “She’s dead, sire. One of the red-robed murderers got a lucky hit in.” I couldn’t see much detail from the angle I was observing them from, but I could see the Emperor was absolutely still before replying. “She was a good woman and a loyal captain.”

“I know, sire. She’ll be missed.” He made to urge the Emperor on, but the Emperor was staring into the distance, momentarily lost in thought.

“So many deaths already to protect me and mine — all useless, in the end.” The Emperor looked to Baurus. “Those who fell here — their bodies should not be left for the rats and goblins.” I sucked in a breath, biting back an exasperated groan. Dear gods, that was all fine, very noble, but they didn’t have the time for this! “Sire, with all due respect, we cannot afford to lose more time than we have. They — we all knew the risks. We’re here because we swore to protect you: our honour before yours, our blood before yours, our lives before yours, my lord. I know I speak for them, and the rest of us, when I say they will only have failed, their sacrifice useless only if you fall here. I’m sorry sire, I truly am, but we have to keep moving.”

“How did they find us? How could they be waiting for us here?” I recognised the voice of the first man from earlier, the one who had gone through first with the late Captain Renault. Baurus shrugged. “Don’t know. But it’s too late to go back now.”

The first man spat on the floor. “Well they won’t be the first to underestimate the Blades.” Baurus’s reply carried more than a hint of irritation with it. “If it’s all the same to you sir? I’d rather not have any more of them show up.” The other had no response except to shrug the comment off, as he began to move further into the next room. “I’ll take point. Let’s move.” He looked to the Emperor. “Don’t worry sire. We’ll get you out of here.”

I had been engrossed by their conversation, so much so that when a hand clamped on my shoulder I couldn’t stop the shriek that left my mouth. I was seized and dragged before the rest of the group, and found myself standing again in the presence of the Emperor for the second time.

“Sire, this prisoner has been following us. She’s probably working with the assassins! Permission to deal with her, my lord?” It was the first man, the Imperial Blade who spoke; and I did not like the sound of it one bit, not after all the death threats issued earlier in my jail cell.

“No,” the Emperor’s voice was firm. “Stand down, Glenroy. She has done nothing wrong that We know of; and We will not execute prisoners out of hand, without proof of wrongdoing. Release her.” Glenroy was clearly unhappy, but obeyed the order.

The rest of the Emperor’s party had already moved on. Baurus was again the rearguard, and repeated his earlier warning not to follow, before going himself through the gated door barring the way — and locking it. The snick of the lock was loud in the dim silence. For the second time this night — or perhaps it was morning now? — I was again on my own. So much for following the Emperor’s company out of here.

I looked around. Apart from the door in my way blocking the only obvious egress, there were no exits. My eyes alighted on the body of one of the red-robed assassins. Somehow, these people had managed to access this place, secret though it was supposed to be; and well ahead of the Blades and the Emperor. Reason dictated that they might have a key, lockpicks, or at least some means of forcing the lock on the gate, if I were lucky.

Searching the bodies was a gruesome task, though one I was not unfamiliar with from previous explorations in various caves around the continent. The red-robed murderers yielded disappointingly little in the way of usable items: one man had a purse that could be fastened to a belt, and which held a set of flints in it, and a few more bottles of healing potions joined the ones I already had from their other comrade, but they had no weapons or lockpicks, nor was there any indication of a key that could have opened the gate. However they’d gotten in, it was probably with the use of spells.

I dragged the bodies of the assassins to a side, leaving them piled in a heap, then turned to consider the bodies of the fallen Blades. I was reluctant to search and strip their corpses, even reasoning that they had passed beyond mortal needs, and that they would not have begrudged aid to an innocent trapped in my position. I could make do with what I had on, and hope I might find some form of better protection later, I supposed.

A weapon against beasts and other things that might be in the ruins, though, that was necessary. I noticed that Captain Renault, apart from her fine katana— one of Akaviri design, as far as I could tell — had a steel shortsword still hanging from her belt, along with a fresh torch. Muttering an apology to the dead woman, I unclasped her sword-belt and fastened it, with her katana, torch, and the steel shortsword around my own waist, securing the purse filled with the potions and flints I’d acquired to it as well.

The Emperor’s words resurfaced in my memory. Those who fell here should not be left for the rats and goblins. He’d sounded so sad, so defeated it hurt. And he’d spared my life and pardoned me, though why was one of many questions I’d love to ask him. The least I could do in gratitude was try and make sure that the bodies of his protectors received some dignity in death, hopefully unspoiled by whatever lurked down here, since it’d sounded very important to him.

It took more effort and time than I’d liked, since I was weakened from the lack of proper food and adequate exercise thanks to my imprisonment, but I managed to move the bodies of Renault and her men back to a chamber we’d passed through earlier: I’d noticed it possessed a large flat stone plinth, which suited my purpose. I laid them out side-by-side on top of it, and said a short prayer to Arkay for their souls in whatever afterlife they might have gone to.

I then trudged back to the chamber with the locked gate, hoping to find some clue that might lead to an exit. Crumbling stonework and high pitched chittering gave me an instant’s warning, before something came leaping at me out of the shadows. I shouted and struck out hard with Renault’s katana, the impact of the weapon on whatever it was jarring my arm all the way up to the shoulder.

Backing away hurriedly, I just had time to realise this was the biggest rat I’d ever seen, almost the size of a small child. I caught an impression of oversized teeth like shears before it was leaping for my throat again. Stubborn beast! I rained a flurry of blows on it, but it was an agile opponent, much like its smaller cousins who cannily evaded market stallkeepers in the streets above. One solid strike to the neck severed its head from its body however.

I hurried over to the wall and examined the hole in the brick wall the rat’s egress had created. It was an awkward fit, but I should be able to make it through, and through the hole I saw there was a large room, mostly dark, but better than the dead end here, and there was always the hope of hidden caches to be found; many adventurers had been lost to the foul things that were said to live here.

I squeezed through the gap and started exploring. I lit my torch now and looked around me. The cavern was a dark, gloomy place outside the small circle of light the lit torch gave off; every sense I owned was on high alert. I decided to follow the walls and explore this chamber as best as I could, before my torch burnt low. If only I could cast Starlight! Pacing to the right, I began my search of the room.

My explorations soon yielded fruit. A chest in an alcove, its wood mostly brittle and splintered, yielded another torch as well as an iron dagger, which had rusted but was still mostly sound. I took the torch and dagger, and shoved them into my belt.

Further into the room, I found the skeleton of some unfortunate with a longbow and some few arrows, all near yet another chest, this one locked. A glint of metal near the bones announced the presence of what looked to be a primitive lockpick, and soon I had the chest open. To my amazement, it contained a full set of leather armour! The work was crude and rough, but the leather, though in need of a good oiling had not mouldered or grown very brittle, and it looked as though it would do well enough for the trip out of this place.

I lit the second torch, since the first was beginning to gutter, and strapped on the various bits and pieces of armour. By the end of it I was beginning to feel more myself than I had since the fateful night that had landed me in prison. I fitted an arrow to the string and tested the bow. The bowstring seemed to be in usable, if not optimal condition, and now that I had a ranged weapon, I could avoid a head-on confrontation with any enemies I might find later.

Perhaps the gods were smiling on me for once.

I couldn’t tell you how long I spent in the passages and caverns that came after; the whole thing seemed like a long, surreal nightmare of sorts. Stumbling along in the semi darkness of this subterranean world, relieved only by the light of the torches I found, which light also made me a conspicuous target in the dark, I hit dead-ends more than once, and was outright lost several times, not realising I had been walking in circles. Every wall looked to be more of the same as its neighbours, and the pillars scarcely looked different from one section to another.

I encountered more rats, no less fierce and agile than the one from earlier, and undead in the form of zombies roamed the passages. Fortunately, their unique stink of rotting flesh and black magic meant you could all but literally smell them coming, and they were stupid opponents — dare I say, brainless? I was prepared for them; the light was scant in most areas, but enough to aim by, and the zombies fell easily enough to my arrows.

Finally, the ruins of pre-human civilisation gave way to a series of natural caverns, which were vast, damp, slippery, filled with some interesting specimens of fungi, and more importantly, home to a whole nest of goblins. Not surprisingly, the goblins were less than pleased to have me intrude into their territory. They were foul things, their bloodcurdling shrieks and growls coming from the darkness ample fuel for weeks of nightmares. Believe me, when I say that having one snap in your face does not bear close remembering, and not least because the diet of goblins generally consists of rat meat. Their teeth were sharp and many in wide mouths, and stank like miniature versions of Peryite’s Pits.

Still, they were hardly cunning opponents. Where I could, I sniped at them with bow and arrow. The late Renault’s katana did see much use in my hands however, and I was thankful for the quality of the blade, even if I did wish I weren’t here needing to use it. There were the occasional traps as well, falling logs and such; but these were easily disarmed and turned against the goblins who’d set them in the first place.

The hardest part of my journey through the caverns came when I reached their nest proper, in what appeared to be the last and largest of the cave system. I did a quick headcount. From what I could see, there were about five goblin berserks, and a goblin witch. The berserks were dispatched speedily enough, though I ran through all but three of my bottles of healing potion from earlier.

The goblin witch however, was a tougher proposition to face down. She was fast, and spells flew from her hands. The cavern was also well lit in many areas. Goddamn it, I needed somewhere to shoot from!

Her first barrage of flames forced me to drop my bow and get the hell out of her range. Hiding behind a pillar, I started downing a bottle of healing potion, then dropped it in a hurry — the second barrage of fire crisped my shield and forced me to roll in order to douse the flames that had caught my arm.

I ended up tumbling into the pit where the goblins were keeping a bunch of rats, landing on one as I hastily ducked the incoming blaze of lightning. The rat was offended by my using it as a cushion, and proceeded to demonstrate its justified ire with a squeal and a hard bite. One stinging set of marks in my armour later, I ran it through with a dagger, rolling away again from a third and fourth barrage of flames. Shit. This was far from going well.

The witch was now advancing on me, and I could see a nasty sparking death forming between her fingers.

Half-blinded by sweat and blood where my head had scraped the rocks on my way down, I did the only thing I could think of at that point: I grabbed the rat’s carcass and threw it into her face with all I had in me.

Amazingly, it hit her dead on. I can only attribute it to divine intervention that it did so, because my aim with anything outside of spells and a bow was, and is, frankly best described as ‘abysmal’. Her momentary surprise and screech of rage was enough to let me jump up and perform the fastest running tackle of my life. A hard stab to the chest and a slice across the throat, and the witch was dead.

After that fight, I slumped against the walls of the pit, panting. I uncorked the last bottle of healing potion I had — the other had sadly broken in my tumble. I had to steady my right hand, which was again annoyingly shakey, numb and weak, with my left, itself none too steady — proof I had overexerted myself. Even with the care I took, I still managed to slop a fair bit of the contents all over myself as I swigged the brew. Gods, I was tired and aching all over, and clearly out of condition.

Getting up and out of that pit took a fair bit of willpower. All I wanted to do was to lie down and sleep, but doing so in a goblin nest, without being sure that all of them were dead, would’ve been suicidal to say the least. I kept moving, raiding the chests scattered in the cave for more supplies. Surely somewhere there had to be an exit to the surface. I amused my fancy as I walked with thoughts of hot food, a warm clean bed and proper care for my wounds, which were stinging rather fiercely despite the crude bandages and washing with the ale I had found in the cave — or perhaps the ale was the problem. I devoutly hoped that the goblins hadn’t added anything peculiar to the liquor.

I reached a tunnel that showed signs of having been chiselled, and not a natural formation; following it I soon reached a wall, with a hole in it and scrambled through, landing in a small chamber after a short drop. At this point I heard voices yet again, and my heart picked up hope immediately — it sounded rather like the Blades and the Emperor, which meant that they had indeed been slow, or I had gotten through the caverns and mazy ruins much faster than I thought.

I hurried through the exit, which opened onto what looked to be a raised ledge. Sure enough, the group of Blades, with the Emperor still in their midst, entered through a doorway below and opposite of my position. It seemed they were arguing over the next course of action they should take. I noticed that they were down to four men, from the earlier six who’d survived the second onslaught. Obviously they’d been attacked again at some point.

“We should find a defensible spot and protect the Emperor until help arrives.” Glenroy was saying. The nerviness in his voice was a far cry from the earlier confidence he’d displayed.

“Where and what would you consider a defensible spot, sir? Any help’d have to find us first, and this place is a rabbit warren. What makes you think help will arrive before more of those bastards? We need to get the Emperor out of here. I say we keep moving.” I missed whatever response Glenroy might’ve made, because a red flash of movement caught my eye from the ledge opposite mine.


I snapped off a quick shot in his direction, but missed; the arrow clattered off the stone wall. “What was that?” The Emperor drew his own sword, even as the Blades went on high alert. I aimed, more carefully this time, at the red robed figure, now arrayed in the phantom-like armour that made my skin crawl and stomach turn. I took the shot, hit the bugger — and swore as he shrugged it off and continued on his murderous course. I barely noticed that the Blades were already engaged, one lone man shielding the Emperor with his own body as his comrades struggled valiantly against their assailants. Two to one odds, and the Blades’ weaponry didn’t seem to be making much headway against their opponents’ magical armour.

I did what I could with my bow, not wanting to get too close. I soon had to jump down and take a more involved position however, as one of the Blades fell and didn’t get up again, and the fighting grew too close for arrows. I waded into the fringes of the battle and started hacking at the closest assassin. Little skill could I summon from my tired arms, but my opponent was curiously horrible at fighting — no stance or form to speak of, an amateur with the summoned blade he wielded. If it wasn’t for the strength of his conjured gear, he would’ve lost long ago. As it was, I got in a good strike and downed him permanently.

The Blades had by this time overcome the remaining assassins, and were now regrouping. I slipped back into a dark corner. “I think that was all of them,” Baurus was saying. “Let me take a look around.”

The Emperor had sheathed his sword, and was now looking around him, as though searching for something. The next words he spoke made my heart skip a few beats. “Have you seen the prisoner?” He sounded anxious.

Baurus was obviously puzzled as to why his lord would ask such a question. “Do you think she followed us, sire? How could she have? She’s probably lost by now, assuming she attempted to travel through the caves. I’d guess she backtracked to the prison.”

The Emperor shook his head. “I know she did follow us. She is here, and listening to what we are saying.” I held my breath. How? How could he guess that? No, he wasn’t guessing, he was too certain. He knew. Somehow, he knew I was really here.

As if he could read my thoughts, the Emperor turned towards my location. “Come closer. I’d prefer not to have to shout.” I hesitated. The Emperor, while having proved a very strange man, to say the least, didn’t seem likely to want to kill me; his guardians, however, were very much on edge, and had been dispensing death threats like sweetmeats earlier.

“I need your help. Please, come with us. Your destiny is bound up with mine, and with the fate of Tamriel itself.” This was the Emperor, my Emperor, I suppose, asking for my help. The whole scenario was surreal. “Don’t be afraid. My guardians will not harm you.”

He sounded absolutely sincere in that last. How could I continue to refuse him? Reckoning that the Blades would follow their master’s orders, I stepped forwards. Glenroy predictably wasn’t happy to see me, and drew his blade as soon as I came into sight. “Dammit, it is her, it’s that prisoner again! Sire, please, this isn’t safe; she might be one of the assassins!”


“But Sire, the law — ”

No, Glenroy.” I just stopped myself from gaping a little. The Emperor’s voice sounded firmer than I’d heard it all this while. “I know your fears, but I assure you, she is not one of them. On the contrary, she can help us. Let her come with us.” A low sigh. “She must help us, or we are all lost.”

Glenroy stared at me, as did the other Blade; their faces filled with suspicion and curiosity. “As you wish, Sire.” There was no hint of relaxation in his posture as he glowered at me.

Baurus chose to return from his sweep of the room at this moment. “It’s clear, sir,” he reported, even as he eyed me with more than a little shock.

Glenroy acknowledged the report with a nod. “Sire, we have to go now.”

“Not yet. My old bones ache from all this rushing. Let me rest a moment longer.” My heart swelled with understanding; I was a mere 33 next to his venerable 87 years, but the long journey and fighting for my life through the caverns and ruins had left me worn and aching. The Emperor didn’t have to fight, of course, though I noted he was armed with a silver shortsword; still he could not be used to such extended exertion at all — how much worse it must be for him, and at his age! The Emperor was beckoning me towards where he sat on the edge of a raised section, however, and I went, wondering what he had to say this time.
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