Disclaimer: Skyrim/Tamriel belongs to Bethesda.
Yes, this was an active house of the dead. Dust, heavy air redolent with the odors of dried meat, embalming oils and sharp incense, putrefying flesh and offal — the fragrant lure to a banquet for all carrion feeders.
He paced the aisles, watching shadows, listening carefully to the way his footsteps echoed. He wasn't trying to be quiet. The prey he hunted always felt better, more confident, drew closer, when it believed it was the silent and, therefore, deadly one.
"Not many would walk blindly into a crypt, smelling of steel and blood, but not fear."
Tariq smiled. The game was begun. Female. Sultry. So, the opening gambit would be the seduction lure.
"I feel the hunger inside of you. Gnawing at you. You see the dead and your mouth grows wet. Your stomach growls. It's all right. I will not shun you for what you are. Stay. I will tell you everything you have forgotten."
"I have forgotten nothing, sister," he purred, turning towards the wet warmth in this arid, cool tomb. He allowed a feral smile. "I've survived many battles to eat, or be eaten. Why do you take such a stupid risk to feast here?" He let a sneer cross his face. "Dry, long rotted fare. Not a proper meal. Not a proper feast for the Lady of Decay."
She was pretty if you liked the lean and hard type. A jagged scar had taken her left eye. The ugly scar only seemed to sweeten the loveliness of her blushing lips and the whiteness of her teeth.
She stared at him, startled, and he felt her spellcasting falter. Good. "It's not by choice," she said defensively. "Our worship hall has been overrun by draugr. They've driven us out and so we're left scrounging for what we can."
He shook his head. "Then show me this hall and I will return these impudent fodder to the worms they belong to. A long, leisurely feast eaten in peace with good company is one I haven't had for a long time, and I am tired of hasty meals on the battlefield and cold cuts on the road."
She laughed, pressing herself against him. Her breath was hot with the rot of her recent meal and Tariq was hard pressed to maintain his mask of warmth and intimacy. Her smile and caress invited a kiss, but Tariq had no desire to taste whatever coated her tongue. Instead, he lightly caressed under her chin and across her neck with the fingers of his right hand.
"How far away is this hall?" he asked. "I cannot attend to it today, I have other obligations. Tomorrow I must wait upon the Jarl to find out what job he may have for me. Where can I leave word for you?"
"Do you have a map?"
"Not yet. I was planning to buy one in the market earlier today, but it slipped my mind. Any place in particular I should buy this map?"
"No. But when you get one, look the area southeast of here and northeast of the Orc stronghold of Dushnikh Yal. Travel past the Salvius Farm and over the bridge. The road goes east. You will come to a signpost, take the right where it says Whiterun and follow that southward. Keep going. This road follows along the Karth River. Eventually you will come to a bridge. On the other side is another signpost. Keep going. You will come to a second signpost. Keep going, but from there watch for a narrow path. It should be easy to spot because at that point the steep cliff sides will start giving way to walkable slopes. You will see the trace of a narrow dirt path. Follow the path uphill. Watch for another path branch on your right. That path passes under stone lintels. The path ends at a cave that looks to have one been used for mining. I'll be watching for you." Her smile widened to a grin. "Dwemer armor is hard to miss."
"Especially one mounted on a red horse."
"Now, no more eating here, hm? I'd just arrived and already I was hearing about trouble with the dead," he said, raising his eyebrows in gentle rebuke.
"Of course. You're right. And once our hall is freed, we won't need this place. Verulus always ruins the taste of the meat anyway with his embalming oils and salts."
A few more empty pleasantries, light caresses, and Tariq made his escape. "The problem is taken care of," he told Brother Verulus. "There won't be any more eating back there."
"What—" The priest shuddered. "Nevermind, I don't want to know the details. But thank you. Here, as I promised, your reward, my amulet of Arkay."
Tariq smiled tightly. A token for a god he did not worship was the payment the priest was giving? The priest didn't wait for his response but bustled into the Hall with his broom, no doubt intent on cleaning up whatever mess he believed Tariq might have made taking on that unknown danger. Tariq looked again at his reward and his irritation was alleviated. Now that he was really looking at it, he saw the beads alternated between thumbnail size orbs of antique gold with smaller rubies, the center of the amulet was nicely carved ruby set in its sunburst bed of gold. He also felt a whisper of power. This trinket's component value was nearly a thousand septims if one judged it by the weight of the gold beads and chains and the quality of stones. A bit more if kept whole and taking into account whatever magic had been set into it. So, this Verulus did very well for himself as the city's keeper of the dead.
By his sense of time, he'd spent a little over two hours wandering the crypt and flirting with the Namira cultist. He went back to the cranky old Altmer to see if his mood had improved so that he could use the enchanting table. As soon as he showed up, the old elf waved him to the table without saying a word and went back to examining objects that, at a glance, Tariq identified as parts of a Dwemer ballista. Dangerous things. He'd had a lot of armor ruined by their rapidly fired bolts.
Tariq coaxed the stamina recovery and extra strength enchantments into the two rings, split rings, both of coiled silver wire, that he would later weave into Nimat's mane. When the base spells were set, he gently parted a wire coil of one, slipped the other coil wire ring into the gap, and turned them into each other as he added the special power twist he'd been taught by his beloved Mehmet, a priest of Ruptga who'd believed in him before even his own father did, and who had taught him the basics of enchantment and of the sword. "The sword and the hand are one," Mehmet taught. "Only together, is the spirit is drawn and made." With that understanding, he latched key elements of the two enchantments together. Should the rings be separated, then both enchantments would fail. Tariq had similar enchantments on his armor. It prevented a thief from fully benefiting from his prize.
This caused the younger of the two elves to make a soft, "Ooh," of astonishment. Tariq glared at him, but was more irritated with himself for letting the elf get so close to him unawares.
"Excuse me, sir, but how did you do that? I've never seen anyone interlink enchantments in such a way."
"Indeed?" Tariq said neutrally. "I was taught that day and night appear to be separate, but each require elements of the other to exist. And so may the same principles be found in magic."
"Er, I'm sorry, I don't understand."
"Don't strain yourself, Aicantar," said Faleen, entering the area.
The elder elf snapped up from whatever he'd been studying, but unlike the ill-tempered frown he'd received, Tariq noted the soft, almost wistful smile there. Faleen was totally blind to it as she nodded at the elf absent-mindedly, and Tariq's eyebrows lifted in amusement.
"One would think an aspiring master of the blade would always thrust straight to the point, but it's not for nothing our most sacred text is called the Book of Circles." She looked back to Tariq and smiled. "The Jarl and his uncle are having supper in his quarters and will be discussing matters there for the rest of the evening, and so I am not needed. Have you had supper yet, sir?"
"Ah, so formal, my lady? Have I offended you in some way?" he cried in mock dismay. She laughed.
"Nay. I merely did not want to presume, Tariq. You have become quite the legend since Shadymarch. I have heard you called the 'Lion of Yokuda.' I am eager to hear the adventures that earned you such an accolade."
"You would have me blush, dear lady. You know I hate boasters."
"Oh, but without such knowledge, how else can I make your boasts for you as I did this morning?" she teased back. "Give me news, then, of which you have first-hand knowledge."
"Oh, hero to gossip. Very well, but first let us settle the matter of supper. Where can a decent meal establishment be found that is not the Silver-Blood Inn? Listening to that dullard innkeeper and his shrill wife spoils the taste of food there. The old bard there is decent instrumentalist, but Nord songs are, so far, not to my taste."
"We'll go to Bindi's. She serve a delicious lamb roast that deserves a place in the Sentinel Food & Wine Festival, an excellent tabouli that uses saltrice instead of wheat, a cheese and olive pastry I can't get enough of, and lokum of local fruits and rose sweets. And there are two or three Nord dishes I think you may like."
"Excellent." Tariq turned to the elves to make a polite bow. "My thanks, learned sirs, for allowing me to use your equipment."
"You're welcome," the younger elf said while the older one snorted and turned sharply away.
As they walked down the long steps out of the palace, he asked, "Those elves, are they Thalmor?"
"Calcelmo and Aicantar? They are not," Faleen said quite firmly. "Calcelmo despises the Thalmor, calling them upstarts and says the current leadership is unworthy of the original legacy. I don't know what he means by that. He gets too worked up to explain properly, but I take it to mean the current leadership that took over after the Oblivion Crisis is corrupted in some way from its original purpose. He doesn't associate at all with Justiciar Ondolemar unless he has to. The Justiciar's opinion of him is easy — 'senile old fool,' of course."
"What is your opinion of him? Of Calcelmo?"
She looked startled. She didn't think of him at all. "Um, he's very learned. Dwemer mad, but that's not necessarily a bad thing considering Markarth sits on top of a massive underground Dwemer city. Or, he says it's massive, but I really have no idea what scale he's using. Other than that, a bit of a grouch with little patience for conversation. I rarely get anything more than irritated grunts."
"And this Ondolemar, what is his function?"
"As far as I'm given to understand, he is tasked with treaty enforcer orientation, all those Thalmor soldiers and battlemages traveling in from Pale Pass, through Falkreath, to here, where he oversees their training to handle the Nords, a general introduction to laws, an overview of the heresies the northern barbarians believe in that the Dominion must correct. That sort of thing. He handles routine patrols through those holds and executes orders given by the First Emissary Elenwen in Solitude."
Tariq nodded to himself, eyes half-closed as he contemplated the implications. "Where do they take the people they arrest?" he asked.
"I don't know," Faleen answered. "They never come back. They don't appear to be kept anywhere near Markarth. I don't ask. It's like asking the Silver-Bloods what happens to Forsworn sympathizers. Everyone knows they die in the silver mines." She shrugged, her head bowed in shame. "Politics here is worse than battling vampires. The teeth are hidden and all the blood they suck is legally drawn."
"And because of the Concordat, all you can do is stand helplessly by while they legally commit their atrocities," Tariq concluded. "No surprise. And no shame to you, Faleen. That title given to me? It was for leading a series of battles against Dominion scum testing our alertness along the southern coast from Rihad to Gilane. They do that every once in a while, you know. Small boats from Cyrodiil because we will sink any of their grand naval ships we see. Spent two years riding up and down the coast working with patrols from Gilane, Taneth, and Rihad, organizing and coordinating their response to Dominion forays. The Dominion has raised the difficulty by employing Khajiit teams to do most of this. After all, who better than they know how to survive and fight in our deserts without requiring constant supplies from Summerset? And they are devastating fighters. Very little magic, they weren't Altmer after all, but small and fast attack teams, very mobile as only cats can be. But as hard and fierce as they were, harder still was knocking sense into people that these weren't skoomu sucking, upright walking, talking housepets. At the end of it, title notwithstanding, I was very unpopular. The last load on the camel's back was when I exposed Lady Imahijarra's lovely, silky lapcat as a spymaster and assassin." He pulled back the sleeve of his left arm to show a mesh of ugly scars. "He had poison on his claws and that was the best a master healer could do. It was more important to stop the poison." Faleen looked and shuddered.
"They gave me this grand title and invited me to continue my fight against the Dominion elsewhere."
"Khajiit? Yes… I see the sense of that. The home of the Khajiit is more akin to Hammerfell and they are better suited than Altmer for the terrain," said Faleen. "They were seeking to set bases from which to launch false trade caravans?"
"Yes. We found typical stores of trade goods along with an amount of weapons and armor no trade caravan would need. When war comes again, I have no doubt the elves will be wiser and use their deluded Khajiit allies as frontline fodder."
"Clever. I should look into the caravan that regularly stops here." Faleen looked unhappy. "I hope they are not spies. Ri'saad is the leader and I hear he owns two other caravans."
"He is not, so far as I can tell," said Tariq. "I spent an evening with them when I first came here. I did not have the time to talk to each individuals so I cannot say that all of that group are not spies, but one of them does handle stolen goods. Ri'saad, however, keeps his hands clean. I do not think he would willingly harbor a spy or do any work for the Thalmor. He's in Skryim strictly for his own commercial ambitions."
"Ah, that is good to hear. I trust you impression," said Faleen. "We get so few traders willing to come to Markarth because of the Forsworn, and the market struggles for fresh goods."
"Hm. But still a good policy to lock the cats out of the cities. Truth be told, I think the caravan master prefers it despite grumbling otherwise. The fact that his caravans cannot get inside lessens his value to the Thalmor."
They came to the small eatery of Bindi's. As Faleen had said, the food was most excellent. The space in Bindi's was tight and it was too easy to be overheard by other patrons, so they talked about Faleen's own venture into Skyrim and her current position rather than Tariq's strategies against Dominion incursions. It wasn't a complicated tale. After the Khulari vampire incident, Faleen had essentially been patted on the head and condescendingly hailed a brave young girl with great potential. The reward purse would make an excellent dowry and it should help her find a husband. The captain's position she had been trying for had been given to someone's young nephew who had been doing a fine job guarding the treasury house.
Faleen had smiled at the elders, taken the reward purse, and purchased a finest horse she could afford and joined a caravan that was venturing eastward to explore trade opportunities in Skyrim.
Her travel with the trade caravan lasted only as far as Markarth. The standard guard contract she'd accepted did not include bedroll duties despite her employer's arguments otherwise. Still, breaking a contract was expensive and she was stranded in Markarth. She joined the city guards and distinguished herself in forays against the Forsworn, coming to the notice of Jarl Igmund who chose her as his housecarl when his previous one retired.
Tariq knew he should be pleased for Faleen, the trusted guard of a ruler was a desirable and prestigious position. If only the ruler was worthy of the one who guarded him. For his part, Tariq was not yet convinced. What little he'd overheard of the man quarreling with his chief adviser was that Igmund made bold, defiant statements and discounted his adviser's assertion of facts that the enemy was already in the city. Were, in fact, the working poor, the natives who did most of the base labor while the Nords lorded over them.
And he could see Faleen still had that short temper of hers that still needed controlling. She was an excellent warrior, but when her temper was up, she became impulsive and made mistakes. When he'd last been in Shadymarch, that young boy who had been promoted over her had quit months afterwards to become a poet. If she'd kept her temper and stayed, the job would have been hers. The current one in the position was competent enough reacting to dangers, but only just reacting. He lacked initiative. The Shadymarch elders had asked Tariq that if he found Faleen, he was to ask her if she would consider returning. Tariq presented the request as he'd promised, but in his heart he wasn't sure it would be a good move for her. She needed to sit still and find her focus, and he didn't know what would be the key to calming her temper.
Now, as for Markarth and the local politics, Faleen gave him a terse overview of the recent history as far as she understood it and said there was an official book written by Imperial scholars, The Bear of Markarth. But, as can be expected, speak to any local, whether Nord or native, and you'll get contradictions. Since all those things happened before she got here, she had no strong opinions. Her job was to guard Igmund, not pass judgment on past events.
On their walk back to the palace he asked her if she had any idea of the type of job Igmund might be hiring him for.
"No doubt his typical job for mercenaries. There's always some group out there, bandits or Forsworn, that need killing. He can't send guards because too many don't come back and most don't know how to handle themselves in the wilderness. So he uses mercenaries.
"It was the first job I had from him. I had to track down a small group of Forsworn warriors who had ambushed a tax collection party, kill them, and recover the gold.
"He rarely has to pay anything out. Most mercenaries, if they survive their initial encounter with the Forsworn, give up the job and come back to take easier jobs from the Silver-Bloods, where they are put to use bullying the tamed Reachfolk who work the Silver-Blood mines and farms."
"I hear in the taverns most of the city guards take extra Silver pay," said Tariq. He watched Faleen's face darken with anger and her lips thin.
"Yes," she snarled. "And the Silver-Bloods obviously support the Stormcloak. The moment Ulfric dominates in the war, they will finally order their lackeys to attack. I am frankly amazed they haven't taken over already. The nearest Imperial Legion station is in Falkreath. Instead, we have the Thalmor, and they offer no help with the Forsworn. Their patrols are only interested in arresting Talos worshipers and other perceived enemies of the Dominion, and that does not include the Forsworn.
"They cut off Hammerfell from any assistance we might get from Skyrim," murmured Tariq. "They can't take us by sea, so they come around to attack from behind." Faleen swore angrily as she followed his logic.
They reached the palace. As they passed the hall which lead to the Dwemer researchers and the Hall of the Dead, they could hear angry voices loudly quarreling in Altmeris. A few moments later, the Justiciar stormed away towards his quarters and then Calcelmo rushed past them towards his own quarters with is nephew chasing behind him.
"What year did this Ulfric of Windhelm take over Markarth?"
"So, a year after the Battle of Red-Ring, and four years until the Second treaty of Stros M'kai and the Dominion's withdrawal from Hammerfell."
"Just speculating aloud. How long was Markarth allowed to worship Talos before the Empire and the Dominion enforced the terms of the Concordat?"
"Three, almost four years," Faleen answered. "Jarl Hrolfdir eventually submitted and handed Ulfric and his militia over to the Empire."
"And giving the Dominion the opportunity to plant a Fist at our back. Interesting." He preferred the term "Fist" over "Justiciar" because he believed it reflected their truer nature as the black-and-gold thugs of the Dominion. Justice was not what they were interested in bringing to the world.
They had reached the upper level of the main hall and stopped in the area outside the throne chamber. Faleen smiled up at him. "Well, this has been pleasant, Tariq. Court starts mid-morning. We will see you then?"
"Most certainly. I hope your jarl has an interesting challenge for me." They exchanged bows and Tariq went to his room at the Silver-Blood Inn. Thankfully, the door of his room was thick enough to close out the drunken singing of the patrons.
[oO0o § oO0o]
Jarl Igmund's task was for Tariq to retrieve his father's shield from a Forsworn stronghold called Deepwood, northeast of Markarth and over the border in Haafingar Hold.
"I may have been too enthusiastic about your skills," said Faleen when they met for lunch afterwards. "A thousand pardons, Tariq. It's a mad quest. Deepwood Redoubt is one of their biggest and best fortified strongholds. Old records show it was built by the Atmorans with ancient magic and may not be entirely in this world. Calcelmo can tell you more since he studied the place when Jarl Igmund was planning a raid there two years ago. From what I heard, teams that tried scaling the mountains around the stronghold could not find any valley the Forsworn spoke of. And he has determined that the ruins do not go underground and were not built over a Dwemer site. He would know about that," she added as an afterthought. "He has an uncanny way of sensing Dwemer ruins and objects.
"Come, I'll take you to him," she said.
"Ah…" Tarig looked around as if doing so would help him think of a way to refuse her escort. Happily, circumstances provided. "I think you should return to your jarl, Faleen. I just saw the Justiciar invading the throne room."
She swore and hastened away to stand by her lord.
Approaching the old elf would be much easier without Faleen at his side. For one, he suspected the elf got tongue-tied when she was around; for another, dealing with a love-sick, jealous elder was too tedious to imagine.
Volunteering to deal with giant spiders infesting the outer rooms of Nchuand-zel, the Dwemer city below Markarth, sweetened the elf's disposition. Tariq was not surprised that the entrance to the underground city was in Understone Keep. It had been obvious to his eyes that the palace was merely the reception hall to a Dwemer city.
Skyrim's frostbite spiders were on the big side, but still easier to deal with than giant scorpions and the smaller, faster spiders he was used to dealing with in the Dwemer ruins in Hammerfell. He also found notes on the body of a legionnaire listing complaints about the exploration party he was escorting. He delivered the notes to Calcelmo, who grumbled about yet another group that goes in without proper appreciation of the dangers.
Tariq reminded him that he needed knowledge about the Forsworn stronghold before the elf could offer him that job of going after that lost expedition.
Calcelmo marked on Tariq's newly bought map the location of the stronghold. He confirmed Faleen's story that the stronghold was a place of magic and partially displaced from the world. He sketched out an area that extended beyond the mountain explorers had scaled, claiming his scrying had hinted of a larger valley and yet another large structure that was the focus of the sustaining magic. A place of ancient magic similar to many places built by the Dragon Cult.
"Do you know anything of briarhearts and hagravens?" asked Calcelmo.
Not a thing," answered Tariq. "Faleen was distracted before she could tell me about them."
The elf grumbled something too low for Tariq to hear. However, he was pleasantly surprised when Calcelmo began lecturing him about these vile, repugnant creatures. It was good information that Tariq would carefully consider as he planned infiltration.
He set out for the mine or tomb that hid the temple of the Namira cultists. The woman's directions were good. He dismounted Cairo, removed its halter and bit and emptied a waterbag into a bowl. Cairo snorted, warning him something was approaching.
"Magnificent horse," said the cultist.
"Yes," agreed Tariq. "I would not advise trying to touch him or ride him." He did not mention the anti-illusion protections laid on the horse. If she heeded him, there was no need to mention it. If she didn't, she got what she deserved. Not even a Bosmer could use their powers to control Cairo.
"So," she purred. "Tariq ibn Zayad, the Lion of Yokuda, you've come." She smirked as she said this and Tariq knew she must have spies in Understone Keep to have heard this title. "The draugr infesting Namira's sanctuary are inside. Today, you will hunt in the service of the Lady of Decay."
"You learned my name, how flattering. May I know yours?"
"I am Eola."
"Lovely name. But today is not a true hunt. Merely clearing out the garbage of a long forgotten meal."
She smiled. "I am ready, then. Let's go."
"A thousand pardons, dear lady, but wait here. I prefer to hunt alone."
She shrugged. "As you wish. But let me show you the layout of the place." She sketched out a crude map in the dirt of the chambers. This had been an old crypt, of course, but not a complicated one, and unused for centuries. The dead had stayed dead until the past decade when some force began to animate them. The first were easy enough to kill, then a year ago stronger ones just burst out of the cocoon on their coffins, strangely refleshed, wearing ancient armor and speaking an unknown guttural language. She had no idea what magic animated them. It wasn't any necromancy she was familiar with and these draugr did not respond to the standard banishment spells.
"If there is magic involved, do these Nord undead have magic using abilities?" He asked.
She pursed her lips thoughtfully. "Mostly ice. 'Cold of the grave' type. Oh, and some shout."
"I think I can withstand a few harsh words," he said, chuckling.
"Then good luck, brother," she said, leaning forward and giving him a kiss on the cheek. Tariq smiled and waited until he'd entered the tomb to wipe the token away.
The first large chamber had three stone coffins. The nearest had the withered body partially spilled out. Eola said she'd killed it and then had been forced to flee when others emerged. He squatted down and studied it, fascinated at how pliable the flesh was. There was no blood, and for being meat, the texture was like soft jerky. He wondered what embalming oils were used that permeated the meat.
There was the sound of sliding stone. He saw a horned helmet rising from another coffin. Interesting the way its eyes glowed blue. Oblivion magic was red. But Aetherius blue? Who or what perverted the energies of Aetherius to reanimate the dead?
The corpse now stood tall and held up its sword in challenge. It growled out words.
Strange. Tariq thought he could almost understand what it said. Definitely insulting. But he then mentally slapped himself. Of course it was an insult. Did one yell blessings at an enemy? Mama's witjuti grub sauce recipe?
He decided sword and dagger. See how fast the reflexes of these dead walkers were.
Pretty damn good. The creature, whoever it had been in life, knew how to use its armor to advantage, deftly twisting and presenting ancient iron plates to take the strikes of Tariq's blades.
He heard the sound of another dead walker approaching. It was time to end this test.
The dead walker must have thought it too because it growled, drew a deep breath into a creaking ribcage …
… and Shouted.
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