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The Crimson Dirks

Author: 
Gathers-the-Coin
Librarian Comment: 

Book added by Alternative Armor from the Creation Club

Tyra Blood-Fire didn't want just any crew.
 
Bandits never built Great Houses. They had no structure, organization, nor legacy. They had few tactics in the field and little design for the future. Worst of all they had no loyalty beyond filling their own pockets. A bandit clan was a pack of stray dogs fighting for scraps, willing to bite the hand if it dared to feed them.
 
Growing up in Balmora, Tyra knew that the Great Houses of Morrowind were built on blood. Yet as an orphan child and a Nord amongst Elves, her concept of family was one forged from experience. It wasn't the bandits and cutthroats, but the loners and outcasts she identified with most. So when she picked out the crew that would become the Crimson Dirks, she sought out the qualities that best defined herself. 
 
What she wanted were survivors.
 
To find them, she would first need connections. For this, she sought the help of a Dark Elf named Reaver. 
 
The Dunmer had no real name to speak of. Some speculated he was once a noble, having abandoned his titles and claims for a new one. Others believed he was with the Morag Tong, assassins having little use for their birth name. Tyra, meanwhile, had first met the brigand as a child begging in the streets. The Dark Elf had fixed his blood red eyes upon this orphan girl, ashen and starved, and deigned to fill her alms bowl. 
 
When she looked down, she found neither food nor gold, but a knife.
 
"This isn't a gift, little netch," the Dunmer cautioned, throat scarred with ash, "your first score belongs to me."
 
That night young Tyra would make good on that promise, delivering a single ruby into the ashlander's palm. It glowed crimson like fire and blood, and from that day she was known as Tyra Blood-Fire, earning her name just as Reaver did from his deeds. As the years passed, the Dunmer kept a close eye on the Nord, tracking her growth from a cutpurse to a bandit. And while she considered her debt to Reaver paid, whenever their paths crossed, he would continue to demand a cut.
 
Eight years later, and the two had gone their separate ways - not just in distance, but in spirit and mind. Tyra had matured into a tenacious warrior, her physique chiseled and rough, a body forged in a crucible of blood and ash. Reaver, on the other hand, had grown fat and lazy, content to skim off the labor of his subordinates while he spent his days in quiet repose.
 
As Tyra stood before him, he played with a ruby in his palm, occasionally using his forearm to wipe the saliva from his greasy lips. While Tyra recognized the gem almost immediately, the Dark Elf bared little resemblance to the vicious killer she once knew.
 
Perhaps it was Cyrodiil that changed him. He had traded his netch leather for fine silks, his dagger for a silver spoon, and his ashland cave for a highborn residence in the heart of Skingrad. His scowl was not one of rage, but irritation, chiefly at his guest for tracking mud on his freshly waxed floors. Only the eyes, scarlet and piercing, betrayed his former identity.
 
"I'm new to Cyrodiil," she said, placing a bag of gold on the table as tithe, "and I need a crew."
 
The Dunmer beckoned a servant to hand him the gold, as he could no longer be bothered to reach for it. He examined the bag briefly to judge its weight, before shooing the servant and the gold aside. Tyra wondered if she had been better served filling the bag with cakes.
 
"I will help you find these men," the Dunmer croaked, finger rapping the table, "but remember, little netch, your first score belongs to me."
 
Of men who fit her requirements, there were three. Aesrael, the High Elf hunter, had grown up in an orphanage. Peladius was a former guardsman, dismissed for beating a pickpocket to death. Antonius was a hedge mage who spent more time at the tavern than the guild. 
 
There were still others she wanted before the crew could be whole. She wanted a blacksmith to forge arms, and muscle to wield it. She wanted a thief who could stalk their prey in the shadows, and assassins to slit their throats. She wanted scouts to glean information, and sharp minds to decipher their code. And she was willing to travel the breadth of Tamriel to find them.
 
But for this first job, three was more than enough. One was all she needed. After all, she had already cased the building, having been invited as a guest. She had seen the servant girl deposit the gold in the next room, and the piles of riches scattered throughout the house. And she had watched as their plump, horker of an owner, lost his edge and taste for the work. For it was the reaver and all his riches that they would come for first.
 
A week later, the three sealed their pact in blood. Aesrael and Peladius, being trained warriors, made quick work of the guards. Antonius bespelled the servants with his magic, and together the crew filled the wagons with their spoils. 
 
But before all that was done, Tyra first found the once fearsome reaver in his bed chambers, helpless to stop what his greed had ordained. 
 
In the shadow of a lantern's light, the Nord approached him with arms extended. In one hand was the bag of gold she had given him the week prior. In the other was the knife he had placed in her alms bowl so many years ago. 
 
"I want you to have this," Reaver said, placing the ruby on the nightstand beside him. Tyra, for her part, never said a word. 
 
"I wasn't always a reaver," the Dark Elf continued, "I used to have a proper name. Casival, they called me. Funny story, there's a Dunmer boy, peddling for alms outside the Two Sisters Lodge with the same name."
 
Upon hearing his words, Tyra's eyes met Reaver's for the last time, standing over him as he once did her. Perhaps in that moment another deal was made, understood but left unspoken. 
 
Seconds later, she plunged the knife into his heart.
 
When it was done, Tyra wiped the blood-stained dirk on the bedsheet and picked up the ruby from the nighstand. In the hours that passed the crew sacked the place clean, all save the bag of gold, which she left next to her former employer's corpse. 
 
The first score, after all, belonged to him. The rest she took for herself.
The tavern fell into silence. Casival squinted at the young Bosmer, trying to get a read on his mood. Just hours earlier the lad had embarked on the biggest quest of his life, the kind of endeavor that turns squires into warriors, boys into men.
 
"Well, what did she say?" he asked the young bandit.
 
"She said she would only wed me," Fathrys said, "if I brought her the scale of a dragon."
 
The tavern burst into laughter, patrons smacking their tankards against the wood.
 
"What?" Fathrys replied, clearly confused, "What's so funny?"
 
"I'm sorry lad," said Casival, "but I think that's her way of saying 'No.'"
 
Fathrys was crestfallen. It had taken nearly all of his courage to confess his love to Zaharia. What meager defenses remained in his youthful frame, Casival could not guess, but they stood little chance against this latest assault. In fact, with each passing second Fathrys' shoulders slumped further and further into his chest, until he was more Guar than man. Taking pity, Casival decided to massage the boy's ego with a tale of his first rejection, when a familiar voice croaked at the pair from across the room.
 
"A dragon scale, you say?"
 
Not a soul had realized Antonius was in the tavern, mostly because the bandit mage was a permanent fixture. From dusk to dawn he teetered upon his wobbly chair, drinking all manner of spirits by his lonesome. Over time he began to blend into the scenery, like an odor that only strangers could smell.
 
"By the Nine, do you know where I can find one?" Fathrys beamed with shoulders out, his once gloomy face resurrected with life.
 
"I'm a wizard, am I not?" Antonius said, before letting out a dignified belch.
 
"A bandit wizard," Casival interjected, "and with all due respect to you and your profession, I don't think you're helping."
 
"Nonsense, Casival," scolded the mage, nearly tripping over his own feet as he sat at the table, "The boy needs a dragon scale, and I aim to help him find one."
 
"But the dragons have been extinct for centuries upon centuries," Casival said.
 
"You really are a bad student," scoffed Antonius, jabbing his finger into the Dunmer's forehead, "this is why Tyra favors Edward over you. At least he pays attention."
 
"Forgive me, mage."
 
"Only the Divines can forgive you, my son. Drink this bottle, and it'll take you to them."
 
"What about the dragon scale?" Fathrys whined, growing impatient.
 
"Oh right, that. Well, it just so happens, there's an old Nord legend about a warrior named Ulfnir Bone-Skin," Antonius explained, flecks of spit flying out of his mouth, "who slew the serpent wyrm Vithrelnaak and fashioned a powerful armor from his scales. When he died, instead of giving his armor away to his ungrateful pupils, he did what any self-respecting warrior would do, and buried himself with it."
 
"Well, that's too bad," said Casival, hoping to derail this runaway carriage, "surely it would've been emptied out by grave robbers by now."
 
"You would think," Antonius screamed, raising his voice for no reason, "but they say Ulfnir's corpse haunts the barrow near Yorgrim's Overlook, and kills anyone who dares try and take his armor."
 
"I see! So it's a challenge!" Fathrys exclaimed, "In order to wear Ulfnir's armor, one must first best him as a warrior!"
 
"Either that, or he just doesn't want some random stranger wearing his clothes. How would you feel if I showed up to your home wearing your undergarments? But yes, you kill Ulfnir, you get your dragon scale. You get your dragon scale, and you get your wench."
 
"She's not a wench. She's the most amazing woman in all of Mundus, and I'm going to marry her!"
 
"Sure, whatever."
 
Casival breathed a deep sigh as Fathrys' heart grew ill with hope. The only saving grace was that Windhelm was thousands of leagues away, and Fathrys was still a pup. Perhaps when he was ready for the work, a word or two with Tyra could send him further away still. Yet whatever remedy he devised would be temporary. He had seen that look too many times to deny what would come next.
 
A fortnight later, Casival returned to the tavern. It was the same as it ever was, for the most part. The wenches tended to the patrons, and the patrons to their stress. The bards sang tales old and new, and the drunkards, not knowing the lyrics, still saw fit to join them. Antonius was perched in the corner as always, a bottle in each hand and several more on the ground.
 
It was like any other Fredas, save for the empty seat beside him.
 
He would break the news to Tyra in the morning. The Bosmer would not return.
Erwan was convinced the ring was cursed.
 
At first, the proof came in small doses. There were bad streaks at the card table, sudden pain in her tooth, and stale bottles of mead. Soon, the proof took on a larger, more dangerous form. Her blade would miss its mark. Potions would cure too slowly. Or she'd step on a rune that her barbarian companion, Skjol, had no business skipping over.
 
Then there was the greater proof, the instances that threatened their livelihood. There was the coin drying up, new guard patrols at the usual haunts, and word that the East Empire Company had taken notice of their works. All told it augured a slow, tumbling march toward the end of the Crimson Dirks.
 
Knowing this, a smart person might've cast it out; tossed the foul ring into the heart of Illiac Bay and let the waves ferry it to forgotten shores. A wise person might've taken it a step further, destroying the artifact and its ill-fated magic, so that no person, past or present, would ever come to harm.
 
Erwan, of course, decided to wear it around her neck.
 
With regard to the ring's nature, she told only the barbarian. Her brother Edward would refuse to believe her. The others would demand she get rid of it, in whatever manner best fit their inclinations. Skjol, on the other hand, would neither object nor disapprove.
 
Whenever she confided in him, Skjol would simply stare at her blankly and let out a guttural snort before chewing on the nearest piece of meat. Skjol, after all, was not just a barbarian, but one who wore that label like a badge, or an honor bestowed upon him by the High King. Of words he knew few, and when he wrote them down, rarely did he put them in the right order. The only thng that spared him from further ignominy was the fact he couldn't speak.
 
As the story goes, the leader of the Crimson Dirks, Tyra Blood-Fire, found him in a cage with his tongue removed, and upon freeing him gained his axe. To this day it was never clear if Skjol was loyal to her or the crew, or whether that distinction had any meaning to him. If Tyra asked him to back Erwan on a job, he would do so without question, and absorb whatever secrets, insults, and curses the Breton decided to fling in his general direction.
 
That theory would be tested the moment she stepped on that rune.
 
Earlier that week, they had received a tip. A new crew had set up a smuggler's operation in one of the old ruins outside the capital. It was supposed to be a simple task. They were to meet with the clan leaders, flex their muscle, and come home with new members or a percentage of the take. It all would've gone according to script, Erwan thought, had the ring not been cursed.
 
"This is all your fault," she said to no one in particular, while glaring at her disobedient hands. Moments earlier, the Breton had awoken to the sound of chanting - a low and ominous moan floating through the chamber. The rune had blurred her sight, but it was the haunting refrain that seemed to dull her focus, unable to cast a spell.
 
Regardless, it was clear their captors were more than smugglers. Erwan didn't need to see the source of the chanting to know it was bad business, no matter how long Skjol mindlessly pointed in that direction.
 
"Well, at least it isn't cannibals," Erwan sneered, "although you being a choking hazard might've worked in our favor."
 
Skjol wasn't the brightest Nord, but he knew when he was being insulted. In a past life, he would've simply crushed Erwan's skull and taken a nap. Moreover, cages were nothing new to him, and Erwan's noisy jests were to him, signs of panic. But he had sworn a vow to protect the charges of the one they called Blood-Fire, and so rather than kill the Breton for looking at him oddly, Skjol continued to point, much to Erwan's confusion.
 
The shrine behind her was Daedric in origin - large, twisted and barbed, its stems ugly and misshapen. Blood dripped from its ebony thorns, spilling past the cage and down the stone steps like shifting roots. At the base of the steps stood robed cultists, lost in their supplication, flanked by guards dressed in Daedric armor and mail. Despite an open roof, the air in the ruins was thick and noxious, and the shrine seemed to throb in the blood moon's light.
 
As the light shone on the altar, the cultist chants began to turn more vehement and forceful. The voices continued to rise, louder and louder, until one of the guards broke from his stance, climbing the steps toward the cage. Seeing this, Erwan bared her teeth and snarled at him like an animal, but he continued his approach undeterred. As the chants hit a crescendo, Erwan could no longer hear her own thoughts, seeing nothing save the cold, black gauntlet split through the bars and reach for her neck.
 
With a thrust the guard grabbed her by the head and slammed her into the bars, drawing his weapon with his other hand. With spit bubbling from her mouth and her body pressed against the iron, Erwan screamed at Skjol every manner of insult she could contrive. But the oaf continued to sit in place, his finger still extended, even as the cultists' chant drummed against their ears. Only now the finger was pointed to the ground, tracing a circle.
 
Erwan looked down and saw the ring, glowing hotly on her chest.
 
Skjol didn't need to tell her what to do next. She wrung herself free of the guard's grasp, and not knowing what would happen, placed the ring on her finger.
 
The chanting stopped. And in its place, the shrill cry of weapons drawn from their scabbards. The Daedric warrior turned his attention to the cultists, but it was too late. Erwan's spell of hysteria had taken hold, her focus restored by the power of the ring. One by one the cultists turned on each other, their rage driven by hers. And when the clangs of metal faded and the screams turned to silence, Erwan collapsed, having exhausted all of herself and the ring.
 
As the hours passed into the day, Erwan lay there on the floor of her cage, letting the sun splash through the bars. Skjol snored softly in his corner, shifting on occasion to scratch himself. Outside, ravens picked at the flesh of the dead, sharpening their beaks on the bones and paying no mind to the living.
 
The others would come looking for them eventually, and fetch M'Sharra to pick the lock. But for now Erwan was content as she was. She held the ring up against the sky, circling the area where the moon once stood. Perhaps she had made a mistake, and the ring wasn't cursed after all.
 
But Erwan still held out hope.
The assassin's trail stretched further into the woods. Aesrael took the lead, with the Argonian and the Bosmer in close pursuit, following the thread of tangled brush and loose mud. As he knelt to study the tracks, a hint of jazbay bloomed on his tongue, a side effect of the Night-Eye that the mages could not explain.
 
The tracks seemed to pause around a great oak tree, as if their owner had stopped to rethink his method of escape. Thumbing the crook of his chin, Aesrael listened for the footsteps of his fellow bandits, not wanting to turn his head. The assassin was close.
 
Hours prior, the night began with a toast. A courier had brought news of merchandise coming in from jobs in the Highlands and the Gold Coast. It was the first sign of charity Stendarr had showed them in months, ever since the guard and the East Empire Company had taken a special interest in squashing their operations. With all their leads dried up, the Crimson Dirks were left to sacking caravans and petty thievery, the kind of work they were willing to do but always resented.
 
However, with this latest news their coffers would be as full as their cups. In addition to obtaining a cache of valuables from a Daedric cult, they had raided warehouses holding enchanted swords from Anvil, Colovian furs from Chorrol, along with crates of silks and fine robes weighted with perfume.
 
In order to launder the goods, the bandits, led by the Dunmer scribe Casival, made contact with a merchant noble, knowing he had connections across Cyrodiil. That night, they solidified the pact over a flask of wine and a gourmet feast. It was a landmark occasion for this group of rogues and misfits, to be legitimized in their dealings by a class above their own.
 
At that moment, the end of the Crimson Dirks might've seemed like the furthest thing from reality. Now, with Casival wounded and the merchant dead, it seemed almost inevitable.
 
"The trail ends here," Aesrael said, motioning to the trunk of the looming oak.
 
"Maybe the tree ate him," quipped the Bosmer, his Argonian partner Pale-Eyes trailing behind him.
 
"You jest, Ehlhiel," replied Pale-Eyes, "but in this one's village, there is a story of a Hist, corrupted by magic, that would kidnap and devour the hatchlings."
 
"Okay, I have to ask," the Bosmer replied, "Why are there so many stories about monsters that eat children? Are parents so inept they have to constantly frighten their young into behaving, or are children really that delicious?"
 
"I feel like as a Bosmer," countered the Argonian, "you would know better than I."
 
"Quiet, you two," warned Aesrael, "He's here."
 
Aesrael knew this was no time for banter. He could feel the taste of jazbay dim in his mouth. The Night-Eye would not last much longer, and when the spell snapped, their eyes would be ill-adjusted to the sudden darkness.
 
The assassin knew this as well. He had counted the seconds left in the spell and baited them to this point, where the long trees shrouded the moonlight. He had wagered on the fleeting light in the eyes of his pursuers, knowing his had yet to expire. He knew that blinded by the night, the Altmer would raise his hand and use the last of his magicka to recast the spell. And in that moment, he struck.
 
The assassin's dagger aimed for Aesrael's neck, slicing at the seam between his armor. He knew the Elf's left arm would be occupied by the spell casting, unable to guard his naked artery. And when he fell, the others would turn to his falling corpse, giving him ample distraction to kill them both. All of this seemed as academic as the death of the merchant, the one whom just hours ago they had failed to protect.
 
And yet, inches away from its mark, his dagger was stopped cold. The assassin tried to wrestle it free, only to find it clenched in the Altmer's fist.
 
It was a feint. The Elf had raised his hand, but never cast the spell.
 
Dropping the dagger, the assassin leapt back, having given away his position for no more than a bloody hand. Aesrael and the others rushed to subdue him, but he was far too quick. With his remaining dagger, he slit his own throat, taking the secrets of his masters to the grave.
 
"So, who wants to explain this to the boss?" Ehlhiel quipped, trying to lighten the mood, "Because I've got a list of about thirty people I like to blame in situations like this."
 
"There are no words that can justify the depth of our failure," Aesrael grumbled, wrapping his wound, "we lost the merchant and his killer. Casival is wounded. But perhaps, despite all this, we can learn something from the corpse."
 
"An assassin this skilled," remarked Pale-Eyes, "must work for the East Empire Company."
 
"Worse," said Aesrael, examining the cut of his armor, "it seems our merchant friend was dealing with more than just bandits, but the Thalmor as well. Because this man we killed isn't with the company. He's a Spectre."
 
Ehlhiel's face grew dim with the implication. It was one thing to make an enemy of the guards in the city, the East Empire Company, the Clan Mothers and even the Great Houses of Morrowind, but this was altogether different.
 
It was not the size or strength of their foe, but their knowledge they feared, and the Penitus Oculatus were spies of the highest order. If the Empire had been tracking the merchant's dealings, it was only a matter of time before their identities would be discovered and shared with all who opposed them.
 
The only question was, how much time was left.
In his time with the Crimson Dirks, Urgnok had killed countless men, and heard all manner of reaction to their deaths. He'd heard women gasp, men cry, and children scream. Yet never in his life had he heard the noise that cascaded from the archways, when he plunged his sword into the belly of his assailant.
 
Applause.
 
When the crew disbanded, many of the Dirks were forced into the shadows, yet Urgnok's path took a different route. He met with a face butcher, adopted an alias, and joined the arena. And for the most part, the tactic seemed to work. These days, the only pursuers the Orc feared were the adoring fans that followed him in the street.
 
"I suggest you turn around now," Urgnok grumbled, seeing a shadow cut through the door, "the last fan who annoyed me was this baker. He offered me a pastry, and I smashed his face in. Now he eats his sweet rolls through a straw."
 
"Funny," the shadow replied, "I seem to recall a sparring session years ago that ended with you crying back to Tyra like a newborn babe."
 
"Zaharia. What are you doing here?"
 
"I came to see our mutual Orc friend," the Redguard said, examining a nearby weapon," I see you've already paid her a visit, judging by that armor. Dwarven, right? Although not exactly what I pictured."
 
Urgnok spit at the ground, acknowledging what she left unspoken. The blacksmith was a magician with a hammer and anvil, working with all types of metal. Perhaps that was how the Redguard puzzled out his identity, yet it was unlikely a Blood-Kin would betray his confidence.
 
"You know, the funny thing about fighting styles," Zaharia said, swinging the practice blade, "is that they're almost like fingerprints. You may have changed your armor, your name, and even your face, but I recognized that clumsy top foot of yours almost immediately."
 
"Doesn't matter," Urgnok sneered, "The guard haven't sniffed me out yet, and they won't ever. I've been able to hide in plain sight, while everyone else is dying in the shadows."
 
"Hiding in plain sight may work in the short term," Zaharia said, sliding the weapon back onto the rack, "But over time, you know what happens to things in plain sight? They get seen."
 
"Cut the crap, Zaharia," the Orc groused, "we both know I don't care what you think."
 
"True," the Redguard replied, handing him a letter, "but you'll care about this."
 
Urgnok wasn't sure how he was discovered, or who wrote the letter to the guard. Had Zaharia not killed its bearer, he would already be in chains. He stopped short of accusing Zaharia of forging the note, however. She was crafty, but not a liar.
 
"Where."
 
"North," said the Redguard, "Get into one of the Strongholds, or take a job fighting in the pits. Either way, you can't stay here."