The Crimson Dirks, V7

Author: Gathers-the-Coin

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.

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