Kyne’s Challenge: High Rock

Rolling Hills and Cursed Crags

BANEKIN | There is a gradual drying of the grasslands, as the lush pastoral land meets the arid, warming winds of Bangkorai in the far distance; this gives Stormhaven its unpredictable weather. The march to hunt dreugh was not without its interruptions, but these were mainly to honor Kyne’s majesty; we watched magnificent thunderstorms form and wane, thunder arc over far fortifications, and the grass turn to heather. Darkness was falling when we chanced upon a small hamlet behind a copse of rowan trees that hadn’t appeared on our maps. The dogs (and the Argonian) smelled trouble moments before our eyes and ears confirmed it.

The shrieks of Breton villagers, and the screams of cattle burning in their barn. As we stepped out from the trees, it became clear that Molag Bal’s whim was being served: A barn on fire, flames darting and licking from shattered windows, panicked cows, and straw ablaze. A couple of older farmers defending their livelihood, with murdered offspring lying at their feet. And all around, there were impish, prancing forms: Dark gray, shrunken men, hunched homunculi, and wings without the mass to carry them. Banekin marauders left to their own cruel devices, their summoner long since departed.

“Where are the Lion Guard?” A villager rushed past, clutching her bloodied face. Fenrig and Ingjard quickly separated and charged at the first of the small atrocities. Footfalls-in-Snow rushed to fling open the barn doors, saving as many cattle as possible. The Orc had counted three banekin, and had already struck one with his sizable (and armored) fist. It lay unconscious until I separated the head, and instructed Footfalls-in-Snow to set about tooth extraction after the fight was over.

Cornered in the burning barn, these mottled gray-and-black imps with pointed ears twitching, claws still stained with Breton blood, attempted a snarl and widened their vacant, pale blue eyes to dissuade us from combat. Their tails of ridged spines lashed, as they hissed and lunged, their thin arms banging on my shield. Pushing one back, I watched it channel a small, murky ball of magic, which weaved from its finger and into me. I felt nauseous and slightly weakened. But such magic was pitiful: Despite agile leaps and attempts to envelop us with their cursed energies, they felt the bruising impact of Nord axe and Orc mace. With the Daedra now dazed and badly wounded, I instructed Bashnag to close the barn doors.

As the straw bales fueled a fierce burn, flames shot up like a Nord’s signal bonfire, and the structure finally collapsed in on itself with a mighty crack. We heard muffled screams from within, as the servitors of Molag Bal returned to face the wrath of their master. A fittingly cruel end to their mischief.

DREUGH | The coastal waterways of Stormhaven seemed the perfect breeding grounds for dreugh: the inland lakes near lush floodplains of grass and low shrubs, set against the backdrop of brooding, stormy skies. Others have written about Karvinasim, or the transformation of the water dreugh to a creature that forms legs to exist on land and lake, and I have not the interest to further my knowledge in such matters. We are here to hunt and harvest: While the Dunmer hunt them for their hides, our benefactor requires dreugh wax, scooped from the head cavities and shell of the animal, and used by his apothecaries.

Fenrig has spent time in these parts, and refers to these creatures by the local term, //billies//. As we waited by the bank of a lake where dreugh eggs had been recently harvested, a frenzy of splashing and shouts soon announced the arrival of our quarry. Twice as tall as a Nord, with a chest plate and the front arms of a man, but crab-like leg limbs with vicious pincers ends, and two more claw protrusions growing with vigor from its back. You could cut exposed skin on the rough shell of this powerful and ancient monster. Clicking mandibles under a flat-crested head, white eyes. A deep red back and a yellowy underside.

Ingjard kept the other dreugh at bay with a number of warning arrows designed to dissuade. Fang and Mauler bit down on a spindly leg, refusing to let go as they dragged some of the ferociousness from the dreugh’s strikes. Bashnag and Fenrig each took turns in cracking open this oversized mudcrab, meeting the dreugh’s claw swipes and slashes with their own weapons.

“Back to the shore!” Fenrig spotted this dreugh’s trick early enough to avoid disaster, and both he and Bashnag found firmer footing on the lake’s bank just as the dreugh attempted more cunning aggression. Faint electrical sparks began to form around the creature’s vestigial front legs, which coursed through to its shoulder pincers, as the entire beast sprang at Bashnag, lighting him up in a tourbillion of crackling light. As the current writhed through the Orc, he remained free of the water, parrying the claws hammering at him, and both hunters launched masterful strikes after the electricity dissipated. The Orc’s mace broke the dreugh’s spine, and Fenrig’s axe finished its spurt, clipping the head and half severing it from the neck. The beast dropped forward and fell onto Bashnag.

As the Orc lifted the dreugh corpse off himself, it coughed up a ball of foul-smelling meat, which splattered across Bashnag’s face. “Grom!” Footfalls-in-Snow remarked excitedly. “This specimen must only recently undergone Karvinasim; there’s an unwanted gill!” The Orc was not even mildly interested to know exactly what was in the collection of skin and organs he’d half swallowed. The Argonian gathered the scrapings and added it to our heap: A good day’s hunt, and a wealth of ingredients.

GIANT SPIDER | “Kynareth’s shrine is within the crags by the stunted pine,” Fenrig assured us, as we completed our ascension up to the barren plateau. The gloom of Doomcrag stayed with us, as we stepped through small clumps of blasted heather, nearing the edge of the moors. Then the shrine, shrouded not in light from a dozen ceremonial candles, but the darkened webs of a thousand spiders. Furious at the lack of upkeep, I uttered a curse that startled even Bashnag. We advanced towards the forlorn ruin, until I spotted a strange shape in the dark. The Argonian’s lantern illuminated the shriveled remains of a Breton, dangling in a cocoon of white thread. He wore the fineries of a priest of Kynareth.

It was not a thousand spiders…

An arachnid the size of a horse reared up from behind the shrine, eight hairy legs twitching, casting huge and looming shadows in the flickering light. Faintly blue supports holding up a bulging brown back, two rows of beady eyes, and mandibles trembling: This horror had been waiting for prey for a while (the fact that no Breton had ventured here for prayer since the priest’s desiccation added further insult). The spider scuttled forward, around its cunningly spun web of traps. Bashnag raised a torch to the sticky entrails, but no Orc would be desecrating this sanctuary. Instead, Nord arrows found their mark as the spider clattered its mouth parts, lurching in for a bite, fangs exposed. It received a bolt to the gob for its troubles.

It retaliated with a spray: a disgusting crescent of foul-smelling, poisonous bile, which began to eat through Ingjard’s shield. Pockmarked and seeping with arrow ends, the giant spider leaped up at Bashnag, but was brought down swiftly with a crushing blow that sprayed the immediate area with innards.

The Argonian siphoned venom from the remains. Bashnag mended Ingjard’s shield. The Nords returned the shrine to Kyne, and were bathed in her glory and good fortune.

FLESH ATRONACH | Breton merchants trekking the path from Daggerfall had warned us not to stray on the moors. This barren plateau of stunted bush and windswept grass was the domain of bandits… and worse. Thick fog could descend and steal our sense of direction. Craggy fissures could appear underfoot, twisting ankles and lengthening our travels. But none of this hindered our weathered crowd. Our only bewilderment occurred as a huge, hunched shape appeared across the heather: Roaming on the Rivenspire moors, a giant, sewn together from the skin and pelts of man and mer.

Jaundiced hues of yellows and grays over a rough bones structure, taller than an ogre, and almost the height of a giant, were its shoulder not so hunched and misshapen. Strange runes carved into the hide, perhaps to help seal the rather rudimentary stitchwork. The head was almost an afterthought, a chinless tapestry of skin draped over an old skull, eyes fastened shut, tongue lolling out of a jawless mouth. Thick spines covered the back, and shackled ankles told the story of servitude. Strange, glowing spots of red, pulsing behind the taut skin (glands of some sort?), added further blemishes to an already disfigured body. But the most startling mutilation was the atrocity’s arms, sculpted into primitive tools of bloodshed—one armed fused into a huge, four-pronged claw, the other into an elongated and bulging club of spikes and skin. A revolting carbuncle of dead flesh, an affront to the natural order, and to Kyne.

Bashnag’s bravery was not in question as he felt the brunt of the flesh atronach. He managed a couple of strong connections to the beast’s knee, hobbling it slightly as the atronach finished its lumbering turn to face him. A dodge more deft than the Orc’s usual dexterity allowed meant the atronach’s twisting, stabbing claw was caught in Bashnag’s mace and thrust back at the horror. It was the atronach’s second attack that did the damage; Bashnag was cut, and quickly set alight as a throbbing in the beast’s claw hand manifested into a blast of magical fire. The Orc staggered back, clutching his face. This gave the flesh atronach an opening, raising its unyielding mace above its head, tendons flexing as the skin grew tight around the arm weapon; before it was brought down with such savagery, we believed the Orc was split apart.

Bashnag’s breast plate was torn off, and a deep ditch gashed into his chest. Perhaps it was the first time the Orc had felt a strike so similar to his own destructive methods. But he didn’t like it. Blood frothing from the mouth and wounds, Bashnag brought his own mace into the fray with a retaliatory strike for the ages. It caught the atronach squarely in the face, pushing the skull so far into the beast’s body, Fenrig swore he saw it bulge out of its back. Although menial, the head still controlled the mechanism of this foe, and it had been crushed into a pulpy mash (with such ferocity that it caused astonishment among the others). The atronach lurched and dropped into the heather, its Daedric spirit banished.

Perhaps only Molag Bal’s own maxe was capable of bettering Bashnag’s.

BLOODFIEND VAMPIRE | An icy wind whipped up as we descended from the moors, as the road meandered down to a small collection of wattle-and-daub structures. The stench of decay filled our nostrils. It was just as Kishra-do’s contact in Wayrest had described: parts of this realm given up entirely by the Bretons and left to rot, taken over by their feral kin. A decaying village scene of pestilence and hopelessness. A settlement of bloodfiends, pitiful savages with not a semblance of higher thought, cursed to see out their days roaming Rivenspire, searching for the living to feed off.

A pallid gray face peered out from behind leaded windows, as we slowly edged forward into the empty market square. The air thick with an unpleasant odor of decomposing flesh. Skeletal remains of animals, torn apart in their pens, and long since devoured. The corpses of villagers, now little more than husks of bone and sagging cloth. You could catch a bout of the collywobbles on the air, it seemed. No one had ventured here for weeks, and it soon became clear that the three cursed citizens here were ravenous.

A gaunt man rose from gnawing his bone, and flashed an infected, putrid smile—faint recognition from the time before his mind had degraded beyond salvation. Thin, matted hair caked with dirt and sweat stuck to his face. Two sunken eyes of yellow and black, half hidden in skin bags of gray and red, the obvious signs of this vampiric disease. Tattered remains of fine Breton clothing, now soiled and torn. Once a nobleman and now a shambling atrocity.

Although these fellows exhibited a staggering gait, the befuddlement afflicting them didn’t impede their agility, as Ingjard (who led the reconnoiter) found out. Three bloodfiends sprinted across the cobblestone square, all swarming on her from different directions. One fell to our arrows before he reached the algae-filled fountain. The other two leapt for Ingjard, who was ready with her axe and planted it swiftly into the side of a bloodfiend’s head. Wrenching the weapon out, the foe spluttered and fell to a twitching death. The other struck her shield, snarled with the ferocity of a snared wolf, and bared a row of uneven fangs.

Ingjard stepped forward, her axe swinging, and the bloodfiend retaliated with a slash of infected talons, cutting her deep in the arm. She winced, allowing her foe another chance to swipe. It leapt high and slammed down hard, catching Ingjard off balance. As the blood from her wounds began to pool, I quickly stepped into the fray and delivered a precise blow, removing the bloodfiend’s head from its neck. There was to be no feasting on Nord blood this day.

HARPY | Our trail to capture the pelt and feathers of a “bird-woman of Rivenspire” led us to the barren plateaus and rocky cliffs along the rim of this realm. The rocky slit of a large aerie was easily spotted. Fenrig returned from a successful forage, but the rabbits weren’t for us. We were hunting for harpy.

A red-tinged miscellany of woman and bird, almost comely in nature, a frill of erect feathers around her neck, piercing black dots within crimson-pooled eyes staring down with malcontent. A crest of raised, hair-like feathers running down her back ridge. Arms enveloped by giant wings, big enough to carry her weight, agile enough to be tucked down behind her huge talons. Knife-sharp claws for hands and feet, stained hooks adding another shade of red to this figure of fear for merchants and other travelers throughout Rivenspire. A wanton wench cursed by Mara? Not a beast of myth, but a scavenger of carrion, blending magic, their own language (of screeching and crowing), and a primitive survival instinct in a matriarchal nest. We were mindful not to summon an entire flock.

We edged carefully into the edge of harpy territory, far from the erratic bluffs where the main aerie was nestled. Ingjard’s well-accepted ruse would be employed: Fenrig’s fresh kill placed downwind, between the rocks of the winding goat trail. Bashnag and the Argonian would create a ruckus closer to the aerie, but without resorting to combat (a fact Bashnag needed reminding of almost to the point of conniptions on the part of Ingjard). The rabbit corpse prompted a curious onlooker, first a speck against the sun-washed rocks and pale blue sky, then a screeching, crowing monster. The harpy landed by the bloodied rabbits, claws ready to tear. In the distance, squawking (in the languages of both the harpy and the Orc) was heard.

Ingjard charged forward, and the harpy reared up, attempting flight. She was struck by Ingjard’s shield and flummoxed for a moment, before realizing her predicament and launching back, delivering a powerful kick. It struck the shield with a crack, but Ingjard held firm, narrowly missing with a retaliatory sword lunge. Now a scream from the harpy, from which came forth a bolt of shocking light, dissipating across the shield. Soaring up and around, red eyes glaring and finger barbs at the ready, the harpy beat her wings furiously, building a focused gale of wind to finally floor Ingjard. But the gale became a breeze as our arrows struck feathered flesh, and the harpy shrieked and fell to Ingjard’s feet. A swift and final thrust ended it.

Poets and artists would pay handsomely for quills fashioned from this plumage.

LURCHER | First evening’s camp in the gnarled and mist-laden Glenumbra forest was not the serene rest we craved. Through mouthfuls of venison, Bashnag complained the woods were haunted, and a strange, greenish glow confirmed this; a light of unnatural countenance was stalking us. A wisp? The light from a hag’s lantern? We ventured towards the source, but it vanished. Twice it appeared, and twice we lost it in the failing light. Ah, for the eyes of a Khajiit!

Fang’s growling alerted us, as did the rustling of dark undergrowth. Suddenly, the glow was upon us.

A spriggan’s accursed brother crashed into our camp: However, unlike the lithe forms created by Kyne, this was a lumbering binding of an evil spirit: a crudely made construct of vines, twisted branches, and knurled bark, some parts still with mushrooms and moss growing on them. A writhing ball of luminous energy churned within the outer casing, visible through exposed ribs and a hole where the head should be. “Lurcher!” Fenrig shouted—an apt title, as the unsteady golem staggered out of the trees with the grace and agility of an intoxicated giant. It appeared to be fashioned by a Reachman, with primitive movements to match. This was a creature built to cleave. It shook the ground as it walked. It did not hesitate in charging our party’s largest member.

It swung a huge claw arm vertically down, as a bear playing with food is wont to do. The sheer strength almost buckled Bashnag’s legs, and with gritted teeth he gleefully counterattacked with a wild swing of his mace. Plodding back, the lurcher seemed to click into an almost mechanical maneuver, raising both arms high above its head hole, and bringing both down with a colossal, crushing slam. Bashnag staggered, dropping to his knees, and Footfalls-in-Snow let out a gasp. This was the first occasion where our Orc had been bettered.

The lurcher shuddered in place as we paced around with our axes. The Argonian produced a scroll, murmuring incantations, and a ball of licking flame writhed in his claw. A moment later, a cloud of choking pollen flew from the lurcher’s core, first with force before gently wafting down, coating Fang in a poisonous haze. Fenrig flew into a rage, chopping into the lurcher with both axes as the creature began to turn and focus on the Nord. An Argonian fireball flew past, striking the lurcher in the midriff. By now the Orc had regained his footing, but his composure was further angered. Borrowing Ingjard’s axe, he leapt upon the smoldering contraption of wood and evil.

By the time Bashnag was finished, we had a pile of kindling large enough for a dozen campfires.

HAG AND HAGRAVEN | We sipped our nettle tea, and all but the Argonian politely refused the dead beetles offered as a meal. A hag coven, deep within Glenumbra Woods. A tense truce negotiated by Ingjard, who wished to gain further insights into these powerful witches and their dance with Hircine. We were welcomed to a moss-draped den: a hollow-out tree. Bashnag with a glum expression on his face, chin on fist, slightly put out at this befriending.

“This one runs with the wolves,” remarked an older crone, manhandling Fenrig’s arm as she prodded his muscles with a filthy finger. A ripped and sagging shawl hung from her emaciated arms; it was sometimes hard to tell which was flesh and which was cloth. Dying hair hung limply either side of a wizened face. She was hanging skin, curved bone, and a hunched back with strange grasses and shelf mushrooms growing out from her shoulders and down her green-tinged body. Oddly fleshy sacks hung from her waist, as did a bloodied hatchet. Her staff was adorned with a cluster of small skulls (too small to be adult) at the crown.

What was in this tea again?

“Does not the Song of Hrormir… describe Nocturnal as one of your kin…?” Ingjard asked, her voice trailing off to a slur. Her tea was finished (as was her trust, it soon transpired). She fell forward, now in a stupor. The tea had been dosed, as had the food on offer, and our Argonian friend was flat on his back, sleeping like the dead. We weren’t about to join him. The hag untied her hatchet, her eyes strangely smoking with an unnatural purple vapor, and approached Ingjard’s body. “The first sacrifice to Mother Murk!” The forfeit of reason and higher functions in the pursuit of dark power always results in such devious repugnance.

Only Bashnag, Fenrig, and myself had our wits about us. We shouldn’t be explaining to our ancestors in Sovngarde how we’d been outmatched by a crone. Bashnag dragged our unconscious fellows out of the den, while we faced a trio of these corrupted shrews. Hatchets were wielded wildly, but for one gnarled crone, not wildly enough, as Fenrig tore through her gizzard with a sharper and deeper-wounding axe. I vaguely remember a compression of black shadows, filling my vision and pulling me towards one of the hags. A dark grasp choked the vigor, and I almost dropped to my knees. But these were mere illusions. My mind stayed as sharp as my sword, which ran through the last hag, skewering her in mid incantation. Too late she covered herself with shadows, and attempted to reflect the fatal wounding I had caused. Our jubilation lasted moments.

We were blanketed by a whirling storm of white-eyed, inky-black ravens.

This glen had been further polluted by a hagraven, a fiend forsaking Kyne herself and a creature I’d been hoping to face since the Reachmen captured one of the monsters that rampaged through Skyrim during the Wild Hunt back in 1E 369. As the raven parted, but span around her seemingly frail form, the hagraven approached. More grotesque than the witches we had already encountered, this contradiction of nature wore the sagging skin, drooping nose, and shriveled breast of an old woman, but bore fearsome claws and talons, hook claws instead of heels, bone ornaments as trinkets, and bedraggled plumes of black feathers woven into gray skin.

A bony finger pointed at me. The storm of ravens changed their flight, and then their form, turning from black to a burning orange as they spontaneously caught fire. I was engulfed. I felt the grim flames lap at my boots and cloak. Such depraved magnificence!

“As the blessings of nature protect me, Kyne grant me fortitude!”

The burning blackness was instantly dismissed. In my hands I held a spectral bow, bound to my form. I notched an arrow from the air, as worry encroached across the hagraven’s expression. Fenrig wasted no time slicing down with a heavy axe swing, lopping off three clawed fingers. The worry turned to shrieking anger, and a bolt of fire was summoned from her remaining hand. It struck Fenrig on the shoulder, allowing the hagraven the moments she needed to conjure a small pool of fire below Fenrig. Such sorcery would have been impressive to study. But we required Fenrig. A single, spectral arrow struck the hagraven in her left eye.

Her death screams finally woke the Argonian.

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