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Kyne's Challenge

Author: 
Grundvik Cold-Fist
Librarian Comment: 

This is one of three books that came with the Hero's Guide to Tamriel.

A Prayer To Kyne

Hear me, goddess of storms, and the bringer of rain,
The Mother of Men and Shor’s Warrior-Wife,
Your Sons and your Daughters implore you again,
Protect those that hunt, for they savor their life.
Your wind at our backs, we seek the faintest of tracks,
Your blessings alone exalt our fury in attacks.
We watch for the Hawk, on the grayest of days,
Your servants and advocates, trained in the Old Ways.

 

Moon Sugar Press
Dune, Elsweyr

Invocation and Merriment

Our time of strife and troubles blankets the land in fear. They say the dead rise to claim Cyrodiil. That Daedra intrusions grow common. Within a year, Molag Bal will be baying at the gates of Whiterun. But there is much merriment and tradition to be had in Tamriel. Nords fear no trespasser into the nine holds. Our mead is envied by all men and mer. And our wilderness is abundant with life to hunt for amusement or necessity. But what of the loathsome and the monstrous far from our fields of heather, away from the White? I am astonished when a recruit from Elden Root hasn’t the knowledge to proficiently hunt a snow bear. And I worry our Nord cubs would face a wamasu of Black Marsh without proper guidance of its more dangerous defenses. Our libraries are filled with histories, but what of tomes less musty, and more beneficial to our current predicament?

Naturally, Kyne provided the answers. A challenge to test the finest huntsmen: A volume of parchment to attest to the ferociousness of our prey, and the capabilities of our company. We seek one example of every beast that roams through Mundus, whether imbecilic or guileful, tracked to their lair, and brought down by our cunning. Artistry most fine shall accompany the depictions of our actions and the ferocity of our quarry. The gift of fine hides or warm innards will be gathered and offered for sale to trade elder Zagun-ra (our benefactor), who pays for the printing and distribution of this knowledge. What if we encounter creatures unnatural or cursed? They too shall be dismissed with a similar vigor, as if Kyne herself had summoned them.

Our journey may be fraught. The armies of revenants seek to choke and turn our livelihoods to darkness. The politics of the three great alliances may threaten our freedom. But Kyne’s light shines on. Let us teach you preparedness, and the skills of survival. And the benefits of a mug of Frost River mead.

— GRUNDVIK COLD-FIST
Guildmaster of the Fighters Guild of Sentinel,
Nord of Windhelm; 4th of First Seed, 2E 578, Riften

 

GRUNDVIK COLD-FIST
I hail from Windhelm, but currently oversee the Fighters Guildhall in Sentinel, in the baking sun of Hammerfell. I am fortunate, then, to have been given this grand challenge, where I can return to the lands of my youth, where I am closer to Kyne. My bestiary is to serve the Guild, as our methods of hunting may help my brothers and sisters facing the monstrous of Tamriel. I hunt with my trusted Ingjard, and select brethren, chosen to further our forays across Mundus. My paths are well traveled, and I tolerate Orcs, Elves, and other beast-men. I prefer finesse over force, the company of bards, and enjoy both hand-drawn art as well as hand-forged axes. But my artistry and wordsmithing does not diminish my ferociousness with a blade, as my foes have found, to their cost.

FENRIG THE UNSTEADY
I have knowledge of Fenrig’s brother Roggvir the Ready (the protector of Rorikstead). But I was surprised to learn of his twin, Fenrig. My trusted companion Ingjard remarked on the considerable talents of both siblings, when tracking or violently performing with an axe. Alas, Roggvir is indisposed, but Ingjard’s recommendation convinced me to bring Fenrig and his war dogs into our fold. The fellow seems strangely gloomy and reserved, keen to speak only about how he tracks wild animals through swamp and snow. During these festivities in Riften, his actions perplex me; he declines to partake in mead. Is he ill?

FANG AND MAULER
Fenrig brings with him two feisty familiars: his war dogs. They are fiercely loyal and usually by his feet. Judging by their coats and faces, these are more wolf than dog. Mauler’s temperament seems relatively docile; he is oblivious to the festivities and content to slobber on a large bone of marrow. Fang, however, seems skittish; she stays by her master flashing a distrusting look and sharp teeth, growling at the Argonian.

INGJARD STONE-HAND
My trusted friend and an exceptional tracker, Ingjard has recently returned from a month of hunting across the Velothi Mountains with the formidable Holgunn One-Eye. Not only are her arrows true and her axes sharp, but her paintings of Skyrim are most pleasing to the eye. These skills are all the more impressive as she is beset with only one good hand (the other hidden inside a gauntlet, mangled after defending herself from a werewolf). Clad in furs, with a row of daggers across her chest, Ingjard clanks mead mugs with Skald kings, murders trolls before breakfast, and has her art hanging from the rafters of Dragonsreach. I am proud to call her my friend.

FOOTFALLS-IN-SNOW
This Argonian Boot professes to be a spell-sword of some repute, and comes with a letter of reference from Armory Sergeant Belderi Llenim of the Mournhold Guildhall, but I have little reason to trust this lizard. He rasps in a singsong voice, speaks in nature allegories, and sips his mead like an Imperial. He swears he is here to learn the ways of the Nord hunter, and has promised to provide safe passage through Black Marsh and much of southern Tamriel. The Orc and Fenrig’s dogs have already taken a dislike to him. I have reserved my judgment, as his skill with a skinning knife is ruthlessly competent.

BASHNAG GRO-GORZOTH
A fellow member of the Fighters Guild, he is an impressively bulky Orc, favoring a cladding of the heaviest armor even on the most sweltering of days. He takes to hammering mead down his gullet like a slaughterfish to water. Although one would favor a slobbering troll over this specimen when attempting delicate diplomacy with a Dunmer, if you wish something to be struck so hard the crack can be heard in Oblivion, using a mace that a giant would have trouble wielding, seek out this Orc. Usually the picture of jocularity, Bashnag is no simpleton, and boasts blood kinship to the blacksmiths of King Kurog of Orsinium. He certainly hits harder than any man or mer I’ve met before.

KISHRA-DO
A somewhat aloof Khajiit, hailing from the trading settlement of Dune in distant Elsweyr. She is the House Cat of trade elder Zagun-ra, a powerful merchant (and our benefactor) who also resides there. A formidable assassin by all accounts, Kishra-do seems to have an air of irritation about us Nords: Perhaps it is the weather? She carries a variety of satchels and daggers, and wears leathers to accentuate her natural feline litheness. I have witnessed her slit a giant from ear to toe; the lumberer was dead before he realized his attacker had pounced. She now acts as a courier and collector of ingredients, returning intermittently to gather the spoils of our hunt.
 

A Land of Gray Ash and Foul Pestilence

SKEEVER | At the edge of the Autumnal Forest with the Velothi Mountains at our backs, our previous night’s joviality had lessened considerably. Kishra-do joined us before departing for Mournhold, away from our hunt. Fenrig sat apart from us, bathed in a shaft of light from Secunda, keeping his dogs away from the Argonian and the Khajiit. Ingjard sat pensively, quietly murmuring prayers to Kyne. Bashnag was out collecting firewood, his nighttime foraging exhibiting all the silent cunning of a mammoth in an apothecary. Kishra-do stopped chatting to Footfalls-in-Snow, and leaned in to my ear.

“Your dungmer attracts noise as well as fleshflies,” she noted with her barbed tongue, eliciting a rasping chuckle from the lizard. “Perhaps Kishra-do will offer him a chiming bell to wear so he might alert all the woodland beasts?” I was about to explain we’d face no dangers in this neck of the woods, when a hissing squeal interrupted her insults. Kishra-do leapt up, swiftly reaching for her staff, and brought it down with considerable force, piercing straight through the head of a huge rodent. Its tiny red eyes glared up at us for a moment, before Kyne gathered up the skeever’s spirit to give to Peryite.

I narrowly missed receiving a furry face of jagged yellow teeth and disease, as a skeever leapt out into our clearing. Three, perhaps four, encroached on the camp, probably attracted by the fire. Or the lumbering nocturnal noises of our Orc friend. He attended to a skeever by bringing his hefty armored foot down, driving both boot and beast into the soggy soil. Ingjard’s arrows finished the rest of the vermin. Fenrig barely looked up. A brief and rowdy lull between conversation.

Before we slept, Bashnag offered Kishra-do some skewered skeever he’d been roasting. “This must be fortuitous, Khajiit!” he shouted (although we found out subsequently this was his speaking voice).

“How so, idiot?” Kishra-do responded. A little harshly, I felt.

“Ha! I’d wear your coat as a winter cloak if I thought you serious,” Bashnag continued.

Ingjard looked up from her painting as I rose from my seat. Ingjard flashed me a look of concern, but I shook my head; these were the teething troubles usually present when others are brought to the hunt.

The Orc waved the hindquarters of a charred skeever skewer in Kishra-do’s face. “You didn’t think you’d be eating your principal diet? How many different ways do you cat folk eat rat?”

“None, you feeble-minded mongrel. We refrain from playing with balls of yarn, and mark our territory with flags, not secretions. Though I’m happy to make an exception with you, yes?”

“Fellow hunters!” I stood to my full height.“Your bickering, though amusing, offends Kyne.” I produced a bottle of Ashfire mead (it seemed apt, based on our first destination), and handed it to the Orc. For the Khajiit, a skin of Moon Sugar double rum.

“A spot of Nord diplomacy?” I offered.

ASSASSIN BEETLE | We spied the Ashlander camp at dusk; it sat in a patch of flat ground -- rare to encounter in the jagged wilderness of Stonefalls -- pockmarked by small rocks and twisted, stunted trees. Fenrig approached with a lit torch. His suspicions (and his dogs' heckles) were raised as he lifted the draped folds of a tent, and was almost knocked back by the smell. Dragging out a Dunmeri corpse, he had little time to examine the deep puncture wounds before Fang began to growl.

Something large was shuffling about in one of the other tents. A faint clicking, rasping sound could be heard. Mauler was bounding into the tent at full tilt.

Fenrig barely had time to unsheathe his sword before Mauler was set upon by the first assassin beetle. We waited for his call, but he decided to face both insects with his dogs. Mauler soon tumbled out of the tent, attached to the carapace of this huge, scuttling foe, a mass of black, red, and highlights of gray. Mandible snapping and lunging, the beetle caught the hound with a deep, gouging bite, sending it yelping from the throng.

Fang clamped her teeth on the edge of the beetle’s armored hide and wrenched it upwards, attempting to flip the insect onto its back (as she’d been trained). The beetle lashed out with its frothing jaws, biting the air close to Fenrig’s cloak. Clamor, as Bashnag had to be restrained from charging in to wallop a second assassin beetle as it scuttled from the same tent. It immediately disappeared. Moments later, the bug blinked back, behind Fenrig, and leapt at the Nord’s back with mouth snapping.

Fenrig’s senses did not fail him. He wheeled round, catching the underbelly with a wrenching, skewering rip, then stepped to avoid the heavy shower of the beetle’s acid-laced blood. He turned back just as Fang tore into the carapace, the beetle writhing and wrong side up. Another sword plunge, and the mystery of the deserted Ashlander camp was solved.

We found no evidence of a hive, and so burned the remains of the Dunmeri wanderers. While Footfalls-in-Snow merrily scooped out the hollowed shell, Bashnag cooked up the beetle stew. It could only be described as “mostly digestible,” despite the Orc’s assurances of his competency in the kitchen.

CORPRUS HUSK | The lights of Bal Foyen appeared, twinkling through the ash haze, choking the river winding to little more than an ooze, slowly flowing past this site of ancient Dwemer origin. Red Mountain, and its numerous smaller eruptions, have certainly stunted the vegetation and made life intolerable for the Dunmer. This is a land of permanent gray. Our slog was slow going, the ash particularly deep, and time seemed to pass with a weary malaise. Or, as our Argonian friend put it, “This is a place where even the rocks have sorrows.”

Moist face shrouds (or continuous nose picking in the case of Bashnag) helped the breathing as we traipsed to firmer ground, and the cobbles of the road to Bal Foyen. Our benefactor, my Skald King, and our firm alliance as part of the Ebonheart Pact prevented us from wantonly engaging in combat with the Dunmer. This was a ruling even the Orc was willing to follow, which made our subsequent combat so unintentionally deadly.

Masser and Secunda were rising and the valley was bathed in an eerie light. Now that the winds had died down, we heard very faint bustling from within the distant town, noise echoing along the rocks. Fenrig was on a high ridge, seemingly preoccupied with stargazing. But he gave a quick succession of sharp whistles, and pointed to an area of thoroughfare unseen by the rest of us. Three Dunmer… wearing fineries… seemingly lost. As we rounded the corner, we spotted Fenrig’s quarry: an overturned carriage. Horses mangled and slid into a ditch. One Dunmeri noble, pinned under a wheel, had expired. We raced to their aid.

The three thin shadows remained deaf to our initial greetings, content to amble in an irregular movement. Another was spotted in the rocks, and Ingjard raised the alarm, and her bow. “Corprus husks!” she cried. I gestured for her to slow her aim, and advanced to the nearest Dark Elf to check.

It turned, and the moons’ glow lit up a face of harrowing deformation. This was a wretch who had long since succumbed to the horrors of corprus disease. Like his housemen, he was a mass of overstretched skin, torn and ripped to contain clusters of purple-colored boils, some burst and others throbbing. Innards could be seen within flesh holes; it was a wonder his guts hadn’t spilled out yet. A leg expanded with tumors, flesh woven into once-expensive breeches. A turquoise grotesque, shambling in the moonlight.

Our shrouds were pulled back up.

Commotion: The sound of vomit chunks pattering off the Orc’s shield, as two of the husks lunged at Bashnag. “Grundvik!” the Orc yelled. “Your treaty extends to undead Dunmer?” I answered with a well-aimed chop of my aze, which brought my adversary to his knees. Footfalls-in-Snow replied that, in fact, these weren’t to be considered undead, and were tangibly still living victims of a purulence active in these parts. “We make an exception this time!” I yelled over the rambling Argonian, as my axe blade severed the husk’s neck, and my shield saved me from the fountain of blood and sputum.

Bashnag’s victims were a little more advanced, one drooling trails of purple bile as it swiped lazily at the Orc with an engorged hand. The Orc pushed it back, yelling for advice. “Was I not clear? Send them to Mauloch!” I shouted. Bashnag swung and glanced his target in the jostling. The putrid bag of sagging bones looked at him with a baleful expression, and emitted a cloud of loathsome vapors. “Cover your face, mighty oak!” the Argonian advice came late: The husk burst apart, drenching Bashnag in a mist of pox and internal juices. He managed to knock his other foe clean off the ground with a furious wallop from his oversized mace; the Dunmeri husk fell apart in the air before dropping into the river.

We had survived the husks, but the Orc may need to be killed in his sleep.

KAGOUTI | Back into the choking gray clouds of Stonefalls we go, searching for indigenous hides to strip from the backs of lay beasts and sell for leather. This is a land seemingly cursed by fire and the constant belching of ash from the mighty Red Mountain; we tread ankle deep in dust, along the great crater. Tracking is difficult, but Ingjard is explaining the more subtle methods of locating prey to Bashnag under these conditions most inclement. Her willingness to teach is commendable, but her pupil seems to be here with a single purpose: to cave the skulls of those that harm our party, and to cook the flesh of the edible ones. Widening his knowledge seems almost insulting.

Amusingly, it was Bashnag that first trod on evidence of kagouti activity. As he angrily wiped his boots clean, Ingjard examined the spoor more closely. Then she was off, following the trail up towards a ridge of rocks and stunted mushroom growths. I explained the differences between a kagouti and an alit to Footfalls-in-Snow; the two beasts share a similar collection of bones and toughened flesh, but the kagouti is larger, its back ridges more plated, with tusks missing from its smaller cousin. The alit may lack the stature of the kagouti, but the scars across my arms (from my youth, when I ventured into the Velothi Mountains to hunt these easily slain critters) reveal a more vicious temperament and more cunning attack instinct.

Ingjard motioned for me. I ascended to her side, and spied three kagouti (I instantly remembered their stumpy legs and tail) further an otherwise-deserted caravan route below us. A fresh corpse, that of an alchemist, was being played with. Tiny, gleaming red eyes peered out below a helmet of plates. Snorting triumphantly, drool hanging from its fanged a drooped slack jaw, the largest kagouti charged the dead Dunmer, ramming into the body and using its tusk to scoop up its prey. The merchant landed in a mangled heap, and lay twitching. Fenrig was summoned to position himself for an ambush, and he quietly split apart from the others, with his dogs skirting the merchant’s path below to a vantage point of sharp boulders across from us.

The kagouti had bitten down into the still form of the dead Elf, ripping open the alchemist’s guts as it began to separate sections of Dunmeri meat for its lesser brethren. I nodded to Fenrig and we readied our bows as Ingjard slid down the embankment, shield and axe at the ready. The kagouti bull turned and roared at her, beginning a charge that ended with Ingjard’s shield taking the full brunt of the kagouti’s heavy head. Ingjard staggered back, her axe already swinging. The kagouti dropped its head, and the axe scraped off with only a nick. Her second swing was more successful; as her axe dug up through its chin, the kagouti’s eyes bulged and it sank into the ash floor with a wheeze. The lesser kagouti had already fallen to our arrows, sent (with Kyne’s blessing) between the plated armor.

As kagouti hide dried on our racks, Fang was growling at the Argonian again. Then hissing, which I hadn’t heard before. Footfalls-in-Snow, it seemed, had befriended a lizard creature, which had taken to its new master like an Orc to violence. This was a scuttler: a more dog-sized, docile, and intelligent cousin of the guar, but not as tasty. It was snapping at Fenrig’s hound, raising its back spines and flaring its neck ruff. I nodded to Fenrig, who snapped his fingers, and Fang slunk back to his feet, while the scuttler rubbed the Argonian’s legs and made an odd cooing sound. There’s a fine line between pets and pests, and that Argonian may have crossed it.

KWAMA SCRIB, WARRIOR, AND WORKER | Our Argonian retainer volunteered for scouting work this morn, and despite Fenrig’s grumbling protests, I gave him the chance to scour the volcanic gloom for signs of a kwama colony. Not five minutes had passed before the lizard returned, deftly dodging Fang’s growling snaps (those war dogs aren’t fond of anything scaly, it seems), and dropping to his haunches at my tent. He quickly sketched a map in the ash, showing a narrow opening to a large cavern alarmingly close by.

Fenrig entered, and gestured with a dismissive wave, “We trust the hunt of this scaly fellow?” Footfalls-in-Snow peered up from his haunches as Fenrig continued. “Grundvik, your map vanishes with the wind. The same fate awaits us if we wander down a lizard’s path.” Ingjard asked what was vexing him, and Fenrig stepped in front of the Argonian, seeking a more private conference. “Between us Nords and Kyne? My dogs don’t trust him. That means I don’t trust him. This area is filled with fissures and loose scree, where a scaly hand can push you to meet Orkey. Where’s the evidence of a kwama nest? My dogs don’t smell any.”

“The ash particles block your dogs’ noses, friend.” Footfalls-in-Snow spoke softly as he untied one of his many bags, and threw the still-twitching head of a kwama forager at our feet. “And this isn’t a trick of the light. I harvest kwama eggs in Black Marsh.”

Before Fenrig could respond, Bashnag poked his head and considerable shoulders through the tent flap. He was grinning like a madman meeting Sheogorath.

“My bearded friends! And the stonefist woman!” The Orc waved his gauntlet excitedly. “The lizard must be a magician, as he’s conjured a real force to test us! Large, brown insect men approach! While Mauloch commands me to slay them all, I might need—”

Bashnag’s voice was severed as a broomstick-thin arm attached to an angular claw closed around his throat, and he was pulled violently outside.

As tall as a Breton, but far less likely to utilize cunning political diplomacy to settle territorial disputes, the kwama are a hive-minded plague of giant insects sculpted by Kyne in shapes of varying grotesqueness. The Argonian was obviously right; we were being swarmed by warriors, the defenders of the kwama colony’s burrowing tunnels. Thin but powerful forearms, clad in plates of natural armor that extended around the neck and down the back to a rattling thorax, with a hunch and a head of further plating, out from which poked a small, snapping pincer mouth and two beady eyes. We were blessed by Kyne’s generosity; I had never seen as many of these foes in one place. We’d have our pick of the spoils… if there were any of us left to claim them..

Our predicament was now less of a hunt, and more of a pitched battle. Normally, Bashnag’s wanton bludgeoning resulted in less-than-pristine ingredients for our benefactor. But such was the choice of kwama scurrying over the gray rocks, I happily watched him cave in the skulls of a half dozen kwama warriors, as his red mist descended and his combat degenerated into a mass of flying limbs (some detached) and sickening crushing sounds. I ran to higher ground, introducing two slavering kwama warriors to the sharp end of my axe. Fenrig whistled, but this wasn’t for the benefit of his dogs. He was forcing his way into a secondary entrance, which had far fewer warriors defending. Fang and Mauler seemed to be enjoying themselves as they hung onto various kwama appendages before their master finished their foes with an arrow.

We met at the entrance, causing the warriors to retreat into the fissure crack where our Argonian first spotted them. Into the nest we descended, finding the passageways empty, until we found a hatching cavern large enough to accommodate us (and Bashnag’s wide-reaching combat style). A clattering of insect feet was heard further down the passage. As the Argonian began plucking eggs from their fluid sacs, we readied our ambush. A confused kwama worker scampered into our trap, and let out a shriek when Fenrig’s swift axe connected. Staggering on its four legs, this dog-sized mass of curved head plates attached to a bulging, segmented body and four unsteady but talon-tipped legs lunged for Ingjard. She sidestepped the worker, missing its poisonous, snapping mandible. Those mouth talons helped carve the tunnels we were fighting in; Nord bone would crack easily between its teeth. Fortunately, instead it fell to numerous Nord arrows, and deflated.

More scurrying sounds, and a couple of scribs (recently hatched larval forms) scurried into our chamber, along with more warriors. They shared the same general appearance as their larger, more upright brethren, but were far less dangerous. Unfortunately, Fang’s overeagerness to leap into the fray allowed us to witness the scrib’s only real means of defense: it managed to connect with a lunging bite, slowing the dog to a paralyzed stupor. Had this been a swarm of scribs, Fang’s malaise would have overwhelmed her. We quickly changed to our axes, blades, and hammers, and readied for more.

Bashnag was holding back the warriors with rabid glee. “Mauloch drinks your blood!” he yelled between prods, pummels, and wild mace swings. As Footfalls-in-Snow and Ingjard began to drag the scrib and worker corpses back outside for stripping, Bashnag adjusted his chin guard after a kwama warrior a little larger than the Orc’s previous victims clambered over the pile of insect bodies and caught Bashnag squarely in the jaw with two swift punches, augmented by a crackle of magical energy. “You hit like a forge wife!” Bashnag retorted, as he staggered back, allowing the warrior to scrape the ground with its talons, and swiftly stomp the dirt. Up shot a sharp spine of hardened ash, gashing the Orc in the leg. This eruption was not to last; Bashnag unleashed his fury, grabbed the warrior’s head, and twisted it apart from its humped shoulders. Thick ooze coated the Orc and the walls of the cavern.

The remaining kwama swarm watched their champion’s decapitation with uncertainty, allowing us to roll a boulder to block further investigation and hasten our escape. We retreated back into the Ashlands, dragging our corpse loot away from the colony’s clutches. Although Bashnag would have merrily fustigated his way to the kwama queen herself, we had all the eggs, meat, and leather we needed. While Bashnag stitched up his leg, I asked the Argonian how the extraction of cuttle (the waxy extract from within a kwama’s beak) was coming along.

Footfalls-in-Snow rummaged in one of his many carrying satchels, and produced a strange tool, flat and smooth at one end, with sharpened, barbed edges at the other. “This is a t-thuk, in the tongue of my egg brothers,” he said, showing me the correct way to grip the device. “It pries apart bone as a Colovian burns a forest: quickly and without much forethought.” Taking the dismembered kwama heads from Bashnag’s collection bag, the Argonian swiftly jammed the instrument up through the beak palate and cracked it open, and raw cuttle spilled out onto his catch cloth. He flipped the tool and used the sharper edges to scrape any remaining matter still embedded within the beak. Then he repeated the process with the other intact heads. A most impressive scavenging technique: his method meant there were no skull shards to pick through, and the cuttle remained moist before sealing in our merchant jars.

The Argonian proved his usefulness for a second time today.

ALIT | The ash winds died down a little as we passed into the fertile plains of Deshaan, thankful to breathe clear air. We followed a gloomy trader’s path interrupted by the green glow of marker lanterns. As we skirted Mournhold, we decided to hug the edge of the fungal forest. My concerns for Footfalls-in-Snow grow as a wart on the nose of a hagraven; he seemed mesmerized by the glimmering mushrooms. I requested he not lead us into a mire. He beckoned me over, and pointed to the tracks we’d been following, gesturing to a grazing area of short grass and loose boulders.

“Alit. Beware; they are not without teeth.”

Alit leather is highly prized by Ashlanders, and more so by our benefactor, but we were halted by the Argonian; he wished to face these creatures alone and prove his mettle. We watched as he crawled towards two thickly set walking mouths, squat, scaled, and ferocious of claw. Beady yellow eyes darted, and nostril slits embedded into a mottled green mantle sniffed the air nervously. Soon after, a shrieking roar from the larger alit signaled the Argonian’s ambushed had failed, as the beasts split from their feeding and circled our tracker, in an attempt to surround and bewilder him.

Footfalls-in-Snow charged at the bigger alit; it dug its oversized claws into the ground and braced for the Argonian’s dagger, which struck the beast behind the eye. A shallow wound, but a hit nevertheless! The smaller alit leapt, attempting a rip to the face, but our lizard friend ducked the attack, and drove his dagger into the neck. The beast slumped forward, deflating like a punctured bladder. The remaining alit chose an inopportune moment to widen its mouth into a roaring bite; the Argonian plunged his blade directly into the maw; the alit choked and writhed as spittle and blood sprayed the grazing grounds.

“You’re looking a little green around the gills,” Fenrig remarked with a smile.

Fenrig’s moroseness has lessened in recent days. Perhaps our Argonian friend is more of an asset than I first realized.

GUAR | We are guests in the land of the Dunmer, and although some of the greener-tinged members may not act with appropriate veneration even without mead flowing through their veins, we must respect the Dark Elf and their way of life. Passing into the realm of Deshaan, we encountered farms of grazing guar, one of the many oddly proportioned, bulbous-headed creatures that are bred as pack animals or mounts. Our descendants will not sing songs about the triumphs of a band of grubby poachers. Kyne would not smile fondly on our steadiness with a bow when aiming at a chicken or a goat. So we hunt feral guar across the ribbons of windswept grass.

Fenrig’s dogs picked up the scent and stayed a respectful distance away from our kill; their master is an exceptional shepherd. Slightly darker, marked with scars both old and fresh, and lapping at pond water near a meandering stream, Fenrig’s dogs crept away, while he produced a finely forged blade and equally robust shield. The guar, looking up with tiny forearms tucked in behind its bulging snout, gapped teeth lining its dribbling mouth, spotted Fenrig and hissed. The Argonian’s scuttler twitched and hissed back, and I shot a glare for the lizard to stifle the noise.

Hardened feral head hit tempered iron shield as the guar turned from a trot to a sprint, sending Fenrig reeling onto his back, his weapon dropped. The guar attempted a mighty leap, landing atop Fenrig, where the beast’s intermittent rows of stumpy (but sharp) teeth darted and snapped into the Nord’s forearm, glancing off the armor with a clang. Fenrig soon regained his composure (and his sword), stuffing the full length of the weapon up to the hilt through the guar’s exposed belly, which ripped apart as a feast of internal parts tumbled out, splattering the ground while the guar squealed and dropped atop its bits.

Mauler and Bashnag both licked their lips, although the Orc wait longer for his meal. The dogs feasted on offal and bones while the Argonian stripped the hide from the corpse. It hung to dry as we enjoyed slightly tough (but eminently edible) roasted guar fillets.

Fenrig abstained from eating, with a faraway look in his eyes.

BULL NETCH | The Ashlander camp was partially burned. The guar pens were broken, with bodies of livestock strewn and scattered about the grassy plain. A family of netch were huddled together above a small lake, close to the burned-out tents and charred Dunmeri corpses. Ingjard reckoned the dead were on the march in these parts. Footfalls-in-Snow noted that netch leather and jelly were on our list to gather. Our slaughter work was seemingly done, but upon closer inspection, the netch corpses had been baking too long in the sun, and were bubbling with putrefaction. The leather was salvageable, though a fresher kill was needed.

While Fenrig began to skin the rotting netch, we advanced to the lake to view a bull, a betty netch, and two calves. The larger of these hovering beasts was growing increasingly agitated, and its internal propulsion sacs were pulsing with vapors. We covered our noses, slowed our breathing, and advanced, coaxing the bull away from its family with a precise Argonian arrow up through the soft underbelly flesh.

Bashnag was seemingly unprepared for the slap he received, and seemed surprised to be on his back, coated in a cloud of poison bloom the bull had violently shaken out as it pressed the attack. Scrambling back with a splutter and a wheeze, the Orc managed to place a mighty swing of his obscenely sized mace right into the netch’s side. I heard a crack as the netch wobbled, its tentacles shuddering, before it retaliated, violently plunging its arms down into Bashnag’s unbalanced form with a focused thrust. The Orc staggered back in the shallow waters, spat out a tooth, grinned, and swung his mace in a great arc once more. The hit was impressive, crushing hide and bone, and the bull dropped from the air with a thick, wet thud.

The Argonian was at the body with a carving knife before the bull had stopped twitching.

“We feast well tonight, lad!” Bashnag shouted at me. Siphoning the glands for its jelly, Footfalls-in-Snow quickly and patiently explained that netch meat was mostly poisonous, and less appetizing “than the toe fungus from a spriggan.” The Orc muttered something about “rather gnaw on Witchmen bones anyway,” and stomped off to apply antidote to his ingested blight.

NIX-HOUND | Among the rocky outcrops littering the plains of billowing grass, Fenrig first found the tracks, close to a pile of old, gnawed bones and the rags of an Ashlander. “A pack of five, perhaps six. Down into the mushroom woods,” Fenrig pointed to the trees swaying in the breeze, their twilight shadows lessened by the faint glow of the giant fungi poking up from the forest floor. He whistled, and Fang went bounding down into the bushes, closely followed by her furry brother. Bashnag was feeling better, and even recognized the footprints of a nix-hound; he recalled driving them out of King Kurog’s animal pens in lower Wrothgar. “They’re as fast as a wolf, but are too simple minded to flee a fight they’re losing,” he explained.

“Perhaps a description of a certain Orc I could mention?” I thought, but decided not to utter. Instead, I remarked that I was surprised these creatures had made their way so far west.

I was less surprised that the Orc hadn’t heard of the alchemical qualities of the beast’s meat. Perhaps the horribly bitter taste had put him off? The Argonian confirmed nix-hound flesh, a small amount of blood, and “at least four intact claws” were required by our benefactor. I requested that Bashnag keep his bludgeoning to a minimum until our quota was met. The moons were large and glistening as Ingjard adjusted her bowstring, and the bird song and forest voices quietened, replaced by the faint sounds of rustling.

Then commotion in the damp undergrowth.

Extending our hunting tendrils out to surround Fenrigs, his dogs, and our prey, we encroached on a clearing where Fang was staring, back arched and fur up, at a spindly looking creature, all sharp claws and hooked knees, a serrated, insect-like back, erect and threatening, with a crown of armored skin above a revolting face with pink, cloudy eyes of differing sizes embedded between quivering mandibles, dominated by a sword-shaped snout. It emitted a baying shriek as it saw its chances of a meal dwindle, and leapt at Fang anyway. It landed behind Fang; its nose swung and scraped the dog’s hindquarters, before the Nix-Hound was put on its back permanently by one of Ingjard’s arrows. Fang began to pad forward with jaws open to play with the corpse, but a quick whistle from Fenrig kept the corpse intact.

The perimeter of the clearing shimmered slightly. Three more nix-hounds decided to end their lives on our armaments. One found the only opening in Bashnag’s armor, mounted the Orc, and began quickly leeching the blood from his neck. It was merrily gulping down fluids until it felt a gauntlet around its throat. Too late I shouted to the Orc to keep the body intact; it was thrown to the ground with enough force to wake a sleeping draugr, and squashed under mace and armored boot. A collection of protruding bones and indistinct offal remained.

Fenrig and Mauler fared a little better, his sword clashing with nix-hound nose before the head was lopped off with the type of clean, quick precision I’d expected of a Nord. Ingjard was slightly perplexed as her target blinked from existence behind a tree, only to reappear behind her, rearing up for a stab to the back. I brought my axe across the back of the last nix-hound, severing it completely. Mauler lapped up the blood as I brought out my vial and daintily filled it with the blood we needed.

Our meal was easily forgotten; nix-hound meat is sour as a jilted Breton queen. Footfalls-in-Snow was simmering some mushrooms from the Bitter Coast, which helped mask the taste somewhat. Bashnag rubbed his neck vigorously.

“By Vivec’s curse, is there anything we’re hunting in this infested province that won’t give me an itch, cough, or droop?”

“Do not tremble, tiny leaf,” Footfalls-in-Snow replied, “for you have finally stopped soiling yourself; the Afraid Wind lessens to a mere draft. Your illness vanishes on the breeze.”

Us Nords stopped our low murmuring and Ingjard reached for a mead bottle.

“Your rudeness displeases Mauloch greatly, lizard,” the Orc retorted. “Perhaps the only delicious creature in Morrowind is an Argonian? Would you share your tail with us, lizard? I hear it grows back.”

The Argonian peered up at the Orc over the steaming cooking pot, and gritted his teeth. “Unlike a wasteful Orc, Argonians use every parts of their prey. Your skin would make a good drumhead.”

Bashnag’s laughter echoed across the plains. It was fortunate that the Orc hadn’t realized the Argonian’s hackles were up.

Cold Comfort at the Top of the World

FROST ATRONACH | Dappled light danced through the slowly swaying trees of larch; occasional leaves of yellow and orange drifted down to the forest floor. Sunlight in Skyrim was something of a novelty, but it was a welcome respite before the hunt ascended to higher climbs. A day out from Riften, our convergence with Kishra-do and first delivery for the benefactor was over; we were scouting the Autumnal Forest for wolves, wildcats, and other creatures to deliver to Kyne. So far, only a few bandit trophies. The Orc was mildly peeved we hadn’t faced anything more troublesome. Fang and Mauler shook themselves free from a thicket of brambles, and bounded over to their master. Fenrig examined a singe on one of the dogs’ hind legs. “We have an elemental Daedra in these woods. Bound to frost.”

Through the briars, the Nords silently crept, to view a small clearing close to the edge of a sulfur pool. A small cave entrance with a few old bones. A small wooden table upturned, bottles and herbs spilled all over and sitting in the low grass. A lantern snuffed. The collapsed form of a robed Nord, the maggots already at her. Five wolf corpses in the glade, all pierced by freezing ice. Dominating the glade was a towering giant of sharp ice shards, congregating together into a statue of magic and cold brutality. Four Argonians tall, jagged tree-trunk-sized limbs, and a pyramid head with eyes of gleaming white. A glacier came to life, standing motionless in the woods.

We were close enough to spot a piece of charred parchment, and Fenrig crept to retrieve it. An incantation scroll of a mage. It read: “Nomeg Jrool, I summon you from Oblivion to do my bidding. Defeat my adversaries, and…”

“A consort to the mage,” Fenrig said, without finishing the script.

“Remember the atronach we bettered near Ivarstead?” Ingjard prompted me.

“Yes,” I replied, “continuous pummeling from every one of us. No resting. A barrage from all angles. If we split our attacks—”

I was interrupted by a great crashing sound, as a bulky form clutching an oversized mace stumbled through the brambles with the agility of a wounded troll. Bashnag had decided to face the atronach himself. His idiocy allowed us time to scramble into safe positions around the glade, and watch as the Orc swung mightily, catching the atronach with a crushing strike to the leg. But without an immediate follow-up, the Daedra whipped the air around with its gigantic arm club, and made a violent offering of ice shards directly into the face of the Orc. Back he staggered, slowing as the frost took hold, and the atronach walloped the ground, sending a wave of ice shards directly at Bashnag, who toppled over with a crunching thud.

Ingjard’s arrow found its mark. Mauler darted between the atronach’s giant feet, as further arrows assailed the ice titan. This afforded our unsubtle friend the time to stagger to his feet, eyes burning red with a rage I’d not seen before. He emitted a roar that almost traveled to Windhelm. His mace broke the leg of the frost atronach, and it swayed on one unsteady trunk before crashing and bringing down a twenty-year-old pine on its way to the forest floor.

Arrows both Nord and Argonian in origin pockmarked the craggy carcass until there was nothing left but a few piles of ice. Footfalls-in-Snow promptly picked up the melting remains to secure frost salts, while I sat Bashnag down to explain how abandoning our pack wasn’t part of Kyne’s plan.

SNOW BEAR | The Pine Foothills of Eastmarch were the ideal hunting grounds for the snow bear. As the smell of sulfur pools left our nostrils, the ground became steeper, and the whistling winds more blustering. Ingjard chanced a smile over to Fenrig as the first precipitation melted on our faces. We’d be rosy cheeked in no time, and we stopped to listen for the soft patter of falling snow on the forest path, as the storm slowly grew in strength. We heard the chirrup of a wandering thrush, and a faint call of a felsaad tern, away from its Solstheim feeding grounds. Mauler pranced off as the snow deepened, intent on a meal of raw rabbit. He wasn’t happy to be sternly whistled back to heel as the snow bear tracks were found. We were overjoyed to be hunting in our own lands.

Bashnag’s rudimentary tracking skills extended to the snow bear, and his previous experience training them as guard mounts in the Strongholds of Wrothgar extended to teachings, focused on the Argonian. Strange, given his earlier reluctance to learn from Ingjard.

Pretend to be dead; a bear devours your head. We learned that rhyme on my first hunt,” the Orc told Footfalls-in-Snow.

“You are a babbling brook of knowledge!” the Argonian replied with a nodding grin. His increasingly sarcastic enthusiasm is more becoming of a Khajiit.

A long, rumbling roar brought our trek to a halt and the forest to silence. The only sound was the thumping of blood between my ears. Fenrig had returned from his tracking, and gestured for us to split apart. A sliver of darkness in the rocks. A pile of scattered bones. The bear’s lair appeared through the pines, up a steep and slippery slope, which Fenrig navigated with almost wolf-like agility. The noise was from within the den; branches and debris cracked as a huge white mass of fur bounded out into the blizzard. Fenrig sat on his haunches, a dagger and shield at the ready. We instinctively knew how to end this hunt.

The snow bear rose to its hind legs as Fenrig advanced with his blade, bringing both paws down on him with a downward swipe that would buckle a shield of lesser quality. Instead, Fenrig used the momentum of the attack to shove the bear off balance, deftly leaping to the bear’s side, and cutting a tendon in its leg. Again the beast howled, turning the thrash the air where Fenrig had been. More savage thrusts with sharp, furred claws, sinking not into Nord flesh, but the ghost of his previous position. Silent prayer to Kyne finished, Fenrig rode the bear’s back, nicking the throat with an incision that would quickly bring the beast down.

As its cut jugular drained the bear of life and blood (and the snow stained a deep red), Footfalls-in-Snow clapped politely at the antics.

DWARVEN SPIDER, SPHERE, AND CENTURION | Holgunn One-Eye’s directions to the hidden Dwarven ruins were impressively exact. Both Fenrig and Footfalls-in-Snow returned to our camp at Cragwallow bearing enticing news: a strange stone edifice was indeed visible through the undergrowth in the Velothi foothills a short distance away. Treasure hunters and despoilers hadn’t the fortitude to venture to such a dangerous place. Many deemed this ruin cursed, and stories of golden demons boiling the hapless and the curious enhanced Mzulft’s reputation as a place to be rightly avoided. Yet here we were, cutting through bramble thickets to reach a strange, bronze-roofed outbuilding, resplendent in its ornate decay.

Ingjard unfurled Holgunn’s ancient map, and we both studied it as Fenrig scouted the area. If we listened carefully, we could hear a faint hissing and metal grinding, a sound seemingly from deep underground. But otherwise, there was nothing to disturb us, not even a bird or a small animal rustling. Fenrig soon returned, throwing a smooth, fist-sized rock for me to inspect. “If we had Roggvir’s pickaxes,” Fenrig said, as I turned the white ball of moonstone over in my hand, “we’d make out like bandits. Ore veins over there, by the escaping steam.” But this exploration wasn’t dedicated to Zenithar, so I made it clear that an entrance should be found. Ingjard’s thorough inspection of the maps and Bashnag’s boulder clearing soon revealed a massive but finely carved metal door. The Orc broke two daggers trying to pry it open, until Ingjard told him to stop. “Perhaps try inserting this instead?” she said with a wry smile, handing him and equally ornate key. “That’s the property of Holgunn One-Eye, and he wants it back.”

We ventured up sloping stone corridors and immense connecting rooms, slowly examining the hundreds of wall slabs and running fingers over the large bronze pipework. This was astounding: mechanical cogs grinding with life, periodic blasts of steam, clanks, faint rumbles… It was as if we were exploring within the belly of a giant, living beast. Ingjard pointed up to a gate of thin, golden bars. “This is where Holgunn’s footprints end.”

Bashnag pushed forward, spotting red marks on the ground. A small puddle of dried blood behind which a thick metal rod was protruding from a punctured pipe. “This ground plate. What if I step on it?” The Orc was naturally curious, but lacked appropriate wariness or basic common sense. As his boot touched metal, a rod shot from a golden crossbow (cunningly hidden from view) and missed Bashnag’s head by a beard’s whisker. He dropped his mace in surprise; it landed with a clatter enough to wake the dead.

But no draugr appeared. Instead, a circular shutter in the far wall expanded to reveal a hole, from which fell three metal carvings. They righted themselves, for these were animunculi: wolf-sized spiders constructed from metal and powered by magic, which Holgunn had mentioned. Sharp single claw toes scraped the stone, propping up a weighty central core with a rotating single eye (although Ingjard’s later examinations revealed it to be a crystalline power source of some kind). There was little time to ponder the mechanism of such contraptions, as the central Dwarven spider began crackling with purple arcs of shocking energy. Fenrig and the Argonian reached for their bows. The other spiders seemed to bathe in this static field. Then one scuttled forward, unnatural front claws stabbing Bashnag’s legs. It backed up, avoiding a pendulum-like mace swung from the off-kilter Orc, before slamming into the ground and exploding by Bashnag’s feet, who writhed in the lightning discharge before collapsing to the floor. Dead?

Footfalls-in-Snow fired an arrow, and it nicked the second spider, whose bronze body turned independently of its legs to find the source of the attack. Out crackled a massive gout of purple and white light, hitting the roughly hewn stone chair the Argonian was hiding behind. “Enough!” shouted Fenrig, charging at the two Dwarven spiders, who advanced immediately to meet in the middle of our stone combat chamber. Our Nord tracker exhibited the force of a werebear, using his favored axe to split the first spider down the middle. It sparked with unnatural energy and collapsed in two equally sized heaps. Ingjard’s arrows found their mark, as the final spider tripped back over its own legs at the force of each shot, before stopping completely, immobilized in a corner.

Bashnag regained consciousness, but remained embarrassed at being caught out “by such a feeble and toothless runt.” As our exploration passed into a larger chamber, resplendent with huge bronze heads peering down with lifeless eyes, the Orc would have the chance to prove himself.

“Kinetic energy, steam-powered resonators, wondrous species of luminous fungi… a place almost as magical as Grahtwood.” Footfalls-in-Snow was talking to himself again as he inspected a row of leering faces carved from metal, which stretched the length of the chamber. “Aha! An opening.” The Argonian tapped the mouth of one face, and a circular hole expanded, the mouth now wide in a silent shout. “Wait… I hear movement within the walls.” We backed up as a scraping sound uttered from the face, which spat out two strange balls of heavy bronze. Then, through magic or incomprehensible means, the spheres seemed to hatch, each expanding and unfolding to reveal a dead-eyed creature of bronze, beautifully sculpted from metal, but aggressive and unwavering. An aroused and dangerous warrior—an animated artifact working in tandem with the rumbling ruin itself.

Perhaps Bashnag might have prayed to Mauloch before our assault on Mzulft. Once again he drunk his luck from a thimble, staggering back with a crossbow bolt embedded in his shoulder. The Dwarven sphere reloaded its projectile and fired again; this dart missed the Orc, who wasn’t waiting for a third attack and closed the gap with impressive speed. As Bashnag closed, his adversary span its torso around, revealing a long blade molded into its arm. The second sphere retreated; its rudimentary intelligence was intent on keeping one animunculi at close quarters, the other at range. It was an impressive tactic, and one we used ourselves, yet it was strangely odd to see mechanical beasts copying our tactics so succinctly.

But the time for discussing stratagems was later. Bashnag parried a whirling blade as the sphere span around, and returned with a huge overhead pummel, breaking off the machine’s crossbow arm. Fenrig was knocked back by a charged bolt from the retreating sphere, the attack coating his shield in the same writhing energy that had consumed our Orc. Seeing Fenrig wasn’t stopped, the sphere suddenly leapt into the air, contracted into a ball, and shot downwards at the ground. This crash sent Fenrig flying against the wall, but he landed lithely, and was back to a fierce sprint before the sphere had even finished expanding again. Subsequently, a dull-eyed metal head landed at my feet, still pulsing with strange, crackling light. Bashnag finally got back into the swing of things too, crushing his sphere under mace and boot, until he was politely asked to stop as Footfalls-in-Snow sifted through the debris.

A mass of cogs, struts, and other parts collected, the Argonian tied up his roughly woven sack, and leaned up against a large, golden pipe, then arched his back. “Ah! this enkindles my aching scales, like the warm winds from Hammerfell,” he cooed.

“That’s no pipe,” Bashnag commented, pointing at the Argonian with the bolt he had just removed from his shoulder after a swift tug and a grunt. “That’s a leg.”

Footfalls-in-Snow looked up, and met the gaze of an immense golden head peering back down. This wasn’t a wall carving; it was attached to a powerful, steam-powered body which let out a terrifying hiss and creaked into life. The startled lizard disappeared from view in the escaping vapor.

“Shields out!” I shouted. “Nimble-footed to the walls!”

Bashnag joined me in the center of the chamber. Ingjard and Fenrig fled to the perimeter while the dogs growled and coaxed the slow-moving behemoth of bronze away from the spluttering Argonian. Every ponderous step the giant statue took was accompanied by grinding, whistles of pistons, and further belching clouds.

“Shields up top!” The Dwarven centurion rotated its hefty hammer arm, before a stilted spin around on its torso, bringing the arm down with a force that could crack steel. Bashnag took the brunt of it, and I saw him wince as he pushed back with his shoulder, now seeping blood from the sphere’s previous strike. Nord and Argonian arrows clattered off the steam giant’s back; one particularly precise in its flight entered the centurion’s armor plates, piercing the innards. I dove forwards as the machine bent over, mouth agape, and spewed a steam-filled roar so deafening, it rattled two of my teeth loose. I dove at the creature’s feet, hacking and tumbling around its base as it brought a twirling axe arm down, cutting deep into the stone where Bashnag had left a moment earlier. Another mighty mangle from my axe, and I almost severed the knee joint. The centurion’s balance suddenly became precarious; it twisted and its leg gave way. It fell like a seventy-year spruce, filling the room with a thunderous clang and a final expulsion of effluvium.

Footfalls-in-Snow was up on its chest, slicing apart metal tendrils, and finally plunged an arm through a chest cavity, struggling for a few moments before wrenching out a weighty golden contraption, spherical with a red, pulsing center. He held it aloft, in triumph.

“Dynamo core!”

We investigated Mzulft no further; our hunt now concentrates on flesh and blood, not bronze and fog.

DRAUGR | “Precisely what does ‘fresh bone and meal’ mean?” Ingjard asked, reading over Zagun-ra’s long parchment of ingredients. “I haven’t a recently slain Nord brother to inter and desiccate, and I will not despoil this barrow.” I replied that perhaps the Khajiit’s request was inaccurately translated, but I understood her concern: She was already at odds with collecting the remains of Nords, especially as her ancestors were buried in this crypt to honor Nahkriin the Priest. I was inclined to agree too; Skuldafn was a sacred place, and sealed for a reason.

“We could journey to Bleak Falls,” I pondered. “None of us share the bloodline of the Nords entombed there. Kyne wishes our hunt to include all beasts, including the offspring of man and mer. I take that to include draugr. In fact, didn’t Fenrig’s tribe have a dispute with Riverwood a few generations back? He might enjoy it.” Fenrig climbed down from his vantage point atop the henge on the outer-rim gathering grounds, and smiled. Possibly for the first time on this hunt.

“I’ll hunt bear, wolves, and spiders. Trolls and atronachs too. But I choose not to slay my own dead.” Ingjard was usually pliable, but on this subject she remained as unforgiving as the journey to High Hrothgar.

It would not be long before her obstinacy was truly tested.

“Where’s the green-tinged one?” Ingjard asked.

“Back at the camp, whittling something intricate and pointy out of snow bear bones,” Fenrig replied.

“No, the other one.” Ingjard jumped up and looked around. Our two foreign friends were cloaked with invisibility. But this was no spell.

“Do you think…?” Fenrig’s voice trailed off as we all three realized our predicament. “Check the hidden entrance; the one Holgunn One-Eye told you about when you were hunting with that idiot from Bravil.” Ingjard was already bolting up the snow-laden steps like a startled elk. Fenrig turned to me with a furrowed brow, and spoke with foresight and resignation: “I fear her ancestors may not be asleep for very much longer.”

The doors into Skuldafn’s ceremonial embalming chambers flew open, and out scampered the Argonian. He was closely pursued by one of our dead: a wight clad in the armor of a warrior from our first age. A bony finger pointed at the ground and out shot a blast of frost, covering the steps out of the grounds. Footfalls-in-Snow slipped on the gathering ice, but lived up to his name and remained upright. He increased his pace, managing to keep a large funereal jar within his webbed grasp. As he reached us, the jar was placed onto the snow at our feet. “Bone meal. Freshly excavated!”

Ingjard sat, seething, as we set about the draugr stumbling out of the crypt. Skeletons long since summoned to Sovngarde, now raised and wrapped around transparent flesh, rags of leather half rotted away, and helms from another age, many horned and all of fine craftsmanship, adorning some of the tougher, heavily armored draugr. Pale blue, lifeless eyes, bathed in eerie mist, hovering in black sockets. Gruff shouts as warrior of yore rose from their slumber. A pitched battle at Skuldafn, now spilling out onto the snow. Precisely what Ingjard had feared.

We could hear a din of clanks, the crunch of old bones against older walls, and finally Bashnag appeared, one hand clasping the thin neck of the restless dead. He snapped it easily; it crumbled in his hands, the head still scowling and teeth chattering as it hit the chamber steps. A more solid foe, writhing with magical energy, brought down a Nord axe into the Orc’s helm. It was blocked just in time, as Bashnag retaliated with his mace, pushing it through the draugr’s knotted beard and helmet, and halfway through the ceremonial altar wall. This was an impressive display, and one to applaud if it hadn’t resulted in such wanton devastation.

A scourge leapt to stall this defiler, and I was put in a strange position of wanting to applaud the enemy. Bashnag reached for his belt. “No frost, no poison, little leaf!” yelled Footfalls-in-Snow. “Torch the gray tree with fire!” The Orc lit his torch, embedding it in the musty torso of the scourge, who went up like oil-soaked kindling, and staggered out in a blaze before being dropped by Ingjard’s arrow, to quicken his journey from this realm. Bashnag was out and sliding down the steps, as the draugr retreated back into their tomb. Fenrig ran to the door and bolted it shut, as the Argonian sifted through the piles of dust, fragments of bone, and loose armor.

“By Stuhn’s beard, you’re lucky we didn’t disturb a deathlord, you intemperate goathead!” Ingjard was uncharacteristically emotional, and lashing out with unwritten fury at Bashnag. The Orc sat with a grin like an idiot wallowing in dung. “Or a lich! Did you fall and hit your head on every one of the Seven Thousand Steps? I’ve seen ogres with more battle mastery than you!” Bashnag’s smile lessened, and he shrugged. “We needed bone meal. I needed a battle. I killed two Reachmen with one mace.”

“Remind me to slap your forge wife the next time I’m in Wrothgar, you lumbering simpleton.” Ingjard lowered her voice to a tone most threatening. It had the desired effect; Bashnag apologized, and we attempted to settle down to sleep.

“When do we set the husks alight in Bleak Falls Barrow?” the Argonian inquired.

GIANT AND MAMMOTH | We almost had to drag Footfalls-in-Snow from the sulfur pools of Eastmarch; the Argonian seemed overly reluctant to leave the hot water, wrap up in pelts, and trudge on into the snow. He was happy to ignore the wafting smell from the gases bubbling up from the fabled underground lava beds (that only the Dwarves are said to have ever discovered). Bashnag was less enamored, likening the scent to “rotting cabbage” and “the arse cloud of a dying Reachman,” two of the more accurate descriptions of this often pungent odor. But depart we must; Fenrig spotted mammoths grazing on the far distant heaths. The hunt is incomplete without the trophies of the giant.

We live in an uneasy truce with the giants of Skyrim. Some believe that they are our Atmoran ancestors, and the more backward villagers on the border with Wrothgar still breed cows specifically to paint with runes as offerings to these lumbering nomads. But the days of such superstition have passed in our circle; they are now seen by more forward-thinking Nords as a nuisance to tolerate. They tend to their herds of mammoths with the care and attention a Nord farmer would display when rearing a prize goat. And judging by their equally sizable excretions, they subsist on milk, cheese, and curds from their mammoths. The meat they occasionally butcher ranges from carrion to easily trapped skeever; a giant would sever his own finger to add to a stew before slaughtering one of his woolly beasts. But until provoked, giants are remarkably peaceful.

The ground was uneven in this part of Bleakrock, with fields of heather, tufts of stunted gorse, and unremarkable bushes attempting to remain anchored to the windswept tundra. In the far distance, the sun had broken through a gap in the rain clouds, and lit up two huge and ungainly monsters (it was as if Kyne herself had chosen our prey for us). Each four-legged beast wandered the moorland slowly, mottled fur draping off their damp backs, each with an ugly head of four protruding tusks and trunk. Appearances are deceptive, for these frightening forms feed only on grasses and the occasional honey and oats fed by their giant keeper. The herd master was between his animals, tending to their drinking habits. The giant was clad in a tapestry of fur armor (three wolf pelts alone for each shin). Pale, creased skin over wiry muscle. Bones dangling from a belt of pouches. A necklace of large bird skulls. Bashnag was impressed by the size of his beard, and (of course) by the club he was carrying, which was twice the size of the Orc, with three particularly evil-looking claws protruding from it.

Out in a wide arc we crept, intending to fell a mammoth from every angle. Initial success: all our arrows met their mark, and the mammoth we chose trumpeted in pained anger. Unexpectedly, both beasts and their shepherd chose to lumber directly towards Ingjard and Fenrig, the nearest mammoth lifting up its trunk and thundering into a long charge. A lithe roll, and Ingjard avoided a trampling, as further arrows concentrated on the other hairy creature. Rearing up on its hind legs, the mammoth brought its entire weight down towards her, but quick thinking and reflexes allowed her to thrust a vicious sword up into the beast’s chin and across its throat. A great flood of deep red spurted out, as the mammoth wailed and thrashed, swaying its head back and forth in an attempt to send Ingjard flying. Again she deftly avoided a mauling, stepped out of the frenzied animal’s path, and waited for it to slump forwards and bleed out.

As Ingjard bettered her prey, Fenrig faced a foe four times his size, with only our ranged arrows (and encouraging shouts from the Orc) for help. The giant’s gangly frame worked to Fenrig’s advantage, as it attempted a huge kick which would have surely cracked a rib or two. But the giant struck air and grass as it slipped over, allowing Fenrig in with a swift pair of stabs. The giant pushed Fenrig back as it rose up to its feet, cleaving the area with a sweep of its club. This time Fenrig was on his back, but he sprang up, ran through the giant’s feet, and thrust a dagger through the bridge of his foe’s foot. Literally hopping mad, the giant struggled to remove Fenrig’s embedded toothpick while taking swift cuts to the legs. Unhappy in the extreme, it lifted its colossal club, then dropped it into the heather, hitting the ground with such force I half expected Fenrig to be launched tumbling upwards, through the low clouds to a distant doom. But Fenrig was on the giant’s back, puncturing the pale side flesh and scrambling to the head. A final dagger unsheathed, Fenrig plunged it through the giant’s ear, and it fell forwards, dead before it struck the soil.

Bashnag’s ebullient whooping was probably heard in Hammerfell.

We all ate well that evening. Fenrig sat with a painted smile, enduring numerous back slapping from an Orc impressed at our tracker’s victory in combat. Only our Argonian was silent, spending his time nibbling a sweetroll and butchering the three corpses of their trunks, tusks, toes, teeth, and any other important appendages indicated on our benefactor’s parchment notes.

WOLF | Snow wolves are a bit trickier to hunt, as their tracks and form are easily obscured, while their habitat is difficult to traverse. Our benefactor requested a white pelt, so we avoided the abundance of forest wolves and continued our trek up through the icy volcanic tundra of Eastmarch Hold. Fenrig complained of a pain behind his eyes, and requested Ingjard conclude the search for our prey. He hung back with the Argonian as Ingjard took the lead, utilizing the talented nose of Fang while Mauler followed closer to his master. An overhang of protruding pine tree roots, ground hardened by the perpetual cold, and a bluff through the trees, upon which Ingjard had tracked an impressive specimen: the pack leader.

It howled from its viewpoint, and Ingjard unbuckled her axe. Two subsequent howls to our right. The wolf pack was hunting together. While Fenrig looked on from a rocky perch further down the valley, Ingjard finally motioned to the flitting shadows behind the closer trees. Out padded a large white wolf, a fine specimen of Kyne’s, snow-colored fur save for faint stains of blood around the jowls, which were peeled back in a seething growl. Back arched, with soft, padded steps, and a tail raised in prowling agitation. Fang responded in a likewise manner, the two beasts circling each other, readying to pounce with a vicious snarl of sharp teeth and flowing spittle.

Ingjard’s axe cut through the first snow wolf’s side, and it twisted inwards, teeth bared as its blood coated the tree and her weapon. A second strike cut through the head swiftly, with the strength and precision of one well versed in animal combat. fang back away as Ingjard stepped across to confront the second snow wolf, which snapped viciously downwards, attacking her feet. Ingjard stumbled, but soon regained composure, as the wolf darted back into the woods. I motioned for the Argonian to bring out his skinning knife; we had the single pelt we had come for.

Kyne’s bounty was plentiful, but as stewards we took only what we needed.

FROST TROLL | Dawn on the foothills of the mountains south of Ironbind Barrow. The weather was unexpectedly clear as we waited at camp below the scree and sagging, but intricately carved, ruins. The air was crisp; Kyne had provided perfect hunting conditions. I was thankful for her mercy after our previous mishap. Fenrig and his hounds returned from foraging. He waved his fist at me, which was clasping three large rabbits. Then he sat down, poured himself some broth, and began to skin them. The dogs jostled playfully to lap up the blood.

True to his word, Footfalls-in-Snow arrived a few moments later, wiped his blade, looked up at Fenrig’s breakfast preparation, and turned up his nose at the roasting meat. He took a carefully wrapped sweetroll from his knapsack and began nibbling at it.

“Trolls,” the Argonian said, through tiny, pecked mouthfuls. “Smelt on the breeze since Dawnstar. Two saplings and a sturdy tree.”

“Three of them?” Ingjard asked. Footfalls nodded, but was otherwise focused on devouring his confection.

“How are your feelings on the lizard?” Ingjard took me aside and asked me, as we cleared the camp. “His knowledge of tracks and the wilderness is impressive,” she added. I told her I still had my suspicions.

The following morn, we passed by the pines and snowberries glistening in the sun. As we approached a bluff of loose rocks and deep snow, the Argonian inspected and ran his tongue over found dung—a taste less appetizing than his breakfast, to be certain—and confirmed our prey was within the range of Ingjard’s arrows.

Fenrig followed the nearby footprints to a crack in the rocks with bones strewn about the entrance. We stayed upwind, and crouched down to listen. The grunting from within was unmistakably trollish. I readied my own bow, and motioned to Bashnag. He gleefully clambered to the cave, and poured oil across the threshold. Ingjard and Fenrig found vantage points at the flanks. Footfalls decided to watch the proceedings from the safety of a tree.

“Now!”

Bashnag let out a resonating roar that echoed across the barrens. Out thundered a frost troll—a big brute, thick of fur, fists clenched and spittle frothing from between rows of uneven teeth, with three sunken piglet eyes, all wildly glaring at the Orc. The troll swiped twice with heavy hands, but Bashnag sidestepped quickly as the attack turned into ineffectual flailing.

In the time it took Bashnag to raise his obscenely large mace, five arrows had struck the troll from three different directions. It tumbled forward, slipping on the Orc’s oil, and cracked its head on the way to the afterlife. Bashnag’s expression was one of disappointment, but this was short lived: He soon spilled blood as a second troll leapt upon him, hammering at his armor as he took it by the throat, slammed it into the rocks, and caved its skull in with brute force, a slightly smaller mace, and invocations to Mauloch.

The ground shook as the third (and substantially taller) troll lumbered from its hole, pounding the ground with its anvil-like fists. Had it not been hunched, it would have been almost the size of a giant. Bashnag coaxed it towards the slick. The Orc’s throwing arm was impressive; he managed to cover the beast in oil from two more pots before Ingjard’s flaming arrows set the shrieking creature alight.

Footfalls-in-Snow slid from his tree.

The Argonian and I set about the unpleasant extrication of Zagun-ra’s troll fat from the three burning corpses. The smell of the bubbling flesh was sickeningly sweet. As it wafted through the air, Ingjard stifled a wretch, and Fenrig kept curious wolves at bay.

 

ICE WRAITH | The weather change was abrupt and dramatic; clouds rolling in from the Sea of Ghosts brought light snow, then heavier blizzards, and in a matter of hours, the road back to the docks became impassable. We halted our journey, as Fenrig feared our less competent members might lose themselves down an ice crevasse, or wander off into the walls of gray that assaulted us from all directions. Thick fog, snow blindness, and a shivering Argonian were tests sent by Kyne for us to overcome.

Spying a shelter of overhanging rocks, Fenrig pushed forward through the fresh snowdrifts. Then he stopped, yelled something indistinguishable over the howling winds, and fell backwards. He scrambled back upright, turned, and signaled to us, and we knew what he’d disturbed. A snaking skeleton of blue flame rose from the drift: a collection of ice bones bound together by nature magic, a sharp-ridged spine finishing at a malcontented jaw of bone and sharp teeth. Fenrig had awoken an ice wraith.

Raising his shield just in time, Fenrig countered the wraith’s lashing bite; those icy jaws struck steel and wood instead of Nord flesh. The snake promptly vanished back into the snow. Fenrig waded into the drift up to his waist, parting the fresh snow with sword and shield. Too late, he stepped onto the ice wraith’s waiting trap; a hail of shards pierced upwards, exploding from the ground and cutting up and around his legs. By now, we had joined our brother, and the Argonian whipped up a concentrated funnel of wind that parted the drift, forcing the foe into the air, where it weaved back and forth. Then it shot past us, straight into Fenrig’s bruised form.

Perhaps these words aren’t clear; the ice wraith actually entered Fenrig, reappearing after a moment out of his back, where Ingjard cut it down with an expertly swung axe. Fearing his possession, all we could do was watch Fenrig, who began to shake and turn as pale as the snow around us. Suddenly his eyes widened, mouth hung agape, and a second, smaller ice wraith spat itself from within, sailing out of Fenrig’s throat and into my hammering strike, which shattered it into dozens of pieces. Fenrig dropped to a knee, gasping.

Footfalls-in-Snow approached, letting us know the campfire was lit before gathering ice wraith teeth in a small, velvet-lined bag. As we huddled in a cave mouth, Fenrig and his dogs left us, after our tracker refused aid to limit a possible witbane infection. We heard faint howls over the gale throughout the night, and it wasn’t until the next morn that Fenrig returned, his clothing ruffled, but his pestilence cured.

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.
 

Hidden Horrors in the Shifting Sands

GIANT SCORPION | Scorpions in the southern foothills of Skyrim are tiny fellows, poked by curious or repugnant children, played with by dogs, and eaten by grass snakes. But in the deserts of Hammerfell, and in particular the flat stone outcrops of southern Bangkorai, their cousins have grown to gigantic proportions: The hot weather and cool nights allow them to prey on man, mer, and beast—any creature venturing into their hunting grounds. Our example sat on a carapace of mottled red and black bone, a brown arced tail with a purple-tinged poison sac and a vicious-looking stinger in a permanent state of readiness. Two vertical fangs rubbing up and down under three pairs of tiny white eyes. Six thin legs and pincers as sharp as any forged sword at the front. Fenrig would earn his pay this evening.

A barking growl by Mauler and steady backward pacing coaxed the huge scuttler forwards, towards the jut Fenrig was staring down intently from. The dog tumbled back as a pincer the size of Mauler stabbed forwards, snapping the dog’s shadow. Fang barked and showed her remaining teeth, and the scorpion launched forward and quickly whipped its tail over its head, striking Fang across her side. The dog let out a soft wail and dropped down passively, paralyzed by the precise and poisoned infliction. I motioned for our company to remain behind our vantage points as the scorpion clattered over to the prone dog. A serrated pincer cupped the dog’s sagging form and was about to cut Fang in half, when Fenrig dropped by.

His grace was masterful. He landed precisely on the grooved opening between the thorax carapace and the tail, and plunged a dagger deep between the protective plates. An old trick the Ash’abah used to cripple, and avoid the thankless task of penetrating the hardened back of the beast. Leaping off with a sword unsheathed, Fenrig rolled forward, bringing his full might down on the pincer holding his war dog. It cut deeply, and Fang fell to the sand. The scorpion’s six white eyes narrowed, its red dewlap opening and closing in alarm. Both claws punched forward, sending a puff of dirt up from Fenrig’s previous position. But his new location was at the side of the scorpion, where a second vicious plunge severed the tail. Fluid spilled across the sands, the tortured creature quickly silenced with a skewering through its head.

Chitin and some venom were harvested, but our night camp was prepared with giant scorpion flesh in mind. Distressingly, the meat was so bitter, I initially pondered whether Footfalls-in-Snow had cooked the tail in an elaborate plan to poison us. But after some ample seasoning, and more than a little mead, it became much more palatable.

CLANNFEAR | Strange stone structures among the foothills of the Alik’r Desert. But other oddities: creatures foreign to this realm. A pack of two-legged animals, sharing an odd lineage with the Argonian: a vaguely reptilian look, but coated in the filth of the Daedra. A primitive and feral kind, seemingly in the service of a higher-functioning leader, although we found no evidence of a summoner in these parts. Rows of sharp-finned back plates tapered off to a thick, sinewy tail of intermittent spines. Vicious hooks protruded from feet and claw, as the creature’s markings became more mottled towards the head, which was a proud crest of bone; a crest of skin wrapped tight; pale, hollow eyes with a darting speck of black peering back at us. Rows of uneven teeth behind a beaked mouth, stained with blood.

Scuffing its feet against the rock below the sands for purchase, then bounding forward with protruding head lowered, the clannfear struck Fang with a butting charge, hoisting the dog over a rock, where it landed with a hard thud and a yelp. The other two beasts bayed with a strange half whinny, half cackle. This was enough to set Fenrig off: A hand axe disappeared into the clannfear’s neck, and it writhed and gurgled as Fenrig retrieved his weapon, boot on the body, wrenching the axe back.

Fang was soon on the mend, and Fenrig sat watching Bashnag sever clannfear claws and Daedra hearts from his kills, the Nord merrily singing “Wergital the Wolf-Boy.”

DUNERIPPER | The Alik’r Desert offers the careless wanderer a place of delirium: miles of shifting sands, sweeping dunes and parched earth, and scattered stone monuments and soft-cornered rock formations. It was here that our heavy cloaks and snow boots were discarded, and our armpits breathed again (all but Bashnag, who refused to remove his armor plates, and is beginning to ripen like a skeever corpse in the sun).

Three days out from Sentinel in the lands of the Ash’abah, we met up with Kishra-do at a caravan stop, and deposited our spoils. Thankfully, Orc and Khajiit animosity was at a low ebb.

Hard-shelled fins cut the surface of the sand: rapid undulations like waves, then an explosion of soil and small stones. “Sand crocodile!” Footfalls-in-Snow barked, readying a spear and a defensive stance. The Argonian was perceptive; this creature’s size and hunting pattern were similar, but it featured more prominent and sharp-pointed chitinous scales, arranged in diminishing size across its back and along its thrashing tail.

“Duneripper,” Kishra-do answered, with purring enthusiasm. As the mass of deep red and light yellow plates clambered from its sand hole, hooked mouth widening to display a gullet wide enough to swallow an ogre, the Khajiit offered to perform for us.

“It rips the dunes with its fin; hence the name, yes?” Kishra-do explained, sidestepping around the yawn of the beast’s mouth, which snapped with a bite, then opened again. “Quick in short bursts, they smother you suddenly,” she continued, and as if on command, the duneripper sank headfirst into the ground, shaking the soft earth below the Khajiit. “But this one is unclawed!” She turned as the duneripper rose behind her, leapt up and onto the beast’s back, and plunged down one of her many daggers. She was off before the duneripper realized it had been pierced.

“Short, stumpy legs. More so than your Orc!” Kishra-do winked at Bashnag, whose grin widened, and he nudged the Argonian, who stumbled forward, dropping the carapace-cracking tools he was readying. Coaxing the duneripper into a thrashing sweep of its tail, Kishra-do easily evaded and sprang forward on all four padded paws. “By Sangiin’s hidden knife!” She dropped behind the neck of the duneripper, plunging two more daggers into softer underside skin. “Ready, Argonian?” she asked, using the duneripper’s momentum to flip it onto its side and gouge out a huge rift along its belly. It was alive as its entrails flopped out onto the sand.

We offered polite applause, and uncorked the mead that evening.

LAMIA | The desert lamia is a creature to be both feared and loathed. Superior in size to their aquatic relatives (a monster I’d hunted throughout High Rock in my youth), the orange-scaled miscegenations, a corrupted form of snake and woman, are known to use brute force and magic, lightning and song, to charm and disarm their victims. Their intelligence is no mere animal instinct; they speak in their own forked tongue, and sometimes gather numerous trinkets in their lairs. The female form is often misunderstood; it is a mirage to coax the lascivious males that make up most of their prey, as this creature reproduces as a base reptile, and is sexless. Their appetite is legendary; they feed on skin, flesh, innards, and finally the bone of their prey. Many whisper these are descended from the spawn of Lamae of our Nedic ancestors, violated by Molag Bal in ancient times past.

Ingjard expressed a particular worry regarding the Argonian, as we quietly stalked lamia tracks to her small cave in a cluster of sandstone rocks deep within the Alik’r plains. The sky had turned a deep red, and the rocks seemed to glow after the boiling of the hot day. “It will be difficult enough to keep Bashnag from being mesmerized.” Ingjard spoke quietly, as we spotted the lamia swaying slightly on the cooling winds through the boulders. It sat on a thick and well-muscled tail counterbalancing the torso, always upright, even when idling. “Our prey and the lizard have a similar appearance.” She was rightly concerned; the lamia did indeed share more than a passing resemblance to Footfalls-in-Snow. But where the ophidian features they shared ended, more primitive hooked crests, odious fangs, scaled hooks at the elbow, and a huge serpent’s mass began. Then the lamia’s singing approached on the wind, a sweet but strange, lilting tone to befuddle and trap.

“As mud is my mother, a sweeter sound even than leaves softly rustling in the breeze of the Tree!” Footfalls-in-Snow was upon our viewing point, and Ingjard’s fears were forming. After instructing the Argonian to be wary of approach and carry his weapon unsheathed, he simply ignored our advice, which had previously been strictly adhered to. “By the Egg. A wondrous creature!” He took off, approaching the lamia as she slowly weaved back and forth and smiled through spellbinding song and dripping fangs. “Stretch your tail here in peace,” Footfalls-in-Snow remarked. The lamia beckoned him forward. Still the fool ventured.

The smile turned quickly to a scream.

The Argonian was snapped from his stupor as the scream intensified until it manifested itself as a shrieking blow, flaying lizard skin. Clutching his ruptured ear slits, Footfalls-in-Snow faltered, on his knees in a daze, then was picked up by the throat, and was soon to be swallowed. Ingjard was upon the fiend with my arrows at her sides. This was enough to snap the lamia’s concentration. “Spell weaver!” Ingjard confirmed, as her adversary’s maw crackled with additional offense; a bolt of lightning spat forth, rattling Ingjard’s shield. Before it took another gasp of air, Ingjard charged in, belting the creature with her shield, and widening an arrow hole below the beast’s scaly breast. Claws flashed, but the wind was at least knocked out of the lamia. It sank into a soggy pile, neck sliced and gushing. A fitting end.

Footfalls-in-Snow was tasked with skinning and drying the lamia skin, and milking the venom. He went about his chores gladly, as we had promised not to mention his shortfalls to the Orc.

YOKUDAN GARGOYLE | The necropolis we had endured the sweltering sands of the Alik’r Desert to find had finally given up its whereabouts. Ingjard sketched in our approximate bearings on our benefactor’s map, and we made camp in the deep shadows of the red rocks a few hundred strides from the threshold. The Orc had finally agreed to unbuckle his armor and freshen his odor, but was, once again, consuming more than his fair share of water. Fortunately, our Argonian retainer exhibits a steadfast competence and sourced a nearby well, still occasionally used by the local Redguard nomads.

“Ah, more water! Now, if only this was a jug of Ungorth!” Bashnag reached for the pot, which was cooling after boiling, spilling some on the dirt, and more down his front.

“You thirst encroaches on us like a briar patch,” Footfalls-in-Snow muttered, reaching for empty buckets and starting a return trip. The Orc hadn’t heard him.

“Walk with Mauloch…” Mauloch waved the departing Argonian. “Wait, shall I call you Footfalls-in-Snow now, lizard?”

“Shall I call you ‘Mindless-Who-Mangled-with-Mace’?” came the reply, through a painted smile.

“Trolls’ teeth!” Fenrig seethed, glaring at the two of them. “Silence this bickering, or I’ll beat the Orc to death with the Argonian’s arm.”

A period of tranquility descended on the camp. Until Footfalls-in-Snow returned with more than water.

“Bashnag, I’ve found your cousin!”

Footfalls-in-Snow was out of breath, one of his water buckets missing. “You aunt had a union with a bat, and Mauloch cursed the creations into stone, I think!”

Ingjard was up with her sword, stepping between the quarreling pair, and keeping a worried and watchful eye on Fenrig. I beckoned my Nord brother (but not his dogs) and we crept around the loose rubble, following lizard tracks. “We should have scouted the outskirts with the dedication of a mead-drinking competition.” Fenrig spoke softly but critically, and almost to himself, as we saw the source of the Argonian’s mirth. The remains of a once-grand entrance up to a derelict funerary temple. Stone steps still partly visible in the drifting sand. Fallen arches. Strange, ceremonial carvings. Guarding this outer avenue were two huge statues, easily three times our girths.

Each was a grotesque, crouched on haunches, one watching over us with a blank stare, while the elements had struck the other down; it had lost a head and an arm, the former of which looked up from the sands below its own pedestal. The actual carving of each statue seemed to echo the Argonian’s description: a giant sandstone imp with the features of a primitive Orc, a toned form with loincloth, feet and hands of coiled claws, and oversized wings folded into the back. We slowly approached, passing a discarded Nord bucket, and Fenrig sniffed the air. “Statues don’t smell…”

Fenrig’s nose helped us realize our predicament one moment before a journey to Sovngarde was assured; he pushed me aside as a heavy stone fist fell where I had stood. It was attached to the statue, now animated and red eyed, cracking a scowl and unfurling wings as high as Dragonsreach. It had leapt from its perch, hoping to surprise and pulverize. I tumbled again, narrowly missing two more thudding slams that echoed around the valley. I readied the iron hammer Jorunn the Skald-King had awarded me after the recent defense of Windhelm. The weapon flickered with lightning. I struck with tremendous force, buckling one of its knees.

Gargoyle fists uncurled, and it hobbled towards me. I parried two mighty swipes, repelling almost certain laceration. This unnatural brute seemed to gain in strength and fury, as further strikes failed to weaken our bones. Both fists now clenched, it pounded the ground with such force that it shook and took our feet from under us. “It feeds from this! Like a vampire!” I shouted, seeing the gargoyle’s kneecap grow over the fresh wound. My bones were old but not brittle; I bounded forwards and slammed the hammer down onto a stone foot. A pool of light writhed up the gargoyle’s leg, and it shattered. The fiend fell onto its side, and gritted its teeth. These were soon scattered across the sands as the final hammering broke its cheek. Its head hung to the side, red eyes flickered to black, and it joined its broken brother in the dirt at the foot of the funereal ruins.

We returned, having drained our adversary of its humours. Fenrig tossed the bottles at Bashnag, who was furious at missing his chance to help, as he’d only just finished struggling into his rancid armor.

“Try not to drink these, pit bait,” Fenrig remarked, before tending to his dogs.

SKELETON AND MUMMY | Ancient and parched stone ruins stretched across a sweeping dune plateau. The vast necropolis surrounded us on all sides. The frozen gestures and stone stares of two large ceremonial statues (the stationary kind) warned us to stay away, but no guardians strode out to warn us against trespass. Instead, we were greeted by an eerie silence. We all spent time squinting against the setting sun, watching for an ambush, but even Fenrig’s favored eyes couldn’t pick out anything but the inky dots of the carved holes embedded in the parapets above. These were entrances leading to a labyrinth where hundreds of the Redguard’s ancestors were said to be entombed.

Bashnag (loudly) wondered whether it was worth ransacking the place for valuables. I sternly reminded him we were here to test the quality of our weapons and our competency with them, and gather remains from those we hunted, not resort to thievery during a period of civil unrest. The Orc was about to utter something to anger Fenrig again (as was his innate ability), so it came almost as a relief when the obelisk torches burst into life before our eyes, illuminated by magic. A watcher from the battlements.

Favored armaments were now at the ready, as the necropolis began to breathe. “Up there, above the great door!” Fenrig saw a figure, a Redguard speck dressed in the garb of a Daedric priest. A staff seemingly ablaze with slow-moving blue fire. Our arrows clattered around him, but he was too far and stepped into an alcove. Instinctively, we spread out across the plateau, finding cover among the pillars and fallen stonework. A faint rumble from below the ground. Fine dust dislodged from the two huge entrance doors. The ground shook slightly. Now clattering and thudding footsteps as the fetid air rushed out to greet our nostrils.

We braced for a wave of bones.

Skeletons. More than a handful. Then well over a dozen, until our counting stopped, and our arrows began to fly. Some clad in armor: Redguard warriors from the time of Lord Frandar Hunding, the first warrior-prince. Brittle soldiers, but single minded in purpose, and wielding a variety of implements, from scimitars to bows. Slack jaws chattering, but dust of a thousand years still falling from their forms. Occasionally glimpsed within the ranks of this small army were bandaged corpses, animated priests pressed into service by the priest on the battlements. Their embalmed forms tattered, but their strength and spirit heightened by time away from this world. These were not draugr; a malignant light flickered within these husks and bones, guiding them into a frenzy of combat. Each one fought as they did in life, with the nimble dexterity of a proud Redguard soldier.

The Nords took to the sides, gaining height and distance. “If you can’t be safe, be tough!” Bashnag yelled as he sped past me. “Taste Mauloch’s mace, you Elf lovers!” Bashnag charged headlong to satisfy his blood lust, although on this occasion, there were few innards to spill. A wild swing, and a skeleton’s head was shattered into dust. A second rotation: the oversized Orc mace crushing the rib cage and separating the spine of two more bony foes. But more took their place, and we lost sight of Bashnag as he swarmed. Periodically during the battle, I checked for his safety by listening for his swearing and spotting him in the throng as more bones and skulls went flying.

Footfalls-in-Snow was faring less well. Helpful arrows from the Nords had hindered the undead advancement on the right flank, where the Argonian had made a tactical blunder. Few climbing opportunities, and nowhere to flee to. He had fallen and was valiantly defending himself from his back. But the horde was almost upon him. I watched the great doors for a slowing of foes, but there was none. I glanced up, took careful aim, and released a true shot; it whistled through the air, striking the Daedric wizard in the shoulder. His trance broken, he fled from his viewing platform. I checked the doors again: The river of Redguards past had slowed to a trickle. The battle still raged, but our odds had improved.

The Argonian had scrambled to a dead end, and our arrows weren’t dropping his adversaries fast enough. Realizing his predicament, he rummaged in a satchel and unrolled a scroll, beginning to babble in Jel, the ancient Argonian tongue. I made out a single name during the incantation: “Zymel Shar.” Bandaged fingers were about to close around his neck as the spell ended, and a ferocious wind circled around the lizard. Thin forms were flung and tossed about as we glimpsed into Oblivion. Out from the damned world lumbered a hulking form, a core of white light oscillating beneath a floating series of stone appendages. A roughly fashioned head, broad shoulders, thick iron chains glowing with Daedric scripture. Towering over all. Footfalls-in-Snow had summoned a storm atronach.

A cluster of boulders in the rough shape of a fist slammed down hard, then swiped widely, as Zymel Shar guarded its master. Half a dozen skeletons fell with a single swat of this man-sized hand, bones broken and souls snuffed. The threat to the Argonian had lessened considerably, so we trained our bows on the fracas between Orc and mummy; I scolded Fenrig for accidentally striking the Orc with an arrow, as I knew his aim was better than that. Meanwhile, the wind was whipping up around the storm atronach, as it waded knee deep into a lake of bones and dust corpses (an accurate description, except for the atronach’s lack of knees). Arcs of lightning danced around its form, binding the stronger mummies to an even slower plod, while the weaker skeletons simply detonated into plumes of bone powder.
   

STORM ATRONACH | The tide of dust was turning. But Bashnag’s victory was tempered, as the remaining forces of the necropolis couldn’t be cudgeled and simply sank to the ground, their will drowned and spirits recalled to the dark desert labyrinth. He was lucky, then, that Footfalls-in-Snow’s attempts to control his summoned creation were becoming strained (at least, that is what he swore to us happened). “Bashnag! My Daedra becomes unruly, as the swamp seeks to swallow the mangrove tree. I fear it finds you an interesting distraction!” As expected, the Orc seemed positively jubilant at the prospect of an additional carnage, and the blood rage still flowed. What better way to expel his temper?

Immense stone feet pressed bone into powder as the storm atronach advanced on Bashnag. “By Mauloch!” A manic, spittle-filled grin, and the Orc revolved his mace around his head, readying for an opening. The atronach answered by conjuring a swift static charge about its floating body parts, which increased in intensity before it was released with a thunderous roar: a bolt of energy to shock and burn. Bashnag seemed to thrive on the pain it delivered, and brought down his mace with vengeance. The atronach’s head section cracked. A grunt, a leap, and a second tremendous wallop. The head of stone split apart; a ball of light expanded and then retreated into nothingness. Daedric runes carved into iron bindings dimmed. Then the atronach collapsed, its spirit forced back in Oblivion.

We learned later that this necropolis was dedicated to the evil usurper king Ra Boshek, and the lich of the ruler had recently been awakened. So our plight could have been substantially more burdensome. The subsequent hours were spent picking through the bones, and gathering the considerable spoils Kyne had bestowed upon us. But our mead drinking commenced away from the necropolis threshold; it had been defiled enough.

WEREWOLF | This day has been long and troubled. Kyne’s mischief? No; a previously trusted hunter raised my ire, kept hidden knowledge from me for too long, and now watches with her head in her hands as we burn the bodies of two of our group. A bitter root for all of us to taste. But Ingjard is not the reason the Argonian tends to a deep wound across his face (and narrowly avoided a blinding): She was caught between a barrow and a crypt, and her loyalties split down the middle. No, I am to blame for the bloodshed in Bergama market. I am accountable for the death of Bashnag gro-Gorzoth. Unknowingly, I was the one who brought that diseased worshipper of Hircine into our ranks.

Peering back into the past, the signs are as plain as the nose on an Imperial’s face, but I was too blinded with the thrill of the hunt to notice: The wistful stares and frequent disappearances. His unusually edgy demeanor and reluctance in the hunting of wolves. The distaste for mead. By Ysmir’s beard, I pride myself on my abilities to read such behavior! Instead, I was preoccupied by tracking, the burden of gathering ingredients, and distrusting Footfalls-in-Snow, instead of the skeever masquerading as my own kin. I’d have lain prostrate before Molag Bal before willingly letting a werewolf join the group. Yet here we are, binding our wounds while placating the locals for their troubles. Fenrig the Unsteady, I curse you to Sovngarde.

Our meeting with Kishra-do in the oasis of Bergama was uneventful. The afternoon was spent updating our ledger of ingredients, and taking in the sights of this bustling market town. Fine linens, impressive weavework, and potent, hypnotic odors. But one among us favored isolation. He had been more melancholy since Skyrim, and his condition had worsened. A lone wolf and his two cubs, refusing to speak to anyone but Ingjard. When a disheveled Fenrig finally joined us at the blacksmith’s, his beard plait unknotted, Bashnag was the first to greet him, in his usual tactless manner:

“Gore and glory, Fenrig, you dungheap! Learning the ways of the hermit?”

Fenrig’s response was immediate and unanticipated: He dived across the stall, arms splitting out of his armor, hands stretching into long, clawed talons. His undershirt ripped off, skin sprouting a thick mane of hair along the forearms and chest. A terrible transformation in the face: nose crackling and stretching to form a black snout, mouth ripped open and incisors growing to fangs in an instant. Eyeballs yellowing into a wild glint. A tail sprouting from the base of his hairy back. Saliva frothing from a dropped jaw, now snarling with malice. Before he had the chance to unbuckle his mace, Bashnag was pounced on and dragged to the ground in a display of immense strength, and Fenrig bit down.

Clods of quivering neck flesh and a fountain of Orc blood. Bashnag flashed a look of surprise as he grabbed his throat, but this bleeding could not be stemmed. His confused expression was hidden as Fenrig’s frenzy intensified, flesh flying as his claws tore through green skin and bone. Bashnag’s last act in this realm was almost a reflexive one: instinctively grabbing a belt dagger and thrusting it into Fenrig’s side. The werewolf let out a howl and fell off the Orc. “Shor’s bones!” Ingjard rushed to stem Bashnag’s bleeding, wiping the blood from his face. But the Orc’s eyes stared up blankly; his soul had already departed for the Battle Pit of Mauloch. Tellingly, Fenrig’s despicable form shied away from tearing into Ingjard.

Orc blood dripped from Fenrig’s maw and claws. His war dogs hunched down into a defensive spring, baring the same kind of teeth as their master. The werewolf gave three short howls, and the dogs leapt for Kishra-do and her Redguard companion. Footfalls-in-Snow pounced on Fang, slitting her stomach quickly (and with curious predilection), leaving Mauler for the Khajiit. I could not observe how the dog died, as Fenrig’s powerful bounding and bared teeth were aimed in my direction. As I hastened backwards, I fell over a scattering of traders’ wares, and I was set upon. Two rapid swipes to the face, and a fierce clawing to my belly, and my fine leather armor was cut deep. The next raking would gouge skin.

Then the leap of a lizard, as Footfalls-in-Snow pounced on the back of the werewolf. It rolled over, savaging the Argonian about the face. But this heroic act allowed me to stand, take my axe, and assail our erstwhile companion. A slice just below the ribs, and deep red blood gushed out. Wild eyes and a lolling tongue—Fenrig’s ferocity only increased. He sprang to his haunches, now surrounded by the unafflicted. “Step aside, Grundvik.” I turned and watched as Ingjard, tears streaming from her face, quickened her pace, readied the spear, and launched forth with a scream. There was no time for Fenrig to bound away; he was pierced through the gut, hoisted over Ingjard’s head, and slammed into the dirt, freshly skewered. There he lay, images of his old face glimmering, contorted, and almost mournful, realizing what he had done as his last breaths drew shallow.

Fenrig the Unsteady. A fine hunter, but a cursed fellow: A blight from Hircine.

Although we mourned, our predicament was remarkably not precarious. Kishra-do offered reparations to the startled merchants and the wares we had destroyed. Ingjard offered the Argonian a tender hand of healing. And Kyne’s challenge was not over yet. The wilds of Summerset Isles, Valenwood, Black Marsh, and Elsweyr must be tamed. We wait for Fenrig’s twin, Roggvir the Ready (who Ingjard has sworn on her life is not afflicted by the same condition), to journey from Rorikstead to collect his brother’s ashes and offer recompense. We are indebted to Namasur at-Hamisam of the Ash’abah for his diplomacy among the citizens of Bergama in the trail of Fenrig’s violence. But Evgir Unslaad: We now begin our journey across southern Tamriel with heavy spears.

Kyne speed you, Bashnag gro-Gorzoth, and split some skulls for me. You have earned the right to sit by the right hand of Mauloch.

A Second Prayer To Kyne

Watch me, goddess of storms, when I roam and at rest,
As I boldly seek trails, and I slay now in your name,
So those blessed by your light, may they pass every test,
The knowledge we seek, and unwavering flame,
The fear we confront, in the prey that we hunt,
Overcome as you guide, and our blades never blunt,
We watch for the Hawk, on the grayest of days,
Your servants and advocates, trained in the Old Ways.
 

Aftermath and Regrouping

The categorization and evaluation of the potency of every fearsome entity of Tamriel continues, but we walk the precipice; our journey across the northern climates ended in tragedy, as one of our number was discovered (too late) to be hiding the filth of lycanthropy. It was only down to good fortune that my standing in Hammerfell allowed us to keep our heads, after the market town of Bergama bore witness to violence, and our Orc brother fell to the claw of Fenrig. Our hunt loses its focus, but new recruits shall beckon us down the right path. My hope is that this book charts our progress, the searching for the beasts of this land, the methods of slaying and harvesting them, the toils of the wilderness, the brevity of camp life, so that even an uppish Imperial may look down his nose at these rough notes and glean knowledge.
   
We rededicate ourselves to completing Kyne’s challenge—to stand erect in any tavern or street, hold aloft the freshly slain rabbit or recently severed troll head, and proudly exclaim to all that we are hunters! We live off the bounty that nature provides, no matter the landscape. Our castles are caves and woodland glades; our monasteries the moorland and mountain climbing at sun’s set. Those that read this parchment should expect to learn many of our secrets, for too many across this realm rely on others to kill, fetch, and prepare their food. Hark back to a life of subsistence! And if you find yourself alone in the bewildering vastness of Tamriel’s wilds? Does a ghost, a snake, or a Daedra menace stalk you? Then face it down without fear, using the knowledge I have imparted here!
   
Our path continues to be testing. The incursions of Daedra now appear almost daily, forcing our hands to our swords more often than tracking our prey. The three great alliances continue their bickering and politicking. But Kyne looks down on us with fondness. Her blessing is all our souls seek.

—GRUNDVIK COLD-FIST
Guildmaster of the Fighters Guild of Sentinel,
Nord of Windhelm; 19th of Mid Year, 2E 581, Bergama, Hammerfell

GRUNDVIK COLD-FIST
My ancestors farmed and fought to defend Eastmarch, and my soul will always be entwined in the thick stone walls of Windhelm, but I now swelter in Sentinel, tending to the youngsters that wish to perfect the art of combat. The guild allows this grand challenge, so I may explore these lands of Mundus, and better explain how to slay its great throng of creatures. This brings me closer to Kyne, who provides all my knowledge and safety. The hunt began, and shall end, with Ingjard by my side. Though her judgment has lacked of late, her loyalty is without question. My toleration for Elves, Orcs, and beast-men is well known, and I have two of the latter in my ranks (although one watches at the request of my benefactor). Alas, a wound in my hand only allows me to write without pain, so the charcoal sketch work flows from the hand of Ingjard throughout this volume.

ROGGVIR THE READY
Although Roggvir the Ready is known as the Protector of Rorikstead, the wounds inflicted by his brother Fenrig the Unsteady have not had time to heal: The body of Bashnag gro-Gorzoth is still to be burned in accordance with Orcish custom. But he joins us from Skyrim, to collect the ashes of his twin, and to offer his sorrow, talents, and fealty to make amends. I have sworn to kill both Ingjard and Roggvir with my bare hands if he too is afflicted with his brother’s disease, but they both swear to Ysgramor he is not a beast. Under normal circumstances I would find Roggvir to be among the finest of hunters, warriors, and drinkers of our land. But the traitorous savagery of Fenrig still haunts us all.

INGJARD STONE-HAND
Though a friend for many years and a tracker without equal, Ingjard has suffered with me since bringing that werewolf into our ranks. My anger with her has not subsided, but I am ready to forgive, as her mistake is weighing heavily on her conscience. Instead of stewing, let me concentrate on her talents: She can track an ice wraith in a snowdrift. Her arrows seem destined to strike their targets (A feat all the more impressive, as she hides one mangled hand inside a gauntlet). The famed hunter Holgunn One-Eye seeks her out first when snow bears are to be culled, While my wounds heal, she has agreed to add her artistry with the charcoal to these pages.

FOOTFALLS-IN-SNOW
I never thought I’d see the day when an Argonian was my most trusted associate. But this lizard has proven his worth throughout the exploits across northern Tamriel. He eats like a thin chicken. He skins slaughtered prey like a Whiterun butcher. He fires a bow like a Bosmer. And he takes orders like a conscript. Armory Sergeant Belderi Llenim’s letter of reference was entirely accurate. I wish to scrub my earlier description of him as a “Boot”; although he cannot go one sentence without mentioning a babbling brook or mighty oak tree, and his pets annoy all that step on them, his expertise and demeanor are first rate. His knowledge of Black Marsh shall be critical. Now, if only I could teach him to swig mead like a proper Nord, and not a dainty High Elf.

SCUTTLER AND YOUNG SALTY
Somehow, the Argonian has managed to gather two pests on his travels (though he regards them with fondness, referring to them as familiars). They scuttle and skedaddle about his feet, while they get under everyone else’s boots. Scuttler is a small lizard found in Morrowind that loves to nip at fingers. Young Salty is a mudcrab that adores snapping at toes. Together, they will be soon for the cooking pot.

NAMASUR AT-HAMISAM
A newcomer to our merry band, and a diplomat that helped ensure our altercation in Bergama didn’t escalate into arrests and abject groveling before King Fahara’jad. Not that he worships the ruler of Hammerfell, as Namasur is an Ash’abah, a desert marauder from the Alik’r foothills. His skills are more than mouthed pleasantries; he is supremely skilled with the spear and scimitar, and professes a great deal of knowledge about Daedra; indeed, he left his tribe to observe and slay as many of Oblivion’s horde as possible, as well as to stalk a lich that wronged him. I have no hesitation in welcoming him, especially as he seems capable of ending quarrels with great wit and artfulness; his friendship with Kishra-do seems proof enough of this.

KISHRA-DO
It pains me to permit Kishra-do to accompany us, but after our recent and violent embarrassment, her insistence that she do so to ensure her master’s ingredients aren’t scattered across Mundus has been met with little protest. Kishra-do acts as the pet for the trade elder Zagun-ra, a well-to-do merchant (and our benefactor) from the settlement of Dune, and her aloofness may yet cause animosity from the more jovial members of our pack. She is formidable with her daggers, having been rescued from the life of a pit fighter, but seems content to write on our ingredients ledger. Still, our trek through Elsweyr is eased by her presence. I was surprised to see her friendship with Namasur, as she is normally as emotionally cold as a naked swim in the Sea of Ghosts.

The Rugged Coast, Wandering Daedra, and Baleful Ghosts

FLAME ATRONACH | Towering cliffs of white granite, dunes of soft sands rising up to a grassy plain of fertile soil: this was our first venture into the realm of the Altmer. Only Kishra-do had any standing with the High Elves (as she was apparently a force of strength within the Aldmeri Dominion), but we didn’t care for these haughty mer. Our challenge took us to this land of verdant beauty, but our first encounter cast our minds back to the ash and fire of Morrowind at the commencement of our hunt. Up on a ridge overlooking the Abecean Sea, a burning woman was seen floating. Roggvir then corrected this misjudgment; this was a Daedra taking the form of fire. It was puzzling, as these Daedra were usually in the company of an elemental conjurer armed with a bag of fire, frost, and void salts.
   
As we gazed at the flame atronach, the spluttering molten earth of a volcano came alive. The creature was constantly in motion; even when she stopped to hover, the black fused armor pieces that she had formed from her own body (which also defined the shapely curves of her waist and breasts, as well as created a pair of fiery horns where her face should have been) seemed to bubble and shift, above and undulating muscle of moving lava. I write “she,” as whichever Daedric Prince sculpted this atronach must have studied the Altmer female first. Flames flickered from this thin form, the size of an Altmer, but drifting slightly off the ground, leaving a small trail of fire in its wake. A second, larger pair of back horns, pointed shoulder blades, and stone-talod, gauntlet-like hands revealed further Daedra influences.
   
Roggvir was seemingly mesmerized by the dainty twirling and the elegant acrobatics the atronach was displaying. Perhaps this alluring nature was part of this Daedra’s power, but Roggvir didn’t even notice when his fur cloak was set on fire. He had wandered into what the flame atronach perceived as its own territory, and although it still kept its distance, the creature began to erect some impressive defenses: With a spin it ignited a circle of fire at its feet, which gradually crept forward towards Roggvir, who suddenly realized his predicament. He quickly removed his shawl of stitched animal skins and stamped on it. He decided to let the cloak burn after receiving a bolt of fire to the face. Now his beard was ablaze, and combat was inevitable.
   
Roggvir doused himself in water and stormed angrily up the sandbank, fighting through further fireballs to reach the atronach, which had the advantage of ignoring tricky terrain and was nimble over this unsteady ground, rather than a rampaging, heavy-footed mountain man who was doing more excavating than climbing with his feet. Roggvir was lost for a moment as a huge column of fire engulfed him, before exploding in a huge upward force. I hadn’t expected Roggvir to be outclassed this quickly, so I allowed Footfalls-in-Snow into the fray. The Argonian’s claws were already dancing with frost magic, and after further chanting, he threw both arms out towards the fire atronach, and caught it with an impressive turmoil of frost. “By Leki’s first lunge!” Namasur murmured, taken aback by the ferocity of the attack and the Argonian’s manipulation of this element. When the storm of ice finally abated, we saw the flame atronach bent over double, a collection of smoldering embers and light licking fire. A rather singed Roggvir struck it into dust with his axe.
   
After some good-natured ribbing, Roggvir spent the evening complaining about the quality of the darning needle and threads he was using to repair the burn marks across his attire. When the Khajiit mentioned his “sausage-shaped fingers” might be the cause of the indelicate mending, Roggvir exploded with rage. But I am happy to write that unlike his brother Fenrig, Roggvir’s fury manifested itself not as a violent massacre after a beastly transformation, but as a series of insensitive verbal barbs about Khajiiti culture and their cleaning habits. Fortunately, Ingjard’s mead calmed the situation.

WATCHER | Summerset Isles’ coast may be a jagged jewel of basalt cliffs, but the richer soils of the floodplains further inland and the landscape of farmland become evident. The ground had been tilled here for centuries; the ridge and furrow marks in the fallow pastures indicate farmers plowed these fields in ancient times, perhaps even before the arrival of the High Elves. A landscape artist could command a hefty fee from painting such striking outlooks. Unfortunately, on the occasion of our expedition, the view was marred by a chaotic scene: Black smoke rising up from a burning tavern (this enraged Roggvir in particular, who was most keen try the Ewer of Metheglin, an Altmeri honey liqueur). Thin, wispy Elves fleeing to their homes. The local guard, their armor light, well made, but provincial, rushing out to greet the attackers. Horses were whinnying and snorting. Another Daedra incursion to test us.
   
“Lor-Malatu…” Kishra-do pointed at the mass of snakes fused to a central flesh ball, a vision I initially couldn’t understand. “A ‘Doom-Truth.’ The eyes of Hermaeus Mora roam here!”
   
I had never seen the like before: a globe of knurled skin, dozens of tentacles emerging from it, all thick with sticky suction cups, like an underwater menace. These arms whip back and forth, and seem to propel the creature through the air, for it has no feet, and must be hoisted off the ground by dark magic. Three of these warped limbs are much longer, with spines and gnarled grooves, and a vicious, mace-like end, but with a sharpness to pierce as well as the mass to batter. Where the central core of flesh holds no arms, primitive eyes bulge and blink, viewing from all directions. It is impossible to sneak up upon this corruption: In fact, only the great central eye, a slit of black for a pupil glowering and darting constantly in all directions, shows our hunters which way it faces.
   
“Don’t look directly into the eye!” Both Kishra-do and Namasur led the charge, rushing towards the many-tentacled thing with swords drawn, and battle cries at a crescendo. The trio of Altmeri guards seemed not to have paid attention to Namasur’s instructions, as they stood close to the watcher, as if set into stone, petrified and mouths gasping. The watcher span around, catching Kishra-do with a flailing arm, but she landed lightly, unharmed. The huge eye blinked at her, and she slowed, unable to look away. The watcher’s gaze locked, and Kishra-do let out a shriek, dropping her sword in horror. Little by little, her soul was being eaten away. It was fortunate, then, that Namasur’s scimitar sliced cleanly through the watcher’s weapon arm, and the gaze was broken.
  
Kishra-do sank down on all fours, staring at the ground. It was the first time we’d seen her weakened in such a way (and would be the source of much gibing afterwards). Ingjard was there in her place, valiantly striking up at the watcher, as the round mass blinked and a bolt of magicka shot forth at Namasur. It struck only his shadow, setting alight another building. While its secondary pupils fixated on the Redguard, the central eye widened, then squinted into a strange scowl. “Beware the Doom-Truth’s gaze!” Namasur yelled, sliding under the roaring blast of energy that carved a path of fire where the Redguard had stood only moments earlier. Up thrust Namasur’s scimitar, out spilled the watcher’s eye yolk, and a final plunge (where Namasur’s arm disappeared into the flapping body of the beast) dropped it to the ground, where it was easily set upon.
   
My hackles rise and my prejudices come to the fore when I encounter an entity such as this: A mass of floating tentacles with a grotesque roving eye? These aren’t Kyne’s creatures; they are unnatural abominations, malignant and deviant, and must be dismissed! Are these tests from Molag Bal? Roaming Daedra riddling Mundus with their filth? I want my adversaries with two or four feet with a man, mer, or animal countenance, not this outlandish creation. Where had this thing come from? What was its purpose? Footfalls-in-Snow suggested it sought all knowledge, scrying for the Lord of Secrets, but changed his story as he found and searched the body of an Altmeri conjurer, pocketing trinkets and parchments in the process.
   
We redoubled our thanks to Kyne when the beast was finally dismembered (its smaller eyeballs pried out and stuffed into the Argonian’s bag), and the Altmeri innkeeper appeared from the remains of his building with some Golden Pear Ale for us to quaff.

IMP | Kishra-do had perked up after gazing into the horror of a watcher’s eye (by which I mean she again started up her sarcastic remarks about our hunting abilities instead of sitting on her haunches, looking stupefied). As we made for the thick blanket of ancient woodland of the Auridon deep forest, my attention turned to the Argonian, who had produced a scroll, taken from the corpse of an Altmeri magician he had looted previously. “I may babble as a fast-flowing brook, but I seek a friendly conjuration,” he informed me, as he unrolled the slightly singed paper, preparing for an incantation. I mentioned he was gathering familiars quicker than the cat lady of Riverwood, what with Scuttler, his lizard companion, and a newly acquired mudcrab he'd named Young Salty. My protests fell on deaf ears. Or whatever Argonians call those slits below their head fronds.
   
And babble the Argonian did, speaking in tongues he later described as “Impish,” after which a small ball of lightning flashed outwards above the lizard’s outstretched hand, through which a small dwarfling stepped. Light on its claw feet thanks to a pair of oversized wings, it looked around at our assembly through glowing red eyes and a thin-lipped mouth that appeared permanently parched of water. Two tiny horns of bone above the brow, a thin gray body, and overly long finger and toenails. The imp smiled kindly at me and flapped over, bowing politely in the air and extending a hand of friendship.
   
My hand had barely left my sword hilt when the imp decided an act of petulance was in order. It scooted forward, landing on my head and tugging my beard with both hands. As I attempted to swat the impudent trickster, it somersaulted over my helmet, and I smelt burning hair. The brazen fiend had set my topknot ablaze! “Dismiss this cur!” I yelled at the Argonian, who began to talk sternly at the imp in tongues unknown.
   
Kishra-do, never one to miss out on a verbal jab, shouted from the campfire, “Shadow of Rajhin! You shaveskins are being bettered by a trickster sprite!” Her merriment was short lived, as the imp quickly summoned a channel of flame from its small hands, which sped across the ground and struck the Khajiit as she sat on her log, sending her tumbling arse over tail. The smell of singed fur mingled with the odor of burning beard.
   
Ingjard was at the water simmering on the fire, drenching myself and the cat with a cauldron full. Fortunately it was warm, not boiling, although there were many Nord and Khajiit curses directed at Ingjard, due to our newly bedraggled nature.
   
“Enough!” Roggvir boomed, seeing the Argonian's control over his toy was as adept as an Orcish diplomat. The imp cackled at the confusion it was causing, flipping over in the air and making all sorts of rude hand gestures. These stopped abruptly as it dropped to the ground gracelessly, after steel hand axe landed in its back.
   
The Argonian’s scroll satchel was searched, and magic not written in his mother tongue confiscated. The search of the deep forest would continue without any further frivolous interruption.

GIANT BAT | The ancient forests of Auridon have an eeriness all their own. But those that lurk between trees were not our concern this night. Instead, we looked up: A dark shape moved across Secunda. Perhaps it was Kyne’s hawk watching over us? No, Ingjard described the shape as more like a scraggly skeleton with leathery wings. “Your inferior hearing caught a whistle, yes?” Kishra-do asked, her ears perking up. We shook our heads, as the flitting movement blocked out a moon again. This time, I had a full glimpse of the beast, unbuckled my bow from by back, and motioned to elongate our guarding positions out a little. Waiting in a glade, Footfalls-in-Snow rustled some of the low shrubbery, until the curious creature swooped in with supper on its mind.
   
Darker than a Dunmer, with wings spread out to the width of three Imperial corpses laid end to end, this giant bat was coaxed from its slumber in the thick tree canopies above by the rising moons. Black flesh pulled tight over bat skull, a row of fanged teeth and a nose the shape of an oak leaf, ribs protruding through torso skin, and thick fur along the back ridge. A skeever-like tail, hooked toes, and claw hands with thumbs attached to roughly spread wings. It flew at the lizard, biting down and scraping its teeth on his forehead: A few scales lost, but no need for Argonian healing ointments.
   
The second pummeling was more concerning: the bat dropped down from behind, managed to clamp onto Footfalls-in-Snow, and stabbed down with four or five bites, until one of Namasur's arrows knocked it away. The Argonian seemed withered by the punctures, falling to his knees as the Redguard's second shot found its mark. This third arrow struck a tree. This was surprising, given Namasur's aim. “Craven cur!” He shook his head, startled at the giant bat’s screeching ringing in his ears. His befuddlement did not last; a taut string and an ebony arrow embedded into the bat’s head. It fell quickly, striking tree branches on the way down to the soft forest floor, where it landed, already shrouded in its own wings.

GHOST | The third night, deeper within the forests, now more dense and primordial than before, and we chanced upon a hidden glade, and the remains of a delicately proportioned arch erected by ancient Altmeri hands, entwined with strangle vines. As we gathered wood and lit the fire, I sat down, weary from the march. A dram of something to warm my bones, and a quill in hand to make notes from the day’s wandering.
   
A slight, cold draft across my shoulder. Then it intensified: a shock of unnatural briskness, a touch that made me jump, then chilled me to the bone. I felt fingers digging in, an icy grasp burning my flesh through my furs. Puzzled, I span around. “Trolls take you! Show yourself!” There was nothing but a startled Argonian staring back at me over the flames of the campfire.
   
“You shed your leaves in First Seed, Master Grundvik,” he remarked. “Are you rattled?”
   
I rotated my shoulder stiffly, which was still riddled with cold. I felt ill, my stomach knotted. I beckoned over Roggvir and Namasur. I recalled the frosty reception in these old ruins. “Supernatural evil,” Roggvir muttered.
   
I snapped everyone from their tasks with a bellow. I explained the predicament, and weapons were drawn. But there was nothing but tangled briars and a faint creak of the trees softly swaying in the breeze, shafts of pale moonlight piercing the camp, the shadows flickering and looming in the golden glow of the fire’s embers. Not even Ingjard could be heard, away from us on her nighttime stalking of animals for our cooking pot.
   
“Save my soul from Molag Bal!” A plaintive cry was heard.
   
Wisps of glowing smoke began to form above an odd little light, which widened out from between the arch. It curdled into a more distinct form, shackled hands, ice blue after death, sagging shoulders and tattered trousers dissolving into the ether. Behind the ghost, a terrifying land of nightmares, purple, brooding skies, and cracked peaks ascending from cracked earth. The phantom congealed still further: A ghastly face, a thin, sunken-eyed Imperial with a thin moustache and a bottom-lip hair tuft where a fine and proud beard should have begun, high jawed and brow furrowed as if in perpetual pain. He was dressed in the tattered fineries of a Bravilian noble of lower standing, including the cloth cap of an artisan. He looked like he'd been dragged through a briar patch backwards.
   
This was a pitiful congregation of vapors.
   
“Proud Nord warrior, I beseech you! Rally your forces and free me from this wretchedness!”
   
Roggvir leaned in: “Well, he talks like an Imperial.” I nodded and turned, produced my blade, and pointed it at the pathetic specter.
   
“Don't step any closer, milk drinker! Tell us your name, and what you want!”
   
“You can hear me? Stendarr be praised! My name is Flaccus Terentius! I am… was... “ he corrected himself. “I was envoy scholar to the empress regent. I wrote a book. With paintings. Sketched until my hands ached. Did you see it?”
   
“Yes,” Roggvir replied sarcastically. “I have a copy bedside, that I keep under my first-edition printing of The Lusty Argonian Maid.”
   
“My fame reaches the unwashed of Skyrim? My work, at least, is something for Honoria Lucasta to cherish…”
   
“I spoke in jest, Cyrodiil!” Roggvir interrupted with a laugh. “But congratulations on your predicament. How can we help? Shall we summon Molag Bal and sternly reprimand his wicked ways? On your horse, Imperial!” With that, Roggvir waved a dismissive hand at the ghost and sat down to eat.
   
“I hope you end your days eating endless piles of dung in the company of Sheogorath!” The ghost seemed increasingly agitated.
   
“Flaccus…?” Ingjard returned from her forage, and dropped her rabbits in surprise, instead of handing them to the Argonian.
   
“Ingjard! The stern-faced one with the mangled hand? By Mara’s light! You remember me!”
   
“Yes…” Ingjard replied with half a smile, quickly explaining to me about the time she spent shepherding this fellow on a hunt with Holgunn One-Eye. “We thought you’d drowned in a sulfur pond,” she added, then thought for a moment. “But you seem to have suffered a worse fate.”
   
“But you can save me, yes? Save poor Flaccus! I have gold… and riches!” A great churning from the ethereal window behind him caused us to step back a few paces. The view of Coldharbour grew darker. Indistinct.
   
“I am sorry, friend.” Ingjard spoke with sadness in her voice.
   
“Useless, uncouth sweat from a giant’s posing pouch!” Flaccus flew into a temper, swinging at Ingjard with two pale hands, which then hung by his side as she simply retreated two paces. Undeterred, the ghost’s tantrum continued: “Let my twin feast on your soul!” A second apparition formed in front of the first, the face contorted, sallow cheeks in a permanent scream. Alarmed, Ingjard watched as the ghost’s duplicate floating forwards, thrashing the air, continuing on a straight path that missed our group entirely, and ended up clawing at a tree before dispersing with a shriek.
   
“No. No! Not the chains!” Ingjard hadn’t the time to comment on the ghost’s ineffectual hysterics before a great force from beyond snapped the ghost’s manacles back, and the wretched soul was dragged, wailing, into the oval window. Strange runes appeared and swirled. Then the view was gone.
  
“Curse you, Uwafa…!” The ghost’s voice trailed off into another existence.
   
“Rabbit stew?” I inquired. “I’m so hungry I’ll even eat the Argonian's cooking this evening.”

OGRIM AND SCAMP | Our footing became looser as we descended through the deep forest, using trails Ingjard and Namasur could only see periodically. But a black mark on the horizon was easily spotted: a jagged flaw in otherwise serene wilderness. Footfalls-in-Snow was seething; although this wasn't his natural habitat, he had witnessed the “murder of our haj, or hidden woods, by rampageous marauders of Blackwood.” But these weren’t Cyrodilics; as we drew closer we realized this was an encroachment of Daedra.
   
I had previously encountered ogrims green of hue, and close to Orsinium shrines to Mauloch. But this brute as a strange blue,with larger, hook-like spines protruding from its hefty arms and shoulders. A wide stance and almost a waddle, with a paunch bigger than a pig’s. An ample mouth, with a Breton’s graveyard of jagged and rotting teeth jumbling out in all directions. Huge leather gauntlets and skin of hard leather and scales. Two ruined horns poked out from a wheezing, spluttering head. Ice-blue eyes marked it as a minion of Molag Bal. It seemed preoccupied with fire, merrily helping in the burning of Auridon’s forests, crackling trees and blackened smoke rising from the deep scar it was creating. The immediate area looked more like the Ashlands of Morrowind.
  
Perched on the ogrim’s broad shoulders was a scamp, a cowardly servant of an unknown Daedra lord, with its rotund steed providing protection as it set the woodlands ablaze. Cursed with a weak physical form, the scamp was strong in magic, particularly of a destructive nature. It sat, cackling through pursed lips, forehead sloped and mottled, nostril slits for a nose, black eyed and beady, ears as wide as a butterfly’s wings—a thin, wiry thing with a rat’s tail and pantaloons of thick-growing hair: Imagine a Goblin cursed by Molag Bal himself. It spotted Roggvir advancing with his swords, and let out a high-pitched cry, causing its fellow Daedra to twist around towards us.
   
Bringing the momentum of its spinning turn into a forceful slap, the scamp caught Roggvir in the face with an enormous glove, big enough to grip his entire head. A stinging slap sent the Nord reeling back, his helmet strap snapping with the force, and his headgear flew off into the woods. Kishra-do let out an uncharacteristic yelp, but soon realized Roggvir’s head was still attached. Our arrows marked the ogrim’s back as it crashed forward, through the smoking dust, then leapt at Roggvir, more nimbly than he was expecting, in an attempt to bombard and fell him. Despite his grogginess, Roggvir stepped deftly away, his two swords poked deep into the ogrim’s exposed belly. Now prone, the ogrim’s other areas of skin were marked with arrows, driven deep and dipped in poison. The ogrim fell onto its back, tongue draped over its spittle-soaked mouth, eyes darkened now, staring out into Oblivion.
   
The scamp shrieked in a babble none of us wished to understand. To and from the burning line of trees it dashed, scampering on all fours, before leaping out through the flames, both arms raised above its head, bringing them both down in a punch that took the wind out of Roggvir’s sails. His demeanor more angered at enduring a constant assault, Roggvir leapt to his feet again, and received a wave of conjured fire to the face from the scamp, setting his beard alight (Namasur later jested with Roggvir, asking if he was made of straw, as only training mannequins usually receive the pummeling he took). Realizing it lacked physical stature, but was proficient in primitive magic, we decided to sever the scamp’s upper hand in this fight, and Footfalls-in-Snow beckoned forth a stiff breeze to stifle the flames. This turned quickly into a maelstrom of ice, thrusting out in all directions and dampening the blaze in the forest scar.
   
Kishra-do helped Roggvir to stand (now for the fourth time since combat began, and the first with assistance), but the Nord pushed her away. Kishra-do snarled, but as a giant fist crashed down where she had stood, she forgave Roggvir’s manhandling. The fist belonged to the ogrim, now partly resurrected from wounds we thought were grave, with a scamp clinging to its neck fat. A battle charge was sounded, and Namasur struck the hairy homunculus off its perch with a finely aimed arrow, and followed up with a whirling dismemberment. The unsteady ogrim had arrows from every part of Tamriel protruding from its hide, but Ingjard’s axe into the low-set skull, lopping off an ear on the way, felled the terror. It too was separated into smaller pieces, for fear of this fight continuing until dawn.
   
The Argonian acted out his own name, burying the flames of the forest in a thick blanket of conjured snow he wandered through, sealing the scar. Our Daedra foes had their important innards removed, but we took care to feed only the lizard’s familiars with this tainted meat.

WRAITH | We followed an odd trail that Namasur had picked up in the lower forest, heading up into the high hills of ancient Auridon. The Redguard seemed puzzled, certain that the tracks were made from a fellow child of Yokuda (the footprints matched sandals his brethren sometimes wore). The way was thick with maple and larches, until a rough glade was spotted. Half-hidden among the tangle of trees and bushes, we uncovered a shrine to Peryite.
  
The High Elves had abandoned this overgrown monument long ago; the ivy and vines had weathered the remains of intricate carvings with their gradual rubbing, and saplings had sprouted from the stone itself. The shrine was choked by the forest's tendrils. Namasur seemed fascinated by the structure, pointing at some of the representations of the Altmer, and the story of a battle with strange, slug-like monsters he explained were probably Sload. This stonework was reminiscent of the Halls of Stories told by Nord masons along timeworn barrow walls. "Tu'whacca's mercy..." Namasur whispered to the Argonian. "See how the arch seems aligned to that mountain peak? I'd wager my sword that Masser grows brightest above this place on the summer solstice." Footfalls-in-Snow nodded with interest, and began to cut through a patch of brambles to uncover more of the fallen rubble, catching a glimpse of something odd: the edge of a circle in the ground, which seemed to pulse slightly with a faded light.
  
Namasur was too slow in realizing the danger. The circle span with strange runes. As the Argonian stepped over its boundary, he quickly understood his blunder: This ruined waypoint was abandoned because it was cursed. Up from the middle of the circle rose an indistinct form: an uncanny and polluted vapor. A yawn from the ether, snapping shut in a flapping mass of anger and hate. As the hooded congealed into a thicker mass, more distinct to our eyes, we made out its malevolence. A tattered shawl, roughly stitched and wafting from sharp-nailed claws, glowing a wondrous azure, which lit the glade in an unnatural and frightening glow. The fabric trailed from the phantom's cowled countenance, the tips of the cloth growing bleary. But the creature's face was sharp, a jawless skull masking the bright blue light pouring from the beast's core.
  
A wraith had been disturbed.
 
This specter of the ether was a guardian of necromantic origins, silent and thoughtless until our paths crossed. Now it stirred into our realm, ignoring Footfalls-in-Snow (who sank to his knees, weakened by the desecrated ground he had entered) but staring at Namasur with a piercing gaze. It formed a swirling sphere of frost in its hands. The bolt shot forth and narrowly missed the Redguard's head. A second magical strike was on its way, this one a gash of ice, furrowing to Namasur's feet. He leapt quickly to avoid its touch, and produced a long spear. It was the same implement he had used to bind and dismiss the soul of the ghost we had encountered previously.
  
"Upon my honor..." Namasur's tone was ritualistic. "Lord Frandar's spirit now consumes you!"
  
The Redguard's staff glowed green and red with numerous enchantments. It formed a circular rainbow of light as Namasur span it above his head, before he somersaulted forwards, his spear following the dance as if propelled on its own. But the Redguard's hands stayed on the rod, nimble fingers increasing the velocity and ferocity of the movement. Ingjard jumped slightly as the spear left Namasur's grasp with a jolt, bowing in the air as it flew, and entered the wraith's hooded cowl as if it had been summoned to appear there. The wraith let out a silent shout, shafts of light ripping through in all directions like a sunburst as the specter's skull broke apart. The dark form jerked about, filling with light, frayed cloth burning up in a magical fire. Then a flash we all averted our gaze from.
 
Tattered cloth gently fluttered down to the ground. The circle of runes had vanished, leaving only a small pile of ghostly remains, and the ritual dagger of a Daedric priest.

GOLDEN SAINT AND SPIDER DAEDRA | I rarely boast, but all our hunters (whether clad in fur, scales, or leathery Nord skin) have exhibited a remarkable quality to their tracking. In the seemingly impenetrable forests of Auridon, the faintest of trails are found, and always without magic. We feast on venison and peacock nightly. When our water skins are empty, we find blessed spring water and pure streams, and catch silvertrout. When we occasionally encounter a High Elf, Kishra-do explains our activities without exacerbation. So it came as a surprise when Roggvir failed to return by sunset from an afternoon’s tracking.
   
By dawn, our bird calls hadn’t been returned, so we followed the trail across the moss, under thickly draped canopies of larch and laurel, and crept forward when the sun broke through, casting light into a clearing. Two Elven archers and moss-lined steps down into a glade glistening with dew. Then an alarming crack, sounding like the breaking of bones. I crawled to the top of the stairs, and peered down. Two shapes in the shadows, unclear in the morning haze. I looked with firmer focus, and felt both gladness and alarm. We had found Roggvir, but he was looking distinctly unready; he was on his hands and knees coughing up blood and teeth.
   
Standing over him was a powerfully built woman, wiping Nord blood from her fist. I first mistook her for an Elf, but on closer inspection this was a strange and ominous variety of Daedra. Clad in armor of dazzling quality, the figure was resplendent in dark bronzes and silvers, but mainly golds, fashioned into filigree-encrusted shoulder arches, stomach plates, and thigh greaves, bare skin under boots and bracers. A belt of unknown leather, and a cape of silk-like cloth. Only the cruel scowl etched across the brow of the being (and the dazed Nord at her feet) hinted at her despicable disposition. Namasur recognized this foe immediately: “A Golden Saint. I read they serve Sheogorath in the Shivering Isles. I’ve found them reticent, arrogant, and delighting in violence.” The Redguard noticed Roggvir. “Especially the violence. They are no friend of men. Perhaps Ingjard or Keshra-do might have conference with her?”
   
Ingjard tapped her sword on Namasur’s shoulder. “My blade talks today.” This conversation was imminent, as the Golden Saint took sword and shield, raising her blade skyward—an ascension before cutting into Roggvir’s neck.
   
Just before Roggvir’s neck was to be cut, a jumble of occurrences took place. Forgive me for describing them in steps, as much of this collided into a single battle of confusion. Ingjard let out a yell to wake the forest creatures of Valenwood, and quickened her gait, to reach and prevent her companion from losing a head, cutting a deep wound into the back of the Golden Saint. The Daedra let out a shriek to scare every forest bird from its perch, kicked Roggvir in the head as consolation, and caught Ingjard’s next wild swing not with her shield, but her golden gauntlet. As the Saint’s fingers clasped the blade, Ingjard’s sword cracked and warped, gradually changing from polished steel to tarnished rust. Then the weapon shattered, Ingjard stumbling back to protect herself from being pierced by her own sword fragments. Namasur had disappeared, and now the Golden Saint had her glare locked on mine, so I only glanced at the disturbance in the undergrowth, half heard the shouts from the Argonian… but caught more than a glimpse of the Spider Daedra as it lurched out of the woodland darkness.
   
Bound in service to the Golden Saint, this bastardizing of Kyne’s spider was as revolting as you would expect such a hybrid to look: an arachnid’s hindquarters fused with a female’s stomach, arms, and head. Foaming, pursed lips ready to spit paralytic poison. A headdress of thick-spined protrusions sat like an oversized crown. Rearing up with front legs ready to stab and skewer, this quick and sinewy horror had the same fibrous muscle behind the sharp-pronged leg plates as the arms that burned with conjured and crackling energy. The monstrosity took charge of battering Roggvir, pinning him up against a rock and covering him in a thick web spittle. She (for the Spider Daedra had breasts, for some reason) was interrupted in her cocooning by a Khajiit with a long spear. I never heard an Argonian scream before, but Footfalls-in-Snow was suddenly leaping from his tree, dropping his bow in the process, and frantically scraping a trio of spiderlings, miniatures of their mother swarmed his scales.
   
Covered in poison marks, the Argonian disappeared from view with a lit torch and burning vengeance on his mind. Roggvir, now a bloodied and trussed-up shell, seemed desperate to prove his worth, and had begun cutting through the hardening web with a small dagger. The Spider Daedra was focusing her wrath on the Khajiit, coughing out a stream of lightning at the cat, which she avoided with her swiftness. As the discharge faded, her filthy mouth still had bile to gob out at Kishra-do. As one of these unpleasant projectiles splattered across her boot, the Khajiit stopped playing with her toys, and thrust the weapon up through the underbelly, driving the Spider Daedra onto its back, where further spittle and blood flew.
   
I retreated back from the Golden Saint, green mist whirling in my palm, ignoring the Daedra’s insults regarding my manhood and the potency of my family’s seed. Namasur finally appeared, readying a flying pounce with a dagger in each hand. I forced a congregation of vapors from my hand, which span about the face of my foe. She slowed to shake her head and rid herself of my mischief. This was the opportunity Namasur needed: The Golden Saint was striding forth, goading me into combat. Then she staggered, gasping for breath; her windpipe now had a dagger-sized opening in it. Finally she crumpled, Namasur deciding on a quick death and a stab through a blackened heart.

The Argonian was telling us how well spiderlings burned as ingredients were being harvested from our cull, when Roggvir wiped the last of the web from his beard and dashed to our aid. Though relieved, he received a ribbing that lasted well into the night, finally admitting to letting his guard down for a moment when he first spied the Golden Saint. Ingjard (and the mead that directed her tongue) waved her good hand in Roggvir’s face, and ended his protests once and for all:

“But you call yourself Roggvir the Ready! Ha! I haven’t heard a name this unsuitable since Torygg Bog-Trotter!”
   
“Why? What happened to him?” Kishra-do asked.
  
“He drowned in the Eastmarch fens.”

Dark Forests of Daedra, and the Colovian Reapers

MUDCRAB | The Argonian was in his element as we descended into the coastal mangrove swamps of Greenshade, wading across to reach the rock elevations. But further inland, the place becomes most uncomfortable, the sweat pouring down your back and chafing in areas best left unmentioned. Footfalls-in-Snow’s two familiars also seemed to enjoy a frolic in the brown, oozing water, and both Namasur and Roggvir returned from scouting: they reported no dangers, aside from fleshflies enjoying a feast on our exposed skin. Later, as the sun set, the Argonian was drawn to a rocky pool, his eyes fixated on a large mudcrab, this one a deeper red in coloration, with slightly larger pincers. It didn’t seem as enthused to see Scuttler, and was positively aggressive to Young Salty, the Argonian’s other animal friend (and northern mudcrab breed).

Unless you’re a Cyrodilic noble who receives lounging on your back, cooked by servants within a walled fortification, and have an aversion to hard work, you must have an idea of what a mudcrab looks like. Two tiny orange eyes peering out beneath a lumpy but relatively flat shell, feeding its small but ferocious mouth with insects and food collected by its two large front pincers. The mudcrab snapped one of its pink claws at Scuttler, sending it racing back to Footfalls-in-Snow. Young Salty sidestepped forwards to face its rival, causing the pink fellow to snap its unforgiving claws at once, scraping the shell of the Argonian’s own six-legged friend. A small cloud of dirt, and Young Salty was gone, burrowing under the shallow mud bank, only to appear behind the red mudcrab and thrust both mandibles forward.

Young Salty edged forward, then fled back to Footfalls-in-Snow as a large spear was rammed through the red mudcrab’s shell, skewering it completely. “That was a species protected by the Altmer of Alinor!” the Argonian spluttered indignantly. Namasur grabbed his weapon, lifting it up to inspect the twitching mudcrab mass at the end of it. “I don’t see any High Elves unfurling their banners and readying to attack us, do you?” he said, scraping the corpse off his spear, and into a boiling pot. “I was unwilling to watch such a feeble battle continue. Don’t fret, Argonian; Young Salty isn’t on the spit. Let us eat; I hear this meat is exceedingly sweet.”

A camp was made, further mudcrabs were gathered, and we gorged on the juiciest flesh since Skyrim rabbit. Despite further assurances that his pet was a northern mudcrab and too tough to put in a pot, Footfalls-in-Snow refrained from the feast, opting to sit stroking Young Salty, and nibble on a sweetroll.

NEREID | At the edge of Greenshade, the brook we had been following (to aid in our geography as well as our tracking), which was sometimes merely mossy ground rather than a stream, finally meandered to a tiny tributary. We sank to our buttocks and made shallow our breathing. I crept forwards to a clearing, where the rush of more rapid water could be heard. Over this tranquility we heard a song. The sweet, transfixing song of the nereid. I found a suitable obstacle, and beckoned forth the more trusted members of our party.

And there she was, a vision of blue and turquoise, shimmering in the dappled morning light, frolicsome in the clear waters, preoccupied with preening. Almost Elvish in features, deep blue eyes and full lips, primitive swirls on her exposed shoulders, arms, and legs (Tattoos? Mottled skin? It was difficult to tell.). A variety of shells, seaweed, and small animals nestling in her bonnet, aquatic jewelry hanging from ears and breasts. And a shawl of cloth… no, water! It was vexing to determine where the water she played with began and her form ended.

I turned to Namasur, and muttered in venerated tones: “We are lucky to see one alone, and away from her matriarch. Have your wits and blades about you; this creature may either fly into a rage or tolerate our presence. But be wary; she can drown you even while you stand on dry land.”

Roggvir sidled up to our hiding tree: “I heard these are vengeful spirits, sewn from the bodies of women murdered and cast into rivers,” he offered.

Ingjard stifled a chortle, and turned to him: “A difficult tale to believe, Roggvir. But then, you still paint your cows and offer them to giants, don’t you?” Roggvir laughed back, but I saw his face redden and his mirth soon disperse.

“True beauty,” Namasur spoke now. “We know them as water sprites. You call them nereids, yes?” Namasur whispered as we stared across the edge of the embankment, towards a lagoon of the purest water, many small waterfalls trickling into a stream, and a further cascade into the burbling brook beneath the floating wispiness of the nereid’s feet. It seemed almost a crime to slay this water Nymph.

I am at pains to describe this combat in savage detail. We were here to acquire bathing water for Kishra-do’s master, and to test our prowess. But the nereid offered us no anger. Indeed, our uncouth tracker Roggvir began hostilities with a throwing axe, severing both the nereid’s arm and her song, and starting her formidable display of conjuring. Removing the axe and clutching her wound until the gouge had sealed up, she floated back, snarling, fragments of frost in her palms. Bolts of ice flew out, one striking Namasur on the chest plate. Roggvir was quickly to his feet, stepping in front of the Redguard to prevent further damage. They both looked puzzled as a swift wind whipped up around Namasur’s feet, swiftly becoming a fierce and dangerous whirlwind, controlled by nereid hands.

Roggvir somersaulted forward, bringing himself closer to the water’s edge. He promptly suffered a deluge, not from a wade through the pool, but after staring at his feet. “My boots are wet…” he began to speak, a small puddle forming on the moss underfoot. Not another step forward was taken before a great spouting column of water roared up from below: an erupting geyser trapping him in a prison. The prediction of a drowning was in danger of becoming true. It fell to the Khajiit (who felt no empathy at all) to lunge with both daggers poised stabbing forcefully as she leapt upon the nereid, and both disappeared under the water.

After much thrashing, Kishra-do waded out, shaking herself dry, leaving a floating blue corpse in her wake, as the lagoon water turned deep red with nereid blood.

SPRIGGAN | The oldest forest of this realm is the dense Grahtwood, where daylight finds it hard to reach the mossy ground, and the massive buttress roots of mighty oaks serve as their own tiny hamlets for a variety of plants and animals. Our wander led us to a woodland grove, a waterfall cascading over ferns, and a wet haze of moisture pervading the gloom. Rooted to the middle, swaying ever so slightly, was the spriggan we had tracked.

A twisted trunk, the glowing interior partly visible through smooth and intentional openings. The insides of the torso seemed to be the texture of moss. This central stem wasn’t cracked or brittle, but rather supple, like a sapling bending to the first winds of autumn. A comely torso (are those breasts?), and a feminine nimbleness to the spriggan’s movements. A wooden head, with a crown of branches, and molten fire dancing out from within. The graceful movements of the spriggan would have been entrancing, were it not for the screaming, wild eyes burning umber from within, and the increasingly brisk whirlwind of leaves spinning about this forest creature.

“Wolves!” Roggvir pointed both swords in opposing directions as we split up to deal with additional encroachments; two gray wolves with the same orange-eyed stares as their mistress were weaving through the trees on opposite sides of the clearing. Ingjard lit an oil-soaked arrow, as any chance at diplomacy had passed. The spriggan quickly pointed at the flame, and a swirl of swarming magic bolted forth, snuffing out the fire and knocking Ingjard off her feet. Next she turned her attention to the Argonian for a brief moment, and flashed her eyes at the lizard.

“Impure tail lifter!” While the majority of us were tracking our four-legged and trunk-legged prey in prelude to combat, Footfalls-in-Snow’s fight had already begun, violence erupting from surprising quarters. “Square-tooth milk sucker!” The Argonian continued his seething, gesticulating wildly as his scaly familiar refused to release its clamped jaws from his arm. The same orange glow emanated from Scuttler’s blank eyes: another animal in the service of the spriggan. In the end, Footfalls-in-Snow had no other option than to plunge a dagger into the back of Scuttler’s neck; it released its grips and fell to the forest floor, quite dead.

The grove was alive with possessed beasts: two wolves circling and the spriggan scooting forward through the air, twirling gracefully before the talons were revealed, attempting to lacerate Namasur’s neck. He edged away, and began a murmuring incantation, his hands suddenly exploding in fire: This was the first occasion that Namasur displayed a previously hidden talent for magic. Then it was released, an explosion of smoke and bark as the spriggan went up in flames. An impressive hit, until she faded from our view with a cackle, hiding in a translucent shadow with a swarm of magical essence flitting about her. Soon she burst forth, no evidence of burn marks on her form, and began a furious mauling in Namasur’s direction.

Namasur’s scimitar parried, his blade work faster than the quickest spriggan strike. This afforded Ingjard the time to release a barrage of burning arrows; each flew true and struck the spriggan, despite the Redguard’s proximity. A great wail erupted from the smoldering Nymph, and we advanced with axes to hack and dismember, while Roggvir kept the wolves at bay. As the spriggan’s husk, no blackened and without the glow of life, fell to the grass at our feet, her summoned creatures returned to the woods, now uninterested in a one-sided fight no in their favor.

A glum-faced Argonian buried his pet below a graht-oak, while Roggvir protested he was wasting good meat for the spit.

WINGED TWILIGHT | “The dusk’s howl of a Winged Twilight. Listen!” Roggvir motioned for silence, Kishra-do pricked up her ears, and we stopped in our tracks, straining to hear. He was right; as Masser and Secunda rose above the silhouettes of the Grahtwood elder trees, we distinctly heard a shriek over the woodland waterfall, and the faint hum of the torchbugs in the small clearing we were creeping through. Then the sound of a branch cracking above us; we gazed up and glimpsed movement in the still air: a large shadow leaped from the canopy and briefly blotted out Secunda’s light. Pale blue eyes shone through the dark leaves. Something had been stalking us since we crossed from Malabal Tor. Roggvir’s guess was correct.

A creature of female form, the Winged Twilight had previously been described as a messenger sent by Azura. But this Daedra was a servitor of Molag Bal, carrying his cursed color and blank, blue-eyed stare. Myth held that Molag Grunda, the daughter of Molag Bal, was spawned as a Winged Twilight, but whatever those that dwell with the Daedra have revealed, one was biding its time before it struck. Ingjard mistook this as fear, but Roggvir explained our stalker was cautious due to cunning and the quickness of its strikes; it was waiting for an opportunity. A feathered crest, now dappled with darker hues that ran along her shoulders and down her thighs, a scaled chest and breastplate, a savage woman’s face, hair scraped back into a topknot. A tail as long as her entire body, with a vicious barbed end, and massive hooked feet used to tear flesh apart and grip branches, rocks, and other vantage points. A thick membrane stretched over huge wings, each ending in a long and extremely sharp hook (our Argonian apothecary spoke of these as an ingredient to concoct a potent poison). A more winsomely shaped harpy was staring intently down on us from her high perch atop a graht-oak.

The stare turned to a menacing glint, and the perch a screaming plummet, as the Winged Twilight dived straight down to meet Ingjard, causing her to stiffly raise her shield and stand her ground. The shriek was deafening to all, but particularly to Ingjard, who seemed uncharacteristically stunned and confused. Roggvir stepped forward and swung an axe wildly: it whistled under the screeching menace, which swung back with its barbed tail and caught Roggvir across the face. The Nords were fighting as if we’d been downing mead for an hour (which was true), so it fell to Kishra-do to add some of her graceful carnage to the proceedings. Out flashed a tiny blade, almost as small as an arrow. Then another, both cutting the flesh of the foe between the ribs, a deviously painful strike and a difficult wound to keep from weeping.

But the Khajiit wasn’t finished; like a senche-tiger after a rock warbler, she bounded up the thick bark of a nearby tree and leapt for the flying terror. “Wits to Hircine!” I heard her yell as she caught the Winged Twilight and latched onto her back like a tick, both of them tumbling down to a heavy landing on the forest floor. Kishra-do was first up, a dervish of daggers, slicing with a ferocity almost too frenzied to follow. She absorbed a vicious kick from the beast’s talons, which left a scar along one arm, but this was a timid retaliation in the face of a murderous Khajiit.

Perhaps Molag Bal would think twice before sending a bird to stalk a cat.

HOARVOR | Namasur’s taste for mead was welcomed, and his consumption already legendary; Roggvir joked his blood could poison a vampire. The Redguard’s innate grace now featured more lurching movements, but he was still agile enough to find his sleeping quarters: on his side under the welcoming branches of an oak tree, near a patch of underbrush. While Ingjard painted, I retired for the evening, drifting to sleep with the crackling of the fire and the sounds of insects and hooting owls echoing through the forest. This tranquility was soon replaced by confused shouting and the clattering of metal.

Ingjard recalled the story (both through conversation and artistry): She heard Namasur murmuring, something indistinguishable, and probably mead induced. Then she heard a cry: “Dogs and sons of dogs!”

I asked what manners of dogs we were assaulted by, and Ingjard laughed: “No, Namasur ws visited during the night and pinned by a hoarvor.” She explained the Redguard’s shouts occurred after he experienced a stabbing pain in his side. Namasur joined us, gingerly rolling up his shirt to show off a large puncture wound below his ribs, now rapidly healing thanks to Argonian ointment. He continued the tale, stating sheepishly that he initially believed Ingjard had become besotted with his charms, and moved to lay with him. “But this was a mirage in my mind, thanks to your alcohol,” he smiled, then winced and lightly dabbed his wound with a cloth.

“Next, I thought I’d been stabbed, but the pain was different: it felt like fire and extended across my ribs. I struggled, thought the night terrors gripped me, as I was unable to move. My vision cleared, and I was peering into the dribbling mouth of a huge insect, as big as a guar.” The mouth had latched on, gouged on his side, and its sharp, spiked legs had pinned him to the soil. “Then I was covered in my own blood!” I made a feeble jest about him really being a Redguard now (which he took good naturedly), before explaining how the hoarvor had spewed forth a mixture of bile and Namasur’s own fluids, further adding to his discomfort.

“In the end, Tu’whacca watched over us. And I suppose Ingjard did join me in my bed. But she carried a spear, pried off that immense tick, and we watched it stagger and stumble about the camp, poisoned by the mead I drank earlier.” Namasur stood up, slowly. “That insect’s feast was helpful in one way, though: it seemed to suck the usual head pain I have after waking from a drunken stupor. Just this war wound tickles me now.”

The hoarvor was duly skewered and its shell scraped clean. We promised not to recall this story if we ever returned to Hammerfell.

STRANGLER | A patch of dappled light, half a day into the forests of Malabal Tor, was a novelty, so thick was the canopy of trees. Footfalls-in-Snow began writing Argonian poetry about it, although his quill scratched parchment in Jel, so he saved us from listening to it. But this shaft of light illuminated something grotesquely interesting. A plant, exhibiting more animalistic (and certainly parasitical) tendencies than many actual animals we had encountered: the carnivorous epiphyte known as the strangler, rarely found outside of the deepest recesses of Valenwood.

This particular specimen was impressive: as large as an Elf, and wider than an ogre. A bulging central stamen offered a quivering and deep red beauty, surrounded by feather-like leaves and strange branches, more arm-like than other plant life, and ending in a barbed spine that looked strong enough to pierce through the entire head of the unwary. This strangler’s girth was due to the richness of its nutrients; it was growing from the decomposing corpse of a Bosmer adventurer, the roots smothering the rotting face and putrefying limbs gathered in a loose heap at the base of the main stem. The Argonian edged forward, entranced by plant’s sweet and sticky excretions.

Roots and vines shot out to greet Footfalls-in-Snow, beginning to hug him. Puncturing through his scales, the plant throbbed in anticipation of suckling the Argonian, who broke from his daze as the thorns entered his skin. As he struggled with a dagger to cut himself free, further branches began to wrap around him, grappling and drawing him closer. The lizard was close to passing out now, and the strangler’s roots started to ooze an odd purple liquid. Deciding the Argonian had perhaps helped demonstrate enough of the plant’s ferocity, Roggvir and Kishra-do quickly stepped in, and began to hack the snaking appendages apart, starting with the one tightening around the Argonian’s neck.

The strangler struck again. A spike spat out from the strangler’s vertical smile, embedding itself into Roggvir’s arm. Shrugging it off, he fought off the branches, now thrashing randomly at him and the Khajiit. He was almost free, but the fluid at the plant’s roots suddenly exploded upward in a shower of dark red rain. Choking on the poison, all three dropped down, and the strangler began to shuffle forwards, its roots actually emerging from the Wood Elf host and quickly tightening around Roggvir’s ankle. I shook my head: “Ingjard! Namasur! I’ll be forced to write about how a single strangler impaired our entire expedition, unless you can salvage our pride!”

A Redguard scimitar swiftly cut through the main trunk, severing the strangler in two. Ingjard brought her axe, and demolished the lashing vines with a focused fury. As we unbound Footfalls-in-Snow, I tossed him some gloves and asked him if he was up to the task of siphoning off some stranglesap, while Roggvir took a shovel and buried the Bosmer in proper accordance with local customs.

The incompetency was, I hoped, a mere fleshbug nip on the otherwise alabaster skin of Mara.

BONE COLOSSUS | Perhaps only the Argonian wasn’t becoming a little irked at the continuous exploration of Malabal Tor. The going had slowed due to the floor on which we walked: sometimes soggy, occasionally root filled, and intermittently plagued with briar thickets to slice our way through. And the trees! I’m no despoiler, but these Wood Elves don’t fell anything with a trunk and branches! I should also have brought a second quill and parchment, and written a book solely on the number of nature metaphors the Argonian uttered when stroking yet another species of sapling or gathering a seedling.

So we were fortunate when Roggvir chanced upon and old Bosmer poacher’s path, leading to more forgiving hiking conditions. However, the trail led to a glade dominated by a strange structure, filled with Wood Elf carvings in three great stone blocks propping up a moss-covered roof: below was a circle of paved stone, upon which sat a plinth of burning animal fat. Namasur immediately signaled for us to depart into the trees surrounding the wayshrine: Something wasn’t right here. I squinted through old eyes, scanning the stone for the source of the Redguard’s worry. Venturing out, I saw the runes, strange, glowing sigils scoured into the stone with malice aforethought, and none of the primitive majesty of a Bosmer. This defacement was the work of a necromancer. Or worse.

How much worse became immediately apparent when two towers of living bone rose from their slumber circles.

Just one of these bone colossi was enough to raze the hamlet of Kynesgrove during the recent troubles. But unseen magicians allied with Daedric Princes had conspired to greet us with two of these heavy-footed skeletal warriors. Kishra-do seemed fascinated as the two giant constructs slowly ascended to their full height (three Nords tall). I quickly explained these were creations fused with the bones (and sometimes entire frames) of the fallen. Parched skulls, ribs, and other bones were combined to form broad shoulders, hardened armor, and a head containing enough malice to stoke the fire of a dim but functional intelligence, unique among the undead.

Both foes ignored our rain of arrows, stretched out their arms, and (almost in unison) executed a fearsome roar (all the more fearful, as both entities lacked vocal cords). A moment passed before the ground began to undulate, and further bony forms rose up: minion skeletons summoned to pester our party. Our adversaries now numbered eight, and we knew our only advantage lay in our enemies’ unthinking remorselessness. Combat instructions were yelled; the Khajiit was to join our main attack after removing the six lesser threats, a task she relished. Roggvir led the charge to the first bone colossus, two swords cutting at its heel. No tendons were there to hobble this bone giant, but it still slowed, turning to fling a long arm out at the Redguard, from which Namasur tumbled away without delay. Leaping up the wayshrine like a Khajiit, he launched from the roof, grabbing the wide shoulders of the colossus and twisting off its head. The bewildered behemoth wandered into the woods before Argonian arrows finally brought it down.

Roggvir wasn’t faring as well; he stumbled as he navigated the wayshrine’s steps and fell on his back, rolling away just as his immense adversary plunged its fist down into the soft earth, up to the wrist. This was no graveyard, but suddenly the ground erupted as shards of bone, many with viciously sharp points, flew out from the impact, some catching Roggvir about the beard and forearm. Assistance was needed, and it took the form of Ingjard, wielding a pair of her favorite axes, which cut the colossus into an armless wanderer, before she dropped it at the knees, and the torso fell forward, back into the earth. Kishra-do suddenly backed away from her fierce combat with the risen dead (previously, she had decided to dispatch each only by decapitation, which meant I occasionally had to step out of the way of a flying skull). Ingjard’s fortitude had snapped the magical bonds, and the last two skeletons could no longer be sustained, exploding in more bone fragments.

We were picking them out of our skin and hair throughout the following evening.

DARK SEDUCER | We witnessed Roggvir’s mistake from some distance, close enough to the hilltop to watch, but too far across the charred forest floor to intervene before it was too late. The great fires of Reaper’s March made our tracking dangerous and our breathing difficult; jagged and blackened wounds of deforestation continued to open up before us and send our Argonian tree friend into a seething rage. Perhaps he should have scouted ahead instead, as he might have resisted the charms of the Dark Seducer, viewing it through the eyes of ire instead of infatuation.

We had journeyed far across this treacherous landscape after hearing rumors of a legendary lich to slay. Roggvir was circling back from a survey of the burn, when he chanced upon a lone figure. As he closed in, he saw a cloaked woman of some considerable delicacy, sitting on a tree stump, tears streaming down her pallid skin, forlorn at the cruelty of the Colovians. A displaced Bosmeri villager? No, she had the look of a Nord maiden under that cowl, or so Roggvir remembers. What happened next is unclear; Roggvir recalls waking up with a bleeding head and two missing teeth. The rest of us saw little of the woman’s transformation into her true form, as the billowing smoke obscured the ruse.

As the air cleared, Roggvir had fallen, slumped forward, chin on the tree stump, blood trickling from his brow. Ingjard feared the worst, and rightly so; this was no forlorn fawn lost in the wilderness. Powerful magic had transformed her being, which had now flickered back to a Daedra vision Namasur immediately recognized. “Dark Seducer!” came the cry. A true form revealed: a female fiend clad in armor of the deepest blue and ebony, shining in the moons’ light. We would have stood and commended the workmanship on the boots, gauntlets, and helm, but we had scattered, sprinting forth to save Roggvir’s neck, as the Daedra raised the axe of an executioner. She brought it down quickly, but Ingjard’s arrows were faster, piercing her arm in midswing. The axe cut through the edge of the stump, narrowly missing Roggvir’s ear. The weapon remained stuck in place, glowing purple residue streaming from it.

Wings unfurled, with both hands conjuring fire, the Dark Seducer took to the skies, where it laughed at the Argonian’s arrows for a few moments, until Ingjard’s accuracy finally caught the flying foe in the neck. This brought the Daedra down and caused her conniptions; she was brought to the boiling point with another unanswered arrow. A massive blast of fire shot forth from both hands, aimed at Ingjard but striking wide of the mark, and another oak went up in flames. On the promontory now, Namasur launched his trusty spear with almost magical accuracy, skewering the beast just below the ribs. She responded with four rapid bolts of ice, one striking Namasur in the head and knocking him towards a steep, smoldering slope.

Another weapon of misty purple was unbuckled, as she swooped in towards me. I held firm, gripped my axe, forced my shield to absorb her screeching sword swing, and caught her with a viciously accurate gouge across her belly. Entrails spilled as she tumbled into the ash, mangled and seething. I strode over and removed Namasur’s spear, still wedged in her, and stabbed down into the neck until a soggy crack was heard, indicating her audience with Molag Bal was granted.

“Try to resist the charms of wanton women,” Ingjard said with a grin, helping Roggvir up and wrapping his head wound, “especially ones with wings and of a Daedra disposition.”

LICH | Namasur had been studying the map fragments, and swore to the three great Ansei that Mannimarco’s underling was here, prowling the floors of ash along the edge of Reaper’s March, where the corruption of magic was at its strongest. Vingalmo the Wight (as the Redguard called the lich) was apparently responsible for numerous atrocities across the desert crypts of Namasur’s forebears. As he tells it, the story goes that Vingalmo was sent to Hammerfell to gather more bones for an army of the undead. Slipping silently into the numerous necropolises, this filthy lich terrorized the people of the Alik’r Desert by summoning their own ancestors to gather along the walls of Bergama, in readiness for war. Namasur’s nomads were embroiled in this after his family’s tomb was raided, and Vingalmo resurrected Namasur’s own great-uncle. The Redguard’s voice trembled in anger as he recalled the time he slew his own ancestor, each armed with the same family scimitar. While consecrating his ancestor’s sarcophagus again, he vowed to hunt the lich down.

“Vingalmo used to be an Elf, so he returns to the polluted and tormented regions bordering his own land to gather more minions.” Namasur spoke with the qualification of an expert on such manners, and I had no reason to doubt him. Days later (and once Roggvir’s head wounds had healed), Namasur’s tracking yielded results.

We found the lich despoiling a Colovian camp, in a river valley by the broken mountains to the south, where the smoke of a thousand burned trees still hung in the skies. The Argonian sought cold comfort from the fact that the Imperial zealots seemed to have been caught and suffocated by their own fires. I peered out from behind a rock with Namasur, and we watched as the lich hovered over the razed tents, picking through the ash for dead bodies. This was a floating corpse of considerable power, driven mad by the promise of immortality. It had no need to disguise its appearance (as many lich are wont to do), so we viewed the horror in its full and tattered splendor.

More bone than skin, gray flesh wrapped tightly around thin fingers and a glowing skull. A faded yet resplendent crown of magic, tarnished armor of gold and amethyst, robes that were once woven of the very finest linen, but now worn to the point of being held together by magic. Both the lich’s hands were occupied; one carried a staff of gold and leather, while the green flames of necromancy flickered in the other. Two focusing torches floated either side of the lich’s shoulders, attached by rusting chains and ready to augment any magic it cast. Most horrifying was the fear it exuded from within: A thick agglomeration of fumes, glowing a bilious green, writhing inside a rotting shell.

I would lie weeping before Tsun and Stuhn before wishing this fate for myself.

Namasur would not face this madness alone. I beckoned Ingjard and Roggvir down from the crags, and we were discussing tactics when Footfalls-in-Snow turned into Tumbles-in-Ash, falling down a slope of scree with the grace of an Orc, and ruining our element of surprise. There was no time for looks of disgust; the Argonian was already fending off bolts of magic. Ingjard leapt up and charged—a brave but foolhardy strategy, as the lich formed a necrotic spear from its hands, threw it savagely, and struck Ingjard in the shoulder, halting her run. Roggvir ran to her aid, and the lich hissed something at the two of them, bathing their ground in a foul-smelling ichor. Their movement impeded, both Nords flailed as if caught in a mire. Then the soil erupted, skeletal hands and bones striking up from the earth, threatening to drag both Ingjard and Roggvir into suffocation.

Namasur thanked us for our distraction after the fight, as he dashed up to the lich, opened a sack, and dropped its contents on the ash. “I found your son, Vingalmo!” the Redguard yelled, as the dismembered head of an Altmer fell out (we had wondered what the smell around camp was, and had been blaming the Khajiit for it). The lich’s soul peered down through its green-glowing skull, and let out a shriek, some semblance of memory sparked. Namasur kicked the head across the camp, and with a strike faster than a blink, had both scimitars out, and the lich’s bony neck caught between them. Namasur’s own throat was grabbed by bony hands, turquoise fire enveloping them both. Then a mighty explosion, and I had to avert my eyes.

When I peered back again, Namasur seemed unharmed, though coated in a rage of red fire. He was holding the skull of Vingalmo the Wight, having wrenched it off the ragged corpse. He spoke softly as the red fire slowly faded:

“Ayh-al-Fifrah at-Hamisam, be at peace.”

A Wade Through Fetid Fens, Disorder, and Daedra

CROCODILE | “We seek the longest, most hard-hided and sharp-toothed rormasu in Shadowfen today,” Footfalls-in-Snow remarked with a giddy clicking to his voice. After I asked, he explained rormasu (and I write this spelling without qualification as a scholar of language) means “big-mouthed reptile that blinks above water,” or in the vastly more common tongue, “crocodile.”

“We sometimes refer to them as ‘marsh dunerippers,’” offered Namasur.

“Ra’baanash the Spotless calls them ‘four-clawed daedroths,’ but I think the humor is lost in the translation from Khajiiti. You wish me to spell this out for you, yes?” Kishra-do asked.

At this moment, I stopped our wading, and explained the purpose of this book was to describe specific combat advice for the unwary hunter, not gibbering palaver for the bookish. Fortunately, I didn’t have to endure this babble for much longer, as the Argonian politely asked us for silence, as something large and scaly was lurking in the brackish waters close to the lower swamp banks we were navigating.

There it was, hoping to hide, a pair of prying eyes attached to a long, scaled snout, floating in the muddy fen, a line of thick plates resting along its back like the shingles on a Breton’s outhouse. At least four of us end to end would not have reached from snout to tail; this was an immense specimen, red eyes watching without blinking, the hint of sharper spines along its end stump. “He is quick as a bolt over a few short sprints, and prefers deeper water to clamp on and drown its dinner,” Footfalls-in-Snow explained, producing a knife of supreme sharpness. Clenching it between his teeth, he actively courted disaster, swimming out to tackle this monster in its own territory.

Were crocodiles capable of higher intelligence, its expression would have shown puzzlement, quickly turning to alarm as Footfalls-in-Snow coaxed the reptile up onto the soft mud of a marshy bank, which didn’t seem to swallow the Argonian’s feet and impede his movements. Suddenly there was a thrashing of water, and a pair of oversized jaws lashed out from the bog, snapping close to the Argonian’s arm. Footfalls-in-Snow shouted something about the power of the snap to crush the limbs of the unwary, then threw a dagger quickly, but ineffectively, at the raging foe.

As it clambered up to sink its teeth into the Argonian, he explained the crocodile had “ancient skin; it roamed Mundus before us,” and its hide was extremely tough. Leaped over the swinging tail of the crocodile, he landed atop its back, infuriating the prey. It buckled and twitched, but the Argonian had his adversary in an impressive grip, produced another dagger, and plunged it into one of the crocodile’s red eyes, which spurted out a most unpleasant fluid. “A thumb can be just as forceful!” he yelled over the fountain of dirty water, mud, and blood. Then he reached into the crocodile’s mouth, seemingly placid as the great mouth and sharp teeth snapped shut, swallowing the Argonian’s arm. He stood up, pressed the crocodile’s head into the water, and ripped out part of its loose, flapping interior gullet as the crocodile released its grip. “Now it drowns!” he yelled, jamming the beast’s head still further underwater. Thrashing turned to splashes; then bubbles formed around the Argonian’s forearms at the surface. Then the long lizard’s body became corpse-like.

Footfalls-in-Snow had drowned a marsh crocodile using only bare hands and bravery.

GIANT SNAKE | The sweltering unpleasantness continues to test our constitutions; Roggvir almost threw down his favorite furs, drenched in the sweat, and curses at Sithis flowed faster than this fetid swamp water. Mangroves and low grass, with fleshflies gathering in swarms for a celebratory feast on our arms. Cover your skin and you’re as hot as the Skyforge. Remove your clothing, and you’re bitten by tiny, diseased insects. “This place is the muck of Mundus!” Roggvir roared, hopping in the thick heat to retrieve a wayward boot which the thick bog water was threatening to swallow.

It was during this mildly humorous interlude that Roggvir almost lost more than his footwear; at this point a formidably sized snake reared up from behind some low bushes, intent on dinner.

“Do you see the pale stripe along the ridge of the back, with the pattern of a dagger down each side, like a stream meandering?” Footfalls-in-Snow asked, as we watched Roggvir yell loudly, lose his balance, and topple like a top-heavy pack guar into the effluent.

“Indeed,” I answered, observing the slithering segments, lightly colored belly, and bright orange hues between the black markings of this huge serpent: A pointed tail, and a crest of small, fin-like ridges above the wide jaw, which had widened to accommodate a Nord-sized morsel. Bright red eyes and a forked tongue of pink, darting to taste the air around Roggvir, who was spluttering and yelling for assistance, as he sank still further into the mire.

“These scale patterns forewarn, like the clouds forming on the distant ocean that show the future weather,” the Argonian continued. “The color reveals how venomous this viper’s bite is, and thus the price we can demand from milking its venom sacs.”

“Ah, a minion of the serpent-god Satakal!” Namasur had recognized his prey and waded into the brown swamp by now, and was knee deep and closing in on the giant snake. He grinned as Roggvir’s thrashing coated the Nord’s belongings in a foul-smelling ooze churned up from the swamp.

Sharith Roggvir wouldn’t survive the hour from this one’s bite,” the lizard said, as we sat and enjoyed a sweetroll together. “This one attacks anything with a shadow; they search out the weak, infirm, or troubled. But this one may be protecting eggs. Oh, Master Roggvir! Watch out for its gaze!”

Roggvir disappeared under the dark waters for a moment, then found firmer footing and shot up like the contents of an uncorked mead bottle. The giant snake sank its teeth into Roggvir’s leg, but the bite glanced off his thigh plates. Roggvir produced a dagger, which was subsequently lost in the ooze after the snake lashed out, whipping its tail around and knocking Roggvir back into his undignified and watery languishing position.

“We call this kajthux, or ‘ample serpent,’ in my tongue.” (I guessed at the spelling; the Argonian made a clicking rasp from the back of his throat, making the word unpronounceable to me.) Then he began to talk about the Maormer and their serpent magic, but I severed the conversation, as a theological debate about Sea Elves wasn’t as entertaining as Roggvir’s predicament.

“Stop playing with your prey and slice him!” Ingjard shouted from the grassy bank. “Or do you need a Redguard to save you?” Roggvir flashed a glare, then stifled a yelp as the snake bit down hard just below the knee, black fluids leaking from its fangs. “See the poison enter Roggvir’s humors?” the Argonian asked, dipping into a leather satchel to retrieve a small bottle of white liquid. “Administer this remedy before nightfall, or he loses the leg.”

Namasur had reached the stranded Roggvir by now, retrieved the Nord’s errant boot, and moved around the great serpent almost without hindrance from the water. A scimitar cut deeply through the flesh, as the snake tried to shake the Redguard from its back. Climbing to the neck, Namasur executed a perfect plunge, his sword severing the beast’s head, and saving what remained of Roggvir’s pride in the process.

Roggvir was especially keen on snake meat for supper that night.

GIANT WASP | Roggvir’s clothing had finally dried out in the stifling heat, but even his bottled incense couldn’t overcome the stink. While he muttered more unpleasant fates for any Argonians that crossed his path, I placed Roggvir with Kishra-do, and beckoned Footfalls-in-Snow to my side. Soon, our wading was interrupted by a strange sight: Throughout the seemingly endless swamps of Shadowfen, among the mangrove trees growing up through the sediment, I spied a patch of marshy grass where a figure lay slumped, propped against a thickly barked tree. The Argonian motioned for me to slow, and we dropped to our haunches, examining the body.

The drooping corpse of an Argonian. “A lukiul; see how his tunic is of Imperial origin? A withered root and licker of mammals.” I was a little surprised at Footfalls-in-Snow’s hectoring and ill talk of the dead, but he continued: “Kaoc! By seed and spleen…” he rasped, prodding the dead lizard’s distended stomach, which had inflated like a forge bellows. He checked the eyes, which were almost black with burst vessels; a thin string of golden drool hung from its open mouth. Scales hung off it like a hide after tanning. “This daril drinker swims in Trouble River. He is food for the kaj-jeke thota.” A scaly finger darted forward, touching the transparent dribble. The Argonian quickly tasted a morsel.

“Nectar!” He remarked, licking his lips. “Let us retreat; it is about to hatch.”

The bloated body twitched, as if the death vapors were escaping from it. The head and body swelled outwards to an almost impossible size, and then burst apart, showering us with rotting flesh and bone, putrid scales, and other unpleasantness. “The kaj-jeke thota is fully grown but undernourished. It seeks further feeding!” Footfalls-in-Snow spoke quickly, wiping his face clean of Argonian offal. “In your language, this would be called an ‘ample stinging insect,’ or ‘giant wasp.’ Beware its quick temper as it first wakens.”

An iridescent mass of sharp cutting incisors, dribbling mandibles, and thin, grasping hook arms, two antennae protruding above two eyes of many pupils, and wings beating faster than I could see them. It leapt forth, buzzing loudly with its thorax thrusting between its legs, a curved stinger hovering close to my face, lunging forwards with dogged determination. “See the coloration, like a rainbow hue?” Footfalls-in-Snow remarked, readying his spear: “Those wasps who feed from my kind exhibit this aspect.” After the Argonian’s spear carved a gash through its middle, it faltered, biting out at the humid air, and then dropped, on the way to a quick death after an already brief life.

I was picking chunks of Argonians innards from my beard for hours afterwards.

WAMASU | The stench and texture of this black mire is worse than a rarely emptied latrine. When the Argonian describes Shadowfen as “unspoiled,” we stifle a laugh and cover our noses. This land may be flat, but the constant wading through dark filth, boggy waters, and occasional pools of slime slows our progress considerably; we cover less ground than if we were scaling a mountain. Our plodding is impaired by thick, clinging fog. When that eventually burns off, we suffer frequent bursts of revolting yellow rain, which Roggvir has taken to calling “Hist piss.” My toe fungus and other damp chafing is becoming unbearable. I now reminisce about our journey through Morrowind with actual fondness.

But our Argonian guide to these pestilent parts seems to be thriving in the thick humidity. As the swamp widened to a river and we climbed up onto the bank, Footfalls-in-Snow pointed to a log floating in the thick rushes across from our perch. “Let your eyes adjust to the sun. See the rods on its ridged back?” He was correct; this was a half-hidden, lurking menace. Another crocodile? “No, far more ferocious!” came the cheerful reply. “You know this creature by the Jel name, wamasu, which has a tangled translation as ‘the big-mouthed reptile of blood lightning.’” I unfastened my shield and readied my axe, for it was time to test my old bones against a critter. Before I entered the water again, a webbed hand stopped me: “Here, wear this ring before you fight, so you’re not set alight. It gathers and focuses the wamasu’s lightning into your weapon hand, not through the top of your head.”

I navigated the riverbank carefully, watching the wamasu as it slowly waded into the shallow water. It was a sizable specimen, more purple in color than I was expecting. It stood on four trunk-like legs, each as stocky as the bulky plated torso they moved about with a lolloping gait, turning left and right under each weighty step. The spine-like rods protruding from its neck grew flat and wide along its back, finally stopping at a fish-like tail. Its mouth was a jumble of fangs, chin horns, and deep-set eyes. It looked a little like the Dragons of myth, seen on the tapestries of Whiterun. Just behind its jaw were a row of gills, where the Argonian recommended I focus most of my stabbing.

“Plant yourself firmly, as a pine’s roots cling to the loose Skyrim scree!” Footfalls-in-Snow shouted encouragement, but I had been fighting monsters since before he was hatched.

The wamasu’s first (and spectacular) strike, I admit, caught me unawares. Sparks shot forth from its back spines, congregating in his maw, and out shot a stream of crackling light, bombarding my shield and scorching me. The Argonian’s ring glowed brightly, as it gathered the energy from this attack, helpfully keeping me from a twitching death, as I was still knee deep in the river.

I smelled burning hair as I staggered up the riverbank. The wamasu wasted little time, trotting back before charging forward, leaping off the ground in a surprising display of dexterity, and loosening the slope I stood on when it landed. I fell back, tumbled into the river with my axe and dignity lost. I found the wamasu again, as I quickly stood and caught Roggvir’s second-finest hammer, thrown from the onlookers I’d requested not to aid me. A prideful order I was beginning to regret. Steam (or was it smoke?) escaped the monster’s orifices, as it crackled, sending arcs of shocking discharge out from its feet, and charging its tail in bright energy. It let out an impressive growl, and then met me in the mire, clawing at the ground before me, as a massive explosion of light shot out from the wamasu. Had this old fool been set ablaze and sent to Sovngarde? No—I tasted something like sulfur, and the Argonian’s ring was pulsing with energy. Leaping back, I narrowly missed a barbed tail and yet another strike of lightning.

I could hardly move in the water, but I remembered the Argonian’s advice earlier, and gripped Roggvir’s hammer so the ring touched the hilt. The hammer’s enchantments glowed red with a ferocity I’d not seen before. I roared with the focus and force of my ancestors, and spun the hammer in a wheel, as flames erupted from the peen. I assailed the neck of the creature. As metal touched scales, I felt my legs lift from the ground, the whistle of air, then my lungs filled with yellow water as I was thrown backwards into the deep river.

As I surfaced, I watched the smoking and headless body of the wamasu teeter and drop to the grassy bank. Then a combination of elated whooping (at the spectacular explosion of fire I had detonated, and my survival) and shouts of disgust (as the morsels of wamasu skull, head skin, and brain matter rained down on my companions).

I still have the Argonian’s ring, just in case I wish to incite both a drowning and a burning.

DAEDROTH | The Argonian later blamed the low light and a slight cold for his tactical oversight when a wrestle with a crocodile transformed into a battle much more fraught, against a mighty minion of Molag Bal. We were enduring yet another evening of swamp stink, plodding through sludge, and listening to Roggvir’s moaning, when Footfalls-in-Snow rasped an order from his scouting position. We stopped, sinking yet further into the mire, as the Argonian spied the head of a huge crocodile, its eyes closed and wallowing in a mud hole. I immediately sensed something was different. Kishra-do even smelled it. But Footfalls-in-Snow spotted the back ridges and an opportunity to prove his worth as a hunter. I believe he was in midleap when the crocodile woke up, turned its giant snout, and rose vertically from the water, attached to a powerful and muscular body crafted onto the reptile’s head by Molag Bal himself. He had disturbed a daedroth.

The Daedra rose to its full height, half as tall again as the Redguard Namasur, with each plate shoulder the width of a man. A ridge that began at the snout spiraled into two thick horns, with further protrusions along the back ridges. Now fully exposed, a waddle of red under the chin, stretched sinew covering armored arms and each clawed hand big enough to crush two heads in one palm. Gnarled rivulets of ebony between the mud and gray skin. A man-shaped chest revealed the extent of the Argonian’s misconstruing. A three-pronged flail for a tail, dewclaw hooks, and two four-toed claw feet, all spawned to spread torment and discord.

Flames poured forth from the snapping jaws and consumed Ingjard’s shield, halfway up her arm. She grimaced and held firm at the daedroth’s feet. It gave a great shake, and the Argonian clung on like a tick on a Reachman’s beard. Buffeted by two oversized shoulder plates, Footfalls-in-Snow finally lost his grip and fell over the daedroth’s head—unluckily, right into his open mouth. A quick and powerful bite was delivered, almost severing the Argonian’s arm. Now the lizard was ablaze too.

Thrashing the limp lizard in a furious shake of his head, the daedroth stepped to Kishra-do, who had advanced with a spear to hinder this Daedra’s rampage. She wasn’t met halfway, but the hulk leapt from the water in a huge stride, and landed within breathing distance, smoke wisping out of its nostrils, and tore at her with jagged claws. The Argonian’s arm was now bending in an alarming direction, but suddenly the daedroth’s mouth was wide open, and it was howling. The Argonian was not only still alive, but had been slicing its palate with a hidden blade attached to his wrist, also caught between Daedra teeth. As the mouth dropped open, Footfalls-in-Snow fell into the mud clutching a long, flapping coil of flesh. He looked up at the startled giant, and licked his lips.

“You call that a tongue?” the lizard shouted, proudly waving the goblet of skin as thick ribbons of blood erupted from the gap-toothed mouth. The Daedra’s confused and pained expression, wide of eye, was frozen in death after a Khajiit spear was thrust up through the spewing gullet, and out of the back of the head.

Namasur and Kishra-do struggled to carry its severed head to a bank, where its teeth could be more easily extracted. As the Argonian produced his tools, I asked, “You have a name for this creature in your language? How about ‘big-mouthed Daedra that blinks like a crocodile’?”

The Argonian reacted with a look of puzzlement. “No, this was a daedroth. We don’t taint our language with words for these detestations, so we use your words instead.”

I had been verbally bettered by the lizard, perhaps without him knowing it.

WISP AND WISPMOTHER | We were deep within the swampy gloom of Shadowfen’s more densely populated forests, where the usual stink of still waters clung to our boots, and the chirruping of tiny animals and insects droned in our ears. Roggvir let out audible appreciation to Akatosh as the ground became a little firmer, and a confluence of trees crowded our view, their branches laden with moss. We walked a little further before Ingjard remarked that the voices in the woods had hushed dramatically. Footfalls-in-Snow moved to the tangle of roots at the foot of a grand old tree, and cut away the vines to reveal an old sign, written in Jel.

Hej xajhuthi kroni.” The Argonian read this out loud to us, which was helpful, as the script on the sign seemed to be gibberish. “The direct translation is ‘vaporous, dangerous crones,’ but you would read it was ‘beware of witchlights.’”

“Many a lukiul has mindlessly followed the hejsetha thtitleel to a watery death,” the Argonian whispered, instructing us to remain still, as he had seen an inkling of movement in the fen ahead. “You would say ‘vaporous, floating sphere’ or ‘wisp’ in your language. Very rarely, the wisps are commanded by a hejsetha thtithik, or ‘vaporous, floating egg hatcher.’ But you would say ‘wispmother.’” Fascinating though this was, I would throttle the Argonian if he uttered the word vaporous again, so I requested a hush descend on our party. We had previous experience of these nature ghosts—Eastmarch is full of them—so we edged forward into the watery bog clearing with our weapons at the ready.

As if commanded by the Argonian himself, a strange orb of light appeared through the hanging moss and mist, flitting through the greenery and darting between the mangrove trees. This light was soothing, beckoning us to explore further. Roggvir took a couple of steps forward, then shook his head in annoyance and snapped from a trance. Another appeared: a soft white globe, with pale blue emanations skipping about its surface, and a winding, glowing tail gradually fading into the damp air. We carefully edged forwards, as a second wisp appeared. Then a third, this one slowly bobbing up and down in almost giddy anticipation of our doom. We watched our footing, as the ground was becoming more unstable.

My whispered discussion with the Argonian over whether to classify a wispmother as a spirit of nature or a phantom was cut short as we finally spotted a hooded shape, seemingly at peace, floating over a mist-laden pool of vivid green water. It was impossible to see where she ended, and the fog permeating the shrouded glade began. We counted seven wisps slowly orbiting her ghostly form. While it appeared this specter was female, a torn beauty wrapped in a ragged dress of dissolving green, I urged our hunters to look below her enchanting form. Sure enough, through the mist and below the water were scattered bones, murky but distinguishable, skeletal remains of those summoned here by an alluring but evil magic.

Archers were positioned up in the trees, while the more broad-shouldered (Roggvir, Namasur, and myself) waded forward, each from a different direction, careful in our movements not to step into the deeper reaches of the fetid pond. As the first arrows rang out, the soft face of the wispmother hardened to an alarming grimace, her true nature and long, fanged teeth exposed. Kishra-do’s aiming matcher her tree-climbing ability; two wisps had already shaken violently, before exploding in wild magical energy. Fortunately, we weren’t hurt by their detonation. The others congregated around the wispmother, periodically shooting quick, crackling bolts of blue that our shields caught.

Our soaking feet almost reached the wispmother herself. With nowhere to beckon us to, her snarl lengthened, and wild, tattered arms began to writhe. Moments later, she had sculpted two more of her sisters, identical in every way, who spread out to minimize our tactical advantage. But we were prepared for such cunning, had paired ourselves with an archer each to provide the wading warriors with support in their sodden savagery, and we advanced. Namasur’s quarry screamed like a harpy, coughing up and shooting out shards of frost, which reduced the Redguard’s normally lightning-fast response. But he was upon her anyway, cleaving the creature with a sweeping scimitar. She disappeared with dwindling laughter.

Roggvir’s target swayed and formed a multitude of orbs, which shot up into the forest canopy, and then rained down on the Nord like a comet shooting through the firmament. Ingjard’s arrows meant the majority never met their intended target, and the rest were blocked by a fine Nord shield, or withstood by quality Nord armor. Roggvir’s axe swung in seething rage, cutting through the wispmother’s head. But she too was a figment: My wispmother was the one to focus on. By now she was riddled with arrow marks and fading fast; but it took the clout of my hammer to finish her off; a wail of torment echoed around the glade as this phantasm joined her sisters.

The gathering of wisp trails soon followed, after which I settled a heated argument after Kishra-do began to salvage the equipment of the wispmothers’ watery victims, which is apparently tantamount to desecration for an Argonian.

HARVESTER | We were on the outskirts of Bogmother when Namasur first noticed the many-armed silhouette along the steps of the aging fortification. Moss-draped trees half hid a strange stepped pyramid, called a xanmeer by the Argonians and built by ancestors even more primitive than the Saxhleel (the indigenous types that worship in these parts). The plant life and immense (but cracked) stonework were all sagging under the humidity, into the soft marsh earth. The moons were out tonight.

A tail of black metal, an atrocity of rusted ebony plates, fused into protesting skin. A lamia spawned from the loins of Molag Bal. Truly a formidable and worrying sight: an irregular shadow slithering across a stepped pyramid, both moons casting her in shadow. Then she turned, and a full view of the Daedric Prince’s handiwork startled us as she glided along the vine-covered steps, her four arms stirring slowly in unison, odd blue crackles of fire appearing from black and barbed gauntlets and contorting around her face. And what a face! Surrounded by a crest and a frill of horns, sallow cheeked and teeth gnashing, a permanent scowl etched on her brow.

Namasur’s knowledge of the capricious powers almost rivaled that of Aramea Drethan, the ancient Dunmeri author. The grotesque at the pyramid hadn’t all her wits about her, and our company knew to be quiet. Instigating combat was our choice. “An infernal coupling of horror and beauty, this harvester. Her task is to oversee, to preside over sacrifices or the stealing of souls.” I kept a wary eye on her as Namasur spoke: “They act alone, and have little societal rank, unlike the Dremora. But she is no Goblinspawn; her competence lies at an arrow’s range.” I signaled to Roggvir to act as a lure, as Namasur finished his advice: “We must force ourselves through her illusions and trickery, and smell her foul breath. Only then will our efforts worry her. When wielding a blade, her hands are weak, despite having plenty of them. So she attacks using conjuring and illusions: See how she summons the black winter?”

I was correct in assuming this meant the darkness that traveled around the harvester as it slid away from Roggvir’s clattering charge. This following flow had no reflection, and Roggvir was warned to keep from stepping into it. He raced to the harvester; black worms writhed from the pool to swarm his boots and slow his progress. The harvester stretched out her jaw with a terrible scream, stopping Roggvir’s proposed axe insertion, and the Nord collapsed with his hands over his ears, blood dripping down his helmet. I watched in consternation as the harvester feasted on Roggvir’s kneeling body, plucking vitality in black orbs which emerged from his form and floated towards the Daedra.

Ingjard wasn’t standing for any of this, and a Nord arrow cut through one of the orbs, which burst, and strange bright energy darted back into Roggvir, who now stood on unsteady feet. The harvester threw out her own sharp-pronged offering, a bolt from the void that struck the pyramid steps Ingjard was charging across. She grit her teeth as one bolt struck her already-tender shoulder, then began a yell to wake the dead. Namasur and Kishra-do were quick to join in the rout, causing the harvester confusion over who should be brought to their knees; in the end she focused her efforts on killing my Nord companion. But Ingjard Stone-Hand does not fall at the many hands of Molag Bal. Quite the contrary: An upward slice of fury, and both the harvester’s arms were cut down to the bone. It shrieked and slithered too slowly to avoid the carving of her belly and the final savage thrust through the harvester’s open mouth and up through the skull that brought Ingjard’s prowess into brutal focus.

XIVILAI | Much of the village of Bogmother was on fire. Not an easy feat for the despoiler in question, due to the abundance of water and stone structures, but as we entered the settlement, thick black smoke could be seen billowing up from a number of indigenous mud nests the Saxhleel inhabit. Although presently, the owners of the properties were gathering their hatchlings and fleeing. Footfalls-in-Snow returned from a rasping conference with one of the village elders, and gathered me and Namasur into a small huddle. “A reject of Sithis, one who seeks to stifle our spawning grounds. A Daedra pillager is responsible for this wickedness. Waxhuthi!” the Argonian spat on the ground, clearly riled. As he cursed, we looked over to a wayshrine of rough stone and clinging moss. The burning shrine was snuffed, demolished by a powerful kick. The entire structure collapsed, and Footfalls-in-Snow let out a high-pitched squeak. As the rubble appeared through the fading dust, we finally gazed upon the marauder responsible.

A blue devil had come to curse Bogmother.

Striding out to meet a small complement of village warriors, a Daedra of powerful stature seemed intent on further carnage. Seemingly chiseled from amethyst, this finely toned fiend was one and a half men tall, and displayed the arrogance of a Xivilai, an intelligent, proud, and bloodthirsty breed. Namasur had spoken of their service to Mehrunes Dagon, as well as their dishonesty and hubris. If haughtiness could be bottled, a Xivilai’s face would be on the label. Thick ebony horns, a mane of black hair, ears like an Elf’s, and further horns where cheeks and chin would be. An unrefined necklace of jagged beauty clamped around its thick neck by an unknown master, and bare skin except for strange runic tribal tattoos, and a loincloth of metal. I would test the Xivilai’s objection to proper armor shortly. For now, we watched in horror as it set about dispatching the Argonian guards.

This was achieved almost nonchalantly, as it engulfed the Saxhleel in a great plume of fire. It picked up the second by the throat, squeezing the life from the poor lizard before carving him into two equal and bloody sections, both flopping onto the soft soil. The last Argonian was a shellback, clad in heavier armor. Fire danced behind the Daedra’s eyes as it sallied forth, producing a two-handed mace made for exquisite butchery (alarmingly wielded with one hand free) and battering in the warrior’s skull with a single, horrible swing. The Argonian guard fell, and the devil peered down at the fresh corpse at his feet, then clutched the lifeless lizard’s head with his prehensile toes, and wrenched it from the still-twitching body.

Footfalls-in-Snow was seething: “Xuth! For the Ebonheart Pact, we must avenge this slaughter!”

“Silence your frog, Grundvik, son of Guthrum.” The devil spoke, seemingly from inside my head. “Xivilai Sahrith Dagon challenges you!”

Kishra-do looked alarmed. Namasur only offered a worried nod. But Ingjard knew my secrets; she slapped me on the back and whispered, “Go show him why we call you Cold-Fist, friend!”

Possessing equal measures of brutal strength, a magician’s ways, and savage cunning, the Xivilai would not be wander through a meadow: As I unwound my axe-carrying arm, warming up my shoulder and tightening the grip on my shield, a guttural stream of barking spat forth from the devil. A strange oval portal blinked into view, and a clannfear trotted out of the void of Coldharbour, spotted me, and thundered forward. A hard head met a well-timed strike, as the beast’s charge was hindered after I sidestepped and cut down firmly, severing bones in its back and reducing the familiar to a whinnying, paralyzed mess.

Unfortunately, Sahrith Dagon was upon me, a glinting eye and a massive mace to rival the departed Bashnag’s, which he used to singular effect. A great heave, and spiked ebony clashed against my shield. I had braced, and the shield held, but I was staggered by the sheer force of this brutality. The Xivilai used his height advantage, bringing the mace down with a vertical force to shatter granite. I parried with both hands, murmuring a prayer to Mara, and found my feet forced down into the wet ground and my bones rattled. This one had the strength of a giant and the grace of an Elf; little wonder the expressions on my fellow hunters’ faces had turned from worry to horror.

The duel continued with the crackle of lightning: no respite from the evil terror. Forks of stabbing light arced around us, striking through me at seemingly inopportune moments. But a ring given to me by an Argonian friend helped focus this shock. I ventured an axe strike, sinking it into the Xivilai’s thigh, and he registered his disapproval with a roar so loud it dislodged one of my teeth. Less cocksure and more furious, Sahrith Dagon shoved me backwards, and began to form a ball of flames in his free hand, cackling a malefic incantation. Lines of fire snaked out, tall walls of burning magic converging on me. A priggish smirk formed on his face, as the inferno assailed me. Footfalls-in-Snow fell to his knees, weeping.

“Yngol steer me from the Sea of Ghosts. Ylgar guide my hand of frost. Ysgramor protect my flesh…” Though my beard and cloak were ablaze, I became suddenly still. Tranquility washed over my roasting skin. The pain had gone. I concluded my incantation, my hands shaking, and I dropped my axe and shield. Sahrith Dagon’s grin of malice twitched with a speck of doubt. A whirling and churning formed around my fists; wisps of ice from the ether entwined and shattered my gauntlets. An echo of the great face of a creature briefly formed, lizard-like and conjured from the cold; the summoned ice phantom grew outwards and upwards. I launched my arms forward in a swift sweep, and the Xivilai was swallowed whole by my vengeance. A roaring and rushing of air, and a thousand shards of ice, each thrust deeply into Daedra flesh.

A moment passed, my fire was out, and my summoned storm subsided. Only the eyes of Sahrith Dagon moved now, his face etched into a frozen grimace, and his body unmovable. My right hand coalescing with ice, I walked softly, stood before the staring and stupefied despoiler, and dug into his chest, my hand melting through blue skin and shattering ribs. Ripping out my fist, I showed the wide-eyed Sahrith Dagon his beating heart. Then I gathered my equipment, walked back to my brethren, gave the open-mouthed Kishra-do a sack with the Daedra organ in it, and shielded myself as frozen Xivilai meat fell on Bogmother from Sahrith Dagon’s damned and exploding carcass.

This is why I am called Cold-Fist.

 

Anywhere but Elsweyr, the Daedra Descend on Dune

 

OGRE | The journey away from the burning forests of Reaper’s March and into the sprawling grasslands of Anequina was almost invigorating, as visibility and terrain improved considerably [This error in chronology is present in the original text]. Kishra-do finally cracked a smile as she prowled the landscape of her home province. We traversed the charred edge of the once-ancient forest, until our newest scout raised a paw and we dropped silently behind a collection of granite boulders. The Khajiit soon returned, with a full complement of knowledge about our latest sacrifices to Kyne. She had picked up an unmistakable odor: ogres were grazing in these grasslands, favoring animal meat and the taste of the odd wandering merchant. I was soon viewing a poorly constructed den from a small hillock, eyeing the three brutes as our party prepared for battle.

Much like the primitive Reachman that the forward-thinking Nord shuns, many believe that the ogre to be a primal cousin to the Goblin or Orc. Certainly they share similar traits; imagine an Orc at twice the normal size, forsaking high functions and quality armor in favor of powerful, oversized arms with scuffed knuckles that reach the ground without bending over, a strangely unhealthy pallor of rough, blue-tinged skin, the rudiments of fur armor, and just enough modesty for a loincloth. Strands of hair all over the place except the head, which is as bald and shiny as a scrying orb. Eyes almost disappear behind a thick brow, with a Goblin’s stolen nose and a mouth filled with teeth trying to escape in all directions. As for the smell… ogres share a distrust of soap much in the same way as a giant.

By the time the largest of the ogres registered the discomfort of an arrow to the backside, Namasur had stippled his prey with further projectiles, all previously dipped in paralytic poison. This slowed an already sluggish enemy; it became dazed and overwhelmed, seeing glimpses of blurred Redguard robes and a shining scimitar which cut a second hole to match the size of the ogre’s mouth, only this one was sliced across the collarbone. The ogre dropped to a knee as its blood sprayed everywhere, offered a backhand strike at Namasur which actually connected, wobbling the slightly overconfident Redguard for a moment, before the ogre fell forward, coughing and clutching its neck. Namasur removed the head with one fell swoop, and it rolled down a small embankment, still wondering what had happened.

Kishra-do chose a slightly smaller specimen, but neglected to weaken it beforehand, instead opting to launch herself from an overlook above the den. She landed on the ogre’s back and made a few successful stabs, before she was grabbed and slammed into the ogre’s campfire. As hot embers flew out in all directions, the Khajiit shook herself clean and ran straight into a stiff punch from her quarry. Shaking her jaw, she seemed to enjoy this game, and sprang at the foe, and then vaulted over the ogre to insert her daggers at various pain-inducing locations down the ogre’s back. It let out a most intimidating roar, which caused Footfalls-in-Snow to falter in fear as he attacked his own foe, but this was a bellow of an ogre understanding his days of hunting and gathering were over.

Roggvir and the Argonian flummoxed their foe by baiting it from opposing directions. All the ogre wished for was an opportunity to utilize its massive frame, and to smack either of them into brutally pulped shapes. This wish wasn’t granted, to the ogre stomped the ground in anger, and began throwing large pieces of soil and rock at the Argonian. We had wiped off worse during our slog through Black Marsh. Undeterred, both hunters ended the final ogre’s days by skewering it deeply through the ribs. So thorough were the insertions that one of the spears became stuck permanently, and had to be left inside the ogre’s corpse.

DURZOG AND GOBLIN | It appeared the Goblins were being driven from the moon sugar cane plantation; the Khajiit of the Anequina had little time for these marauders, but we saw no stilted structures on fire or displaying scorch marks or other evidence of a Goblin rampage. As we closed in on the motley band of hunched green men, they seemed to be fleeing rather than advancing through the marsh, drooling and snarling about the mouth, and the Khajiiti spearmen chasing them had cloth masks draped over their faces. “Remnants of the Stonechewer tribe,” Kishra-do observed as we closed to arrow range. “Sweet Riddle’Thar!” she suddenly exclaimed, scavenging her baggage for a mask of similar material: “They have the Knahaten Flu!”

The remains of a war band were staggering, dragging their heels, and didn’t exhibit the usual sprightly cunning of a Goblin. Four pathetic specimens, two hunched and coughing, a robed shaman with alarming and disfiguring orange boils around his mouth and nose, and a wretched leader. Their green skin had an ashen overtone, as if layers of unwashed sweat had congealed over it. Goblin armor is famously slapdash: a collection of stolen pieces from other races, poorly mimicked on forges without the proper heat, and liable to fall apart under duress, like the Goblins themselves in this encounter. Tiny black pupils staring wildly from bloodshot eyes, jutting lower jaws of mangled teeth, and wiry but powerful frames. Primitive features, caked-in dirt. When Kishra-do bounded towards them with daggers raised, one of the Goblins dropped his approximation of a Redguard’s axe and fled into the maze of cane stalks. This was a squalid band of miscreants. The war chief began shrieking unintelligible orders to his rabble from a makeshift saddle on top of a many-spined durzog.

This strange, spined animal sagged slightly under the weight of its rider, a lizard (that the Argonian had no qualms in killing), prowling on all fours and usually trained by Goblins as mounts or to watch their dens. Imagine a nix-hound, as tall as a broad-shouldered Nord, green in coloration save for patches of darker mottled tones and a brown striping emanating from the row of back spines. Ingjard wondered how comfortable the riding position was, as the beast’s entire back, including its vicious-looking tail, was covered with these fin-like barbs. Hooked toes created to tear apart quivering flesh. A formidable jaw for lunging and never letting go. Three sets of beady eyes to search for prey and danger, and an intelligence a step or two above even that of their Goblin masters.

Combat began with the shaman raising both arms and lost in a trace. Unfortunately for the Goblin, he interrupted his incantation with a coughing fit, leaving a few moments free for Kishra-do to introduce the wheezing magician to a pair of impeccably placed dagger thrusts, under the ribs and up through the chin, before removing them quickly and bounding away before the tainted blood infected her. The war chief wheeled around, his durzog rearing up and bounding forward, rushing at the Khajiit, biting and ripping at her with sharp fangs and a frenzied look in its many eyes. It removed a small shaving of Khajiit ankle fur for its troubles. We rallied to her aid, ignoring the possibility of a plague (Roggvir bragging of his iron constitution, “I won’t be put on my back with a case of the Goblin sniffles!”), and Namasur sliced up the standing Goblin, who seemed almost thankful to be meeting his maker (and hopefully chiding this primitive deity for permitting this affliction, which many Goblins of the realm were succumbing to).

The durzog finally found a bone to chew on; unfortunately it was attached to Roggvir’s leg. The creature bit down until the Nord slipped on the watery ground; his bone cracked, and blood seeped through the leather greaves. Fearing a laceration, the Nord retaliated with a bout of swearing too common to repeat here, grabbed the durzog by the head with one hand, and used the sword in his other to repeatedly puncture the animal’s face and neck until the blood ran thick from both of them. Ingjard finally had to step in before Roggvir disfigured the durzog to the point of pulping, bringing an axe swiftly down to snap the creature’s neck, which still hung on. A second blow severed the head, but still it refused to drop Roggvir’s leg. Finally, Roggvir had to drag himself away and call the Argonian over to pry open the jaw, bind his wound, and apply some healing remedies.

The Goblin leader simply stepped off his headless mount, knelt down before me, and grunted something in a primitive nonsense tongue. But by his gesticulations, he seemed to be pleading for a quick death by my hand. Never wanting to disappoint an adversary (although I would hardly call this one worthy), I obliged with swift determination, remembering my days as Windhelm’s executioner.

SENCHE-LION | The grasslands bordering Bangkorai offer a wondrous view of the Khajiit’s province [This error in geography is also present in the original text. Instead of Bankorai, this is supposed to be Reaper's March], flat plains of lush grass undulating in a never-ending dance of windswept shapes. The soil is deep red, and the trees intermittent, branches reaching out, not up, to withstand the buffeting breeze. Kishra-do comes to the occasional stone carving, inspects the offering left there, and directs us onwards, towards our journey’s end at the merchant settlement of Dune. Before our arrival, we narrowly avoided a mauling. Not from some sharp-clawed, fang-toothed beast of the wild, but thanks to the animosity of two hunters within our own ranks.

A snarling senche-lion bounded out of the tall grass, heckles raised across its arched back, growling and baring its considerable collection of pointy teeth: A proud-looking Khajiit (a subspecies of Kishra-do’s kind), and one of the many varieties of senche-tigers that are hunted across Tamriel, mainly by the Bosmer, for their fur and very sweet meat, although this fact isn’t imparted to the Khajiit to any great extent, for obvious and mainly cultural reasons. This cat was easily as big on four legs as Roggvir was on two. A thick mane of hair and a wide snout gave it the look of a venerable Khajiiti trader, though it didn’t use sarcasm to get its point across, preferring a growl and a raking of formidable clawed paws. The fur headdress continued down the back of sand-colored hair, which changed to a darker tone at the tail tuft. Just below the surface, we could see the rippling muscles of the beast’s haunches, as it readied to attack. Roggvir readied an arrow.

A spinning hand axe of Khajiiti origin severed the drawstring, and the arrow fell at Roggvir’s feet. The Argonian tittered, then backed away quietly as Roggvir’s expression changed to that of a man whose sweetroll had been stolen. I half feared a hairy transformation like his brother’s, but Roggvir placed the bow softly on the ground, and forced his way into Kishra-do’s personal aura. He stood nose to muzzle, glaring and red faced. Kishra-do brought a barbed blade up between the two of them, and Roggvir’s seething breath condensed on it. The senche-lion stopped its growling, and sat down in the long grass, watching the spat intently. It was at this point that Kishra-do decided to pour hot oil on this fire.

“Ah, the unclawed shaveskin! Look; my sword does not tarnish, despite your most virulent halitosis. Your hunter’s instincts are quick, but your lack of talent doesn’t allow you to slay an elder Sa-m’Athra.”

“Listen, House Cat, we are here to please Kyne, and I don’t take my orders from a furry provincial. Befoul a Nord’s bow again, and I’ll be wearing your coat next winter!” Roggvir’s axe appeared between them now, as they pressed knotted foreheads together.

“Ha! If you needed a warm cloak, why didn’t we skin the pelt from your rabid brother back in Hammerfell? Naturally we’d dip it in a purifying agent to kill the lice first, yes?” Ingjard looked at me with concern. Meanwhile, the senche-lion had lain down, and was lazily chewing on grass.

Roggvir smiled briefly and stepped back. I knew that look; I needed to step in, as he was readying to throttle the cat. He spoke quietly: “Too much moon sugar, you antsy grimalkin? Here, let me find you a ball of yarn to play with… after I kill your uncle!” Roggvir turned to sprint for the senche-lion, but I caught him by the shoulder and led him (under protest) away from both Khajiiti troublemakers. I explained our predicament; we were deep in Khajiiti territory, and our merchant benefactor was a cat. A modicum of diplomacy was required. After much persuasion, we agreed we would hunt and skin a senche-tiger after Kyne’s challenge was resolved.

Kishra-do, as if to add a further metaphorical slap to Roggvir’s face, was slowly approaching the senche-lion, with one arm raised to signify she wasn’t a threat (while the other fingered a dagger on her back belt). She nuzzled the lion for a moment, speaking to it in a purring tone. Then she leapt across its back. Not to plunge a dagger down, but to ride the tamed beast.

Roggvir’s mood was livid all the way to Dune.

DREMORA | The merchant settlement of Dune was in the distance, in the middle of our view of the fertile desert with flat plains stretching on seemingly to the edge of Mundus. Kishra-do circled back from a prowl on her senche-lion, leaned down from her mount, and motioned to a commotion in the distance. “You prepare to slaughter the overconfident who stain our lands with filth, yes?” I peered past her pointed paw, my old eyes adjusting slowly in the twilight. A dark cloud of red and black shapes, churning up the dust behind them: a band of degenerate scavengers intent on assailing the inhabitants of the town. “The chattel of Coldharbour stalk this land, and hope to burn down my home. Despite the hobbling one,” she nodded to Roggvir, “we have a fragrant band of walkers, and I would be no happier serving a Khajiit,” she now nodded in deference to me: “But we must lance these boils!” Before she charged off to start carnage she might not survive, I beckoned our hunters to cluster. Tonight we hunt Dremora.

“These are no mere Daedra,” Namasur started, intending a diatribe on the societal structure of ‘the Kyn,’ as he called them.

Ingjard stopped this banter with a raised stone fist: “Listen, Redguard. I only wish to learn one aspect from your studies: Where to strike to cause them most pain!” Roggvir slapped a thigh (his healthy one) in delight, and the remaining conversation was spent confirming the weakness of Daedra armor, and the expected aggression to watch for. We weren’t to rabbit like Breton fishwives, though; the Dremora were cutting across the savanna like an opening wound.

Our adversaries were salivating over the cat meat inside the walls of Dune; they had neglected to watch their flank. Kishra-do wished to attack from disparate directions to harry them. But there was no time to surround our foes. Or was there? Namasur displayed some heretofore hidden talents, touching both Kishra-do and her mount gently on the back while mumbling something foreign. In a flash, they were both gone, intending to reappear on the far edge of the grassland, to offer a late (but tactically advantageous) charge. The flash had the added effect of stopping the advancing Dremora horde, as they turned as one to face us.

We counted four imposing figures, clad in the Daedra fineries of their ilk, each with a few baying clannfear or banekin at their boots. Such revolting familiars need no description, but their summoners stood shoulder to shoulder, each a more grotesque excuse for a man.

A Caitiff and a Kynval warrior, each built for battle: one clutching an evil-looking broadsword with both clawed gauntlets, the weapon glinting in the low sunlight, and a glowing blue gem affixed to the blade. The other came with a shield: a lattice of red metal and ebony, finely tempered metal with thick curves and points to damage even while bashing. In the other hand an axe, hilt and pommel sharply pointed, with a blade so sharp it could split hair, or carve vertically through a head and out through the loins. Both strode in heavy armor of frightening beauty, dozens of interlocking plates and a full helm showing only the lidless eyes of menace.

A nightblade Kynreeve, clad in light black and red, thinner plates allowing for quicker movement, and dual daggers spinning about his palms. Deep ceremonial cuts across a gaunt face, pointed forehead grooves burrowing into the protruding brow, ash-gray skin, pointed ears, and two more horns where a chin should be.

Their leader, a mage Kynmarcher of considerable power, twisted horns protruding through her black hood, a bodice of rope and metal, sewn from hopelessness. Plates of ebony and red, firmly interlocking and forged in otherworldly fire. She carried a staff with a focusing crystal of amethyst, pulsing and ready to discharge hatred. A predilection for spikes, even among those prone to less obvious violence. A rotting skull at her belt, signifying deviance and the acts of necromancy.

Though their armor was black and red, their eyes were pale blue: Their fealty was to Molag Bal.

We announced our intentions first: Ingjard was our finest archer. She made a shot so straight and true, songs will be sung about it for years to come. From the furthest range possible, it struck the Kynmarcher through the left eye. What Ingjard hadn’t shared with us was the additional gift she had been saving for this special occasion: a small charge of explosive powder squirreled away since Windhelm. The Dremora leader staggered back, clutching the arrow, and was attempting to wrench it from her skull when it detonated, blowing her head and part of her arm off. The rest of her slumped into a heap, her spirit summoned back to Molag Bal for an indeterminate amount of prostate flailing.

Chaos ensued. Clannfear charged, but our other archers followed Ingjard’s lead, and the idiotic Daedra familiars were cut down and strewn about the low grass before they reached us. Six banekin faltered, their innate cowardice causing them to flee from us and into the mauling claws of Kishra-do’s senche-lion, which toyed with (and then tore apart) two of their number. The Khajiit and the vanishing Redguard had also appeared, gleefully slicing parts of various sizes from the panicked servitors. With all but three of their number left unscathed, the nightblade spoke in angered, throaty tones:

“Varlets and Churls! Bay for the blood of your victims, for your deaths are unimportant. My kynaz! Don’t spare your fury. May your violence please the Harvester of Souls!”

Not knowing when to run from greater numbers, the arrogant Dremora charged at full pace towards our main group. A pitched battle raged: a blur of fur, metal, scales, swords, axes, and blood. The Argonian cut in the arm. The Kynval finally defending with his shield, catching a vicious flurry from Ingjard. Roggvir followed up with further axe play, expertly parried by the red and black monster. This dance of death finally ended when an Argonian dagger was pounded through Kynval boot, and two Nord weapons continued the dismembering until Dremora armor was only the color red.

Namasur hoisted the Caitiff aloft with a spear sideways through the Dremora’s ribs, out the other side, and then off the ground: The armored fiend dropped to his feet, took both ends of the Redguard’s prized spear, snapped them off, and advanced at Namasur with a smile and a section of spear pole still poking his innards. This mocking bravery ended abruptly (as Namasur’s ruined spear had sentimental value), as the Redguard began a reckless sword rampage; the Caitiff’s own massive, double-handed blade coming within a hair’s breadth of slicing off the Redguard’s head. Wild swings turned to death throes as Namasur’s scimitar found its home embedded in the Caitiff’s arm, severing it completely with a second strike. The Dremora watched almost quizzically as its own appendage thrashed on the ground like a freshly caught salmon, then attempted to wield its sword with its remaining arm. The blood loss was too great, and it fell forward, dismissed and gushing with blood.

The nightblade’s daggers were a blur before my beard, as it mixed grace and power in its strikes against my armor. Small cuts were all it managed, as I had some previous experience fighting bears with only my knuckles, and dagger combat with the Companions of Whiterun. The Dremora seemed surprised that an old man was keeping up with his furor of small blades. This turned to incredulity when I plucked both his wrists from the air around my head, and followed up with the old “Rorikstead hello,” a forehead to the face that cracked his helm and put him on arse. I had pounced on him before the blood began to flow from his broken nose. I hadn’t been bettered in wrestling for nigh on ten years, and this upstart had little chance. Pinned down, all the nightblade could manage was a sneer, and he spit through broken teeth:

“We shall return with strength in our numbers, we shall writhe in your nightmares, and we…” My own dagger through his neck finished his sentence, and the nightblade at last fell silent.

DAEDRA TITAN, ZOMBIES, AND A TERRIBLE DAEDRIC INCURSION | The sun had burned all but its embers as our procession reached the ornate crenelations and crescent moons adorning the high walls of Dune. Graceful architecture of the cat men, venerating the divine nature of the moons, and harking back to the oldest memories of Tamriel, when the Khajiiti moon emperor ruled this entire province. But we weren’t here to marvel at the architecture; we were here to settle our account with trade merchant Zagun-ra and say our goodbyes to Kishra-do, before venturing further inland. A conclusion to our challenge lay in Cyrodiil, although the reports I was hearing painted a picture of unrest and strife.

We were met at the gates by a venerable Khajiit, clad in the robes of a moon bishop. Although his fur was graying around the eyes, and his chin tufts were now white, I recognized the broad shoulders and markings of my benefactor:

“Fellow walker Zagun-ra!” I embraced him. “May Jone and Jode cast their light upon your dance!”

Zagun-ra smiled. “A most fragrant welcome! May your thirst for mead never be quenched, most hairy of my acquaintances!” The Khajiit beckoned Kishra-do over: “Get off that mount, you muskarse! Gather the spoils and take them to the apothecary, or I’ll be keeping the moon sugar for myself. Quickly, yes?” Roggvir smirked as Kishra-do bowed her head, met the Argonian, and was weighed down by the copious sacks, bags, and general belongings of our hunt.

“I trust my House Cat has been behaving, yes? Good. Let us retire to the Sweet Plethora Teahouse and discuss payment. Not your rabble, though.”

The place smelled too sickly for my liking; tapestries were too intricate and involved the marking of the moon’s path. I attempted to tug my foot into a cross-legged position, and failed. But the tea was excellent, if a little sweet and thick (and laced with moon sugar, I later found out). As Zagun-ra finished counting gold coins, and placing them (along with numerous gems) into a bag as large as my head, he leaned in.

“Sweetcake? Caramelized goat nibbles? Honey pudding?” he asked, pointing at an array of dainty cakes on the embroidered-cloth-covered table.

“Not for me. I have an Argonian with a sweet fang, who…”

“No matter,” Zagun-ra interrupted, his expression changing like the wind. “Listen, my hirsute friend, I’ve heard troubling news from the Baandari peddlers. You must have seen the constellation of the serpent, how it dwarfs the others in our night’s sky.” I lied and nodded my head.

“Tell me, have you encountered more than your fair share of Daedra?” I nodded again, explaining our most recent infraction with the Dremora, and the elder Khajiit sat back, softly tugging at his whiskers. “Troubling…”

A loud clattering in the street outside announced Kishra-do’s arrival. I could hear general commotion, and the blur of cat folk running in all directions behind her.

“Master Zagun-ra!” Kishra-do spoke with a tremor in her voice for the first time: “Dark anchor!”

The stars were blotted out, replaced by a terrible circular storm, from which a great wailing was heard, then the grinding of chains as a gargantuan metal hook plummeted from the firmament, stabbing the ground close to the city walls, which shook but remained steadfast. Clods of earth were chewed and thrown up as the anchor dug deeply. Out of the scars clawed hands appeared, a mass of dark spirits sent to befoul Elsweyr. “Dro-m’Athra, everywhere!” Kishra-do and her kin were at the walls, bows at the ready as a great bell tolled in my head, its source unknown.

A stream of the cackling, dancing, and revolting now. Clannfear, banekin, and other more powerful entities which we had faced previously in our travels. Dremora barking at their minions, whipping them forward, great courage in great numbers. A Daedra priest was seen. Was he the one we encountered at the great necropolis in Hammerfell? He certainly chose to reenact that day, as other, damned souls now slithered from the great hole: a mass of the diseased, unwashed, and unwanted. An army of zombies with a Daedra necromancer, rotting flesh from every race in Tamriel. Kishra-do and a small contingent of armored Khajiit formed at the gate, and a storm of arrows flew from the city walls. A daedroth was struck but still stomped on, unflinching. A banekin dropped, gasping at the bolt through his gullet. But the fate of the horde seemed inconsequential as we looked up at the sky.

The whirl of clouds had darknened more considerably, with great flashes of lightning erupting from the maelstrom. Those with throats in the horde began to cackle uncontrollably. Then the landscape was bathed in a pale blue light, a frigid illumination from the depths of Coldharbour. The light grew in strength until it was as bright as day, and the evil glee intensified. A huge circle of metal, held up in the heavens by the magic of Molag Bal himself, opened, and a grim shadow was cast over Dune. A huge and terrible head plummeting down, weaving between the three chains of the dark anchor, unfurling great tapestries of wings, swooping and circling the settlement. Over the wind and echoing laughter, Namasur had stepped to my side. He squinted through the storm of dust and evil: “Beware, for it attacks with great strength, virulent disease, and without mercy.” The screaming wind was almost deafening now. “A dread servant of Molag Bal!”

A behemoth had torn through from Oblivion.

A Daedra titan, keeper of the black soul gems for the Lord of Brutality. Next it landed, spreading out its tattered (but considerable) wings, digging into the soil, claws first, cutting a fissure with its feet and kicking up more soil and rocks in its wide wake. A head proudly showing off its tusks, flayed skin, and three huge, primal horns. Seeping mists of blue spread up from the skull-like nostril holes and the wicked eye slits. Flayed skin stretched over a protruding skeleton of ribs, tendons, and sharp-spined ridges, all seemingly carved from Coldharbour stone. Twice the size of a mammoth, and unquestionably more savage, it sniffed the air, opening its overlapping fang mouth to taste the fear, and appeared to feed off the energy of the baying horde. To the rear, its long, thorny tail whipped from left to right, the tip shaped like the legendary mace of Molag Bal himself.

Trumpeting thunder sounded as it roared forward, focusing its might on the Khajiit defending Dune. A raking claw sent two cat folk tumbling, one remaining still on the ground, stained in blood. Archers at the ready, their missiles were fired and then forced downwards as the titan flexed its formidable wings, conjuring a billowing gale that knocked many defenders from their perches, and turned arrows to snapped sticks. I saw Kishra-do lead six brave Khajiiti pit fighters, who sought to overwhelm the giant. One was cut down the middle by a huge, hooked toe. Another two bounded onto the haunches of the beast, but were caught by the titan’s writhing tail and run through, falling under the beast, mangled. Two more were lost in a huge sphere of light, a scourge bolt spat from the maw. This left two remaining cat folk, cutting through the titan’s front arms, one gathered up and squeezed out into a furry pulp. Kishra-do threw her spear with force, and it lodged in the titan’s gullet. It gave a great cough, shook its head, and inhaled before bellowing a river of soul flames out, engulfing Kishra-do.

Ingjard was atop the battlements, yelling at the felines to fire upon the behemoth. I saw the tail strike her down, and she disappeared with three other archers, under a mass of collapsing stone. Namasur sped past me, shouting a farewell: “There are worse ways to die!” His eyes on the titan, he was upon the hulking form and slicing through its armpit as it turned, grabbed the Redguard, and flung him across the plains. He was still alive when he struck the middle of the crowd of Daedra, but I lost sight of him as a dozen wretched forms leaped upon him to tear out his soul.

Roggvir turned to me, the light of Sovngarde behind his eyes: “Let them kill me! As long as I take enough of them with me, it’s worth it!” With that, he raised his axe and sped forth, one man charging headlong into an army of Daedra. As he reached the first line of marauders, he began to change, armor shredding from his expanding back, hair sprouting, and claws forming through collapsing leather gauntlets, a wolf’s head forming to feast on the profane ones.

“I knew it!”

“Ah, well. It is long since I have licked the Tree.” Footfalls-in-Snow was by my side. As he had always been. I was a fool to mistrust this vassal; he had a loyalty few Nords exhibit. But my thoughts were not about his journey to the Hist Tree. It was the looming face of Molag Bal’s emissary, but also the smaller minions, rushing as a pack. They were twenty footsteps away.

Now ten. The behemoth opened its jaw, and I stared into an abyss. I felt the crowd upon me. I closed my eyes and began to chant.
 

THIS WAS MY DREAM. Repeating. Thanks to Kyne for providing this.

I wake with astonishment, in a warm bed. Ingjard is asleep on a cot across from me. My mind is bombarded with confusion. A dream? That could not be; it was more vivid than even my communions with Kyne. This journal lay by Ingjard’s hand. Turning to the last pages, where I write these last thoughts, Ingjard’s art already adorns them. And it displays the very events I experienced. How did she share this dream too?

Ah, but my ramble comes to an end.

I hear shouting from the streets outside the apothecary. Molag Bal’s fury is freed from Oblivion. Again? Great crashing noises announce the arrival of the dark anchors. My unconscious ordeal may be a preamble to my final fate.

The time has come; I must force back the pestilence from Tamriel, in Kyne’s name once more…

 

My final words.

— GRUNDVIK COLD-FIST
2nd of Sun’s Height, 2E 581, Dune, Elsweyr