As Jenassa and I reach for our weapons and enter the cave, my instincts tell me there’s something strange about it. The way our footsteps echo off the cavern walls seems odd, as if the cave is trying to swallow the sounds we’re making. I can’t determine the cause, and I find myself slowing down a little more than usual as we proceed.
Up ahead, we hear noises that prove the cavern is indeed occupied by animals — but far from hearing the deep growl of bears or the strident yowl of sabre cats, these noises are more like high-pitched squeaks. Great. We seem to have found a cave full of skeevers. I can’t imagine more useless prey for a couple of relatively experienced hunters, and this certainly won’t help with our assignment from Aela.
I’m about to suggest to Jenassa that we turn around and head back out, when I hear a different sort of noise — a distinct moan from a much bigger animal. Thinking that perhaps the skeevers are merely scavengers living in the refuse of a larger predator’s den, I head toward the sound — and immediately halt in my tracks.
A few steps away, the ground suddenly drops off into a steep crevasse. If I hadn’t been looking down, I would have walked right over the edge. Well, that certainly explains the unusual acoustics in this place.
Slowly moving toward the precipice, I peer down. At the bottom are several skeevers, and they appear to be surrounding an injured moose. It’s not too difficult to figure out what must have happened — the moose stumbled into this cave, probably disoriented and fleeing from a predator, and fell down the hole, breaking some or all of its legs.
Just then, we hear another heart-rending groan from the injured animal. I lean a bit further over the edge and watch as it painfully tries to fend off the vicious bites of the bloodthirsty skeevers. As if to add insult to injury, the moose is also lying in a pool of water, unable to rest its head without drowning. Poor creature. I can’t help but feel a stab of pity for the once-majestic beast, so I lean over the precipice, draw my bow, and swiftly put the moose out of its misery.
Of course, the skeevers don’t take kindly to the intrusion. Chattering in fury, several of them start running toward us by way of a steep rock ramp. Jenassa and I shoot most of them down, and she cleaves through the skull of the last with her axe.
Since there’s no point in leaving perfectly good venison to go to waste, we head down to salvage what we can from the remains. Fortunately the pool of water is shallow, barely up to my knees at the deepest point, so it’s no problem to butcher the carcass. As I’m finishing up, Jenassa directs my attention to the tunnel leading away from the pool, and suggests that we might be able to exit the cave that way. I’m not eager to haul a heavy load of moose meat back up that steep ramp, so I agree to her proposal. With our bows at the ready, we make our way into the darkened tunnel.
Suddenly a bright flash lights up the other end of the narrow passage, temporarily blinding us. As our eyes adjust, we notice that we’re not alone. In the dim light, we can see that the tunnel widens into a larger cavern, and a figure dressed in black robes is patrolling the space, lighting the area with spells. I wince when I realize it’s a witch. Not good. One decent fire spell in this narrow tunnel, and Jenassa and I would be instantly cremated.
Fortunately, although the witch is on the alert, she doesn’t seem to know exactly where we are. I silently reach into one of my belt pouches and manage to grab something useful.
After hitting the witch with the poisoned arrow, Jenassa and I rush her down. She immediately refreshes her protective ward, but then seems to realize she’s made a fatal error in wasting her mana on defense rather than offense. She tries to slow us down with a couple of frost bolts, but by then her magic is completely exhausted. She fumbles for her dagger, but it’s already too late. In seconds she falls to our onslaught.
Alerted by the sound of battle, another robed figure enters the room and starts to power up a spell, but she doesn’t get a chance to fire it off before she’s lying dead next to her associate.
Jenassa and I loot the bodies and a nearby chest, then we proceed down the passage where the second witch entered. It’s even darker in here than in the last narrow tunnel, which is why I walk straight into a cleverly-placed trap.
Fortunately I manage to shoot out the soul gem that’s powering the trap before it does too much damage. Still, because of the nature of the spell, I’m moving a lot slower than before. It seems to take forever to reach the trap and retrieve the soul gem. I’m constantly expecting another witch to charge in and blast my face, but luckily I reach the disabled trap without incident just as the spell effects wear off.
Heading around the corner, I walk through a thin curtain of webbing. Sure enough, straight ahead is a huge spider nest. More webbing hangs from the walls, egg sacs are everywhere, and rapidly descending from the ceiling is something large and hairy with far too many legs. I don’t even allow myself to hesitate — I just pull out Dawnbreaker and kill it with fire.
Stepping over the charred remains, in the midst of some egg sacs we find a chest and a dead human body. We loot everything that’s remotely valuable, then we make our way down a side passage. Unfortunately, soon it’s apparent that some of the spider eggs have already hatched.
After Jenassa and I dispatch a few more spiders, I pull a chain hanging on the wall, revealing a hidden passage. We drop to a crouch and continue forward, listening for any sound that might indicate a threat. Up ahead, we can hear the steady drip of water falling into a pool, and beyond that we can hear the murmur of voices. Slowly we creep forward, bows at the ready, making our way across a low stone bridge spanning an underground stream.
Across the bridge, we can see another witch speaking to a shadowy bent figure, who seems to be giving her orders. There’s also an iron cage, and it’s apparent that the witches have trapped something inside it. From our angle it’s not immediately obvious what it could be — although I can make a pretty good guess. And that, in turn, provides me with a clue as to the identity of the figure ordering around the witch.
I raise my bow and try to get a clear shot on either the witch or the hagraven, but the sightlines are problematic at best. It also doesn’t help that both targets are constantly moving, and the last thing I want to do is hit the prisoner in the cage. We don’t need to deal with any additional enemies if we can avoid it.
Jenassa whispers that we should try to take them by surprise, and as she makes the suggestion, it’s suddenly clear what I should do. What we need is some controlled yet effective mayhem — and I think I know who to call on for that.
As expected, my summoning spell provides us with just the advantage we need. Now with the odds in our favour, Jenassa rushes forward to carve a path through our enemies while Barbie and I provide the firepower — in Barbie’s case, literally.
The witch soon hits the dirt, and it’s clear that the hagraven is fatally distracted, as she keeps changing her focus from Jenassa to Barbie and back again. Eventually the three of us take her down, and the hagraven dies wrapped in flames and screaming curses at us. Meh, whatever.
After we search the room for valuable loot, we stop in front of the iron cage, trying to decide on the fate of its occupant. Jenassa, ever the practical one, suggests that we shoot the spriggan while it’s still locked in — but although her plan is certainly sound, there’s something about the idea that I find distasteful. Perhaps it’s that the thought of killing a trapped sentient creature seems dishonourable, or perhaps it’s because we’ve recently learned that hagravens catch spriggans in order to sacrifice them — and now I can’t help but see them as innocent nature spirits on the verge of extinction.
Finally I tell Jenassa to lower her weapons while I open the cage door. We’ll give the spriggan a chance to escape without resorting to violence. By my wife’s expression, I can tell that she’s skeptical about the wisdom of this plan, but she’s willing to humour me. First I make sure that the spriggan notices I’m sheathing my weapons, then I approach the cage door slowly in order to pick the lock. As the door swings wide, I step back, motioning to Jenassa to do the same.
Amazingly, it seems to understand our intentions. As the spriggan leaves the cage, we gaze at each other for one charged moment, then it races past both of us and heads for the nearest exit. Jenassa and I both let out a long sigh of relief, then chuckle in unison as we hear the soft echo of our exhalations from the cavern walls.
We follow the creature out of the room, and find it standing patiently by a closed panel in the rock wall. Looks like elementals have a problem when it comes to manipulating metal chains. Here, Madam Spriggan, allow me.
As the spriggan makes its way through the passage, I turn around to find another chest. Inside is a double-headed elven axe worth a decent amount of gold, some scattered coins, and scroll that will allow me to summon an even more powerful atronach than Barbie. Nice. That could definitely come in handy.
After we finish looting the chest, we head down the passage and exit the cave. Outside, night has already fallen and the stars are out. Of course there’s no sign of the spriggan we rescued, but I hope that wherever it went, it’s safe and sound.
I mention that we’ll have to find a suitable place to pitch the tent for the night, and Jenassa raises an eyebrow — then she shakes her head, flashing an impish grin at me. I’m puzzled at first, until I recall what I said just before we entered the cave:
“C’mon honey, follow me — we’ll have our bear pelt in no time. And if not, I’ll pitch the tent by myself tonight!”
Ahh, crap. Fine, Jenassa, I’ll do it. And you can stop looking so damn smug.