Chapter 78: Dwindling Swindlers

As Jenassa and I prepare to enter the shadowy cavern — and the supposed location of a band of Alik’r — I reflect that all we have to go on is the word of a disgruntled captive back in the Whiterun prison.  So far, we’ve seen no evidence that these Alik’r are headquartered around here, and it occurs to me that a single prisoner with a grudge hardly seems like a reliable source of information.

Even if our informer was telling the truth, you’d think it would make more sense for Kematu to remove his warriors to another location after the first one was captured.  At the very least, the Alik’r must know that they aren’t exactly on good terms with the Whiterun guards — reason enough to find some other hideout, perhaps in another Hold altogether.  In a province that seems to have more ruins and fortresses than citizens, you’d think that holing up with a bunch of low-life bandits in a musty cave would be a last resort.

Pondering this line of reasoning, I’m about to mention my considerable doubts to Jenassa, when we overhear one bandit talking to another as we enter the cave.

Bandits aren’t usually this perceptive. I’m almost impressed.

Now that we know we’re in the right place, it’s just a matter of removing the usual vermin between us and our goal.   Drawing my bow, I take out the first bandit in a single shot.

The insightful bandit immediately realizes there are intruders about — clearly the man is a genius compared to his generally dimwitted colleagues — and with a cry of fury he charges toward us with a sword in each hand.  By sheer instinct, I deflect his savage attack with my shield — then I reach for Dawnbreaker and slash him hard across the chest.  At once he’s wrapped in Daedric flames, and his cries rapidly change from rage to terror.  I must admit, even after all this time, witnessing that panicked reaction is still deeply satisfying.

Pity, you seemed brighter than most bandits.  But don’t worry — your death reflects that.

Like many caves in Skyrim, this one appears to be a series of variously-sized chambers connected by long, narrow tunnels.  After we clear the first chamber of bandits and loot, we notice a target dummy off to one side.  Several iron arrows protrude from the dummy’s chest.  Normally this would be a sign of excellent target shooting — but in this case, not so much, since there’s also a ripe apple balanced on top of the dummy’s head.  Unless the bandits were deliberately trying to miss the apple, I’m feeling pretty confident about our chances.

And nothing even close to a bullseye.  What were they doing, throwing the arrows by hand?!

Jenassa and I systematically work our way through the caverns, sniping our targets from the shadows or baiting them into narrow passages where we can tackle them one at a time, ensuring that we don’t get ourselves in a situation where we can be suddenly overwhelmed.   Like bandits everywhere, most of them are brawlers rather than ranged fighters, and in close quarters it’s much like shooting fish in a barrel.

Kinda hard to miss.  Maybe I could kill one by ricochet.

This bait-and-shoot tactic works surprisingly well.  Pretty soon our biggest problem is that the tunnels are getting clogged with corpses, but I’m not about to complain.   In fact, with all this fresh material lying around, I take a moment to thank the Divines that none of our current enemies are necromancers.

Y’know, I really like seeing wall-to-wall enemies… when they’re already dead.

Even though my wife and I easily outclass these bandits, there’s an unforeseen downside.  Very few of them have any loot worth taking, as most of them are garbed in simple leather armour or furs, and a number of them seem to have mysteriously lost their coinpurses.  We’ve also seen very little actual treasure in the cave so far, as these bandits are apparently obsessed with collecting food, hides, and lockpicks.  Figures we’d be fighting a bunch of incompetents.  We’re starting to resign ourselves to the idea that this mission will be more about civic duty than wealth, when suddenly we hit the relative jackpot.

It’s no dragon hoard, but I’ll take it.

Considerably happier now that we’ve acquired at least some treasure, we head into another winding narrow tunnel.  This area holds a few crates and a bottle of mead.  Normally I’d gladly claim the mead for my own refreshment, especially since fighting bandits is rather thirsty work, but this time I opt to leave it where it is.  I have the feeling it’s probably well past its freshness date — not to mention someone else arguably has a stronger claim to the mead than I do.

Now that’s what I call a tragic death.

The caverns grow progressively darker the further we head into Swindler’s Den, until finally Jenassa has to resort to lighting a torch just so we can see where we’re going.  This is less than ideal as we effectively abandon all the advantages of stealth, since it’s rather difficult to hide in the shadows when you’re holding up a big fiery stick.

Fortunately, the bandits in this section are labouring under a false sense of security, and it’s clear they aren’t even remotely aware of the fates of their fallen comrades.  As a result, Jenassa and I catch them completely off-guard, and with barely a handful of arrows, we send the bandits off to join their associates in the afterlife.

Nice of them to keep dinner warm for us.

After dispatching the latest inhabitants, we’re pleased to see that this chamber appears to be a treasury of sorts, as it contains a chest of reasonably decent armour along with some potions and valuable books.  In addition, at the rear of the cavern atop a rock shelf, we discover a flat wooden box filled with gold bars and ingots of malachite.  Glad that we finally have something substantial to show for our efforts, we follow another passage that leads us to the top of a wide stone ledge.  It’s apparent that the bandit guarding this area is a mage, as he immediately casts a spell ward as soon as we emerge from the tunnel — but between our arrows and my atronach, we soon make short work of his efforts.

I’d introduce Barbie to the bandit more formally, but I doubt will be seeing much of him after this.

After looting the corpse, we investigate the rest of the area — but except for a deer hide, an iron dagger, a basic hunting bow, and a small colony of mushrooms, there’s not a great deal to find.  However, it’s fortunate we’re paying attention, as toward the back wall we happen to notice a couple of bear traps.  Behind them is the entrance to yet another narrow tunnel, and beyond that is the incongruous but unmistakable smell of fresh water.

Jenassa and I glance at each other in surprise when the scent hits our nostrils, unsure what to make of this discovery.  Intrigued, we disable the traps and push forward into the passage — and soon we find ourselves immersed up to our armpits, slowly wading through a dark flooded tunnel.  Behind me, Jenassa holds the torch aloft so we can see where we’re headed, and the flickering flame causes the cavern walls to shimmer in an eerie dance of light and shadow.  Since holding our weapons is pointless when we’re half-submerged in water, we concentrate on traversing the flooded section as quickly as possible.

No one told me we’d be crashing a pool party.

Fortunately we’re in no danger of drowning, as the floor of the cavern slopes gradually upward.  Soon we’re standing knee-deep in the shallows below a natural rock bridge.  Ahead of us is the underside of a waterfall, shimmering like a shower of diamonds in the torchlight as the roar of falling water echoes off the walls from every side.

Now that we’re almost clear of the flood, we reach for our weapons once again.  With the noise of the water covering any sound we make, I step forward confidently with my bow in hand — only to have that confidence shatter the next moment as a deep commanding voice hails us from the other side of the falls.

Merciful Mara, this is not good.  Something tells me we’ve just found the Alik’r — or rather, they’ve just found us.

Right, so much for stealth.  You could say we’ve been flushed out.


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