Chapter 99: Bushwacking

As my acrobatic atronach flashes out of existence and my wife helps me loot the scorched spriggan, I’m starting to rethink the wisdom of staying in this place.  Traipsing around in a dense forest while following a trail that’s leading us into a narrow ravine filled with dangerous enemies seems like a very bad idea.

Individually, spriggans are enough of a challenge.  But as nature spirits, they have the uncanny ability to compel wild animals to fight on their behalf.  I doubt we’ve been lucky enough to slaughter the only resident cave bear — or the only spriggan, for that matter.  Given that, I’m not feeling especially confident about our chances.

As I pull out my hunting knife and bend down to start butchering the bear, I mention my concerns to my wife.  She pauses for a moment, then straightens up and looks around.

“It’s starting to get dark,” she mentions casually.

Surprised, I look around as well, but as far as I can tell the light hasn’t changed since we got here.  I can clearly see our trail through the tall grass, plus the colour of the wildflowers, the detail on our armour, the leaves on the branches, and the shimmer of water through the trees.  In short, I have no idea what Jenassa’s talking about.  My expression of bewilderment must be plain on my face, because when I turn to look at her in utter confusion, she smiles.

“It’s easier to tell if you look up through the trees,” she says.  “In fact, if you were to stand on that fallen log over there, you’ll see what I mean.”

Shading my eyes, I look up in the direction she’s pointing.  There’s indeed a fallen log that bridges the top of the ravine.  It’s a bit of a hassle to get there, but once I’m up on the log, I can see it right away.

It’s important to find balance in life.

High above our heads, well over the tops of the trees, there’s a skylight piercing a hole through the cavern roof.  At first, sunlight appears to be pouring in through the aperture, but the more I look, the more obvious it is that this is an illusion.  The light that radiates throughout this place doesn’t seem to have any particular source — it’s simply there, shining through the trees, glancing off the water, brightening some areas while leaving others in shadow.

But through the skylight, I can get an idea of what’s happening outside.  The illumination from the outdoors is quite dim, and millions of dust motes seem to be falling through the skylight, only to vanish as soon as they appear.  After a few moments, I realize that it’s not dust at all — it’s snow, coming in thick and fast, only to melt instantly as soon as it reaches the warmer air of the cavern.

Outside, the blizzard must still be raging — and that’s when the full meaning of my wife’s statement hits me all at once.  In here, the atmosphere is unchanged, but out there, it’s dark and stormy.  Leaving here now would be suicide — we barely found this place when it was still daylight.  After nightfall, we’d be sure to get lost and die of exposure.  And at the rate the snow is falling, if we’re lucky, someone might dig out our frozen corpses by springtime — that is, if spring even exists in this far northern region of Skyrim.

In the meantime, we’re in a cavern inhabited by cave bears and spriggans.  If we intend to stay the night — and it doesn’t seem like we have much choice — we’d better take the usual precautions.

And by that, I mean hunt down our enemies and take all their stuff.

Barbie’s fantastic at smoking out sneaky spriggans.

As we continue down the narrow path, it becomes apparent that the ground is gradually rising uphill.  Soon we find ourselves standing at the bottom of a steep slope, almost a ramp, which appears to lead us around a tall rocky spire.  The tight curve of the spiraling trail prevents us from seeing more than a short distance ahead, and unlike the rest of the trail, it’s clear that there’s very little cover.  We’re going to be about as stealthy as a forest fire if we head up there.

Standing at the bottom of the slope, I look back at Jenassa and raise an eyebrow, wordlessly asking her opinion about whether or not we should proceed.  She shrugs and smiles in reply, as if to say Why stop now?

Personally, I can think of several reasons — but even in my head, they don’t sound terribly convincing.  Hoping I seem at least somewhat enthusiastic, I check to make sure my weapons are within easy reach before starting the steep climb upward.

Guess there’s no chance I can skip leg day.

As Jenassa and I ascend the slope, the exposed path appears to grow brighter the higher we climb, while the rest of the cavern falls away behind us into a deep pool of shadow.  It’s as if night and day both exist in the same place, and the difference between them is not dependent on time, but rather on location and perspective.

The effect is extraordinary, and more than a little disorienting.  I find myself automatically dropping to a crouch, even though I know there’s nowhere to really conceal myself up here.  It does help to make me feel a bit more secure, however, and less like I’m about to fall over the edge to my death.

The higher I go, the more tempted I am to start randomly chucking things over the edge.  For science!

One notable aspect of moving while crouching — aside from getting killer leg cramps — is that you proceed much slower than usual.  I’m discovering that this is even more true when you’re heading up a steep incline.  I’m pretty sure that a crawling baby could outpace me right now, even if my legs weren’t seizing up in an excruciating kind of way.

But as it turns out, this has one very small, very minor upside.   I may be painfully ascending at a glacial pace — emphasis on the pain —  but I’m also in exactly the right position to observe how tree bark shifts and mutates, just before a hostile spriggan emerges from its nest.

As it is, I barely have enough time to summon Barbie before the spriggan sprays me in the face with some kind of magical poisonous thorns — like I wasn’t in enough pain already.   Barbie instantly retaliates, hitting the spriggan with a fireball, but that only makes me feel slightly better.

Worse yet, its twin suddenly emerges just up the path.  Barbie is on it like a flash — or should I say like a flash fire — but now my atronach’s attention is divided, which is definitely bad news for me.

New challenge: convincing my legs to straighten up again.

While it’s always satisfying to watch a spriggan go up in flames, it doesn’t actually stop it from attacking — unlike when you set fire to people and they start to panic.  (Which, let’s be honest, I sort of adore.)  But spriggans just keep piling on the hurt right up until they turn into charcoal.  Not to mention that, for whatever reason, these creatures in particular are taking longer than usual to burn.

I guess they must be young spriggans.  They’re still a bit green.

Reaching for Dawnbreaker on the theory that more fire is better, I start hacking away as both of them converge on me.   Jenassa starts defending me with her crossbow as soon as she catches up — but while her accuracy is still deadly, right now it’s not quite as deadly as I’d like.  And Barbie is still slinging fireballs, but it’s not making nearly enough headway on these disturbingly relentless enemies.

Back off, you arboreal freaks of nature!  Don’t make me invent the first woodchipper!

With a sudden jolt of alarm, I realize that I’m losing a lot of blood from multiple wounds.  Worse yet, my attacks are getting sloppy — half of them aren’t even landing.  And while I can hack and slash at their bodies, I can’t do anything to avoid their poison thorn sorcery.  It doesn’t just cause pain, it’s also injecting some kind of fungal toxin into my bloodstream.  I can feel it rapidly weaving its tendrils throughout my body and infiltrating my mind.

Time seems to slow down, and I’m losing the ability to think.  From somewhere in the misty distance, I observe myself dispassionately as I lower my shield, fumble Dawnbreaker back into its sheath, and reach for my bow — almost upending my quiver in the process.  One of the spriggans rakes me with its splintery claws while the other casts a healing spell on itself, and I have the vague impression that this is most certainly an unfair fight — although I can’t be bothered to care very much.

But when I notice that I’m trying to fend off their direct attacks by awkwardly fencing them with my bow, my drowning consciousness dimly realizes that this is the wrong way to use such a weapon, and something snaps.  Grasping desperately for the last shattered remnants of my health and sanity, I spin around and flee back down the hill in a full-blown panic.  And, if they have anything resembling emotions, I’m sure those spriggans sort of adore it.  Bastards.

I can’t believe I’m running from a tree.  What a sap.

 

 

 

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