Chapter 100: Slaying the Spire

Kynareth save me, these spriggans are fast!   From the corner of my eye, I catch a glimpse of Jenassa’s startled face as I speed past her, with the enemy close behind.  The rest of the world collapses into one endless moment of terror.  It seems as if, all my life, I’ve always been running down this path, always felt my heart about to burst from my chest, always heard the blood pounding in my ears.   And on some level, I’m aware that if I lose my footing, I won’t have to worry about the spriggans killing me — the fall will take care of that.

Just as my aching legs are about to collapse, I become aware of other noises behind me — the sounds of sudden combat.   I don’t seem to be getting hit, so I’m pretty sure it doesn’t involve me for once — and in that moment, my sense of time snaps back to its normal shape.  I decide to risk turning around for a look, and immediately curse the structure of this extreme slope.  Since the spire blocks my view of the actual path, I can’t see a damn thing.

But even though my eyes aren’t giving me much information, my ears still work just fine — and the combat I’m hearing definitely involves Jenassa.  Unless there’s someone else around here that knows how to swear in Dunmer, it’s clear that she’s successfully distracted the enemy.

That realization cuts through the last of my fear.  With my wife’s safety now uppermost in my mind, I skid to a halt, barely managing to avoid going straight over the edge.  Swiftly drawing forth Dawnbreaker, I spin around to confront any spriggan who might still be hard on my heels — but much to my relief, there’s no longer anyone there.

I’d thank the Divines, but I’ll settle for thanking my wife.

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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.

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Chapter 98: Trouble In Paradise

After we’ve finished gawking in awe at this hidden piece of heaven — an activity that takes up considerable time — Jenassa and I decide to follow the stream to see where it leads.  After a short walk through the trees, we find ourselves in a woodland clearing surrounded by wildflowers beside a shimmering pond.  In fact, it’s the perfect spot for a picnic.

Feeling as if we’re on holiday, we spread our furs on the ground and search our packs for the most savoury edibles we can find.  It’s been awhile since we’ve shared a meal that isn’t in a ramshackle shelter, or a noisy inn, or a dingy hole full of dead bodies.  We stay alert as we settle down to eat, just in case we’re surprised by a swarm of giant spiders or a nature-loving troll, but absolutely nothing happens to disturb the peace.  And it’s utterly wonderful.

The only conflict we encounter during our delectable repast is a minor dispute about whether we need to tether our mounts while we explore our surroundings.  Relaxing on the warm furs, I express my doubts to my wife.  I point out that we haven’t found anything here that seems bad for horses, and we certainly don’t have to worry about them staying warm or finding enough grass.  Jenassa counters that this place seems immense, and there might still be creatures here that could prove dangerous.  It would be a good idea to know where to find the horses in case we have to beat a hasty retreat — not that either of us are in a hurry to leave this idyllic place.

Reluctantly, I admit that it can’t hurt to take precautions.  That settled, we find a nice spot under the trees to tether the horses, but not so firmly that they can’t pull up stakes and flee if they’re suddenly threatened.  So after we tidy up our picnic site, we feed them a couple of apples as a treat, and leave them happily grazing near the water as we set off to explore.

Farewell my darlings! And while we’re away, feel free to horse around!

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Chapter 97: Secret Garden

After a restful night, I awaken the next morning to one of my favourite sounds — my wife making breakfast. She’s obviously been paying attention lately to how my appetite has expanded, since there’s evidence she’s gone into both our packs in search of adequate food supplies. It’s also apparent that she’s risen to the challenge magnificently, as once she notices I’m awake, she hands me a wooden platter of baked salmon on toasted bread covered in melted goat cheese, and a bowl of hot cereal topped with apple slices and roasted nuts.

It’s a fantastic start to the morning, especially considering we’re still in the middle of a waterlogged hagraven lair. It’s definitely past time to remedy that situation — but there’s one little matter I need to take care of first.

I’m sure this will cause me some kind of existential crisis later.

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Chapter 96: Close Quarters

After emptying out the wooden chest and checking the rest of the cavern, Jenassa and I find ourselves loaded down so much loot that we’re practically dragging our packs on the ground.  Not that this is too surprising.  We haven’t sifted through our belongings since we left the shipwreck camp, and our assortment of goods has grown rather cumbersome.  All our recent activity is starting to catch up with us, and as we drag ourselves back to the lower part of the cave, I find myself starting to feel sleepy — and, of course, ravenous.  I start digging around in my pack for a quick snack, but much to my annoyance, all the food is trapped beneath our recent load of acquisitions.  It’s impossible to reach it without dumping my pack out on the ground and reorganizing it all — which, as I know from experience, takes far too much time when I’m already hungry and tired.

Jenassa admits she has the same problem.  It’s inconvenient, especially since we’re both exhausted, but if we want to eat hearty and sleep well, then we’re going to have to head back outside and empty our packs into our horses’ saddlebags.  It’s not ideal, but it means we can get started on dinner a lot faster.  So, naturally, I’m on board with this plan.

So much for a romantic starlight walk on the beach.

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Chapter 95: In The Crow’s Nest

If I had built up any expectations before stepping through a secret door deep in a hagraven’s lair, they would have been shattered within the very first minute.  Aside from the fact that we’re still inside a cave, the area ahead of us is a stark contrast to the space we just left behind — from a damp, chilly, shadowy tunnel full of filth and spiders, to a warm, dry, well-lit expanse with a relatively clean floor and a welcome lack of arachnids.  While it’s definitely a change for the better, it’s also a cause for concern.  It seems pretty clear that this area is the real hideout, and the cavern we just left was nothing more than an elaborate entryway, with the hagraven and spiders acting as lookouts for whatever else might be hiding back here.

The other thing I notice right away is… the table.

There’s nothing particularly special about it.  It’s just a sturdy wooden table, located quite close to the hidden doorway.  But since we’ve just been in a place where the most sophisticated construction was a rickety bunk made of sticks and rawhide, seeing an everyday table in here is more than a tad surprising.

The other surprising thing is what’s on the table.  I’m not sure what I expected, but I sure didn’t expect to see a collection of potions and shiny gemstones.  Huh.  Usually we have to fight more enemies than a single hagraven and a couple of spiders before we get to any of the good stuff, but I’ll take it.  I’m just turning toward Jenassa to direct her attention to this most interesting find, when something else happens that I didn’t expect — and it nearly makes me jump out of my skin.

Think you could you say that a bit louder?  Our horses outside might not have heard you.

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Chapter 94: Hidden Hazards

Passing through the entrance of the sea-battered cave, we find ourselves in the rough equivalent of a small vestibule.  And I do mean rough.  The cavern walls glisten with damp, but there’s no hint of lichen, seaweed, mushrooms, or any other substance that might lend a yielding texture to the implacable stone.  Beneath our feet, the stone floor slopes down toward a wider opening that seems to be leading into the main chamber.  It’s also pretty dark in here, but there’s just enough light for us to see.  By unspoken agreement, we decide against lighting a torch until we have a better idea of what other creatures we might find inhabiting this place.

Once past the small entryway, the cave opens up dramatically.   A velvety green phosphorescence shimmers distantly from the walls around us, and a narrow skylight pierces the roof above an inky underground river.  Our path leads us along a wide sandy bank, but in the strange light, the substance beneath our feet appears less like sand and more like soot.  It’s an unsettling scene, and for a moment I seriously consider heading back outside and taking my chances on the cold stony beach.

But aside from the gloomy view, the first thing I notice is the noise of the water.  It’s a constant cascade of murmur, bubble, and splash, amplified by the rocky walls and startling in its volume.   Surprised by the intensity of the sound, I turn to say something to Jenassa, only to find that my hasty speech is echoing throughout the cavern.  So much for being stealthy.  I immediately stop talking and make a mental note to proceed silently in here, since the ongoing reverberation of even the slightest sound makes normal conversation next to impossible.

There’s a distinctly Stygian vibe down here. Let’s hope that’s not a bad omen.

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Chapter 93: Clearing The Coast

After some time by the campfire and a bite to eat, Jenassa and I are ready to resume our seaside journey.  Fortunately the wind has calmed down considerably, and the sun has risen high in the sky, shining down with a warmth that allows us to douse the fire without feeling the earlier chill in the air.  Packing our bags with anything we can find that’s worth taking, we mount up and continue on our way.

The wild north sea batters itself ceaselessly against multiple small rocky islands and craggy outcroppings that stand just offshore.   The weathered refuse of driftwood is scattered all along the beach, like old bones left behind after the meal of an ancient and voracious predator.  Tufts of ragged grass sprout up from the bare rocks, clinging to whatever sheltered nook they can find, and the warmth of the sun belies the icy blue of the glaciers, silently drifting away on their inexorable odyssey.

Just a nice sunny day at the beach.

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Chapter 92: Beach Bums

Outside, I’m still in the middle of devouring my breakfast — and enjoying it quite a lot — when the door to the cabin opens.  Glancing around, I watch as Jenassa steps out to join me on the weather-beaten porch, wincing as the frigid wind hits her in the face.  Fortunately, it’s not quite as cold as it was yesterday evening, but I’m also not about to plan a beach vacation out here anytime soon.

Shutting the door behind her, my wife puts a hand on the porch railing and looks me in the eye.  It’s clear from the expression on her face that she has something to say, so I decide not to speak in case I interrupt her train of thought.

And also because my mouth happens to be really, really full.

“You didn’t have to leave the room when you started eating breakfast, my love,” Jenassa says.  “I know you were just trying to be polite, but you need to trust me when I say that I accept you as a werewolf.  And that means you mustn’t retreat like this whenever you think your behaviour might bother me.  It’s important that we adapt to anything that happens during the course of our lives, regardless of what those changes might be.  And above all, we must never find ourselves keeping secrets from each other.”

During this short speech, I’ve been nodding my head between sentences, trying to chew and swallow as inconspicuously as possible.  But when she finishes speaking, I have a moment of panic.  There’s no way I can reply just yet, so I settle for  making an intelligent-sounding non-verbal response to show her that I understand.  I furrow my brow to show her how seriously I’m taking all this, but the only sound I can manage is an unintelligible grunt, which, if it were spelled out, might resemble something like, “Mrrwlfm.”

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Chapter 91: Reality Check

Perhaps it’s due to the unforeseen aftereffects of utter exhaustion, or of nearly freezing to death, or just simple stress  — but that night, my dreams are intensely disturbing.  Although I haven’t thought about him in a very long time, I find myself dreaming about Roddy, my former business partner — the one who deceived me, stole ownership of my pub from me, and destroyed the life I had built for myself back in High Rock.

In the strange way of dreams, he’s no longer simply my friend and partner, but also my lover –the singular focus of all my attention and desire.  We live in the same house (which, oddly, looks like a combination of the Drunken Horker and Breezehome ) and sleep in the same bed, where we also make energetic and passionate love that leaves me begging for more.  In real life, I had never been remotely attracted to Roddy, nor had I ever wanted to see him without so much as his shirt on — but in my dreams he is utterly delicious, powerfully muscled and ardently virile, seemingly inexhaustible as he brings me to the brink of orgasm over and over.

Then my dream abruptly shifts.  Suddenly I’m no longer in bed with Roddy, but instead I’m walking into the bedroom after closing the pub — only to find him just as ardently demonstrating his virility with another woman.  Pinned beneath Roddy’s heaving body, with perspiration gleaming like pearls of light on her dusky skin, her face is obscured by shadow — but something in the movement of her graceful limbs and her moaning, delirious fervor seems achingly familiar.  In my dreams, I’m instantly filled with rage — and in my shock and anger, I spontaneously transform into a werewolf, intending to murder them both.

But then Roddy suddenly swings around at the last moment, just as I’m about to sink my claws into his sweat-soaked back.  In his hand, he clutches an ornate silver dagger — and pealing with raucous laughter, he plunges the weapon deep into my heart just as the other woman screams in exquisite climax.

And then — only then — do I recognize her.  It’s Jenassa.

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