Chasing Death: Chapter 7, The Catacombs

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    All four of them were staring down the hole in the wall, down the stairs drowning in darkness. Decimus could swear the darkness was calling to him, inviting him to plunge into its cold embrace and let it swallow him whole between its welcoming thighs.


    He suddenly shook his head, cursing himself for such stupid thoughts. Since when is darkness welcoming, you idiot? He looked at his companions and smirked. "So...who wants to go first?”


    "Don’t look at me,’ Belrand shook his head and Decimus frowned.


    "Why not? I went first into Wolfskull Cave. Now it’s your turn, don’t you think?”


    "No way,” the Nord grimaced. "Just because you went somewhere first before doesn’t mean I have to go first now. That’s not how it works.”


    Decimus snorted at that and saw both Äelberon and Rikke roll their eyes. "That’s precisely how it works. And who’s going to carry a torch? It’s fucking dark in there.”


    Rikke growled and pushed herself between them, towards the stairs. "You’re worse than children,” she gritted her teeth. "I’ll go first.”


    "So you’re going to carry a torch then?” Decimus tried and she threw him a ridiculous look, raising her heavy Imperial shield.


    "Do I look like I have a spare hand?” She snapped and Decimus did actually feel like scratching his balls.


    Decimus grinned. "Well, I need both my hands but third would really help.”


    She groaned, closely followed by the priest of Auri-El, who shook his head. "This is why I work alone.” He muttered, his face even more pale than normal.


    When he emerged in the morning from his room at Proudspire, the top-knot was present in all of its severity and his face was painted white in a pattern that Decimus could only guess belonged to his order. It made the red-orange eyes stand out all the more and the Mer’s mood was grim for the most part. Determined.


    "Now now,” Decimus snorted, trying to break through the Mer’s solemnity. "You’d miss all the fun without us.” He then put on a more serious expression, looking at Belrand. "Alright, I’ll carry the torch then. And you will be following with your stupid magey thingy light, Belrand," Decimus finished. "We don't know how wide it is down there, and if we get into trouble it's better we have some room to swing. The Albino will be the rear guard, alright?" he looked at Äelberon who frowned and grunted. “Alright, alright, Äelberon will be rear guard, all better now?” Another grunt and the face didn’t change.

    "I'll take point," Rikke said resolutely with a commanding voice, used to barking orders in the field. Decimus and Äelberon frowned at each other and the mer's red-orange eyes went to Rikke's hip where was her gladius was. The Imperial narrowed his eyes and spat into dark. "What?!" she barked when she noticed their looks.


    "Sorry to say this, Legate," Decimus cleared his throat, "but have you fought undead before? Draugr, vampires and such?"


    The Legate gave him a hard stare, a scowl marring her features. "I've been in more battles than all of you combined. I have fought a monster worse than anything you have ever met. I've fought a war where men and women turn into beasts and die by hundreds.  I fought at Red Ring when I was just sixteen years old-"


    Decimus and Belrand snorted at the same time which stopped whatever she wanted to say and her eyes looked like they were going to throw lightning. The Mer looked away grumpily, like an old fart being pestered by a bunch of annoying children, his lips moving and Dec caught the words “Anguish”, “younglings”, and “having it easy” muttered through gritted teeth.


    "We all were at Red Ring, love," Decimus shook his head.  "But this is more about if you know how to fight undead. Do you have any silver weapon? Or fire magic?"


    She slightly pulled her gladius from its sheath and Decimus noticed the blade sparkling in the light of torches hanging on the walls. "Silver dust with oil," she said and raised her eyebrows in expectation.


    But Decimus didn't have anything else to say. He raised his hands and surrendered, exchanging looks with Äelberon, who only grunted an acknowledgement, still in his Codger best. "No other objections, ma'am," he shrugged. "Take a point then."


    That damn shield will at least stop anything coming at us. Good old Imperial shield wall, that's what Rikke is. Even though she's a Nord. It was only reasonable for her to come first, because her shield was a wall of wood and steel that would give the others behind it time to prepare or react to any situation.


    Decimus lit a torch, holding it in his right hand and pulled out his silver sword. Belrand summoned the globe of eerie light, hovering above their heads and they looked down the not so dark anymore stairs.


    What they saw wasn't that different from the room they were in now. It looked like a hall, maybe two or three steps wide, with old furniture and crates lying around, everything covered in dust and webs. This part of Castle Dour had been closed for quite some time – people even argued that it might have been closed since the time of Potema. Decimus wasn't much for reading but Äelberon had said that during the end of Potema's reign, all of Solitude was crawling with undead, smelling like a graveyard too, and that it was quite possible that there still might be some sealed in the catacombs. And Decimus was inclined to believe him on that point. The smell coming from the hole was awful.


    Rikke began descending the stairs with a grunt and Decimus followed close behind her. They were walking slowly, being careful where they placed their feet and the Goldpact Knight held the torch high above his head to light the way in front of the Legate. They reached the bottom of the stairs and then they continued down yet another set of those bloody stairs.


    They arrived in a slightly larger room, not so different from the others, covered in webs but Decimus noticed prints in the dust on the floor and also torn webs floating in the weak draft. He pointed at the ground with his sword and Äelberon grunted in acknowledgment. Are you going to grunt your way through this catacomb? Where’s the ready smirk?


    He wasn't sure how long they were walking, because it was quite difficult to measure time under ground, but he was pretty sure they were already walking for a while.


    "This is a damned maze," Belrand murmured behind him, almost as if he was reading his mind.


    "A maze would imply multiple paths and blind turns," Äelberon said from behind and Decimus rolled his eyes. Always correcting, but at least he’s not grunting anymore... "But this path is quite linear. It is only the fact that every room looks the same."


    "Still makes my skin crawl," the Nord spellsword growled. "Feels almost as if we were being guided."


    "Yeah," Decimus grunted and shook his head. It’s your turn to grunt now. There was something deep in the ground, he could feel it and he had no doubt others felt it too. They had to, because if it was only him it would be really weird. Probably going crazy, Dec, that's what's going on with you. Too many hits to the head. But he still couldn't shake the feeling that there was something down there, calling to him.


    Rikke looked over her shoulder for a second and then again peered into the darkness, but Decimus could see that something was nagging at her. She threw him another look and then sighed. "You said you all were at Red Ring. Where?"


    Belrand murmured something to himself and then cleared his throat. "I was with Jonna's army, mage support. Been raining down shit on the elves while they rained shit on us for those whole two days before we rejoined Decianus' army."


    “Hmph.” The Imperial Legate snorted, throwing a glance at Äelberon. “Bet you were getting rained on pretty thick by Jonna’s group, eh? That mage support was something else. We gave you black and golds something to remember us by.”


    The red-orange eyes blazed and his nostrils flared, making Decimus release a tiny groan in the back of his throat. And how would she know, old Blade? She sees an Old Mary and it makes sense.


    “Not all Altmer are Thalmor, youngling.” The priest growled, baring his teeth, the “youngling” dripping with acid.


    “Hey, easy, Albino, my apologies.  You were not at Red Ring then?.” The Legate replied.


    "Yes, I was. In the Imperial City," Äelberon murmured and Decimus threw him a surprised look, which made the mer look away.  He knew that Äelberon was involved somehow, just too damn angry after White Gold was signed, his time in Hammerfell, but he had no idea he was in the middle of the shit. Just damn.  "Market District mostly." The Mer added quickly.


    "Shit, that's where Emperor pushed through," Rikke said. "I heard it was rough there. House by house, street by street, all the while fighting.” She stopped herself and narrowed her eyes. “Wait, you killed your own?”


    His nostrils flared. “I am an Exile, Legate. Meldi in my language. I am nagra, dead to my people. Sundered for over one hundred years. And I could not bare the Thalmor doing to Cyrrod what was already done to my homeland.”


    “Where were you, Legate?” Belrand suddenly asked, before Rikke could open her mouth to ask Ronnie another question. It made Decimus blink because he was about to open his mouth to stop Ronnie. So you know the old Mer enough now to interrupt that darkness too?  


    “I was with Jonna’s army too, front lines.” She shook her head in disbelief. “Still don't know how I survived that."


    "Yeah," Belrand grunted. "Marching for two days and all the while fighting those bastards. I swear, we were wading through blood and corpses all the while. I remember Lake Rumare being all red from the battle on the shore."


    "And you Decimus?" Rikke looked at Decimus while she evaded a floating shred of web. "Or were you just playing tough guy?"


    Decimus snorted and then shook his head. He didn't like to remember that messed up thing. In that way, he understood the old Mer.  He sighed. "7th squad, 4th centuria, 6th cohort, 11th Legion." He couldn't help himself but to spit after saying that.


    "6th cohort?" Rikke murmured. "Weren't 6th and 5th sent into the City through the sewers?"


    "Sewers that were filled with oil by that Thalmor," Belrand added. "A trap.”


    The smell of fire and smoke then filled Decimus' nostrils, the smell of burning flesh and his ears were filled with the screams of men being set on fire. Over nine hundred men and women went into those sewers. Barely fifty made it out. He shook his head to clear it and the chatter died off, plunging them into silence again.


    And so they walked until they came to bars blocking their path and Rikke shook them, cursing when they didn’t budge.


    "Look for a lever or chain ring," Äelberon suggested and motioned Belrand to follow him into the previous room. Rikke and Decimus were looking around and the Imperial noticed a tablet in the wall depicting a woman with wolf's skin as a cowl. He frowned and looked closer. Isn't that supposed to be Mara or something? In the old Nordic pantheon, I think. He touched it, looking for hidden button or something.


    "You've arrived at last," a voice suddenly echoed and he jumped in fright, which prompted Rikke to look at him with raised eyebrows. The bars suddenly slid into the floor and the path ahead of them was clear. "The hero who prevented me from being bound returns to my fold. I have much to thank you for, little one. When you die, I will raise you and you can take your place by my side,"  the voice continued.


    Well..fuck you! Decimus replied in his mind and looked back. "Hey, the way is clear." Belrand and Äelberon appeared, the mer throwing him a questioning look. Decimus pointed at the tablet. "Touched the tablet and it opened."


    "Well, that's the first time you found something useful," Belrand snorted. Decimus just shrugged and noticed Äelberon's gaze, how the red-orange eyes seemed to burn through his skull.


    "What?" Decimus raised his eyebrows and the mer just shook his head, waving his hand as if it was nothing. The Imperial just shrugged again and they continued through the empty halls of Castle Dour's catacombs.


    They reached another set of stairs, but these led both up and down. Only those leading up were blocked by a collapsed ceiling, with water pouring between the rocks. They frowned at the water and Decimus looked at Äelberon. "We aren't so deep, right? We should still be in the cliff Solitude stands on. Where's all this water coming from?"


    The Altmer studied the water, narrowing his eyes in thought. "There are no rivers or streams indicated on any of the maps I have memorized. That being said, Solitude has wells, correct? The mountains are full of water, are they not? The snow. It pours into the crags, maybe to some type of underground cistern? And from that cistern, there could be a stream flowing through the cliff into the sea."


    There was a hiss behind them and from the darkness outside Belrand's ring of light shambled a draugr with a massive war axe. Before any of them could react, Äelberon raised his crossbow and the bolt stopped the draugr dead in its tracks, the end of it sticking out in the middle of draugr's forehead. It dropped on the ground and Äelberon already had started reloading. You don’t even check when you shoot, do you? Fucking Elvish precision. Damn, I wish I still had my crossbow, Decimus thought.


    "This settles it then," Belrand murmured, looking at Äelberon with raised eyebrows. "Undead are around."


    "And you had doubts?" Decimus chuckled and Rikke just snorted, heading down the stairs. The Imperial just shrugged.


    He followed Rikke, chasing away the darkness with the dancing light emanation from the torch, being careful not to trip on the stairs. Would be a really great death for you, Dec. Breaking your neck on some stupid stairs. Hey, wait, didn’t you say you were done with stairs? Back at Wolfskull? Lies, all lies. They quickly reached the bottom, entering a narrow hall and the light of torch revealed a larger room at the end of it.


    Rikke entered and Decimus then heard a hiss. There was a handrail to his right, with the stairwell at the opposite wall, leading down again. The Legate came closer to the handrail and Decimus leaned over, lighting the darkness down.


    Three pairs of blue cold lights turned in their direction and Decimus heard the humming of a string. He quickly ducked, the arrow hissing over his head. "Fuck!” he cursed. Rikke immediately headed for the stairs, taking a stand a step away from the top. Lightning suddenly sprayed the wall right next to her head and she took another step back.


    The first draugr appeared on the top and Decimus peered into the darkness downstairs, looking for whoever cast the lightning. But he could see nothing.


    Rikke blocked an attack from the draugr’s axe with her shield and her gladius immediately struck under the shield like a snake, cutting the draugr's thigh and it cursed in pain as the silver dust got under its skin. The edge of the shield then hit the draugr’s throat, crushing it, and the draugr stumbled back, tripping over its own heel.


    Over the sound of breaking bones as the draugr rolled down the stairs, taking another one along with it, Decimus could hear another lightning strike and Belrand raised a ward to block. It came from downstairs, but neither Decimus' torch or Belrand's mage light couldn't chase away all the shadows.


    Belrand released a bolt of fire, striking the draugr who was shooting at them with his bow and the undead caught on fire. The room suddenly lit on fire as the purple puddle under the draugr's feet caught on fire, engulfing all three undead. Wave of heat hit Decimus’ face and he winced.


    "Got you.” he heard Äelberon chuckle darkly - huh?- and the arms of his crossbow made a loud sound as they snapped, propelling the bolt forward. It hit something in the corner and for a second the bolt hovered in the air as if it was on its own until the air started bleeding. Then the air tattered and through the smoke and heat Decimus could see a figure stumbling, with a bolt in its eye, and the shape stumbled right into the fire. It waved its hands as the fire began lighting a black robe and Decimus just blinked.


    "Fuck!” he cursed. "I really wish I had my crossbow.”


    Belrand looked at Äelberon and then at the burning human shape downstairs. "What was that?”


    "Vampire,” the mer hissed, his face was like a hunter, and  Decimus could almost see the cogs in his head spinning.


    Vampire. An invisible vampire. Those were the same that attacked them at Stendarr's Beacon back in First Seed. The exact same fuckers. He was really glad the mer was with them now. Ha! Your illusion fuckery doesn't work on him, fuckers!


    "Vampires," Belrand repeated and shook his head. "Gods fucking damn it. This is getting better and better. You think they are Potema's thralls?"


    Decimus narrowed his eyes and looked at Äelberon, expecting an answer, but the Altmer didn't seem like he would answer anytime soon, quiet again. The Imperial scratched his beard, looking at the fire downstairs. "Remember Wolfskull? They tried to bind her, no? Those vampires. Maybe they are trying again?"


    Äelberon threw him a look and Decimus shivered. No, friend. I don't really believe that, not deep down. There's something foul going on here and suddenly everything feels like a lure. He was just hoping that Ronnie being here with them would be enough to get them out of that mess. It can't get any worse than this, am I right?

    "This is getting worse and worse," Decimus murmured, his eyes set on the archway in front of them.


    They progressed through the catacombs quickly, encountering stray draugr and vampires which were easily dealt with between the four of them, but as they were getting deeper and deeper, they noticed the architecture was slowly changing.


    First the structure of Imperial basement changed into a natural cave at places and then they reached the place they were standing at right now. An entrance into a Nordic tomb.


    "I hate Nordic tombs," Belrand shivered and shook his head.


    "It does explain the number of draugr we’ve encountered," Rikke observed while she scratched her arm. "Do you think they might have been here since Potema’s time?"


    "No," Äelberon murmured and then sighed, shaking his head in thought. "I am not entirely sure. I can propose several possibilities. Typically draugr are followers of the Dragon Cult which was present in Skyrim long before Potema was even born. The implications of this are not very cheerful. Either Potema has found a way to control them - Just as the necromancers in Wolfskull Cave did," he pointed at Decimus and Belrand. "Or she found a way to turn her servants into draugr. I would not put either past her."


    Decimus rubbed his forehead with his wrist, being careful not to cut his eyebrows with the silver sword in his hand. His head was pounding as if he had a little smith pounding with a hammer to his skull and Ronnie wasn’t helping. "I have no clue what you're mumbling about," he sighed.


    "There was a book-" Äelberon started and Decimus snorted.


    Of course there was a book…


    An eyebrow raised, "- whose author theorized that the reason why dragon priests insisted that their followers should be buried with them is that the draugr were transferring their life force to the dragon priest, keeping him alive – or in the state of undeath."


    "Wait, wait," Belrand raised his eyebrows in surprise. "They were buried with them alive?"


    Äelberon nodded. "At least that is the theory. And they were – or maybe still are – transferring their life force to the dragon priest, which somehow kept both the priest and them alive. Well, if you could call what they are really living. They are so focused on one thing.” The Mer tilted his head to the side. “It could be one of the biggest necromantic rituals Tamriel has ever seen. Or not seen.”


    "You're trying to say Potema could have done the same?" Decimus stated, shaking his head in disbelief.


    "She is obviously alive, somehow," the mer shrugged. "This could well explain it. Or maybe she stored her soul somewhere before she die-"


    "Alright, alright," Decimus stopped him with a raised hand and spat towards the entrance to the Nordic tomb. "Let's just move on with this. You'll figure out how to beat her, I have no doubt about that, but we don't understand a word you're saying."


    "Speak for yourself," Belrand snorted and chuckled.


    Äelberon nodded. "You are right, we should get this over with as soon as possible." He then winked at Decimus and pointed down the hall. "At least you will not have to carry the torch anymore." The Imperial noticed a faint light coming from the entrance of the Nordic ruin and frowned.


    "It wasn't there before," he murmured.


    A brazier behind them suddenly roared with flames and they all jumped away in fright, except the crazy Old Mary who looked merely interested, like he wanted to dissect the brazier. Dragonborn’s balls, your face looks just like Galar Rothan’s right now, you fuck. Moderately intrigued, fucking Old Marys.


    "Come, come, my hero. Don't stop now."


    Decimus shook his head and spat on the ground, noticing that Äelberon was now staring at him.


    "I have a bad feeling ab-" Belrand started and Decimus' head snapped in his direction.


    "Don't you fucking dare to say it!" he barked, shaking his head. "Fuck! Don't you know that someone always dies when that fucking sentence is said?"


    "She is inviting us," Äelberon said solemnly and after his words they all looked at the entrance in silence.


    Decimus circled his shoulders, trying to shake off the tension in them and spat once more. "Well then, let's not keep the bitch waiting." He headed down the stairs into the barrow, the others following him. He noticed a lever on a pedestal and before he could reach it the wall in front of him started spinning. For a moment he thought that it was just in his head but then he realized he was also hearing the screeching of a stone and metal.


    The wall stopped and an iron gate opened. Decimus shook his head and rubbed his eyes.


    "Are you alright?" Äelberon asked, the concern clear in his voice, but Decimus waved dismissively with his hand, nodding that he was fine. Don't worry about me, Ronnie. I'll be alright.


    They progressed through the barrow quickly, stopping only to wait for Rikke to oil her gladius with more silver dust. Decimus felt a cold sweat on his forehead and chills along his spine, even though the torches and braziers emanated enough warmth to warm his old bones. No, it was the atmosphere of the barrow.


    He never liked them, places of death. No sane living person would ever like them. They were meant for the dead, for the departed that left the shackles of the miserable and cruel world and went somewhere else, somewhere where it was much better than here. Well, depends on what heaven they believe in. It was the reminder of one's mortality that was getting to him.


    He wasn't scared of death though, death was sort of an old friend by now. He was always imagining death as a naked woman with pale skin, freckles on her face and ginger hair. He didn't know why he imagined her that way, but he just liked that idea. She has been always inviting him for a dance, a last dance and he would dance with her and she then would whisper in his ear: "Not yet.” But she was a patient bitch, she could wait. It just didn't change the fact that Decimus wasn't really afraid of death like some of those religious fools. "Am I worthy of Aetherius?" they would ask and Decimus would only shake his head. He didn't believe in gods, he didn't believe in the afterlife.


    When I die,  I'll be put into the ground and I'll rot while being eaten by worms and other nasty bugs. And I won't give a shit. Why? Because I'll be fucking dead. Gone. Just gone. One life is more than enough.


    "Then come and dance with me, my hero," a woman whispered in his ear and he shook his head.


    A draugr arrived from the corner and Rikke hit it with her shield while Decimus quickly lunged forward, the tip of his sword going through the undead's eye. The blue light faded and Decimus spat on the corpse.


    "Why in fuck's sake would anybody want to be sealed up like Falmer?" he muttered, kicking into the corpse, angry for some reason. "I can barely breathe in here," he scowled.


    "Well, they are not breathing, Dec," Äelberon raised an eyebrow in amusement.


    "Fuck you, Old Mary," the Imperial chuckled and shook his head. But it's a good point. Who needs air when you're dead, right?


    Äelberon laughed. "What would you like then, my friend? I know all the burial customs of our beloved Arena and I will gladly summarize them for you. Altmer burn their dead with holy light and put the ashes into marble coffins, though it is a great deal more complicated than that, but I will only summarize crudely. Dunmer burn them and tie their spirits to the ashes, then place them into family tombs. Orcs also burn their fallen. Nords place them into barrows. Redguards mummify their dead and place them into huge mausoleums. And what do your people do? Dig a hole in the ground and place a tombstone on top? Shall I go on with Bosmer and Khajiit? And let us not forget the Bretons--”


    “No.” The rest of them said in unison, making the old Mer smirk.


    “Very well, then. I shall stop the lecture on burial practices.” He conceded.


    “Good.” Decimus spat at that, grimacing. He noticed Belrand eyeing him with a smirk and he flashed him his raised middle finger. "Well, fuck Imperial tradition. You put me in a cairn ABOVE the fucking ground when I stop, you got that straight, Old Mary? Dayspring is pretty, lots of flowers, trees, and shit like that. Yeah, Dayspring..." His voice trailed off, as he imagined that waterfall that was always pushing tears into his eyes for some reason. He just loved that place. He certainly wouldn't mind if that was his resting place. Then he remembered the fucking noise. A grove nearby would be better so you can see the waterfall, old blade, but not actually hear it. Not that it matters, you won’t hear, you’d be dead, you dumbarse.


    "Pretty?" Äelberon chuckled and Belrand was trying to suppress his laughter. The Nord's fist bumped into Decimus' shoulder as if he was making fun out of them.


    "Yeah, pretty," he said with a serious face, raising his eyebrows. What's so funny about it, you morons? Ronnie wasn’t laughing though, he was listening, probably memorizing every damn word too. You are eating this sensitive shit, aren’t you? "Hey, just because I walk around like a badass-" he began and Belrand burst out laughing, attracting the attention of a sleeping draugr. The undead began crawling out of its coffin and Decimus growled. "-doesn't mean I don't fucking like flowers, trees, and shit!" The draugr opened its mouth to reply but Decimus wasn't interested in another idiot laughing at him, so he hit it with the pommel of his sword right between its eyes. It hissed in pain as the silver pommel came into contact with its skin.


    Decimus pointed at Äelberon with his finger and then shook with it, ignoring the draugr trying to get out of its coffin. "And I warn you, if you spill any of this shit to the Goldpact, I'm gonna run my sword through your fat arse." The draugr began clawing at Decimus with its nails and the Imperial frowned. "Shut up!" he growled and brought the sword down on the draugr's collarbone, cutting right through it, continuing through the ribs and spine which were snapping as dry twigs until the sword came out on the other side. Two halves of the draugr rolled back into the coffin, unmoving now. Decimus spat on the corpse and then grinned at his audience, who just stared at him with raised eyebrows, Ronnie still smiling that smile. "Gotta maintain appearances. People can't think this Old Blade's gone all soft." He stepped up to the Altmer and clenched his fingers into a fist, with only his pinky finger sticking out and he was pointing with it at Äelberon. "Pinky swear on it?"


    The mer frowned, though his eye twitched, and Decimus heard Belrand burst out laughing, which attracted another draugr. Rikke cut it down and growled. "Would you two get fucking on with this bullshit?"


    "Is it a serious thing this pinky-swearing?" Äelberon asked with that cocked eyebrow of his, like a fucking scholar, his face dead serious. Was he unsure if Decimus was pulling his leg, the Imperial couldn’t tell, the face was like a mask again, but the grinning certainly wasn’t helping to convince the Mer.


    "Aye, dead serious," Decimus replied with a solemn nod, doing his best to imitate the Mer’s face. That made Äelberon roll his eyes. Now the mer had to be sure the Goldpact Knight was shitting him. A new smile found the mer’s tired features and then something deep behind the eyes, something genuine. Their eyes locked, but Decimus broke the stare quickly. He spat for good measure and the Altmer shook his head, still with the smile on his face.


    "Oh well, now you have gone and spit. I have no choice in the matter," he extended his arm and stuck out his pinky too, touching the tip of Decimus' pinky.


    "Not like that, you fuck," the Imperial chuckled and hooked Äelberon's pinky securely with his and gave it a shake. "And no, no choice for you."


    "You are such morons," Belrand couldn't stop laughing and Rikke just snorted, walking down the hall with the Nord closely behind her. Decimus and Äelberon exchanged looks and chuckled, quickly following them.


    The Legate and the Nord disappeared behind the corner and and the hall suddenly rang with the clash of metal and growls. He increased his pace, running along the lit braziers, Äelberon right behind him, his crossbow ready, and when they arrived they saw Belrand and Rikke standing above four unmoving draugr. Belrand's sword was blazing with flames, the old dried blood hissing on the blade and Rikke's shield got a few new notches.


    "Didn't leave at least one for us?" he smirked, kicking into a draugr with its skull split in half. Then he spat on it for good measure.


    "Can't let you have all the fun, can we?" Belrand murmured and shrugged. Rikke just growled something and continued deeper into the barrow. "Well, she seems in a hurry," the Nord spellsword remarked.


    They reached a dead end and Decimus noticed three levers on a pedestal. Before he could touch them the wall in front of them began spinning as it did at the entrance to the barrow and in matter of seconds the way ahead was again clear. "This is just creepy," he murmured.


    "She is toying with us," Äelberon observed, narrowing his eyes. "She wants us to reach the final chamber."


    "Which is why you have to hold back, my friend," the Imperial looked him in the eye. "For the time being. Save your strength for the finale – unless we are about to die, then it would be really appreciated if you did something...'Shiny'"


    The mer frowned after hearing the nickname Greenskin had given him some time back. He seemed to think about the words and then he nodded. "That sounds reasonable. No shiny for now then."


    They went through the now opened passage in the wall, entering a large room with stairs leading down. RIght opposite to them, on the lower level, were three thrones with dead bodies sitting in them. When Decimus narrowed his eyes he realised those were more draugr, as of yet, unmoving. There was a chance they could be already dead – well, more dead than they already were – but since when was Decimus that lucky?


    They walked down the stairs and as they did, they found another three thrones next to the wall under the stairs. In the middle of the room was an iron grate in the ground and Decimus steered Rikke away from it. He already encountered few of those before and they were pretty much exclusively traps.


    "You've come far, mortals," a voice of a woman sounded through the room and Decimus blinked, not sure if it was in his head or not. He looked at his companions and recognized they heard it too. Suddenly a woman walked from behind one of the thrones and Decimus heard Äelberon release a low growl, his eyes honing in on what had previously been nothing. The nothing then materialized.


    It was a Nord woman pale skin and raven black hair hanging alongside her cheeks. Her eyes were orange glowing orbs of malice and they were set on Decimus and others. "No doubt you seek to enter Potema's Sanctum. I can see to that. We'll need plenty of fresh corpses to rebuild her army, you see," the Nord vampire sneered at them with her ugly ridged mouth, and Decimus shook his head.


    Decimus spat on the ground and then looked at Äelberon, a joke bursting from his brain. "Oh, fuck, now I remember your type. Black hair and pale. We should visit Proudspire again after this, get you a proper black-haired lass, eh? " With that his hand became a blur, throwing a dagger at the vampire.


    The dagger buried into her neck and she gasped, as much as the dagger allowed her. But she wasn't going down because that dagger wasn't silver, and Decimus didn't expect anything else. Thus, he was already on the move, using the vampire's surprise to his advantage, already running to her. She raised her hand to release some kind of magic and he crouched, bringing his silver blade up from the crouch, cutting the hand cleanly off. He immediately switched into another swing, this time bringing it down on her collarbone, cutting her across her ribs and the third swing cut off her head. "See? Not so pretty now."


    Then he realized that the draugr on the thrones had gotten up and he noticed another two on the upper level with raised bows. His companions were already engaged in combat, even Äelberon whose very frown seemed to be capable of cutting the draugr in half too.


    "You knew I did not want to and yet you forced it upon me!" the mer growled when he blocked two arrows with his ward and dismembered a draugr attacking him, the strike a bit more aggressive than it needed to be.


    Decimus parried a strike from the closest draugr and twisted his wrist which sent the draugr's sword into the corner of the room. Decimus stabbed it through its mouth and his right hand then pulled out his baskethilt sword. "What in blazes are you talking about?!"


    "Seriously? Now you two are going to argue?!" Belrand shouted, sending a ball of fire up the stairs, engulfing one of the archer’s head. The draugr hissed something in its language and began waving with its hands, trying to snuff out the fire.


    “Back at Proudspire,” Äelberon snapped as he redirected the vertical strike of a two-handed axe falling on his head. “You know I just do not do it and yet you still tried to force it on me,” he shouted so that Decimus could hear him over the ringing of metal meeting metal.


    Decimus had his hands full with a draugr swinging around with a long sword. To the Imperial's surprise, the draugr was actually fast, faster than he expected. Decimus blocked a strike at his neck with the baskethilt sword and then with raised eyebrows he took a step back when the draugr's sword slipped behind his block with nasty thrust. “The fuck?” he murmured. “I'm sorry, alright?” he shouted at Äelberon. He ducked under the draugr's swing, his baskethilt sword cutting off the undead's right leg and as the draugr was falling on the ground, the silver sword came down, stabbing through the skull and ending the draugr's unlife. “Is this about that thing with Ayrenn? I just thought even you could have some fun,” he shouted, looking at Äelberon who had just cut a draugr in half with his silver katana. “Dragonborn’s balls, I’m sorry, alright. You just take things so serio--”


    “I cannot!” the mer suddenly exploded, baring his teeth. “She fucking made sure of it!”


    Fuck, he’s mad. What the Oblivion are you talking about? She? Ayrenn? No, not Ayrenn. Who? How?  Oh boy. No. You can't be serious. Decimus just froze there where he was, looking into Äelberon’s pained eyes and he just knew. For the first time after all those years he had known Äelberon, he understood why. Decimus always knew that the Thalmor had tortured him but he never imagined… He didn't know who she was, but whoever she was she deserved an Oblivion of pain for what she did.


    The room suddenly became quiet, as the draugr stopped moving, their existence finally ended. Belrand and Rikke were watching the Altmer and the Goldpact Knight carefully, frowns on their faces. Decimus frowned back at them. He tilted his head to the side and pointed towards the door leading to the next room. They understood and gave him and Äelberon some space.


    Decimus dropped his swords and rubbed his eyes, suddenly feeling as if the world decided to bite him in the ass, this sick feeling in his stomach twisting and gripping. He realised he had to sit down, so he fell on his knees and then on his arse, among the corpses of the draugr. All the while Äelberon just stood there and breathed heavily, his katana still in his hand, covered in black blood. The expression on his face something that Decimus had never seen in him before. Like everything was now bare.


    “I had no idea,” Decimus murmured, shaking his head. How can anyone cope with such a thing? Fuck, how can anyone react to such a thing? It was that moment when one realizes that everything that was said, everything that had happened, could have a much different impact on the person who had just came out with the truth. All the bad jokes, all the mentions, all the innuendos… Decimus felt like a colossal idiot. Like an asshole, for all his stupid jokes and the thing in brothel. How would that make you feel if you were in his place? “I…,” he started only to realise his throat went dry and he coughed into his hand, trying to clear the throat. “I am really sorry, Ronnie,” the Imperial murmured, afraid of even looking the Altmer in the eye. “If I had known, I…” I can't continue. What in the Oblivion am I supposed to say?


    When he looked up he saw Äelberon still standing on the same spot, his face a collage of emotions Decimus couldn't hope to understand. “No one understands that,” the mer said almost as if he could read Decimus' mind. “You are like a brother to me, Dec, or maybe a son, who knows?” The brow lowered and he shook his head. “No, a son. Nevermind, I... “ He took a deep breath. “All I know is that when I had Landril and Mia, I kept them safe.”


    “Who are these people?” Decimus asked.


    The Mer blinked and looked away, biting the bottom of his lip and Decimus saw that it trembled a little. “Not children of my blood, but when their father died defending the Tower, I raised them, loved them like they were mine. And I kept them safe, from darkness, as any father worth a damn would. Like I try to keep you safe because I love you too, Dec. And sometimes, because I love you, I have said nothing. I let things go.” Ronnie raised children? The fuck? It was as if suddenly Ronnie had suddenly opened the book to his life and let Decimus have a peek. A glimpse into the two hundred years that was the mystery of his friend. His facial expression then changed, going from tenderness to bitterness. “They all think it is about the tenets of my order, you know.  ‘Those ridiculous tenets of an order long gone’, I hear them say when my back is turned. I can see it in their faces, Dec. In their words, how they think how anyone can be so foolish to follow such strict rules. And I was indeed that foolish mer in the beginning, when I was young and so ugly to my people and then again early in my Exile when there was nothing to my life but the ceaseless running. And then I was not young and I was no longer ugly and I was not running so bloody much. I still dreamed that one day I maybe would. I wanted to and then she took…” He took a breath and swallowed hard, his eyes reliving whatever what done to him. “But is it not better to believe that someone decided to follow that path voluntarily, than to know the truth and seeing them pity what was once was possible but is not anymore?” his voice trailed off and Decimus only blinked.


    It didn't matter they were inside catacombs crawling with undead. It didn't matter that there was Potema lurking somewhere deep there. It didn't matter they were among half a dozen of decaying corpses. Only Äelberon's words at that moment mattered.


    “It is not better to fault the tenets, my friend?” the mer continued. “Is it not better to do that instead of thinking about all the things you have said and done, now realising they actually might have hurt me?”


    Decimus narrowed his eyes and looked Äelberon in the eye. “No, it's not,” he murmured and clawed back on his feet. He stepped to the mer, grasping the old Mer’s shoulder. “I… don't know what to say, Ronnie. You think of me that way?”


    “Yes. Just as I think of Aela that way. You two, the most difficult, the most headstrong, my favorites, I hate admitting it. So much of me when I was young.” The Imperial blinked again. Yes, friends, but damn, he thinks of you as kin? And he understood, understood now the long sessions by the campfire, the mer patiently teaching him how to read.  “You are quiet.” The Elf said softly.


    “It's just… I'm glad you told me. And I am sorry, for what I did in the brothel. It's a poor consolation, I know that. Fuck! I just…” It was Decimus’ turn to swallow and take a deep breath. “It's still you, that's what I'm trying to say. I still view you the same-”


    “Don’t you dare pity me.” The mer rumbled a warning.  


    “Like...shit. I don't know! No,” he growled back, shaking his head. “Just tell me. Why, Ronnie? Why did they do that to you? Fuck, they’re your own people.”


    “My purity was a choice that I had made, me taking control of my life, partly out of defiance, out of protest against the hardness of my people, but it was my choice. When I was taken prisoner some time before the sack of the Imperial City, it was either that or she would have raped me, taking away that choice in a most cruel and shameful way,” the mer said and Decimus felt his jaws clench.


    That's fucked up! he wanted to scream but bit his lip instead. There was a story behind those words, a story spanning centuries. And Decimus wanted to know more, to hear all about the person that was capable of such an evil thing, so that he could kill her himself, tear her limb by limb. But it was also Äelberon's story and he would tell it only if he felt like telling it. And Decimus wasn't about to press him.


    Äelberon then flashed a sad smile, closing his eyes for a second and then he opened them, two blazing orbs, looking straight into Decimus' eyes. “But it was meant to be.”


    “How can you say that?” the Imperial blurted out.


    “It was what allowed me to save the Companions, Dec,” the mer whispered and Decimus frowned. Wait, what? “She would haved died at the irony. She, of all people, helping the line of Ysgramor to beat the terrible Curse that was upon them. But what she did to me kept me pure. It allowed me to save them. I had to suffer so that others didn't have to anymore. Auri-El-”


    “Auriel can go fuck himself!” Decimus growled and tore his hand away from the Elf’s shoulder. “He made you go through all that so that you could save Companions, that's what you're saying? He made you suffer…” He shook his head and bared his teeth, feeling his face go blotchy. “THIS is your god, Ronnie? He doesn't deserve you. You're not his pawn!” The Imperial looked at the ceiling and shouted: “You hear me, you ugly golden ass fucker?! He's not your pawn! You don’t DESERVE him!”


    And all of a sudden Äelberon chuckled which caught Decimus completely off guard. “Does that mean he is a fucker with a golden arse or that he fucks only golden arses?”


    The Imperial just stared at him, corners of his mouth twitching. “This is serious, Ronnie,” he frowned. “It’s unfair.”


    “I know,” the mer sighed, shaking his head and then he flashed a wry smile. “And please, son, you and I both know life is certainly not fair. But now you know the truth. So no more brothels, eh? At least for me.”

    “Yes,” Decimus nodded sadly. “I do and it's fucking eating me alive. We'll have to talk about this later, in quiet, without dead queens and vampires looming around.”


    “Aye, we will do precisely that.” He said with that quiet smile of his in an attempt to reassure him, though Decimus wondered if the book of Ronnie’s life was closing up again when he said his next words “But we now have work to do.”

    “I have a bad feeling-” Belrand began and then he fell a hand slap him over the back of his head and he growled, looking at Decimus. “What the fuck is wrong with you?”


    “I told you not to say it,” the Imperial grimaced, his eyes still set at room in front of them.


    Belrand's gaze shifted there too and he also frowned. It was a circular room, maybe three steps wide, lit by candles in the walls, the exit on the other side blocked by iron gate. There was a puddle of water, maybe ankle-deep, but what was making Belrand's spine shiver were the corpses on the ground. A one big pile of corpses in the middle of the room and still others lying close to the walls. “This is just one big trap, that's all I'm saying,” Belrand murmured.


    “Yeah,” Decimus snorted. “And a gross one. Wading through rotting corpses wasn't my plan today.”


    Belrand shook his head. The Imperial apparently wasn't losing his idiotic sense of humor. Not even after that talk he had with the mer back there. Belrand and Rikke had went into the next room, to give them some space, but they still had heard the muffled voices, arguing and even Decimus shouting in anger. Whatever happened in there had clearly shaken the Imperial, but at the same time it made his stride lighter, as if he had shaken off some invisible weight that was sitting on his shoulders. The Altmer, on the other hand, emerged from the room like an unreadable statue, as if the discussion had never taken place. No more talks, no more theories. He was just quiet, bringing up the rear. It was strange.


    “Do you see any lever?” Rikke wondered, poking her head into the room and Belrand narrowed his eyes, scanning the walls. Only thing he could see was a tablet in the right side of the room depicting Mara and he pointed at that.


    “The tablet. It worked the last time, right, Dec?”


    The Imperial mumbled something under his breath and his eye twitched. “Yeah,” he sighed. “Looking forward to it,” he added with a dry voice. “So who wants to go first?”


    Belrand's palm hit his forehead as he groaned. “Not this fucking bullshit again. I'll go first, alright? Better that than to listen to your babbling.”


    The Imperial grinned and shrugged. “Whatever you say, Belrand.”


    The Nord spellsword shook his head and rubbed his forehead with his forearm. He raised his long sword and walked into the room. He was trying to stay near the wall where there weren't so many corpses and yet his feet kept slipping on the limbs. The creaking of bones and the sound of ages old dry skin being torn sounded as he walked towards the tablet. The others followed him, Rikke going to the left side of the pile while Decimus followed Belrand to the tablet. The Altmer was behind, his silence still bothering Belrand.


    “Motherfucker!” Decimus cursed out loud as he slipped on a forearm. The room rattled as he hit the wall, his steel armor ringing against the stone, and his swords too as he was trying to find a grip to regain balance. “This is just fucking gross,” he spat and began shambling towards the tablet.


    Belrand looked at the corpses and realized they all resembled the old and dried draugr, only with no armor. Here and there were a few fresher corpses, their rotting skin a sickly green and their bones protruding out. Apparently, the new corpses weren't preserved like draugr.


    “Alright, here goes nothing,” Decimus muttered, touching the tablet. Belrand saw how the Imperial frowned and his eyebrows twitched, almost as if he wasn't really controlling them. Then the gate behind them closed, shutting off the way they came in.


    “Decimus?” Rikke growled and the Imperial threw up his hands.


    “What? I said it was going to be a fucking trap!”


    A purple light then swirled through the room and Belrand shivered as it nearly touched him. Also because the light reminded him of  Wolfskull Cave. The river of purple light then headed straight towards the pile of corpses, flew into them and disappeared.


    “Oh shit,” Belrand heard himself mumble.


    There was a silence and then they heard the groans and creaking of the bones. The pile of corpses suddenly began moving, as if something was buried underneath it, but that was just an illusion of the eyes. It was the corpses what were moving. A missing half of a face turned in Belrand's direction and he felt a shiver down his spine as its gaze focused on him - a gaze of two orbs glowing with a dark purple light.


    “Now would be good fucking time for Auriel!” Decimus shouted, and Belrand looked in his way, seeing the corpses around the Goldpact Knight move, crawl on the ground over themselves, their hands clawing at the Imperial's ankles. He hacked those away with his silver sword.


    But Äelberon apparently didn't need to be reminded. He was already mumbling something even as the hands were beginning to grasp at his ankles and calves. Unafraid, barely even moving. The mer began glowing with an aura of warm bright light and the corpses started to hiss as they touched him, burning.


    Belrand felt a stinging pain on his left calf and realized he forgot that he was actually in the room with them. And with the corpses. One draugr had already managed to grasp his leg and it squeezed, burying its nails into his unprotected calf. Belrand hissed in pain and called forth the magicka, shaping it into a burning stream of flames and his sword caught on fire. He separated the hand from the forearm in one swing and in the other, he separated the head from the body.


    “Äelberon! Help Rikke!” Decimus shouted, swinging his sword around his legs, cutting off every limb coming close. Stabbing through skulls and hacking away the heads. He was wielding only his silver sword and Belrand couldn't help but wonder why he had only one sword.


    Because the steel one doesn't stop the limbs from moving after being cut off, he realized.


    A bright flash of light blinded Belrand for a second as Äelberon began wading towards Rikke, who was the most vulnerable of them all, with her silver dust. The oil would eventually wear off and there was no chance she could reapply it again in time. A ring of light then appeared around Äelberon and the undead within the ring caught on fire, bright gold-blue flames of Aetherius dancing over their dried skin and they roared in pain. But as they burned, the purple light in their eyes became much more prominent, burning with an intensity and resolve of falling darkness. Belrand could feel the streams of magicka, light versus dark, fighting against each other and whatever was animating the undead was strong enough to face the very light of Aetherius. The undead were burning, but they weren't backing down and neither was Äelberon, it seemed, the light around him intensifying. Shor’s Bones! The Mer has magicka in him, Belrand gasped.


    Belrand's left hand released a stream of fire right at the pile and the flames caught on, smoke rising from the corpses. Too much smoke.


    “Want to suffocate us, idiot?!” Decimus yelled between coughs and Belrand narrowed his eyes when the smoke stung. He blinked, his eyes watering and all the while he was hacking around his legs. A few draugr even managed to stand up, trying to shamble towards the living prey, but they tripped over the sea of crawling corpses under their feet. And so they crawled over each other, hissing and groaning, trying to reach the living flesh.


    More hands were clawing on his legs, more than he could cut off and he was nearly tempted to burn them all to Oblivion. But he could burn everyone, even his companions. And so he hacked. Something grabbed his ankle and pulled, sweeping him off his feet and he landed hard on his arse. He began kicking at the hands, feebly swinging his sword while using his other hand to push himself closer to the iron gate. But the hands held him fast, even pulled off a boot from his foot. They held him by his belt now and he released a war cry, hacking at them.


    He heard Rikke scream in pain, he heard Decimus curse and spit and a thought flashed through his mind. Is this it?


    “May I be the light in dark places, my Lord...” a calm whisper sounded through the room, yet it echoed and thundered like distant lighting, and then all the light suddenly went out, as if it was being compressed to a single area. Or a person. Äelberon emanated a light that swirled about him like smoke and poured from him like water, engulfing him like flames. Belrand saw a pair of mighty wings of light spreading behind the Mer’s back as the darkness was taking over and then...the wings beat.


    The light washed over Belrand, blinding him even through closed eyelids. He had never felt such pure energy from magicka, it crackled through his body, made his heart beat faster and yet it was soothing and warm. It was nothing like he had ever experienced. He realized he couldn't catch his breath and when he finally could he felt ash on his tongue.


    He opened his eyes and saw ash floating in the air, falling down like leaves in autumn, spinning in the air. His companions were barely standing on their feet, the Altmer completely drained of his color, but the room was empty, no more draugr, no more corpses. Nothing. All...turned to ash?


    “Fuck me!” Belrand heard the Goldpact Knight curse and he heard a loud spit. The Imperial's ugly face covered with ash hovered above Belrand and when the Nord frowned Decimus just grinned. “You dead?”


    “Yeah,” the spellsword groaned and accepted an offered hand to help him stand up. He had to lean against the wall and he blinked several times before the room stopped spinning. He then realized that he was bleeding, his pants completely soaked with blood, while also being torn to pieces. The scratches were as high as his belly, also his forearms were bleeding, all from thousands of small scratches.


    Belrand then jumped in fright when the gate behind him opened - Potema inviting them to continue to their deaths no doubt. Äelberon was already kneeling beside Rikke, his brigandine also covered with ash, wisps of his hair escaping from his hood. Belrand recalled that she had screamed out in pain before.


    Using his hand to lean against the wall, he slowly walked towards them and as soon as he saw Rikke, he clenched his jaws. Her right leg was in very unnatural angle, broken in the middle of her calf. Most likely both bones broken.


    “Ah, shit!” Decimus spat. Belrand felt a hand on his shoulder and looked at the Imperial with a frown. “Can you heal that?” Decimus asked and Belrand's eyebrows shot up in surprise.


    “That?” he shook his head. “I can do cuts and bruises, not very well, but this is way above me.”


    “I can do it,” Äelberon murmured.


    “But you won't,” Decimus said resolutely which made the Altmer’s head snap in the Imperial's direction. “Äelberon, I need you to save your magicks for later. Shit, just how much have you used now? We would've died if not for you, sure, and I'm grateful ‘cause I like my fine arse, but I'm not afraid to say out loud that without you, we can't kick Potema's arse back to Oblivion.”


    The mer tore off his hood in frustration and threw it across the room, the white of his hair jarring against the grey ash everywhere. He rubbed the top-knot as if it was sore, bothering him, and then he faced Decimus, narrowing his eyes. “Rikke will lose the leg if we do nothing, Decimus.” He explained, pointing to the legate. “I can do this.”


    Belrand blinked when Decimus fist hit the wall and growl escaped through the Imperial's gritted teeth. “I fucking know that! Fuck! It's a terrible thing, I know, but what if there isn’t anything left in you to fight Potema? I hate this shit just as much as you do, trust me. But what else can we do?”


    The Nord sat on the ground after those words, looking at the Legate’s leg with a grimace and sighed. It was a tough call, and he wouldn't wish it on anyone. He even wouldn't wish anyone to lose a leg, but Potema had to be stopped. What else they could do? Crawl back to the surface and come back with a whole Legion? They would only provide Potema with more undead soldiers for her army. “We can't leave her here in any case,” he heard himself murmur. “I'll carry her back, maybe Legion's healers could do something. Maybe Styrr could do something.”


    “We have to do something now!” the mer growled, looking at Rikke who wasn't moving, her eyes closed, her breaths shallow. She had to have passed out and Belrand was only glad for that. “Let me, Decimus, please?”


    “No.” The Imperial shook his head.


    “Dammit, she is dying!” The mer yelled, his voice desperate, not caring if hair stuck to his mouth. They all looked like shit.


    “I know.”


    The mer said nothing, only looked at Decimus. Belrand frowned and bit his lip, not sure if he should speak or not. But just looking at Rikke made his heart bleed. They were responsible for this, he and Decimus, for all of this. And the Legate was losing her leg because of them...he wasn't sure if he could let it rest on his conscience. “Maybe we can,” he murmured and both Decimus and Äelberon looked at him. “I only heard about it, so I'm not sure if it's possible but...alright. I heard that one healer could provide the power, the magicka, while the other shapes it and directs it.”


    The Altmer frowned and then his eyes went wide. “Yes. Yes! I have seen it, why I didn't think about it?” He gestured to Belrand. “Come, quickly, lad, sorry, Belrand. We have to set the bones.” Belrand crawled to him when Äelberon gently laid his hands on the leg and looked at Belrand. “You will be very weak after this,” the Mer explained, his voice losing all the desperation of before, becoming soothing, a healer’s voice, “but we can do it. Just focus the magicka into the wound now, slowly, and only a little for now. We have to numb the nerves first.”


    The Nord rested his hand above the leg and closed his eyes. He began drawing the magicka through his soul, distilling it through his mind and body, feeling its warmth and slowly poured it outside. He then felt an invisible hand grab his, confident and sure, guiding him, soothing the nerves. The hand always gently touched them, massaged the warm light into them.


    The mer then grabbed the leg and set it straight with a hard motion. Healing didn’t mean shit if you didn’t know what part went where. Rikke woke up and screamed in pain, her eyes wide and she punched Belrand over his jaw before passing out again. He rubbed it and shook his head. “Damn it! The woman knows how to punch.”


    “Yeah, good wife material,” Decimus murmured  from behind him and Belrand rolled his eyes, letting out a whistle.  

    They dragged Rikke out of the room, out of the ankle-deep, ashen water into the next one, where Belrand and Äelberon could continue to work their magic and Decimus sat close by them them, watching the shadows thrown by the torches dance on the walls. He rolled a coin between his fingers, clenching his jaws. He sighed and looked at the old coin in his hand. It was a Septim, but old, imprinted back in Third Era.


    Everyone has their gods. Äelberon has his Auriel, one shitty piece of a bastard, using him as a pawn. And what does he get for all that suffering? The magic? He snorted and shook his head. If Gru was here he would no doubt argue that such things don't come from the gods. And maybe he would be right, but maybe not. Did it matter? Maybe. And then there was the whole Dovahkiin business. Another way he was a pawn.


    Maybe the gods were out there somewhere. Maybe not. But the coin in Decimus' hand, what it represented, that was his god. He didn't understand it at the beginning and Pelaex never explained it to him, what it exactly meant for a Goldpact Knight. They were all men and women who cast away their gods - or in most cases, they were cast away by the gods. And probably none of them really understood it either, just as Decimus, what it meant to be a Goldpact Knight.


    The coin reflected the light of the flames and Decimus smiled. It wasn't like there was this sentient god of money they worshipped or something. Nothing like that. But their god still had many forms. It could have big tits, small tits, a fine arse or a cock if one swung that way. But it wasn't just about that.


    It was the money. The gold. That was their god. But how would that be possible? Well, money and gods weren't so different in the end.


    One had to work for it, sacrifice for it. Earn it. It didn't speak back of course, just like many gods, but it did more than them. Gold, money… It feeds you when you're hungry, it sates your thirst, it warms your bed in night. Well, all that, unless you're stuck in a desert, right? This god, this one fucking shiny god is tied to civilisation. As long as there is civilisation, a demand and currency, this god provides what you need, as long as you work for it. It brings comfort, it can buy happiness, and don't listen to anyone who says otherwise. He suddenly chuckled and rested his head against the wall. It just all depends on your standards. I'm happy as long as my god provides one pretty arse with a pair of squeezable tits, yeah.


    It was when he heard a heavy thud and a loud sigh that he realized he had been lost in his own thoughts. Äelberon sat down next to him, also leaning against the wall and Decimus could hear how he breathed loudly through his nose. He turned to face his friend and was surprised to see that much white, his hair all over, the braids were beginning to come undone. “Took it out of the brigandine, eh?”


    “Fucking thing is pinching like Oblivion today.” The Mer replied, rubbing the top-knot before wiping the sweat from his brow with a huff. “And I was getting hot.”  


    “Only you would get hot in a Nordic tomb.” Decimus quipped.


    The Mer chuckled. “The hair will be a frizz trap with all this humidity. Ah, the priestly life…” The Elf then rolled his shoulders to ease their tension.


    “You could take off your cloak--” Decimus started.


    “I like my cloak!” The Mer responded, checking the fastening on that old black bearskin to make sure it was secure. “It’s been everywhere with me. Maybe my fourth - no wait - fifth kid. Snowberry, Allie, little Aela, wee Dec, and cloak…”


    “Wee Dec?” Decimus grinned. “You’re crazy.”


    “I know.”


    “Is she going to be alright?” the Imperial asked, gesturing with his head towards Rikke.


    “Yes,” the Mer nodded. “She will not lose the leg and with a healer's care she will walk again soon.” There was a sigh at the end and Decimus knew very well what it meant.


    The Imperial made a little noise of frustration in the back of his throat as he rolled the coin between his fingers. “I know, I know, alright?” the Goldpact Knight muttered. “You could have healed her and she would have been completely fine. I know that very well. But this is a battle.” Decimus pointed down the hall, towards the enemy they haven't seen yet. “She's toying with us. We have limited resources, we're in enemy territory, and she's throwing at us whatever she wants.”


    “It would have been the right thing to do, Decimus,” the Elf said quietly, his eyes blazing in the dim light with an intensity that made the Imperial look away.


    His hand touched his bald head, rubbing the skin as he felt this dull, distant pain in his skull. He hissed in pain when his fingers found a scratch. Didn't even notice that in the fight… “But not the smartest thing.” Decimus felt his nostrils flare and shook his head. “Not from a tactical standpoint.”


    “And what would you have me do?” Äelberon hissed. “Do nothing? Watch her as she loses her leg? That is something the honor and grace of being a Knight-Paladin of Auri-El does not allow of me.”


    Decimus hit the ground with his fist and pointed at Rikke, lying few steps away from them, still unconscious. “We found another way, didn't we? She's going to be alright. This is just what I told you back then. Think before you immediately surrender to your fucking god's tenets.” The Imperial released a sigh, closing his eyes. He rubbed them and then looked again at Äelberon. “I'm sorry. That should have come out of my arse, not my mouth. Listen, you talk about honor. There is honor and honor, alright? There is that honor that shapes you as a person, that keeps you in check, that prevents you from doing something really stupid. Never kill a man in cold blood, don't harm women - unless they come at you with an axe of course - don't harm children, don't steal, keep to your word. This kind of bullshit. But the problem is that this honor bleeds into places where it shouldn't be, creating that other honor.”


    “Women bring axes often?” the Mer raised his eyebrows and Decimus snorted.


    “You have no idea. Just let me finish, damn it. The other honor - let's call it stupid honor - is where it starts to bleed into combat. Like when your opponent falls on the ground you let him get up, or you never strike a man from behind. This horseshit, yeah? Well, that's what it is. Complete and utter horseshit. If you fall down they will cut you down without hesitation. When the fight begins there is no place for fucking honor, get it? You throw snow, sand and dirt into their eyes, shoot arrows in their knees, kick them in the crotch, bite their ears off and gouge their eyes out. At the end of the day, Old Mer, there are only two things that matter in a fight. That you are still standing and the other fucker is lying face down. How you got there doesn’t fucking matter.”


    Äelberon narrowed his eyes, repeatedly clenching his jaws as he mulled over the words Decimus said and the Imperial was just expecting what the Mer would say. “But back there, with Rikke, that was not a fight, Decimus. That was the first example, that was the true honor. Honor is about doing the right thing, about not disappointing yourself. I have heard it many times, believe me. ‘Honor is what makes you sleep at night,’ they say. But technically, it is not exactly the honor, correct? It is about those things you have not done, even though you believed they were smart decisions. And it is honor that prevents you from doing those things, making those decisions that would wake you up at night, covered in sweat. Maybe you are right, maybe you are wrong. But that back there was not a fight.”


    “Wasn't it?” Decimus smiled sadly and rubbed his eyes. He extended his hand in gesture of apology and smiled. “Sorry, shouldn't have brought this up.” Not when you are not ready to understand, my friend. That sometimes you have to throw away your peaceful sleep to get the job done. Ah shit, good that you didn’t say that out loud. It would only give him an excuse for killing Stentor… The Imperial got on his feet and checked Belrand and Rikke with a stare. “We should finish this,” he murmured towards Äelberon while not letting his eyes off Belrand. “You two are going to be alright?”


    The Nord nodded. He was pale and Decimus could see his upper lip shine with sweat, just as his forehead. “The healing took its toll, but I'll be good. Any other day it would a pleasure to watch a true master healer work,” he smiled towards Äelberon. “But, maybe another time, Brother Äelberon. Don’t fret, I'll get Rikke out of here, just let me gather some strength. She’s a tall one.”


    “You did well, friend Belrand. A fine mage you are.” The Mer replied.


    Decimus offered his hand to Äelberon who took it without hesitation and Decimus groaned as he lifted the mer back up on his feet. “Damn, you're fat. Less honey nut treats for you, fat arse.”


    “Right after we look at your prostate probl-”


    “Nananananananana,” Decimus covered his ears which made the Altmer roll his eyes. When he was sure Äelberon wasn't about to continue about whatever that prostate was, he put the hands down and circled with his shoulders, cracking his neck. “You ready?”


    “Always,” the Mer nodded.


    And so they stepped into darkness.

    They took care of a few individual draugr and vampires on their way and now they were standing in front of a door that lead into what they assumed was the final room. At least Decimus thought so, because he had this feeling that they were nearing the end. He didn't know how, but he just felt it, coiling around his spine like a nest of snakes. He circled with his shoulders nervously and opened the door, stepping inside.


    It was an oval room - room? Not a room. More like a great hall - with three levels divided by stairs. They were standing on the top level, where the walls were lined with alcoves and Decimus was slowly realising this wasn't a great hall. It was more like a hall of the dead. The middle level was dotted with sarcophagi, a stark black against the grey stone of the rest of the hall. There were candles in front of those black coffins and at the lowest level it lead right between them.


    Decimus narrowed his eyes, repeatedly clenching the hilt of his silver sword. “I don't like this,” he murmured. “I expected something more flashy, a dramatic entrance, but not this fucking ominous silence.”


    There was a faint chuckle and Decimus whirled around, only to see no one standing there. “What?” he mumbled.


    Äelberon threw him a confused look. “What is it, Decimus?”


    The Imperial shook his head, grimacing. “Nothing, just thought I heard something.” The laughter now sounded much louder, a woman’s laughter, and Decimus spun around, his eyes scanning the ceiling. “Again. Did you hear that?”


    “Decimus?” the Mer asked and his mouth was moving. But no words were coming out.


    Hands on a throat, clutching…


    “What the fuck?” he murmured, feeling the snakes coil around his spine in a wicked dance, clenching.


    Knife carving into the flesh…


    Äelberon grabbed his shoulders, forced him to look at him and Decimus was trying, but then he saw a shadow twitch at the ceiling, right above Äelberon's head. “Something moved there,” he said, but he didn't hear himself. Äelberon's lips were moving, only Decimus just couldn't hear and he slapped his ear few times to try to hear. “What?”


    Bringing the flesh back to life…


    “Fuck! Stop it!” he yelled, his sword dropping on the ground without a single sign of ringing. All that was there was the laughter and it was getting more and more intense. “Nononono,” he mumbled, as the darkness crept on him, clouding his sight. He saw those red-orange eyes of Äelberon's go wide, but not with confusion, wide with intensity - shining like two beacons in the darkness and he noticed how the shadows retreated from those beacons. Decimus realised he was on his knees and he focused on those two orbs, trying not to take away his eyes from them.


    But the darkness was growing stronger and it swallowed him whole.


    “You can't save him.”


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12 Comments   |   Meli and 7 others like this.
  • Ebonslayer
    Ebonslayer   ·  March 25
    And I could not bare the Thalmor doing to [Cyrod] what was already done to my homeland.”
    [The wave] of heat hit Decimus’ face and he winced. (The sentence should start with "the" instead of "wave")
    Well, depends on what [afterlife] they beli...  more
  • Santa-Pocky-Hah!
    Santa-Pocky-Hah!   ·  September 22, 2017
    Finally had time to continue reading CD. Yay me!  <:o)
    Love the war stories. I pictured Red Ring to be somewhat like Stalingrad, but more bloody and brutal because of the close combat. I was hoping Aelberon would mention The Culling which wa...  more
  • Paws
    Paws   ·  September 11, 2017
    Lots here to comment on, not sure whether to start in the middle and work bass akwards towards the front as I do so. The war stories were cool, as striking and dirty as one could hope for. The 5th and 6th had it rough. I wonder if there is a stone commemo...  more
    • Shadow Arm
      Shadow Arm
      Lots here to comment on, not sure whether to start in the middle and work bass akwards towards the front as I do so. The war stories were cool, as striking and dirty as one could hope for. The 5th and 6th had it rough. I wonder if there is a stone commemo...  more
        ·  September 11, 2017
      And Decimus' view is sort of Zen isn't it? God that is tied to civilization, that controls it of sorts. Anyway, thanks for your support, mate :)
      • Paws
        Shadow Arm
        Shadow Arm
        Shadow Arm
        And Decimus' view is sort of Zen isn't it? God that is tied to civilization, that controls it of sorts. Anyway, thanks for your support, mate :)
          ·  September 11, 2017
        Huh? No wucking forries :)
    • Shadow Arm
      Shadow Arm
      Lots here to comment on, not sure whether to start in the middle and work bass akwards towards the front as I do so. The war stories were cool, as striking and dirty as one could hope for. The 5th and 6th had it rough. I wonder if there is a stone commemo...  more
        ·  September 11, 2017
      As far as I know, tunmosh was some kind of practice of the ancient Orcs, as Strange Rituals of the Orsimer say. It was practiced in the past and then it abruptly ended. Then there is the death-forge, for great Orcs and such. But regular Orcs? The book say...  more
      • Paws
        Shadow Arm
        Shadow Arm
        Shadow Arm
        As far as I know, tunmosh was some kind of practice of the ancient Orcs, as Strange Rituals of the Orsimer say. It was practiced in the past and then it abruptly ended. Then there is the death-forge, for great Orcs and such. But regular Orcs? The book say...  more
          ·  September 11, 2017
        The Ashen Forge thing makes sense, aye :) Do modern Orcs still take a body part and forge a weapon from it? I haven't seen that shamanistic form of festish magic explored much. Would be cool to see it at some stage. 
        • The Long-Chapper
          The Long-Chapper
          The Ashen Forge thing makes sense, aye :) Do modern Orcs still take a body part and forge a weapon from it? I haven't seen that shamanistic form of festish magic explored much. Would be cool to see it at some stage. 
            ·  September 11, 2017
          Hmm, interesting that you say that Phil. You know that ebony sword Albee brandishes in Chasing Aetherius? It was made from the ebony of Nazulbur and yes, a friend's ashes were used to forge the weapon, so he has some knowledge of the Orc ways, but lol, we...  more
    • Paws
      Lots here to comment on, not sure whether to start in the middle and work bass akwards towards the front as I do so. The war stories were cool, as striking and dirty as one could hope for. The 5th and 6th had it rough. I wonder if there is a stone commemo...  more
        ·  September 11, 2017
      ...of Albee beating his wings - the Dragon Blood within him helped along by the woman of his dreams, perhaps. The moral dilemma at the end was interesting. Food for thought, that.
      • The Long-Chapper
        The Long-Chapper
        ...of Albee beating his wings - the Dragon Blood within him helped along by the woman of his dreams, perhaps. The moral dilemma at the end was interesting. Food for thought, that.
          ·  September 11, 2017
        That was one of my favorite parts. And I liked very much that it was from Belrand's PoV. A Nord sees these wings beat, who knows what kind of wings they were? It is an almost Martin Septim becoming an avatar of Akatosh sort of image. 
  • Hworra
    Hworra   ·  September 10, 2017
    Uh-oh, is Decimus getting possessed? >n<

    And Belrand's 'almost as if we were being guided' feels like a little dig at the game designers, hehehe.
  • The Long-Chapper
    The Long-Chapper   ·  September 10, 2017
    This was one of my favorite chapters to collab on. The heroes are knee-deep in shit now.